The NAACP said Wednesday that it is embarking on a broad new strategy for the more racially charged President Trump era and would take a more muscular approach to calling out discrimination by corporate America.
The move follows Tuesday’s unusual warning to African Americans that they could face discrimination if they fly on American Airlines, and it comes only days after the civil rights organization named longtime Mississippi activist Derrick Johnson as its new president and chief executive.
“As we look at some of the shifts our country has made with the election of Donald Trump, we’re looking to improve our ability to be more effective given the realities of our country today,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Washington bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, in an interview Wednesday. “We have to adjust our approach accordingly.”
The new NAACP strategies include calling out corporations when a pattern of discrimination emerges, such as this week’s “travel advisory” for American Airlines, Shelton said. The warning was “not a boycott,” he said.
The organization will also place a renewed emphasis on fundraising and is seeking to change its tax status to free the NAACP to be more outspoken on political issues.
Johnson, who began serving as interim leader in July, was traveling to Los Angeles on Wednesday on a cross-country listening tour and was unavailable for comment.
Johnson announced last weekend that the organization would change its tax status from a 501(c)3 charity to a 501(c)4 social welfare group to allow it to actively engage in political lobbying and promote candidates in local and congressional races next year.
The NAACP decided to issue the American Airlines warning, only the second such action in its 108-year history, after receiving complaints of mistreatment from black passengers.
Shelton said the travel advisory was simply a first step in getting the airline’s attention because the company had not addressed the customers’ complaints.
The advisory, issued Tuesday night, was accompanied by a letter to American Airlines requesting a meeting to discuss strategies to prevent such incidents in the future.
“We want people of color to know that we are seeing a pattern of discrimination so they are able to be informed and decide whether they want to subject themselves to that,” Shelton said. “When we see there’s a potential for harm to African Americans or other people of color and religious minorities, we’re going to warn people and shine a bright spotlight on what’s going on.”
The airline responded within 24 hours with a public letter to its employees.
“We were disappointed to learn of a travel advisory issued by the NAACP regarding American Airlines. The mission statement of the NAACP states that it ‘seeks to remove all barriers of racial discrimination.’ That’s a mission that the people of American Airlines endorse and facilitate every day — we do not and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” wrote Doug Parker, the airline’s chairman and chief executive.
Shelton said a “high-level American Airlines executive” also reached out to the NAACP on Wednesday to schedule a meeting. He said that the NAACP has received at least three anonymous calls from American Airlines employees “recognizing the problem of discrimination and the lack of response and concern by the company.”
The NAACP cited four recent cases involving American Airlines. In one, an African American man said he was forced to give up his seat on a flight from Washington, D.C., to Raleigh-Durham after he responded to discriminatory comments hurled at him from two white passengers. An African American woman said she was removed from a Miami-to-New York flight after she complained to a gate agent about having her seat changed without her consent.
The NAACP issued its first travel warning in August for the state of Missouri. Johnson had warned African Americans to exercise “extreme caution” when traveling through the state because blacks in Missouri were 75 percent more likely to be stopped and searched by police officers than whites.
The Missouri advisory was controversial even among NAACP members. A local St. Louis branch wanted its state and national counterparts to revoke the warning because it could harm members who work in the hospitality industry if organizations stop holding conventions and other events in the state.
The NAACP issued boycotts more frequently in the 1970s but has become more reluctant to do so in recent decades, Shelton said.
Shelton said the NAACP last called a boycott against the state of South Carolina in 2000 because state legislators refused to remove the Confederate flag from state capitol grounds. The boycott, also observed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and United Auto Workers, ended in 2015 after the state’s legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag, after the killing of nine black parishioners by a white supremacist in a Charleston church.
Former NAACP president Ben Jealous, who is running for Maryland governor, told The Washington Post that the recent travel advisories hark back to the organization’s roots of “drawing attention to the plight of individuals but to also curtail a larger injustice.”
“Thurgood Marshall would be in Mississippi defending an individual but also indicting an entire system,” Jealous said. “Unfortunately, that type of work is still necessary, and wake-up calls count.”
He said the “wake-up call” to American Airlines could be more effective than a lawsuit.
“It allows you to accelerate the conversation without having to incur the added expense and deliberation of litigation,” Jealous said.
“This is reflective of the fact that we once again have an organizer running the NAACP,” he said, referring to Johnson’s extensive background as an activist.
Malkia Cyril, a Black Lives Matter activist in Oakland, Calif., praised the new approach.
“For the NAACP to more vocally expand its portfolio of issues to include corporate accountability is an amazing step for black communities in this country,” she said.
“When we talk about racism in this country, we so often talk about government oppression and not about the role these corporations are playing in the lives of black people. I hope demanding accountability from American Airlines is only the tip of the iceberg.”
The organization’s new tactic of publicly shaming corporations perceived to discriminate against minorities could appeal to a younger generation of African Americans accustomed to social media, said Sonya Grier, an American University professor specializing in race and the marketplace.
“One of their biggest needs is to make sure the younger generation understands what it is they stand for and how they can and will pursue these types of strategies to promote a more inclusive America,” Grier said. “They are trying different strategies for a different political environment.”
But there is a risk to trying to combat racism so publicly without first speaking with the company to establish the full picture surrounding a customer complaint and without data showing a pattern of discrimination, she said.
“The challenge with that is that they do need to retain their own legitimacy in this arena for their strategies to be effective,” Grier said. “Their constituency may believe them based on their own experiences, but other people may say they just complain about everything.”