Big Think Interview With Benjamin Jealous
In civic life, Jealous is a board member of the California \r\nCouncil for the Humanities and the Association of Black Foundation \r\nExecutives, as well as a member of the Asia Society. He is married to \r\nLia Epperson Jealous, a professor of constitutional law and former civil\r\n rights litigator with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Ben Jealous: My\r\nname is Ben Jealous, I'm President of NAACP.\r\n\r\n
Question: What first\r\nmotivated you to pursue a career in social justice?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous:\r\nYeah, my parents were both active in the 1950's and '60's, and my grandparents\r\nas well. And I was raised in a\r\nfamily where we were taught that the best thing you could do with your life was\r\nto really kind of push the cause of progress and justice and human rights in\r\nthis country forward.\r\n\r\n
Question: What forms of\r\ndiscrimination have you experienced personally?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous:\r\nYeah, growing up black in the States, even in the 1970's, meant that you were\r\nsubjected. And probably the things\r\nprobably the most glaring to me was I think both the way I was treated as a\r\nchild in stores, like the local five and dime. I grew up in a town that didn't have many black folks, and\r\nit was pretty clear that the black kids were treated different than the black\r\nkids; more suspect, more shop owners were afraid we might steal something. And also the white people responded to\r\nmy parents’ marriage. My dad's\r\nwhite and my mom's black, and it wasn't very socially acceptable. When I was born it would have been\r\nlegal for just over five years. \r\nSo, it was a different time.\r\n\r\n
Question: In what ways\r\ndoes the perspective of your generation influence your NAACP leadership?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous: You\r\nknow, my generation, they used to refer to us as the "children of the\r\ndream." The kids who\r\nwere born just as and just after the big civil rights victories were born. And we were told when we were coming\r\nup, look, all the big victories have been won. Your job, young man, or young woman, is to just go out and\r\nplay hard by the rules, because the rules are now fair. And that worked well for many of\r\nus. I mean, I went to great\r\nuniversities 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\r\njust in time to find ourselves the most murdered generation in this country and\r\nthe most incarcerated generation on the planet. And that's the shadow, if you will, of the shining victories\r\nof the 1960's.\r\n\r\n
Question: How does the\r\nolder generation feel about your generation’s handling of civil rights issues?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous: The\r\nbattle at any given moment is multi-generational. My parents and my grandparents were both involved in the\r\nbattles of the '50's and '60's. \r\nAnd so who’s ever on the battlefield agrees there's a reason to be on\r\nthe battlefield and there's a reason to be fighting. So the leaders of the civil rights movement who are still\r\nactive, people like Joseph Lowery, like Julian Bond, like Merilee Evers, like\r\nDr. Hazel Dukes here in New York, couldn't agree more. I mean, we have great – because they\r\nhave lived their whole lives with their eyes wide open. And they understand just how far we've\r\ncome; perhaps better than my generation does because they lived through\r\nit. But they also understand how\r\nfar we haven't come. Again,\r\nbecause to the extent that there are similarities, to the extent that there are\r\nwhole groups of people in the black community, or in the country as a whole who\r\nhave gone backward in the last 40 years. \r\nWell, they've watched them go backward too.\r\n\r\n
Question: In the long\r\nrun, is the NAACP’s mission to make itself obsolete?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous: I\r\nmean, we're in business to go out of business, but you know so long as we see\r\nstats that say it's easier for a white man with a criminal record to find a job\r\nthan it is for a black man without one. \r\nWe're in business for a long time, both frankly for that black man and\r\nfor the white guy who's been treated almost as bad as the black guy.\r\n\r\n
Question: How can the\r\nNAACP continue to help African-Americans in the 21st century?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous:\r\nYeah, in the 21st century, a lot of the barriers that exist, they're growing\r\nback up. In the 21st century, like\r\nthe centuries before, there is a problem so big in the society that you can see\r\nit from space. I mean, you think\r\nabout the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century, the beginning of\r\nany of those. You would have seen\r\nin the 18th century, for instance, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. You would have seen from space in the\r\n19th century the plantations across the South with bodies bent over closely\r\ntogether working the fields. You\r\nwould have seen in the 20th century racial segregation that, literally, west of\r\nCharles Street in Baltimore were black folks and east of Charles Street were\r\nwhite folks. And you would see in\r\nthis century, the prisons that pockmark our country, our people in our country\r\nare 5% of the world's people and 25% of the world's prisoners. Now what that means, and that's people\r\nof all colors. Now if you took\r\nblack and brown people, all of them, out of prison tomorrow, this country would\r\nstill have way more than its share of prisoners. They would just be by a factor of two, and not a factor of\r\nfive.\r\n\r\n
