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The Trials of Benjamin Jealous | The Nation

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The Trials of Benjamin Jealous

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The NAACP made its name by tackling the structural arms of white supremacy--segregation, job and housing discrimination, disenfranchisement. Its favored arsenal was not the direct action of Martin Luther King Jr. but the jurisprudence of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.

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"The NAACP was historically averse to public demonstrations," says historian and Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis. "It preferred galas, social events, tithing its members. The idea of marching and voluntarily being incarcerated was alien and to a large degree anathema. This is not because of a lack of personal conviction or courage. The idea was, the best way to change society was collaboration."

The NAACP's focus on collaboration led to several splits over the years, most famously between Du Bois and Walter White. Du Bois, tired of the seemingly endless fights for integration, embraced separation for African-Americans and a focus on improving the black community. White pressed for integration; he ultimately prevailed, and Du Bois left the organization. But that basic conflict of practical community reform versus moral national reform has often plagued the NAACP internally and been invoked by its critics externally.

The criticism has assumed new life in the post-civil rights era. As the vestiges of white supremacy have fallen away, in large measure because of the NAACP's efforts, blacks have grown more concerned about the achievement gap, violence in their communities and fatherlessness. But the NAACP has remained focused almost entirely on its core civil rights agenda--at times to the chagrin of its membership.

When Gordon came to the helm, he envisioned a program to make the NAACP more relevant by tackling new problems like the dropout rate, the plight of black men and HIV awareness. But Gordon ran into stiff opposition from NAACP officials, Bond chief among them, who feared that the group was moving away from social justice and into "social service." A year and a half after he was brought on board, Gordon, who did not respond to inquiries for this article, resigned.

"I think people generally like social service," says Bond. "White, black, liberal, conservative, they all like social service--Habitat for Humanity, for instance. It can be done quickly, whereas social justice can take years. There's nothing wrong with social service. But we are one of the few organizations focusing on social justice."

Given his youth and his history of confrontations with power, one might think Jealous would strike a pose more radical than Bond's. That would be a mistake. "We're motivated by the problems facing the black community, but our goal is a fully functioning democracy," Jealous says. "Our goal is a government that works for everybody. If the government worked better, we wouldn't need many of these services."

"The reality is that you can leverage way more change out of federal government, state government, even a county government, than you can leverage charitable dollars to solve those problems," says Jealous. "In fact, many of those problems you can't even solve with charitable dollars.... I'm talking about mass incarceration, for instance."

Jealous and Bond essentially argue that the only legitimate avenue for social change is government policy--hence the notion that if the government worked right, "social service" would be unnecessary. Post-civil rights African-Americans have grown increasingly impatient with this line of thinking. The weakness in the NAACP's perspective is that it depends on a sympathetic government ear. The NAACP's victory in Brown v. Board of Education, for example, was the result of some brilliant legal arguments, but it was also the result of a court willing to listen. In the wake of the conservative counterrevolution, the NAACP hasn't been able to count on that sort of sympathy.

Despite a few flirtations with change, the NAACP never altered its strategy. Thus, while it persisted in advocating for a fully functioning democracy, blacks continued to suffer. For African-Americans who push for some kind of community-based approach to tackle violence in their community or to close the achievement gap, the NAACP has had little to say.

Even in areas where the NAACP has traditionally had a presence, its reputation has been eroded by broader changes in society and among African-Americans. In the era of Facebook and Twitter, it's not clear that one messianic figure or one organization can articulate the concerns of millions. Indeed, the millions are more likely to simply do it themselves. "When people needed to organize for the Jena Six, they did it themselves," says cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal. "Their first choice wasn't the NAACP."

The NAACP is, in some ways, boxed in by its very name. If an association claims as its mission the "advancement of colored people," people expect the group not to get hung up on tactics. Jealous believes that the NAACP can address certain issues better that it has ignored in the past--HIV awareness, for instance. But for all his youth and idiosyncrasies, his basic outlook on the NAACP's mission is very traditional.

"There's a lot of people out there who would like to see the NAACP as some sort of alternative government or government service provider for black people," Jealous says. "That's exactly what we've been fighting against for a century."

But living in a new century, the fight may have to change.

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