The Changing Face of the NAACP

Last week, NPR reported a growing trend among local NAACP chapters. They’re electing a new generation of leaders, many of whom are not African-American.  In Waterbury, Connecticut, the chapter elected Victor Diaz, a 32-year-old Hispanic who is one of about a dozen new local leaders broadening the NAACP mission.  They are changing the face of the NAACP as an organization not just for African-Americans but also for immigrants and LGBT people.

This news was music to my ears.  For too long, civil rights organizations have fought campaigns as separate issues.  But the advancement of colored people in the U.S. is bound up with struggles for economic justice, or LGBT equality, or immigrants’ rights. More organizations, like the NAACP, are recognizing the interconnectedness between issues and making common cause.

Take, for example, the “We are One” rallies, held in all 50 states last week.  Labor unions and civil rights groups held hundreds of rallies and teach-ins that tied their defense of collective bargaining with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s cause in the days before his death.  When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was planning to march with 1,300 striking sanitation workers.  Like King, they are standing for economic justice as part of racial justice.

We also saw this solidarity last month in Chicago, where youth marched downtown as part of a “National Coming Out” week of action. These young people weren’t LGBT youth coming out of the closet. They were undocumented immigrant youth coming out of the shadows. In the midst of the ongoing fight for the DREAM ACT and comprehensive immigration reform, organizers launched actions in New York, Texas, California, Georgia, and other states for young people to tell their stories.  But they used the framework of the LGBT struggle to make the goal not just “rights” but human dignity — the ability to live and flourish as who you are.

For many of us, especially those of us in the emerging generation, this interconnected approach not only makes sense.  It’s absolutely necessary if we are going to make any progress on the social challenges of our day. The NAACP is on the right track.

But not everyone’s pleased about it.  Many African-Americans, notably those in older generations, are threatened by the NAACP’s decision to elect non-black leaders. Robert N. Taylor, Veteran Editor of the Black News Journal, warns that “too much diversity” will “dilute” the organization. “We could just broaden ourselves out of existence,” he writes.  He worries that diverse leadership means abandoning black causes.

Taylor is badly mistaken. He’s judging leaders not by the content of their character but by the color of their skin.  He also assumes an integrated approach to justice means that we’re saying all causes are the same.  A Hispanic leader can be committed to black causes, and a straight person can fight for marriage equality, and still recognize the special needs across communities.  My hope is that more organizations will follow the direction of the NAACP.  It’s the only way forward.