So, in our lifetime, in my lifetime, this country has\r\ngreatly increased the rate at which it incarcerates white people, and yet black\r\npeople are incarcerated five times more than that. And that really defines at the beginning of this century\r\nwhat we have to fix. Now, in order\r\nto bring down the incarceration rate, well, you've got to start with the\r\nbeginning of life. You've got to\r\nmake sure that parents and schools are prepared to prepare young people for\r\nsuccess. You've got to deal with\r\nthe next stage of life. You've got\r\nto make sure that people in this opportunity have the opportunity to work at a\r\ngood job, they have access to good healthcare, and that they have the\r\nopportunity to build wealth and to actually advance their family's status in\r\nthe country over time.\r\n\r\n
And then finally, we need to make sure that our justice\r\nsystem works for the interests of everybody. That it makes every community safer, that it uses\r\nincarceration as a last resort for people who are a danger to themselves or to\r\nsociety and that we use, quite frankly, the means that allow us to hold as much\r\nof our resources for other priorities as possible. I mean, right now for instance, New York state last year, we\r\npushed them to change the Rockefeller drug laws. And they did. \r\nAnd in doing so, not only were poor drug addicts now given access to\r\nwhat rich drug addicts always had access to, which is rehab, but they saved a\r\nlot of money in the process. And\r\nthat is sort of the thing about the incarceration struggle in our society is\r\nthat really at the end of the day is both the proof of the failure of so many\r\nother strategies, education strategies, employment strategies. It also is the acid that eats away at\r\neach those strategies.\r\n\r\n
In the state of California right now, you see a system where\r\nthe tuition rate is going up 30% in the fall. There's no way to explain that\r\nwithout acknowledging that California is one of five states that spends more on\r\nincarceration than public education. \r\nAnd if you look at the pattern over the last 25 years, right away, the\r\npriorities have flipped. State\r\nspending in California on public higher education has gone from about 12% of\r\nthe budget to around 4% or 5%, and at the same time, state spending in\r\nCalifornia on incarceration has gone from 4% or 5% of the budget to around 11%\r\nor 12%. And you see that across\r\nthe country that as what we spend on incarceration goes up, the money we have\r\nfor schools and colleges goes down and so, part of the struggle for our\r\ngeneration is allowing people to see the connection and to understand that at\r\nthe end of the day, this isn't a movement for education over here and a\r\nmovement for worker's rights over there, and a movement for justice\r\nreform. It's all one broad\r\ndomestic human rights movement.\r\n\r\n
I think that's the biggest functional struggle, is to get\r\npeople to see the connections and then to connect themselves to one another.\r\n\r\n
Question: Is the\r\nincarceration crisis the civil rights struggle of the 21st century?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous: I\r\nwould say things a bit differently. \r\nQuality schools, making sure that each child has access to a quality\r\neducation is the civil rights struggle of this century, but the catch is we\r\ndon't get there unless we solve the incarceration crisis in this society. We literally won't have the funds to do\r\nit and will continue to break up far too many families to be able to believe\r\nthat all children here are really going to start off with the foundation that\r\nthey need. And that's – I think we\r\nare accustomed in our society to thinking that you can go after one issue all\r\nby itself. And when it comes to\r\nschools and incarceration, you just got to start off recognizing that in the\r\npoorest communities, and in the state budget, they are absolutely\r\nconnected.\r\n\r\n
If we want to get the incarceration issue under control in\r\nthis country, we have got to make sure that we use incarceration as a last\r\nresort, not a first resort. So,\r\nthat means more shifts like we saw in New York State last year saying, okay,\r\nwhat do we really want to get out of having the court coming into contact with\r\na low-level drug addict? We want\r\nthem to get off drugs. So, let's\r\nsend them towards rehab, not towards prison. Because if we send them towards prison, they'll come back in\r\na few years, they're going to be angry, they're going to be more desperate, and\r\nthey're going to be more dangerous. \r\nAnd that's not what society wants to get out of this equation. Right? And it'll cost us twice as much money.\r\n\r\n
Similarly, we need to just really revamp -- and one of the\r\nthings we are pushing in Congress right now is a bill by Senator Jim Webb that\r\nwould force the country to take a look at its justice system from soup to\r\nnuts. For the last 40 years, we've\r\nbeen pushing this notion in this country that the best thing we can do when it\r\ncomes to crime is to be tough. And\r\nin a country as intelligent as ours, we should always know that when somebody\r\nsays the best thing you can do is be tough, the best thing you can do is use\r\nyour brute force, then we're selling ourselves short.\r\n\r\n
