Ask Anything: 10 questions with NAACP President Rev. William Barber
Posted December 16, 2008
Updated December 19, 2008
Dear Rev. Barber, this is something that's always puzzled me. If the term "colored" is considered offensive, why is it still part of the NAACP's name? Thank you for your time. – Bret Chambers, Wake Forest
Great question. To be quite honest, there has been some internal wrestling with the name, but one reason it hasn’t been changed is out of respect for history and the founders.
In 1909, when the organization began, “colored” was one of the more respected identifications used by the larger society when compared with all the other grotesque names used to refer to African-Americans.
Another reason however, is that the NAACP was founded as a multi-ethnic organization by whites, blacks, Jews, Christians, male, female, etc. In fact, the majority of the founders were white. The first chair was a white woman. So, in a sense, it was a “colored” organization dedicated to the eradication of racism and legalized racial discrimination and disparity.
Even today, our mission is broad and covers all minorities: “The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.”
Now that we have an African-American president, has this changed the relevance of the NAACP and/or the NAACP's outlook on race relations in America? – John, Clayton
The election of a president who happens to be African-American is the result of years of work for fair and free voting rights. One hundred years after the founding of the NAACP – after all the blood, sweat, tears, marching, fighting in the courts – America will inaugurate a president who happens to be African-American.
This would not have been possible without a tremendous amount of challenge and sacrifice that produced change. However, the work is not over. The empirical data tells us racism and racial disparities are not eliminated. Systemic racism is still alive in education, economic, health care, etc.
As our new national NAACP president says, “Our organization is not the National Association for the Advancement of One Black Person.” This election is epic, but it is not an ending. Perhaps it’s more of a beginning for America to finish the work of equality and social justice.
The night he was deemed the projected winner, President-elect Obama even said, “My election is not the change we fought for, but it does give change a chance.”
Furthermore, here in North Carolina, we have a 14-point agenda. (Visit www.hkonj.com) It's supported by 85 organizations, people of all backgrounds and represents more than 1 million grassroots activists. These agenda items point to the continuing relevance of our organization.
The People's Agenda:
1. All Children need high quality, well-funded, diverse schools – North Carolina must meet its constitution's requirement of adequate and diverse schools by fully funding Leandro with transparent accountability and creating special leadership teams in its failing schools.
2. Livable wages and support for low-income people – North Carolina ought to provide livable wages, make sure no person goes hungry and that everyone in need has affordable, accessible childcare.
3. Health care for all – North Carolina ought to provide its people with health insurance and prescription drugs while funding public health programs to treat social diseases that plague black and poor communities. This funding must also include HIV/AIDS, diseases caused by environmental pollution and warming, drugs, domestic violence, mental illness, diabetes and obesity.
4. Redress two ugly chapters in North Carolina’s racist history – The overthrow of the bi-racial 1898 Wilmington government and the sterilization of poor, mainly black, women from 1947-1977. North Carolina must implement its 1898 Wilmington Riot Commission recommendations and pay damages to the poor women it forcibly sterilized.
5. Same-day registration and public financing of elections
6. Lift every HBCU – North Carolina must financially support our historically black colleges and universities to develop equitable infrastructure and programs with doctoral-level leadership for today's challenges.
7. Document and redress 200 years of state discrimination in hiring and contracting – North Carolina must commission historical documentation of its contracting practices with racial minorities to justify constitutional redress.
8. Provide affordable housing and stop consumer abuse – North Carolina must provide an Affordable Housing Trust Fund for low-income renters, vouchers for wounded veterans who can not find accessible housing; meaningful tax breaks for seniors forced out of their homes, and protection against predatory lending and foreclosures.
9. Abolish racially biased death penalty and mandatory sentencing laws; reform our prisons.
10. Put young people to work to save the environment and fight for environmental justice – North Carolina must establish an Environmental Job Corps for young people who did not graduate from high school to re-engage them in public service. North Carolina must fight (for) all forms of environmental injustice.
11. Collective bargaining for public employees – North Carolina must allow its public employees' unions to negotiate work issues with their employers in a mutually respectful manner.
12. Protect the rights of immigrants from Latin America and other nations – North Carolina must provide immigrants with health care, education, workers rights and protection from discrimination.
