The NAACP’s principal objective is “to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of [the] United States and eliminate race prejudice.” The group’s mission statement doesn’t mention its other traditional role: curating old grievances and stereotypes embalmed in the intimidating forces of political correctness, a role now familiar to the children at Meridian Ranch Elementary school in Colorado Springs.
Meridian Ranch second-grader Sean King was recently assigned the role of Martin Luther King Jr. for a class project on “Wax Museum Day,” which included a presentation that parents could attend. Like a child donning a named jersey to mimic his favorite baseball player, right down to the huge wad of chewing gum tucked into his cheek, Sean wore a black suit and tie, like MLK. Sean wore a fake mustache, because MLK had a mustache. Sean painted his face black, because, well, MLK was black.
According to school spokeswoman Stephanie Meredith, Sean was asked to remove the black makeup from his face because a staff member and some fellow students were offended. As blackface in minstrel shows hasn’t been a derogatory means of portraying black people in decades, this is clearly a learned grievance for students K-8, but I digress.
Rather than caving to this demand, Sean’s parents, who helped him prepare for his presentation, pulled him from the school. They believe that neither they nor Sean did anything wrong. The news station covering this story sought out the local NAACP chapter for comment, giving the group a chance to offer the black perspective and perhaps advance racial harmony in the process.
NAACP chapter president Rosemary Harris Lytle began by praising Sean’s intentions, acknowledging the second grader couldn’t have meant to “demean African-Americans,” but instead of letting bygones be bygones, she went on to encourage the school to use the incident as a “teachable moment … to go back to the history of minstrels and of blackface and of the sad time when people who were geniuses were portrayed as nothing more than figures of comedy.”
Instead of asking the school to enshrine old symbols as eternal grievances, the NAACP should use this as a sign of the shift in racial attitudes in America. Unlike other past symbols, like a hangman’s noose, burning cross, or KKK hood, there is nothing intrinsically evil, wrong, or demeaning about painting one’s face black. That negative value can only exist when assigned a context, a context that no longer exists. Whereas the KKK hood will forever symbolize the evil itself, blackface is like the date December 25, which Christians have elevated from a pagan feast to a celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. Once condescendingly used by whites to denigrate blacks, an admiring white student uses blackface to honor a great black civil rights leader. We should be celebrating this transition to a new context. Call it an “evolution,” if you will. This event could have started the type of conversation on race that Eric Holder says we’re too cowardly to have. But instead of advancing the conversation, the NAACP decided to advance racial grievances.
In Congress and in international relations, the forgiveness of old wounds in the interest of advancing a common goal is considered statesmanship and a sign of maturity in the spirit of compromise. In race relations, it is considered retreat. What makes this position more disappointing is that with this past Saturday’s announcement by the NAACP that it will now endorse same-sex marriage, we know the group can evolve its position when it deems the result, in this case the re-election of Barack Obama, worthwhile. Apparently, advancing racial harmony is not. Add political expedience as yet another unspoken principal objective of the NAACP.
Robert J. Guenther is editor-in-chief of BiasBreakdown. He can be followed on Twitter @biasbreakdown.