The best thing we can do is be smart. And when you're smart on crime, what\r\nyou see is, you shift from how do we punish these people as much as possible to\r\nhow do we bring down crime as quickly as possible in a way that's\r\nsustainable. And what that drives\r\nyou towards are alternatives to incarceration, what it drives you towards is\r\nusing probation and parole in ways that are much more intelligent where you're\r\ngoing to ratchet it up for people who are more violent and you ratchet it down\r\nfor people who are less violent. \r\nAnd what it drives you towards is really focusing on re-entry, and how\r\ndo you get somebody from prison into the workplace into their community in a\r\nway that sets them up for staying out of prison.\r\n\r\n
In the California prisons right now, 67% of the people are\r\nthere have recidivated, have been there before. And we spent all this money on keeping them in prison and\r\nthen very, very little on actually setting them up for success.\r\n\r\n
Question: How can the\r\nissue of prison rape be brought to serious attention?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous: Yeah, again, when you're smart on\r\ncrime, you start off by recognizing that both the victim, first of all, the\r\nvictim, but also the person who did the crime are both human. Have both been broken in various ways\r\nand could either be healed more by what happens through the courts, what\r\nhappens 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\r\ncoming back to society is healed more, as well as the victim getting a greater\r\nsense of closure and sense of justice.\r\n\r\n
When you look at an issue like prison rape, what you see are\r\npeople being violently broken while inside of the care of our society. The prisons are an extension of our\r\nsociety. People come in there and\r\nliterally in jails and prisons across this country, people young, old, male,\r\nfemale, who have been convicted, who are awaiting arraignment, are raped on a\r\ndaily basis by inmates and by guards and by contractors at these facilities. Probably the most heartbreaking\r\nsituation I saw was in the California Youth Authority, the prison for\r\ngirls. You know, for females who\r\nare not yet 18 in California being systematically raped. I mean, just again, and again. The\r\nallegations when I was with Amnesty were unceasing from the girls’ facility in\r\nCalifornia. And you will see it in\r\njails -- the way that we got consensus on the bill was that a number of men who\r\nhad gone to prison as a result of the savings and loan scandals. These are white collar criminals, who\r\nwere raped; spoke up about what their experiences had been. And helped us convince -- and it was\r\nsad. You would hope in a\r\nrepresentative democracy that things like race and class don't keep a\r\nrepresentative from identifying with an issue, but I see privileged white men\r\ncome in to talk, quite frankly, to other privileged white men who, in this\r\ncase, former bankers coming in to talk to people in Congress was transformative\r\nfor those Congressmen. And it got\r\nthem to understand that this wasn't a joke. In fact, it was their first -- it was probably their worst\r\nfear in that their constituents, all of them, **** there for the country to\r\nactually do something about it.\r\n\r\n
Question: On what\r\nrace-related issues have we made the most progress since the 1960s?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous:\r\nWell, Brown v. Board of Education has worked everywhere except for the\r\nschool. Except for the venue in\r\nwhich it was intended to work. You\r\nhop on a train and it's a desegregated train, you get on a plane it's a\r\ndesegregated plane, you hop into a taxi and anybody can hop into the taxi, and\r\nthe same thing with the bus, and the same thing with most work places. Although there are many, I mean, you\r\nknow, 15% of advertising firms on Madison Avenue have no black -- major big\r\nones, 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\r\nsector. Where we've made -- and\r\nthe military is where probably were things have succeeded most and where the\r\nsuccess seems most resistant to being rolled back on.\r\n\r\n
Schools, unfortunately is where we've seen the biggest\r\nregression, and that, unfortunately -- when the NAACP started its first century\r\n-- was job one and now as we start our second is job one too.\r\n\r\n
Question: What are the\r\nmajor challenges in 21st century minority education?\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n Ben Jealous: You\r\nknow, it's a funny thing, in this country we all believe that we have a right\r\nto go to school. We have a right\r\nto a good education. And we don't. The U.S. Constitution contains no right\r\nfor 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\r\nthey don't go to a good school, they're less likely to be able to realize all\r\nthat this country has to offer.
Ben Jealous: You\r\nknow, it's a funny thing, in this country we all believe that we have a right\r\nto go to school. We have a right\r\nto a good education. And we don't. The U.S. Constitution contains no right\r\nfor 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\r\nthey don't go to a good school, they're less likely to be able to realize all\r\nthat this country has to offer.
