As a brown-skinned immigrant who has spent 25 years working for racial justice, I owe a good deal of my life to the legacy of the NAACP. So I’ve watched and attended the organization’s centennial convention in New York this week with both gratitude and the urge to contribute.
My family emigrated to the United States from India when I was five, which would have been impossible if the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act hadn’t removed country quotas under the pressure of the civil rights ethic. When I became a community organizer at age 20, I found an inspiring set of groups to work with—few would have existed without the movement’s example and infrastructure.
Yet my very presence in this country, and my activism, symbolize the demographic and political trends that have changed the racial justice struggle since those days some 40 years ago. Today’s context includes great numbers of non-black people of color, complicating the way in which racism plays out. Certainly there have always been activist indigenous Asian, Latino and Arab communities, but there’s no question that recent immigration has driven our numbers up, expanding our presence in small cities, suburbs and rural areas where we never used to be. The dominant racial dynamic of the 21st century is not solely black and white, but a complex hierarchy in which multiple groups of color shift around according to geography, economic status and political power. While communities of color all relate to racism, we don’t experience it in exactly the same way.
I’ve spent most of my career building multiracial organizations and alliances, working with black, Latino and immigrant communities to win new health programs, to protect labor rights, to control the police and to reform school systems. In the early days, I made the “same boat” argument for sticking together—racism oppresses us all in one way or another. But eventually the very real differences between our positions would arise. Immigrants had language problems at the local hospital, but black people were routinely denied high quality treatment through discrimination that was much harder to prove. Black men experience racial profiling while driving, while South Asian and Arab Americans get it at the airport, and law enforcement justifies those actions in different ways. Sometimes, in some places, people of color exercise their power in ways that hurt other people of color. At some point, cooperation based on abstract solidarity turned into competition based on specific grievances about the higher step someone else appears to occupy on the ladder.
We can prepare for that moment and deal with it constructively, and dozens of groups across the country have managed to do just that. Being ready means building a broad agenda to expand resources, educating ourselves about other communities, and, most of all, acting as if we’re in the same movement, if not the same boat.
I’ve been privy to a great example in the restaurant industry through my participation in and writing about the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROCU). In any high-end restaurant in any city, we will find the same racial arrangement: white people, whom employers consider attractive enough to speak to diners, in the living wage jobs at the front of the house; immigrants of color at the dangerous low wage jobs in the back of the house; and black Americans missing entirely, relegated to fast food.
The obstacles we face in accessing the industry’s benefits vary according to employers’ faulty perceptions of our relative worth. Breaking down that hierarchy requires thinking it through, which almost always leads to a complicated set of solutions. Training programs, new hiring and promotion policies, immigration reform and the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws are just a few that ROCU pushes in cities like New York, Detroit, New Orleans and Chicago. ROCU meetings take place in multiple languages, and organizers make constant adjustments to make sure the group is truly inclusive.
That’s the essential challenge facing the NAACP too—being a racial justice leader in a multiracial nation. Its new president, Ben Jealous, is committed to revitalizing the organization—nothing and nobody gets to be 100 without getting a little weary—in ways that connect its current membership to the rest of us. He uses the broader language of human rather than civil rights and works hard to inspire young people, who barely blinked through his speech to the Youth and College Division at the convention.
I'm not attached to the NAACP changing its complexion. The organization doesn’t have to be fully multiracial to meet the challenge set by Jealous. Black people need their organizations, and other communities of color also need black communities to be well organized. As we do our work, though, we need to do it together, regardless of how we’ve arranged ourselves. The solutions we come to will differ, but we can stand up for them together, grounded in our commitment to dismantling the racial hierarchy as thoroughly as we can over the next 100 years.