MAXWELL:  NAACP must keep focus on solving problems of black Americans

7/18/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



If the announcements and legal challenges made last week during its 90th annual convention at the Hilton in midtown are signs of things to come, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is no longer AWOL.

For too long, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization was mired in scandal, infighting and money problems. As a result, it became lethargic, irrelevant and disconnected from the concerns of the grass-roots black population. Worse, it was out of touch with young African-Americans in search of adult leadership.

During its six-day convention in the Big Apple, where more than 14,000 members gathered, the NAACP emerged as a force to be reckoned with on several issues dogging the nation. It promised action, for example, against the easy availability of guns and outlined new efforts to help improve public education.

The group also focused on issues specifically affecting blacks, such as racial profiling, police brutality, the lack of ethnic diversity in prime-time television, the disproportionately low number of blacks using the Internet, voter registration and discrimination in the hospitality industry.

Even with these new battle fronts, however, the NAACP remains ambivalent about its identity and the roles it will play in various areas of American life in the new century. Will it remain essentially a black organization? Or, given the changing faces and weapons on the civil rights battlefield, will the NAACP employ a strategy that willingly embraces other constituencies and ethnic groups?

“In the 1950s and ’60s, civil rights had to do with race,” David Bositis, a researcher for the Joint Center For Political and Economic Studies, told USA Today. “(Civil rights) had to do with black people. And in the 1990s and beyond, you’re talking about civil rights which involves a whole variety of different people . . . . You’re talking about gays and women and senior citizens.”

NAACP top brass, including board of directors Chairman Julian Bond, have acknowledged the new reality. “We know that colored people come in all colors in this country,” he said during a speech on the first night of the convention. “We know we move forward fastest when we move forward together. Where there are others who share our condition, even if they may not share our history, we intend to make common cause with them.”

Experts say that the hues on the demographic landscape in 2050 will not resemble those of today, at least not in percentages. Non-Hispanic whites are predicted to make up 52.8 percent of the population, Latinos 24.5 percent, blacks 13.6 percent, Asians 8.2 percent and American Indians .9 percent.

But not all blacks close to NAACP operations, including Bositis, who studies the nation’s changing demographics, believe that the organization can or should become an umbrella for cross-cultural alliances.

“The NAACP has too long a history as the premier black organization in the United States,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the NAACP won’t be able to work with other groups in coalition. But the NAACP is a black organization. There’s no way it’s going to be anything else.”

I agree. Too many African-Americans still have not learned that they are the key to their success, that within them _ inside their own minds and bodies _ lies the real revolution that can transform black life in one generation.

During his speech, Bond demonstrated that he understands what I am talking about: “Despite oppressive forces around us, despite the heavy weight of the self-satisfied and the self-haters, despite the cold-heartedness of the neo-conservative confederacy, a great deal of the solution to our current problems lies within our own control.”

Of course, Bond is right. The NAACP needs to spend more time on efforts fostering a sense of solving our own problems. It cannot, and should not, become everything to everyone. Like Jewish organizations that focus solely on Jewish problems, the NAACP needs to focus on black problems.

After all, is any other viable group on the national level _ besides the Nation of Islam _ tending exclusively to black problems?

Speaking at the convention, the Rev. Jesse Jackson casually sounded the same coalition-building note when he said that the NAACP’s next crusade should be “the battle to provide greater access to capital and economic power” to all Americans.

This statement has broad appeal. But, like other such comments that floated around the convention floor, it means nothing as long as blacks remain ignorant, for example, of investing and saving.

Whites, Asians and most other groups do not need the NAACP to teach them how to invest and save.

The organization needs to pull out all the stops to teach blacks how to quit spending themselves into the poorhouse. By buying luxury cars to the tune of $35,000 to $140,000 and other depreciating toys _ in an attempt to show that we are “somebody” _ we are mortgaging our futures, literally condemning our children to perpetual second-class citizenship.

Black America is a conclave of consumers, not investors. Transforming this unproductive trait should be one of the NAACP’s focuses _ not worrying about white America, which can damned well take care of itself.

The NAACP is no longer absent without leave. Now, it needs to find its identity. The time for ambivalence has long passed. Coalition-building is admirable, but the NAACP is not prepared to solve the problems of other groups. For this powerful organization, nothing is more important than teaching black Americans that “the solution to our current problems lies within our own control.”