We have a history of criticizing the NAACP for failing to make an official statement on gay marriage. For an organization dedicated to ending any type of discrimination, so too should that mission — or at least a few cursory words — be dedicated to ending all types of discrimination. But because the NAACP’s members and board are rooted in some religious institutions that don’t look kindly on homos getting married, the NAACP remains neutral on the issue. Except there’s a new leader in town. Might she change things up?
Just last year NAACP chief Benjamin Todd Jealous (pictured, right) was saying his organization doesn’t have an official position on marriage equality because the NAACP lacks consensus on this issue. Rather than take a leadership position and guide the NAACP toward acceptance of gay Americans, Jealous threw the responsibility on The Gays: “If gay rights groups want to change the opinion polls in the black community, they have to invest in it. It’s a long-term conversation. The battle to oppose Prop 8 could have been much better run. They came to the black community late, with the expectation that they were going to get certain results.” He’s right; it is the responsibility of gay Americans to reach out to people of color.
But it’s also the responsibility of the NAACP to work with gay Americans. Because the NAACP is gay America, the same way gay America is the NAACP. It’s one giant Venn Diagram, folks, and there’s no separation of the two classes. (I know this, because I belong to both categories, but outgoing NAACP chairman Julian Bond really says it best.)
Now here comes Roslyn Brock (pictured, top), elected the NAACP’s new chairwoman, and it has the Baltimore Sun‘s editorial board all sorts of excited about how Brock, 44, and Jealous, 37, could inject their youth to create actual change among the ranks. (Both are the youngest persons to hold their posts at the NAACP, and as WaPo notes, thus never experienced legal segregation first hand.)
But how exactly do Ms. Brock and Mr. Jealous intend to signal the new direction in which they want to take the organization? One way would be to embrace President Barack Obama‘s call for ending the military’s discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which forces gay and lesbian soldiers to lie about who they are or face dismissal. The arguments heard today against gays serving openly in the military offer an eerie echo of fears voiced 60 years ago about allowing black soldiers to serve on an equal footing with whites.
When President Harry S. Truman signed the executive order integrating the armed forces in 1948, the decision was hailed by the NAACP as a great step forward in the struggle for equal rights. There’s no reason the fight for equal treatment of gays and lesbians in the military shouldn’t be part of the NAACP’s long tradition of working to level the playing field for all oppressed minorities.
Enlarging the NAACP’s civil rights mission to include combating discrimination against gay and lesbian service members might bring Ms. Brock and Mr. Jealous in conflict with their base of supporters among African-American churchgoers, many of whom oppose homosexuality on religious grounds. Ironically, the two young leaders could find themselves obliged to undertake the delicate task of reminding rank-and-file members that the Bible was also once used to justify slavery and segregation. They might also point out that many of the gay soldiers discriminated against by the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy are black.
Not just many. Disproportionately many. If ever there was a reason for the NAACP to come out for gays, this is it. The United States has a law on the books that is used not just to discriminate against gay Americans, but gay black Americans. While people of color make up 29 percent of active duty troops, they make up 45 percent of those dismissed in 2008.
We’re thrilled to hear about how, with Jealous and Brock at the helm, the NAACP is looking to reclaim its influence among black Americans. How it’s looking to social networking and web technologies, like live streaming forums on its website, to connect with larger audiences. But Brock comes to the job with huge shoes to fill. She replaces Bond, the great orator and natural (excuse the pun) bond between blacks and gays. In him, we found a voice that didn’t just resonate with black America or gay America, but America at large.
It is not Brock’s duty to one-up Bond. It is Brock’s duty to build on his legacy. And that includes having the NAACP recognize LGBT equality is not a “gay issue,” nor is it a “black issue.” It’s a human issue, and one so obvious that the NAACP has no choice but to support it. Because that’s just what it does.