The focus for the 21st century has to be ensuring that every\r\nchild born in this country, can grow up and go to a good school, get a good\r\neducation, and be set up for success. \r\nAcross this country that's just not the reality. We've seen schools rapidly desegregate over\r\nthe last 20 years. That's why what\r\nSecretary Duncan is doing right now to rebuild the civil rights enforcement\r\npowers of the Department of Education are so important.\r\n\r\n
Now, a Latino child in California is more likely to go to a\r\nmore deeply segregated school than a black child in Mississippi. And so problems that we think of in our\r\nmind as being in one part of the country or another tend to be all across the\r\ncountry. That child in Los Angeles\r\nmay go to a classroom with 50 kids in it. \r\nAnd they live in a state that spends an average of $5,800 per child to\r\ngo to school, and $248,000 to incarcerate a child for one year in the state\r\nprison. You can see where the\r\nconnection is. That literally it\r\ncosts the same as an entire classroom of children to send one kid to prison in\r\nCalifornia.\r\n\r\n
The focus has to be on recognizing the instruction gap in\r\nthis country. People talk about an\r\nachievement gap, and they talk about, for instance, only 31% of black males\r\ngraduate from high school in Baltimore. \r\nOnly 38% of white males graduate from high school in Baltimore. So, that really is a Baltimore problem,\r\nright? More than it's a black\r\nproblem or a white problem. It's a\r\nblack and white problem -- it's a Baltimore problem.\r\n\r\n
But 40% of that achievement gap would be closed if quality\r\nteachers across society were distributed on an even basis. We're still fighting, in other words,\r\nfor the same things we were fighting for a long time ago. We're fighting for good teachers, we\r\nfighting for kids to have new books, we fighting for kids to be in decent\r\nclassrooms, we're fighting for kids to be treated fairly. Right now, the way we use school\r\ndiscipline in this society is out of control. Here in New York City, we had a situation a few weeks ago\r\nwhere a young Latino girl who wrote on her desk with an erasable marker was\r\ntaken out of the classroom in handcuffs and taken downtown and booked. That's just not what any parent would\r\nwant to see any child subjected to.\r\n\r\n
We also, besides resources and teachers in dealing with\r\nschool discipline, we really have to, as a country, recognize that school is\r\nwhere people get their identity not just as a scholar, or a future business\r\nperson, but as a citizen. And we\r\nneed to make sure that our schools set them up for success as citizens. And that's why desegregation is so\r\nimportant, that people grow up in an environment that reflects the diversity of\r\nthe country. That's why making\r\nsure that civics are taught in school is so important. We need to see our schools as what they\r\nare, which is a place to train the next generation to lead and not places\r\nsimply to lead them to prison or some other dark path. And that's, unfortunately what so many\r\nof our schools are. I mean, when\r\nyou really spend time in so many of our public schools and poor neighborhoods,\r\nblack or white across this country, you can see how a child could give up hope\r\nby the time that they're 12.\r\n\r\n
Question: Should Geoffrey\r\nCanada’s Harlem Children’s Zone be imitated nationwide, as Obama has suggested?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous:\r\nHarlem Children's Center is incredible. \r\nI've known Geoff for 20 years. \r\nThe first time I've met him was as a kid in college. The question is how easily could it be\r\nreplicated. It's something that\r\nthrives in one of the wealthiest cities on the planet. And the question is, well, could you\r\ntransport that to Mississippi? \r\nNow, I would agree that in a sort of perfect world, we could. But in this country right now where\r\nresources for schools are based on local property taxes, it becomes nearly\r\nimpossible. So, I would say, yes,\r\nit should be replicated wherever it possibly could be, but I have real doubts\r\nabout it. So, it's a yes, but I\r\nhave real doubts that the country could literally afford to do that across the\r\ncountry. Or more importantly, if\r\nwe could afford to do it, if we would do everything we would need to, to be\r\nable to afford it. When we stop\r\nfighting wars overseas and doing the sorts of things that eat up all those\r\ntrillions of dollars we could be spending to treat our kids as well as Geoff\r\ntreats the kids up in Harlem.\r\n\r\n
Question: What brand-new\r\nproblems have arisen for African-Americans in the past decade?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous:\r\nSure. I mean, since September\r\n11th, for blacks and for whites, there have become new pernicious forms of\r\nemployment discrimination. And in\r\nthe wake of September 11th, there were stories about ex-felons working in\r\nbaggage claim at airports. And the\r\nresponse was, first by the companies that produce the sort of job applications\r\nfor low level public jobs. And\r\nthen throughout private industry was to put a check box on the front of the job\r\napplication that says, "Have you ever been convicted of a\r\ncrime." Well, as you might\r\nimagine, when you're a hiring manager and the box is checked, it just goes\r\nright in the trash. We literally\r\nchanged hundreds of years of tradition in this country where people were only\r\nasked that question in a job interview. \r\nOnce a company decided that they were interested in them, and then they\r\nwere able to explain themselves. \r\nAnd we put it on the application, where it just goes in the trash. And you discouraged people from\r\napplying and you typically preclude them from being considered.\r\n\r\n
