From battling the black incarceration rate to retooling public education, the NAACP’s 21st-century platform is nothing short of a “broad domestic human rights movement.”
Question: In the long run, is the NAACP’s mission to make itself obsolete?
Ben Jealous: I mean, we're in business to go out of business, but you know so long as we see stats that say it's easier for a white man with a criminal record to find a job than it is for a black man without one. We're in business for a long time, both frankly for that black man and for the white guy who's been treated almost as bad as the black guy.
Question: How can the NAACP continue to help African-Americans in the 21st century?
Ben Jealous: Yeah, in the 21st century, a lot of the barriers that exist, they're growing back up. In the 21st century, like the centuries before, there is a problem so big in the society that you can see it from space. I mean, you think about the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century, the beginning of any of those. You would have seen in the 18th century, for instance, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. You would have seen from space in the 19th century the plantations across the South with bodies bent over closely together working the fields. You would have seen in the 20th century racial segregation that, literally, west of Charles Street in Baltimore were black folks and east of Charles Street were white folks. And you would see in this century, the prisons that pockmark our country, our people in our country are 5% of the world's people and 25% of the world's prisoners. Now what that means, and that's people of all colors. Now if you took black and brown people, all of them, out of prison tomorrow, this country would still have way more than its share of prisoners. They would just be by a factor of two, and not a factor of five.
So, in our lifetime, in my lifetime, this country has greatly increased the rate at which it incarcerates white people, and yet black people are incarcerated five times more than that. And that really defines at the beginning of this century what we have to fix. Now, in order to bring down the incarceration rate, well, you've got to start with the beginning of life. You've got to make sure that parents and schools are prepared to prepare young people for success. You've got to deal with the next stage of life. You've got to make sure that people in this opportunity have the opportunity to work at a good job, they have access to good healthcare, and that they have the opportunity to build wealth and to actually advance their family's status in the country over time.
And then finally, we need to make sure that our justice system works for the interests of everybody. That it makes every community safer, that it uses incarceration as a last resort for people who are a danger to themselves or to society and that we use, quite frankly, the means that allow us to hold as much of our resources for other priorities as possible. I mean, right now for instance, New York state last year, we pushed them to change the Rockefeller drug laws. And they did. And in doing so, not only were poor drug addicts now given access to what rich drug addicts always had access to, which is rehab, but they saved a lot of money in the process. And that is sort of the thing about the incarceration struggle in our society is that really at the end of the day is both the proof of the failure of so many other strategies, education strategies, employment strategies. It also is the acid that eats away at each those strategies.
In the state of California right now, you see a system where the tuition rate is going up 30% in the fall. There's no way to explain that without acknowledging that California is one of five states that spends more on incarceration than public education. And if you look at the pattern over the last 25 years, right away, the priorities have flipped. State spending in California on public higher education has gone from about 12% of the budget to around 4% or 5%, and at the same time, state spending in California on incarceration has gone from 4% or 5% of the budget to around 11% or 12%. And you see that across the country that as what we spend on incarceration goes up, the money we have for schools and colleges goes down and so, part of the struggle for our generation is allowing people to see the connection and to understand that at the end of the day, this isn't a movement for education over here and a movement for worker's rights over there, and a movement for justice reform. It's all one broad domestic human rights movement.
I think that's the biggest functional struggle, is to get people to see the connections and then to connect themselves to one another.
Recorded March 10th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen