Politics Mondays: NAACP's Old Mission Loses Its Relevance by Bill Maxwell
When Bruce S. Gordon became the president of the NAACP 19 months ago, I bet a colleague in New York $100 that Gordon, a retired Verizon senior executive and a MIT Sloan School of Management MBA graduate, would not last two years on the job.
I thought that Gordon would be too pushy and, well, too business-oriented and too straight-thinking for the 64 mossbacks on the NAACP's executive board.
Last Sunday, I reluctantly collected my bet. Gordon abruptly resigned from the 98-year-old civil rights organization, the nation's oldest. I wanted Gordon to guide the NAACP back to relevance, where it has not been for the last 20 years.
Not surprisingly, Gordon was ambivalent about resigning. Just a few days before doing so, he spoke with the Hollywood Reporter prior to the organization's annual Image Awards ceremony. He was asked: "What are the NAACP's hot-button issues right now?"
Following is his reply, which I quote at length: "Two areas of particular interest to me are education and employment. We've always fought for equal access to quality education, and I'm stressing equal performance. (Our youths') graduation rates are 50 percent or less in the urban areas. That's a deplorable situation that has to change. Second is employment. The unemployment rate in our community is two to three times greater than that in the American community at large. When I say unemployment, I mean not just any job but a path that sets you on a path to grow wealth.
"There's a 26 percent differential in home ownership between whites and blacks, and home ownership is the single most significant aspect in building a wealth legacy and passing it on to the next generation. Employment (issues) also speak to employment in Hollywood and also to minority suppliers. A lot of jobs being created in our country today are by small businesses. As large corporations buy services from smaller businesses, we want minority businesses to be represented. The percentage now is in the low single digits, though we are 13 percent of the population."
Gordon's business acumen, his rational philosophy for success, his moderate political views and his straight talk irritated board members accustomed to the fiery oratory and confrontational styles of preachers, civil rights activists and politicians who had led the group since its founding.
The director of a NAACP branch in New York told me that Gordon's meeting with President Bush last year was anathema: "It was the kiss of death. Bush had never reached out to the NAACP. Bruce Gordon crossed the line, and a lot of the old-timers on the board couldn't forgive him."
Shortly after meeting with Bush to discuss Hurricane Katrina relief in New Orleans, Gordon answered his detractors with a totally rational response: "We might not agree on many issues, but it is important that decisionmakers at the highest level get input from the NAACP and civil rights leaders."
Gordon's departure is one of the worst things ever to happen to the NAACP. The organization may not recover. After all, it seems unable to face an essential, ugly reality that Gordon clearly understands: Racism no longer is the greatest obstacle to black progress.
We, black people, are our own obstacle to progress, both as a group and as individuals. Listen to Gordon in a June 2006 interview with Ebony magazine: "We sometimes get so caught up in what other people aren't doing for us that we don't pay attention to what we are not doing for us. So we as a community have to find the right balance.... It starts off with knowing the issues ... and being able to quantify the issues."
If the post-Bruce S. Gordon NAACP is to regain real viability, it must follow Gordon's lead and become introspective. In short, the organization must look inward for solutions to what ails black America.
Only blacks, with leadership from the NAACP and other groups, can provide the energy to close the national achievement gap in our schools. Only black efforts can reverse our obsession with instant gratification to promote home ownership and saving and investment. Only black efforts can stop the self-destruction of hip-hop's thug culture. Only black efforts can stop the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Only black efforts can inculcate a profound commitment to self-reliance.
Based on the comments of NAACP board president Julian Bond following Gordon's resignation, the organization will remain irrelevant far into the future: "We want (the NAACP) to be a social justice organization. (Gordon) wanted it to be more of a social service organization. Our mission is to fight racial discrimination. ... Social service organizations deal with the effects of racial discrimination. We deal with the beast itself."
Unfortunately, Bond has identified the wrong "beast itself." We, black people, are the "beast itself." Only we can destroy the beast.
This article was published in The St. Petersburg Times
Monday, March 12, 2007