The news, this weekend, that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, after a prolonged search, has finally selected a new president brought to mind an old philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does anyone give a hoot? The sad fact is that the venerable civil rights organization had been without a permanent head for more than a year without any discernible impact on the progress of colored people. The most remarkable fact about the announcement is that the newly anointed leader, 35-year-old Benjamin Todd Jealous, was the only candidate presented to the board for its consideration.
The only candidate! I’m sure that Jealous, a former Rhodes scholar, newspaper editor and foundation executive, is superbly qualified. But one would think that with the explosive growth of the black professional class, which has produced Fortune 500 CEOs, top Cabinet officials and a front-runner for the presidency, the NAACP would have been swamped with applicants. Doesn’t anybody want to be a civil rights leader any more?
Not long ago, being head of the NAACP really meant something to black people. Legendary figures such as James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Benjamin Hooks and Kweisi Mfume were beacons of unwavering struggle toward racial equality and justice.
Young militants from time to time wrote off the N-Double-A as too conservative. Indeed, during the heady days of the Black Power Movement, wily old Roy Wilkins was branded an Uncle Tom. But the alternative organizations founded by the so-called revolutionaries had no sticking power and withered away. The NAACP, though a shell of its former self, is still here, battling racism with the determination of old.
Maybe that’s why some brainy, accomplished blacks have no interest in the NAACP as a career. The outfit has lost its zest. Though it claims to have more than 500,000 members, former president Bruce Gordon, who quit after clashing with the board, revealed there were only 300,000. It’s so hard up for money that last year it laid off 40 percent of its staff and postponed a long-planned move of its headquarters from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Many of the organization’s 2,000 local chapters continue to play vibrant roles in their communities, but the national organization has grown increasingly insular, hidebound and irrelevant. I wouldn’t go as far as one of my favorite bloggers, the Field Negro, who wrote that young African Americans don’t need the NAACP any more because, “We can organize ourselves. Thanks to the Internet we can raise money, organize around causes and get important messages out to each other.” But as the NAACP slacked into its current slump, and new leaders sprung up in politics and business, a lot of us learned to get along without it.
Which is a tragedy, because a lot of colored people are still in need of advancement.
So what can Ben Jealous do to kick start the N-Double-A out of its lethargy? He might start by rethinking what it is that is actually holding colored people back these days. Is it really racial discrimination imposed by whites or, as curmudgeonly critics like Bill Cosby contend, damage we do to ourselves? Here’s a modest suggestion:
The NAACP should focus on the NAAGP – the Nagging Academic Achievement Gap Problem — the No. 1 contemporary cause of black inequality. The persistent bottom-of-the-barrel performance of black kids on standardized tests is the main reason why the NAACP and its allies have to spend so much energy defending affirmative action and preferential college admission programs. It’s why so many of our youngsters still can’t compete for jobs when they enter the work force. It’s why so many white folks believe we can’t compete on equal terms. It’s why some of us, sadly, seem to believe the same thing.
It’s also something we can fix. The lousy academic performance of our kids is obviously tied to underfunded and substandard schools, disproportionate numbers of uncertified teachers and other structural factors. But closing the NAAGP also begins at home. As Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama has the courage to remind black parents, “We need to find the time and the energy to step in and find ways to help our kids love reading. We can read to them, talk to them about what they’re reading and make time for this by turning off the TV ourselves.” The schools are never going to do jobs we must do for ourselves, and that includes making sure our kids love learning.