Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Michael Meyers got it wrong! - A personal response to his "NAACP at a Crossroads" critique

On September 4th, Michael Meyers, a former Assitant National Director of the NAACP under Roy Wilkins, wrote a sharp critique of the NAACP entitled "The NAACP at a crossroads". His critique, which has certainly made its rounds on the internet, is one that I as a Branch President take strong exception to. In furtherance of this question and debate, I have reprinted his column below in it's entirety, followed by my response...

The NAACP at a Crossroads
By MICHAEL MEYERS September 4, 2007; Page A17
The highlight of the NAACP convention in Detroit this summer was a symbolic burial ceremony for the n-word. In other words, the nation's oldest, largest and once-fierce champion of civil rights has been reduced to staging publicity stunts.
There once was a time when the NAACP was ably led by the likes of Roy Wilkins, and undoubtedly nonpartisan. Political office holders and front-runners for president -- Democrats and Republicans -- would look for chances to address its large assemblage of mostly black Americans.
Today GOP politicians avoid the organization like a plague. NAACP chairman Julian Bond once likened the Republican Party to the "Taliban." Former CEO Kweisi Mfume openly boasted of NAACP efforts to defeat Republicans.
And then there was Bruce Gordon, an ex-Verizon executive who became president of the NAACP in June 2005 -- a choice heralded (or derided) as an attempt to moderate the organization's extremism, and to make a bid for support from big corporations that once shunned funding civil-rights campaigns. Mr. Gordon resigned 19 months into the job, blasting the NAACP's old-guard lay leaders for being wedded to an outdated structure and accusing an oversized board of directors of day-to-day meddling with his management. His words had a stinging impact on fund raising, even as he left behind a pile of the debt his fund-raising prowess was supposed to erase.
Now, the NAACP is in dire straits, financial and otherwise. It is cutting some 40% of its staff -- including the youth coordinators the organization's senior leaders once proclaimed to be the bridge to the so-called hip-hop generation as well as the organization's future.
But the NAACP's leadership does not understand that it can't have it both ways -- instructing urban black youths on the one hand that their street lingo is objectionable, and on the other expecting to recruit these types into its ranks. When it tries, the NAACP comes off as simply counterfeit.
Worse, the shifting of its purposes -- from an interracial and integrationist organization to one aimed at airing racial grievances -- threatens the NAACP with oblivion. For more than a decade, no one at the top has uttered the "i-word" for fear of alienating young blacks who were segregating themselves on campuses. Instead the organization began identifying with ghetto blacks who deified skin color, and lashed out at "Uncle Toms" and others whose moral behavior and speech patterns displayed middle-class values.
The NAACP's rank-and-file also seems hell-bent on romanticizing the warped values and mindset of the obstinate subgroup of young blacks that Cora Daniels calls "ghettonation." There has been no general alarm issued, much less a call to arms, to save these very black youths from their patterns of illiteracy, welfare dependency, criminality and social dysfunction. Instead, while an entire generation of young blacks has been weaned on racial difference, racial rhetoric and racial chauvinism, the NAACP went silent.
With these compromises and forfeits of core principles, the NAACP is down in membership, down in funds, down in glory and accomplishments -- but not "down" with inner-city black youth. It is at a crossroads -- and unless it makes the right choices and wise decisions it may shrivel up and die.
What choices? First, the NAACP must reclaim its mission as a racial healer, rebutting the crazed racial slander of militants who want to keep our nation divided into racial camps, Bantustan-like political districts and racially pure neighborhoods. Black politicians must be encouraged to follow the fashion of the likes of Barack Obama and compete for white support and not just black votes. White and Hispanic and other pols should be encouraged to run to represent "minority districts" too.
Second, the NAACP should recommit itself to inculcating solid middle-class values and aspirations in the young. Its greatest successes occurred when proud, middle-class people led intelligent efforts to persuade the American people about the moral rot of segregation as a way of life.
Third, the NAACP must make public education the civil-rights issue of our times. Everything else will fall into place if young blacks overcome illiteracy, stay in school, and are inculcated with a love for learning and for the pursuit of excellence instead of trained to accept mediocrity and quotas as a means of social advancement.
Holding school authorities accountable -- including black teachers and black-dominated school boards such as in Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C. -- must be the priority. That means tutoring pupils and coaching teachers so that they pass standardized competency tests, and eschewing notions that such examinations are "culturally biased."
