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The NAACP's Battles Are Much the Same as 100 Years Ago

It has been 98 years since the first meeting of what became the NAACP. The group's board of directors reflects on where we have been as a country and where we are now in terms of race and justice.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This is a speech by Julian Bond, Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors and given at their 98th annual convention held this year at Cobo Hall in Detroit.

It was ninety-eight years ago, during the first week of 1909, when three people met to form what would become the NAACP. One was the descendant of abolitionists, the second was Jewish, and the third was a Southerner -- a Southerner whose mother's people were Kentucky slaveholders, as my father's people were Kentucky slaves.

That first meeting produced a Call -- issued on February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. The Call asked the nation then as we ask it today:

How far has it gone in assuring to each and every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and are guaranteed by the Constitution?

It called upon "all [the] believers in democracy" to gather for a national conference which eventually resulted in the NAACP.

The original incorporation papers of the NAACP listed as its goals:

To promote equality of rights and eradicate caste or racial prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for their children, and complete equality before the law.

That remains our mission today.

Then, as now, nativists argued for further restrictions on immigration, seeking an ethnically pure America.

Then, segregationists mandated the separation of blacks and whites in all public places; now, neo-segregationists want to end racial remedies in all public institutions and place restrictions on access to the ballot box which fall most heavily on racial minorities and the poor.

Then, as now, racism masquerading as science proclaimed the genetic inferiority of black people, an acceptable antidote for the status anxieties of America's shrinking majority.

And then, as now, racial scapegoating became a substitute for real solutions to complex problems, reminding us that while so much changes, too much remains the same.

Ninety-eight years is a grand old age for a person; it is only a fraction in the lifetime of a nation.

We are such a young nation so recently removed from slavery that only my father's generation stands between Julian Bond and human bondage; I am the grandson of a slave, as are many in this nation.

My grandfather, James Bond, was born in 1863, in Kentucky; freedom didn't come for him until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865.

He and his mother were property, like a horse or a chair. As a young girl, she had been given away as a wedding present to a new bride, and when that bride became pregnant, her husband -- that's my great-grandmother's owner and master -- exercised his right to take his wife's slave as his mistress.

That union produced two children, one of them my grandfather.

At age 15, barely able to read and write, he hitched his tuition -- a steer -- to a rope and walked across Kentucky to Berea College and the college took him in.

When my grandfather graduated from Berea, in 1892, the college asked him to deliver the commencement address.

He said then:

The pessimist from his corner looks out on the world of wickedness and sin, and blinded by all that is good or hopeful in the condition and progress of the human race, bewails the present state of affairs and predicts woeful things for the future.

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In every cloud he beholds a destructive storm, in every flash of lightning an omen of evil, and in every shadow that falls across his path a lurking foe.

He forgets that the clouds also bring life and hope, that lightning purifies the atmosphere, that shadow and darkness prepare for sunshine and growth, and that hardships and adversity nerve the race, as the individual, for greater efforts and grander victories.

In the first years of the 21st Century, we have been tested, as an organization and as a nation, by "hardships and adversity." If my grandfather was right, we are now poised for "greater efforts and grander victories."

We've experienced some real losses at the NAACP in recent months. We lost our CEO, who couldn't align our mission with his. We've lost more than 70 valuable employees because of the downsizing our finances forced upon us.

But we know if we cannot bear the cross, we cannot wear the crown.

The NAACP will emerge from this period healthier than we were before. The right-sizing process, as painful as it is for those most affected, forces us to be leaner, meaner, and keener …

Our programs are continuing, our purpose and commitment are strong, our dedication to justice is unwavering.

We are poised for "greater efforts and grander victories."

So is our nation. Already, our democracy is healthier than it was last year …

What happened on Election Day last November was not an election -- it was an intervention! …

President Bush has seen his presidency repudiated, from the natural disaster of Katrina -- to which he did not respond -- to the disaster in Iraq which he created.

The extent of the repudiation was evident late last month when the immigration reform bill, the centerpiece of the Administration's domestic legislative hopes, died in the Senate. On the procedural vote that determined the bill's fate, only 12 of the Senate's 49 Republicans stood with the President. When Bush came to shove, his own party members pushed back.

The demise of the immigration measure was widely interpreted to mean the Administration's domestic agenda is likely finished. With his approval rating hovering below the freezing mark, most Americans seem to wish the Bush presidency were finished.