13. Organize, strengthen and provide funding for our civil rights enforcement agencies and statutes now
14. Bring our troops home from Iraq now – North Carolina cannot address injustice at home while we wage an unjust war abroad.
While I abhor what the students at N.C. State wrote on the free expression tunnel, shouldn't the students be free to express their views? Aren't they learning a valuable lesson about freedom of speech and the responsibility that comes with it? The entire university has turned against them. They are learning that even though they have this freedom, there are consequences that come from misuse. Do they really need to be punished criminally? – Greg O., Durham
I appreciate your question and would offer the following piece I wrote about the fundamental concerns in this matter:
Opinion Editorial By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, President, N.C. Conference of State NAACP Branches:
The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.
Some may assert the NC NAACP is irrelevant and should not be spending time on the issue of four N.C. State students painting “Let’s Shoot the N… in the Head” between the KKK/Confederate flag insignia and other threats on campus walls after the nation elected its first black president. We respectfully disagree. The NAACP, which turns 100 on Feb. 12, 2009, is not a black or white organization (blacks and whites founded the organization), but a social justice organization dedicated to eliminating racial hatred and racial discrimination. Every African-American and every white person who believes in racial equality owes a great debt to our organization.
I have had the honor of leading the North Carolina Conference with over 100 branches (adults and youth) and over 20,000 members for three years. We have formed a powerful coalition of over 85 organizations with more than 1 million North Carolina black, brown and white members, all fighting for a 14-point people’s agenda based on anti-racism, anti-poverty and anti-war principles. Our victories are often not reported. but we have led the fight for the minimum wage increase, maintaining resources dedicated for minority health care, achieving millions of new dollars for disadvantaged students, efforts to fight predatory subprime lenders in North Carolina, to increase minority business contracts, for the release of innocent African-Americans in prison, and early one-stop voting that many believe was a key factor in the massive voter turnout with relatively few voting problems this fall, and changing the penalty for a hate crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. These are a few recent successes. We invite readers to check our Web sites: www.naacpnc.org; www.ncprosecutorialmisconduct.com; and www.hkonj.com. Any person who doesn’t understand the relevance of the NAACP is not paying attention.
Our involvement in exposing and challenging the terrorist threats on the N.C. State campus began when our student chapter, with some faculty at the university, invited the state NAACP to meet with some black and white students. First we met with a small group and then with more than 400 students – visibly upset, angry and fearful. They did not know what elements or kinds of people were stalking them under the cover of the threats to shoot “N’s” in the head. Parents have called us. Administrators have called us. Ordinary citizens have called on us to stand up in this matter.
“Let’s shoot the ‘n’ in the head” are not knee-jerk words. These words come from a premeditated racist thesaurus. Many civil rights leaders, black and white, have been shot in the head because they were seen as nothing more than “n” or “n” lovers. People who use these words know exactly the kind of hostile and threatening environment the threat creates, whether they carry out the act or not. It is meant to communicate a threat. It is meant to intimidate. We do not know what else was on the wall because it was painted over before any more photos could be taken. The D.A. said he never saw the full wall. We know there were nooses, at least one confederate flag, and a KKK insignia on the wall. And we know that hate crime and intimidation [are] a serious matter. It is not a 19th- or 20th-century problem. There is an uptick in hate crimes and terrorism around the world. The North Carolina Human Relations Commission has called for all people interested in civil rights to be on high alert. Reporters have told us that until the NAACP began to investigate, they were not told of the serious nature of the threats by N.C. State administrators. When we showed the photo to Erskine Bowles, president of the 16-campus UNC System, he was visibly shaken. It was obvious N.C. State had not shared with him or his staff their videotapes or photos of the explicit threats.
We believe strong action should have been taken immediately. Mack Brown, now the coach at another southern state university in Texas, put one of his student athletes off the team when he wrote racist words about Obama on MySpace. Brown did not hesitate a second about whether the violent, vicious speech might have been “free speech” – it was wrong and the coach would not allow his athlete to be on the team for doing it.
