Last week, for the fourth year in a row, President Bush declined the NAACP's invitation to speak at its annual convention. Predictably, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume railed that the Bush administration failed to recognize the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group as being significant or important in any way.
The sad thing is, the Bush administration's attitude toward the group is justified.
The NAACP is stuck in a mind-set that worked 30 years ago but makes little sense today. Mfume and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond boast that the organization is committed to "speaking truth to power," continuing the whistle-blowing tradition that the organization was founded upon in 1909. This was urgent in an America where lynching was commonplace and segregation was legal.
But almost a century later, black America's main problem is neither overt racism nor more subtle "societal" racism. Lifting blacks up is no longer a matter of getting whites off our necks. We are faced, rather, with the mundane tasks of teaching those "left behind" after the civil rights victory how to succeed in a complex society - one in which there will never be a second civil rights revolution.
To be sure, racism still exists and must be stamped out. But it has been clearly and distinctly marginalized. And it is simply a fallacy to say that the only way people can achieve is when there is absolutely no bias whatsoever against them. The burgeoning of the black middle class has made it clear that societal racism doesn't condemn African Americans to failure.
Yet Mfume and the NAACP's anger-based politics imply that black success can only be accidental unless the playing field is completely level. Instead of insisting on that, they should be working on specific cures to specific ills: creating a culture of achievement among black students, addressing the AIDS crisis in black communities and fostering constructive relationships between police forces and residents of minority neighborhoods.
These real problems are being addressed, but not by the NAACP. The National Urban League forges ties between blacks and corporate America. The Rev. Eugene Rivers' Ten-Point Coalition is spreading from Boston to other cities, getting wayward black youth off of the streets and into constructive lives. Operation Hope in Los Angeles helps poor minorities get home loans. Geoffrey Canada has the nation's attention with his Harlem Children's Zone program, blanketing 60 underprivileged blocks with a raft of uplift programs presented to each resident in the district, door by door.
There was a time when there couldn't be a discussion of racial issues without mentioning the NAACP. Where are the signature studies that it used to commission, such as "Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1919," which helped to eradicate the practice, or the Margold Report of 1930, which set the ball rolling for the dismantling of segregation? What innovative and sustained race initiative has the NAACP directed lately?
The measure of Bush's commitment to African American issues is disconnected from any gestures he makes to the NAACP. The only reason for him to speak at its annual convention would have been as a token gesture. But beside the fact that black Americans have endured quite enough tokenism, why should Bush court an organization whose national leaders regularly rake him over the coals?
On Sunday night, Bond charged that the Republicans appeal to "the dark underside of American culture" and "preach neutrality and practice racial division." Earlier, Mfume accused Bush of a "lack of concern" for the black community. But when Bush was touting his faith-based initiatives to help poor communities, Bond and Mfume decried it as discriminatory. How progressive was this of leaders representing a deeply Christian race whose communities are typically rooted in the church? And needless to say, the NAACP does not like private school vouchers. Obviously Bush cannot win here.
In fact, Bush ought not court an organization that considers him a racist, despises any race-sensitive proposal he offers and plays no serious role in addressing the problems of the community they purport to represent.
The NAACP is hardly the only political movement to have dissolved into posturing after the battles were largely won. What happens is that new leaders come along who are better suited to address the new problems.
For Bush to visit today's NAACP would be like dropping by a memorial. It would be a gesture, not an action. Black Americans deserves better.