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Ben Jealous: My name is Ben Jealous, I'm President of NAACP. 

Question: What first motivated you to pursue a career in social justice?

Ben Jealous: Yeah, my parents were both active in the 1950's and '60's, and my grandparents as well.  And I was raised in a family where we were taught that the best thing you could do with your life was to really kind of push the cause of progress and justice and human rights in this country forward.

Question: What forms of discrimination have you experienced personally?

Ben Jealous: Yeah, growing up black in the States, even in the 1970's, meant that you were subjected.  And probably the things probably the most glaring to me was I think both the way I was treated as a child in stores, like the local five and dime.  I grew up in a town that didn't have many black folks, and it was pretty clear that the black kids were treated different than the black kids; more suspect, more shop owners were afraid we might steal something.  And also the white people responded to my parents’ marriage.  My dad's white and my mom's black, and it wasn't very socially acceptable.  When I was born it would have been legal for just over five years.  So, it was a different time.

Question: In what ways does the perspective of your generation influence your NAACP leadership?

Ben Jealous: You know, my generation, they used to refer to us as the "children of the dream."   The kids who were born just as and just after the big civil rights victories were born.  And we were told when we were coming up, look, all the big victories have been won.  Your job, young man, or young woman, is to just go out and play hard by the rules, because the rules are now fair.  And that worked well for many of us.  I mean, I went to great universities and won great scholarships and all that stuff.  But for many of us, it didn't.  I mean, we came of age as a generation just in time to find ourselves the most murdered generation in this country and the most incarcerated generation on the planet.  And that's the shadow, if you will, of the shining victories of the 1960's.

Question: How does the older generation feel about your generation’s handling of civil rights issues?

Ben Jealous: The battle at any given moment is multi-generational.  My parents and my grandparents were both involved in the battles of the '50's and '60's.  And so who’s ever on the battlefield agrees there's a reason to be on the battlefield and there's a reason to be fighting.  So the leaders of the civil rights movement who are still active, people like Joseph Lowery, like Julian Bond, like Merilee Evers, like Dr. Hazel Dukes here in New York, couldn't agree more.  I mean, we have great – because they have lived their whole lives with their eyes wide open.  And they understand just how far we've come; perhaps better than my generation does because they lived through it.  But they also understand how far we haven't come.  Again, because to the extent that there are similarities, to the extent that there are whole groups of people in the black community, or in the country as a whole who have gone backward in the last 40 years.  Well, they've watched them go backward too.

Question: In the long run, is the NAACP’s mission to make itself obsolete?

Ben Jealous: I mean, we're in business to go out of business, but you know so long as we see stats that say it's easier for a white man with a criminal record to find a job than it is for a black man without one.  We're in business for a long time, both frankly for that black man and for the white guy who's been treated almost as bad as the black guy. 

Question: How can the NAACP continue to help African-Americans in the 21st century? 

Ben Jealous: Yeah, in the 21st century, a lot of the barriers that exist, they're growing back up.  In the 21st century, like the centuries before, there is a problem so big in the society that you can see it from space.  I mean, you think about the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century, the beginning of any of those.  You would have seen in the 18th century, for instance, the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  You would have seen from space in the 19th century the plantations across the South with bodies bent over closely together working the fields.  You would have seen in the 20th century racial segregation that, literally, west of Charles Street in Baltimore were black folks and east of Charles Street were white folks.  And you would see in this century, the prisons that pockmark our country, our people in our country are 5% of the world's people and 25% of the world's prisoners.  Now what that means, and that's people of all colors.  Now if you took black and brown people, all of them, out of prison tomorrow, this country would still have way more than its share of prisoners.  They would just be by a factor of two, and not a factor of five. 

So, in our lifetime, in my lifetime, this country has greatly increased the rate at which it incarcerates white people, and yet black people are incarcerated five times more than that.  And that really defines at the beginning of this century what we have to fix.  Now, in order to bring down the incarceration rate, well, you've got to start with the beginning of life.  You've got to make sure that parents and schools are prepared to prepare young people for success.  You've got to deal with the next stage of life.  You've got to make sure that people in this opportunity have the opportunity to work at a good job, they have access to good healthcare, and that they have the opportunity to build wealth and to actually advance their family's status in the country over time. 

