Obama as point of pride, caution

Candidacy alone won't cure racism, NAACP leader says

July 14, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

CINCINNATI - The barrier-shattering candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama is cause for pride and praise, but it does not diminish the need for bold civil rights activism, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said during a speech launching the organization's 99th annual convention.

By clinching the Democratic nomination for president, Obama embodies the aspirations of the civil rights movement, but his candidacy does not "herald a post-civil rights America any more than his victory in November will mean that race as an issue has been vanquished in America," Bond told a crowd of more than 1,000 people last night at the Duke Energy Center in Cincinnati.

"Race dictates where we live, how we live and how long we live," said Bond, as he rattled off grim statistics on racial disparities in infant mortality, homicides and education.

Laced with historical context, biting commentary and civil rights-era refrains, Bond's annual address aimed to invigorate thousands of members at a historic moment for the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Just one year short of its centennial, the nation's oldest civil rights organization in May elected its youngest president and CEO - Benjamin Jealous, a 35-year-old human rights activist. Many NAACP leaders hope his youth and background can help recapture the organization's strength and relevance. Jealous will give his first remarks to the NAACP's rank-and-file membership today.

Nearly 8,000 members and visitors are expected to take part in the convention, which runs through Thursday, tackling such issues as juvenile justice, health care and politics. Obama and Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, are scheduled to address the organization this week, with many members expressing their excitement about Obama.

"With Obama here, this whole week is giving us hope," said Sheri Ezell, a teacher from Houma, La. "Ten years ago, we would never have thought there would be a black president. It's history in the making."

In his 45-minute speech, Bond implied that Obama has been subject to racially insensitive criticism. "On the heels of Barack Obama's clinching the nomination came the crude dissing of his wife, Michelle, as his 'baby mama,' and the suggestion by another candidate that Obama 'wants to talk white,'" he said.

Bond was careful to note that the organization will remain nonpartisan and acknowledged criticism that the NAACP has been too political in the past.

In 2004, Bond's convention speech sharply criticized President Bush's domestic agenda and the war in Iraq, prompting an Internal Revenue Service probe of the NAACP's tax-exempt status. Bond called the inquiry politically motivated, and two years ago, the IRS dropped the investigation, concluding that the speech did not violate rules prohibiting political activity by tax-exempt groups.

Nevertheless, the 68-year-old activist's speech included what has become an annual biting critique of the Bush presidency, taking on the war in Iraq, the housing crisis, weakened international relations and skyrocketing gasoline prices.

"This administration, too often with the complicity and cowardice of the opposing party and the media, has brought us to the brink of disaster," he said.

"We ain't gonna let nobody turn us around, including the IRS. And the NAACP will continue to speak truth to power until this administration leaves town," said Bond, invoking the 1960s protest song.

Bond, who teaches courses in government and history at American University and the University of Virginia, took jabs at presidents of both parties throughout the 20th century.

He said that with the exception of President Lyndon B. Johnson, "most others pursued racist policies to attract white votes."

But the bulk of Bond's remarks focused on racial inequalities that he contends still exist in the United States.

"The truth is that race trumps class," he said, quoting scholar Michael Eric Dyson, saying that concentrated poverty doesn't "victimize poor whites in the same way it victimizes poor blacks."

Bond said the subprime lending crisis threatens to weaken the black middle class, many of whom, he said, were preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders.

In discussing the organization's commemoration of the 40th year of fair housing legislation, Bond lamented that institutionalized discrimination in banking and real estate laid the foundation for minority neighborhoods. The vestiges of such practices as denying credit to blacks and lending guidelines that encouraged white suburbs to remain segregated are still visible, he said.

Last summer, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against 17 lenders nationwide, alleging discriminatory practices.

"It has always been one thing to work next to a black person and another thing to live next to one," he said.

Harold Crumpton, a real estate developer from St. Louis, said Bond's speech helped shed light on discrimination that many in America would prefer to forget.

"The truthfulness with which he discussed the actions of past presidents was remarkable. People don't realize how entrenched discrimination was," Crumpton said.

Bond concluded by quoting the words of his grandfather, who was born a slave, speaking in 1901 about the battle for equality: "Forward in the struggle, inspired by the achievements of the past, sustained by a faith that knows no faltering, forward in the struggle."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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