The NAACP is America's oldest civil rights organization, and for years stood as the moral conscience of the nation, fighting for the rights of black Americans to equal treatment at the polling booth, in the schoolhouse, in the courts and in the marketplace. How sad, now, that this venerable institution has been turned into a caricature of its former self.
Its leaders are stuck in a time warp, imagining they still live in a world of pick-ax-wielding bigots and lynch mobs. NAACP chairman Julian Bond, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a former Georgia state legislator, has been reduced to ugly name-calling in order to attract media attention. At the NAACP convention meeting in Florida this week, Bond accused the Republican Party of "appealing to the dark underside of American culture. . . . Their idea of reparations is to give war criminal Jefferson Davis a pardon. Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side," he told a cheering crowd.
The group no longer has an agenda, other than to "uproot the bigger '(B)ush' in 2004," as Bond promised. But the putatively non-partisan group may run into problems fulfilling that goal, given its declining status.
The NAACP has become so irrelevant that even Democratic presidential aspirants -- none of whom could hope to be elected without winning 90 percent of black votes nationwide -- can afford to boycott the group's annual meeting. Senators Joe Lieberman and Dennis Kucinich and former Missouri congressman and House minority leader Dick Gephardt all had "other commitments" that prevented them from attending the convention.
Julian Bond may not recognize it, but racism is no longer the major problem facing American blacks. For the minority of black Americans -- 23 percent -- who lived below the poverty line in 2001, discrimination isn't to blame.
What is? A list of likely culprits would surely include the collapse of the black family, the failure of the public schools and black-on-black crime.
National Center for Health statistics indicate that with two out of three black babies born to unwed mothers today, black children are far more likely to grow up poor than youngsters from any other group. And according to the Census Bureau, black children in single mother households are nearly five times more likely to live in poverty than are black children born to two-parent families; 47 percent of black youngsters under 18 who live in female-headed households are poor compared to only 10 percent who live with two parents. The problem of illegitimacy has plagued the black community for nearly 40 years, but goes unaddressed by the NAACP or any other major black organization.
Julian Bond did talk about education in his convention address, but most of what he said took the form of vicious attacks on both Gov. Jeb Bush's and President Bush's education reform efforts. "Gov. Jeb Bush's notion of school reform is going to send black children to reform school," Bond said of Florida's efforts to put an end to promoting kids from grade to grade even if they haven't learned anything. So-called "social promotions" have resulted in schools graduating black high school seniors who -- on average -- read at the eighth-grade level.
Bond also talked about crime -- but his sympathies were directed exclusively to the criminals. He bemoaned the sorry fact that 12 percent of all black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are incarcerated, and the NAACP has made voting rights for felons one of its top legislative priorities in recent years. But what about the black victims on whom these criminals prey, the men and women who work hard everyday, only to be beaten, robbed, raped and murdered, not by Ku Klux Klansmen but by predators in their own communities? If the NAACP were truly concerned for the plight of black Americans, wouldn't it be pushing for more police and tougher sentences for violent offenders, not worrying about whether it can deliver more jailhouse votes to the Democratic Party?
There is much work left to be done if the lives of America's poorest blacks are to improve -- but the NAACP seems to have little interest in tackling the really tough issues. Instead, its leaders would rather blame racism and Republicans, and look to government to solve the problems of a community whose only hope is to heal itself.