And then finally, we need to make sure that our justice system works for the interests of everybody.  That it makes every community safer, that it uses incarceration as a last resort for people who are a danger to themselves or to society and that we use, quite frankly, the means that allow us to hold as much of our resources for other priorities as possible.  I mean, right now for instance, New York state last year, we pushed them to change the Rockefeller drug laws.  And they did.  And in doing so, not only were poor drug addicts now given access to what rich drug addicts always had access to, which is rehab, but they saved a lot of money in the process.  And that is sort of the thing about the incarceration struggle in our society is that really at the end of the day is both the proof of the failure of so many other strategies, education strategies, employment strategies.  It also is the acid that eats away at each those strategies.  

In the state of California right now, you see a system where the tuition rate is going up 30% in the fall. There's no way to explain that without acknowledging that California is one of five states that spends more on incarceration than public education.  And if you look at the pattern over the last 25 years, right away, the priorities have flipped.  State spending in California on public higher education has gone from about 12% of the budget to around 4% or 5%, and at the same time, state spending in California on incarceration has gone from 4% or 5% of the budget to around 11% or 12%.  And you see that across the country that as what we spend on incarceration goes up, the money we have for schools and colleges goes down and so, part of the struggle for our generation is allowing people to see the connection and to understand that at the end of the day, this isn't a movement for education over here and a movement for worker's rights over there, and a movement for justice reform.  It's all one broad domestic human rights movement. 

I think that's the biggest functional struggle, is to get people to see the connections and then to connect themselves to one another.

Question: Is the incarceration crisis the civil rights struggle of the 21st century?

Ben Jealous: I would say things a bit differently.  Quality schools, making sure that each child has access to a quality education is the civil rights struggle of this century, but the catch is we don't get there unless we solve the incarceration crisis in this society.  We literally won't have the funds to do it and will continue to break up far too many families to be able to believe that all children here are really going to start off with the foundation that they need.  And that's – I think we are accustomed in our society to thinking that you can go after one issue all by itself.  And when it comes to schools and incarceration, you just got to start off recognizing that in the poorest communities, and in the state budget, they are absolutely connected. 

If we want to get the incarceration issue under control in this country, we have got to make sure that we use incarceration as a last resort, not a first resort.  So, that means more shifts like we saw in New York State last year saying, okay, what do we really want to get out of having the court coming into contact with a low-level drug addict?  We want them to get off drugs.  So, let's send them towards rehab, not towards prison.  Because if we send them towards prison, they'll come back in a few years, they're going to be angry, they're going to be more desperate, and they're going to be more dangerous.  And that's not what society wants to get out of this equation.  Right?  And it'll cost us twice as much money. 

Similarly, we need to just really revamp -- and one of the things we are pushing in Congress right now is a bill by Senator Jim Webb that would force the country to take a look at its justice system from soup to nuts.  For the last 40 years, we've been pushing this notion in this country that the best thing we can do when it comes to crime is to be tough.  And in a country as intelligent as ours, we should always know that when somebody says the best thing you can do is be tough, the best thing you can do is use your brute force, then we're selling ourselves short. 

The best thing we can do is be smart.  And when you're smart on crime, what you see is, you shift from how do we punish these people as much as possible to how do we bring down crime as quickly as possible in a way that's sustainable.  And what that drives you towards are alternatives to incarceration, what it drives you towards is using probation and parole in ways that are much more intelligent where you're going to ratchet it up for people who are more violent and you ratchet it down for people who are less violent.  And what it drives you towards is really focusing on re-entry, and how do you get somebody from prison into the workplace into their community in a way that sets them up for staying out of prison.  

In the California prisons right now, 67% of the people are there have recidivated, have been there before.  And we spent all this money on keeping them in prison and then very, very little on actually setting them up for success.

Question: How can the issue of prison rape be brought to serious attention?

Ben Jealous:  Yeah, again, when you're smart on crime, you start off by recognizing that both the victim, first of all, the victim, but also the person who did the crime are both human.  Have both been broken in various ways and could either be healed more by what happens through the courts, what happens through the justice system, or broken more.  And the goal should be a win-win.  The goal should be that, at the end of it, anybody who's coming back to society is healed more, as well as the victim getting a greater sense of closure and sense of justice. 

