Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What the NAACP means to me...

100 years is a long time...

The NAACP Centennial celebration has understandably caused people to question whether or not there is still a need for the NAACP. CNN ran a whole segment asking that same question. Bloggers have chimed in with questions of their own such as 'Can the NAACP keep up with the new generation of Activists', and others still ask if America, with its newly elected Black President, still needs or benefits from the NAACP. Some think of the Organization as a relic; a tool specially designed to perform a task long since completed. Others now argue that the continued existence of the NAACP is itself a source of division and an anachronism, slowing our progress towards that post-racial America we keep hearing about.

As I left the Centennial Convention, I had plans to respond to a number of them.

But as I reflected on the work and the mission of the organization, I realized that what was needed was more in the way of an explanation than a defense. Because you see, within the questions themselves, there is the clear indication that not everyone clearly understands the work or the mission of the NAACP. Not everyone understands the role this organization plays and has played for the past 100 years. And rather than engaging in a snarky tit-for-tat exchange with our critics and nay-sayers, it would likely be more beneficial and more informative for me to describe the Organization as I have come to know it, to share with you all why I love it, and to clearly explain why it is needed now more than ever...

Civil Rights
What are "Civil Rights" anyway? Civil Rights are the rights and privileges guaranteed to all citizens by law or statute. The NAACP is a Civil Rights Organization meaning we are an Organization that is dedicated to ensuring first, that the laws of the land are fundamentally fair and that they provide level-playing fields and equal opportunities for all. And second, we are dedicated to ensuring that those rights and privileges guaranteed by law or statute are equally enjoyed and/or enforced for all.

Now, some of our critics would say, that there is no longer a need for the NAACP because the laws and statutes guaranteeing equal opportunity are already on the books. They would point out that the Colored water fountains and Jim Crow restrictions have all been beaten back. They would argue that the level of discrimination we see in our society is nowhere near the levels we saw just 10 or 20 years ago. And they would declare the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States a signal of a societal shift on matters of race...

These are they who believe the work of the NAACP and the struggle for Civil Rights is a retroactive or reactionary effort. They believe that the NAACP, in the absence of the Bull Connor's and Fire Hoses of the past, is nothing more than an anachronism - searching for racial hobgoblins like Jena or the Valley Swim club or the arrest of Professor Gates to justify its continued existence.

There is a simple logic to that line of reasoning, yet it clearly misses the point. The work of the NAACP was always broader, always more comprehensive, and always more future focused than many today give it credit for.

The NAACP was never simply an anti-Bull Connor organization, or an anti-colored water fountain organization, or an Anti Back-of-the-bus organization... We are a Civil Rights Organization; with all that that implies. Meaning that by design, we are an organization that is focused on eliminating disparities, discrimination, and disproportionality at a systemic and institutional level. By design, we are an organization that uses legislative and political advocacy to achieve our goals. YES we've won countless major victories against virulent state sanctioned racism, and for that we should all be thankful and proud. But the work of securing and safeguarding our civil rights and protections and ensuring that they are equally extended to and enforced on behalf of all, is far from done.

The laws and protections we currently enjoy are not static; they are dynamic. They shift and turn with every constitutional challenge, every court decision, and every interpretation. The fact that we live in a society with far less overt discrimination and racism is a testament to the work of previous generations. But on OUR watch, these same rights and protections that made it possible for so many of us to succeed are being openly challenged in the courts. The very protections that made it possible so many of our mothers and fathers to get into good schools, secure good paying jobs, and leap frog our generation into a better day, are under attack from conservative courts, enemies emboldened by a pervasive 'post-racial' mythology, and the apathy born of middle-class myopia.

We must be clear, the battle for Civil Rights is waged in the present, but it is necessarily future-focused. The NAACP is dedicated not only to the redress of grievances, but also (and perhaps more importantly) to ensuring that the rights and privileges that we now enjoy, are safeguarded, strengthened and passed on to our future generations.

