“What we gonna do now?”
As part of the ongoing celebration of the NAACP’s centennial, Cornel West and Julian Bond got together in a New York City bookstore Thursday to try to answer this question.
Lately, the venerable (read old, stale, irrelevant) civil rights organization, while universally lauded for its past contributions to fighting discrimination ending racial prejudice, has been fighting marginalization in the 21st century. Critics claim it’s out of touch with the people it’s trying to reach, the disenfranchised and younger blacks, many of whom get their cues from a popular culture that celebrates violence, misogyny and crass commercialism.
So West and Bond, the public intellectual and social activist, respectively, took turns underscoring the importance and, yes relevancy, of the organization. Questions from NAACP members were supposed to keep the discussion safely within the established parameters. But West, who always has one foot in the pulpit, couldn’t help himself. His rhetorical theatrics are the closest thing we have to a modern-day Richard Pryor, without the cussing, and he did not disappoint the standing-room-only crowd.
“The NAACP was the black response to American terrorism. We live in the age of terrorism,” bellowed West, who was also touting his forthcoming book to be released in October. “How do you respond to terrorism without becoming a gangster or a thug? The NAACP is more relevant now. Negroes got something to say to the world … that’s what I’m saying.”
Bond, more subdued but no less passionate, quickly reminded us that the NAACP was and is the “oldest mass social movement in the United States.” Both were quick to claim the election of a black president as a byproduct of the efforts of the NAACP. President Barack Obama made the same point Thursday evening when he addressed the organization’s convention a few blocks away.
But part of the NAACP’s problem is that Obama is president. Bond said that people come up to him all the time and say, the president is black, what else is there?
“Although we have a man who can walk in the front door anywhere, his children can’t swim in Philadelphia,” said Bond, making reference to the ongoing investigation into charges that the Valley Swim Club in Philly refused to allow a group of black campers to return.
But while the NAACP issued a statement after the incident, it was eclipsed by the actions of the Color of Change, an online nonprofit established in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which quickly began an online petition condemning the swim club and demanding a Department of Justice investigation. Slow on the draw and technologically challenged have been charges leveled against the NAACP.
Bond noted that by having a 36-year-old president and CEO in Benjamin Todd Jealous, the organization was addressing those issues. (Bond mentioned Twitter, twice!) Still, Jealous presides over an aging membership.
One of the more telling moments at the event came when Bond asked all those who were not members of the NAACP to raise their hands. You couldn’t see the stage through the thicket of arms. “It’s a sin and a shame,” lamented Bond, who immediately dispatched his granddaughter to pass out membership forms.
One thing that West, Bond and President Obama agree on is that the NAACP, while it has in the past been in a leader in the fight for civil rights, has to expand its mandate to vocally and explicitly champion the plight of all disenfranchised groups in the age of Obama. Even if those groups are competing economically and politically with black folks.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.