When you look at an issue like prison rape, what you see are people being violently broken while inside of the care of our society.  The prisons are an extension of our society.  People come in there and literally in jails and prisons across this country, people young, old, male, female, who have been convicted, who are awaiting arraignment, are raped on a daily basis by inmates and by guards and by contractors at these facilities.  Probably the most heartbreaking situation I saw was in the California Youth Authority, the prison for girls.  You know, for females who are not yet 18 in California being systematically raped.  I mean, just again, and again. The allegations when I was with Amnesty were unceasing from the girls’ facility in California.  And you will see it in jails -- the way that we got consensus on the bill was that a number of men who had gone to prison as a result of the savings and loan scandals.  These are white collar criminals, who were raped; spoke up about what their experiences had been.  And helped us convince -- and it was sad.  You would hope in a representative democracy that things like race and class don't keep a representative from identifying with an issue, but I see privileged white men come in to talk, quite frankly, to other privileged white men who, in this case, former bankers coming in to talk to people in Congress was transformative for those Congressmen.  And it got them to understand that this wasn't a joke.  In fact, it was their first -- it was probably their worst fear in that their constituents, all of them, **** there for the country to actually do something about it. 

Question: On what race-related issues have we made the most progress since the 1960s?

Ben Jealous: Well, Brown v. Board of Education has worked everywhere except for the school.  Except for the venue in which it was intended to work.  You hop on a train and it's a desegregated train, you get on a plane it's a desegregated plane, you hop into a taxi and anybody can hop into the taxi, and the same thing with the bus, and the same thing with most work places.  Although there are many, I mean, you know, 15% of advertising firms on Madison Avenue have no black -- major big ones, hundreds of people, have no black person working for them.  Right?  In a city that's like 20-someting percent black.  So, we have made progress in every sector.  Where we've made -- and the military is where probably were things have succeeded most and where the success seems most resistant to being rolled back on.  

Schools, unfortunately is where we've seen the biggest regression, and that, unfortunately -- when the NAACP started its first century -- was job one and now as we start our second is job one too.

Question: What are the major challenges in 21st century minority education?

Ben Jealous: You know, it's a funny thing, in this country we all believe that we have a right to go to school.  We have a right to a good education.  And we don't.  The U.S. Constitution contains no right for a child to go to school, let alone for a child to go to a good school.  And yet, we know as a people that if they don't go to a good school, they're less likely to be able to realize all that this country has to offer. 

The focus for the 21st century has to be ensuring that every child born in this country, can grow up and go to a good school, get a good education, and be set up for success.  Across this country that's just not the reality.  We've seen schools rapidly desegregate over the last 20 years.  That's why what Secretary Duncan is doing right now to rebuild the civil rights enforcement powers of the Department of Education are so important. 

Now, a Latino child in California is more likely to go to a more deeply segregated school than a black child in Mississippi.  And so problems that we think of in our mind as being in one part of the country or another tend to be all across the country.  That child in Los Angeles may go to a classroom with 50 kids in it.  And they live in a state that spends an average of $5,800 per child to go to school, and $248,000 to incarcerate a child for one year in the state prison.  You can see where the connection is.  That literally it costs the same as an entire classroom of children to send one kid to prison in California.  

The focus has to be on recognizing the instruction gap in this country.  People talk about an achievement gap, and they talk about, for instance, only 31% of black males graduate from high school in Baltimore.  Only 38% of white males graduate from high school in Baltimore.  So, that really is a Baltimore problem, right?  More than it's a black problem or a white problem.  It's a black and white problem -- it's a Baltimore problem. 

But 40% of that achievement gap would be closed if quality teachers across society were distributed on an even basis.  We're still fighting, in other words, for the same things we were fighting for a long time ago.  We're fighting for good teachers, we fighting for kids to have new books, we fighting for kids to be in decent classrooms, we're fighting for kids to be treated fairly.  Right now, the way we use school discipline in this society is out of control.  Here in New York City, we had a situation a few weeks ago where a young Latino girl who wrote on her desk with an erasable marker was taken out of the classroom in handcuffs and taken downtown and booked.  That's just not what any parent would want to see any child subjected to. 