Many believe that because we may not feel particularly oppressed in our day-to day lives that the battle has ended. But this is a misreading of our history. DuBois didn’t travel to Niagara Falls to meet and talk about how he could make a more comfortable life for himself – they were working so that we might enjoy THIS day. King, Abernathy, Wilkins, Carmichael, Hamer, Rustin, Malcolm, and Chisolm weren’t out there struggling and sacrificing so that they could build a brighter 1961; they were laying a foundation so that we might enjoy a society built on fairness and equality today.

The world that our children inherit tomorrow, will be shaped, and contoured by the vigilance and effort that we exhibit today.

When Ricci vs. DeStefano was decided, the Supreme Court created a totally new legal standard by using the Disparate Treatment protections of the 14th Amendment to nullify the Disparate Impact protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Disparate Impact provisions were put in place to protect women and minorities from being discriminated against through the use of onerous, non-job related qualifications or requisites. Unnecessary strength tests for women or culturally biased exams for African Americans or Latinos are all made unlawful by this provision. It prevented organizations and agencies from moving their testing facilities to suburbs or small communities with homogeneous populations. It prevented companies, lenders, and mortgage brokers from implementing policies or practices that had the effect of screening out African Americans, women, gays, or other minority groups. But the ruling of the Supreme Court basically turned that on its head. Their ruling infers that if a Police Department instituted a non mission essential strength test that no female test takers were able to pass, the disparate impact protections afforded by Title VII should not be upheld. Instead, the rights of the men who DID pass should be upheld on the basis on the disparate treatment protections afforded by the 14th amendment. And that throwing out the test would be an act of discrimination against the men who actually met the unnecessary strength requirement. The Disparate Impact provisions are an important pillar of Civil Rights Law, and our children should be afforded these same protections as they enter the workplace. Fighting the battle to restore and safeguard those protections is the work of the NAACP.

In 2002, then President Bush issued an Executive Order allowing faith-based organizations who receive Federal funds to discriminate in hiring, in blatant contravention of the Civil Rights Act. This creates a potential conundrum. Once we say that it is acceptable for some groups receiving Federal Funds to openly discriminate, then on what moral ground could we oppose others who petition for the same right? If individual business owners petitioned for the right to discriminate on the basis of their personal beliefs or to protect the culture or climate of their business, on what basis could one reasonably deny their appeal after having approved the former? Discrimination in employment is wrong; if you are qualified, capable, and available, then you should be given an equal opportunity to provide your services and secure a living for yourself and your family. This is the standard that we live under, and this standard should be preserved and kept in place for our children as well. Lobbying the Obama Administration to repeal President Bush's executive order and to restore the intent and protection of Title VII is the work of the NAACP.

In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled in Whren vs. the United States, that even though the Police chose to follow Michael Whren initially without cause, and used a minor traffic infraction as a pretext to conduct a vehicle stop, evidence found in the ensuing search was admissible in court. The Court Noted in their decision that there may have been 14th amendment implications, but they decided NOT to consider them in making their decision. They ruled that because there was a bona-fide traffic infraction, the stop itself was legal and since the stop itself was legal, the evidence found thereafter was admissible. And to THIS DAY, Police Departments around the country use this decision both as a justification and a mechanism for Racial Profiling. (As an experiment, go and ask your City Attorney or Police Chief about disproportionate stops and searches of African American motorists and watch them cite the Whren case) In acknowledging, then refusing to consider the 14th amendment equal protection implications, the court simply chose to ignore protections guaranteed under law and subsequently set a precedent that provides the legal framework and justification for Racial Profiling. An American citizen, who has committed no crime, should be able to come and go throughout this country without being subjected to stops, searches or seizures based solely upon the personal biases or suspicions of an individual law enforcement officer. This problem should not be allowed to plague the next generation as well. Lobbying for passage of Federal Racial Profiling legislation and the reconsideration of the Equal protection provisions is the work of the NAACP.

