NAACP President Ben Jealous decries national addiction to incarceration over education.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
MCWeekly: Who are some of your local heroes in the Civil Rights struggle? And why?
Ben Jealous: It was a whole family of people active in the NAACP. They had faith in me, got me started, taught me how to organize, do voter registration drives, knock on doors, engage people. I would be a very different person if people hadn’t reached out to me when I was young. I’ve been inspired by people like Sylvia Waldrup-Quarles, Helen Rucker, Mel Mason.
How is the NAACP continuing the progress of those predecessors?
The most urgent thing this year is defense of voting rights across the country, the ongoing struggle to ensure communities of color have the power to elect their candidates of choice. Michael Schwerner [of CORE] and Medgar Evers died to [enforce voting laws]. Throughout the country there are massive attacks on access to the ballot box.
Our biggest focus, as far as offense, is increasing access to quality education for young people, extend the school day and the school year, increase access to quality teachers, make pre-K universal. It’s about ending our nation’s addiction to incarceration. The prison system eats the lunch of public education every day and twice on Sunday. I stood shoulder to shoulder with Mike Jimenez, president of the California prison guards union, and we spoke about the misplaced priorities [of the prison system]. Drug rehab is seven times more effective, dollar for dollar, than incarceration. Prison guards agree.
Our mission, a century ago, was mass desegregation. Now, our job is to smash extreme poverty and everything that reinforces it. Racism plays a very powerful role in keeping people poor in this country. We saw this play out with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, sitting there in Iowa, where nine percent of the population is black, saying [we shouldn’t] give money to black people through welfare checks, ignoring the fact that most recipients [of welfare] are white in Iowa. And across the country they’re mostly white.
How does NAACP stay relevant in a community in which the demographics are changing?
The poetry of it is that we start with an agenda of the most urgency concerning the black community and you can’t help but help everyone, because black people are the canary in the coal mine. When we shamed the country out of the practice of lynching, the group that benefited most were black. The people who benefitted the second most was Catholics, primarily Italians, who were the second most lynched group. When we fight to increase access to quality education and against incarceration, black kids may benefit, but more white people will benefit. Numerically, that’s the reality. That’s the beauty of the NAACP.
What will you talk about at the [Feb. 4] NAACP Monterey County Branch 80th anniversary banquet?
I will focus on three NAACP articles of faith, which is simply this: Our nation gets better and better when we expand access to quality education, financial opportunity, and to the ballot box and political leadership. That’s what [the NAACP] has focused on for a century.
In this moment – when congress and governors are doing nothing for job creation, not enough to stem the foreclosure crisis, cutting school budgets when they should be expanding them, participating in a wave of voter suppression – the country and young people need the NAACP more than ever.