August 02, 2004,
When President George W. Bush declined to speak at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he sparked unwittingly, I am certain a national discussion about the NAACP that is long overdue.
For decades, the NAACP has well served the nation and "colored people," in particular, in its advocacy of the cause of justice and equality for all Americans. One would be hard-pressed to identify any major legal battle about civil rights in which the NAACP, since its inception, has not been involved.
Historically, the NAACP has represented black people who were confronted with the worst kind of racial oppression imaginable: prohibited from eating at public lunch counters, forced to sit at the back of public buses, denied the right to vote, and denied access to public schools. In all of these instances, the NAACP has been the champion of those who have been without defenders. Clearly, all of us owe this organization a debt of gratitude.
In the fullness of time, however, it is not unusual for organizations to find themselves living off their past and not keeping pace with changing times. Instead, they become stagnant and atrophy fighting old battles that no longer apply, never realizing when they have achieved what they set out to accomplish. Preservation of the organization becomes more important than the original mission.
I fear that this describes the NAACP. No longer a champion of the oppressed, the NAACP now represents "colored" elites, as it defends race preferences that enable middle-class black kids to attend the University of Michigan, with extra points, instead of Michigan State on the basis of their own academic standing. It defends contracting set-asides for well-heeled "minorities" who should compete on their own like everyone else. It aligns itself with public teachers' unions that deny poor black kids access to school vouchers that would enable them to get a better education. It engages in campaigns that are largely irrelevant to those who need the NAACP most: poor blacks trapped in dilapidated housing in crime-infested neighborhoods.
None of this should be surprising considering the survey of its members, conducted by the NAACP itself. Those who belong to this organization have average annual incomes of approximately $100,000. Today, the NAACP is not so much a civil-rights organization as it is a trade association with clear links to the Democratic party, despite the claim of its chairman that "the NAACP has always been non-partisan." Such a statement doesn't pass the giggle test. The NAACP uses the plight of poor black people as a fig leaf to hide its true agenda of promoting policies that benefit their dues-paying members, not black people in general or poor black people in particular. This is an important distinction.
If for no other reason than its increasing irrelevancy and hostile attitude toward Republicans, President Bush made the right decision to reject the NAACP's invitation. There is an adage in politics that you reward your friends and punish your enemies. Over the years, George W. Bush and Karl Rove have demonstrated a keen ability to effectively apply this rule. Thus, the NAACP should suffer the same fate as any other trade association that opposes Team Bush. Until now, by reason of its ability to cover itself in the moral clothing of "equal opportunity" and "justice," the NAACP has been able to have it both ways: oppose Republicans in the most vicious manner possible during campaigns, and still have total access once the elections are over.
Trade associations flourish or perish based on their political connections. Those that supported the victor tend to have greater access than those who did not. The president or governor often rewards a loyal ally by accepting an invitation to attend the association's annual convention. Such recognition makes the organization appear to be important a "player" and translates into increased membership. I know of no other trade association, other than the NAACP, that thinks it has the right to command the president of the United States to attend its convention regardless of its political behavior.
But there are other reasons why the president was justified in saying no to the NAACP.
The NAACP often describes itself as the "oldest and most revered civil rights organization in the nation." Well, one out of two isn't bad. Indeed, the NAACP is the oldest civil-rights organization in America. But the reverence the nation once held for the NAACP is rapidly dissipating, and one of the reasons is that black Americans are able to take their civil rights for granted, just as whites are able to do and that has been the objective since the founding of America. Civil rights are truths that can be held to be self-evident without the constant reminder that they belong to blacks equally as they do to others. Its historical defense of civil rights gives the NAACP no entitlement for American presidents to attend its conventions to address the interests of the "black community."
Moreover, to even suggest that there is a "black community" and that the NAACP (or anyone else) speaks for that "community" is not only preposterous; it is also racist. The NAACP is quick to complain about "racial profiling," but what is the notion that all black people fit into the ideological profile of the NAACP, if not "profiling?" Black Americans come in many varieties and no single organization speaks for them. Jesse Jackson and Jesse Lee Petersen are similar in skin color, and so are Justice Clarence Thomas and Clarence Page. But the similarities end there.
Many black people want to know what politicians are going to do about taxes, education, national security, and a host of other issues. It is truly offensive to suggest that a political party can capture the loyalty of black people simply by reminding them of their once-denied civil rights. Democrats have been very good at that. Although I have had my differences with President Bush about race, I have never lost my trust in his innate goodness and his obvious desire to avoid lumping all black people into one stereotypical image.