The damage done, at home and abroad, is immense.

There is no better way to examine the state of race in Bush's America than to examine Katrina and the lessons it has to teach us.

Imagine a major hurricane hits New Orleans. Within hours the President of the United States is on Air Force One headed for the stricken city. Upon landing in the no-electricity darkness, with a flashlight held to his face, he announces, "This is the President of the United States and I'm here to help you!"

The year was 1965. The President, Lyndon Johnson.

Forty years later a more devastating hurricane strikes New Orleans. Neither the President nor any other federal official is there to help. The city would sustain lasting damage -- and so would the President.

Thousands would be stranded, and they would be overwhelmingly black and poor. That was horrendous enough. Even worse was that it would take five days before meaningful help would arrive. Some would say, with no apology to Clarence Thomas, that we witnessed a modern-day lynching.

In 1935, my parents were living in Louisiana when a neighbor's cousin, Jerome Wilson, was lynched. Writing about the lynching, my father "stopped short of arguing that lynching was a deliberate effort to dispossess black landholders. … He did show, however, that lynching could destroy the work of several generations in a single day."

The same, of course, could be said of Katrina. A case in point is New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. The Lower Ninth, one of the most heavily damaged areas of the city, was almost exclusively black. Although its poverty rate was higher than the city as a whole, so was its rate of home ownership. Almost 60 percent of the Lower Ninth's residents owned their own homes, compared with 47 percent in the city as a whole, partly as a result of homes being passed down through generations in this deeply rooted community.

Now, as it appears increasingly likely that the Lower Ninth Ward will not be rebuilt, it can be said that Katrina, like lynching, not only "destroy[ed] the work of generations in a single day," but is resulting in "a deliberate effort to dispossess black landholders."

We should bear in mind that Katrina did not occur in a vacuum. The Gulf War was not removed from the Gulf Coast. Katrina served to underscore how the war in Iraq has weakened, rather than strengthened, our defenses, including our levees.

The problem isn't that we cannot prosecute a war in the Persian Gulf and protect our citizens on the Gulf Coast at home. The problem is that we cannot do either one.

They used September 11th as an excuse to wage war in Iraq. They used the hurricane to wash away decent pay for workers and for minority - and women-owned businesses. They are turning the recovery over to the same no-bid corporate looters who are profiting from the disaster of Iraq.

They boasted that they wanted to make the government so small it would drown in a bathtub -- and in New Orleans, it did.

This is the first lesson that emerges from Katrina -- it teaches us the consequences of anti-government government, under which government's role in protecting its people is limited or destroyed and government is used exclusively to wage war and protect and defend corporate interests.

One of the other lessons, all of which are interconnected, is the highlighting of the racial and class divide in this country. Although New Orleans was unique in many ways -- music, cuisine, culture -- its race and class issues were the norm and not the exception.

And finally, Katrina resulted in a loss of moral authority for the United States, at home and abroad. Americans were not the only ones who watched Katrina's disaster unfold on television. The images were seen around the world. If we at home felt revulsion and shame, imagine what our enemies abroad thought -- or even our friends. It is reminiscent of the role segregation played in international politics. …

As survivors floundered and bodies floated in New Orleans' streets, neither "civilized" nor "secure" described our democratic form of government. And viewers, here and around the globe, wondered: where was that government in the time of these citizens' greatest need?

The Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina was a gumbo of inaction, insensitivity and incompetence.

The Administration's indifference led rapper Kanye West, days after the hurricane, to famously remark, on live television, "George Bush doesn't like black people."

His comment was not off-the-cuff. It was premeditated and preceded by the following:

I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food.' And you know it's been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black.

Political scientist Michael Dawson and two colleagues surveyed blacks and whites as to whether West's remarks were unjustified. Only 9 percent of blacks answered "yes" compared to 56 percent of whites. This follows a pattern.

Dr. Dawson also asked whether the government's response would have been faster if the victims had been white. Eighty-four percent of blacks said "yes" while only 20 percent of whites agreed. Similarly, in a Newsweek poll, twice as many blacks as whites -- 65 percent versus 31 percent -- thought the government responded slowly because the victims were black.

When Dawson asked whether Katrina showed that racial inequality remains a major problem in the United States, 90 percent of blacks answered "yes" while only 38 percent of whites thought so.

