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Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is in Los Angeles for the 102nd NAACP Annual Convention. She chatted with The Root about the first black president, what everyone can do to get involved and why she's afraid Jim Crow might be making a comeback.

The Root: Does having a black president help or hinder progress on the issues that affect the black community the most?

Maxine Waters: African Americans are in a better place because we've been able to reduce discrimination and open up opportunities. Certainly the answer is [that it helps]. I think that the president in office can provide leadership to make sure that the government resources are spent in ways that all people get the value. I think the president has a platform by which to help people understand how important it is for this country to get along, and I think this president is doing all of that.

TR: What's the most important civil rights issue in our country today?

MW: I'm worried about the attempts to turn back the clock on voting rights. We have lots of problems, but I think unless we are empowered to vote, to be able to influence public policy and elect folks who will fairly represent us, we won't be able to solve these problems. So we've now got to pay attention … It's an attempt to return to Jim Crow laws, and we've got to fight against this and make sure we don't go backward.


TR: How is the NAACP still relevant in 2011?

MW: The NAACP, as the oldest civil rights organization, has the reputation and the influence to change laws, to organize people, to fight against racial oppression and to ensure that there's a voice for the voiceless. This is what they're all about. This is their challenge, but this is their charge, and they must keep up always the legacy of the NAACP and do all of those things.

I am pleased that the NAACP remains active today. While we have made a lot of gains, we still have a long way to go. The joblessness, the education, our housing problem and the criminal-justice system all need to be changed, to be confronted, and the NAACP is on target on the issues that they have identified. And I think they help us as elected officials to be able to do our job.


TR: What can the average person do to help make a difference in some of those areas?

MW: The first thing that the average person must do is educate themselves about the issues. Show up when they are asked to come to a rally or to come to a discussion about the issue. Inform their neighbors and their circle of friends, whether it’s their sorority or their fraternity or their labor unions — educate them. Have them join hands with the leadership that's fighting against unfairness and be active.

Desiree Hunter is a contributor to The Root.

In other news: On the Scene at the 2011 NAACP Convention.