Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Victims of their own success

In April 2002, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial drawing upon census data that stated: “By any honest measure, blacks are significantly better off today than at any time in U.S. history.” Of course, you’d never suspect there was any cause for celebration at the recent meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) meeting in Florida. Starting from Julian Bond’s opening speech (with the risible “We are nonpartisan” line) it was all vitriol, anger over perceived “oppression”, and bitter evocation of the Civil War:

"In essence, you now have become persona non grata," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said of the Democrats who passed on the event. "Your political capital is the equivalent of confederate dollars."

"Anytime we can give a party 92 percent of our vote and have to still beg some people to come talk to us, there is still an ax-handle mentality among some in the Democratic Party," Sharpton yelled from the podium, waving a wooden ax handle.

Bond said the decision "gave legal sanction to what we knew to be morally, socially, and educationally correct." He urged states that have abandoned affirmative action policies to "come back into the Union."

"[Republicans] idea of reparations is to give war criminal Jefferson Davis a pardon. Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side” (Julian Bond’s speech).

Why does the NAACP dwell on the past when the present (and future) seem so much brighter than ever before? In part, it’s because hatred is such an accessible and effective motivator. In “The True Believer”, Eric Hoffer wrote: "Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil." So the NAACP leadership rolls out that old time religion of the good fight against the evil oppressors, ginning up the crowd with the university quota issue and the mythology of voter disenfranchisement. In return, they extract political power and large donations from the organization’s base.

What exactly the NAACP does with the money they collect seems beside the point. Bond barely mentions anything positive between the relentless GOP-bashing. It would appear that the NAACP is taking a page from the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a November 2000 article in Harper’s titled “The Church of Morris Dees”, Ken Silverstein noted that the SPLC raked in $44 million in donations and revenue in 1999, but spent only $13 million on civil rights programs – not bad for a “non-profit” group. Furthermore: “The American Institute of Philanthropy gives the Center one of the worst ratings of any group it monitors, estimating that the SPLC could operate for 4.6 years without making another tax-exempt nickel from its investments or raising another tax-deductible cent from well-meaning "people like you." The SPLC modus operandi is not that different from the NAACP’s: establish an enemy, emphasize the struggle, and ask for a donation.

To be fair, this methodology is not dissimilar to the game played by nearly every non-profit in the business. The problem is that the rhetoric of these advocacy groups is increasingly out of step with the reality. The website for Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD) has an “urgent” request for donations splashed across the homepage with dire statistics posted next to a “Victim’s Tribute.” Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that drunk-driving fatalities have dropped significantly over the past twenty years, but this is unmentioned on the MADD page. Progress doesn’t bring in donations – crisis does. Similarly, the ongoing crisis of “woman’s rights” takes center stage on the National Organization of Women’s webpage, despite the fact there is growing concern that the “new gender gap” has detrimentally affected the status of boys in America. Finally, there’s the hilariously ironic “MoveOn” organization that had its genesis as a group dedicated to derailing the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Far from “moving on” from its original mission, this Internet-based group, punch-drunk on tax-exempt donations, now fights the endless grass roots battle against…whatever. And whatever that thing is, it must be overcome! (exclamation point!) – won’t you help with a secure online contribution?

The Republican National Committee is going to send out fundraising letters with Hillary Clinton’s picture, just like the Democrats send ‘em out with a scowling John Ashcroft or Tom Delay. But that’s to be expected – that’s politics. The NAACP is an organization dedicated to a defined socio-economic goal: the advancement of its members. Unfortunately, for the NAACP and too many other advocacy groups, the Association became the more important part of their name.

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