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NAACP moves to counter backward trends on race

Leaders promote ‘diversity pledge,’ coalitions, political power

Avery Bleichfeld
NAACP moves to counter backward trends on race
Leon Russell, chair of the NAACP board of directors, greets attendees at the convention opening. PHOTO: DON WEST

As participants descended on the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for the NAACP’s national convention, delegates and leaders saw the gathering as a needed chance to push back against white supremacy and conservative policies that they said pose a threat to Black communities.

“All of us need to be empowered and focused in the same direction, because if we are not, the 1950 reality that people are trying to take us to is not inclusive of any of our communities,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP. “If we do this right, the 2030 reality that we could wake up in is something where our kids and our grandkids could have a future that’s more consistent and more equitable than anything we’ve ever seen.”

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said in an interview that the “timely convening” needed to ensure that protections for Black lives are codified in laws and budgets at what she called a “pivotal inflection point.”

“We talked during the pandemic about every inequity and disparity and racial injustice having light shown and being exacerbated. Now the question is, so what?” Pressley said. “We can’t just default to an unjust status quo. We’re now we’re in the midst of an emboldened white supremacy that is threatening our very democracy and our very lives, and so we have to meet the moment.”

Top of mind for NAACP members at the convention was the June decision by the Supreme Court ending affirmative action in college admissions.

“We are the most diverse, in terms of the nation, that we’ve ever been — and as a result of that, our institutions of higher learning should reflect that, our workforce should reflect that, the opportunities that are provided should reflect that,” Johnson said at a news conference July 29. “So, as an organization, we’ve got to continue to push for diversity no matter what, but also begin to address some of the other systemic issues such as legacy programs.”

Following the Supreme Court decision, the NAACP on July 3 launched a “Diversity No Matter What” pledge encouraging colleges to support measures including the matriculation and retention of first-generation students, partnering with historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions, and ending legacy admissions.

Wisdom Cole, national director of the NAACP’s youth and college division, said that colleges must do everything they can to ensure Black students feel safe and welcome on campus. He said the youth division is focusing those efforts at a local and state level to inform national policy.

“It’s important for young people to build relationships with their elected officials, for them to be able to reach out, to speak with them and to keep them accountable,” Cole said. “We’re no longer just accepting promises. We need to see policies, plans and movement forward to ensure that we actually have the things that were guaranteed to us in those conversations.”

Patrice Willoughby, NAACP senior vice president for global policy and impact, said the civil rights organization is working with 500 colleges and universities, asking them to take the pledge. She said the impact will go beyond just who gets into college.

“This is not something that is just a moral imperative, this is also an issue of American competitiveness, and the way that we move forward as a country,” Willoughby said. “You cannot cut off the pipeline of what makes the mosaic of our country, the economic engine, by just saying, ‘Don’t consider diversity.’ Diversity is the secret sauce that really drives our success.”

At the convention, access to voting was lifted up as a lever to work to protect rights and push back against conservative policies.

“I always bet on the strength of this movement and the power of Black resistance, the power of our vote,” Pressley said. “The path forward is always one of organizing, of strategizing and of mobilizing, because ultimately that is how we advance policy change.”

On July 27, ahead of the official opening events of the convention, the Boston branch of the NAACP hosted a civic engagement bootcamp held at the Boston Teachers Union headquarters in Dorchester. The bootcamp brought together participants for sessions on increasing voter turnout and mobilization as well as protecting voting rights.

In an interview at the bootcamp, NAACP Boston Branch President Tanisha Sullivan said it is necessary to address broken trust in the voting system, which she said can be done through person-to-person organizing.

“It’s important for us to focus on building and restoring trust, because when people don’t trust the system, when people don’t trust our democracy, when people don’t trust that their vote matters, then people don’t vote. And who votes determines who gets elected, and those people have an outsized place in the policies that impact our lives,” Sullivan said. “We cannot afford to have people sit this out.”

Tyler Sterling, NAACP’s national mobilization director, said in an interview that voting is important to make sure that advocacy for policies is actually heard.

“While we are advocating for policy, it could perhaps fall on deaf ears if the right individuals aren’t in office,” Sterling said. “At the end of the day, we are a policy advocacy organization but centered around civic engagement to make sure that that vote turns out.”

Throughout the convention, Sterling led training sessions to teach attendees how to use the Voter Activation Network, a digital tool that allows identification of voters in an area in order to make canvassing lists and lists of whom to call during phone banking. He said it is an important tool to help, in particular, older activists who have worked on voter turnout for years.

Empowering and pulling along our civil rights legends into the new technology age is a really amazing opportunity,” Sterling said.

Throughout the convention, attendees focused on coalition-building as a necessary to oppose racism and white supremacy as it threatens Black communities.

During the bootcamp, Leon Russell, chair of the NAACP board of directors, called civic engagement a team sport.

“We have to understand that in this world of 2023, they’re coming after me today, but you are on the menu for tomorrow,” Russell said.

At a plenary session July 30, Johnson joined Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and rapper and criminal justice advocate Meek Mill to discuss the common interests and overlap between anti-Jewish hate and anti-Black hate.

“The most effective tool to derail progressive public policy is the use of race and otherism,” Johnson said during the panel. “What we are looking at in the backdrop of the 2016 election, is an aggressive attempt to otherize communities like African American communities, Jewish communities, Muslim communities, women, the LGBTQ community.”

Sullivan emphasized making connections between demographic groups and generations.

“We can no longer accept conversations that are not inclusive of diverse voices and are not intergenerational,” Sullivan said.

The convention also addressed LGBTQ+ rights through a resolution resolving to “openly and forcefully support” the community and take affirmative steps to welcome its members into the NAACP.

Ahead of voting on the convention’s policy resolutions, Johnson closed out his remarks with a broad call for support.

“Our message today is that we are Black, we are proud and we are thriving,” Johnson said. “We ask every American to stand with us so we can fight together. If they don’t want to stand with us, we can stand alone. We’ve demonstrated that in the past.”


NAACP resolutions passed

Delegates to the 114th convention in Boston voted July 31 on nearly 50 draft resolutions on policy issues. The resolutions will guide the positions and activities of the civil rights organization’s more than 2,000 local branches. Here are ten of the resolutions that passed:

Endorse debt-free college solutions

Call for a federal ethics law for Supreme Court justices

Reaffirm support for anti-racism education in K-12 schools

Condemn anti-Black efforts to distort and redefine the specific term “woke”

Call for restricting federal funding to jurisdictions that erode voting rights

Threaten lawsuits against bans on diversity, equity and inclusion programs

Urge monitoring of disproportionate disciplinary action against Black police officers

Threaten lawsuits against makers of hair relaxers associated with uterine cancer

Support continuing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Pledge to fight discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community