Cornell Brooks is inheriting the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at a time when the nation's oldest civil rights organization is experiencing a resurgence of influence and membership in its long struggle for equal rights. Mr. Brooks, whose appointment as NAACP chief was announced Saturday, is a lawyer, minister and long-time civil rights activist who is well equipped to carry forward the new initiatives begun in 2008 by his predecessor, Benjamin Jealous.
Mr. Jealous realized that in order to remain relevant to today's challenges the NAACP must broaden its efforts to include all those unfairly victimized because of their race, ethnicity, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. Despite the progress made in recent decades toward ending the disparate treatment of minorities and the climate of bigotry and intolerance that enabled it, the NAACP's efforts are needed today as much as ever to combat the systemic injustices that continue to taint American democracy in less obvious forms.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder provided a good summary of those challenges in his commencement address at Morgan State University over the weekend. Mr. Holder condemned the continuing racial disparities that restrict African-Americans' access to health care, employment, housing, education and the ballot box as well as in the disproportionately harsh sentences meted out to African-Americans by the criminal justice system. These legacies of slavery and the era of de jure segregation that followed continue to limit the opportunities of millions of black Americans long after the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in the nation's public schools.
As The Sun's Liz Bowie and Erica L. Green reported on the 60th anniversary of that historic ruling, Baltimore City and Prince George's County remain two of the most segregated school systems in the country, with enrollments that are more than 75 percent black. By contrast, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties have no schools with a black enrollment as high as 75 percent, and together those districts have nearly 75 schools that are more than 90 percent white, while Anne Arundel County has 41 nearly all-white schools and Baltimore County has 23. Though school segregation in Maryland today is largely a result of residential housing patterns rather than being enshrined in law, the results are just as destructive, given the court's finding that racially segregated schools are inherently unequal and violate minorities' constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
Similarly, residential housing patterns reflect not only income inequality between blacks and whites but also decades of discriminatory lending polices by banks that prevented African-Americans from buying homes in predominantly white neighborhoods and predatory lenders who charged black home buyers exorbitant interest rates for rundown properties in the subprime mortgage market. When those homeowners couldn't keep up the payments their properties were foreclosed on, leaving thousands of vacant homes that blighted black neighborhoods and served as magnets for crime.
As the nation's top law-enforcement official, Mr. Holder reserved some of his harshest criticism for the criminal justice system. He cited evidence that black defendants routinely receive sentences 20 percent longer than those given to white defendants for the same crime, and he also noted that while rates of marijuana use among blacks and whites are about the same, more than 75 percent of marijuana arrests involve black suspects even though blacks make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population. He also charged that school "zero tolerance" disciplinary policies disproportionately impact young black males and that the application of the death penalty is riddled with bias depending on the race of both the defendant and the victim.
The Obama administration has pledged to address these continuing forms of injustice through executive orders if Congress fails to act, and Mr. Holder already has issued new guidelines for granting early release to some low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who were condemned to long prison terms under the harsh mandatory sentencing policies passed by lawmakers as part of the "war on drugs." He also said he is deeply concerned about so-called "voter-ID" laws passed by several states that would potentially prevent millions of poor, elderly and minority voters from casting a ballot at the polls.
Clearly, the NAACP has a role to play in all these battles, where the stakes are much higher than those involved in refuting the offensive comments of a sports team owner or a bigoted public official. If Mr. Brooks can keep the NAACP focused on the much more insidious, systemic injustices that deny minorities a chance to participate in the American dream, he will prove a worthy successor to the leader he is replacing.
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