A revamped NAACP should not accept any alibis for blacks' academic underachievement. It would take the lead in answering those black educators and their paternalistic allies who develop ghetto industries for grants and careers explaining blacks' deficits. It would confront separatist schemes such as "black paradigms" of learning and Ebonics as the language of Africans in America.
And the NAACP should urge black Americans, at long last, to drop their hyphenated African roots. We are several hundred years out of Africa, and unless we are recent immigrants our connection to the African continent is not only minimal but mostly pretense and posturing.
The modern civil-rights agenda must have a more compelling Americanization base to it -- a liberating leap from the trap of race. The only practicable way to integrate in America is to personally overcome and cross the constructs and demarcations of race, and to personally defeat the habits and prejudices of communities and groups to live, work, marry and socialize only with "their own kind."
Only when we become neighbors to every person of every hue, and remove the racial blinders from Americans' eyes and minds, will we be able to deal with the considerable problems of racial profiling, disparate criminal sentences, and housing segregation.
If the NAACP's leaders are listening, their successful resurgence as a proud and powerful civil-rights lobby will require bold steps to deracialize and depoliticize their rhetoric. And, to the extent they succeed, the echo of Roy Wilkins's voice will be resonant: "Steer our NAACP ship steady as she goes."
Mr. Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former assistant national director of the NAACP.

~~~~~~

Before going any further let me state that I am not speaking on behalf of the NAACP, I am offering my opinion only... I have the greatest respect for Mr. Meyers; he served the NAACP for a number of years in the 70's and early 80's before leaving to start his own organization. And while we differ in opinion, I'd still like believe we share the same passion and desire to see the betterment of our community.

That said; let me begin with a little confession by admitting that I was a long-time (almost life-time) critic of the NAACP. I don't think there's a charge you could level against the group that I hadn't voiced, and I was very vocal with my criticisms. I've written letters to the editor in various papers, given numerous speeches, and spoken to countless community members (particularly youth) about my disdain for the group.

Once (while in my early thirties) my mentor, Baba Jihad Muqtaasid, told me that he was a member of the local NAACP (which I hadn't known). Moreover, he let me know that he was an active member and he strongly suggested that I actually 'attend' a meeting or two since I had had so much to say about the group.

I attended a meeting; albeit not with an open mind. I really attended intending to find proof that my assertions had been correct all along. But what I found was not what I expected.

I had called these people all sorts of names... But when I attended the meeting, I saw a room full of people that I knew... Retired teachers and educators, aircraft workers and machinists, nurses and the like, ordinary folks... These had been the stalwarts of the movement since the 60's. These were the folks who had kept on fighting and kept on trying.

In meeting and talking with them, I felt somehwhat ashamed. I had built my activist credentials by routinely insulting a group of ordinary and extrordinary people who had volunteered thousands of hours for the community. I realized that I had used them to validate my positions and to build my own organizations by drawing imaginary distinctions between my positions and the many positions that I ascribed to them. I realized that the NAACP had and has become a would-be activist's shortcut. Rather than actually doing the work, it was easier to 'prove our merit' by attacking the work they 'hadn't done'. And while they were open and welcoming to new blood that would continue the fight, I had spent my time complaining from the sidelines...

Yet, despite my loud mouth, they had continued to do work that was sorely needed in our community. Year after year, they continued to raise money which they gave out in scholarships, they fought against racial profiling before we even had a term for it, they fought for black history in the schools and more inclusive curriculums, they hosted community forums and events (which I attended), and they registered folks to vote. Certainly, more could have been done, but to do more they needed more help... So I decided to get onboard.

That was several years ago now, and I am the sitting Wichita Branch President and the Political Affairs Chair for the Kansas State NAACP. From my purview I have seen handfuls of people accomplish incredible things. And it is a strange irony that I now get to experience the 'business end' of the very criticisms that I had so often lobbied. Which brings me to the column by my esteemed colleague Michael Meyers. As a general rule, I never respond to these types of columns, but given the once held position of the author and the sense of credibility it might confer, I didn't want his words to go unchallenged:
~~~~~~

