restricted access 2. The NAACP in the Twenty-first Century
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28 Robert C. Smith 28 In recent years a number of Black scholars have questioned both the effectiveness and the relevance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the continuing struggle for racial justice in the United States, arguing that in its organizational structure, programs, and strategies the group is out of touch with the complex realities of race in the post–Civil Rights era.1 Criticism of the NAACP by African American scholars is of course not a new phenomenon; see, for example, Ralph Bunche’s critique during the New Deal era and Louis Lomax’s critique during the Civil Rights era.2 W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the association’s founders and early leaders, contended that, while the “crusade waged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1910 to 1930 [was] one of the finest efforts of liberalism to achieve human emancipation; and much was accomplished,” by the 1930s “I realized that too much in later years the Association had attracted the higher income of colored people, who regarded it as a ‘weapon to attack the sort of social discrimination which especially irked them; rather than an organization to improve the status and power of the whole Negro group.’”3 And, as the Civil Rights era approached its end, Kenneth Clark worried whether the NAACP would be capable of dealing with the post–Civil Rights era problems of concentrated poverty and increased “social pathologies” of the urban ghettos. Clark wrote: “The disturbing question which must be faced is whether or not the present Civil Rights organizations are equipped in terms of perspective , staff and organizational structure to deal effectively with the present level Two Robert C. Smith The NAACP in the Twenty-first Century The NAACP in the Twenty-first Century 29 of Civil Rights problems. And, if not, whether they are flexible enough in order to become relevant.”4 Twenty years later Clark woefully concluded that the NAACP had not been flexible enough, titling his 1985 New York Times essay “The NAACP: Verging on Irrelevance.” While in general I tend to agree with Clark and the other critics of the NAACP, in this chapter I want to focus on some of the constraints facing the association and other Black advocacy organizations as they enter a new century of freedom struggle.5 I will also suggest some modest reforms and new directions for the organization at the national and local levels but especially the latter. Constraints on the Twenty-first Century NAACP Historically, the NAACP has avoided direct action approaches such as mass demonstrations in favor of conventional political approaches of antidefamation, litigation and lobbying. At the present time and for the nearterm future the association faces severe constraints in using these approaches. Its anti-defamation work and lobbying in the Congress are hampered by four factors: first, the changed climate of post–Civil Rights era opinion on race among the White majority; second, the ambiguous “now you see it, now you don’t” quality of contemporary racism; third, control of the Congress and the Supreme Court by the Republican Party; and, fourth, severe resource constraints. A Hostile Climate of Race Opinion Opinion studies in the last thirty years show a steady, and for the most part consistent, decline in expressions of racist and White supremacist attitudes among White Americans.6 For example, in 1963, 31 percent of Whites agreed with the statement that Blacks were an inferior people; by 1978, 15 percent agreed.7 Studies also show that White Americans by large margins now embrace the principle of racial equality.8 Yet, while White Americans in general are less openly racist in their attitudes, this does not mean that hostility toward Blacks has disappeared or even markedly declined. Instead, it has become less obvious and more subtle. This new form of defamation has been labeled the “new racism,” “symbolic racism,” “modern racism,” “racial resentment,” or “laissez-faire racism.”9 What this research purports to show is that, because of their commitment to basic or core American values, especially individualism, White Americans resent or are hostile to Blacks. Paul Sniderman summarizes the research: “White Americans resist equality in the name of self reliance, achievement, individual initiative , and they do so not merely because the value of individualism provides a 30 Robert C. Smith socially acceptable pretext but because it provides an integral component of the new racism.”10 As a function of individualism, modern or symbolic racism...