Now, in this country, it's harder for a black man with no\r\ncriminal record to find a job than a white man with a criminal record, which is\r\nto say that race is actually a bigger factor than ex-felon status. But if you're both, it's almost\r\nimpossible to find a job. And\r\nthat's an area that we've been really working on very intently. As we've been working on this issue,\r\nwhat's come to our attention is that credit scores are being used in much of\r\nthe same way. Imagine, the middle\r\nof a recession, our employers across the country have increasingly begun to use\r\ncredit scores to determine whether or not they hire somebody. I mean, it would be a joke if it wasn't\r\nso serious, right? It's absolutely\r\nthe opposite thing of what you do. \r\nTake a country of people who are in financial distress, the ones who are\r\nmost in financially distressed are the ones that are least likely for us to\r\nhire them.\r\n\r\n
And so we have found ourselves fighting on new fronts, on\r\nstill carrying the banner for racial equality, but also understanding that in\r\nthe 21st century we have to fight for simply human equality as well. And that really, for the NAACP, people\r\ndon’t realize, you know we weren't founded like so many groups after like the\r\nBlack Power Movement, or the Chicano Power Movements. We were founded in 1909 on the hundredth birthday of\r\nPresident Lincoln. And our dream\r\nhas always been to manifest his dream, that this be one country where all\r\npeople are treated with equality and dignity and have the ability for the\r\nchildren to be raised with hope and for the children to have the opportunity to\r\ngain prosperity.\r\n\r\n
Question: What can be\r\ndone to involve African-Americans more in the green movement?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous: As a\r\nkid, the first group I ever paid dues to was a group called SEEK. That was a bunch of green activists on\r\nthe college and high school campuses; actually I set up one of their first high\r\nschool chapters. And there's always\r\nbeen I think in the black middle class a lot of folks who have been active in\r\nthe green movement in this country. \r\nFor working people, you've got to make it worth their while; you've got\r\nto connect at the kitchen table as using ways that are very explicit. So, you'll see folks, you know, in\r\nWhirl, Mississippi, where a plant that used to produce some horrible toxin has\r\nexploded getting very involved in that local issue because it's about life and\r\ndeath, it's about their children's health, they get it, they understand\r\nit.\r\n\r\n
Katrina helped, and Haiti has helped to make that case in a\r\nmore general basis to working class folks, but what really I think has the best\r\nopportunity to get working class black people involved in the green movement is\r\nconnecting it to the opportunity for jobs, connecting it to their children's\r\nhealth in very explicit ways, very high rates of respiratory disease in the\r\nblack community that come from very local environmental contamination. And there's a real sense that changes\r\nin the global economy is passing our neighborhoods and communities by. And so, yeah, I have great hope that\r\nthe green jobs movement in this country will pull in generations of black\r\npeople who have stood by the sidelines in that battle because no one has ever\r\nmade the connection for them about how this actually would make their lives\r\nbetter.\r\n\r\n
Question: Why haven’t\r\nAfrican-Americans fought harder alongside gay rights activists?\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n Ben Jealous: We\r\nhad to start from the fact -- somebody once said to me, I didn't march in the\r\n'60's so that men could sleep together. \r\nAnd I was like, well, that's all right because Byron Rustin had that\r\nheld down. You know, the man who\r\nplanned the march on Washington was gay, was known to be gay, and that was okay\r\nwith Dr. King, it was okay with Julian Bond and John Lewis then, and it's okay\r\nnow. Our only regrets about Byron\r\nRustin are that he still isn't with us planning marches.
Ben Jealous: We\r\nhad to start from the fact -- somebody once said to me, I didn't march in the\r\n'60's so that men could sleep together. \r\nAnd I was like, well, that's all right because Byron Rustin had that\r\nheld down. You know, the man who\r\nplanned the march on Washington was gay, was known to be gay, and that was okay\r\nwith Dr. King, it was okay with Julian Bond and John Lewis then, and it's okay\r\nnow. Our only regrets about Byron\r\nRustin are that he still isn't with us planning marches.
