It was his first speech as the new president of the NAACP, and Benjamin T. Jealous was a bit anxious. His audience, 90 businesspeople attending a Washington, D.C., meeting of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, could not help but be skeptical given the civil rights group’s recent history of internal division. And at 35, Jealous was one of the youngest people in the room.
With his hands thrust in his pants pockets, he paced along the small speaker’s platform. “People have come to me all summer and asked a question,” he said. “I had a bad habit of answering that question, taking it seriously. They would ask, ‘Do we need an NAACP if we have a Black president? You hear it for the thirtieth time, all you can do is sigh audibly or just turn it on its head.” Jealous stared out at the luncheon audience before delivering his punch line. “Look, the operative word in NAACP is double-A. We’re not the National Association for the Advancement of a Colored Person,” he said, as the room broke up in laughter. “We’re the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As important as breaking glass ceilings is, we were founded for the grassroots.”
To Ben Jealous, it’s clear that everyday African-Americans are hurting. “We’re not going to be put out of business the day everything is equal for people on top,” he said. “We will be put out of business when everything is equal for people on the bottom.”
Convincing others that the NAACP remains a powerful force has been at the top of Jealous’s agenda since the lifelong activist and Rhodes scholar was named its president in May. Jealous is the youngest leader in the group’s 99-year history, and he arrives at a pivotal moment for the association: For the past two decades, the NAACP has struggled to shed the image that it is an organization that clings to its glorious past even as it navigates the complexities of the contemporary racial landscape.
The NAACP’s contributions are undeniable: helping to end the scourge of lynching, stamping out Jim Crow, and leading the way for the elevation of thousands of Black elected officials and corporate leaders. But with those victories in hand, the organization finds itself at a crossroads. On one hand, more African-Americans than ever are middle-class, own businesses, and attend college. Will Smith is among Hollywood’s most bankable stars, and Kenneth Chenault heads Fortune 500 company American Express, while Senator Barack Obama became Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
Still, being Black in America remains uniquely perilous. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is more than double that of Whites. Black students languish at the bottom of most measures of school achievement. And African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of Whites, a fact that Jealous says has spawned a new rationale for racial discrimination.
“We’ve gone from the primary justification for discriminating against Blacks being based on perceived inferiority to discrimination being based on perceived criminality,” Jealous tells ESSENCE. “Which explains why when you are vetted and known, they treat you like you’re Barack Obama or Tiger Woods, and when you go to catch a cab and when you apply for a job, in a situation where you’re not vetted, they treat you like a random-ass Black man.” Numerous studies have found that employers and landlords favor White applicants over Blacks, he points out. Princeton University associate professor Devah Pager concluded that a Black man with no criminal record has a harder time finding work than a similarly skilled White man with a criminal record. “That’s profound,” Jealous says, shaking his head in disbelief. Prior to coming to the civil rights group, Jealous was president of the Rosenberg Foundation in San Francisco, which finances economic and community development programs for low-income families in California. He also worked for the human rights group Amnesty International, directing efforts against prison rape, racial profiling and the increasing number of harsh jail sentences imposed on juvenile offenders. He was the executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a coalition of 200 Black-run newspapers, and managing editor of the Jackson Advocate, a Black newspaper in Mississippi. Prior to that, he was an organizer in Harlem while attending Columbia University.
Jealous was surprised to be selected to head the NAACP. “My presumption was that I would get to have some fascinating conversations and ultimately be given the privilege of going back to be a foundation president,” he says of the job-application process. But now that he has the position, he is determined to return the NAACP to prominence.
THE FAMILY MAN
Jealous signed a three-year contract, and he says that he promised board members he will stay in the job as long as a decade. He says his only concern is the job’s unrelenting travel demands. He won’t get to enjoy quite as many quiet moments at home in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Lia, sweet-talking their daughter, Morgan, who will be 3 in January. Jealous met his wife, Lia Epperson Jealous, a former law professor and civil rights lawyer, 15 years ago at a pastry shop in New York City. At the time Jealous was leaving an internship at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational fund, and Lia was his replacement. They talked business, but there was an immediate connection as the slender, brown-skinned Lia caught Jealous’s eye and engaged his intellect. She was taken by the tall Californian as well. The couple married in 2002.
“From the moment I met him, he had such a strong passion for social justice,” she says, glancing up to look at her husband in the couple’s living room. “And that is something that we share, that we have in common.” She is confident that Jealous’s passion will sustain him as he works to find answers to all the swirling questions about the contemporary mission of the NAACP. “Ben likes a challenge, but I don’t think it is for everyone,” she says. “There are millions of people around the world who have tremendous respect for this organization but would say ‘good for the person who wants to run it.’ They wouldn’t want to deal with that kind of complex challenge. But this is what drives Ben.”
The dilemma facing Jealous is how to forge an agenda that addresses festering discrimination while acknowledging unprecedented progress. It is no easy task. His predecessor as NAACP president, former Verizon executive Bruce Gordon, abruptly quit in 2007 after running afoul of the NAACP’s board of directors by focusing too closely on self-help projects, such as SAT classes for children, at the expense, some board members thought, of political advocacy.
