What Now for the NAACP?

Human Rights

This week Kweisi Mfume stepped down from his position as president of the NAACP. Some blame Mfume's decision on friction between Mfume and chairman of the NAACP Board, Julian Bond. There may be something to this – both Mfume and Bond are strong-willed men and it isn't hard to imagine disagreements between the two and between the camps supporting them: How does the NAACP respond to Bush's snub of the NAACP? Who goes to X event to speak on the NAACP's behalf? Some have also noted Mfume's desire to run for political office; a likely scenario has Mfume running for Senate in a couple of years. But to focus on internecine warfare within the NAACP or on the greener pastures calling Mfume is to miss the point.

It is clear that the NAACP is a highly organized and institutionalized bureaucracy that gives some black men and women a chance to develop leadership skills, and a chance to weigh in on some of the pressing issues of the day as they relate to some "black" issues. There are folks who have their jobs because of the NAACP. There are folks who were able to buy homes for the first time because of the NAACP. There are folks who were able to put their kids through school because of the NAACP. I used to sleep on these benefits when I was younger. As I now have mouths to feed I feel a bit differently.

But yet and still, when it comes to considering the NAACP's structure as it relates to the mission of empowering black people in the 21st century, there are at least three flaws that loom large.

First, the NAACP remains a non-profit organization that revolves around a philosophy of expanding political rights (as opposed to political and economic rights). This means that among other things, they cannot actually own property. Inasmuch as much of our problem is the combined function of political, cultural, and economic subjugation, the NAACP is unable to address the relative dearth of black wealth. The NAACP isn't able to buy up blocks and blocks of vacant property in Detroit, for example, and rebuild those blocks to provide sustenance for Detroit's black, white, and brown populations. One of the critiques laid upon the NAACP for years was that it was beholden to corporate donors. Upset the donors ... and watch the coffers dwindle to nothing. It's hard to get rid of the donors when you have no independent way of generating the resources the corporations provided.

Second, the NAACP is a highly centralized organization, with a bloated executive board. While local branches have some latitude, their responses to local issues involving race and/or racism have to be vetted by someone at national headquarters. But the speed at which society moves can be dizzying. How quickly did the Indiana-Detroit NBA fracas die down after it was all that occupied the Web for about a week? More importantly, how soon did the press drop the ball on the administration plan to cut Pell Grants significantly? Think about the speed at which decisions have to be made at the local, state and federal level.

Now think about having to sift some of those decisions through a 64 member executive board. Think about what it would take to get them together (even virtually) to take a vote. Think about what type of event would have to happen to get them all on one accord. Because the NAACP wants to, at some level, protect the national headquarters and the other branches from the potential mistakes of local branch leaders, it has developed a top-down model. But a strong argument can be made that this top-down model squashes the ability of branches to develop unique solutions to their own problems. It also hampers the ability of local chapters to quickly and efficiently deal with issues as they arise. Finally, it replicates the kind of brokerage approach to politics that inevitably neuters black agency.

Third, the NAACP is still largely a middle-to-upper income African American organization. The issues of voter disenfranchisement, of growing black prison populations, of dwindling options in k-12 education, of HIV/AIDS, are direct problems that working class black populations have to face daily. The disjunct between the population hardest hit by racism and by social deprivation and the population of the NAACP is a large one. Take the best case scenario where black professionals not only care about the issues of black working class citizens but actively work to deal with these issues. This best case scenario – which seldom happens – still leaves working-class black citizens in the lurch because they are not given the tools and the opportunity to organize for themselves. They remain in the uncomfortable position of having to be spoken for rather than having the ability to speak.

There are other issues that the NAACP has to deal with that I did not even begin to touch on here. The IRS investigation for example. The fact that the executive board is not only big, it is old. And the central fact that even though the NAACP claims to deal with racism as it affects all minorities, it is an all-black organization.

Mfume's exit has caused people inside of the NAACP and people outside of it to take a critical look at the organization. This is a good thing, no doubt about it. And it would be even better if the person selected to take his place will begin the long hard retooling process that would make the NAACP relevant for a new age. But as it stands I suspect that Mfume's exit will occupy our minds for a little while, and disappear – just like the Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons brawl of last week. Leaving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People using mid 20th century methods to deal with 21st century problems.

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