The surprise resignation of Kweise Mfume as president of the NAACP should prompt national leaders to engage in introspection and re-evaluation.
The national leadership has lost its way. It sends a message today to its own community that is, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, destructive. Its agenda, the pure politics of victimization, is a caricature of what the NAACP was originally about.
The heads of local NAACP chapters that I meet are out of step with their national leaders and sound much more like local church pastors. Perhaps because these chapter heads live in close proximity to the troubled communities with which they work, they understand that the problems in black communities today reflect the challenges of the business of living and not the business of politics.
As John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute has aptly put it, today racism is not the main problem of African Americans, but rather “… the mundane tasks of teaching those ‘left behind’ after the civil-rights victory how to succeed in a complex society.”
The NAACP has a proud history at the center of the civil-rights movement. But, recall the old saying that everything looks like a nail to a man with a hammer. For years, physical, political and legal barriers stood between blacks and freedom. The NAACP and the civil-rights movement were born to tear these barriers down and won historic and glorious victories.
Unfortunately, after the victories of the 1960s, black leadership, typified by the NAACP, refused to turn from the business of politics to the business of living. The leaders transformed a creative struggle for liberation into the destructive politics of anger and guilt. By turning their energies to building a new welfare state and culture of litigation, these civil-rights leaders of the 1960s created as many problems as they solved.
On the one hand, there have been undeniable gains in the black community. A new black middle class has emerged in which the percentage of black households with a real gross income over $75,000 has quadrupled since 1970. The wage gap percentage between black and white workers is half today of what it was in the 1960s. Blacks now hold top-level positions in government and business that would have been inconceivable 40 years ago.
Yet, a large slice of black life is in sad shape and going backward. Over the same period since the 1960s, black illegitimacy has almost quadrupled, black families headed by single women have tripled, almost half the number of homicides in the country are among black men, half of our new AIDS cases are among black women, many black kids do not make it through school and those who graduate do so with eighth-grade reading skills, and crime and unemployment are rampant in our inner cities.
According to reports, partisan remarks made by NAACP chairman Julian Bond attacking President Bush have provoked an IRS investigation into the organization’s 501c3 tax-free status. This certainly must be contributing to the internal tensions there. However, I think the real shock waves that shook this organization were created by Bill Cosby’s remarks at a NAACP gathering in Washington earlier this year.
In those well-publicized observations, Cosby shocked an audience of the black establishment with truth. He attacked the politics of victimization – the very point of existence today of the NAACP. Cosby began a campaign that night, which he continues today, of formulating a message that will foster a new culture of responsibility in the inner cities.
A number of months ago I was invited to address an annual meeting of a local NAACP chapter in a Midwestern city. The invitation came somewhat reluctantly as result of pressure from a local donor who had made a recent major contribution to the chapter. A few board members actually boycotted my speech. Nevertheless, I spoke to a sellout crowd and delivered my usual message that the answer to poverty does not lie in government, but in personal responsibility, ownership and faith. The standing ovation I got told me that I had indeed struck a responsive chord.
As the NAACP leadership looks for a new president, I urge them to stop looking in the rear view mirror and start focusing on the road ahead. The organization should use its prestige and $40 million budget to help blacks use the freedom they now have. They should abandon the destructive politics of hate and guilt and start getting out the truth that life is defined by struggle, and the principles that form the foundation of freedom transcend race. With this message and real work, we can again move our community forward.