Benjamin Todd Jealous, the 17th President and CEO of the NAACP addressed a gathering of students, community members and NAACP leaders in Williams Chapel Tuesday on a talk about the future of social justice.
President Jealous spoke on the achievements of the NAACP over the course of its history, since beginning to organize in 1909. “In this country there are two types of power: money and people. You are most powerful when you can do both and we have found ways to organize people and money to pursue justice,” he said. “In 1909 when we were founded, we were founded in an apartment in New York city. A group of people got together and said we were going to abolish lynch mob violence in an apartment in New York City.”
While it took 60 years for the NAACP to abolish mass lynchings, Jealous used the as an example to show that while racism may no longer be overt in the United States, racist attitudes and practices are pernicious. “In fact, lynching is still happening but lynch mobs don’t happen,” he said. “You don’t see hundreds of people dragging a black man through the streets, hanging him up on a tree, setting him on fire, cutting off pieces of what is left, selling it as souvenirs and then publishing post-cards, selling it at the local store four weeks after.”
But, still, the NAACP saw its mission and persevered: “In the midst of all that, we said, ‘we are going to tear down the walls of segregation’ … starting from the 1930′s and it took us over two decades,” Jealous added.
Jealous took the legacy of the early NAACP as evidence that organizers achieve the change they seek. “Today I am not going to talk about easy things,” he said. “I am going to talk about a fundamental flaw in our country, and because the role of the NAACP is to identify these fundamental flaws to claim our victory in advance, and we will, and get it done simply because we are willing to go the distance to get it done.”
Among the many topics President Jealous spoke on was the vicious history of racial profiling in this country, lamenting specifically the fact that there have been “more stop and frisks of young black males in New York City, than there are black males in New York City.”
“We have to see the day when color is not grounds for suspicion in our country, when race is not grounds for suspicion, when curly hair is not grounds for suspicion” he said. “Maybe in this country we are so hardwired to think that men are more dangerous than women and that people of color are more dangerous than white people.”
Jealous also spoke emphatically on the negative effects of mass incarceration and drew a parallel between state education budgets and state prison budgets.
“California, for instance, in the 1970s spent 3 percent [of the] state budget on prisons and 11 percent on education. Today, it is 11 percent on prisons and 7.5 percent on public higher education” he said. “A black man in America today, is three and a half times more likely to be incarcerated than a black man in South Africa at the height of apartheid. This is America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Jealous concluded by highlighting the role of the current generation in the fight and future of social justice in the country. “Our job is to get our nation to catch up to its own mission statement. Your generation must be committed to fight, the fight to end discrimination based on color, complexion, race, ethnicity, religion in our country,” he said. “We are not the national association for the advancement of a colored person. We were not here to make sure Barack Obama became president, we are here to make sure that every child in this country regardless of their color can aspire to be president.”
Samuel Dow, the new Director of the NAACP’s Youth and College Division, challenged all students to recognize the special privilege they enjoy and think about their role in the future of social justice, emphasizing the need to “take education and use it not as tickets out of our community but as tickets back into our communities, to change what we know is not right.”
Deborah Williams (COL 13) explained how Georgetown’s chapter of the NAACP advances the larger organization’s mission of achieving racial equality in the United States.
“People use small examples in their personal lives as proof to why racism no longer exists, but neglect structural and institutional racism that still continues to occur and disenfranchises minority communities,” she said. “Our chapter focuses on highlighting areas of inequality through educating people about various inequalities. One of the things we’ve found is that many people are unaware of inequalities. If we can appeal to the leaders of tomorrow, students at Georgetown, then there is a greater chance that systemic inequalities in our country will change.”
Photo: JD Lasica via Flickr