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Birthday Bash

Many years ago, I attended a meeting of a local NAACP branch. It had long been adrift. Its president and general secretary wanted to turn the organization from formulaic protests to issues that actually mattered to the local black community, such as schools and health care.

The rank and file committee members, however, were on a different page, more interested in making embittered speeches. The meeting was supposed to last from nine to five, but there was a small street protest in the city starting at one. A majority of the committee decided to go march in the protest--which merely became a historical footnote--and nothing was achieved at the meeting.

Granted, that was just one branch out of 2,200; there are others that have it much more together than that one. But I can’t help seeing that meeting as a microcosm of the situation the national organization is currently in as we celebrate the NAACP’s centennial today.

Think of what the NAACP accomplished in the fifties. There was Brown v. Board of Education, and the NAACP played a key role in the Montgomery bus boycott and the desegregation of schools in Little Rock.

Fast forward: How has the NAACP made news since 2000?

In 2001 chairman Julian Bond railed against George Bush and his administration as a “Taliban wing”--and then skewered Bush for not addressing the NAACP’s annual meeting. Soon afterward, then-President Kweisi Mfume crusaded against the major television networks for not casting enough blacks--by which time black people were so amply represented on the networks and other channels that a living Arkansas governor Orval Faubus would be nauseated every time he turned on his set. Then a short while ago there was the “funeral for the N-word.”

Upon which we must ask: Are the kinds of things the NAACP pays the most attention to these days really worthy of the organization’s history? Bond and other powers that be insist that the outfit remain focused on protest against discrimination, rather than social services--in fact, Bruce Gordon left the presidency in 2007, after a mere year and a half, on seeing how implacably wedded the NAACP top brass are to this posture.

The problem is that protest against discrimination is not what black America needs most right now. It sure did in 1909 when lynching was a national sport and Southerners were still angry at Theodore Roosevelt for having had Booker T. Washington dine at the White House eight years before.

But today, the issue is not whether there is “still racism”--of course there is, just as after you sweep off a patio, if you bend down and look up close there’s “still dirt.” But an organization that Bond crowed in 2001 was the “biggest, baddest civil rights organization in the country” should be more interested in schooling, directing poor blacks to gainful employment, and combating the AIDS crisis--in short, the things that matter most.

Example: Warren Kimbro died last week. He was a New Haven Black Panther who assassinated a suspected informer and went to prison for it. After release, Kimbro founded a program helping ex-cons reintegrate into society. Programs like this exist nationwide but need coordination and funding. The Bush Administration, quiet as it’s kept, supported such efforts. Where is the NAACP on this, if the mission is the “advancement of colored people”?

Likewise, an organization devoted to the advancement of colored people should be all over efforts to close the black-white achievement gap. But why wasn’t the NAACP central to the inspiration and formulation of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind act, or, given its flaws, at the helm of suggesting ways to fix it?"

Of late, the NAACP has filed antidiscrimination suits against mortgage companies who foisted subprime loans on black people. But opinions will differ as to the role racism per se played here. The new President Benjamin Jealous also intends to focus on protesting “mass incarceration"--presumably, the notorious disproportion of black men in prison being the stimulus here. However, again, the "racist" charge is elusive. To the extent that the differential sentencing of possession of powdered vs. crack cocaine has led to disproportionate incarceration, the Congressional Black Caucus was solidly behind the laws when they were instituted in 1986. They wanted to save black communities from the dangers of the drug trade. The protest, then, would be against something black lawmakers stood behind, which is not what I take the NAACP to have in mind.

Jealous also intends to focus on education. Okay, sounds good--and who would discourage any organization from addressing the Rockefeller laws? But the truth is that we have heard plans like this from the NAACP before. In 2001, Kweisi Mfume announced a “Strategic Plan” addressing education, health care, voting rights, and racial profiling. In the eight years since then, however, the NAACP has not been prominent in developments in any of these areas. Instead, the NAACP has been all about the colorful, the dramatic, the recapitulations of the spirit of the sixties.

It’s unclear how sanguine we should be that things will be different now. In interviews, Jealous seems guided by a primary commitment to issues that lend themselves to tribalist incantation: subprime lenders as bigots, black men herded into prisons (a la a “War on Black Men,” as it is put), and so on.

But Jealous’ interest in mining, as he has phrased it, “fresh, raw outrage” is interesting in view of what Booker T. Washington said in a speech 100 years ago on this very day in New York. He urged us to have the “courage to avoid the superficial, courage to persistently seek the substance instead of the shadow.”

Shadows, perhaps, like those on TV screens. The NAACP has out a follow-up report on that topic, still restricting their purview to the major networks, supposedly because “many” black people are still using rabbit ears--although later owning that over 65 percent have cable. The fact that there aren’t many new “black shows” at present (despite the plethora of blacks in other shows’ casts) and that blacks do not constitute the same proportion of writers and producers as they do of America’s population “could be a function of implicit biases.”

Italics mine--no one in Little Rock would have needed the conditional. How important to black America as a whole is this head-counting of black faces on a few television channels watched less each year--especially given all the black faces with AIDS, or black faces not learning to read, or black faces just out of prison?

As the NAACP sniffs around for increasingly elusive cases of discrimination, black America’s real problems--more urgent than how many black people appear on Law and Order, but less amenable to headline-friendly agitation--go unaddressed by what could still be a great organization. If the NAACP holds firm to the protest paradigm, it will become a small-scale outfit, best known for giving out some awards every year.

Yes, the NAACP does some good things here and there. But so do a lot of organizations. The question we must ask is simply this: If the NAACP as it currently operates ceased to exist tomorrow, what significant effect would it have on black America?

The answer to that is rather tragic, especially in contrast to how someone would have answered it 50 years ago. The NAACP should take its centenary as an occasion to reconceive itself as a black organization that matters in the times we live in. It must understand that making a difference in poor black people’s lives in 2009 is not always a matter of wielding “raw outrage.”

Ten years from now, we should be able to ask my question and answer it with sustained and successful efforts, worthy of what the NAACP’s founders worked so hard to create.

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.