Ex-NAACP leader explores racism’s roots, urges change for our children

Benjamin Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, spoke on “The Forgotten Origins and Consequences of Race in America” at the Sottile Theatre on Thursday night.

More than 350 years ago, white indentured servants and black slaves rallied together in effort to overcome oppressive Virginia tobacco growers in the Gloucester County Conspiracy of 1663, after learning their status as servants and slaves would be passed on to their children.

“At the very beginning, the working people in our country weren’t divided by race,” said Benjamin Jealous, former national president and chief executive officer of the NAACP. “They simply came together around what was common to them, which in that case was their frustration.”

That changed following a similar rebellion by slaves and indentured servants more than ten years later at a nearby Virginia colony, when a Colonial governor began to “literally legislate division,” Jealous said, by separating the two groups and giving white servants more authority and a definitive amount of time to serve while the black laborers continued working in the fields with no end to their time as slaves.

Jealous on Thursday laid out a complex history of race relations in the United States in his presentation, “The Forgotten Origins and Consequences of Race in America” to more than 100 people at the College of Charleston’s Sottile Theatre. The event was sponsored by the college’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee and the Office of Student Life.

Jealous said the task that lies ahead for the country today is not much different from the one slaves and indentured servants tried but failed to do in the 1600s — making things better for their children.

“Our children deserve to grow up in a country whose international security policy and local law enforcement is focused on what people do, not what they look like,” he said.

Jealous addressed race-related issues, including the mass incarceration of black men in the United States. A black man in the U.S. is three times as likely to be incarcerated today as a black man in South Africa at the height of apartheid. The ripple effect has been more spending on prisons and less on education, leading to a disparate impact on poor minority families.

Jealous, 41, the national NAACP’s youngest president ever, was selected for the post at age 35 in 2008. He served in that position through 2013 and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan educational institute. He also is a partner at Kapor Capital, a California-based venture capital firm. Jealous previously worked for Amnesty International, where he founded the organization’s U.S. human rights program.

Jealous also addressed racial profiling, which he said has been used to unfairly, and sometimes wrongly, target people of all races. This was seen in the case of the D.C. sniper in 2002, when police were searching white vans driven by white men only to later identify the suspect, John Allen Muhammad, who was black.

“That’s what happens when you insert race into a profile,” Jealous said. “You don’t focus on the most likely things and recognize race is just a guess at the bottom of the list.”

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, said she hoped Jealous’ speech will motivate and engage people more in the dialogue surrounding race. “We continue to be a little too polite about what the real issues are ... that shape our personal biases about race,” she said.

College of Charleston freshman Ashlyn Bell said she attended Jealous’ presentation as part of an assignment for an African-American studies class. Bell said she hoped to get a new perspective on the issue of race and learn something new. “Not everything is in a history book,” she said.

College of Charleston sophomore Emi Landry said she hoped Jealous’ message would make young people more aware that racial discrimination is still an issue.

“I think a lot of people think racism is gone,” Landry said. “I think it’s still around. I think there is still a lot of entrenched stuff we don’t register.”

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.