So, I think we have to start from the premise that gay\r\npeople are a part of the NAACP. \r\nThey've been a part of the social justice movement. The gay black people in particular live\r\nboth of those identities, as we all live multiple identities. You know.\r\n\r\n
The NAACP, for that reason has always been quick to\r\nrecognize across a whole range of issues that common interests as black people,\r\nas black people, or as multiple identities as black people, and gay people as\r\ngay people and there are multiple shades and colors. I mean, for instance, issues of police brutality, employment\r\ndiscrimination, hate crimes. We\r\nhave been there side by side, fighting on again and again. We just had a big victory, the Matthew\r\nShepard/James Byrd bill, but the NAACP bought ads in Texas to promote and\r\nreally to beat up on the then-Governor, about-to-become-President Bush, for his\r\nlack of support 10 years ago. And\r\nwe'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\r\nthe death penalty, but we also, we hate it all the more when you say that you\r\nwant to make being a member of a minority group, any minority group the reason\r\nthat you get the death penalty. \r\nAnd that's what they're trying to do in Uganda. They're trying to actually make the\r\nbeing gay a crime punishable by death.\r\n\r\n
Where there has been distance recently has been between\r\nreligious communities in general. \r\nAnd the movement for marriage equality and the NAACP has a very\r\nreligious base. And people who\r\nwant to see movement on that issue are people who want -- like people want to\r\nsee more blacks in the Republican Party, need to invest in outreach. Need to really say, you know what, that\r\nconstituency is a priority and I'm going to make it my business to make sure\r\nthat we reach out to that constituency on their terms and in the way that's the\r\nmost effective. That’s what any\r\ngood organizer does, that's what I do for the issues that I'm pushing.\r\n\r\n
With that said, Julian Bond for instance, our past chair, is\r\nvery outspoken in support. I let\r\nit be known that I personally support marriage equality. My brother, the man who is closer to me\r\nthan any man on this planet, my best friend since I was six years old -- I'm\r\nsorry, six months old -- and whose mom celebrated Mother's Day with my mom and\r\nwhose family lived with us off and on for a third of my life, is gay, is HIV\r\npositive, is on-again, off-again homeless. I've spent many -- a lot of money trying to keep him from\r\nbeing homeless, but sometimes people just, you know, issues in their life that\r\nno dollar can overcome. So, it's\r\nvery personal for a lot of us, I guess is what I'm saying.\r\n\r\n
But we're a democratic organization at the end of the day,\r\nand that means that we that tend to be on the front edge on some issues and we\r\ntend 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\r\nyou want to see the NAACP even more active than we have been, and we've been\r\nactive in California. Folks there\r\nin California voted to oppose Prop 8, and they rolled out all the stops to\r\noppose it. The national office signed\r\nonto the lawsuit to invalidate Prop 8 because we were able to get consensus on\r\nthe principle that a simple majority vote should not be able to trump a court's\r\nfinding of the fundamental right. \r\nThat's a threat to a whole range of rights, including the right to\r\nmarry, but also the right to be treated with respect in the workplace; not get\r\ndiscriminated in the workplace, for instance. Apparently that has to be put up to a vote in California.\r\n\r\n
So, we had been involved, you know, gay people have been involved\r\nin the NAACP for a long time. The\r\nNAACP has been supportive of a broad civil human rights agenda in this country,\r\nincluding rights for gay and lesbian people, for a long time and many of our\r\nmost outspoken leaders are very outspoken on the issue of marriage equality and\r\nmany are outspoken against it. And\r\nlike any other democratic organization, trade union, what have you, it's being\r\nworked through. And the way that\r\none side wins or the other is that they decide that they want the membership of\r\nthe NAACP to be supportive of this one particular part of the agenda more than\r\nthe other side does. And right now\r\nit seems to be a bit of a toss-up.\r\n\r\n
Question: Were you\r\nsurprised to see an African-American elected president in 2008?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous:\r\nNo. I’m a fifth generation member\r\nof the NAACP, and we train our kids to dream really big and impossible\r\ndreams. It has always been the\r\nformula for the NAACP. When it was\r\nfounded and when my grandmother's grandfather first joined, the man had been\r\nborn a slave. The big dream then\r\nwas to shame the country out of the practice of lynch mob justice.\r\n\r\n
And so for us to say from an apartment in New York City\r\nwhere 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\r\nit.\r\n\r\n
