Voices of past override vision of future

March 09, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

Bruce S. Gordon's abrupt departure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, after only 19 months as its president, marks the end of a marriage between old-time movement idealism and new-wave corporate problem-solving. The marriage now appears to have been doomed from the start.

The former Verizon executive came into office amid grand hopes that he would modernize the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.

The 98-year-old group's civil rights mission has been diminished by the hard-won success of the civil rights movement.

Mr. Gordon had the audacity to hope for an expanded NAACP mission. He set out with a corporate CEO's sense of urgency to target, for example, the continuing crises of undereducated black males.

Mr. Gordon understood something that NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and numerous others in the organization's breathtakingly huge 64-member board refuse to face: White racism is not the biggest problem holding back the advancement of people of color.

Yes, overall black poverty is down to about 24 percent today, from well over 60 percent in the mid-1960s. But since the mid-1990s, recent studies show, young, undereducated black males are worse off by every statistical measure of unemployment, drug abuse, disease and imprisonment.

If we Americans - all Americans - focused our energies on wiping out the black-white test score gap, employment equality would follow. Close the race gaps in joblessness, income and family stability, and the final victories of the equal rights revolution would be within reach.

"We are going to be very outcome-oriented, very results-oriented," Mr. Gordon said last July, "as opposed to activity- and effort-oriented."

Unfortunately, activity and effort - and endless talking about activity and effort - were just fine with the organization's old guard. It mischaracterized Mr. Gordon's vision, not as an expansion but as a shift of mission away from civil rights.

"There are many organizations that provide social services," Mr. Bond told The New York Times, in response to Mr. Gordon's resignation. "We say, `Good for them.' But we are one of the very few that provide social justice. It is popular to say that we are in a post-civil rights period, but we don't believe that."

Actually, Mr. Gordon was calling for a better balance of the organization's two important roles of advocacy and service. He's right. Unfortunately, his vision, nurtured in the greenhouse of corporate life, clashed with that of the old-time movement folks.

In the business world, you have to adapt to changing market conditions or you lose market share and die. The world of the civil rights movement is different. You can hang on indefinitely to a 1960s paradigm of problems (racism) and solutions (marches, boycotts and lawsuits), despite changes in both, even as old problems persist and take on a new urgency.

With its 100th anniversary approaching in 2009, the Baltimore-based NAACP boasts 500,000 members, but its conventions look like a mostly black version of the AARP. Its original agenda was largely won in the 1960s with passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act and the rise of a new black middle and political class.

Still, a shamefully high percentage of black children don't have access to a decent education.

It is even more shameful that so much of this deterioration of opportunity has occurred under the watch of local governments largely dominated by black politicians. Fortunately, many of the NAACP's 2,000 affiliates have taken that new civil rights battle to local communities, even while the national organization's leaders battle internally for its soul and its future.

The NAACP will continue to have work to do in fighting for equal rights. But in the great battle to help those whom the civil rights revolution left behind, civil rights is just one skirmish in the larger war.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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