The Necessary Future of the NAACP

NAACPThis week marked the centennial celebration of the nation’s oldest and most respected civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Hundreds gathered in New York City, the birthplace of the organization, to reflect on history and cast a vision for the future.

What began as a small meeting of the minds, including Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Dubois, is now a multi-faceted organization with multiple outreach campaigns and a multi-million dollar budget. As of late, the NAACP has taken up causes like health care, economic empowerment, and education — without ceasing to support the social justice platform upon which the organization was founded.

Despite the NAACP’s victories, there are those who believe that the NAACP is a “graying” organization. Moreover, there are those who believe that civil rights organizations of its kind are no longer necessary. With regard to the necessity of the NAACP today, it was the NAACP’s New York chapter president, Hazel Dukes, who led the fight for justice in the case of Sean Bell, an unarmed African American man gunned down in Queens, New York (by New York City police officers). As Reggie Clemmons (a man on death row believed to have been wrongfully convicted) sits in a Missouri prison two weeks away from legal injection, it is the NAACP that continues to fight for his release. These are key examples of why the NAACP is still necessary.

“I understand there may be a temptation among some to think that discrimination is no longer a problem in 2009,” said President Barack Obama on the closing night of the NAACP convention. “But make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America.”

President Obama is right. Though we’ve come the proverbial “long way” since 1909, for many people of color — and therefore for all of us — the struggle continues.

In the hearts and minds of African Americans across the country, there’s often a slight reminder (no matter how subtle) — that freedom was never free for us. Organizations like the NAACP, National Council of Negro Women, and the National Urban League should continue to do the work that rids this country of inequitable practices and disparaging behaviors. We should keep these organizations alive and support them by becoming active and involved. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “silence is betrayal.”

If organizations like the NAACP had been silent long ago, African Americans may not have enjoyed the pride that all of America experienced on January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. We must continue to challenge one another to become more involved in organizations that promote change and equality for all people.

The Riddle of Sotomayor

sotomayor hearings

Sonia Sotomayor appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for her first day of hearings on July 13, 2009. (Photo: U.S. Senate images.)

It’s funny when you have a democratic system that for the greater part of 200 years really wasn’t very inclusive and established an environment where all the folks with any real clout pretty much thought alike, or at least looked alike.

For example, there was a documentary done in 2004 on a black congresswoman from New York named Shirley Chisholm. The film was called Unbought and Unbossed. In it people commented on the surprising notion of Congresswoman Chisholm running for President of the United States in 1972. One person, a white mid-20s woman, thought Chisholm was pretty bold to be running for the White House and observed that she had a lot of nerve to do it. In other words, “Is she crazy? That would never happen in this country!”

My, how times have changed.

Now that many of our longstanding American institutions are being challenged to become as diverse as America itself, and now that more and more of how America really looks as a nation is being weighed and measured throughout our culture, it seems to me that the majority culture’s routine lack of experience with people of different ethnic backgrounds is now coming into play based simply on the census of what our country looks like. We saw it with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, and we’re seeing it again with the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

The country has never experienced in its history this type of diversity being expressed in all areas of American life. So, the process that is currently taking place to confirm the first Hispanic woman as a Supreme Court Justice of the United States is fascinating to observe.

During the hearings this past week, some lawmakers didn’t know what to think. In their heart of hearts they just don’t know what to do because they’ve never been in this position of having to act on such a proposal of a Latina being a Supreme Court Justice. It is also true that a black president has nominated a Hispanic woman for the highest court in the land. And might I add this woman has opinions out of the courtroom, which are in question based on the Constitution, and that the law is blind, and that the scales of justice are equal.

However, one could cite case after case that proves, in reality, that this is not true and some laws in the past, Brown vs. Board of Education for instance, were not blind and not equal. So what makes up a strong United States? In my opinion it is when we recognize and embrace the great diversity of what America is, whom it represents, and what this amazing country embodies.

Sadly, based on the outbursts that took place on Day One of Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, it’s clear that some people just don’t know what to do when someone that doesn’t look like them, who isn’t the “norm,” is nominated to the highest court in the land. What do we think of her statements? We’ve never heard statements like this. What do we think of her background when she’s clearly qualified but doesn’t hold some of the same views and experiences that we hold? That, in essence, is the fear. We can’t predict her.

Or, perhaps what we’re actually saying is that we’ve never before had anyone who was a slice of what America really is on this kind of prominent stage where we can really hear her opinion. I think it’s the latter, and that’s okay. This is new territory for our great country and I love it. I love the fact that the conversation will come up as the scales of justice are slowly being adjusted to be truly balanced.

It’s like that reality show The Biggest Loser. Both teams of overweight people are weighed and the goal is to lose more weight as a team than the other team. The players want to tip “the scale” to their favor. That’s how most people of color, if they spoke honestly, feel about the judicial system in this country. But oh, the times are a-changing.

That is not code for, “Boy, are we going to get you back.” Not in the least. It’s simply straight talk for, “It’s time that all of our bodies of government represented all the people of the United States of America. And by no means have we reached “the mountaintop” as a country because we have a black president. What it shows other non-whites in this country (about Sotomayor as well as the reason emotions were so high with the election of our first black president, who called himself a “mutt”) is that finally, finally, things seem fair and equal. Obama actually ran, people actually listened, people really participated, there wasn’t a 35 percent apathy rate where that percentage of voters didn’t participate, which we know decided elections in the past. People were engaged. It was awesome, and I felt more connected than ever in the history of my 50 years of life.

And now, a Latina is about to be confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice … Amazing!

I say to our lawmakers, Relax, she’s an American who has a set of opinions that probably aren’t like yours. Just listen, make comments, and vote as you will. We know that Sotomayor’s nomination is truly a measure of the possibilities of our country to act upon its best asset — our diversity, our differences, our varied backgrounds and experiences, and our creative power to hold together the United States of America.

If I were a senator, would I vote for her? Yes. Do I have reservations about some of her comments? I do. Would I be tough on her in questioning? I would. Am I happy that a Hispanic woman is even being considered? I am, and it does feel good. It’s a funny, tickled feeling that makes me smile and proud to be an American.