For a quick fix on how a particular organization sees itself and its purposes, inspect its official name, especially if the organization dates from a more forthright and transparent time, when assorted reformers wore their hearts on their letterheads. The purpose, the raison d’être, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in the last month of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, is—well, what else would it be? To “advance”—to push forward, aggressively but lawfully—the interests of Americans who in former times called themselves “colored” and have come to prefer “black” or “African-American.”
I know it is an obvious point. I raise it just to show how little sense it would make to expect the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to spend time and resources “advancing” the Celtic or Hispanic or Albanian interest Or, for that matter, the interests of plain old unhyphenated Africans (although the NAACP, as self-designated voice of the diaspora, gives occasional lip service to the concerns of the homeland).
Inevitably, and you might even say commendably, the NAACP performs the job it believes its charter stipulates. But it would hardly be honest to let the matter rest right there—not with all that is going on now at the NAACP under President Kweisi Mfume.
Whatever the NAACP believes itself to be doing, whatever noble objectives its officers and board may profess, the question arises: Can the organization any longer see the forest for the trees? What is the desired effect here—a stronger America, in which equal rights for all are strongly affirmed; or an America fractured beyond repair, one in which the NAACP raises money like crazy, getting its name in all the papers, while millions of “colored people” fall farther and farther behind?
Just to raise such questions is tricky. There is the history of the civil-rights movement to consider, and especially the provocations that the NAACP faced for decades. Explaining away “the N-Double-A-C-P” as “a bunch of outside agitators” was de rigueur in the post-Brown v. Board of Education South. Various NAACPers may have hailed from the outside, and all may have been agitating to beat the band. But the upshot of their varied labors, and of many other people’s —the sweeping away of laws preventing general enjoyment of U.S. citizenship—was needful and beneficial. It helped to assuage many a white Southern conscience, I can tell you.
That as late as the 1950’s “colored people” could not eat in “white” restaurants is a datum hard to take in—hard even for eyes that once looked on the old order with complacency or satisfaction. The “Jim Crow” system was absurd and often enough vicious. To point out just one absurdity: It would have denied Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas—whose right hand I saw wrung off a year or two ago by dozens of staunchly conservative Dallas whites—the privilege of chowing down at a Dallas McDonald’s. Thomas would have had to have some white boss man—maybe a do-good liberal—bring him his burger outside. To think of it is to shiver.
But, as we know, Jim Crow fell apart in the 60’s—pushed from outside, dismantled from within. (Dallas’s business community, not the federal courts, ended segregation in local public accommodations, including burger joints.) Where does that leave the NAACP? Laboring to rekindle its purpose—effecting further advancement of “colored people.” But what does “advancement” mean in an age without legal barriers to the general enjoyment of human rights?
Not a single Jim Crow law remains on the statute books. Lynching—one such event, in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, helped launch the NAACP—is unknown today. (James Byrd’s murder-by-dragging in rural Texas, at the hands of three yahoos, hardly meets the legal definition of lynching.) On marches the NAACP anyway. Its public expects no less, and in fact probably expects more, due to money and sex scandals that several years ago brought down the organization’s gravy-train-riding leadership.
In, as president, came Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume, determined to revitalize the NAACP in its arthritic old age. If ever a man demonstrated the principle of upward mobility in the post-Jim Crow era, that man would be Mfume—known in his street-hustling, numbers-gaming youth as Frizzell “Pee Wee” Gray. Reformed, scrubbed up, and educated. Pee Wee became Kweisi Mfume—or, as they supposedly say in West Africa, Conquering Son of Kings. Eventually, he was elected to Congress from Baltimore.
As the new moniker implies, Mfume is no shrinking violet. Not unlike the new leader of another semi-comatose liberal organization—John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO— Mfume wants to turn things around in a big way. The NAACP, he says, “had gotten comfortable, fat and lazy, living off a history long since removed.” Time for change!
Well, sure—but what kind of change? What does Mfume believe today’s African-Americans need? Lots of things, it would seem. Near the top of the list: not seeing the Confederate battle flag flapping over South Carolina’s statehouse—a deep affront, as the NAACP depicts it, to black sensibilities; an ugly reminder of an ugly past.
As mop-up operations in the civil-rights struggle go, this one takes prizes for irrelevance. Jobs? Health? Education? Crime? Never mind the daily frustrations of black children left semi-educated, or even less than semi-, by teacher-union members of John Sweeney’s labor coalition. Never mind illegitimacy and family breakup in the black community. Or the drug problem. Or AIDS.
No, sir—never mind! The job at hand is to get that flag lowered—that symbol, in Mfume’s words, of “the most reprehensible aspects of American history.” Actually, as Mfume seems to visualize it, the overriding need of blacks is to see proud South Carolina noses rubbed in the dirt. Take that for Fort Sumter! This would obviously inspire whites and blacks to throw brotherly arms around each other and drive off together into the sunset, headed for the NASCAR races.
