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Issue No. 6 (July / August 1999) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Resentment and transcendence
at the NAACP convention

It was spectacular -- 2,000 delegates on the floor of the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton at any one time (virtually all of them authentic black community leaders from 1,700 state or local NAACP branches from across the U.S., over 60% female, average age early 50s -- the last mass organization of Baby Boom activists?), constant cheering and shouting, high school choirs and gospel singers and a beloved organist just off-stage and ever-ready to rouse the entire gathering in song. . . .

And on the massive stage itself, in the bright lights, for six whole days (July 10-15), a constant procession of NAACP dignitaries and spokespeople and allies making their cases to the crowd with passion and panache. . . .

But in the “press gallery,” a sometimes roped-off portion of the balcony that was usually devoid of press (except when famous people were scheduled to speak), one white reporter -- one of the few whites at the event -- not reacting the way he’d wanted to.

Poor bird, he didn’t like a lot of what he was hearing.

And despite his best efforts, his mind kept wandering. . . .

To the hopes he’d harbored as an 18-year-old civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964-65, just before SNCC made it clear it didn’t want whites working in Mississippi anymore. . . .

To the (better not describe the rape of ex-girlfriend). . . .

To the time he was assaulted in 1992 by a black street gang -- smashed in the temple at 10 at night, falling to the pavement and almost losing consciousness, desperately catapulting himself into street with cars whizzing by -- Howard Beach in reverse -- now three surgeries later, still can’t sleep alone at night without TV or radio on. . . .

Your archetypal white Baby Boomer journey.

No bitterness now but a weariness with race -- desperate desire on my part (and, I think, most everybody else’s part) to change the terms of the national debate about race, to find a non-race-based language for describing the obligations we owe each other as human beings.

“Racism is alive and well,” NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond roared out to the assembled delegates. “It is the central fact of life for every non-white American, eclipsing income, position, education.”

 Dear Julian: It’s 1999. Most racial attitudes today are formed by racial experiences, not by racial preconceptions. And if we want to reduce the amount of racial animosity in this country -- on everybody’s part, whatever their race -- I wonder if the NAACP’s ancient habit of crying Race, Race, Race, Race, Race, Race, Race, is the best way to proceed.

Let me tell you what I saw at the NAACP convention. . . .

Discipline is a white thing

The first big plenary session was on education. The speakers were some of the most prominent NAACP-identified people in the field of education today.

School discipline was one major topic. But the thrust wasn’t how to put discipline back in the schools. Instead, discipline was seen as a ruse to Keep Our Children Down, as Judith Browne, Esq., of the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, artfully explained.

In the Mississippi Delta, she said indignantly, there are schools -- public schools -- where the students are required to address their teachers as “Ma’am” and “Sir”!

Some schools won’t let their students talk at lunch! (She didn’t say why, but I think I can guess.)

In one school, a student was severely disciplined for sitting on a teacher’s desk! According to Browne, all the student was doing was conducting a nonviolent protest. (During class time.)

I couldn’t believe it. For 20 years, disorder in the schools has been driving middle class parents of all races out of the inner cities and out of the public schools. In her memorable book Shut Up and Let the Lady Teach (1991), Emily Sachar reveals that many junior high students have never learned how to sit still or control what they say.

What kind of future does the NAACP think such kids can have? And how does it think their future will be enhanced by stigmatizing strict school discipline as a white plot?

Blaming the tests

School testing was another burning topic at the education plenary.

There is every reason to be concerned about black test scores. “Even at the upper socioeconomic levels,” William Raspberry noted in the Washington Post for July 9, “black students, in one analysis, scored nearly 200 points lower on the SAT than their white counterparts.”

The concern at the plenary was of a different sort, however.

Ms. Browne put it best when she told the crowd that high-stakes testing is an attack on blacks.

It is, she said with passionate intensity, a way of ensuring that whites will rise to the top, and blacks will fall to the bottom.

The crowd applauded wildly.

Other panelists offered suggestions as to why tests hold blacks down. Raymond C. Pierce, Esq., of the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, charged that black kids aren’t being taught the answers to the tests.

Another distinguished panelist honed in on the entrance exam required by New York City’s best public high schools. Every year “they” play with the test, he cried, to make sure to keep minorities out.

“They.” Them. Such a pregnant word.

