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.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP president and CEO, plans to step down in January. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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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?

BTJ: The greatest defeat was the first strategic plan — three months later they weren’t sure that they had actually agreed to it, and I had to play a tape. Fortunately we had recorded the vote, and I played the vote. At the same time, when you have to play a vote to convince someone that they agreed to a strategic plan, that strategic plan is already DOA. So at that point, I was just making a point that I had a good memory.

The biggest victory was the second strategic plan, which we went through a much longer, intentional consultative process, and it has really stuck.

HLG: And probably the greatest failure, unfortunately, in the history of the NAACP is the failure to persuade the Congress to adopt a federal anti-lynching law.

BTJ: Yes, that’s exactly right. And in some ways we’ve actually made up for that now with the James Byrd-Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill, which was in many ways the realization of that dreams almost 95 years after it was first created.

But to your point, right, we just never give up. What I said to people [is] we have to identify the bold dreams of this century because it’s our bold dreams that are the key to our victory. If the dream is big enough, it will sustain us through all of the losses and we’ll galvanize generation after generation to do whatever they have to do to win. And that’s what those game changers represent.