To further the campaign for brotherly love, and to make its point about getting the “rebel” flag down, the NAACP last January 1 began a boycott of South Carolina. The idea is to steer an estimated $280 million in spending to out-of-state destinations. No tips for black waiters and cab drivers; no chance for local black leaders to mix and mingle with out-of-state dignitaries and visitors at conventions of the National Urban League and the National Governors Association. Not while that flag waves over the capitol!
Another notable Mfume campaign, resulting in what the NAACP will certainly depict as victory, targeted the television networks. Mfume wanted more blacks on camera as well as off. Network representatives sat down with the NAACP to see what could be worked out. The agreement with ABC is typical: grants to discover and support new writing and directing talent, steps to expand the pool of available network on-air positions, more contracts with black-owned businesses. Fox plans to place a minority writer on all its network productions. And so on.
Everybody and his dog sues everybody else these days, for both social and economic gain. Originally, the NAACP made its name in the courts. Why not go back to the well? So we have the NAACP suing the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Daytona, Florida, for discrimination against guests attending the annual Black College Reunion. Mfume also is challenging what he calls a corporate pattern of discrimination at Adam’s Mark: less desirable rooms and higher prices for blacks. A similar lawsuit takes aim at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.
Speaking of “aim,” there has to be—there just has to be—a class-action suit concerning guns. Sure enough, the NAACP is suing 100 gun manufacturers, 24 of them foreign. “We represent,” says Mfume, “a significant constituency that is disproportionately affected by gun violence”: which violence seems to be the fault of those who manufacture the weapons rather than those who shoot them at Mfume’s constituents.
Moreover, just in case the federal bench should fail to heed such striking claims, Mfume has a fallback plan: He proposes a deal with the U.S. Supreme Court, whereby the Court expands the number of clerkships available to women and minorities, whom he obviously expects to agitate for NAACP positions. To make his point, Mfume led a big demonstration outside the Court, successfully getting himself arrested.
It’s the old days all over again, Kweisi Mfume might suppose. But of course it really isn’t. Jim Crow lies six feet under, and “colored people” have a variety of challenges not easily susceptible of solution in the old manner: boycotts, lawsuits, and so on.
One looks at what the NAACP is trying to do, and one says: Huh? For instance: Television may employ relatively few blacks. On the other hand, that is not necessarily television’s fault. TV may be the paradigmatic money-grubbing institution of our day. Show TV producers a connection between higher profits and more effective outreach to supporters of the NAACP, and Hollywood will beat down Kweisi Mfume’s door.
What Mfume does not acknowledge is that you can work out deals on paper, but only the marketplace can ratify the terms of those deals. If the marketplace says, boy, oil, boy, those affirmative action guys from the NAACP (because that is what they are) arc terrific—then the rest takes care of itself. Endless vistas of blue sky. On the other hand, if the marketplace does not—well, let’s get down to specifics—ratify a program with the approved mix of black and white characters or black and white ideas, then the audience will nix said program. And whatcha gonna do about it? Boycott the audience?
A corollary point: Educational preparation may not be every thing, but those who get it enjoy an edge over their competitors. Why in the world wouldn’t the NAACP want those African-Americans it dispatches to white-dominated fields, e.g., television and constitutional law, to go there carrying the best and sharpest educational tools available? Here again, the marketplace rules. Kweisi Mfume cannot hold your hand forever.
Yet the NAACP’s interest in raising and maintaining educational standards, if it exists, is indiscernible. Ideological zeal demands opposition to vouchers and private schools and deep suspicion of rigorously enforced standards of performance. What a broad, smooth road to irrelevance: Ignore the way the world operates; posit a counter-reality; insist on die pureness and eternal validity of that reality.
America is still a mostly free country. You can believe what you want. Left alone to lean heavily on a phantasm, just do not be surprised, or too angry, when in broad daylight the thing goes poof, and into the dust you go tumbling.
Kweisi Mfume’s America is a nation that simply cannot repent enough, now or, seemingly, ever. Jim Crow may be planted in the cold, cold ground. Nevertheless, if we are going to have an NAACP, it has got to raise money and hell alike. It needs, in consequence, a Righteous Cause. The “rebel” flag will do in a pinch. The gun companies will do. Adam’s Mark? Great.
By the way, not five minutes ago I had a conversation that strikes me as somewhat to the point. A middle-aged Ethiopian born man who delivers mail in our building recently became a U.S. citizen. He is one of the gentlest, most decent people I know, and I relish his friendship. The day he took the oath, he came to work in a red, white, and blue vest and necktie and brought his papers by to show me. He has a son completing medical residency and a daughter still in community college. A couple of us were chatting with him in the hall. Some American blacks do not accept him as black, he said. His ancestors did not work the plantations; he himself lacks the legacy of white oppression. That is what makes you black—because, if I may interpolate, Kweisi Mfume says so, and that’s the law and the prophets.
My friend soldiers on, with humility and good cheer. He wants to be an American: the old-fashioned variety. And I say, God bless him, because he will make it. Theoretically blacker blacks, who take their cues from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and who cannot let the past go because hurting makes them feel so good—to these, various things need saying, mostly for their own sake.
The most direct piece of advice that comes to mind may be the most useful: Get a life.
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