The students speak

I went to a couple of Youth Program events at the convention. I figured the high school- and college-age NAACPers would be even more militant than their elders on the subject of education (just as we were more militant than our elders on civil rights and the Vietnam war).

Maybe they’d advocate lawsuits against teachers who made them say “Ma’am” and “Sir.” Or maybe they’d call for replacing achievement tests with evidence of “real drive” and “real cultural sensitivities” (as actually suggested by Bates College Vice President William Hiss).

Nothing could have been further from those kids’ minds, though. They weren’t into making excuses for themselves.

Brothers, we must learn to keep our zippers up!, said one of the featured speakers at the Youth Plenary. Sisters, you need to keep your legs closed and your minds open!

Heartfelt cheering from 500 youth delegates.

Then the keynote speaker, Charlie Ward -- a young point guard for the New York Knicks -- got up and said: I’m here to tell you that God has given you the potential to succeed as much as you want to succeed.

That night was Youth Night at the Hilton Grand Ballroom. High school and college NAACPers got to address the adult delegates.

One of the Medgar Evers Essay Contest winners told the adults that educational excellence shouldn’t just mean not dropping out. It should mean, like, seeking out honors classes.

He talked about how it feels being told you’re “acting white” (or “not acting black”) when you do well in school. Those who voice these insults, he shouted, ARE JUST AS DANGEROUS TODAY AS THOSE WHO OPPOSED THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT IN THE SIXTIES.

The adults were strangely unresponsive.

Just remember, he said, addressing himself now to his fellow students -- just remember, when they hurl those insults at you -- when they’re sick they’ll be glad you’re a doctor. When they’re in trouble they’ll be glad you’re a lawyer. . . .

The next day I attended a special workshop for youth who wanted to address the “lack of effective communication between Youth Councils and Adult Branches.” Over 100 kids turned out for it, and they weren’t shy about expressing themselves:

“[A lot of the] adults think kids should be seen not heard,” said an approx. 16-year old boy.

“Often they don’t hear what we’re saying,” said a girl.

“They’re so disrespectful,” said a boy.

“[The president of our adult branch] uses us to get what she wants in the community,” said a girl.

“They just don’t pay attention,” said a boy.

“A lot of what we want is support,” said a girl from the dais, summing up.

After the workshop, a member of the Portland, Ore. NAACP Youth Council gave me a copy of their newsletter, the “P-Town Oracle.” It contains no blistering attacks on school discipline or testing. It does laud the six Council members graduating high school this year, and tells of their “college plans.”

Deconstruction of crime

Back at the Grand Ballroom, the leaders of the NAACP -- Julian Bond and Kweisi Mfume -- were delivering long, impassioned speeches on the issues of the day. Other featured speakers included Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Conyers (co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus), and Eric Holder (second in command at the Justice Department).

One of their main concerns was crime. I wasn’t surprised. According to Marvin Wolfgang, a University of Pennsylvania criminologist, blacks commit four violent offenses -- homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault -- at a rate 10 or more times that of whites. And everyone knows, or should know, that the most frequent victims of black crime are other blacks.

At the NAACP convention, though, the “deconstruction” of crime was underway. Again and again, the police were blamed for the high black crime rates.

Rep. Conyers suggested that his audience visit a courtroom in the suburbs. All you’ll see is us!, he shouted. You’ll think we all moved out to the suburbs!

It’s racial profiling at work, he explained. Because of racial profiling, blacks are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged with more crimes, and more likely to be given longer sentences.

Julian Bond took the same tack. Racial profiling is not only humiliating, he said, “it is responsible for packing prisons and jails with black bodies. . . .

“Nationally, nearly one in every three black men between 20 and 29 is under some form of criminal justice supervision on any single day -- if not in prison or jail, then on probation or parole. . . .

“We want the epidemic of police violence against minorities to stop. From New York to New Jersey to California, it is open season on black people. . . .”

I think this is mostly guff. Nobody wants the police to stop and question people just because they’re black. As an article in the New York Times Magazine for June 20 makes clear, while there certainly are rogue cops who need to be reassigned or simply fired, the vast majority of police stops take place because police detect many indicators of possible criminality.

“At some point, someone figured out that [certain] drugs are being delivered by males of this color driving these kinds of vehicles at this time of night,” says the police chief of Los Angeles, an African-American. “This isn’t brain surgery. The profile didn’t get invented for nothing. . . .”

