A 100th birthday is a terrible thing to waste. Mindful of that fact, the NAACP has embarked on an all out celebration at its centennial conference in New York. It has attracted almost 2,500 delegates, including Gen. Colin Powell and Attorney General Eric Holder. President Barack Obama will also address the gathering.
In all likelihood, Obama will heap praise and platitudes on the oldest civil rights organization in America. After all, the NAACP mobilized tens of thousands of black Americans to agitate for voting rights, desegregation and the free exercise of those rights over the course of a changing century. And surely no one believes that the Obama era has eliminated the need for advancement among communities of color. So why are some commentators questioning the organization’s relevance, even alleging that “the NAACP doesn't care about black people”?
The answers we’ve all heard by now—it’s too old; it’s too broken; it’s still calling colored people “colored people,” for goodness sake! But the NAACP’s true failure may have more to do with its methods than its message, with its slow embrace of technology to do better what it has done well for so long.
In 2009, a rising tide of media tools and techniques has subsumed the sphere of social activism that was once dominated by the NAACP. Their march and protest model, so effective during the 1950s and 1960s, has been overshadowed by online calls to action that reach millions overnight.
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.
The NAACP calls this "a bold new online effort"—but by building it around the narrow problem of police misconduct, the organization risks ghettoizing its broad mandate and shrinking its large tent. Increasing the incidence of reporting misconduct is an admirable, but small ball for the organization that helped reverse Plessy v. Ferguson and organized the 1963 March on Washington. And as a specific attempt to use mobile technology and better connect with Web-savvy black Americans, the text-messaging initiative seems fairly out of touch: It keeps users wired in to the NAACP, but not to one another in the way that the Obama era demands.
Establishing a forum for virtual conversation about big issues such as educational and health disparities, unemployment and wealth gaps, or environmental injustice—all of which affect more Americans than the 26,000 blacks who are mistreated by police each year—might have sent a more forward-looking message. A Twitter account wouldn’t hurt, either.
Of course, there are drawbacks to going Web 2.0 as well. The Color of Change magnifies the individual voices of concerned citizens, but isn’t driving the conversation itself. "We don’t want to be doing policy research," says Rucker—though it’s one of the comparative strengths of the NAACP. Instead, organizers encourage members to sign petitions, call representatives in Congress or in state legislatures on health care or immigration reform, and have also partnered with other groups to publicize, say, a rally in Chicago or in New York City. "We don’t have a figurehead; we don’t have a persona who defines what we do," added Rucker, contrasting their open-source model with the efforts of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the NAACP itself. "We don’t have a particular policy or electoral goal."
For a century, that has been the domain of the NAACP. "Our job is to be the canary in the great American coal mine," Jealous said. "It’s to scream when something is wrong." The NAACP has the gravitas to fight the power—from helping flip the Rockefeller drug laws, creating white papers on housing discrimination or filing a prominent civil suit against Wells Fargo Bank, which systematically offered junk loans and unfavorable mortgage terms to many of its customers because they were black.
"The NAACP has a brand that is very powerful," says Rucker, who supported Jealous in his bid to head the organization and doesn't see any antagonism between the groups—only differences in methodology. "Six hundred thousand members may seem like a lot … but I think we need everything we can get as black folks, given the challenges that are ahead."
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.