So, that's our tradition. Our tradition is to train our kids to dream big dreams and\r\nto pursue them doggedly. And about\r\nhalf a century earlier, our membership really started talking in earnest about\r\nbreaking the color barrier on the White House, about setting it up and fought\r\nbattle after battle after battle, and that's the context in which I was raised\r\nin, in the human rights movement and brought into the NAACP as a teenager, was\r\nthat we were on a mission to maximize black voter participation and to maximize\r\nthe opportunities for black people to run for and win office, Mayor, Governor,\r\nand so forth.\r\n\r\n
My grandfather, a couple of generations back, you know if\r\nyou 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\r\nI told him that some friends of mine, before I rose to my current position, I\r\nwas running a foundation in California. \r\nSo, some friends of mine and I put in our plan to help move the black\r\nvote into early primary states. \r\nAnd we raised several million dollars to do that. I said, I think we have a winner this\r\ntime, Granddad, I think we're going to go all the way. And he said, "In my\r\n90 years of being a black man on this planet can be of any value to you, don't\r\nget your hopes up because it ain't gonna happen." I said, "Really Granddad, you\r\ndon't think there’s any possibility?" "Well, son," he said, "It'll be a cold day\r\nbefore that happens." Well,\r\nless than three years later, I was sitting 15 rows behind the about to become\r\nPresident Obama on Inauguration Day. \r\nI kept looking up because it was like the coldest day I could remember\r\nin Washington D.C. And I said,\r\n"Granddad, you were exactly right. \r\nIt is a cold day, and Barrack Hussein Obama is President." It was a good day. It was a good day.\r\n\r\n
Question: What has\r\nimpressed and disappointed you most about Obama?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous: You\r\nknow, I give the President wide latitude in his first year. There are things that, like the Iraq\r\nWar that our membership would like to see ended more quickly. But we understand that this is a\r\nPresident who came into office in the midst of a rapidly expanding recession,\r\ntwo wars, and we have a lot of faith that he is not just doing the best he can,\r\nhe is doing the best that can be done. \r\nI'm very excited by the quick passage of the stimulus bill last year\r\nwhich included a lot of money for restoring school which had been rotting in\r\nthis country for decades and create 2.5 million jobs in a time when, man, we needed\r\njobs to be created. I'm very\r\nexcited about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act being passed, which is a bill\r\nthat made it possible for women to really know that if they had been\r\ndiscriminated in the workplace they were going to get their day in court and be\r\ntreated fairly. We are very\r\nexcited about the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd bill being passed and more\r\nimportantly, about the civil rights infrastructure being rebuilt. And I think part of our patience --\r\nit's been misinterpreted, I think, the patience of black people and civil\r\nrights leaders at this moment. \r\nPart of our patience comes because we're more aware than most just how\r\nmuch damage was done by the Bush Administration to the federal government's\r\nability to enforce civil rights. \r\nAnd so we've been celebrating people of good conscience being hired into\r\nkey positions for the last year and a half. Now the bar raises because the people are in position, or if\r\nthe Senate is holding up their nomination, well it's just clear and we got to\r\nget on with it. And we're starting\r\nto see good signs.\r\n\r\n
Secretary Duncan came out the other day and made a very\r\nunequivocal commitment to ensuring that racial re-segregation, racial\r\ndiscrimination, the mistreatment of poor children en masse in American schools,\r\ndiscrimination against people who are learning English for the first time would\r\nbe treated -- would be a top priority. \r\nAnd that actions would be taken forthwith, and as we speak, they're\r\nlaunching a major investigation in Los Angeles, for instance.\r\n\r\n
So, we have seen great progress, we have reason to be\r\nhopeful and as we're patient because we knew that, if you will, the starting\r\nline for him was probably a hundred yards back from where it should have been,\r\nand literally between when he won in November and when he started in January,\r\nthe direction of the economy meant that the track was all of a sudden uphill.\r\n\r\n
Question: What’s the most\r\nimportant thing Obama could do for black Americans that he hasn’t done yet?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous: The\r\nbiggest piece of the agenda that doesn't seem to be really even on the radar\r\nscreen is serious criminal justice reform, serious criminal justice\r\nreform. Black people are 15% of\r\ncrack users in this country. We\r\nuse crack like every other group at about direct correlation with our\r\npercentage of the population. \r\nWhite people are 65% of the crack users in this country. White people are 5% of the people\r\nlocked up for using crack, black people are 85% of the people locked up for\r\nusing crack. Yeah, that issue, he\r\nwas very clear when he was campaigning was -- that that disparity was\r\nunacceptable and the disparity that compounds it, which is that the punishments\r\nfor using crack are 100 times stiffer than for using powder, even though it's\r\nthe same drug as cocaine.\r\n\r\n
