After tough transition, NAACP re-examines itself

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Within two days of reports that Mexican President Vicente Fox made racially charged comments about black American workers, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and National Urban League president Marc H. Morial had all issued public condemnations.

The NAACP, meanwhile, was a step behind.

The pioneering civil rights group responded Thursday -- by which point Jackson had already met with the Mexican president and won promises of greater cooperation on labor rights for minorities. The NAACP invited Fox to its annual meeting a day later.

To some, the past week illustrates the problem with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People today.

"There have been so many times when the organization wasn't there," said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. The NAACP needs a "far more vigorous profile."

Perennial worries about the effectiveness of the 96-year-old NAACP have been heightened recently by the ongoing search for a president to replace Kweisi Mfume, who resigned last year and has since been accused of giving preferential office treatment to an employee he was dating, creating a toxic work atmosphere.

Add in financial worries and an IRS query into its not-for-profit status after group leaders made strong pro-Democratic statements last year, and concern for the NAACP's future runs deep.

"A new person would have to come in with a strong enough vision to force the African-American agenda" into the national spotlight, Walters said.

Founded by an interracial group in 1909, the NAACP bills itself as the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, claiming 500,000 members and 1,700 branches in the United States and abroad.

Undeniably, it played a vital role in the racial struggles of the 20th century but "in the modern era, you have to define civil rights as everything from the plague of HIV/AIDS all the way to the abominably high incarceration rate of African males," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black commentator based in Los Angeles. "If they're not doing that, it's irrelevant to the times."

Julian Bond, chairman of the board, says the NAACP is addressing those issues and more. The organization's 140 staff members and thousands of volunteers nationwide guide programs on incarceration and health disparities, education and labor concerns, among others, he said.

Even critics acknowledge that, in many cities, NAACP leaders remain stalwart voices denouncing local cases of racial injustice.

But, says Bond, "we can do better promoting what we do."

Critics, however, say the NAACP's problems are more profound than weak public relations.

Some say that the group's national stature is declining, and that the size and nature of its board of directors is both unwieldy and sometimes out of touch with mainstream black America. They note there are 64 board members, many of whom have held leadership positions for decades.

And the board's median age is about 62, while the median age of black Americans is 30, according to the 2000 Census. That means most board members can remember the civil rights era of the 1950s and early '60s, but the majority of black Americans can't.

"The board is too large sometimes to move expeditiously on important policy issues that impact race," said Lorenzo Morris, who chairs the political science department at Howard University.

The case of the Mexican president is just the latest example. Even 14 years ago, when Clarence Thomas was being considered for the Supreme Court, board members differed so sharply over his appointment that they couldn't come to agreement, Morris said.

Bond acknowledged there has been discussion of downsizing the board. But, he said, its configuration now allows the NAACP to be "profoundly democratic -- small 'D' democratic" and gives local members more say.

The NAACP's revelation in February that it has been struggling financially is another area of concern. After a string of surplus years, officials dipped into reserves last year and in 2003 to cover budget shortfalls.

Even more damaging was a confidential NAACP report, leaked to The Washington Post last month, that probed allegations Mfume gave preferential treatment to a staff member he had dated -- prompting another subordinate to sue.

An outside attorney hired by the NAACP found that the allegations could be "very difficult to defend persuasively" in court because of "the impression created that a woman must provide sexual favors to Mr. Mfume or his associates in order to receive favorable treatment in the workplace."

The report came weeks after Mfume -- a former Democratic congressman -- announced he is seeking to replace retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes in Maryland. Mfume has denied the accusations against him, though he acknowledged last week he made "a mistake" by dating the former staff member.

The NAACP is scheduled to announce Mfume's successor at its annual convention in July -- and now some are questioning whether the situation will make it harder for them to attract a top-notch new leader.

"Of course it's very distressing, particularly at this time," said Nancy Lane, a retired business executive and board member from Manhattan. "The question is, what's the motivation? Is it a determination to hurt the organization or is it an effort to hurt Kweisi Mfume's campaign? Then, of course, when we're looking for a new leader, it's very painful."

But Lane and other supporters insist the NAACP will quickly find sure footing again. Eric Boone, an attorney and board member from Brooklyn, pointed to the organization's history and many accomplishments. "The NAACP is bigger than any one person," he said.

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