Ben Jealous is an odd fit for the position of race leader. He’s not a civil rights icon. He’s not a trailblazing elected official. Hell, he’s not even a netroots pioneer. But most of all, he’s not a very good preacher—his oratory is more strained than inspired, loaded with colloquialisms that sound dutiful rather than down-home. All of which partly explains why more people fidgeted in their seats than jumped out of them at Jealous’ grand unveiling before the NAACP’s centennial convention.
Big national advocacy groups do all kinds of stuff, but one task is crucial: put on a successful confab once a year. It raises money, the press comes, and it’s the one chance most members get to check out their leadership firsthand. So about a year into his tenure as NAACP’s youngest-ever president, Jealous’ Monday morning keynote address was a formal coming-out party to a membership that remains undecided about whether to embrace or decapitate him.
As a performance, the speech fell dead—a wonky jeremiad, during which at least one group of bored matrons swore he misquoted scripture. But the problem wasn’t just Jealous’ delivery. The message is as poor a fit as the man because nobody really wants to hear what Jealous has to say about race politics today.
Set aside all the buzz about the NAACP’s waning relevance—a clear preoccupation even inside this week’s conference. The group’s 100-year convening begs a more affirmative question: What is the role of a 21st-century association that aims to advance colored people? Jealous’ answer is a tedious buzz kill for both the civil rights nostalgists and their post-race eulogists. But it’s nonetheless spot-on. Namely, that the NAACP has got to do the thankless work of turning mere racial equality into racial justice.
Given how much pain and sacrifice black America endured to kill Jim Crow, it’s tough to accept a clear truth: Securing rights and breaking color lines was the easy part. Wrenching civil rights free from Southern thugs generated galvanizing drama, drew clear political lines and framed racial inequality as everybody’s problem. Rich, poor, black and white, segregation held us all back.
But equal rights and equal opportunity are not the same thing. The latter demands a far more complex battle in which we must fight villains—the broken criminal justice system, predatory lending, crappy schools—that utterly consume the poorest of us while remaining abstractions to many, many others. The fact that a quarter of black Americans live in poverty is a problem, but it’s one that the 15 million of us who are middle-class can go all day without noticing.
Which is why advocates for racial justice were failing to make their case long before Barack Obama came along and forced the question of their relevance. The NAACP has no doubt been crippled by its own failings—the financial troubles, the internal squabbles and scandals, the reluctance to meaningfully engage younger generations. But the problem is both broader than one group and more consequential than organizational shortcomings. The right has been winning the debate over race for more than a generation because it’s saying what everybody actually wants to hear: The civil rights movement was a towering success, so let’s all move on.
That everybody includes black people. In a 2006, pre-Obama poll of black men, 6 out of 10 respondents told the Washington Post that our problems stem more from what we do to ourselves than what whites have done to us. And a CNN poll conducted the week before Obama’s inauguration found that two-thirds of blacks believe Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision has been achieved. More recent surveys suggest that the tanking economy has dampened that euphoria, but it’s clear black folks still believe the same thing many other Americans do: Opportunity is there for anyone willing to grasp it.
So when Jealous drones on about the “school-to-prison pipeline” and payday lenders in poor neighborhoods—well, it’s not exactly fire hoses on kids in their Sunday clothes.
Of course, the NAACP was at best a reluctant participant in the civil rights movement’s dramatic, world-changing protests. This organization has always been more comfortable walking the halls of Congress than marching in the streets. But maybe that fact positions it to be more relevant today than ever. After all, while the netroots are rallying a throwback fight over a segregated swimming pool, the NAACP is suing banks for targeting blacks with the subprime loans that broke the world.
Jealous has more than once deployed a rhetorical tool he used again in his flat keynote Monday. He first stokes the listener by harking back to the glorious moment of Jan. 20. Then he pivots and launches into the hard facts that didn’t change on Jan. 21—that he woke up in the most incarcerated generation in history, for instance. His challenge is to make this absolutely relevant message about justice as compelling as his elders made their battle for rights.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.