'I Don't Know if This Democracy Will Be Recognizable.' NAACP's President Says This Election is the Most Important in a CenturyBreaking News
tags: civil rights, NAACP, 2020 Election
In the face of recent catastrophic crises, rallying cries like “the pandemic doesn’t discriminate” and “we’re all in this together” have become popular in the United States. The problem is, neither phrase is really true.
While COVID-19 has killed 225,000 people in the U.S., from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds, it has been twice as lethal for Black Americans. The resulting economic recession cost 22 million people their jobs, but disproportionately impacted people of color. And the slow economic recovery is playing out along racial lines, too: by September, only 7% of white workers were still unemployed, compared to 12% of Black ones. Meanwhile, police violence and its aftermath has an uneven impact on communities of color—an enduring reality underscored by President Donald Trump, who deployed federal law enforcement officers to confront peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors and who failed to condemn white supremacists when asked to do so during a presidential debate.
In other words, it’s been a challenging year for the NAACP, the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization, and its president, Derrick Johnson. Johnson, who got his start in racial justice activism as a student at Tougaloo College, a small, historically-Black institution in Mississippi, recalls learning at the knee of Civil Rights Movement leaders, who would visit his campus in the 1990s. Julian Bond, John Lewis, Asa Hilliard and Benjamin Hooks would talk about the fight for equality, he recalls—a fight that isn’t finished yet. “As a result of that, I got involved and began to understand my role and the responsibility,” says Johnson, age 52. “I had to advocate for the African American community, particularly around issues dealing with civil rights.”
On a recent Wednesday, TIME sat down, virtually, with Johnson to discuss how the Trump Administration has exacerbated the pandemic’s effect on Black Americans, what’s at stake in the upcoming election, and how the NAACP is continuing its 111-year-long fight for equality in the final days leading up to Nov. 3.
The conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How do you think those civil rights leaders who visited your college campus decades ago would think about what’s happening today?
There’s this great song, “Freedom is a constant struggle.” [Those civil rights leaders] would probably think of that song as being a reality: for every two steps forward, you will have a step backwards. The real opportunity in today’s moment is to see the peaceful protesters in the streets across the country that look like America: young, old, Black, white, male, female. That is something that that did not happen during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
With all of these things disproportionately impacting Black Americans, should Congress start considering reparations more seriously than it has in the past?
At the NAACP, we have always supported HR-40, a bill that was introduced by Rep. John Conyers in the 1980s that [calls for] studying reparations to understand what [they would] truly mean. When there’s state intentional harm, there has to be a repairing of that harm. What does that look like? How does that unfold? It was defined for Japanese Americans who were put in internment camps. It was defined for Holocaust survivors who had to endure the fascism of Hitler’s Germany. We have to define it for the intentional governmental harm against African Americans. And it’s not based on something that happened a century ago. Some of that harm is ongoing.
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