The speech President Barack Obama gave at the NAACP’s 100th Anniversary Convention in New York in July brought to light the 21st century dilemma of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. Speaking to a civil rights community still geared towards reacting to racial discrimination and disparities in America, the first African-American president of the United States proclaimed: “Our destiny is in our hands.”
President Obama delivered a rousing, challenging message of self-determination, self-help, and individual responsibility. These are familiar themes in the black church and the black community, historically. Those words received a welcome reception from convention delegates, however, the reception by the audience masked a disconnect. One between the presidents’ address of responding to the black cultural and social crises in values, and, the civil rights community’s obsession with racism and victimization.
The president’s address reflected a growing consensus among African-American’s that our communities are spinning out of control. The fragmenting of our families and crises in values means we must now focus inward to move forward. Civil rights institutions and organizations, carrying over from the 20th century, tend to focus on disadvantages and the societal limitations of race. The president’s address represented a view point that has gained great currency. That is, the power of self-determination. In the current environment, excellence can overcome obstacles.
One sense of the NAACP’s grappling with redefining its purpose in the “Age of Obama” is reflective of the current unrest in the black community. The NAACP recently selected Ben Jealous to head the organization. At 38, he is the youngest person to head the established, national civil rights organization. It must be understood, however, that youthful window dressing cannot make up for a lack of focus and a relevant agenda. Mr. Jealous, at the July convention, spoke of fighting discrimination and racism against socially-disadvantaged groups. That is a good fight and someone has to wage it.
But for specific black communities in 2009, that is not a focus that will bring progress to our familial dysfunction, crises in values, and growing despair among our youth. The real crises today are not the forces of racism pressing from outside – they are the forces of cultural poverty, debauchery and despair from within. The NAACP must determine whether its role will be as a civil rights watchdog, or should retrain its focus upon advancing African-Americans and responding to our particular needs.
The despair we feel in our communities is that values are lost. We need to be renewed with the vision of an old proverb: “Sankofa.” The president’s pilgrimage from Cape Coast to the NAACP convention in New York in a weeks span was instructive in ways not even realized at the time.
We need to recreate a culture that embraces life and thirsts for education. One that accepts an obligation to an intergenerational transference of values, wisdom, and wealth. Altogether, that was the dream of the slaves for themselves and others. That was a dream they had in America and for America.