These responses are consistent with a much larger black/white divide: "nearly four-fifths of blacks (78 percent) believe that blacks will either never or not in their lifetimes achieve racial equality in the United States. On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of whites (66%) believe that blacks have either achieved or will soon achieve racial equality."

Life was not easy in the Big Easy for Lower Niners and other blacks before Katrina. Four in ten black families lived in poverty, the highest rate in the nation for blacks living in cities. The majority of these subsisted on incomes less than half the official poverty level.

In the region affected by Katrina, more than one million lived in poverty before the storm. Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama are, respectively, the first, second, and eighth poorest states in the union.

Poverty in the United States is not confined to the South, of course. Today, 37 million Americans live in poverty. They represent about 13 percent of the population -- the highest percentage in the developed world. Their number has grown since 2001, with more than 5 million people having slipped below the poverty line during the Bush Administration.

And the gap has grown between the haves and the have-nots. The top 20 percent of earners take over half the national income, while the bottom 20 percent get just 3.4 percent. Black Americans, of course, are more likely to be among the bottom-earners than the top. Almost a quarter of black Americans nationwide live below the poverty line as compared to only 8.6 percent of whites.

Almost every social indicator, from birth to death, reflects black-white disparities. Infant mortality rates are 146 percent higher for blacks; chances of imprisonment are 447 percent higher; rate of death by homicide 521 percent higher; lack of health insurance 42 percent more likely; the proportion with a college degree 60 percent lower. And the average white American will live 5 years longer than the average black American.

Media images during the Katrina coverage made it obvious that the dying and the suffering were predominantly black and poor. Though some wanted to engage in a "race or class" debate, even President Bush acknowledged that they are intertwined.

In his Jackson Square speech, the President spoke of the "deep, persistent poverty" which exists in our country. "That poverty," he said, "has its roots in a history of racial discrimination."

The truth is that race trumps class. As Michael Dyson has written, "[c]oncentrated poverty doesn't victimize poor whites in the same way it does poor blacks." That is why "[c]omparisons between poor whites and poor blacks in New Orleans … clearly showed that poor whites were much better off overall." It is why "[t]he public school system served poor whites better than poor blacks; poor white children were less likely to attend schools in areas of concentrated poverty." It is why three times as many poor blacks as poor whites lacked access to a vehicle.

W.E.B. DuBois, one of the founders of the NAACP, was the first social theorist to link class to race. He understood then what we must understand now: "race never stands apart from economic realities."

In fact, race, in this circumstance and many others, is the crucial variable that proves that not all differences are equal.

Present day inequality and racial disparities are cumulative. They are the result of racial advantages compounded over time -- and they "produce racialized patterns of accumulation and disaccumulation. As a result, racial inequality is imbedded into the fabric of post-civil rights movement American society."

Today's apologists argue that discrimination against minorities is not a problem; society has to protect itself from discrimination against the majority instead.

It might have been proper yesterday, they maintain, to aim big guns at racism, at segregated jobs, schools and ballot boxes. The ills we face today, they say, are crime, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency and family disintegration. These call, they claim, for new approaches and abandoning government's help.

But poverty's symptoms must not be confused with poverty's causes. …

We ought to use the lessons of Katrina to recapture the race issue from the political right, to return to a time when whites say, as President Johnson did in 1965, "[t]heir cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice."

In the past, Americans came to agree on guaranteeing blacks' right to vote and to integrate public places; they disagree strongly today, however, on both the wisdom of and techniques required for extending equality beyond these public spheres, and many even dispute whether anti-black bias still persists.

Many Americans maintain -- from corporate and government sponsored pulpits, newspaper op-ed pages and television and radio talk shows -- that racial discrimination is an ancient artifact. Most of the people saying this are white, but some blacks have drunk the Kool-Aid too.

Thus the '70s, '80s and '90s are now defined as a bias-free present where white supremacy has been vanquished, and black disadvantage is rooted in black misbehavior, where culture, not color, is at fault.

At the NAACP, we know this is not true, and that's why we are dedicated to an aggressive campaign of social justice, fighting racial discrimination. We've done this in the past and will continue to do it in the future.

We have much more work to do.

Julian Bond has been Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors since February 1998. He is a Distinguished Scholar in the School of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and a Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

 
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