Obama a mixed bag for NAACP

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Democratic presidential candidate Obama greeting supporters at the 2008 NAACP convention in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong,File)

Over the last 100 years, the NAACP has worked tirelessly to break down racial barriers in this country. They have fought hard battles and they have succeeded triumphantly. The impact of their efforts are felt in every walk of American life; perhaps never more notably when the world watched as our country elected Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

President Obama is a living example of the NAACP’s centennial convention theme, “Bold Dreams, Big Victories.” When he speaks to the membership on Thursday it will be a poetic and fitting tribute to the organization that worked so hard to make his victory possible long before he was even born.

Yet ironically, it is President Obama’s historic win that is also casting a shadow over the NAACP’s centennial celebration. Many see his presidency as the fulfillment of the NAACP’s purpose. With a Black president in office, the fight for civil rights has suddenly taken on an ambiguous meaning which the organization is struggling to redefine.

The NAACP is in trouble. Membership has been on the decline over the last several decades and the younger generations find it difficult to identify with the organization. While one would be foolish to challenge its rich history and legacy, many are beginning to wonder if the organization is still relevant.

When the dominant issues facing Black America are alarming – numbers of high-school drop outs, disproportionate unemployment and incarceration rates and an ever increasing number of absentee fathers – the organization that is recognized most notably for their racially orientated legal work seems out of touch.

Over the last few days the NAACP leadership has proclaimed that there is still much work to do. And though they have acknowledged that many of the problems facing African-Americans today are largely social issues and no longer civil ones it remains unclear as to how the organization plans to tackle these social woes.

Colin Powell urged the convention to focus on rebuilding families and communities. Warning that our younger generation is in trouble he said with disgust, “If you look at the inner city nine of today, six of them wont graduate high school. Is that what they fought for?” The “they” he was speaking of were the five members of the Little Rock Nine sitting a few feet away from him. His tone echoed comments made by Eric Holder and Michael Steele earlier at the convention. It was a continued call for personal accountability and responsibility.

But on the other side of Powell was Jesse Jackson who vigorously declared that “African-Americans are free, but we are not equal.” Explaining that Black America is stuck in a system of structural inequality, he lamented that Blacks on a mass level cannot succeed until the “playing field is even” and the “rules are public.”

Jackson’s point is well taken. Certainly in 2009 there is still racial profiling, unjust sentencing practices and covert racism, but there is also a Black president. These polarizing facts have made the dialogue in the NAACP Convention equally as oppositional.

What is clear is that the NAACP is an organization in the midst of transition. Its new 36-year-old President Benjamin Todd Jealous is certainly proof of that. In his opening remarks Jealous told the body “We are a very black organization, but we ain’t just a black organization, ya’ll. We’re a human rights organization. We’re a civil rights organization, and we fight for the dignity of all people in this country.”

And it appears that Jealous is also looking beyond this country as well. He announced that the NAACP will join in the global fight against AIDS at a press conference he held with the President of Senegal to encourage participation in the Fesman 2009 conference to be held in Dakar this December. At a convention that had been largely one-note, it seemed that Jealous might have stumbled on to something. His global perspective could be the catalyst needed to re-energize the NAACP.

If the organization dares to dream that boldly and continues to achieve big victories, just imagine what that 200th NAACP anniversary celebration would look like.