> The highlight of the NAACP convention in Detroit this summer was a symbolic burial ceremony for the n-word. In other words, the nation's oldest, largest and once-fierce champion of civil rights has been reduced to staging publicity stunts.

The burial of the "N" word was an event that was conceived, led, and orchestrated by the NAACP Youth & College Division. Nearly 3,000 youth converged at the Detroit Conference and they put together this event to call on their peers to stop the usage of negative and derogatory terms in talking with and describing one another. It was a great event and I was proud that I along with my 15-year old daughter and my 11-year old son were able to participate. The effort did not start and stop on that day, but it was/is actually a part of a larger "STOP" campaign also initiated by the Youth Councils. Youth councils across the county are continuing to have local events to further this campaign. http://wichitanaacp.blogspot.com/2007/09/39th-annual-wichita-black-arts-festival.html

It is worth noting that Mr. Meyers failed to mention that at the very same convention the National Association announced the filing of a class action lawsuit against 14 of the nation's largest payday loan and predatory lending companies. He also neglected to mention that the delegates to the convention adopted a National resolution in support of the "Jena 6" which calls for a Federal inquiry into possible civil rights violations in the case. THESE for me were Highlights of the convention. The fact that the media did not find them particularly newsworthy in no way diminishes their significance.
~~~~~~

> There once was a time when the NAACP was ably led by the likes of Roy Wilkins, and undoubtedly nonpartisan. Political office holders and front-runners for president -- Democrats and Republicans -- would look for chances to address its large assemblage of mostly black Americans. Today GOP politicians avoid the organization like a plague.

Mr. Meyers says this as though it were indicative of a crisis... Any politician with aspirations to hold a national office should understand that they seek not only to represent those with whom they agree, but also those with whom they disagree. It is therefore incumbent upon any aspiring politician to meet their critics and their criticisms head-on, since their critics are a part of the general constituency they seek to represent. It is not the responsibility of any portion of the body politic to tailor its message to the listening pleasure of a would-be political leader. Should the NAACP refashion its message and soften its concerns to make them more palatable to the candidates? I don't believe that would further the cause... No person from either party who is fit for office should ever shy away from the collision of ideas.
~~~~~~

> Now, the NAACP is in dire straits, financial and otherwise. It is cutting some 40% of its staff -- including the youth coordinators the organization's senior leaders once proclaimed to be the bridge to the so-called hip-hop generation as well as the organization's future.

I won't make any bones about the National Organization's financial troubles. But to put it in it's proper context, you have to understand a few things about the organization's structure. The NAACP is not the large monolithic organization people believe it to be. It is actually far more decentralized than most people believe. The Organization is made up of approximately 1,800 local branches (note: Branches not Chapters). The Local Branches are all tied to one another through a common set of by-laws and a common Constitution. The National Office and National Board of Directors manage and administer the By-Laws and Constitution. Individual Branches are relatively autonomous in designing and constructing their activities as long as they are in accordance with the organizational mission and the by-laws. The Local branches are not supported by the National Office financially. Quite the contrary, the local branches support the National Office.

