If the NAACP Was Founded by White People, then Who’s Driving the Bus?
by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Years ago, while teaching a class at Syracuse University, one of my students saw me on television and accused me of being a “radical” and “angry” black man. My response was that “I am not an angry black man, just an honest one. But based on how you’ve been trained to think, you are naturally going to try to stigmatize me as angry for simply telling you the truth.”
I don’t consider myself radical and that I am less angry about racism than many of my friends, because I try to objectively understand psychology and the power dynamic. In fact, I grew up around white people, get accused of “acting white” for not speaking with enough slang, and have taught thousands of white students during my 20 years years as a college professor.
My goal is to do nothing but look for the truth, even if people are angry about it. Sometimes, that means angering other black people.
Someone asked me what I think about the fact that a group of white people started the NAACPand whether this undermines the organization’s historic authenticity. Depending on which account of the organization’s history you read, there are some who say that the original concept of the NAACP came from three white Americans: Henry Moskowitz, William English Walling and and Mary White Ovington. Other accounts say that there were African Americans on-board, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, WEB Dubois, and Mary Church-Terrell.
No matter which account you believe, there are a couple of things to keep in mind: The initial meeting of the group in Springfield, Illinois, was majority white (53 out of 60 people were white). Secondly, the majority of the financial backing of this organization has almost always come from white Americans and corporations founded and run by whites (including Wells Fargo, the bank that was accused of stealing the homes of millions of African Americans through predatory lending).
If you want to understand the motivations of nearly any human being or organization on earth, you only need to follow the money. So, the presence of African American figureheads in groups funded by white Americans can be compared to the US government conquering Iraq and placing an Iraqi citizen as the head of the country. In this case, it is clear who is calling the shots, and it is also clear who might be getting deceived.
Here’s a summary of what I had to say about the NAACP situation:
Even with the help of benevolent white people, black people are better off securing their own liberation. It’s kind of like having a really nice white boss who supports you on the job….you thank him for all of his help, but remember that both you and he know who’s really controlling the situation. Should your viewpoints ever diverge, he is going to define the direction of the organization. You can’t move into someone else’s house and shift around the furniture.
Whites fight incredibly hard for animals too, but would never let a dog sit at the dinner table or believe let the dog believe that he is his own master. A parent works to protect and love their child, but the child is only allowed to have or do things that meet their parents’ approval. By founding the organization expected to most diligently fight for the rights of African Americans, the NAACP was created with the kind of paternalistic sentiment that might lead an Evangelist to go to Africa to save “the savages.”
Someone liking you is not always the same as that person RESPECTING you and we must always know the difference. I can’t imagine any white American called to fight for the justice of black people doing so without wondering why we aren’t taking charge of our own liberation. Think about your own life: If you were giving someone a place to live, making decisions for him, feeding him and driving him everywhere, would you not wonder if that person was handicapped?
The point here, and the Financial Juneteenth lesson in all of this, is that part of the reason that inequality has been allowed to persist is because we’ve been a party to its perpetuation. We support organizations and institutions which, through their very systematic infrastructure, are designed to position us as mascots and political assets, rather than individuals capable of shaping the direction of our community. Two shining examples are the NAACP and the Democratic Party, both of which have put key concerns of the African American community to the back of the bus and are so swamped with corporate money that they are unable to fight for the causes we truly care about. This doesn’t mean that these groups have never done any good. It means that you should only allow someone else to feed you until you are able to feed yourself.
So, these models of activism might have made sense right after slavery, but should NOT apply in the 21st century.
Our collective goal at this point is not to get other people in America to like us; some whites have loved us for a very long time (similar to the way a man loves his pet or a housewife loves her maid). The objective now is to be willing to leverage our friendly relationship with the oppressive power structure in exchange for one that is more equitable and productive for our children. This means positioning ourselves to fight for scarce resources and being willing to step on some toes of seemingly benevolent benefactors.
You can compare the relationship between blacks and whites to a dysfunctional, yet peaceful marriage. An abusive man may truly love his wife as long as a) she knows her place, b) she doesn’t make more money than him, c) she doesn’t complain when he beats her and d) she understands that his needs are more important than her own. But in order for the wife to get her husband to treat her with respect, she must be willing to risk losing his love in exchange for a firm renegotiation. In fact, she may have to leave the house after realizing that his “love” for her is predicated upon her accepting the role of the subservient and abused housewife.
This is why African Americans should consider leaving the Democratic and Republican Parties, and maybe even the NAACP. It is the only way they will come to respect us, and the only way that our voices will ever be heard. A firm rule of politics is that if a constituency is going to support you no matter what you do, you should spend your time and energy broadening your base of support. That’s why the NAACP Image Awards nominated two shows that don’t even have black people in the cast. They are seeking to broaden their horizons.
The socio-economic marriage between black and white America is equally problematic to the example mentioned above. I don’t believe that white Americans hate us, especially if we know our place. In fact, black assimilation can be an instant ticket to the top if you’re lucky, which is why many of us are willing to tell whatever lie or hide our true identities to fit in for the riches of corporate America. What also remains true is that if you command true equality, self-respect and reparations for the harm that has been done to your loved ones, that’s when you are typically marginalized. At that point, you must make a decision: Do I quiet down so they will love me again, or do I stand up and fight for what is mine?
In this grand equation, self-esteem, self-sufficiency and self-respect all come into play. If you truly love who you are, you don’t need others to validate you in order to feel like you’re a whole human being. If you are able to get what you need on your own, you no longer feel the need to bow and scrape to people who disrespect you. Self-esteem and self-sufficiency give you the ability to retain your dignity and demand true equality, but only after you accept the fact that your adversary may not love you, at least for a little while.
The sad truth is that racist America will almost never congratulate you for gaining your freedom because, in the minds of some, you will have taken something that they believe belongs to them. Part of who they believe they are is built on who they think YOU ARE. So, by changing your role in the socio-economic food chain, you are surely going to ruffle some feathers at the top. That’s when you find out who your friends really are.
I am thankful to the NAACP (and perhaps even the Democratic Party) for what they’ve done for black America and thankful to the whites who fought alongside us during the civil rights movement. But I don’t expect these individuals to be part of the next step of civil rights, where we push for the core of dignity, reparations, educational justice and a better future for our children. This battle belongs to US.