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Q&A: Ben Jealous Getting NAACP Back Into Fighting Form

Posted: Nov 16, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Election Night, former White House adviser Van Jones told CNN that “Ben Jealous from the NAACP is a hero tonight for putting more than a million black voters in play.” Benjamin Todd Jealous is the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had a few tumultuous years of internal problems until Jealous took the helm. He has just been named the recipient of the prestigious Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship for having "greatly increased" the NAACP's "capacity to work on issues related to the economy and register and mobilize voters." Longtime New America Media reporter Rene Ciria-Cruz spoke with Jealous in San Francisco on Nov. 13 about his organization’s election experience, its role in the new political coalition of minorities, women and youth, and the challenges facing the NAACP.

On the Presidential Election

NAM: Liberals are lauding the NAACP for its visible success in bringing masses of voters to the polls. What conditions did you observe that made African Americans extremely receptive to your efforts?

BTJ: I’m thinking of sending flowers to the Koch brothers for what they did to make black people vote in large numbers this year. By attacking the right to vote in three dozen states, they allowed us to educate people on the importance of voting for much longer than we normally do. We started last December with a march to the Koch brothers’ headquarters and then to the United Nations on the issue of voting rights. The belief in our community that voting rights were systematically being attacked made people come out to defend them. It’s like that rusty, old bike that’s unlocked in the front yard—when someone tries to steal it people take notice.

NAM: What steps did you take to help raise black turnout at the polls?

BTJ: Registering people to vote (and) turning them out to vote is less of an art and more of a science. We purchased the voter database for all 50 states -- the only organization outside the two parties to have that database. We knew who the registered voters were and who were the unregistered. That allowed to us to train our people more effectively, unlike previous times when we didn’t have the data for all states. We took our standard 45-minute civic engagement-training course and expanded it to eight hours.

NAM: How did that work?

BTJ: We knew we were on to something when after the first round of training our volunteers gave our trainers a standing ovation. They felt that for the first time they really knew how to move people to register and to vote. We registered three-and-a-half times the number of people this year than in 2008, from 125,000 to 432,000. We moved 1.2 million people to the polls compared with 500,000 in 2008.

NAM: The Republicans were expecting that fewer blacks would vote for President Obama than in 2008. Some liberals who criticized Obama for not doing enough for African Americans thought so too. What happened?

BTJ: On Election Day that myth ran contrary to facts. You cannot explain Obama’s victory in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia or Florida without factoring in the huge turnout of black voters, in some instances higher than in 2008. What we found was that people were frustrated but knew that things have begun to get better. There was also real hope that the GOP could get beyond partisan gridlock in Obama’s last term. The situation increased expectations for the next term rather than decreased their enthusiasm for the president.

NAM: Do you expect President Obama to push for initiatives targeted specifically for the benefit of African Americans in his last term?

BTJ: President Obama is a very principled leader. Early in his term he essentially told the black community “I recognize that our community has been in recession for 40 years. But now everyone is in the same place. So we must focus on solutions that will lift all boats.” Our hope is that now that all boats are gradually being lifted up, it’s time to help those that remain stuck—to deal with employment discrimination and inequality.

We hope that he will communicate to the nation that any president, not just a black president, would focus on boats that are stuck and get them unstuck. For those of us who are Christians we take a lesson from Jesus, that when herding a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, the herder must find and bring that sheep back to the flock.

On Same-Sex Marriage Victories

NAM: Many people have noted that the NAACP contributed to the victories for same-sex marriage in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington State.

BTJ: We played a role in all those states, but it seems our contribution had a more transformative effect in Maryland where we had more volunteers on the ground and had the chance to really engage black clergy, the black community and students. From before President Obama endorsed marriage equality to after we endorsed it there was a 20-percent increase among black people in the support for same-sex marriage.

We just finished a poll—which we still have to publicly report on—of early voters in battle ground states before November 6. Not only was support for marriage equality high among blacks in the cradle of the confederacy plus Ohio—it was true for all age levels. Even older African Americans supported it 51 percent, younger ones 67 percent. We know nationally that wasn’t the case at the beginning of the year.

NAM: But there was fallout from some black churches when the NAACP endorsed same-sex marriage. How are you dealing with that?

BTJ: We know we have the support of the majority in our community in supporting marriage equality. Our trust and approval ratings among blacks rank second only to President Obama’s, and those in opposition know that. So we are very comfortable that not only is ours the right position, it’s also increasingly the majority position in the community. We knew it would be controversial with some religious institutions. But I spoke to a number of religious leaders after our endorsement, and to a one they said that if there’s the sense of disagreement to let it be “a contrast” rather than a “conflict” among us.

