NAACP pot legalization stance may leave legacy up in smoke

Marijuana legalization is a thorny policy issue, and certainly not one normally associated with civil rights. Yet the California State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) jumped directly into that fray by endorsing a ballot measure that seeks to legalize pot in the state.

The decision has triggered calls for the president of the California branch to resign, and raised a question people across the political spectrum are asking with increasing regularity: has the nation’s oldest and most famously renowned civil rights organization grown hopelessly out of touch with its chief constituency – disenfranchised African-Americans?

The California ballot issue is the latest of several high-profile debates that have made the NAACP’s image virtually indistinguishable from those of many other garden-variety liberal advocacy groups. Its critics argue that the organization has ventured into policy territory far beyond its core competency, and put it at odds with the very group of people it purports to represent. The collective weight of the NAACP’s controversial policy stances has thrown into stark relief the organization’s judgment and legitimacy at a crucial period in its history.

Some argue the group’s apex came in the 1960s, when the NAACP spearheaded instrumental civil rights lawsuits and helped mobilized black political power, which was then in its infancy. Since those tumultuous years, African-American issues have evolved, yet the NAACP finds itself adrift. The organization has suffered from mission creep defined most notably by cynical political alliances and declining support at the grassroots level.

In explaining the California NAACP’s support for pot legalization, president Alice Huffman invoked a recent study by the Drug Policy Alliance that seemingly highlights blacks as being disproportionately affected by marijuana busts. Ms. Huffman got a boost from Julian Bond, the former chairman of the national NAACP, who argued that drug arrests “target black people.”

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At the heart of Mr. Bond’s statement lies the warped logic employed by the NAACP in a number of emerging policy debates. The unfortunate yet inescapable truth is that illicit drug use is higher among African-Americans than any other race or ethnicity. Rather than trying to discourage activity that leads to legal trouble, the NAACP is seeking to encourage it by weakening the legal strictures designed to deter said behavior. Forcing policy to facilitate illicit behavior can hardly be considered a serious solution.

Meanwhile, the group has lost key financial and moral support as it adopts positions that range from the frivolous to the outright hypocritical. The apotheosis of this appeared in February, when the group joined forces with the teachers union to block New York City’s plan to shutter 19 under-performing public schools. The parlous state of public education is a modern-day civil rights struggle, yet the NAACP sided with the very same lobby often seeks to deprive black parents of legitimate school choice. The group also erred when it filed suit against Wells Fargo alleging discriminatory lending practices, only to drop the lawsuit and seek a lucrative partnership with the same bank it accused of preying on unsuspecting black borrowers.

In another head-scratching maneuver, the group endorsed cap-and-trade legislation that many analysts argue will broadly increase the tax burden, while undermining economic growth and employment prospects – the bill even lacks for Democratic supporters in Congress. And with a jobless rate of 17 percent and rising, African-Americans can ill-afford this type of policy solution.

As Star Parker, a prominent conservative commentator noted recently, the NAACP is suffering from a conundrum that happens to organizations that outlive the ostensible purpose for its creation. “What happens when those problems get solved?” Ms. Parker asked. “The organization closes. The organization shifts focus to new problems. Or it [exists] to perpetuate itself and sustain the power and income of those whom it employs and who have political interests in its existence.”

The latter scenario is what best defines the modern-day NAACP. The organization’s value proposition is questionable at best during a time when what ails the black community is less political than existential. Its actions over the last several years indicate a growing disjunction between its stated principles and what is best for the African-American community. The NAACP would be better served by advancing the best interests of its constituents, or confront the likelihood of permanent and well-deserved irrelevancy.