NAACP President: ‘We Are the Owners of This Government,’ Not Its Victims

November 11, 2020 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of NAACP, was the special guest this week at the Meridian International Center, a non-partisan center for diplomacy and global leadership. He shared his perspective on recent general election results including their impact on the racial justice movement, black voter turnout, and what a new administration could mean for Civil Rights. 

“[We are] recognizing that, as a nation, we have so much more to offer than what we’ve received,” Johnson said, explaining NAACP and Meridian’s shared focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion as the organizations looked at injustices in the United States and around the world.

The NAACP began 111 years ago. Its first major campaign dealt with anti-lynching legislation. Now, the organization has a structure of local units, branches, and college chapters in 47 states filled with volunteers that Johnson called “advocacy voices.” 

The NAACP focuses on advocacy for public policy. A separate but connected legal department, which has become the Legal Defense Fund, focuses on legal concerns. 

“If the issue of mob violence and race riots were not addressed, we could never be the democracy we were meant to be,” explained Johnson.

2020 Seen As Tipping Point

This year has seen fresh momentum in using “the tool of race to advance political outcomes,” according to Johnson. And this has come about for a variety of reasons. 

“Anyone with a smartphone… can become an instant reporter,” he mused, “and the last three to four years have been really intense with racial messaging… a complete breakdown in civility… [and] restlessness due to the economy.”

“There’s a social contract that people have begun to question… [and] I think what’s unique this year… [is] the response is from all quarters… behind a rallying cry.”

Increased Black Voter Turnout

“It’s about the arc of democracy, not the transaction of one election,” said Johnson. “Absent structural changes on how we administer elections, [we must] flood the system with legitimate votes.” 

This year, the NAACP took particular action to increase Black voter turnout, but also strove to have its members actively engage in the census and redistricting processes. 

“We are non-partisan, so we didn’t advocate for a particular party or candidate,” he asserted, but the organization did reach out to infrequent voters and created an education program to help people understand the voting process during a pandemic. 

After the election, the NAACP filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia to intervene in an attempt to stop the vote count. “Voters would be injured if the count was stopped,” said Johnson. 

Voting and Racial Justice

“Once an individual [has] completed their debt to society, they should be able to participate as a citizen,” Johnson said, advocating for restoring felon voting rights. But in addition to larger policy issues, he suggested some other actionable opportunities for voting justice. 

“I am a proponent of scannable voting machines,” he said, believing they allow for easier vote counting and “take partisanship out of what should be the [function] of democracy.” 

He also called to “stop having elections one day a week on a work day,” to have more precincts available for voting and more machines available at those precincts. And while he stopped short of championing compulsory voting, he did say that Americans should treat the duty of voting as an “obligation.” 

Making Things Right 

“Racism is not about individual behavior, it’s about public policy,” Johnson insisted. “Many of the programs created to benefit all [people] had blind spots that created inequities… We have to do more for people so they can be part of the economy so we all can do better.”

But when asked about which meaningful policies the executive branch could deliver under a Biden Administration, albeit potentially with a divided Senate, Johnson admitted that the biggest obstacle to achieving change — or creating or enhancing programs — would be renewed calls for fiscal responsibility due to the nation’s budget crisis. 

Still, Johnson said, “Many of the opportunities that we would pursue for African Americans are not only for African Americans, they are for everybody.”

And at the least, he “hope[s] this Administration will tap into [Black] talent.”

Getting Back to Normal is Not the Goal 

With all that has happened in 2020, many seem to want to return to “normal.” But could a return to normal mean a loss of momentum for the Civil Rights movement? 

“I worry based on what we see today, [but] I am hopeful for what I see for tomorrow,” he said. 

“We need to beat normal. Normal isn’t good enough. There are too many false barriers… We are owners of this government, not victims of this government… [and] we cannot tout our democracy globally if we don’t practice it domestically.”

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