NAACP charge: facing 'Thomas'

Open Letter to Benjamin Todd Jealous, president-elect of the NAACP:

Dear Mr. Jealous:


It has now been 19 days since the NAACP announced that you would be the new leader of the nation's oldest civil rights organization. I find your selection a wise one, and NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond's praise of you on point. Don't take this lightly, Mr. Jealous; Bond and I might never agree on anything again.

On a whim, I went to the NAACP Web site early yesterday morning hoping to get some more news about you. Instead, staring me in the face was the organization's "state of emergency" news release of several months ago. I'm sure you know the one I'm referring to - the one using Selwanda Riley's "brutalization" at the hands of a cop as evidence that there is widespread police and prosecutorial abuse of young blacks throughout the land.


I would hope, Mr. Jealous, that you are wise enough to point out to the folks who started this campaign that cherry-picking controversial cases like Riley's - she was 15 and out past curfew when she bit the police officer who asked her 17 times to put her hands behind her back - do not make for a "state of emergency." What is a bona fide state of emergency is the way young black men are dispatching each other in cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit and Newark. As the NAACP's new leader, that's No. 1 on a list of things I'd like you to address.

I call it "forcing black America to face up to its Bigger Thomas problem."

As a learned man, you're no doubt familiar with the anti-hero of Richard Wright's famous novel Native Son. Thomas is a rebellious, bitter black teen who commits two murders and leads police on a whirlwind manhunt before his capture. Wright said he based the character on several young black men he had encountered in Mississippi and Chicago of the 1920s and '30s.

For years, black Americans have thought our main problems were caused by those other Thomases. You know, the fictional one with "uncle" preceding the name and the real-life one with the first name of Clarence. But the Bigger Thomases among us have done more damage in one day than "Uncle Toms" or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas can do in their entire lifetimes.

And for years our leaders have treated these Bigger Thomases not as problems, but as victims. Our leaders have railed about how the criminal justice system treats them unfairly and how cops brutalize them unmercifully. All this mollycoddling has not encouraged the Bigger Thomases among us to even ratchet down, much less cease and desist, their criminal activity.

You have a chance, Mr. Jealous, to start a new NAACP initiative that will focus on the victims of our Bigger Thomases. Once you've done that, maybe you can address how those Bigger Thomases became so prevalent among us in the first place.

I urge you to read - or re-read, if that be the case - The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. You can both read it and embrace some of its conclusions, or you can read it and dismiss the conclusions. No one even has to know you've read it.

Most of the country probably knows The Negro Family better as "The Moynihan Report." It was released in 1965, when some 25 percent of black households didn't have a father. Today that figure is closer to 70 percent. In the report, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, gave his dire prediction of what would happen if there were an increase in poor black households that had no father present. Moynihan went back to 1950, quoting black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier:


"As a result of family disorganization a large proportion of Negro children and youth have not undergone the socialization which only the family can provide. The disorganized families have failed to provide for their emotional needs and have not provided the discipline and habits which are necessary for personality development. Because the disorganized family has failed in its function as a socializing agency, it has handicapped the children in their relations to the institutions in the community. Moreover, family disorganization has been partially responsible for a large amount of juvenile delinquency and adult crime among Negroes."

There were some blacks who dismissed Moynihan's report, and then dismissed Moynihan himself as a racist. But Moynihan clearly predicted that a train wreck was coming. Does the fact that a racist, either real or perceived, says a train wreck is coming mean that the train isn't going to wreck? Because you can believe one thing, Mr. Jealous:

In the poorest areas of inner-city black America, the train done wrecked.