Commentary: How The NAACP Could Get Its Clout Back

It needs leadership, new members, money, and creative programs

African Americans have lost a lot of ground in recent years. True, their economic prospects brightened during the 1990s boom, as did those of so many Americans. But the subsequent slowdown hit them harder than any other group, and without fast action, the effect could be deep and lasting. Blacks are still twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, and three times as likely to be poor. Their incomes and wages still trail the national average, and they graduate from college at only half the rate of whites. Meanwhile, blacks' historical status as the country's largest minority has been overtaken by Hispanics, whose rapidly growing ranks seem to give their problems more urgency than those of blacks.

Since 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has been black America's beacon of civil rights leadership. Its victories are legendary, from the landmark 1954 school desegregation case, Brown v. the Board of Education, to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Even today, it's the only national group fighting for racial fairness in nearly every state.

Unfortunately, this venerable organization has begun to lose its way. Kweisi Mfume, the president for the past nine years, retired in January after fixing the NAACP's mid-1990s deficit. But he largely failed to breathe new life into a group whose boycotts, marches, and fund-raising banquets often seem stuck in the 1960s. At a time when the Baltimore-based advocacy outfit should be a fount of new ideas, it's contributing little in the way of fresh thinking in the continuing battle for civil rights and economic programs.

Mfume's departure presents the perfect opportunity for the NAACP to reinvent itself. As the group kicks off its annual meeting on Feb. 19 in New York, it should look hard for a leader with the stature and savvy to try new approaches. Perhaps its biggest need is for new and motivated membership, not just to expand its stagnant numbers and inadequate budget but also to reach out to black youth, who largely ignore it. And as doors have opened for some blacks, distance has come between the black middle class and the black poor, between black conservatives and traditional liberals. Long a voice of the disenfranchised, today's NAACP faces the challenge of representing a more pluralistic black America. The NAACP has "to reach across the aisle and find people of all persuasions," says Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School.

Consider that the group's membership of 500,000 is no larger today than it was in the 1940s, when the modern civil rights movement was just getting under way. Yet the black population has more than doubled since then, to more than 36 million. Mfume, to his credit, worked hard to eliminate the red ink the stagnation produced. But while he stabilized the finances in recent years, the NAACP's paltry $27 million annual spending doesn't come close to what's needed to give a major voice to black Americans.

The key to growth is youth. Only 14% of NAACP members are under 25, and most are well over 40. In fact, many students don't even know what the initials stand for, says J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter. The group's ties to cultural leaders used to be stronger: Fifty years ago, black baseball stars like Jackie Robinson and entertainers such as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte frequently appeared at NAACP events to help boost the cause. Yet today there are plenty of high-profile sports and entertainment figures who could help mobilize young people if the organization made an effort to reach out to them. Hip-hop moguls Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Russell Simmons pushed to bring young blacks out to vote in the 2004 elections. But Simmons says the group has to show more respect for youth. The NAACP "needs to speak their language and make activism hip," he says.

With more clout, the group could tackle more critical issues effectively. Take education. Just 17% of 25-to-29-year-old blacks had completed a bachelor's degree, compared with 34% of non-Hispanic whites in this age group. Equally discouraging, the high school dropout rate for blacks hasn't changed in a decade: Only 88% of these 25-to-29-year-olds had graduated, vs. 94% of whites. One way to help would be to mount "education matters" seminars at churches and cultural clubs, even hip-hop concerts.

Alternatively, the group could roll up its sleeves and get more involved in the charter school movement. Across the country, some charter schools offer better opportunities for kids in inner cities, suggests Steven Rogers, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He points to the Thurgood Marshall Academies in Washington and Harlem -- small public schools with 200 to 500 high-achieving students, almost all of whom go on to college. Venture-capital funds are flowing to many such schools in cities like Chicago, which just approved several new charters. What if the NAACP adopted a school or two and even lent its good name? In exchange, it might ask for guarantees that such schools don't crowd out students from the community as they become successful -- a central complaint about them. If such efforts worked in one city, the NAACP "could take the model national," Rogers says.

Or it might try a similar approach with joblessness. Of course the NAACP can hardly remedy the problem alone. But its 2,200 local branches could do plenty more to offer support to the black unemployed if they focus on black business growth. In a recent survey by the Atlanta-based Boston Research Group, nearly 21% of black entrepreneurs said that employment in their companies was higher now than six months ago. Many of those hires are African American. Business experts note that substantially more job creation comes from growth in black-owned businesses that hire blacks at a stronger rate than mainstream businesses.

Blacks also could benefit from more training in entrepreneurship, where Hispanics far outstrip them in terms of sheer numbers. The National Urban League, another civil rights group, specializes in job and business skills training. Given the importance of this topic, the NAACP could work more closely with the League to fund training for black entrepreneurs.

A little innovative thinking might even help to boost home ownership, the chief source of wealth in America. Just 48% of blacks owned a house in 2003, unchanged from 2000 and well below a white rate of more than 75% that continued to climb after the 1990s boom ended. Several factors explain the big difference, including blacks' poor credit scores and below-average incomes. But discrimination remains an issue as well. The NAACP has long pushed for tougher federal policies, such as a 1988 law that gave the Housing & Urban Development Dept. more power to enforce housing antidiscrimination laws. But HUD has done little to step up enforcement, says John M. Yinger, a Syracuse University professor of economics and public administration.

The NAACP could take this issue on by compiling the sort of report cards it now produces on corporations and elected officials. Publicly grading agencies such as HUD might spark more action. And working with other advocacy groups more closely could instill more accountability into everyone from housing authorities to mortgage bankers. The NAACP should "push federal organizations to use its tools," Yinger says.

No one expects just one organization like the NAACP to solve all of black America's problems. But fresh leadership and creative thinking could go a long way toward invigorating black achievement, improving the nation along the way.

By Roger O. Crockett

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