NAACP President Benjamin Jealous spoke with The Root during the 102nd NAACP Annual Convention in Los Angeles. He says President Obama "gets it," stresses the urgency of fighting voter-ID laws and explains the definition of "employment discrimination 2.0."
The Root: Does having a black president help or hinder progress on the issues that are affecting the black community the most?
Benjamin Jealous: It helps, assuredly … Right now we talk a lot about job creation. For the nation as a whole, that's critical, but for black people, ending employment discrimination is just as important. What we're seeing right now, as unemployment is increasing in the black community even as it's decreasing overall, is testament to that. That's why it's so important to have a president that gets it, that's a former civil rights lawyer himself and who is really invested in rebuilding that infrastructure.
[When we met, he committed] to not just going after "employment discrimination 1.0" — racial, gender, age discrimination, etc. — but "employment discrimination 2.0," which is a whole series of discrimination that has gone through the roof during this recession and tends to make the others worse. [Employment discimination 2.0 includes] discrimination against people who are long-term unemployed, discrimination against those with low credit scores … and finally, discrimination against the formerly incarcerated.
TR: What's the most important civil rights issue in our country today?
BJ: Most important right now is protecting and defending our voting rights. The right to vote is the right upon which our ability to defend all of our other rights is leveraged, and when you see it attacked in 47 of the 50 states, you have to focus on that because if they take that away from you, everything else can fall much more easily.
TR: How is the NAACP still relevant in 2011?
BJ: Our membership is surging right now. Since Jan. 1, 2008, online activists in the NAACP have surged from 170,000 individuals to 510,000 today. Our active donors surged from 16,000 then to over 107,000 today. Our membership has gone up each year, three years in a row, for the first time in 20 years. People are getting involved in great numbers, and our ranks of activists are swelling rapidly because folks understand that the most important sets of issues we fight are protecting people's basic rights: their right to vote, their right to organize, their right to choose.
TR: What do you think is the biggest threat to voting rights?
BJ: Right now we are facing the biggest, most aggressive attempt to roll back voting rights in this country since 1896. Voter-ID laws are the biggest component of that, and like the poll taxes before them, they are a widespread way to put in a financial or, in this case, a logistical barrier to people voting.
Registration ID laws [have] been passed in three states. These laws require that your voter-registration form be accompanied by a copy of your state-issued ID before it will be processed. You can't push a Xerox machine down the street while you get to where you do your voting registration — it really gums up the process, really depresses voter registration, and that's what it's intended to do.
These laws are indeed like Jim Crow in their effect. One of the earliest Jim Crow strategies was passing ex-felon disenfranchisement laws for the express purpose of disenfranchising as many blacks as possible. The strategy is still being used with the same intent; Florida has just put in place a five- to 10-year waiting period for formerly incarcerated people to get their voting rights back. It will move half a million voters off the rolls, including 250,000 black people.
More 2011 NAACP Coverage: 4 Questions With Maxine Waters.