The fundamental question for North Carolina and the UNC system is whether this is free speech or illegal threats and hate speech. If we determine it is free, then we cannot limit it to a "free expression" wall. If it’s free, we can say it anywhere – in a dorm room, at the General Assembly, in a newspaper – and there are no legal repercussions. A lawyer for N.C. State said that if al Qaeda had written such a threat on the wall or the Bloods/Crips had written this type of recruiting threat on the wall, their words would be protected speech. Really? Hate speech, violent speech, threatening speech, speech that creates a hostile environment is not protected speech.
When words and symbols, soaked in the blood of centuries of terror against black people, are used to create fear in that group, they are not protected by the First Amendment. The North Carolina Supreme Court, when confronted with the use of the blood-soaked “n” word, strongly approved a trial court’s taking judicial notice of the fact that this loaded word, used by a white man in a public setting – even an elected district attorney – against black people, is a fighting word. “[A] trial court may take judicial notice of a fact if it is not subject to reasonable dispute in that it is generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the trial court.... No fact is more generally known than that a white man who calls a black man [or woman] a 'n…..' within his hearing will hurt and anger the black man [or woman] and often provoke him [or her] to confront the white man and retaliate.” The Court found this was not protected speech. In re Spivey.
We are not picking on four innocent young men. They were caught on video and then admitted to these injurious acts. In the spirit of the civil rights movement, we pray for them and even love them. But the question remains, can a few engage in this type of hostile activity to intentionally create concerns about public safety and then be able to freely continue as students on campus, or for that matter anywhere supported by the public, by hiding behind the first amendment?
The NAACP and other civil rights organizations and leaders were very outspoken in support of Crystal G. Mangum during the Duke lacrosse rape investigation. When it became apparent that her allegations were not supported by the evidence, why didn't these same organizations/leaders offer apologies to the wrongly accused? – Roger Williams, Fayetteville
I’m sorry that you have been misinformed about our position. I know, however, that is easy, especially in a time when so many can say through the Internet what they think you stand for without truly hearing or reading what you actually said. Below is a copy of our position.
Also, remember we supported the attorney general's having a special investigation and prosecutor. The uniqueness of the NAACP is that we have been there when black girls/women have been raped and there were no consequences and when black boys/men have been accused of rape when they were innocent. With that history in mind, we have always called for fairness.
The following was our official public position that very few media outlets chose to print in its entirety:
1. We must denounce any code of silence, which seeks to inhibit ascertaining the facts.
2. We must have deep compassion and concern for the survivor and challenge any attempts to demean or destroy her rather than to seek and ascertain the truth.
3. We must ensure the DA’s investigation is completed thoroughly and promptly and that serious consequences be meted out if the allegations are proven. These allegations include: sexual violence/gang rape, racial slandering/hate crimes, underage alcohol use, and any prior history of racial bigotry and intimidation must be fully investigated. We do not want a rush to judgment or a delay of justice. Duke should be conducting its own thorough investigation. Who was at the party? Who violated Duke’s Code that night? How many times had they violated the law or Duke’s Codes before?
4. We must monitor the legal process to insure justice is carried out in this investigation without special privilege or treatment to anyone. Our position as an organization interested in civil rights and community justice, is that the investigation of allegations are fair, meticulous, comprehensive, aggressive, and thorough.
5. Those who are calling for justice and fairness in the investigation must not be wrongly described as a “lynch mob” no matter how zealous one seeks to defend their client.
6. Those who want to ensure justice must insist there are no short cuts to justice. We demand that the alleged perpetrators have rights to be protected. We must also be prayerful if the allegations are true and for whoever committed these acts because they are suffering from a great sickness of the spirit and hatred for humanity.
7. We must face this investigation when all of the facts are in.
8. We must face the truth and the justice that the truth demands.
9. We must consider in the wake of all that has and will occur, how we repent, repair, restore, and move forward. We must not engage in retaliatory violence. Our faith must insist that hope can still be rise out of hurt, what is meant for evil can yet be turned to good, and out of tragedy can still come triumph.
10. We must recognize that in a moment like this moment we need the guidance of God and a moral compass, which keeps us focused on the fact that only the truth can set us free.
Do you think that you and your association, the NAACP, are actually causing racial tension? Do you think it may be possible, as my mama says, that you are actually stirring the pot? Has it crossed your mind that handling things in a quiet manner and not all over the news may make things better instead of spreading or stirring up hate and discontent? – Teresa Hackett, Goldsboro
Thanks for your question. The work we do is driven by our mission statement: "The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination."
