Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Benjamin Jealous
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At age 35, he was elected as the youngest president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2008. Since then Benjamin Jealous, now 40, has extended the reach and energized the 104-year-old organization. His activism started early when his father registered him as a 5-year-old conscientious objector. Like President Barack Obama, he is biracial. His white father was disowned when he married his black mother. Both families are entwined in American history. His father's family was here since before the Revolutionary War, and his mother's ancestors were black statesmen during the Reconstruction. The couple instilled a strong sense of community, activism and social justice in their son. He graduated from Columbia University and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, was a community organizer, an investigative reporter and founding director of Amnesty International's U.S. Human Rights program. He and his wife Lia Epperson have a daughter.
Your parents were a huge influence on you, but your father was disowned for marrying your mother. Did you ever get to know his family?
Yes. My grandmother and my two uncles, my father's brothers, always accepted the marriage. It was my father's grandfather and my father's uncle who disowned and disinherited us. My father's father was deceased so his grandfather was very much the patriarch, and my father lost a large inheritance and we were denied contact with the extended family.
Your father registered you as a conscientious objector at age 5?
Yes. He was worried because [President Jimmy] Carter started talking about the draft again, and he wanted to make sure his boy was protected.
You have been a journalist and a community organizer, so have you ever considered running for political office?
There have been many people who have raised the possibility with me, but I have always considered it a greater privilege to do the type of work I do now. When you are a politician you really have to focus on everything that is important to all of your constituents. When you are a community organizer you are able to focus on the things that are most important to a particular community. You can spend more of your time going deeper and looking at harder issues and effecting bigger change. That's why I love what I do. I always feel I can accomplish more going deeper.
Do you think expanding the NAACP's influence in other areas energizes or dilutes the impact?
Every single issue we work on is of vital importance to thousands of families of color across the country. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. In the last century the struggle was primarily about federal litigation. Today it is primarily about state-level legislation. When you are fighting in court you need a few good lawyers, a couple of organizers to organize the class of people, and a judge who will hear and act on the truth. When you are fighting in the state legislature you have got to win a majority of votes in both houses and get the governor to sign. The latter requires you to build big, diverse coalitions. It requires you to be a friend, to have friends. But our times also require us to recognize the diversity of our own community. Thousands upon thousands of our own members were hurt and frustrated that the NAACP would not stand up for them nationally, for years and their right to marry. We needed to respect that.
You are talking about same-sex marriage.
Yep, yep, but whether it's marriage equality, environmental justice or HIV, everything that we're focused on is intended to make the promise of our past victories more real. To make freedom real. To make equality real. To make safety and security real. We are involved in a massive effort to both defend our past victories and implement them.
What role did the NAACP plays as far as blocking the voter ID law in Pennsylvania the last election cycle?
[Laughs] We organized most of the protests, many of the community meetings. We're plaintiffs in the lawsuit. We are active at the state capital. We had a lot to do with that. We made Pennsylvania's strict voter ID law a focus for the state but also for our national office as well. We understood an attempt to steal the vote in Pennsylvania was an attempt to steal the presidency. It would be a violation of the democratic rights of the people of this country.
Speaking of the presidency, has President Obama lived up to the expectations of the black community, or were those expectations unreasonable?
The direct answer to your question is that President Obama has exceeded the expectations of many people. The fact that he was able to push through health care reform in two years, something President Clinton couldn't achieve in eight. The fact that he was able to save Detroit when financial experts like Mitt Romney said we should let it die. That he was able to get this country growing again, if slowly, after inheriting the deepest recession since the Great Depression. And frankly, getting elected twice despite the leadership of the House of Representatives and many people throughout this country making their only job for two years ensuring they got rid of him. But the reality is this: The day he was elected people's expectations changed for their own children, for themselves, for their families. Every child in this country knows that they can be president and the aspirations of millions of children from coast to coast rise. Our job as parents is to create the situation in which our children can achieve their aspirations. If we feel that is impossible or it's grossly more difficult than it should be, our frustration rises across the board. Expectations have risen because of his election and the frustration of parents has risen with that and the challenge for all of us who are public servants, whether politicians, pastors, community organizers, social workers, teachers or policeman, is to catch up with the new normal as quickly as our children need us to.
Do you think because of his being elected twice a kind of racism has been defeated or broken?
What's changed with his election a second time is that it is now normal for a person of color to be president for generations of people in this country. Forever children of color -- black, brown, Asian, Native American -- will be able to grow up knowing that a person of color becoming president is not a fluke. That was what was at stake this time. People who didn't want to see a person of color become president won't be able to whisper, "That was just a fluke." Now that it has happened again despite the best efforts of some of them, who didn't even want to believe he was born here, he was a citizen, even though his mom is from Kansas and his cousin is Dick Cheney [laughing], have had to concede.
So we are moving past basic racism?
We continue to move beyond the legacy imposed by the constraints of slavery and segregation. At the same time it is still easier in this country for a white man with a criminal record to secure a job than a black man without one. We are living in a great future that our great-grandparents and grandparents couldn't possibly have envisioned. Yet we are living with realities that would feel very familiar to them. We have come a long way, and we have a long way yet to go. We keep moving forward. You know we abolished the death penalty in Connecticut last year, and we will abolish it in Maryland this year. We beat back an attempt to deny women their right to choose at the ballet box in Mississippi. So racism, sexism are not winning propositions anymore. We are living through one of those moments of massive generational struggle in this country between a group of privileged, older people committed to ensuring they maintain the status quo until they die and a much larger group of younger people who grew up every day saying the Pledge of Allegiance and are eager to see it move from the national aspiration to the national situation. "One Nation under God with Liberty and Justice for All."
First Published February 18, 2013 12:00 am