In the State of New York, less than 1% of contracting dollars were spent with businesses owned by African Americans. In Wichita (before we began working in collaboration with the City to modify their practices) our number was 0.7%. In cities and states all across the country, African American and minority contractors in general have to rely on incredibly small shares of state and city contracting purses. However, at least when it came to federal contracting or projects relying upon federal dollars, federal guidelines required that a small portion of all contracts be awarded to minority contractors or DBE's. But just this past March, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriquez issued an injunction that opens the door for contractors to legally contest federal procurement, services and construction contracts granted to minority contractors under preference programs across the nation, including many contracts already in existence. Will our children receive their fair share of public contracting dollars? Advocating for increased outreach to and utilization of minority contractors and DBE's in Federal, State and Local projects is the work of the NAACP.

Did you know that Public school districts with large minority populations receive nearly $1,000 less funding per pupil? Or that within primarily minority school districts, approximately 78 percent of teachers do not teach in their accredited subject area? Were you aware that teacher's union contracts generally allow the more senior teachers to transfer to the schools of their choice, thereby creating the phenomena we see wherein all too often the children with the greatest educational needs are taught by those with the least experience? You've probably heard by now, the shocking statistic that nearly 50% of African American youth who enroll in school will drop out prior to graduation. But did you know that an African American male who drops out of school is statistically more likely to be incarcerated than employed? We are losing a generation of our children in the Public Schools... And advocating for equity in funding and resources, maintaining certification standards, and inventive strategies to lower the drop out rate and eliminate the achievement gap, is the work of the NAACP.

Columnist Clarence Page recently asked the question, “If the NAACP ceased to exist, would anyone notice?” Well I would submit to you that if the NAACP ceased to exist, we’d have to create another one.

Surely there are other groups who deal with issues of race and racism. Some who have come along recently have begun developing new models for communication and online advocacy that will serve us well in the future. Among these bloggers and internet activists, it is frequently suggested that perhaps they have become the “new” leaders of the movement. But seen in its proper context, the rise of newer groups with new skills is merely an embarrassment of riches, as we all are pushing towards the same basic goals. This is not a competition. This is not the Highlander - ‘there can be more than one’.

Our work is not a struggle to achieve preeminence – it is a fight to achieve level paying fields, the elimination of disparities and disproportionality, and to establish a framework of fundamental fairness in housing, employment, politics, and society in general.

Until we no longer see gross disparities in the criminal justice system, both in arrests and length of sentence; there will be a need for the NAACP.

Until we no longer see African Americans as the most under-insured, the most likely to die from preventable diseases, the most disproportionately impacted by HIV/Aids and the least likely to have access to funded educational or awareness programs, there will be a need for the NAACP.

Until we no longer see gross disparities in homicide closure rates between affluent majority neighborhoods and poor minority neighborhoods, thereby allowing those responsible for the countless murders of young African American and Latino youth to remain on the street, there will be a need for the NAACP.

Until we no longer see African American children removed from their homes at disproportionate rates by child welfare agencies and reintegrated with their families less often still, there will be a need for the NAACP.

Until we no longer see public schools in urban areas facing an Academic Achievement Gap, a school funding gap, and a teacher experience gap, there will be a need for the NAACP.

Until we no longer see Teachers Union Contracts governing teacher placements, School boards governing student assignments, State Legislatures governing school funding formulas, and parents left out of the loop, there will be a need for the NAACP.

Until we no longer see African Americans being the 'last hired and the first fired', the least contracted, and the most unemployed, there will be a need for the NAACP.

Until all Americans are able to love who they love and marry who they choose, there will be a need for the NAACP.

Until we no longer see local Governments overfund Police Departments while underfunding Public Defenders offices leading to unmanageable caseloads and countless defendants facing trial with ineffective counsel, there will be a need for the NAACP.

Until we no longer see the hard earned rights and protections that generations of activists fought to secure under threat, there will be a need for the NAACP.

Yes, 100 years is a long time; and much has changed during these last 100 years. But I am truly thankful that the NAACP’s commitment to fairness, equality, and justice has not… I love this organization, I am committed to its mission, and that is why I continue to serve…

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INTJ - "Mastermind". Introverted intellectual with a preference for finding certainty. A builder of systems and the applier of theoretical models. 2.1% of total population.
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