The vision of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure a society in which all individuals have equal rights and there is no racial hatred or racial discrimination.
The following statement of objectives is found on the first page of the NAACP Constitution – the principal objectives of the Association shall be:
- To ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of all citizens
- To achieve equality of rights and eliminate race prejudice among the citizens of the United States
- To remove all barriers of racial discrimination through democratic processes
- To seek enactment and enforcement of federal, state, and local laws securing civil rights
- To inform the public of the adverse effects of racial discrimination and to seek its elimination
- To educate persons as to their constitutional rights and to take all lawful actions to secure the exercise thereof and to take any other lawful action in furtherance of these objectives, consistent with the NAACP's Articles of Incorporation and this Constitution.
I am hopeful the NAACP is involved in community activities, perhaps with youth in some way. Can you share some of those with us? The public perception is that protests are your only purpose. You can thank the media for that. – Jack Mullins, Raleigh
I’m glad you asked this. I would ask you to visit our national web site at: www.naacp.org. We are engaged in scholarship programs and anti gang/drug programs. We sponsor the nationally acclaimed Academic Cultural Technological Scientific Olympics and the list goes on and on.
We are the only civil rights organization that has an ongoing, consistent youth program in every state conference. Our Youth and College Division is 71 years old. In addition to being against re-segregation of schools the NAACP seeks:
Increasing Teacher Quality: Schools with heavy concentrations of minority students have an average of 78 percent of math teachers teaching outside of their subject area. The NAACP is committed not only to ensuring that minority children are taught by qualified teachers, but we are also committed to ensuring that teachers receive the supports necessary to do their jobs effectively.
Promoting Parent and Family Engagement: Research has established that sustained parental involvement is critical to the educational success of children. The NAACP is committed to helping parents become more directly engaged in their education of the children.
Enhancing Early Childhood and Literacy Initiatives: Early childhood education has been shown to be an important predictor of future academic and emotional success for children. Still, far too many minority children start kindergarten performing far below their potential as a result of their inability to access quality early childhood education programs. The NAACP is committed to enhancing early learning opportunities for all students.
What action has the NAACP taken to quash rap music, which glorifies gang activity, gratuitous sex, violence, racial epithets and illegal activity? Wouldn't an organization DEDICATED to advancing colored people find this the worst kind of racially charged repression? And if not, why? – Kat Crews, Clayton
(Answer No. 7 is combined with No. 8 below.)
What is the NAACP doing about black-on-black crime? We always see the NAACP out front when a non-black says or does something that offends the black community. It seems to me that black-on-black crime is a bigger problem than what some idiots are spray painting on that tunnel at NCSU or what Sheriff Bizzell is saying down in Johnston County. – Paul Stillman, Wendell
Answer 7 & 8: We stand publicly and nationally against violent, misogynistic, ugly gangster rap. I’m surprised you did not know this considering the amount of press it has received.
In fact, some years ago in response to youth violence that kills inner-city youth, the NAACP Youth and College Division kicked off a "Stop the Violence-Start the Love" campaign in New York and Los Angeles to respond to the killings of two major rap artists. In March 1997, the NAACP encouraged the nation to observe a day of peace.
The NAACP filed suit to reduce the number of guns in our communities, and it urges youth, parents, teachers, clergy and adults to teach positive conflict resolution and to become selective about music and movies that promote violence.
Just two tears ago we initiated “STOP.” Below is the position of the program:
In today’s culture, nothing is more influential than the images and impressions we receive daily from the mainstream media. What people watch on television, listen to on the radio, see in a movie or on the Internet has a profound impact on how they view the world.
At the NAACP, we firmly believe that we all have a responsibility to insure that those images and impressions foster respect, and not hate or racism.
Incidents like Don Imus referring to Rutgers University Women’s Basketball players as “nappy headed hoes,” or actor Michael Richards going on a tirade using the “n"-word at a comedy club in LA, should never be tolerated. We must tell the artists and media executives who produce material that fosters a culture of disrespect that by promoting racist ideas and rants, they put their own financial future at risk.