We also, besides resources and teachers in dealing with school discipline, we really have to, as a country, recognize that school is where people get their identity not just as a scholar, or a future business person, but as a citizen.  And we need to make sure that our schools set them up for success as citizens.  And that's why desegregation is so important, that people grow up in an environment that reflects the diversity of the country.  That's why making sure that civics are taught in school is so important.  We need to see our schools as what they are, which is a place to train the next generation to lead and not places simply to lead them to prison or some other dark path.  And that's, unfortunately what so many of our schools are.  I mean, when you really spend time in so many of our public schools and poor neighborhoods, black or white across this country, you can see how a child could give up hope by the time that they're 12.

Question: Should Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone be imitated nationwide, as Obama has suggested?

Ben Jealous: Harlem Children's Center is incredible.  I've known Geoff for 20 years.  The first time I've met him was as a kid in college.  The question is how easily could it be replicated.  It's something that thrives in one of the wealthiest cities on the planet.  And the question is, well, could you transport that to Mississippi?  Now, I would agree that in a sort of perfect world, we could.  But in this country right now where resources for schools are based on local property taxes, it becomes nearly impossible.  So, I would say, yes, it should be replicated wherever it possibly could be, but I have real doubts about it.  So, it's a yes, but I have real doubts that the country could literally afford to do that across the country.  Or more importantly, if we could afford to do it, if we would do everything we would need to, to be able to afford it.  When we stop fighting wars overseas and doing the sorts of things that eat up all those trillions of dollars we could be spending to treat our kids as well as Geoff treats the kids up in Harlem.

Question: What brand-new problems have arisen for African-Americans in the past decade?

Ben Jealous: Sure.  I mean, since September 11th, for blacks and for whites, there have become new pernicious forms of employment discrimination.  And in the wake of September 11th, there were stories about ex-felons working in baggage claim at airports.  And the response was, first by the companies that produce the sort of job applications for low level public jobs.  And then throughout private industry was to put a check box on the front of the job application that says, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime."  Well, as you might imagine, when you're a hiring manager and the box is checked, it just goes right in the trash.  We literally changed hundreds of years of tradition in this country where people were only asked that question in a job interview.  Once a company decided that they were interested in them, and then they were able to explain themselves.  And we put it on the application, where it just goes in the trash.  And you discouraged people from applying and you typically preclude them from being considered. 

Now, in this country, it's harder for a black man with no criminal record to find a job than a white man with a criminal record, which is to say that race is actually a bigger factor than ex-felon status.  But if you're both, it's almost impossible to find a job.  And that's an area that we've been really working on very intently.  As we've been working on this issue, what's come to our attention is that credit scores are being used in much of the same way.  Imagine, the middle of a recession, our employers across the country have increasingly begun to use credit scores to determine whether or not they hire somebody.  I mean, it would be a joke if it wasn't so serious, right?  It's absolutely the opposite thing of what you do.  Take a country of people who are in financial distress, the ones who are most in financially distressed are the ones that are least likely for us to hire them.   

And so we have found ourselves fighting on new fronts, on still carrying the banner for racial equality, but also understanding that in the 21st century we have to fight for simply human equality as well.  And that really, for the NAACP, people don’t realize, you know we weren't founded like so many groups after like the Black Power Movement, or the Chicano Power Movements.  We were founded in 1909 on the hundredth birthday of President Lincoln.  And our dream has always been to manifest his dream, that this be one country where all people are treated with equality and dignity and have the ability for the children to be raised with hope and for the children to have the opportunity to gain prosperity.

Question: What can be done to involve African-Americans more in the green movement?

Ben Jealous: As a kid, the first group I ever paid dues to was a group called SEEK.  That was a bunch of green activists on the college and high school campuses; actually I set up one of their first high school chapters.  And there's always been I think in the black middle class a lot of folks who have been active in the green movement in this country.  For working people, you've got to make it worth their while; you've got to connect at the kitchen table as using ways that are very explicit.  So, you'll see folks, you know, in Whirl, Mississippi, where a plant that used to produce some horrible toxin has exploded getting very involved in that local issue because it's about life and death, it's about their children's health, they get it, they understand it. 

