Of all the bizarre actors in the ongoing saga borne from Donald Sterling’s taped racist rant, none seemed more confused about his role than suddenly former Los Angeles NAACP head Leon Jenkins.
Even as figures ranging from broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy to NBA superstar LeBron James to President Obama blasted Sterling for his weird, hateful comments, the man whose group many expected to come down on Sterling the hardest seemed to want no part of the controversy.
For days, as the story grew hotter and hotter, Jenkins -- a former Detroit 36th District Court judge who was indicted for bribery and later acquitted -- insisted on defending not only Sterling’s philanthropy to the NAACP but his “heart,” too.
He called for “room for forgiveness” as others were calling for punitive action against Sterling. When first told to rescind the “lifetime achievement award” the branch planned to present Sterling—six years after awarding Sterling the group’s “President Award”—Jenkins hesitated before grudgingly agreeing to do so.
Along way, he said he’d also return Sterling’s donations to the group—some $5,000, according to sources—but then turned right around and admitted that he was also working on getting even more money from the bigoted billionaire.
(He claimed Sterling was the only sports-team owner willing to give game tickets to poor black kids, as if comps to an NBA game offset Sterling’s decades-long history of racist housing practices.)
In the end, the stomach-turning hypocrisy—the notion that the nation’s oldest civil-rights group had been bought off for a few thousand dollars by a vile land baron who saw blacks at once as his chattel, as subhumans unworthy of decent living conditions and, of course, as “niggers”—proved to be too much for most decent folk.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise when Jenkins, a man whose own history suggests a decided absence of decency and ethics, gave in to mounting pressure and quit yesterday as head of the branch.
But even with one turd flushed and another seemingly on its way down the drain—Sterling has been banned from the NBA for life and could be on the verge of losing his franchise—a decided stench still lingers.
Problem Isn't Just the LA Branch
The problem isn’t just that the LA branch of the NAACP clowned itself woefully by celebrating a racist “benefactor” once in 2008 and, before Sterling’s words went viral, appeared poised to willingly do so again.
A bigger issue is that, even without Sterling in the picture (hell, even if Sterling had never existed), far too many NAACP leaders have spent far too much time in recent years cheapening not only the group’s awards and support but its very legacy as well.
As Peter Drier lays out in painful detail over at Talking Points Memo, the group has become something of a detergent for individuals and businesses looking to wash images stained by years of unjust policies and mistreatment of others.
Want to prove you and your business colleagues aren’t really the douchebags that decades of employee intimidation, slave wages and race and gender discrimination suggest? Want to prove that you “love black people” despite your affinity for confederate flags and open racists like Ted “subhuman mongrel” Nugent?
Easy. Hand the NAACP a bag of money (or your name as an event sponsor), collect an award at some sit-down dinner and—voila!—all of your sins will be magically scrubbed away.
Consider, for example, that other awardees expected to be feted this year by the LA NAACP along with Sterling include executives from union-busting corporations Wal-Mart and Federal Express. That would be the same Fed Ex that was accused in 2007 by a human-rights coalition of ignoring its workers labor rights and civil rights. And that would be the same Wal-Mart that is, well, Wal-Mart.
Consider too the bizarre case of Wells-Fargo Bank, one of the architects of a foreclosure epidemic that stripped black households of more wealth than any other single event in American history. Three years after filing suit against the bank in 2007 for “systemic, institutionalized racism in sub-prime home mortgage lending,” the NAACP’s national office quietly ended its litigation in 2010 not long before announcing Wells Fargo as a “lead sponsor” of its 101st annual convention.
And of course Detroiters recall the uproar when the Detroit NAACP decided to star fu…, um, honor, local musician Kid Rock in 2011 despite his alleged assault of a black restaurant patron, his nasty association with Nugent and the Macomb County native’s penchant for swaddling himself in the flag of a Confederacy that thought it perfectly fine to kidnap, enslave, beat and rape black people.
Rather than risk offending Rock, the NAACP president cravenly chose to heckle those outraged by the award nomination, mockingly inviting them to the event to “eat some chicken.” Rock came, said he’d throw around some cash, made some pandering remarks about his “love” for black people and promptly went out to back Mitt Romney for President.
Awards Used to Cleanse Bad People
It’s not just racist team owners, predatory lenders or clueless rock acts that have bathed in the cleansing waters of NAACP photo ops either. R&B singer R. Kelly was given an Image Award a few short years after he was accused of raping and peeing on little girls. Chris Brown was nominated for an award three years after beating the shit out of then-girlfriend Rhianna. And every year, some company or another with an ignominious history and shady agenda shells out five figures for a seat at some banquet hall and a chance to have themselves confused with those who legitimately do fight oppression.
And if they’re lucky, they also convince the NAACP to contort itself in all sorts of ugly ways to protect that agenda, no matter how unhealthy or unfair that agenda may be.
Little wonder then that the NAACP and some other groups have fought a Federal Communications Commission proposal that would compel them to disclose who they get money from whenever they gather before the FCC.
And no, the NAACP isn’t the only group guilty of being used as a PR boost. Some of these same artists and businesses have been honored by the likes of MTV and the United Way, also.
But, frankly, that’s beside the point. Neither of those entities places justice for people of color at the heart of its agenda or claims anti-racist activism as its very raison d’être.
When it comes to addressing the cancer of racism in America, the NAACP is expected to rise to a slightly higher standard than Music Television. And, to be fair, there are instances in which NAACP still does indeed fight worthy battles.
Too often, though, as the Sterling debacle illustrates, the group and its leadership have served as a shield-for-hire for the worst offenders to hide behind, permitting corporate support to morph into corporate oversight. The “advancement of colored people” be damned, an unsettling number of NAACP execs seem far more worried about their salaries and their standing as “responsible partners” with some of the very same institutions whose policies and practices so corrode black and brown lives.
Accepting donations is fine. “Freedom,” as they say, ain’t free.
But neither can it be bought with blood money.