Ben Jealous Talks to Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The outgoing NAACP president speaks to The Root's editor-in-chief about his decision to step down.

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That's not just because of the increase in the black population of the South and the migration of the South and the migration of Latinos to the South, but also, quite frankly, in the rise in a generation of young white people that are simply less hung up on race than the white folks before them. And a rise in a generation of all colors who are just ready to move forward together ...

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HLG: Does race trump class in 21st-century America, or does class trump race? And I'll give you a little context for that. [In the civil rights movement] there was almost a naive belief that somehow when de jure segregation was dismantled that we'd all plunge headfirst into the middle class. And there was a curious absence of economic analysis in part because people were afraid of the c-word, which was communism, which was associated with the movement anyway. So no one talked about the nature of capitalism or the nature of wealth or class mobility.

Today we have, since that terrible day that Dr. King was killed in 1968, the black upper middle class has quadrupled ... But the percentage of black children living at or below the poverty line is still at around 30 percent, which is basically what it was when Dr. King was killed.

So we have two nations, but the two nations -- there's a black and white wealth gap, but there's a black [and] black wealth gap as well. So what is the challenge facing your successor in analyzing why we've come so far, and not come so far?

BTJ: The association in the last two years has adopted from the very top to the very bottom of all 1,200 of our active units and all the way back up to the national office, game changers -- goals for the first half of this century. And all of them focus on obliterating those barriers that keep people trapped in poverty ... So we're taking on mass incarceration, and we're taking on housing foreclosures and we've taken on long-term joblessness and second-generation employment discrimination, so employment determined on how long you've been unemployed or your credit score or the fact that you once spent some time in jail.

But we've also taken on the AIDS -- and it is breaking families, and not just spiritually as they deal with the pain of their loved one, but financially as they deal with the impact of losing a parent. We're taking on marriage equality, because the majority of children being raised by LGBT parents are children of color. And when the parents are denied the right to marriage, there's all sorts of impacts including very serious financial impacts.

And so there's a real opportunity for the next president of the NAACP to, frankly, be a marathon runner ... The opportunity for the next person is to run that marathon and really take us deeper into the struggle to liberate all those millions of people of color that still feel trapped in this web that is defined by the barriers of class and the barrier of race. It is true that as the impact of racism has decreased in many significant ways, the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened ...

And that is really the opportunity for the next leader of the NAACP -- is to continue, yes, being the standard-bearer in the fight for racial justice, but to also be the standard-bearer in the fight for human rights in the country and civil rights in this country in this sort of big way …

HLG: Given your youth and the age of the board and its long traditions, what would you say is the greatest challenge you faced with the board over a specific issue? And your greatest victory? Your greatest defeat, and your greatest victory?

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM