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NAACP at 100: Time to Change the Name?

'It's a fair and open question as to whether the NAACP, in its pursuit of a more serious social agenda,' has the option to change its name.

The Loop 21, Commentary, Michael E. Ross Posted: Feb 25, 2009

The NAACP reached 100 this month, a milestone for the nation's oldest civil rights organization's history.

In the century since its founding Feb. 11, 1909, the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People has taken point on issues relating to the black community. From voter registration to school integration to corporate diversity, it continues to be a force for racial justice in the United States.

In recent years, however, the grande dame of civil rights advocacy has been assailed by younger African Americans as being out of touch with contemporary day America.

The organization responded by getting busy and recently got on the offensive, keeping a higher profile in some civil rights cases. And it appointed a 36-year-young president meant to, among other things, symbolize the NAACP's ability to appeal to younger folks.

But the organization's 21st century identity dilemma was clumsily distilled in a moment on cable television on the day of the NAACP's anniversary, Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Peter Alexander, a news anchor for MSNBC, was closing a segment where he had just interviewed Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP's new president. Alexander called the centennial "a huge honor today, 100 years, the anniversary of the beginning of that organization. Congratulations to you, to Muhammad Ali, who is receiving the [NAACP] President's Award today as well, as the president honors this country's colored people. Thank you very much, we appreciate your time."

"Colored people." In 2009. Alexander made the insensitive error of going there. African Americans have come to expect this from the mainstream media. Alexander's gaffe points to how far the media has to go in minority outreach, as if we really needed reminding.

"Thank you, Peter," a diplomatic Jealous said, taking the high road. "Have a great day."

Alexander (no doubt someone had alerted him to how backwards his comments were) was back on the air minutes later, mea culpa at the ready. Sort of.

"If any of my words in that conversation were of any offense, I want to take this time to apologize," he said. "We do want to congratulate all people of color today..." (See part of the interview and Alexander's dutifully political quasi-apology here.)

A mistake like this, on the NAACP's 100th birthday, obviously points to how America, and the American media in particular, still needs to be educated either on matters of racial sensitivity or the use of modern idiomatic American English. There's nothing "post-racial" about this country when this can still happen.

But Alexander's slipup also points to another unavoidable and possibly provocative issue: It raises the question of whether the name of the NAACP has kept pace with an evolving African-American population one that largely abandoned the phrase "colored people" generations ago. Could this issue of self-identity be at least part of the reason why younger black people haven't gravitated toward the NAACP?

If an organization speaks for people, it must speak to those people. It's obligated to communicate in the language of the times. African Americans have evolved sufficiently to have defined themselves with different descriptors, from Negro to black to African American (the last two are sometimes used interchangeably today). It's fair to say, though, that a snapshot poll of black Americans, or any random show of hands on the street, would find "colored people" getting a less than favorable reception today.

How, then, to reconcile an organization's historical name with the contemporary identity of those the organization was created to support? A devil's advocate point of view: If most black Americans don't see themselves as "colored people" any more, who's the organization speaking to?

It's much the same kind of dilemma of self-identification experienced by 20th Century Fox, the motion picture studio that faced its own what-now moment on Dec. 31, 2000 when the real 20th century ran out of time. The company kept the name despite the obvious anachronism; it's a fair and open question as to whether the NAACP, in its pursuit of a more serious social agenda, has the same option.

This isn't necessarily to agitate for altering the organization's name; making a shift like that might create as many problems as it solves. But it's obvious: among the many challenges the NAACP faces going forward, one of them will be to indicate its pertinence to the lives of the millions of people it represents.

When the very name of the organization is controversial, never mind its mission, there's clearly room for change.

As more and younger black Americans take to the Internet the so-called new drum as an outlet for creativity, social activism, and commentary, the chorus for change has grown louder. JohnnyL, commenting on the Alexander-Jealous interview at The Huffington Post, observed that "NAACP and the UNCF [United Negro College Fund] need to both change their names, otherwise they can't complain when those terms are used."

And on the Urban Thought Collective Weblog, attorney Angelia Dickens speaks eloquently in observing how the name of the NAACP is symbolic of a bigger issue: the need to connect with the people the organization is meant to serve, no matter what the organization is called:

"Some question whether in this post-Obama post-racial world we even need an organization like the NAACP; the answer to that question is emphatically yes. ... But the NAACP needs to make itself important and relevant again before it can convince younger African Americans that the organization speaks for them. The NAACP needs to come up with a new beat for a new audience."

Michael E. Ross, a frequent Loop contributor, is a West Coast journalist who blogs frequently on politics, pop culture and race matters at Culchavox. He also writes for The Root and PopMatters. Full disclosure: Ross worked for msnbc.com, the online arm of MSNBC, for six years.

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