Those who say that “race is history” have it exactly backward — history is race. America, scrambled, after all, spells “I am race.” And America is race — from its symbolism to its substance, from its founding by slaveholders to its rending by civil war, from Johnnie Reb to Jim Crow, from the Ku Klux Klan to Katrina. Those who engage in declarations and denials to the contrary do not serve our country well.
In 1968, the Kerner Commission concluded that “white racism” was the single most important cause of continued racial inequality in income, housing, employment, education and life chances between Blacks and whites. But by the middle 1970s, the growing numbers of Blacks pressing into traditionally white institutions created a backlash in the discourse about race. Opinion leaders — both inside and outside government — began to reformulate the terms of the discussion. No longer was the Kerner Commission’s finding acceptable. Instead, Black behavior became the reason why Blacks and whites live in separate worlds. Racism retreated and pathology advanced and the burden of racial problem-solving shifted from racism’s perpetrators to its victims. The failure of the lesser breeds to enjoy society’s fruits became their fault alone. Thus pressure for additional, stronger civil rights laws became special pleading. America’s most privileged population — white men — suddenly became a victim class. Aggressive and insatiable Blacks were responsible for America’s demise. The cause of racial inequality migrated from bigotry and discrimination to individual and group misbehavior, equating race with deficiency.
But present day inequality and racial disparities are cumulative. They are the result of racial advantages compounded over time — and they “produce racialized patterns of accumulation and dis-accumulation. As a result, racial inequality is imbedded into the fabric of post-Civil Rights Movement American society.”
Another front against racial justice was opened in the same period and has gained strength and power ever since. Often led by scholars and academicians and funded by corporate America, this movement aimed at removing government regulation from every aspect of life and found a handy, hated target in civil rights … Today’s apologists argue that discrimination against minorities is not a problem; society has to protect itself from discrimination against the majority instead. They argue that America is color blind. It might have been proper yesterday, they maintain, to aim big guns at racism, at segregated jobs, schools and ballot boxes. The ills we face today, they say, are crime, teen-age pregnancy, welfare dependency and family disintegration. These call, they claim, for new approaches and abandoning government’s help.
To this, we in the NAACP would point to our own past and present record and methodology of removing racial barriers to equal jobs, housing and education as a necessary precondition for solving racism’s legacy — poverty, crime and poor education. But we would insist that government must do its part in removing obstacles that government created. The history of racial struggle in America is a hymn to self-help and an acknowledgement that white Americans will not and cannot voluntarily end discrimination.
So when I am asked why the NAACP doesn’t focus on social service and why we don’t surrender to the great tutorial instinct so prominent among Blacks in the middle class, the urge to instruct our less fortunate brothers and sisters and their children in the proper way of doing things, of saving, of learning and speaking, I respond that we are an organization that fights racial discrimination.
There are thousands of organizations in America which deliver social service, and properly so. The NAACP is one of very few which concentrates on social justice. We believe that racial discrimination is a prime reason why the divide between Black and white life chances remains so deep. And we believe that to the degree we are able to reduce discrimination and close these race-caused gaps, we will see the economic and educational lives of our people improve and their prosperity increase. We believe that when our people have social justice, they will need fewer social services. It is our job, as the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, to agitate, associate, and advocate for equal treatment of all citizens of the United States. Our history shows we are ready for the challenge.
Julian Bond is chairman of the NAACP board of directors. The above is an edited excerpt from his address to the 97th NAACP Convention on July 16, 2006.