Simmons No Answer to NAACP Woes

The buzz is that hip hop mogul Russell Simmons should take over the top spot in the NAACP. An NAACP national search team is currently interviewing candidates to succeed outgoing NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. Some veteran NAACP watchers and critics publicly tout Simmons because they think he can appeal to the younger generation.

At first glance, that seems plausible. The standard knock against the nation's oldest civil rights organization is that it's too old, staid and hopelessly out of touch with young blacks. But it will take much more than Simmons' dynamism and purported youth savvy to revive the flagging fortunes of the NAACP. The problem is not an aging membership, but the NAACP's disconnect from activism, failure to address the problems of the black poor, its embrace of showy, symbolic fights, and its repeated bashing by NAACP Chairman Julian Bond of President Bush, and its blatant push of any and all Democrats.

The NAACP can't drum up new members, old or young, because it has been missing in action in recent years on many of the crisis issues that tear black communities. A near textbook example of this is the Confederate flag fight. The organization wasted valuable time, energy and resources fighting with South Carolina officials over whether the flag should be removed from the State House. But the flag removal would not have saved one black farm, improved failing public schools, increased funds for historically black colleges, created more jobs or reduced poverty for South Carolina's blacks. The NAACP's penchant for showpiece battles that attract much press attention, but do nothing to solve the far thornier problems of the black poor did not begin with Mfume.

The collapse of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s marked the turning point for the organization. It became the political springboard for the newly emergent black middle class. It fought hard to get more upwardly mobile blacks into corporate management, in elite universities, in front of and behind TV cameras, elect more black Democrats to state and national offices, secure more business loans, and, of course, rally against the Confederate flag.

These battles, however, did not have the slightest bearing on the plight of the black poor. They have grown more numerous, more desperate, are trapped in segregated or re-segregated neighborhoods, shuttle their children off to abominably failing public schools, are plagued by crime, drugs and gangs, and are stuffed into bulging jail cells. Meanwhile, the wealth and income gap between the black haves and have-nots has widened even farther.

NAACP leaders have found themselves trapped in the middle by the twisting political trends and shifting upward fortunes of the black middle-class, and downward of the black poor. A tilt by them toward a hard-edged activist agenda carries the fearful risk of alienating the corporate donors and the Democratic politicians that the NAACP leaders carefully cultivate. But an activist tilt also would draw even more fire from the growing legion of pro-GOP leaning blacks that think the NAACP has squandered any political juice it had with its relentless name calling attacks on Bush.

The irony is that polls show that many of the young persons that Simmons' NAACP backers expect him to appeal to have either expressed their disgust with Democrats, are hopelessly alienated from both political parties, or openly say they like the pro-business, self-help, family values pitch of the GOP. That has not been lost on the GOP strategists. They are wooing, courting and dumping millions into youth and education programs at black churches through Bush's faith based initiative program to appeal to young blacks.

Mfume recognized the folly of continuing to escalate the stealth war with Bush. Before his departure, he asked for and got a meeting with him. Some critics accused Mfume of cozying up to Bush, but that missed the point. The meeting had nothing to do with pandering, kowtowing, or endorsing any part of Bush's agenda. Before, during and after Mfume's meeting, he and NAACP officials remained miles apart from the Bush administration on school vouchers, Social Security, universal health care, affirmative action, the controversial judicial appointments, the Iraq war and the Bush administration's continuing infringement on civil liberties protections. The meeting was simply a smart and practical move that recognized that like it or not, Bush, not Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, won the election. He will be in the White House for four years, and there are issues such as greater funding for HIV/AIDS programs, public education and health care that both sides might be able to find common ground on.

Simmons, or whomever the NAACP search committee eventually pegs to run the organization, will have the tough task of trying to figure out some way to bridge the gaping class and political divide among African Americans, craft credible programs to tackle black poverty, and find a working accommodation with the Bush administration. A youth movement is not the answer to those problems.


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