Rethinking the NAACP

By Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The resignation of Bruce S. Gordon as president and chief executive of the NAACP this month portends an important and long overdue shift in black America's struggle for racial justice.

Gordon resigned after only 19 months because he disagreed with the NAACP's board on the best focus for the historic civil rights group. Gordon wanted to direct more resources toward social service programs such as wealth-building, tutoring and pregnancy counseling. The board wanted to maintain its traditional emphasis on fighting racial discrimination and advocating for social justice.

No matter where one stands in this debate, Gordon's resignation signals a critical impasse. The civil rights old guard, represented by the board, seems stuck in a 1960s mind-set that expects a particular form of response from black America -- pushing for government action to remedy the effects of discrimination. This type of response was popular, successful and necessary during the civil rights movement and, in some cases, remains a powerful form of redress.

The successes and failures of the civil rights movement, however, fundamentally changed the country's racial landscape. Of course racial discrimination remains. But we have entered what has been called a post-civil-rights age that requires an array of strategies to address the complex problems many African Americans face.

Gordon sought to extend the reach of the NAACP to include another form of African American dissent: the politics of self-empowerment. Regrettably, the NAACP was not inclined to alter its long-standing approach. Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board, rejects even the notion that we are in a post-civil-rights period, which requires imaginative and innovative struggle for social justice. Indeed, many current civil rights leaders fetishize the form of dissent most associated with the civil rights movement. They confuse principle with tactics. They behave as though marching and petitioning the government for redress of grievances is the only principled response to the maldistribution of burdens and benefits in our democracy. And they bristle at other forms of dissent, tactics designed to reach the shared goal of equality under law for all Americans. For many, it is either the old way or no way at all.

This is not to say that African Americans should no longer engage in political advocacy. But this tactic need not be the sole or primary focus of the country's oldest and largest civil rights organization. For example, the condition of many black children, from inadequate health care to poor education, begs for new and creative approaches to problem-solving. Why can't the NAACP commit some of its resources, beyond lobbying the government, to addressing the social and moral crisis faced by African American children? Can't we imagine tutoring programs as part of an agenda for social justice?

The NAACP should and must continue to fight for governmental responses to disparate health care, unfair sentencing laws and a bevy of other public policy concerns. But its leaders must also understand that the crisis in black America requires much more. If the board does not grasp this, then it has sealed the fate of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

Gordon may have lost the battle with the NAACP board to modify its emphasis, but the war is not over. We hope his departure will spark a much-needed debate in black America, and we hope that debate will change the course of our struggle.

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. is a professor at Yale Law School. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is a professor at Princeton University. Both are senior fellows at the Jamestown Project, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on democracy and social issues.

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