The first page of the Constitution of the nation's oldest, most venerable and respected civil right's organization boldly states that it will wage a relentless fight to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of all citizens. During much of its century of existence, the NAACP has proudly and unambiguously done just that. It waged breath taking battles against economic and housing discrimination, racial slurs and defamation, and against poverty.
Now we come to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling; or rather Donald T. Sterling and the NAACP's cornerstone issues of economic and housing discrimination, racial slurs and defamation, and poverty. The much maligned Sterling has been sued, verbally lambasted, reprimanded, hit with reams of bad press, and threatened with pickets for these racial wrongs. Yet, the Los Angeles NAACP Chapter will give Sterling its highest honor, a lifetime achievement award. The shame, absurdity, and contradiction of the award to a man who in word, deed, and symbol is the diametric opposite of everything the nation's premier civil rights group stands for and has fought for is enough to draw a gag.
A Google search with the name Donald Sterling and racial discrimination found nearly 12,000 results. Not one of them even remotely had Sterling doing anything to further racial goodwill. The checklist of reported Sterling racial escapades include a Justice Department housing discrimination lawsuit and forced settlement, slurs and gaffes against Hispanics and African-Americans, and that includes two high profile Clipper players, the shooing of minorities away from his pricey Beverly Hills condos and rentals, and an overblown and failed promise to build a Homeless shelter on L.A.s skid row. Then there's the allegations and lawsuit by former Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor that Sterling runs his operations like a Southern plantation.
The NAACP airbrushed this away and simply said that Sterling has been a gem in giving oodles of tickets away to needy inner city kids and ladling out some cash to charities and sports camps for them. How any of this ranks as a take the lead, storm the barriers battle against racial injustice is a mystery. Dozens of sporting organizations, corporations, and high profile athletes routinely shove cash out to sports camps, and charities, and do ticket giveaways mostly to image massage, as tax write offs, or a PR, press or goodwill gesture.
The issue is not what, whether or even if Sterling did anything to further the cause of racial justice and civil rights. He hasn't. The issue is what the NAACP is doing to further it. NAACP President Benjamin T. Jealous to his credit has tried to define and carve out a new, even more aggressive role for the organization in that battle. He had too. In years past, the knock against the nation's oldest civil rights organization was that it was too staid, and tradition bound. That the NAACP's embrace of showy, symbolic fights did little to solve the mountainous problems of drugs, crime, and gangs, soaring joblessness among young blacks, and the astronomical rate of prison incarceration of blacks. And that it had badly slipped in fighting its trademark fights against job, and housing discrimination, the gaping racial disparities in education, and for criminal justice reforms.
The oft heard criticism that the NAACP retreated from visible activism on thorny racial and economic problems can be directly traced to the fight against legal segregation in the 1960s, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the class divisions within black America, and the greening of the black middle-class. By the close of the 1960s the civil rights movement had spent itself. The torrent of demonstrations, sit-ins, marches and civil rights legislation annihilated the legal wall of segregation. With the barriers erased, the black middle-class grew by leaps and bounds.
These battles did not have the remotest bearing on the lives of the black poor. A tilt by them toward a hard-edged activist agenda ran the risk of alienating the corporate donors and the Democratic politicians that the NAACP leaders have carefully cultivated. They depend on them to gain even more jobs, promotions, and contracts for black professionals and businesspeople, to bag contributions for their fundraising campaigns, dinners, banquets, scholarship funds and programs and increased political patronage.
There's nothing inherently wrong with that, money is the life blood of any organization, even an activist organization. But it's wrong if the organization pursues cash from any and every source with little regard to the damage the benefactor does or may do to the fight for civil rights and racial justice.
The same rule applies when it comes to who and for what a civil rights organization gives awards, let alone its most prestigious award. The award must go for real achievement and belief in the fight for civil rights and racial justice. If not then it's just a tainted and cheap piece of paper or slab of glass handed out to anyone with a name, fat checkbook, grants political favors, or who's adept at media grabbing PR gestures.
The NAACP should hold off on its lifetime achievement award to Sterling. He still has much to do to show he really deserves one.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles at 9:30 AM PST on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and nationally on blogtalkradio.com