North Carolina State University Professor Blair Kelley addresses the role of the NAACP in contemporary times, a question I tried to grapple with in my profile of Ben Jealous last year:

Throughout the group’s history, the real strength of the NAACP’s organizational base has come from the work of local chapters, everyday people who used the NAACP as a vehicle for change in their own communities. The NAACP’s greatest success, the case of Brown v. Board, grew out of communities of struggle -- places like rural Summerton, South Carolina, where black parents united to improve conditions for their children.

Local chapters of the NAACP are still involved in meaningful struggles throughout the country. For example, the North Carolina NAACP has been involved in contesting the erosion of integration in Wake County Schools. Wake County’s large and ever-growing school district had been heralded by educators around the nation for achieving success in blending poor and working class children of all races into classrooms throughout the district through a busing and magnet school system based on economic diversity. A newly elected, majority white school board has pushed for “neighborhood schools” that would in fact be much more economically and racially homogeneous. The local NAACP co-sponsored an interracial, inter-generational march this week to contest these new policies. In order to protect the gains of the past fifty years of struggle, school integration in the 21st century must be part of the “national conversation.”

I don't think the local chapters should stop doing this work. But I've come to the conclusion that the national organization should be developing into a hybrid of what it currently does and something like, say, the Center for American Progress. It's precisely because most legal forms of discrimination have been eliminated that the NAACP has lost much of its moral weight -- but it's not as though race is no longer a factor in American life. With its large, community-based structure, the NAACP is in a unique position to perform the kind of empirical research on things like employment, criminal justice, and health disparities -- research that would make its advocacy on the Hill that much more effective in a world where there are few lynchings but plenty of "ghetto loans."

Obviously there are a number of effective organizations that already do good work on these issues. But none are as large or have as much prestige or as many political connections as the country's oldest civil-rights organization.

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