For decades many of us have been wondering why the NAACP has so little interest in, well, the problems that plague the “CP” in question, such as an AIDS epidemic and crippling highschool dropout rates. Chairman Julian Bond, kicking off the NAACP’s annual convention Sunday, actually ventured an answer. In between his usual snarling gnashes at the Bush Administration, Bond claimed that the NAACP doesn’t go in for “social services”because it would mean turning away from that ever-looming monster, racism.
“Racial discrimination is a prime reason why the divide between black and white life chances remains so deep,” Bond insisted. Good music for an audience. But this notion is precisely what has rendered the NAACP a shadow of what it once was, and why President Bush’s appearing at their convention for the first time, as he will today, will lead to nothing.
It was 50 years ago this summer that the NAACP was instrumental in breaking segregation on buses in Montgomery, Alabama, a signature event in Civil Rights history. The history since then shows us that “fighting racial discrimination” is highly subject to mission creep.
This year, it was 40 years ago that white and black leftists thought they were“fighting racial discrimination” by founding the National Welfare Rights Organization. The idea was to teach poor people, especially black ones, to sign up for the dole instead of enduring the indignity of menial labor. The Nation got 30,000 reprint requests for a May 1966 article spelling out this new wisdom, according to which teaching people not to work for a living was progressive thought. Welfare rules were vastly loosened, and efforts to get recipients into the workforce were tarred as un-P.C.
“When our people have social justice, they will need fewer social services,” Mr. Bond mentioned in his address, and certainly the welfare rights advocates thought they had brought blacks justice. But a program that paid women to have children and to live open-endedly on government checks turned out to be a queer sort of justice.
Twenty years ago, Congress passed the mandatory sentencing legislation heavily penalizing the possession and sale of crack cocaine. Although it is a favorite charge in African-American Studies department term papers and by callers to black talk radio shows that this was “racist,” the Congressional Black Caucus was squarely behind it. They simply wanted to rid poor black communities of the (fatherless) thugs that were making so much of black America a war zone. And then 10 years ago, welfare was transformed into a program with a fiveyear cap and focused on job training.
Bond and his ilk don’t like to talk about that one, even though the number of black children living in poverty has fallen a long way since, and claims that poor blacks would end up piled shivering on subway grates have never been borne out. This is because although the welfare reform of 1996 was arguably the most significant legislation in black history since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to someone all about “fighting racial discrimination” it could only seem unimportant. Or perhaps even a bit of a nuisance, detracting from the noble battle against Old Man Racism, which is, of course, the “prime reason why the divide between black and white life chances remains so deep.”
That simplistic idea is, in turn, the prime reason for something else: why the NAACP is not in on what may be what 2006 is remembered for in the black history books. The inner-city black men imprisoned starting in the late 1980s are coming home.This year, organizations of concerned blacks are converging upon the realization that to stave off a repeat of the early 1980s, we need a national effort to shepherd these men — along with other men living disconnected from the workforce and drifting in and out of crime — .into gainful employment and productive lives.
At a symposium this month in New York on this problem sponsored by Sullivan & Cromwell, LLP, Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, said “now in 2006, we need a cause, and this is it.” The expected audience was 300; after the hall was swelling with 1300 people had to be turned away. The Ford Foundation and the Manhattan Institute have held forums on the issue.The word is that Senators Bayh and Obama have just introduced a bill addressing absentee fatherhood, which would, among other things, raise the Earned Income Tax Credit for poor single men paying child support. Something is happening, and it is not “fighting racial discrimination.”
“Fighting racial discrimination” is what black America needed most in the days of official segregation and open bigotry. The race issues that are important today do not lend themselves to charismatic indignation: the Earned Income Tax Credit will never inspire sonorous oratory. But if charismatic indignation is the only way you feel like you matter, then your efforts will gradually part ways with activism and devolve into performance. Today, it would appear that “fighting racial discrimination” is less what black America needs than what Julian Bond needs. Or, as the NAACP’s president, Bruce Gordon, reportedly said in his own speech to the convention, it’s time to end “victimlike thinking.”
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