In recent years, the NAACP has been criticized for taking actions that are more symbolic than substantive, such as holding a funeral for the N-word at its 2007 national convention in Detroit. And for years it has advocated a boycott of South Carolina in protest of the Confederate flag that continues to fly on the grounds of the state capitol. Gordon supported those efforts, but he also thought the organization should do more to promote self-reliance among African-Americans. “It is insufficient to focus only on equal access to education,” says Gordon, who is now working on several nonprofit and corporate boards. “The government, the people in power can’t make our kids study. They can’t make our kids go to school. They are not responsible for seeing that our kids graduate. We are. We have to be far more accountable for changing the behaviors in our community.” Gordon’s resignation left the NAACP without a permanent leader for more than a year, until the board selected Jealous in May. He started work in September.
Only four weeks on the job when he spoke exclusively to ESSENCE, Jealous still seemed to be plotting out his agenda. But it’s those things that keep him awake at night that have already made his to-do list. “Shortly after my daughter was born, I was taking stock of the challenges we are facing. I started to think of things like, Will she go to a good school?” he says. “The number one success of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement over the past 100 years is our biggest shortcoming. Brown v. Board of Education made it possible for every child to have access to the same school. And yet, there are too many instances where our schools have problems of underfunding and overcrowding.” Just like the NAACP was able to slowly end lynchings, he thinks it can eventually stop “the massive incarceration of African-Americans.” The key to the organization’s success, he says, is to articulate the problems facing Black America. He plans to do that by beefing up its communications operation, which he has already increased from a one-person shop to a team of four staff members that will eventually grow to eight. “We don’t succeed when just Black people understand the problems, but we succeed when the country understands what the problems are.”
The second of two children born to an interracial couple, Jealous was raised in Monterey County in California. Activism was always important in his family: His grandparents told stories of how his family overcame racial obstacles that stretched back to slavery. “My mom would tell what it was like to desegregate her high school in Baltimore and how she spent summers in Virginia participating in lunch-counter sit-ins,” Jealous says. “And then my father would tell stories about what it was like being the only White guy in a lunch-counter sit-in, and how the police treat you differently, in some ways reserving special punishment for ‘race traitors.’ “
When he was a youngster, the subject of race was constantly thrust at him. One of his earliest childhood memories is being at a discount store with a friend. “We realized that the White lady was peeking at us through the Peg-Board,” Jealous recalls. “She was standing one aisle over, making sure we didn’t steal anything. We were two of only 40 Black people in town. It didn’t matter how light you were; everybody knew who you were and what you were, and some people treated you accordingly.”
It was that sense of outrage, coupled with Jealous’s own record of activism, that board members believe set him apart. “Ben Jealous has spent his professional life working for and raising money for the very social justice concerns for which the NAACP advocates,” says NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. “He had run his first voter registration drive at 14 years old. He had great familiarity with what we do, and he didn’t have to undergo on-the-job training.”
But that wasn’t a unanimous opinion. Thirty-four members voted for Jealous; 21 voted against his appointment, some complaining that he didn’t have the experience needed to guide the group. “Unfortunately, Mr. Jealous was not that well known at all,” says the Reverend Amos Brown, a San Francisco minister who opposed Jealous. “I’m not saying that people have to be out there tooting their own horn, but at this juncture our brand and our image needs to be improved and polished.”
The depth of the opposition startled Jealous, who spent much of the summer reaching out to his opponents. He lunched with Brown and had several other conversations with him. “You don’t flourish as an organizer in places like Harlem and Mississippi unless you are ready to deal with folks who just come at you yelling,” Jealous says. “And you have to choose to see that as an invitation for two people who care very much about an issue, in this case the NAACP, to have a meaningful conversation.” Brown, for one, says he appreciated Jealous’s outreach. “I will be batting for him 10,000 percent,” Brown says, “because the major issue here is not us but the future of the organization. We should give the young man the chance to present what he can do.”
“I KNOW WE CAN SUCCEED”
Jealous’s challenges go far beyond winning over reluctant board members. He says he wants to use the Internet to extend the organization’s reach. In the months before the presidential election, the NAACP’s home page opened with a scrolling message encouraging people to have their friends register to vote. It was accompanied by software allowing users to e-mail voter registration request forms.
“It was important to roll that out because every potential vote counts, and because we wanted to send a signal to people that I was serious about changing the way we organize online,” Jealous says. He has taken charge of an organization that not only struggles with its mission but is also hard-pressed to even say how many members it has. For years, the NAACP claimed to have 500,000 members across its more than 1,700 chapters. In truth, that figure was little better than a guesstimate. Jealous says that two recent surveys show that the association has 275,000 dues-paying members and another 375,000 who are active online. There are still others who write checks to the organization but do not appear to take part in any NAACP activities.
Money is an even more pressing concern. Over the past two years, the organization has laid off nearly half of its 130 paid staffers, mostly at its Baltimore headquarters. Not surprisingly, fund-raising is a big focus. “I’ve come through the door with more than $3 million from new funders, and I have another $2.5 million in the pipeline,” Jealous says. He says he plans to use the money he raises to bolster programs aimed at improving Black educational achievement, health, jobs and criminal justice.
“You look at what is happening in schools, what’s happening in criminal justice, with jobs, with family wealth, and there is a long history of disappointment, a sense that you must not be doing your job or things wouldn’t be this bad,” Jealous says about the challenge he faces. But he’s confident: “I know we can succeed. It comes down to vision and fund-raising, communications and coordination in the field. All those things strike me as doable.”