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Disputations: Is The NAACP’s Relevance Fading?

The organization’s two top figures take the question head-on.

Race still matters. Despite the election of President Barack Obama, shattering one of the nation’s most significant glass ceilings, discrimination is not “elusive” as John McWhorter concludes in his column “Birthday Bash.”

Take virtually any indicator and a portrait of inequality is painted:

Black unemployment perennially remains twice that of whites. When white unemployment was 9.8 percent in 1982, it was considered an unacceptable crisis. Blacks today have an unemployment rate over 12 percent and climbing. Median earnings for black men is 74.2 percent of the median for white men. Yet, according to several studies, there is no variable--neither education, test scores, nor experience--that provides a scientific rationale. In two recent studies, white employers preferred white males with a criminal background to equally qualified African American men without one.

In 2005, African American borrowers paid an average of 128 basis points more for loans than their white counterparts with equal income and credit. In the subprime market, the difference was even greater--275 basis points more. Federal data, from a 2008 study, documents that people of color are more than three times more likely to have subprime loans causing one of the greatest losses of wealth from the African American community.

When white and minority youth were charged with the same criminal offenses, African-American youth with no prior admissions were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth with the same background.

We could list volumes of statistics that reveal a nation still racked with discrimination and disparity.

What many don’t realize is that when the NAACP wages the battle against inequity, we expand democracy for all. When we successfully fought to end lynch mobs against African Americans, we also ended the mob violence against Italians and Catholics, other groups who were targeted for lynchings in the south. When we fought for political inclusion, it paved the way for the inclusion of gays, women, and individuals with disabilities.

Had NAACP been listened to on banking, our nation might have avoided today’s calamity. The discriminatory predatory lending that is the focal point of our lawsuit--a legal action disparaged by McWhorter--began in earnest in black communities in the 1990s. Borrowers--mostly homeowners with good credit--were steered into the subprime market reaping huge profits for the brokers and igniting the phenomena that has devastated millions of American families. Our victory in that lawsuit would force lenders to be accountable, transparent, and adopt best practices that would help all homeowners.

Locally, the NAACP is the triage room for communities in crisis. Whether it’s helping to unionize 5,000 workers at the world’s largest pork processing plant in North Carolina last December; offering Muslim prisoners who, because of recent legal action by the NAACP in Oregon, the right to wear Muslim clothing and have their religion respected; registering hundreds of mostly white prisoners in Maine to vote; fighting school closings in low income neighborhoods in Seattle; or suing the Department of Housing and Urban Development for allowing the Mississippi governor to divert money designated for Katrina victims--the NAACP is here now, as it has been for a century, to redress the injustices and right the wrongs.

Our victories usually took decades and were often dismissed as impossible and illusory by our critics. But then as now, we look at America and see its promise. We know that we will steadfastly move forward until that promise is realized for all. And until that victory is won, there is a vital role for the NAACP.

Julian Bond is Board Chairman of the NAACP and Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of NAACP.

By Julian Bond and Benjamin Todd Jealous