Katrina helped, and Haiti has helped to make that case in a more general basis to working class folks, but what really I think has the best opportunity to get working class black people involved in the green movement is connecting it to the opportunity for jobs, connecting it to their children's health in very explicit ways, very high rates of respiratory disease in the black community that come from very local environmental contamination.  And there's a real sense that changes in the global economy is passing our neighborhoods and communities by.  And so, yeah, I have great hope that the green jobs movement in this country will pull in generations of black people who have stood by the sidelines in that battle because no one has ever made the connection for them about how this actually would make their lives better.

Question: Why haven’t African-Americans fought harder alongside gay rights activists?

Ben Jealous: We had to start from the fact -- somebody once said to me, I didn't march in the '60's so that men could sleep together.  And I was like, well, that's all right because Byron Rustin had that held down.  You know, the man who planned the march on Washington was gay, was known to be gay, and that was okay with Dr. King, it was okay with Julian Bond and John Lewis then, and it's okay now.  Our only regrets about Byron Rustin are that he still isn't with us planning marches. 

So, I think we have to start from the premise that gay people are a part of the NAACP.  They've been a part of the social justice movement.  The gay black people in particular live both of those identities, as we all live multiple identities.  You know.  

The NAACP, for that reason has always been quick to recognize across a whole range of issues that common interests as black people, as black people, or as multiple identities as black people, and gay people as gay people and there are multiple shades and colors.  I mean, for instance, issues of police brutality, employment discrimination, hate crimes.  We have been there side by side, fighting on again and again.  We just had a big victory, the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd bill, but the NAACP bought ads in Texas to promote and really to beat up on the then-Governor, about-to-become-President Bush, for his lack of support 10 years ago.  And we're out there now in the employment non-discrimination act.  And we're out there now in Uganda.  We hate the death penalty because it's the death penalty, but we also, we hate it all the more when you say that you want to make being a member of a minority group, any minority group the reason that you get the death penalty.  And that's what they're trying to do in Uganda.  They're trying to actually make the being gay a crime punishable by death.

Where there has been distance recently has been between religious communities in general.  And the movement for marriage equality and the NAACP has a very religious base.  And people who want to see movement on that issue are people who want -- like people want to see more blacks in the Republican Party, need to invest in outreach.  Need to really say, you know what, that constituency is a priority and I'm going to make it my business to make sure that we reach out to that constituency on their terms and in the way that's the most effective.  That’s what any good organizer does, that's what I do for the issues that I'm pushing. 

With that said, Julian Bond for instance, our past chair, is very outspoken in support.  I let it be known that I personally support marriage equality.  My brother, the man who is closer to me than any man on this planet, my best friend since I was six years old -- I'm sorry, six months old -- and whose mom celebrated Mother's Day with my mom and whose family lived with us off and on for a third of my life, is gay, is HIV positive, is on-again, off-again homeless.  I've spent many -- a lot of money trying to keep him from being homeless, but sometimes people just, you know, issues in their life that no dollar can overcome.  So, it's very personal for a lot of us, I guess is what I'm saying. 

But we're a democratic organization at the end of the day, and that means that we that tend to be on the front edge on some issues and we tend to lag behind on others and we never get there until a consensus is built.  And that's why I say to folks, look, if you want to see the NAACP even more active than we have been, and we've been active in California.  Folks there in California voted to oppose Prop 8, and they rolled out all the stops to oppose it.  The national office signed onto the lawsuit to invalidate Prop 8 because we were able to get consensus on the principle that a simple majority vote should not be able to trump a court's finding of the fundamental right.  That's a threat to a whole range of rights, including the right to marry, but also the right to be treated with respect in the workplace; not get discriminated in the workplace, for instance.  Apparently that has to be put up to a vote in California. 

So, we had been involved, you know, gay people have been involved in the NAACP for a long time.  The NAACP has been supportive of a broad civil human rights agenda in this country, including rights for gay and lesbian people, for a long time and many of our most outspoken leaders are very outspoken on the issue of marriage equality and many are outspoken against it.  And like any other democratic organization, trade union, what have you, it's being worked through.  And the way that one side wins or the other is that they decide that they want the membership of the NAACP to be supportive of this one particular part of the agenda more than the other side does.  And right now it seems to be a bit of a toss-up.