All of that to say, while I won't minimize the seriousness of the Organization's financial issues, those who say that the organization as a whole is on the brink of a collapse are completely mistaken (That would require that all 1,800 individual branches would be experiencing their own independant financial crises). In fact, I think it safe to say that those who would advance such an argument are either unaware of the organization's actual decentralized structure or they are relatively certain that you are...
~~~~~~

> But the NAACP's leadership does not understand that it can't have it both ways -- instructing urban black youths on the one hand that their street lingo is objectionable, and on the other expecting to recruit these types into its ranks. When it tries, the NAACP comes off as simply counterfeit.

Again, this criticism is off-base. It was the NAACP Youth themselves who buried the "N" word and launched the NAACP's "STOP" campaign. (Furthermore, calling one another Bit**es and Ni**ers should not be dismissed as mere "street lingo" - But I'll come back to that)

Nearly 3,000 youth were on-hand to participate in the events and to compete in the National ACT-SO competition (Academic Cultural Technological Social Olympics) Certainly it would have been better to host 10,000 youth, but their showing and their commitment was incredible. What other organization serving youth in our community could make such a claim?
~~~~~~

> The NAACP's rank-and-file also seems hell-bent on romanticizing the warped values and mindset of the obstinate subgroup of young blacks that Cora Daniels calls "ghettonation." There has been no general alarm issued, much less a call to arms, to save these very black youths from their patterns of illiteracy, welfare dependency, criminality and social dysfunction. Instead, while an entire generation of young blacks has been weaned on racial difference, racial rhetoric and racial chauvinism, the NAACP went silent.

Here it seems Mr. Meyers wishes to 'have it both ways'. He criticizes the organization for not working to save our youth from Social dysfunction, yet he opened by belittling the Youth Council's efforts to do that very thing. (Racial difference-ni**a's and Gangta's, racial rhetoric-keeping it real, and racial chauvinism-bi**hes and H0es; all of which are addressed by the Youth led "STOP" campaign and all of which he earlier dismissed as "street lingo")

People also forget that when Bill Cosby drew his now familiar 'line in the sand' he was at an NAACP forum. Yet folks commonly disassociate the two. (using the old "Egypt may be in Africa but it ain't African"-type logic)
~~~~~~

>First, the NAACP must reclaim its mission as a racial healer, rebutting the crazed racial slander of militants who want to keep our nation divided into racial camps, Bantustan-like political districts and racially pure neighborhoods. Black politicians must be encouraged to follow the fashion of the likes of Barack Obama and compete for white support and not just black votes. White and Hispanic and other pols should be encouraged to run to represent "minority districts" too.

I disagree. What we must NOT do is subscribe to any one-size-fits-all tactic disguised as a strategy. We should all work towards the goals of peace, healing, and harmony. But we should not be led to believe that what works in San Francisco will be equally applicable in Jena, Louisiana. We must retain the freedom of thought and action to do whatever is necessary to advance the cause of social justice. Sometimes that may require a Barack Obama-type, other times it may require an Al Sharpton type, yet other times it may require a Maulana Karenga, a Cornell West, or a Naim Akbar... But we absolutely should not adopt an 'acceptable leadership template'. Our issues are multi-faceted, and our voices should reflect that... The degree to which we forget that is the degree to which we become irrelevant.
~~~~~~

> Second, the NAACP should recommit itself to inculcating solid middle-class values and aspirations in the young. Its greatest successes occurred when proud, middle-class people led intelligent efforts to persuade the American people about the moral rot of segregation as a way of life.

