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NAACP regains prominence by diversifying agenda

Associated Press | 7/27/2011, 2:03 a.m.

“He’s been very energetic,” Joseph said of Jealous.

Its grassroots base, meanwhile, has been boosted by an embrace of the country’s multi-ethnic tapestry. An openly gay black man, Hispanic immigrants, whites, Asians and Native Americans now serve as chapter presidents across the nation. “As the country becomes more diverse, so does the NAACP,” said Hilary Shelton, senior vice president of advocacy and policy. “We are so excited about that aspect.”

The organization has taken on a menu of group-specific issues ranging from gay rights to the DREAM Act, which would enable illegal immigrant students to gain residency after completing college, as well as wider issues related to poverty — joblessness, health care access, criminal justice, quality public schools — that disenfranchised communities tend to share.

“These issues transcend race, but they’re highly concentrated in poor black and Latino communities,” Joseph said.

In some ways, that makes the NAACP’s broader mission harder to tackle because the issues aren’t as visible as overt racism, but become civil rights problems because they disproportionately affect minorities.

“Jim Crow was in your face,” said Hutchinson. “It was much easier to mobilize around that. These areas are harder to put your finger on because discrimination is harder to prove.”

The new stance doesn’t sit well with everyone. Some charge that by expanding its playing field, the NAACP is paying short shrift to its core mission of advocating for the black community, which is beset with problems that still include police brutality and racial profiling.

“The NAACP’s focus is not broad, it’s specific — it’s for black people,” said Boston activist Jamarhl Crawford, who publishes blackstonian.com and is a vocal critic of the new strategy. “The first job is not done. We got a lot of work to do in that regard.”

Veteran NAACP members say the organization’s new push actually reflects its original mission. The group was founded in 1909 by black and Jewish groups and has had white and other ethnic leaders and members in some areas of the country throughout its history.

It has always stood for equal access to jobs, housing and schools, but with different emphases over the years, noted Leon Russell, a 43-year-member who is vice chairman.

For many years, education was about ending school segregation, he said, and now it’s about ensuring poor communities have access to the same quality of education as more affluent ones.

Still, when some 6,000 NAACP members gather over the next week to discuss and debate the organization’s policy agenda for the upcoming year, several issues specific to the black community are priorities — one is the plight of black men, who remained dogged by high rates of incarceration, murder and unemployment.

Jealous said the organization is working to reconcile disparate sentencing laws, such as harsher terms for crack cocaine offenses, which is more prevalent in the black community, compared to powder cocaine.

A shorter-term issue is ensuring African American voter rights for the 2012 presidential election. A number of states have passed restrictive voting laws that activists say will disenfranchise swaths of black voters, such as requirements to present a photo ID at the polling booth.

Although NAACP’s historic battles are over, Jealous said the organization remains more relevant than ever with an increasingly divisive political climate and growing poverty. “This is a very tense time in our nation’s history,” he said.

Associated Press