Why This Ex-NAACP President Still Has Bernie's Back

Why This Ex-NAACP President Still Has Bernie's Back

Former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Ben Jealous

SourceAlex Wong/Getty

Why you should care

Because jobs may stop bullets, but that may not be enough to convince skeptical Black voters.

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There we were in Baltimore, at the Freddie Gray Center, named for another Black man who was killed in police custody. Colorful block letters read “Welcome” and, more curiously, “Empowering Shots.” Walking into that dichotomous backdrop was former NAACP president Ben Jealous. The 43-year-old fronted the podium as the highest-profile Black surrogate for Bernie Sanders and evangelized the white-haired Vermonter’s economic message as a salve to ease the pain of African-American communities. The broad-shouldered activist with the Tony Stark-esque goatee described his boss’ colorblind economics bluntly: “Jobs stop bullets.”

But that may not have been enough to convince skeptical Black voters. If the Sanders strategy for solving disparity is a sort of reverse trickle-down economics — breaking up corporate America will lift everyone, especially poor minorities — then Jealous is the messenger who legitimizes that racially agnostic plan. In 2008, Jealous became the youngest-ever head of the NAACP, then 35, and led successes like abolishing the death penalty in Connecticut and Maryland, advocating for marriage equality and fighting voter-suppression laws. By the time Jealous stepped down from the NAACP in 2013, he had staged a turnaround of the aging agency, doubling its budget and staff and boosting fundraising, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

There’s still a path to victory. The path is steep.

Ben Jealous

Yet the Kapor Capital venture capitalist has struggled to translate his progressivism into wins for Bernie. After Clinton’s recent primary wins in states such as Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Maryland, the Sanders campaign has found itself on life support. A turnaround seems all the more unlikely: Jealous needs to help Sanders win more than 65 percent of the remaining unbound delegates in order to see the senator become the Democratic nominee.

Button-down untucked, phone buzzing, Jealous sinks into the black armchair next to me. He’s just left a speech at a Maryland mosque, one of many stops in churches and stadiums from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania, and a half-dozen states in between. “The biggest divide in this race isn’t between Black and white,” Jealous muses. “It’s voters under 30 versus voters over 60.” Using his grassroots acumen, he’s helped secure endorsements from Black celebrities like actor Harry Belafonte and the rapper Freeway. He points to Hawaii and Colorado as proof that Sanders can win diverse states.

The campaign may rely on a landslide comeback in minority-rich California — where Jealous grew up the son of a Black mother and a white father — to overturn Clinton as the Democratic nominee. Still, Clinton has kept a hefty lead in states like South Carolina, New York and Pennsylvania, where she’s won the Black vote as much as 3-to-1. “I’ve underestimated the depth of that connection with older voters,” Jealous admits, before adding optimistically: “There’s still a path to victory. The path is steep. But that is not new.”

What they see in the rearview mirror is the Godzilla of mass incarceration chasing them down.

Ben Jealous

As he lays out his pitch, Jealous laughs easily, squinting often, impassioned. The Clinton cohort, he says, views the ’90s favorably. Younger voters don’t, necessarily. “What they see in the rearview mirror is the Godzilla of mass incarceration chasing them down. The forest fire that was the Great Recession, still smoldering,” Jealous argues. “They ask, ‘Why aren’t there any jobs?’” What comes up is NAFTA, he notes, and Clinton-era trade relations with China. But even Jealous’ work hasn’t helped Sanders earn name recognition across the country. Civil rights icon John Lewis, a Clinton backer, said earlier this year that he’d never met Sanders while fighting the good fight. And though the Sanders plan on racial justice spans more than 3,500 words online, roughly twice as long as Clinton’s, that depth rarely enters his stump speech.

From a town hall organized by Jealous at Carter Memorial Church in Baltimore, Sanders outlines his strategy for solving racial injustice — one that invokes the anti-Wall Street, 1 percent rhetoric that’s made him famous but doesn’t explicitly mention racial issues. “It’s not a mystery: You give kids jobs, a decent education,” Sanders says. “What America has done is declare a war on crime,” echoes former NAACP-er Rev. Jamal Bryant, “without ever declaring a war on poverty.” But that reductionist mantra — which Jealous sometimes invokes too — has its critics, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who told MSNBC’s Morning Joe that Sanders “did not address” the racial element of income inequality in their February meeting. In response to that broader criticism, and not Sharpton specifically, Jealous says, “When people want to pretend like jobs is not a Black issue, I would suggest that they haven’t spent much time in the Black community.”

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Ben Jealous at the Freddie Gray Center in Baltimore.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

Like his role models Ida B. Wells and Walter White, Jealous honed his protest voice by working at newspapers, as a reporter for the African-American weekly Jackson Advocate in Mississippi during the ’90s. “It helped fine-tune my gut instinct about what was really an injustice,” Jealous says. He sees the modern iteration of the civil rights movement, led by the likes of Black Lives Matter, as “important and appropriate” in mimicking the shame tactics that helped end lynching in the 20th century. And though he’s pursued distinctly progressive causes, Jealous has built coalitions with unlikely allies to pass criminal justice and voter access reform, from Fair Tax maven Grover Norquist to past Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. “Progressives can’t ask for people to sign up to a basket of goods, because the moderates in our own party don’t even sign up. We have to go issue by issue,” Jealous says. “It’s part of the secret of how Bernie gets things done.”

If there are any regrets, it’s that Jealous didn’t #FeelTheBern sooner. The father of two was approached a couple of years ago by Sanders’ advisor Larry Cohen, the outgoing president of the Communication Workers of America. “I have no time for symbolic candidates,” Jealous says, explaining why he didn’t join his friend then, and it wasn’t until Sanders’ close loss in Iowa that he realized the Democratic socialist could compete. Since converting, Jealous has made up for lost time. I mention that Clinton appeared near Baltimore, too, recently saying she would craft policies specifically targeting underserved communities. And Jealous, like his candidate, is nothing but consistent. “I would say to her: Tell us how you are going to create jobs,” Jealous says. “You have to get right to the heart of the matter.”

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