Two years ago, the NAACP galvanized a horde of politicians, college and professional athletes, and hip-hop, rock, and movie stars to rally and boycott South Carolina for flying the Confederate battle flag over the state capitol dome. State officials capitulated and agreed to move the flag to a Confederate monument on statehouse grounds. This should have ended the issue. But it hasn't. The NAACP now says it will rev up the boycott again until state officials toss the flag into a museum backroom.
At first glance, the NAACP's Confederate flag obsession seems tiresome and worthy of quick dismissal. But there's a method to its flag antics. The Confederate flag fight is a textbook example of the NAACP's strategy of elevating peripheral issues to a life-and-death struggle for African Americans in order to grab maximum media and public visibility.
The strategy is simple: Pick the softest target possible, make a lot of fuss about it, and take minimal action on the real crisis issues that devastate poor and working-class black communities. While the NAACP saber-rattles over a worthless flag, it's deafeningly silent on South Carolina's black poverty, school dropout, infant mortality, and victim-of-violence rates which are among the worst in the nation. It also barely utters a peep on the dreary plight of hundreds of black South Carolina farmers whose farms have been foreclosed by bankers and government agencies in the past decade.
Then there's the organization's annual over-hyped Image Awards bash, which supposedly honors the best and brightest of those who uphold positive black images. Instead, it is a cheap imitation Academy Award drool over foul-mouthed rappers, comics, celebrity gadabouts, and black Hollywood box-office showpieces. This year was no exception. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry copped best actor and actress awards, and rapper Ja Rule's "Livin' It Up" grabbed top hip hop honors.
But did Washington's portrayal of a corrupt, foul-mouthed, rogue cop in Training Day really advance the black image? And did Berry baring her torso in Swordfish provide the wholesome image of black womanhood that the NAACP says it wants to promote?
Then there's Ja Rule. Last year he drew howls of protests from many blacks for using the word "nigger" in singer Jennifer Lopez's controversial hit, "I'm Real." His NAACP award-winning song trashes women and butchers the English language.
The NAACP's appalling inattention to the big-ticket issues that sledgehammer the black poor is no surprise. It spent the better part of the 1990s in a monumental retreat from visible cutting-edge social activism. That retreat can be directly traced to the collapse of legal segregation in the 1960s, the class divisions that imploded within black America, and the greening of the black middle-class. This is a process that has sped full-throttle forward since the 1960s. The NAACP's success has not had the remotest bearing on the lives of the black poor, who have become even poorer and more desperate.
But a tilt by NAACP leaders toward an aggressive activist agenda carries the deep risk of alienating the corporate donors that they have carefully cultivated the past few years. They depend on these firms to gain more jobs, promotions, and contracts for black professionals and businesspersons and to secure contributions for their fund-raising campaigns, dinners, banquets, scholarship funds, and programs. The NAACP's Confederate flag fight poses no threat to these corporations and, more importantly, no threat to their cozy relationship with the NAACP.
With yet another boycott call of South Carolina, NAACP leaders can claim that they are striking a mortal blow against racist oppression. And since much of the public and media thinks that only rabid, unreconstructed race-baiters defend flying the Confederate battle flag, they'll be applauded. But the flag fight won't save black farms, improve abominable schools, stop racial profiling, fight the crime and drug plague, or help poor, malnourished mothers. The NAACP has no obsession with these fights.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. This column first appeared on AlterNet.