Here I think Mr. Meyers is both right and wrong. The Black Community should and Must recommit itself to instilling values, but the NAACP is not the vehicle to do that. The NAACP is an organization with a distinct mission. It is neither a social club nor a religious/cultural institution. The NAACP is an association formed to fight for social justice. It would be a tragic mistake for us to lose sight of that and to even attempt to be all things to all people. His point about values is valid, but just as you cant drive a nail with a fork, the NAACP can't effectively function as a pseudo-church.
~~~~~~

> Third, the NAACP must make public education the civil-rights issue of our times. Everything else will fall into place if young blacks overcome illiteracy, stay in school, and are inculcated with a love for learning and for the pursuit of excellence instead of trained to accept mediocrity and quotas as a means of social advancement.> Holding school authorities accountable -- including black teachers and black-dominated school boards such as in Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C. -- must be the priority. That means tutoring pupils and coaching teachers so that they pass standardized competency tests, and eschewing notions that such examinations are "culturally biased."
> A revamped NAACP should not accept any alibis for blacks' academic underachievement. It would take the lead in answering those black educators and their paternalistic allies who develop ghetto industries for grants and careers explaining blacks' deficits. It would confront separatist schemes such as "black paradigms" of learning and Ebonics as the language of Africans in America.

I'm attaching a link here to the NAACP Education Department's web page. Rather than engaging in a lengthy rebuttal here, it would be more time efficient for you all to read what is already in effect. http://www.naacp.org/advocacy/education/

Again, while I have the highest regard for Mr. Meyers, this is a purely a Straw-Man arguement. Given that Mr. Meyers left the organization 14 years ago, I'll assume that perhaps he just was 'unaware' of the organization's platform and efforts. I'll also include a link here to the Wichita Branch's 4-point plan to eliminate the Achievement Gap. This plan was developed in concert with the Wichita Alliance of Black School Educators and has been adopted as the official plan to eliminate the gap by USD259 and note that similar efforts are taking places in cities across the Country. http://www.wichitanaacp.org/TheFourPointPlantoEliminatetheGap.pdf
~~~~~~

>And the NAACP should urge black Americans, at long last, to drop their hyphenated African roots. We are several hundred years out of Africa, and unless we are recent immigrants our connection to the African continent is not only minimal but mostly pretense and posturing.
>The modern civil-rights agenda must have a more compelling Americanization base to it -- a liberating leap from the trap of race. The only practicable way to integrate in America is to personally overcome and cross the constructs and demarcations of race, and to personally defeat the habits and prejudices of communities and groups to live, work, marry and socialize only with "their own kind."

Ok, this is troubling on a number of levels... First off, "African-American" is a relatively new term in the pantheon of names by which we've been identified. When we were 'colored' or 'negro', were we somehow more enlightened? Was our society more accomodating? Are America's issues of discrimination or race predjudice in any way traceable to the usage of the term? To even suggest that the hyphenated term is somehow partially responsible for racial issues that far preceded it's coinage is accomodationist and weak. Like an abused wife who blames herself for 'making him angry', we enable racism when we offer blanket absolution to institutions in our society by focusing on self-flaggelation over silly questions like what name we should call ourselves.
The following statement of objectives is found on the first page of the NAACP Constitution

The principal objectives of the Association shall be:

-To ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of all citizens
-To achieve equality of rights and eliminate race prejudice among the citizens of the United States
-To remove all barriers of racial discrimination through democratic processes
-To seek enactment and enforcement of federal, state, and local laws securing civil rights
-To inform the public of the adverse effects of racial discrimination and to seek its elimination
-To educate persons as to their constitutional rights and to take all lawful action to secure the exercise thereof, and to take any other lawful action in furtherance of these objectives, consistent with the NAACP's Articles of Incorporation and this Constitution.

Have these things been accomplished? Is this work now complete?

So while the Supreme Court is striking down even voluntary integration plans in the schools and districts are resegregating by the dozens, while 6 young men await sentencing in Jena, While noose incidents are popping up around the country, while police departments and communities nationwide grapple with the issues of Racial Profiling and biased based policing, while the unemployment rate for African Americans remains disproportionately high, while enforcement of anti-discrimination laws continues to falter, while disparities in arrests and sentencing remain, while our youth are increasingly being seduced from a culture of poverty into a culture of consumption, and while African Americans still make 77 cents on the dollar in comparison to whites, Mr. Meyers suggests that the NAACP would somehow increase its relevance by 'moving on' and adopting a 1970's social platform.

I'm sorry Mr. Meyers but I think you're wrong. Unfortunately, I can't discuss it any further at this time because you see, we're pretty busy down here; we've still got a lot of work to do...


Kevin Myles
President; Wichita Branch NAACP



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