Question: Were you surprised to see an African-American elected president in 2008?

Ben Jealous: No.  I’m a fifth generation member of the NAACP, and we train our kids to dream really big and impossible dreams.  It has always been the formula for the NAACP.  When it was founded and when my grandmother's grandfather first joined, the man had been born a slave.  The big dream then was to shame the country out of the practice of lynch mob justice. 

And so for us to say from an apartment in New York City where our first group met that we were going to do that was crazy.  And yet we did it.  It took us 50 or 60 years, but we did it. 

So, that's our tradition.  Our tradition is to train our kids to dream big dreams and to pursue them doggedly.  And about half a century earlier, our membership really started talking in earnest about breaking the color barrier on the White House, about setting it up and fought battle after battle after battle, and that's the context in which I was raised in, in the human rights movement and brought into the NAACP as a teenager, was that we were on a mission to maximize black voter participation and to maximize the opportunities for black people to run for and win office, Mayor, Governor, and so forth. 

My grandfather, a couple of generations back, you know if you will, the third generation member of the association was more circumspect.  He wasn't able to dream that big.  I talked to my grandfather about it and I told him that some friends of mine, before I rose to my current position, I was running a foundation in California.  So, some friends of mine and I put in our plan to help move the black vote into early primary states.  And we raised several million dollars to do that.  I said, I think we have a winner this time, Granddad, I think we're going to go all the way. And he said, "In my 90 years of being a black man on this planet can be of any value to you, don't get your hopes up because it ain't gonna happen."  I said, "Really Granddad, you don't think there’s any possibility?"  "Well, son," he said, "It'll be a cold day before that happens."  Well, less than three years later, I was sitting 15 rows behind the about to become President Obama on Inauguration Day.  I kept looking up because it was like the coldest day I could remember in Washington D.C.  And I said, "Granddad, you were exactly right.  It is a cold day, and Barrack Hussein Obama is President."  It was a good day.  It was a good day.

Question: What has impressed and disappointed you most about Obama?

Ben Jealous: You know, I give the President wide latitude in his first year.  There are things that, like the Iraq War that our membership would like to see ended more quickly.  But we understand that this is a President who came into office in the midst of a rapidly expanding recession, two wars, and we have a lot of faith that he is not just doing the best he can, he is doing the best that can be done.  I'm very excited by the quick passage of the stimulus bill last year which included a lot of money for restoring school which had been rotting in this country for decades and create 2.5 million jobs in a time when, man, we needed jobs to be created.  I'm very excited about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act being passed, which is a bill that made it possible for women to really know that if they had been discriminated in the workplace they were going to get their day in court and be treated fairly.  We are very excited about the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd bill being passed and more importantly, about the civil rights infrastructure being rebuilt.  And I think part of our patience -- it's been misinterpreted, I think, the patience of black people and civil rights leaders at this moment.  Part of our patience comes because we're more aware than most just how much damage was done by the Bush Administration to the federal government's ability to enforce civil rights.  And so we've been celebrating people of good conscience being hired into key positions for the last year and a half.  Now the bar raises because the people are in position, or if the Senate is holding up their nomination, well it's just clear and we got to get on with it.  And we're starting to see good signs. 

Secretary Duncan came out the other day and made a very unequivocal commitment to ensuring that racial re-segregation, racial discrimination, the mistreatment of poor children en masse in American schools, discrimination against people who are learning English for the first time would be treated -- would be a top priority.  And that actions would be taken forthwith, and as we speak, they're launching a major investigation in Los Angeles, for instance. 

So, we have seen great progress, we have reason to be hopeful and as we're patient because we knew that, if you will, the starting line for him was probably a hundred yards back from where it should have been, and literally between when he won in November and when he started in January, the direction of the economy meant that the track was all of a sudden uphill.

Question: What’s the most important thing Obama could do for black Americans that he hasn’t done yet?