 Affirmative action for millionaires

The NAACP Board of Directors met during the convention, and I made sure to attend.

The Board had played a heroic role in recent NAACP history. The organization was on the ropes in the mid-90s -- its executive director, Ben Chavis, had in a very short span of time managed to create a $3 million deficit, embrace Louis Farrakhan, and get himself sued by his secretary for sexual harassment.

After the Board learned of Chavis’s secret $332,000 settlement offer to the secretary, it fired him -- whereupon 20 of his supporters rushed the meeting. Staff members blocked the door.

Nothing nearly so exciting happened this time around. Probably the most emotionally engaging moment came when Board member after Board member spoke out against the government’s attempt to keep African-American millionaires from taking advantage of affirmative-action programs.

They’re closing the door on race, charged one Board member, and now they’ve discovered another way to keep black people down -- by going after our financial status!

We’ll lose government contracts!, someone said.

It isn’t anybody’s business what I’m worth, another person added. What the CEO is worth should be irrelevant!

The immediate threat was coming from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It had apparently instituted a regulation requiring minority vendors to reveal the personal net worth of their chief officer.

If his or her net worth exceeded $750,000 (not including a personal home), then his or her company would be denied participation in the Department’s Minority Business Enterprise and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise set-aside programs.

The Board members decided to submit an Emergency Resolution to the convention opposing the regulation in the strongest terms -- and opposing “any other similar federal regulation.”

It was submitted and passed on the last day, with no real discussion.

Beyond race consciousness?

On that last day, I sat there in the balcony -- again the only reporter -- and felt an immense sadness.

I loved the energy of the crowd, the awesome music, the obvious sincerity of every single speaker. But the message was completely off base, a fossil from a different era.

Going after school discipline and school tests isn’t going to help black kids in Portland, Ore., do well in school. Blaming the police for black crime rates isn’t going to help black families 20 blocks from my D.C. apartment walk safely to the Seven-Eleven. And preserving affirmative action for millionaires isn’t going to help black entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.

The latent message was just as flawed. It simply isn’t true that whites in America, circa 1999, want to keep blacks from succeeding in life. And what kind of public conversation is possible when one party to the conversation constantly advertises its belief in another party’s malevolence?

Sitting there on the balcony, I began wondering what would happen if the conversation became less racially conscious -- if all of us made an honest effort to transcend our stuck-ness as “blacks,” “whites,” ‘Hispanics,” “Asians,” and began to address the transcendent issues raised by the NAACP (educating our children, turning young men away from crime, ensuring economic opportunity for all) in a fresh and creative way.

Four alternatives to race consciousness do seem to be arising. Some of them were even present at the NAACP convention itself.

1.) Economic consciousness. Maybe it’s true that you can find whatever you’re looking for in a Jesse Jackson speech. But the one he delivered at the NAACP convention -- to the most raucous audience reaction of the entire week (virtually everyone standing or clapping at different times -- 1,000 or more voices chanting along with him -- spontaneous outbreak of “We Shall Overcome”) -- was held together by a common theme: The need to focus less on racial grievance and more on economic aspiration.

The movement to end legal segregation has been won, Jackson told the NAACPers. The movement for voting rights has been won. Now it’s time for a new movement -- to gain access to capital.

It’s time to shift from a “horizontal” race debate to a “vertical” climb to economic prosperity.

Let’s be real, he said. There are viewers of TV shows. But behind them are the writers, and behind them are the producers, and behind them the owners, and behind them the bankers.

We need to show up on all five levels! We need to be giants, not grasshoppers.

Why aren’t there any car dealerships in Harlem? Is it because of racism? I’m no longer sure. It may be more a matter of “cultural language.” Even racists like money and markets!

Over 90% of the people in jail are functionally illiterate. Coincidence?

Most poor people aren’t black -- they’re white. And they don’t have any Julian Bonds or Kweisi Mfumes to lead them!

We must change America for the better.

We were not brought to America to be slaves. We were brought here to save the human race.

2.) Postethnic consciousness. This alternative is beautifully summed up in David Hollinger’s book Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (1995). Hollinger is a bearded Professor of History at UCal-Berkeley.

Hollinger argues that the ethnic and racial distinctions that seem so important to us today are largely socially constructed.