There will always be certain individuals who seek to stand out by vigorously disagreeing. But marriage equality’s victory in every state it was on the ballot should be a message to those from outside who may try use this issue to try to split our community against itself—they should give this strategy a second thought because their money will be better spent elsewhere.

On the “New Coalition” of Blacks, Latinos, Women and Youth

NAM: In the much talked about new national political coalition of blacks, Latinos, Asians, women and youth, what role does the NAACP see itself as playing?

BTJ: The black community has been the foundation of the progressive community in this country for a long time, providing many leaders and large numbers of followers. So we in the NAACP understand that in addition to all that we do for our members we also have the duty to build and maintain bridges throughout the progressive community. We’ve begun to be as intentional about asking for help on tough issues that we confront as we are about helping others in their battles.

NAM: How have you done this concretely?

BTJ: Here’s an example. When we were organizing a Father’s Day march against racial profiling in New York City, we asked the LGBT community’s help in getting certain leaders to be with us. That community stepped up. They held a big press conference at Stonewall Inn, with 35 LGBT groups endorsing our action and stressing the commonality in our struggles with police. At the march, 70,000 people showed up. We brought 15,000 in buses, and while the LGBT community certainly didn’t bring all the rest, it mobilized thousands upon thousands to stand up with the black, Latino, Asian and Arab American communities against the plague of racial profiling under Mayor Bloomberg.

NAM: Comprehensive immigration reform is on top of President Obama’s agenda this second term. Do you expect increased tension between African Americans and Latinos on this issue?

BTJ: There are people who are invested in trying to keep the two communities apart, by exploiting black frustration over unemployment and the presence of Latino immigrants. But their most repugnant ads and other efforts have not gone anywhere. Our own poll shows 95 percent of blacks support the DREAM ACT--in Maryland this year, black support for the DREAM Act was very visible—and 80 percent back comprehensive immigration reform.

So the people who come in seeking to sign us up for conservative politics have always failed. The good news is they’re continuing to fail. The real need is for black and Latino leaderships to continue to be more deliberate about opening pathways to communication, not just among ourselves, but also among our constituencies and to demonstrate the ways we can support each other.

On Revitalizing the NAACP

NAM: The NAACP seems to have been brought back to fighting form after some years of financial difficulties and internal problems. What’s the key to its “comeback”?

BTJ: I started a month before the recession, when we had to deal with our financial problems even as we sought to rise to the challenge of a nation spiraling into a recession. We were able to unite the board and the staff (around the idea) that to push the nation to a higher ground we must push ourselves to a higher and higher ground.

Not only have we become better recognized for good work that we do, in many ways we are becoming better in the work that we do. As president and CEO I have two challenges that I can’t allow to be at odds with each other. One is to lead the NAACP in dreaming bold dreams and turning those into big victories, like we’ve done for the last one hundred years. The other is to run the organization efficiently like a business. We’ve had the rare but necessary success of achieving both.

NAM: And what have been the concrete results of this success?

BTJ: We’ve managed to grow the organization’s base of activists, transform financial crisis into financial growth and have successes that can be quantified. We’ve increased membership three years in a row, for the first time in 20 years. Our online activists have grown from 175,000 to 650,000, individual donors from 16,000 to 104,000. We’ve been in the black five years in a row and this is our fifth year of revenue growth. This gave us strength to do what we did this year.

NAM: A recurrent debate in the NAACP seems to be whether it should concentrate on promoting black self-improvement or on fighting for social justice. The tack under your leadership is clearly the second one. Why have you chosen that?

BTJ: In order for us to be as great in our second century as we were for most of our first, we must act as we did in our first century, that is, the only way to turn bold dreams to big victories is through advocacy. Everything else is too incremental, that is, if your dream is social change. It’s different if it’s individual change. Our bold dreams have been to tear down the walls of segregation, end lynch mob violence, make it possible for an African American to become president. Now bold dreams mean ensuring each child has access to education, moving our nation to a day beyond mass incarceration, that everyone in this country has access to affordable health care.

The only real big difference between the first and the second centuries is how we go about reaching our dreams. The first century was more about federal legislation and litigation. This century will be more about state legislation. A lot our focus is training volunteer community organizers and having similar enough strategies state to state so that victories can add up to national transformation.

NAM: But what do you say to the likes of Bill Cosby who demand a focus on black self-improvement?

BTJ: The first black newspaper Freedom’s Journal, published in1827, was only two pages long—front page and back. On the front page was the case for the abolition of slavery, espoused in the voice of free black people. On the back page was everything from how to find a job to how to use a toothbrush.

In our community, there always have been two simultaneous conversations going on--a public conversation about the need for urgent large-scale social change and a private conversation about the need for urgent, high-impact personal change. The black clergy stands at the nexus of these two conversations. There are other organizations focused on one or the other. Our job for a hundred and three years has been to lead the public conversation. But we will always respect and honor the private one.

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