A writer friend of mine, Nicholas Powers, just sent me the draft of a very good op-ed he is writing. In it, he makes reference to the depression-like conditions that Black America faces in the current economic crisis. For some reason, Powers’ article triggered the following thoughts.
The election of Ben Jealous as president of the NAACP heralded a potentially significant change in the NAACP. Without question, it was a generational change, and that alone is of importance. A generational change, however, is simply not enough, not in a time of severe economic crisis combined with a white nationalist assault on people of color.
So, here are my two suggestions.
The first is that the NAACP convenes a major youth conference, but not simply of NAACP Youth Councils. The NAACP should consider reaching out to the forces that were involved, some years ago, in the Hip Hop Convention and directly engage them. In many respects this would be building off the work that was started under former NAACP President Ben Chavis (Muhammad) back in the 1990s, but this must go much further in scope and scale. The Hip Hop Convention motion of the early 2000s offered some promise, but more than anything, it seemed to lack strategic vision. Yet, many of the individuals and groups involved in it were and are highly committed fighters for justice.
The NAACP could play a leading and convening role in rebuilding a black youth movement as long as it does not either bureaucratize this effort, or seek to dominate it. There is a significant difference between leading and dominating and the NAACP has a role in leading. But if it attempts to marginalize youth forces with which it disagrees, the sort of effort proposed here goes right down the tubes.
The second idea is that the NAACP starts to organize a black unemployed and underemployed movement. With black unemployment at least 15% and underemployment taking us well above 20%, there needs to be a voice and organization that is fighting for jobs, economic development and restoring the social safety net. Certainly, the NAACP needs allies, with the most logical being organized labor, but I am convinced that the NAACP cannot afford to wait for organized labor - or anyone else - to move such an effort. Time to get off the dime, in other words.
Today we need the NAACP to directly address the economic crisis, not with an occasional demonstration or march, but through a major mobilization of the people directly affected. That means creating organizations of the black unemployed. It means engaging the unemployed so that they no longer feel marginalized but instead recognize themselves to be a major force. It means protests in our streets and fighting evictions. It means registering and mobilizing the unemployed as a voting bloc. These will constitute key elements of the Black Freedom movement of the early 21st century and create a new relevance for the NAACP.
Bill Fletcher Jr.