Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Resignation of Bruce Gordon and The Irrelevance of the NAACP by by Shavar Jeffries

With the resignation of President Bruce Gordon, the NAACP, still recovering from the Ben Chavis scandal of ten years ago, and which forced out Kweisi Mfume two years ago, is once again in crisis. I see principally two reasons for the NAACP's continuing problems: its absurdly ineffective governance structure and, correspondingly, the substantive irrelevance of much of its agenda.

Concerning governance, one wonders if the NAACP's organizational structure is designed intentionally to produce inertia. The board is composed of 64 members. It is virtually impossible for a non-profit to operate effectively with such a large and unwieldy Board. According to BoardSource, the median size of a non-profit board is 15. The NAACP's board is over four times larger. Running the NAACP, apparently, is more like leading a legislature than leading a non-profit organization. I doubt seriously that any non-profit has ever achieved sustainable success with such a large Board.

Just as important, however, is the substantive irrelevance of too much of the NAACP's current work to the lives of everyday Black folk. Commenting on the resignation, NAACP Chair Julian Bond explained that the NAACP is a social-justice organization, and Gordon wanted to remake it into a social-services organization. Said Mr. Bond,

[W]e fight racial discrimination and social service groups fight the effects of racial discrimination. Service is wonderful and praiseworthy and fabulous, but many, many organizations do it. Only a couple do justice work, and we’re one of those few.
But one cannot so easily separate the fight against racial discrimination from the fight against its effects. Often cause and effect work interdependently. For example, poor schools, in one sense, are an effect of racism (as well as classism); but poorly educated students of color confirm racial stereotypes about insufficiencies in their capacity. Racism and racial effects are inextricably linked.

Even more fundamentally, fighting racial discrimination means, irreducibly, an agenda focused primarily on the minds of White folk, not the lives of Black folk. Most, if not all, everyday people are concerned overridingly with the latter. Perhaps the sort of agenda professed by Chairman Bond made sense when the minds of Whites constituted express barriers to the advancement of Black folk -- when the rigidity of Jim Crow meant that freedom and autonomy were preconditioned, in large part, by engagement with the hearts of the majority. But white racism doesn't have the same provenance it once did. The contemporary problems of Black folk tend to be more practical: too few strong families; too few good schools; too few marketable skills; too few nearby good jobs; too expensive daycare; too little healthcare coverage; and so on. While these issues surely implicate racial concerns, race in many cases is secondary to issues of class, culture, and competence. The miscellaneous causes of these problems probably don't mean much to ordinary folk; they simply need practical solutions that address these challenges. But the NAACP simply isn't concerned with that effort. If a specific racial cause is indiscernible, the NAACP, apparently, is disinterested. And that, if nothing else, signals the organization's contemporary irrelevance.

For these reasons, the resignation of Bruce Gordon, who sought to adapt the NAACP to the current needs of Black folk, should be unsurprising. In fact, the NAACP's structure and mission pre-ordained this result. So what the NAACP needs now is not a new President; it needs a new NAACP.

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