What Can You Learn from the Moral Failing of the NAACP?

While the recent moral failing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is distressing to all who oppose bigotry, the situation offers seven important lessons for every nonprofit organization.

Before I get to those critical lessons, let me offer you some background.

It’s been 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as the other concentration and extermination camps run by the Nazis to murder Europe’s Jewish population and others. Now, three-quarters of a century later, liberals and conservatives continue to find common ground by embracing anti-Semitism.

For its part, the NAACP has failed to fire Rodney Muhammad, President of the NAACP Philadelphia chapter, following his anti-Jewish social media posting in defense of anti-Semitism. The NAACP headquarters has not apologized for Muhammad’s comments, nor has it insisted that he apologize. Nationally, the NAACP’s inaction shows it condones anti-Jewish rhetoric while, at the local level, Muhammad and his board have turned the Philadelphia chapter into a hate group.

On July 24, 2020, the news website BillyPenn first reported on Muhammad’s anti-Semitic Facebook post from July 23:

[On] Muhammad’s public Facebook page, the meme referenced the backlash against Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, actor/rapper Ice Cube and comedian/TV host Nick Cannon, who have all attracted attention recently for advancing theories that blame Jewish people for the plight of Black Americans. Cannon and Jackson have since apologized for their recent posts, while Ice Cube doubled down.”

Muhammad shared the meme as a defense of sorts on behalf of Jackson, Cannon, and Ice Cube:

The post included a caricature of a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke and pressing a large, bejeweled hand down on a faceless mass of people. Similar caricatures trace back to before the Holocaust, and were often used to depict Jews as a force of greed and oppression. Next to the image was a quote falsely attributed to French philosopher Voltaire: ‘To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.’”

After being questioned by a BillyPenn reporter, Muhammad removed the post while denying any memory of having shared it. Later, he issued defensive statements that were devoid of apology. The closest he came was an expression of “regret.”

In the meantime, a number of community and religious leaders have called for Muhammad to either resign or be removed from his position. For example, Gov. Tom Wolf, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, and State Sen. Anthony Williams joined the calls for Muhammad’s removal. While the Pennsylvania NAACP condemned Muhammad’s action, Kenneth Huston, President of the state conference, said that he was powerless to take any action which would have to come, instead, from national headquarters.

Unfortunately, the NAACP national office delayed its response by more than a week. Furthermore, its tepid statement supported Muhammad. Making matters worse, the NAACP headquarters has apparently failed to provide any direction to the Philadelphia chapter, according to WHYY:

Bishop J. Louis Felton, first vice president of the Philadelphia branch, said in an email that local leadership has not gotten any direction from the NAACP national office on the issue. ‘Congratulations on actually getting a response from the National office, as we certainly could not,’ said Felton.”

The Jewish Exponent reported on some of the community reaction:

‘We are truly saddened,’ the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition said in a statement, ‘by such a prominent leader’s rejection of this alliance and inexcusable failure to recognize his own role in perpetuating racist stereotypes.’ The Philadelphia Muslim Jewish Circle of Friends, convened by the American Jewish Committee, asserted that Muhammad’s actions were ‘in direct violation of the very principles upon which the NAACP was founded.’”

So, what can we learn from the NAACP’s moral failing?

Lesson 1: A nonprofit board of directors has the primary responsibility for safeguarding the organization’s mission. Furthermore, all staff have a responsibility to protect and further the institutional mission. When a nonprofit organization deviates from its mission and core values, it can do grave harm to the institution. This harm can manifest in a number of ways including damage to reputation, breaking of programmatic alliances, and decreased fundraising potential.

Lesson 2: If anyone affiliated with a nonprofit acts counter to the organization’s mission, particularly when causing harm to the nonprofit, appropriate action must be taken. That means that the offending individual(s) will be subject to disciplinary action or termination from their position.

Lesson 3: When doing something clearly wrong, it is insufficient to offer an expression of regret. Instead, the offender, and/or the offender’s organization, should take responsibility and provide a direct public apology. Such an apology should also outline steps that will be taken to help the individual or organization become better and reduce the risk of future offense or harm. Incidentally, whether sincere or not, that is exactly what Cannon did, much to his credit.

Lesson 4: Inaction is action. If one has the power to act and chooses not to do so, that is indeed an action. The NAACP national office failed to act against Muhammad. Therefore, it was taking action to support him and, by extension, his anti-Jewish message. Rather than limiting the damage to its Philadelphia chapter, the NAACP headquarters has allowed the contagion to spread to itself.

Lesson 5: Unlike fine wine, problems seldom improve with age. When responding to a public relations crisis (or any other situation for that matter), immediacy and openness are essential. Rather than quickly condemning Muhammad’s anti-Jewish post in defense of anti-Semitism, the NAACP national office remained silent for over a week while ignoring press inquiries, including from this blog. When it comes to managing a crisis, a quick and thorough response can help keep the problem from getting worse.

Lesson 6: While it’s always best to maintain open lines of communication with all stakeholders, it is essential to do so during a time of crisis. The NAACP stumbled in that task as well because it did not work in close cooridnation with the  board of the Philadelphia chapter.

Lesson 7: Do NOT condone or perpetuate bigotry and hate.

I’m deeply troubled by the rise of global anti-Semitism. However, after millennia of anti-Jewish action, I can’t say that I’m surprised by it. What I find particularly disappointing about the NAACP story is that an organization tasked with fighting bigotry has, instead, engaged in it while ignoring the long history of the Black-Jewish alliance during the civil rights struggle and beyond.

One of the great things about working in the nonprofit sector is that we are all working to make the world a better place, at least theoretically. However, for that to truly be the case, we must all do our part to stop hate and guard the core values of our organizations.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

3 Responses to “What Can You Learn from the Moral Failing of the NAACP?”

  1. Most of the white Freedom Riders who went south in the 1960s to join the Black-led civil rights demonstrations were Jewish. Some of them died. As a white half-Jewish youth, I joined the NAACP when I was 14 and was almost expelled from high school for going to an NAACP convention because “that is no excuse for a white kid being absent from school.” It’s a sad day when the NAACP can’t recognize bigotry.

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