Black Folks, We Better Get Moving

It's time the NAACP and others went from "We Shall Not Be Moved" to fostering visionary ideas.

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NAACP Voting Rights Act supporters rally in South Carolina. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- Last week I moderated a panel on 3-D printing at the Milken Institute's Global Conference, where two CEOs offered insights into this technology that has the potential to disrupt gun safety, manufacturing and possibly the geopolitical relationships between countries. On another panel, a 16-year-old winner of the Intel Science Fair Grand Prize explained how he created a simple test to detect pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. Others discussed the rise and fall of civilizations and the mobile Web explosion, while Al Gore lamented spider goats. (Google it!)

Held at the plush Beverly Hilton Hotel, where the halls are lined with pictures of Hollywood celebrities in their heyday, the conference attracted some of the world's most affluent people, who mingled with some of the most innovative minds. A few of us were there to ask questions and learn. The global elite gather regularly at Milken, TED, the Clinton Global Initiative, Aspen Institute and other conferences to ponder the future of the planet.

Unfortunately, relatively few African Americans attend. Instead, more black leaders attend conventions and conferences held by national organizations of fraternities, sororities, professional societies and civil rights organizations.

Some of these organizations are more forward-looking than others. The National Action Network, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, had discussions on building generational wealth (pdf) and college access at its most recent conference, and the Urban League's last convention had a heavy focus on encouraging entrepreneurship, but none of them has the convening power of the granddaddy of civil rights groups, the NAACP, whose theme for this year's annual NAACP convention is "We Shall Not Be Moved."

African Americans face a 13 percent unemployment rate; a 44 percent homeownership rate, compared with 77 percent for whites; and a 53 percent drop in black household wealth to $5,677, versus $113,149 for whites (2009). In addition, only 40 percent of black students graduate from college within six years. If African Americans hope to have a productive future in the 21st century, shouldn't the message be something closer to "We Better Get Moving"?

Fifty years ago this summer, the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights groups led hundreds of thousands of Americans in the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. The NAACP is stalwart in its focus on justice, but where are the creative, future-oriented policies to help black people get jobs? The group rightfully highlights issues such as criminal justice and voting rights, but shouldn't the education discussion at its conference be broader than reducing gun violence and the school-to-prison pipeline?

There are good people at the NAACP. From President Benjamin Jealous down to the chapter presidents and church volunteers, members focus their talents on uplifting people of color. They have phenomenal convening power, with presidents of the United States, corporate CEOs and youths from around the country regularly attending their meetings; however, they are getting the focus wrong, and they are not alone.  

I'm guilty, too. As a pundit on cable and network news, I focused too much on the short-term nature of politics, the horserace and slim agenda of what is possible in the current political dynamic, instead of what we ought to do as a nation, even if the politics of the moment are uncooperative.

We all have to change.

To fix what ails African Americans, the country needs to adopt moonshot projects like the one Utah leaders are implementing. School officials there are spending millions, with Republican support, to transform their state into a locus for international business by giving 14,000 elementary and middle school students the opportunity to learn in language-immersion programs for half of each school day; 20,000 will participate next year. What skills will urban children offer the global marketplace?

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