Monday, November 15, 2010

NAACP Misses a Moment, but Hope Lies Ahead

Yesterday’s NAACP election was a potential watershed moment in Cleveland political history. It was an opportunity to move beyond the representational politics that have come to dominate much black political activity, especially in communities still operating on old ethnic group patronage models of allocating political and economic resources. This obviously includes places like Cuyahoga County, where black political activity in the post-civil rights era often amounts to a kind of race relations management in which the have-nots fight in the trenches while the higher ups are busy allocating the spoils.

It helps us to understand events when we are able to see them in the larger contexts of structure and process. The political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. has written compellingly about black politics in the post-segregation era. He talks about the nonparticipatory politics enacted by the mainstream black politicians where the undifferentiated masses, the underclass, do not speak. The spokesman is identifiable, but his constituency can be defined only by inference.

The Plain Dealer account of yesterday’s NAACP election said that George Forbes won an easy victory over his opponent and quoted him and member Jocelyn Travis as attributing the victory to Forbes’ being essential to protecting the black community’s economic interests.  The story was incomplete as to facts, one-sided as to sourcing, disingenuous in its analysis, and devoid of context that would suggest why the election had any significance.

Forbes was indeed re-elected yesterday for a tenth term as president of the Cleveland Branch NAACP. To say, however, that he “easily defeated opponent Lawrence Floyd” or that his candidacy was “in response to a mandate” as the page 1 teaser put it, is to advance dubious propositions.

Forbes received 65 votes to 53 for Floyd. Nine contested ballots went unopened because they would not have affected the twelve-vote margin. When you consider that there were 18 unopposed candidates on the Forbes slate running either for officer positions or for executive committee seats, the race was more like 19 people against one. The size of the vote and the relative slimness of the margin against a solitary opponent, who was not a household name, actually attest to a tenuous victory and a rising chorus for change.

Forbes’ team includes several officers — Bishop F. E. Perry, attorney James L. Hardiman, Dr. Eugene Jordan, and Amos Mahsua, CPA — who average about 30+ years on the board. Unverified numbers provided to The Real Deal indicate that local branch membership has dwindled to less than 1500, including many churches, social organizations, businesses and others who hold Life Memberships that were fully paid decades ago. Attendance at this year’s Freedom Fund Dinner, the branch’s major fundraiser, was only about half of what it was back when Forbes was first elected president, notwithstanding the growth claims he made in a letter sent to the membership just last week.

The fall off in support for the NAACP is not just local. The national office is challenged regularly to defend its relevance in a post-segregated world. This is not a post-racial America even though we are a generation beyond the basic legal racial restrictions in voting rights, public accommodations, and the like. However, in critical areas — criminal justice, public education, voter disqualification, housing, police misconduct — there are persuasive arguments that far more sophisticated tools of discrimination and exclusion have been developed.

The need for a strong and vital civil rights organization will doubtless be coterminous with the history of the country. If you doubt it, ask pretty much any immigrant of color without a Ph.D. Neither wealth, power, status is any guarantee against arbitrary discrimination.

The Cleveland NAACP has become a model of exclusion where alternative voices are discouraged, debate is stifled in the false idol of racial unanimity, and power is concentrated in whimsical and tyrannical hands. The idea that only one octogerarian man can assure equitable treatment for 400,000 black people — is of course, ludicrous. The re-elected president has now attributed this irrational view to both the casino moguls and to the local NAACP lay leadership.

The same values of transparency, collaboration, accountability, dialogue and inclusion that motivated the best efforts of county reforms must become core within the NAACP. This is the surest if not the only way in which the Cleveland NAACP can once again become a trusted community partner.

The next branch election is two years away. Join the NAACP now, get involved and make a difference. That is the hope that lies ahead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article. Unfortunately, the PD gets stories wrong more than most people realize. -- Lora T.