Contextual Content

The importance of being centrist?

Paul Jay speaks with Benjamin Jealous at the Tides Foundations’ Momentum conference in San
Francisco about the fight of the progressive community.

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. We’re in San Francisco at the Momentum Conference of the Tides Foundation, and joining us now is Benjamin Jealous. He is the youngest president and CEO of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. Thanks for joining us.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NAACP: It’s good to be here.

JAY: So it’s a bit of a hoot to interview someone so young who’s leading one of the biggest organizations and one of the more influential in the country. So, very quickly, how does someone your age get to be a head of such a big organization?

JEALOUS: I’m not really sure, to be honest. I mean, you know, I started out as an organizer in Harlem with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when I was 18 years old, and I started out as a volunteer organizer running voter registration drives when I was 14 with the NAACP back home in California. So I think part of the story is just being precocious, right, and being kind of out there from a young age, and therefore developing the sort of networks that you need, perhaps a little bit faster than some folks. But also the organization was very clear that they wanted somebody who was in their 30s or early 40s. That’s where kind of all the finalists were, because that’s the generation that they’re trying to attract back into the association.

JAY: Was it a political choice to—You know, as an African American involved in politics, there is a wide spectrum of where you can choose to work. NAACP, normally considered one of the more centrist places to be, have you gone there with kind of certain expectations? Did they reach out to you to try to attract a kind of new constituency?

JEALOUS: You know, we have changed this country radically over the last hundred years, and we’ve done it by staying very much in the groove of the dream and the best tradition of this country, of, you know, out of many come one, that we should be, you know, one nation with one level of opportunity for all people, you know, a dream of being able to improve yourself that’s within everybody’s reach. And, you know, I think I decided a long time ago that that’s what’s worked and that’s what can work, and that it’s actually—the changes that it creates within the span of a generation are often huge. And right now, we’re focused—we’ve got—black kids are one out of seven kids in the country. They’re seven out of ten youth AIDS infections each year. Our, you know, country’s 5 percent of the world population but 25 percent of the world penal population, and black people are five times more likely than whites even on top of that to be in prison. And our schools are falling apart. Kids are being neglected not just because the parents don’t have a job, because they have to have too many jobs. And really winning these fights in this day and age, it means that we have to create consensus, we have to get to 51 percent. And so if you aren’t willing to sort of work and fight, at least towards the center of this country, you don’t win. And so, I mean, I think that part is a conscious decision that lots of people are making, that actually what some people would call radical is quite reasonable and that there are entire constituencies of people that we’ve written off that we shouldn’t necessarily. I mean, working-class white people, for instance. I mean, Doctor King said 45 years ago, "I have more in common situationally with black people than they don’t" in his letter from from a Birmingham Jail. He said poor black prisoners and, you know, struggling white prison guards have more in common than they don’t. And so, you know, I’m actually intent on testing out that theory, because I do believe that there is, if you will, a silent majority of people who want to see universal health care; who want to see a country in which all people have access to a good job; who want to see a country in which it’s, frankly—you know, you can unionize more readily; who want to see a country in which every school is a good school; and who want to see a country where, if we’re 5 percent of the world population, we’re 5 percent of the prisoners, not 25 percent. But that means that you have to be willing to do some things that may feel uncomfortable.

JAY: When President Obama was elected, it was the proudest moment for African Americans.

JEALOUS: Sure.

JAY: But when you start judging what’s been happening in terms of policy, when you look at some of the litmus-test issues, it’s getting very ambiguous, at best, whether some of the litmus-test issues for a lot of people who bought "change they can believe in"—. So, for example, you’ve mentioned unionization. It looks like EFCA’s [Employee Free Choice Act] getting extremely watered down. They may have to give up on card check—this is the unionization legislation. Health-care reform. And now it’s becoming a question of is there even going to be a public option, never mind is there going to be robust—or something more akin to single-payer. And just to broaden the conversation, there’s a critique coming from a progressive section of African Americans that there’s a kind of problem with the African-American elite, that they somehow define the success by their own success,—

JEALOUS: Sure.

JAY: —that if a black elite makes it, that kind of raises all boats. But the counterargument to that is in fact that it hasn’t been happening: the more successful the black elite has gotten, there hasn’t been a raising of boats; in fact, conditions have gotten worse. Not that there’s necessarily even a connection.

JEALOUS: Well, I mean, it sometimes actually does raise all boats, and it’s important, I think, to distinguish, right? If you get a job, for instance, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a job for anybody else. But if you create a company—. So right now, for instance, with GM downsizing rapidly, there’s a number of very wealthy, powerful black-owned companies that were created as subsidiaries to the car industry that are being hit, and with it hundreds of good-paying jobs for other black people. And so it’s—you know, I think it’s important in these times—. One of the things that we’re doing internally is trying to figure out how we build the sort of wealth and power in the economy that actually does, if you will, you know, pour down—not trickle down, but pour down to the—you know, so that one man building a company means 800 people get good jobs. The same time, with, you know, Obama, you have to be careful. On the one hand, you know, it’s been six months or seven months, and we’ve seen some very significant, in fact, a series very quickly of significant victories: the Lilly Ledbetter bill, which made it easier for women to fight for fair pay; the SCHIP [State Children’s Health Insurance Program], which got health insurance for millions more children in this country. And, you know, we also have to recognize that while some of these victories are sort of the right kind of re-organizes and gains more influence in the process [sic] and Obama perhaps gets slowed down a bit by the weight of just the size of the agenda, but some of these victories are going to have to be improved over time, just the way Social Security was. And when Social Security was passed, 85 percent of black people were excluded. There were very significant progressive critiques of that at the time, but it was created, and then we could improve upon it, and decade after decade it’s gotten better. The same thing is probably likely to to be the case with health insurance. We’re going to get something that’s significantly better than what we have right now, but it’s nowhere near where we want to be, and we’re going to have to fight again and again. But because we’ve got something that we can improve upon, because the foundation is there, we’ll all be better off ten years from now than we would have been. And that’s the—I think, you know, that’s the—. What we’re all, I think, struggling for in the progressive community right now is finding a sense of pace and being able to have confidence that what we’re moving towards is a better future. There’s a lot of people who, you know, don’t want to buy a house on spec; you know, they don’t want to say, give me, you know, just a shell, and then let’s improve upon it; they say, you know, you know, give me the McMansion in the suburbs. Well, the policy that we may get may be that shell, but if you have vision, you can make it even better than the McMansion over time.

JAY: Thanks for joining us. We’ll continue this conversation in the next segment. And please join us for that on The Real News Network.

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