He points out that a lot of people who now think of themselves as “Italian-American” or “German-American” arrived here thinking of themselves as Sicilians or Swabians. And he reminds us that distinctions among Protestants, Catholics and Jews were -- not so long ago -- taken as seriously as the distinctions now made among blacks, whites and Hispanics!

He doesn’t think our horizons should be limited by the “descent-defined communities” we may belong to. He points out that most of us live in many communities simultaneously -- for example, a black person might also be: an American, a male, in his 50s, an attorney, a resident of Washington, D.C., a Green, a Buddhist, and an active member of the American Society of International Law!

Hollinger likes to say that, because of these “multiple affiliations,” we have “multiple identities.”

And they’re largely up to us. That’s his main point -- in a democracy, even ethno-racial affiliations should be “subject to reasonable consent.”

3.) Multiracial consciousness. This alternative burst into the news recently when Tiger Woods, the young golf star, politely asked the press to stop referring to him as an African-American. He is, he explained, a “Cablinasian” -- a term he made up to combine Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian, all his racial heritages.

Actually, two flavors of multiracial consciousness are emerging now.

One is the literal kind, like Tiger’s. It’s sensitively explored in the book Half and Half (1998), an anthology of essays on growing up “biracial and bicultural.” Its supposed inevitability is captured in Farai Chideya’s pregnant claim that 80% of teens now have a close friend of another race (in The Color of Our Future, 1999).

The other approach to multiracial consciousness is more purely cultural. Ralph Ellison got this approach just right when he said there’s been such a melding of “identities, values and lifestyles” in this country that “most American whites are culturally part Negro American without even realizing it” (see Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, 1995).

Salman Rushdie’s manifesto In Good Faith (1991) celebrates “hybridity, impurity, intermingling . . . and mongrelization.” He’s utterly serious -- he believes that “me-lange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and that is how newness enters the world.”

 4.) Human consciousness. Probably the most racially militant speaker at the convention was Congressman Conyers, ancient and battle-scarred. After assuring his audience that the police are responsible for the disproportionately high black crime rate (see above), he implored NAACPers not to be “fooled” by all the rhetoric about needing to “move beyond” race.

He got a raucous standing ovation. The Hilton rocked; gray-haired old activists made like they were kids again. The organist burst into “We Shall Overcome.”

After everything died down, Eric H. Holder, Jr., came to the podium -- and you could almost taste the promising future sweeping out the bitter past.

Holder is at least 30 years younger than Conyers. Tall and handsome, and with a certain calmness about him (even a spiritual quality), he’d earned his J.D. at Columbia -- one of the most demanding law schools in the country -- and then gone on to become the highest ranking black Justice Department official in U.S. history.

His speech conceded nothing to the race men.

Although we’re no longer legally racist, we’re still a distressingly race-conscious society, he said.

We must never doubt that government can be a positive force in our lives. But ultimately individuals will determine their own fate, and everyone must be held accountable for their actions.

We are afraid to address certain things. For example: 70% of our kids are born out of wedlock. We’re asking too much of our women, too little of our men. Too much of our music dehumanizes women. . . .

Any real progress has got to start with the children. And let’s not make the mistake of thinking of them as “black kids,” “inner city kids” or “poor kids.” They are American kids.

There are NO problems that affect minorities alone. There are only problems that affect all of us. . . .

Integration has fallen out of favor in some quarters. We should support it not to become “like whites,” but because it frees people to deal with each other as individuals -- free of stereotypes.

Let’s point ourselves toward a place we can be proud of. The place where ability, and excellence, and civility, trump race and color. . . .

Nobody went wild after Holder’s speech. It was received less warmly than any other major speech at the convention.

Intimation of a better world

Walking around New York after the convention, I ducked into the Sheraton Hotel. My surgeries had had the effect of altering my right eyebrow, so now I apply eye-liner a couple of times a day.

A little seven- or eight-year-old boy was playing in the lobby. He might have been multiracial, or Hispanic -- I wasn’t sure. He was wearing a black T-shirt and those baggy three-quarter-length pants that all the kids wear now all over the world.

He took a shiny spackled yo-yo out of his pocket and began twirling it around. He was good! His aim was precise (a fortunate thing for the other guests in the lobby), and once he made it “sleep” for at least five seconds. Then he trundled over to his mother and she put him on her lap and hugged him tight, and they took a children’s book out of her purse and began reading it out loud together.


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