And, at the same time, we must recognize the need for balance within the African-American communities in regards to what the community deems acceptable in music, film and other media. Images reflected in songs and music videos that show half-dressed African-American women being objectified or demeaned by men, or young African-American men as thugs must STOP. These kinds of images promote hurtful and false stereotypes of young African-Americans.
On college campuses around the country, like Clemson University, the University of Texas-Austin and Johns Hopkins, racial incidents are a too-common occurrence, and the way that media portrays young African-Americans only contributes to the problem. That’s why we have developed the “STOP” Campaign, an initiative of the NAACP Youth & College Division:
- STOP Defaming Our Women … by respecting all African-American Women and not describing them in profane and derogatory terms
- STOP Degrading Our Community … by not supporting hurtful images that portray negative images of the African-American community
- STOP Denigrating Our History … by not supporting words and media that diminishes our proud history and insults our ancestors
- STOP Accepting Disrespect … by not patronizing companies and artists that put forth demeaning and disrespectful images in our community
- START Standing Up … by standing up against anyone who diminishes the capacity of young people
- START the Diversity … by supporting balance and diversity of content in the entertainment industry to create positive role models for young people and by demanding more African-Americans and other people of color in decision making positions in the entertainment industry.
I’d like to know why I have to be bombarded with the N-word in public. While at a Wal-Mart recently, I was subject to several 20 something’s calling each other the N-word. I find it VERY offensive-NO MATTER WHO SAYS IT! How is this OK for some races but not others? Also, shouldn't all people be taught not to use the word towards anyone? Mind you, what you say to one another in your own home is no one's business but, it becomes mine when it is in public. So, I guess my question is: Why is it OK? – Lynda, Fuquay-Varina
The simple answer is, it’s not okay. We would like to share the following info on what took place last year:
On Monday, July 9, 2007, during its 98th Annual National Convention in Detroit, Mich., the NAACP will conduct a mock funeral to bury the N-Word. Delegates and supporters of America’s largest, most respected, oldest, and most effective civil rights organization will convene at Cobo Hall for a march led by the casket containing the “N”-Word to Hart Plaza where there will be a funeral service for the most vicious of all racist insults – the “N”-Word!
Just as in 1944, when Jim Crow was put to rest in the city of Detroit, we’ve come back 63 years later again in Detroit at this time to bury and put to rest once and for all the N-Word. This will be the major kickoff event of our convention.
The mock funeral is a part of the NAACP “STOP” Campaign an initiative of the NAACP Youth & College Division that seeks to “STOP” the demeaning images of African-Americans in the media, particularly with respect to the portrayal of African-American women. These images are also reflected in songs and music videos that show half-dressed women being objectified by men. The NAACP, through its STOP Campaign calls on those outside and especially those within the Black community to Stop Defaming our Women, Degrading our Community, and Denigrating our History. No word defames, degrades and denigrates like the N-Word and we want to STOP it!
We are inviting artists from the Hip Hop and Rap communities, recording and movie industry executives, and African-American community thought leaders to join us in Detroit when we symbolically bury this vile insult to our past, present and future. There is international interest in this powerful and symbolic action and we are calling on others of goodwill to march with us against this word that hurts and diminishes us everyday.
I would like to start out by saying that I think that your organization does many great things for the community. I know first hand how it feels to be discriminated against. But I would like to ask you a question that a co-worker once asked me, and I didn’t have an answer to. He asked, "Why is it that there are such things as a black Miss America contest and black student scholarship funds, etc. But if someone were to try to have a white-only Miss America contest, or a white-only scholarship fund, then it would be racist?" I had never thought of it before, but the question did make me think. Keep up the good work and be blessed! – Julio Cruz, Bahama
For years, these things were white-only. The other came about in response to years of segregation and unfair treatment.
Remember, segregation has only been illegal in the last 40 years and even when it became illegal there was no rush to eradicate it. Remember, slaves built UNC but could not go there. Minority scholarships are a response to legalized denial.
Yes, it would be racist to have white–only scholarships because whites were not historically denied.
By the way, I am sure you know that Historically Black Colleges and Universities were never segregated. Anyone could attend. And today, many white students, despite the fact that they were never denied, get minority grants when they attend HBCU’s.