Ben Jealous: The biggest piece of the agenda that doesn't seem to be really even on the radar screen is serious criminal justice reform, serious criminal justice reform.  Black people are 15% of crack users in this country.  We use crack like every other group at about direct correlation with our percentage of the population.  White people are 65% of the crack users in this country.  White people are 5% of the people locked up for using crack, black people are 85% of the people locked up for using crack.  Yeah, that issue, he was very clear when he was campaigning was -- that that disparity was unacceptable and the disparity that compounds it, which is that the punishments for using crack are 100 times stiffer than for using powder, even though it's the same drug as cocaine. 

So, we would like to see him speak out on criminal justice issues.  We would like to see him really push, really support -- signal support for Jim Webb's bill to for the country to just take a look because he knows.  He knows as somebody who has taught constitutional law, who represented the south side of Chicago, who pushed through powerful law enforcement accountability bills when he was in the state Senate in a state where people were tortured with impunity up until 10 years ago.  And so we would like to hear and see more there.  We have faith that it's coming.  His appointment of Eric Holder as our top law enforcement official was genius and that's somebody who gets it.  And Eric and the President, people who are capable of explaining to the country that this is about justice for all of us. 

In the last decade, I guess the good news, if you will, is that black drug arrests were down 20%.  The other news is that white drug arrests, the bad news, were up 40%.  The war on crystal meth that we are seeing right now, if you look at the footage, which is typically poor white people being locked up, engaged with the police and locked up.  It's literally a film negative.  It's just like it's flipped from what we saw on the war on crack 20 years ago in poor black people.  That's not progress.  That's not progress for this country.  And we need a President and the Attorney General to be even more clear than they have been, that this country needs to move forward with its criminal justice policies towards a place that makes all of our children safer and not continue with the past set by people like Richard Nixon and George Wallace 40 years ago.  Barry Goldwater 40 years.  Really, we're going by the Barry Goldwater/Richard Nixon playbook and it's not serving our country well.

Question: How does the experience of “mixed race” Americans differ from that of “black” Americans?

Ben Jealous: You know, the beauty of being black in this society is that black has always been an inclusive definition.  White has always been an exclusive definition.  I think one of the challenges for white people in the next 40 years is to figure out how to have a more inclusive picture of who their families are, of who they are. 

I grew up in a family where my father's white and my mother is black, but if we're honest, the exception may be the two or three generations in between on the black side, most of the male parents – it’s hard to call them a parent, you raped the mother, most of the male parents were white for generations.  Growing up as a black kid with a white father who loves you, who affirms you, who was part of your life is fundamentally different than what people in my family were subjected to in the 19 century or the 18th century.  But unfortunately, it doesn't change the old racial order.  I think we need to, in this society, let the old racial order just stay where it is and not seek to improve upon it.  Not try to create more racial categories, because all that does is it makes a race stick around longer.  And the reality is that race is a lie built on a lie.  

The first lie is that people are different, somehow skin color or hair texture is more significant than eye color, or the shape of one's feet.  The second lie built on top of that is that then there's a hierarchy that that more significant difference,  the color showing up as brown on your skin rather than brown in your hair, or whatever, is somehow more significant and there's some sort of hierarchy.  That the lighter you are, the straighter your hair, the better you are.  And Obama, Oprah, you know, Dick Parsons, whoever is -- ****, have blown that out of the water, President Obama, Michelle Obama for the country.  The trick now is for us to really incorporate that into our family lives and for people to not just, I guess be led by their children for whom race is just much less significant, but to help lead their children, or at least follow willingly.

Question: After all these serious questions—who’s your favorite comedian?

Ben Jealous: Dave Chappelle.  Dave's my godbrother.  So, I'm a little bit biased.  And we came of age together in New York City, me in college and he at the Boston Comedy Club, which was a college of sorts for him.  I was actually known to some as Dave's Puerto Rican bodyguard because they didn't know exactly what to make of the guy who didn't smile much and who just sat in the back of the club reading books.  They didn't realize that I was at Columbia University, and the only way I could have the privilege of hanging out at the comedy club is if I read books while somebody else was telling jokes.  So, yeah, Dave's definitely my favorite comic.

Recorded March 10th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

 

Big Think Interview With Be...

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