To the extent that "colored people" can take their civil rights for granted, they can then direct their attention to other, more pressing challenges, such as economic development and educational improvement. With this evolution, "race" becomes less important and gives way to income and class. The Urban League seems to understand this fact, while the NAACP seems stuck in its old mode of fighting for civil rights.
Often, the pubic views events in isolation, waiting for historians to render their verdict about the significance of various moments in time. President Bush's rejection of the NAACP's invitation and the well-publicized comments of Bill Cosby represent an opportunity for change in how the nation views "race." It seems to me that the two events signal a significant potential turning point.
There are few "black" people who have greater license to "tell it like it is" than Bill Cosby. The Jell-O man spans generations and "races" and has a cachet of good will among blacks that enables him to say things others cannot. For decades, "black conservatives" Justice Thomas, Tom Sowell, Shelby Steele, Larry Elder, Ken Hamblin, Bob Woodson, the good people at Project 21, and I, among others have been preaching the gospel of self-reliance and personal responsibility. On the other side of the coin, the NAACP and its allies have been operating on the view that America is a "racist" nation and that black people cannot succeed in America until whites end racism. The personal responsibility-vs.-racism conflict has serious implications with respect to public policy. If America is "racist," then race preferences and a host of other approaches have greater justification, to some, than if the alternative (accountability for one's own actions) exists.
The fact that Cosby used an NAACP event to promote the need for greater personal responsibility, strengthening black families, and altering the culture of young black kids is not only a criticism of black dysfunction; it is an indictment of the NAACP and other self-anointed "black leaders."
Bill Cosby does not view himself as a conservative, and has spoken with disdain about "those right-wing ideologues." But his perspective and comments certainly vindicate "black conservatives." And for many of us who want to see all of our nation's people enjoy a better life, this is not about who is right or wrong, but about doing the right thing. If the NAACP was listening carefully, Cosby was telling them that their current strategy is not working. In fact, it is a miserable failure.
Nothing should have been more sobering to the NAACP than these words of Cosby's: "I am saying stop it...we must turn the mirror around and start to parent. Then we will force the systemic changes. It isn't just the white man. We've got to run the drug dealers out of our neighborhoods."
Commenting on the NAACP would be incomplete without addressing the attack-dog tactics of its chairman, Julian Bond, who has been chairman since 1998 (an eloquent testimonial for term limits). Bond seems to operate on the premise that his day is a total loss until he has insulted someone. He uses rhetoric that needlessly inflames his opponents: President Bush, Justice Clarence Thomas, and myself, to name a few. Under his "leadership," the NAACP has become intensely partisan, polarizing, divisive, and focused on getting Democrats elected.
At the recent NAACP convention in Philadelphia, Bond had this to say about President Bush: "I was afraid to listen to Bush's speech at the Brown [v. Board of Education] commemoration in Topeka two months ago afraid he'd announce he was going to repeal the 14th Amendment."
This is ludicrous. Such comments are certain to inspire convention delegates to whoop and holler their concurrence, but they are equally certain to infuriate a significant segment of the American public watching on C-SPAN. Such comments make a once-significant organization look foolish and mean spirited. No one benefits from that.
I don't mean to suggest that the NAACP should fold its tent and go away. There is still much work to be done to ensure that all Americans enjoy the American Dream, and the NAACP can play a vital role in making this happen.
To be effective, the NAACP needs to change its focus from policies that benefit middle- and upper-income black people to an agenda that seeks to advance lower-income people in general. In addition, the organization needs to abandon its mindset that America is riddled with racists and that blacks are helpless victims. If they were ever to agree to do such a thing, and wanted a starting place for an effective agenda, there is no better place to start than to read the recent comments of Bill Cosby.
It would be a very noble endeavor for the NAACP to make the advancement of lower-income blacks its sole mission by pursuing the issues noted by Cosby: accepting personal responsibility, learning to speak good English, avoiding criminal behavior, and building stable families. For such an undertaking to be effective, the NAACP would need to enlist all Americans Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, and all others in between in such a national endeavor.
As noted earlier, President Bush is a good man. In his goodness, he left the impression that his failure to address the NAACP was due to scheduling conflicts and ill-chosen words directed at him. The president would have rendered a valuable service to the nation (and the NAACP) by using his Texas bluntness and telling the NAACP what is on the minds of many Americans: "You're blowing it, folks."
Ward Connerly is founder and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute.