Black to the Future?
The NAACP discovers the Internet.
The Color of Change, an online social justice organization founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, filled that racial organizing gap and has been challenging the NAACP for black grassroots primacy ever since. "It was a response to a lack of political empowerment," says James Rucker, president and co-founder of the nonprofit, who is also an alumnus of MoveOn. "Everyone looked at what was happening in horror, but as black Americans there was no vehicle that we could deploy to make sure the federal government did right by these people who looked like us." That's an oblique jab at the NAACP, which had, of course, set up its own Katrina Relief Fund; but in four years, Rucker's group has accumulated 600,000 members—50 percent more than the NAACP and just shy of the NAACP’s peak membership of 625,000 in 1964.
Rucker, a Silicon Valley veteran, says the online-only model can be an extremely effective way of putting pressure on local governments and national politicians. The Color of Change made its name around Katrina and expanded its reach with advocacy around the Jena Six case in 2007, the Sean Bell murder in 2008 and the Oscar Grant shooting case in Oakland earlier this year. Most recently, after the Valley Swim Club in Philadelphia kicked out a group of young campers because they were black, the Color of Change organized an online petition to condemn the club and call for a Department of Justice investigation; meanwhile, the NAACP has been slow to respond.
This brand of organizing, which does not rely on the NAACP's chapter-based model and thus reaches people right in their homes, also produces greater buy-in. "Whether it's giving five bucks or making a phone call, you can see an immediate return on a personal investment you made," says Rucker. “And it's addictive; it's a model that works.”
It’s also more appealing from a public relations perspective. Past NAACP conferences have been mocked for approximating a mausoleum; indeed, the average age of the members is 55. This year, however, lingering excitement from the 2008 election has apparently attracted some younger, techier conventioneers. The number of under-25s is “significantly higher” than in past years, according to an NAACP spokesperson—and one youngish attendee told the Associated Press he would be "tweeting" the entire week of events.
To its credit, the NAACP seems to recognize the need to get with the wireless program. In a February interview, Benjamin Jealous, the 36-year-old president and CEO of the NAACP, said his organization is increasing investments in three main areas: “field organizing, Web-based media and web organizing, and a communications infrastructure." And sure enough, the centennial convention kicked off with the announcement of a new initiative that will let individuals use mobile phones to report incidents of police brutality. Witnesses who send photo or video evidence to the NAACP in turn receive help filing a local police report. The so-called “rapid response system,” according to its architects, will be "a quick, effective way for citizens to report instances of police misconduct, and to help public safety officials move beyond the 'tough on crime' policies that have lost their effectiveness."