Benjamin Jealous: Mr. Rights


Benjamin Jealous hears it so often that I’m sure he just lets it slide off by now: “You weren’t even born when ... “ Fill in the blank with your favorite milestone of recent racial history in this country -- when Rosa Parks sat down on the bus, when the Civil Rights Act passed, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. But at age 36, the California native and the youngest president of the NAACP was certainly present for the biggest milestone of all -- Barack Obama’s election. In a few weeks, Jealous will preside over the NAACP’s 100th anniversary convention. He’s a Rhodes scholar who went to work for a scrappy Mississippi black newspaper that was firebombed for its exposes. He has organized voter registration drives, run a human rights program at Amnesty International -- and, when he had time, used to run marathons.

Welcome back to California. Do you miss us?

Yes, absolutely. If we could move the NAACP out here tomorrow, I would.


What do you miss?

Well, family, first of all, but I also just miss the mishmash of California -- California’s a very vibrant place.

You grew up in Monterey County. Do you think California’s more advanced on racial and ethnic matters because we’re a mishmash?

Yes and no. At a certain level, the polite society of California can be very diverse. On the other hand, when you look at the racial statistics in this state, they can be extremely startling. Black children are 15% of the population of the U.S. and 26% of the youth arrests each year. In California, those numbers are 9% and 43%. So when you’re poor or working class in California, how the police treat you often has something to do with their stereotypes. Monterey County, where I grew up, is included in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, with a long history of Chicanos being discriminated against at the voting box. Monterey County is where Chinese fishermen used to own most of the coastline of what is now Pebble Beach, and their villages burned down mysteriously in the first part of the 20th century. There’s something about the state that made all of that possible, that still lingers with us today

What was your personal epiphany; when did you realize discrimination was real?

My father’s white and my mother’s black. There was always a conversation on race and racial exclusion in our household. I remember being 5 years old and one of a handful of black boys living in Pacific Grove, and being followed around the five-and-dime and wondering if they thought we were criminals at 5 years old. It was one of those moments: “I don’t think they treat every kid like this.”

I read that some kid at school made fun of you, thinking that you were rich because your nanny was picking you up -- and it was your mother.

I had to set that boy straight. I straightened him out the way that I continue to straighten people out today, which is with my mouth.

You’re biracial, so do you make the choice to be black, or is it the one-drop rule that makes you black?

The only definitions that exist are anachronistic state laws. The U.S. census doesn’t have definitions -- you could define yourself as whatever you want; it’s a self-reporting mechanism. My family is from Virginia, and the law on the books was if you were 1/32 African, you were black. Black is the inclusive definition; white is the exclusive definition. When I grew up in the 1970s, that was the understanding.

Ideally, the NAACP would get to the point where you could hang up a “Going out of business” sign. Yet you have to say “so and so is black and is discriminated against because of that.” How do you get past that paradox?

There’s really no paradox. In Los Angeles, you’d be hard-pressed to find an Angeleno who couldn’t tell you where the black neighborhood is, where the predominantly black schools are -- or for that matter, Latino or white or Asian. There is still a racial geography and a line that starts at the level of the community and goes down to the individuals.

Some parents, for reasons that are understandable, don’t want to deny their children their own racial [identity].There’s nothing about saying you’re black that denies European heritage. Being black in this country almost from the beginning -- slaves were raped on the slave ships coming over -- included European heritage.

I’m concerned that people want to “improve” racial classification. We need to just let it go away. When people say, “I prefer to say I’m biracial or multiracial” -- that’s not just ahistorical; my concern is that it forces race to stick with us longer.

After the election, there were jokes about black people overwhelmed at how nice white people were being to them.

We’ll see in 20 years the impact of this moment, simply because I do believe that for children like my daughter, who is 3, growing up in a country where it [has been] always possible for a black person to become president is a fundamentally different reality. Having the first family be the image of black people that you see most frequently on your television will have an impact. We believe in the power of images, and we certainly expect that the Obama generation will see themselves differently.

Speaking of images, is Hollywood still unconquered territory?

Hollywood is still contested territory. You have a show like “ER” replaced by a show like “Southland,” a very diverse cast [replaced by] a very white cast, a complex portrait of all races with one that’s very simplistic. So there’s this constant ebb-and-flow here. Right now in television there’s been some fairly negative developments, a narrowing pipeline for young talent. Yet, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine the country envisioning a young man named Barack Obama becoming president if Dennis Haysbert hadn’t been president on “24” -- or for that matter, James Earl Jones in “The Man,” and all the ones in between. Hollywood often makes advances ahead of the rest of society, and it’s also been known to retreat on us unexpectedly.

What’s in your iPod?

I listen to a lot of John Legend and Amos Lee, Marvin Gaye and John Cougar Mellencamp.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Archives: