I must begin with full personal disclosure before proceeding to discuss a sensitive subject which involves many thousands besides me and extends much farther. I became a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1968. The NAACP promised a simple deal: for a one-time contribution of $500 (today, over $3250), a newly enrolling life member would receive a plaque, a lapel pin, a card, and a lifetime subscription to The Crisis, the NAACP’s then monthly, now quarterly, magazine.
In 1997, after a decade of mismanagement, financial and sexual scandals, shrinking membership, and declining revenues, the Board, headed by Julian Bond, former Georgia Congressman, voted to redefine life membership to mean a period of 10 years. It also voted to apply that new definition retroactively and thereby to terminate the lifetime memberships and the benefits—mainly, The Crisis subscription—of its oldest, most loyal, and most supportive members.
I protested at the time, Bond wrote to request that I not sue the NAACP—he knew that a legal violation of the most basic contractual law and the attendant publicity would damage the NAACP—, and he arranged for the resumption of my subscription. A few years later, the NAACP again cancelled my subscription, again I protested, and this time its General Counsel Dennis Hayes wrote me a letter certifying that the NAACP would restore my lifetime membership and benefits. A few more years later, the NAACP again cancelled my subscription, again I protested, and again it resumed it. Under Ben Jealous, the new Executive Director, the NAACP has once more cancelled my subscription but has responded to my protests in various dishonest ways, from lies not to have received one certified letter or silent refusal to respond to three more of them. Jealous himself has refused to return, or have anyone else, return my phone call to restore the status and benefits of lifetime membership once promised all others and three times promised me.
What is personal to me is no less personal to thousands of other lifetime members whose contractual rights the NAACP has deliberately violated. I have thus far chosen not to sue because I did not wish to harm an organization which, for many reasons, I have long supported (I still send supplemental contributions from time to time). I had hoped that my protests would prompt the Board to reconsider its 1997 decision; I have been disappointed. Imagine: the NAACP leadership of an organization committed to social justice is indifferent to legal justice. Instead, it defies ordinary contractual law and disrespects its rank-and-file members.
I have a theory to explain such disrespect. It is a socio-cultural survival of the black experience of slavery. In general, plantations had two classes of blacks: house help and field hands. The division reflected itself in two ways. House help, by working with and often living in greater proximity to their masters and mistresses, and by their greater responsibilities, came to think of themselves as superior to field hands. Proximity and familiarity also increased the odds of offspring with lighter skins, still a consideration underlying social discriminations within black communities. So the idea that NAACP house-help leadership would act disdainfully and disrespectfully toward its field-hand members is surprising only if one forgets the facts of the continuing influence of the social history of plantation blacks and of cultural lag in isolated or tightly knit groups.
I doubt that the NAACP knows that I am white or that it has acted as it has because I am, or a small number of other lifetime members are, white. It is, after all, as abusive of a far larger number of blacks. So there is nothing racist about its conduct in this matter. But other, long-emerging, and late-developing trends suggest that disturbing possibility.
When it was founded, most of its earliest board members and many of its biggest supporters were whites, disproportionately Jewish. Inexorably, the leadership became less white and less Jewish; today, it is virtually, if not entirely, black and Christian. Understandably but unfortunately, this narrowing of racial and religious diversity parallels the NAACP’s intensifying focus on blacks even as other minority groups were becoming more numerous and more widely distributed. When it was founded, blacks were the only highly numerous and visible racial minority in America; people of American Indian, Spanish, or Asian descent were less numerous and more localized.
So the emergent Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in which the NAACP played a prominent but often underappreciated role, was a movement to secure the civil rights of blacks only. But the NAACP did not much concern itself with the civil rights of those smaller and more isolated minority groups, which rarely experienced the full force of racist laws and customs like those which blacks experienced. Over time, as blacks took control of the NAACP, they alienated Jews and adopted an anti-Semitism of varying intensity among national office and local chapters. Relationships between black and Jewish communities deteriorated and have not recovered. Indeed, the change from Democratic to Republican affiliation of some Jews reflects bitter disillusionment with what they perceive as black ingratitude.
As bad, the NAACP adopted stances inimical to immigrants from the Caribbean and Mexico, and especially from eastern and southeastern Asia, in the 1970s and 1980s. At least at the local level, competition bred hostility. Caribbean rather than American blacks have enjoyed greater favor with white employers, and Asian immigrants moved into small, family-operated businesses, many of which competed, and often overcame the competition, with black businesses. By the 1990s, The Crisis was publishing articles reporting skirmishes between, say, black and Korean barbers and hairdressers, and urging members to “buy black.” The NAACP continues to have strained relationships with organizations of other people of color. The effect is to make the NAACP a tightly knit group intolerant of, and inimical to, groups and individuals whose views differ from its views, even on small points, and, ironically, not too respectful of their civil rights.
Such was the case about nine months ago in Las Cruces. The local Tea Party entered a float in the parade honoring the New Mexico’s centennial and celebrating its 100-year history. The Tea Party float departed from the stated theme by presenting what it purported was a panorama of New Mexico’s flags from the beginning of (non-Indian) history. Obviously, no state flags existed before statehood in 1912. Nevertheless, the Tea Party float displayed a Confederate battle flag which flew over the Governor’s mansion in Santa Fe during a two-week occupancy. The reason for its inclusion, as I argued in a column highly critical of the Tea Party’s decision to exercise its undeniable right to free speech in this way, was to signify political positions all based on true racism: the belief that whites are superior to blacks and, thereby justified in regarding them as property—beliefs rationalized by a states’ rights philosophy of federalism.
In response to widespread criticism, the local Tea Party asked the Las Cruces NAACP chapter for the opportunity at a meeting to explain its position and to defend it against the charge of racism. Its representatives appeared and did their best, which, I must say, was not very good. However, they were respectful throughout, though they faced hostile comments and questions from the audience. Three politicians—Bill McCamley, Olga Pedroza, and Leticia Duarte-Benavidez—were particularly uncivil, if not insulting, in demanding apologies or impugning motives of these guest speakers. The chapter president did nothing to ensure civility or decorum. I wrote a column deploring this conduct and, to highlight the irony, comparing it to the lack of civility and decorum of segregationists in the South. Although I had made dues-equivalent contributions to the Las Cruces chapter for several years and had attended some meetings and picnics, I suddenly ceased receiving notices. In short, for criticizing inappropriate conduct by those attending, or presiding over, an NAACP chapter meeting, I was excommunicated.
I continue to believe that the NAACP has worthy goals and worthy programs to meet worthy objectives. However, its means are not justified by its ends, and, in the past two or three decades, its means have departed from the ideals of decency and dignity which it professes. Its shabby treatment of its members and its critics, and its abrasive relationships with other minority groups, indicates a debasement of its moral standards.
As the country moves toward greater diversity and greater acceptance of diversity, the NAACP would do well to move with it. A first step would be to re-interpret what it means by “colored people.” It may once have been appropriate to equate them with blacks, but no longer. Just as the NAACP urged the inclusion of blacks in American society, with full rights and responsibilities, so it should become inclusive in its efforts to ensure the civil rights of other people of color as well. Two approaches are outreach and inclusion; two more are affiliation and cooperation. All would work to the benefit of the NAACP by keeping it from representing the narrow interests of blacks only and from tolerating the somewhat different, and sometimes self-serving, interests of its in-house leadership. To restore itself, the NAACP needs to reverse its recent drift to becoming just another special-interest cause and return to its original crusade, now with an enlarged and enlightened vision of political, economic, and social justice for all “colored people.”