So, we would like to see him speak out on criminal justice\r\nissues. We would like to see him\r\nreally push, really support -- signal support for Jim Webb's bill to for the\r\ncountry to just take a look because he knows. He knows as somebody who has taught constitutional law, who\r\nrepresented the south side of Chicago, who pushed through powerful law\r\nenforcement accountability bills when he was in the state Senate in a state\r\nwhere people were tortured with impunity up until 10 years ago. And so we would like to hear and see\r\nmore there. We have faith that\r\nit's coming. His appointment of\r\nEric Holder as our top law enforcement official was genius and that's somebody\r\nwho gets it. And Eric and the\r\nPresident, people who are capable of explaining to the country that this is\r\nabout justice for all of us.\r\n\r\n
In the last decade, I guess the good news, if you will, is\r\nthat black drug arrests were down 20%. \r\nThe other news is that white drug arrests, the bad news, were up\r\n40%. The war on crystal meth that\r\nwe are seeing right now, if you look at the footage, which is typically poor\r\nwhite 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\r\nwe saw on the war on crack 20 years ago in poor black people. That's not progress. That's not progress for this\r\ncountry. And we need a President\r\nand the Attorney General to be even more clear than they have been, that this\r\ncountry needs to move forward with its criminal justice policies towards a\r\nplace that makes all of our children safer and not continue with the past set\r\nby people like Richard Nixon and George Wallace 40 years ago. Barry Goldwater 40 years. Really, we're going by the Barry Goldwater/Richard\r\nNixon playbook and it's not serving our country well.\r\n\r\n
Question: How does the\r\nexperience of “mixed race” Americans differ from that of “black” Americans?\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n Ben Jealous: You\r\nknow, the beauty of being black in this society is that black has always been\r\nan inclusive definition. White has\r\nalways been an exclusive definition. \r\nI think one of the challenges for white people in the next 40 years is\r\nto figure out how to have a more inclusive picture of who their families are,\r\nof who they are.
Ben Jealous: You\r\nknow, the beauty of being black in this society is that black has always been\r\nan inclusive definition. White has\r\nalways been an exclusive definition. \r\nI think one of the challenges for white people in the next 40 years is\r\nto figure out how to have a more inclusive picture of who their families are,\r\nof who they are.
I grew up in a family where my father's white and my mother is\r\nblack, but if we're honest, the exception may be the two or three generations\r\nin between on the black side, most of the male parents – it’s hard to call them\r\na parent, you raped the mother, most of the male parents were white for\r\ngenerations. Growing up as a black\r\nkid with a white father who loves you, who affirms you, who was part of your\r\nlife is fundamentally different than what people in my family were subjected to\r\nin the 19 century or the 18th century. \r\nBut unfortunately, it doesn't change the old racial order. I think we need to, in this society,\r\nlet the old racial order just stay where it is and not seek to improve upon\r\nit. Not try to create more racial\r\ncategories, because all that does is it makes a race stick around longer. And the reality is that race is a lie\r\nbuilt on a lie.\r\n\r\n
The first lie is that people are different, somehow skin\r\ncolor or hair texture is more significant than eye color, or the shape of one's\r\nfeet. The second lie built on top\r\nof that is that then there's a hierarchy that that more significant\r\ndifference, the color showing up\r\nas brown on your skin rather than brown in your hair, or whatever, is somehow\r\nmore significant and there's some sort of hierarchy. That the lighter you are, the straighter your hair, the\r\nbetter you are. And Obama, Oprah,\r\nyou know, Dick Parsons, whoever is -- ****, have blown that out of the water,\r\nPresident Obama, Michelle Obama for the country. The trick now is for us to really incorporate that into our\r\nfamily lives and for people to not just, I guess be led by their children for\r\nwhom race is just much less significant, but to help lead their children, or at\r\nleast follow willingly.\r\n\r\n
Question: After all these\r\nserious questions—who’s your favorite comedian?\r\n\r\n
Ben Jealous: Dave\r\nChappelle. Dave's my godbrother. So, I'm a little bit biased. And we came of age together in New York\r\nCity, me in college and he at the Boston Comedy Club, which was a college of\r\nsorts for him. I was actually\r\nknown to some as Dave's Puerto Rican bodyguard because they didn't know exactly\r\nwhat to make of the guy who didn't smile much and who just sat in the back of\r\nthe club reading books. They\r\ndidn't realize that I was at Columbia University, and the only way I could have\r\nthe privilege of hanging out at the comedy club is if I read books while\r\nsomebody else was telling jokes. \r\nSo, yeah, Dave's definitely\r\nmy favorite comic.
Recorded March 10th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
An interview with the president of the NAACP.
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