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Ben Jealous: ‘Racism is Tragic, Racism is Alive’

Ben Jealous will continue his activism work as president for People for the American Way and its foundation that include projects to track right-wing groups, promote gender equality and assess the judicial system.

Jealous, former president of the NAACP, will lead an organization with a network of 2,500 Black religious leaders, 1,600 elected officials 35 and younger and more than 2,100 college-age students.

The organization also runs bilingual ads to support voting rights and expose anti-immigrant policies against Latinos.

“When you look at that against the backdrop of a million multi-racial members, what you see is we are truly the most multi-racial civil rights and civil liberties organization in the country,” Jealous said in an interview Thursday, June 18. “We’re playing out a very powerful role in moving our country forward. What I plan to build is the capacity at the state and local level. The networks we have at the state and local level really give us the opportunity to help accelerate change where people live.”

His time as president began June 15, leading the organization established in 1981 by television and film producer Norman Lear, the late Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas and other business and civil rights leaders.

Jealous replaces Michael Keegan, who served as president for 11 years for the progressive organization in Northwest.

Once PFAW released a video of Jealous as the group’s new leader, he received praise on social media.

“Let’s get to work, @BenJealous!” tweeted Markus Batchelor, DC school board vice president. “I’m proud to work for an organization working for equal justice and progressive values – and to have a fighter like Ben at the helm.”

Jealous will take the helm while thousands continue to speak out against police brutality and other forms of racism amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

He talked about his grandmother Mamie Todd, giving his 7-year-old son “the talk” and what he learned as a 2018 Maryland gubernatorial candidate. Here are a few of Jealous’ thoughts in his own words:

‘Keeps Me Grounded’

My grandmother is 103 years old. She’s the oldest member of Delta Sigma Theta in the country. Her grandparents were born into slavery. She’s the griot in our family. She carries with her two centuries of history and culture firsthand. Centuries she’s witnessed herself and a century before that witnessed by her grandparents and great-grandparents and their parents and the stories she heard from them. She keeps me grounded because she kept track of all the changes that have been made in her lifetimes and all of those her ancestors she knew. The other day I was talking to her and I was in a little bit of despair about the state of police reform and the prospect of ending police killings. She said, ‘Baby, this will end the same way lynch mobs did.’ It just cut right through everything. My grandmother understands most people now are too young to remember [that] when she was a little girl, there was no line between where law enforcement ended and the lynch mob began. Lynch mob and law enforcement worked hand in glove. Ending lynch mobs was transforming public safety. Which she also knows is that we never passed federal legislation, whereas we passed state legislation and it was adequate at best. What ended lynch mobs was massive public disapproval and ultimately a widespread, multiracial sense of urgency that this has to stop. She also understands when it comes to the history of Black people in America being killed by law enforcement, there have only been … three traditions were present. Slave masters killing their slaves with impunity as they would a dog. Lynch mobs killing Black people with impunity and notorious violence in the midst of an assured, collective amnesia. The FBI could show up two days later and nobody would remember a thing, even though they were selling postcards with the images. Police being able to kill Black people at will with no consequences. Slavery ends and were down to two. Eighty years later or so, lynch mob violence ends and down to one. Here we are 80 years after the lynch mob violence and whose to say my grandmother’s optimism isn’t well-founded. It’s really what makes the most sense.

The Talk


My son is growing up with the great love and fascination with law enforcement. His great-grandfather was in law enforcement in Baltimore. Our cousins were in the Secret Service in the FBI and other cousins served with the Baltimore Police Department. Our family is a civil rights family and a law enforcement family. Just like a lot of little boys, he has at times dreamt of being a cop. It was heartbreaking [this month] to have to sit with him and to answer his questions about what was going on. He said quite plainly, ‘What do you mean I can’t trust the police?’ I said, ‘No son, you can trust most police officers, but right now we don’t know which ones you can’t trust and which ones you can.’ You can see a shadow pass over his face and feel his heart break. He’s 7. He loves Star Wars. He wants to believe the world is full of good guys and you can tell them from the bad guys. [The] notion that he has to be responsible for protecting his life when he engages with a police officer broke his heart. Frankly, I don’t think he’ll be the same after that conversation. He had to have ‘The talk.’ Some people like to fantasize that light-skinned Black people are more immune from that fear. That’s not the way that it works. Race is binary. My own life is a testament to that fact. When a police officer knows you’re Black, he treats you like you’re Black. Prince George’s County officers taught me that when I was 20 years old. [Jealous’s son] said, ‘What about Black officers?’ I said, ‘Honestly, color doesn’t determine whether the officer is abusive or not.’ D.C. officers taught me that when I was 22 years old. Racism is tragic. Racism is alive. There’s no escaping for Black people. It doesn’t matter how rich, how poor, how dark, how light. That is what makes it so unbearable, makes it so vulnerable we just have to end this.

Foray into politics

Running for governor was my first experience running for office. It was humbling and it taught me a lot about myself and an equal amount about our state. There were incredibly positive things that happened. We helped ensure that statue of Chief Justice [Roger B.) Taney was removed permanently from the state. We brought lesions of young people into the electoral process and now beginning to run for office themselves. We built a campaign with little funding from scratch that became one of only three in the history of the state to receive more than a million votes for the office of governor. The other two being [Martin] O’Malley’s and [Gov. Larry] Hogan’s reelection campaigns. When the dust has settled and we lost the general election, what stuck with me is the undeniable influence of money in politics. The true analyses were done in my campaign. One by the party nationally and one by my campaign itself. Both came up with the same conclusion: we needed $10 million more to win than we could raise ourselves. The 75 percent of voters knew who I was and we were winning with them by six points. Twenty-five percent of voters, even after three years of earning media [attention) and millions of dollars in advertising, still had no idea who the Democrat was in the race. Every voter knew who the governor was. We were up six among 75 percent of voters, but we were down 20 to 5 with the 25 percent of the voters who never seen an ad or never read a news story. You met incredibly, wonderful people who you know the lives could be transformed if our state government operated more effectively. We’re seeing that right now with the fiasco that is unemployment in Maryland. That fiasco can only be explained by the governor’s intentional neglect, the inefficient operation of government for years. Everything that Martin O’Malley put in place to make sure government ran more efficiently, the governor has undone.

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William J. Ford – Washington Informer Staff Writer

I decided I wanted to become a better writer while attending Bowie State University and figured that writing for the school newspaper would help. I’m not sure how much it helped, but I enjoyed it so much I decided to keep on doing it, which I still thoroughly enjoy 20 years later. If I weren’t a journalist, I would coach youth basketball. Actually, I still play basketball, or at least try to play, once a week. My kryptonite is peanut butter. What makes me happy – seeing my son and two godchildren grow up. On the other hand, a bad call made by an official during a football or basketball game makes me throw up my hands and scream. Favorite foods include pancakes and scrambled eggs which I could eat 24-7. The strangest thing that’s ever happened to me, or more accurately the most painful, was when I was hit by a car on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. If I had the power or money to change the world, I’d make sure everyone had three meals a day. And while I don’t have a motto or favorite quote, I continue to laugh which keeps me from driving myself crazy. You can reach me several ways: Twitter @jabariwill, Instagram will_iam.ford2281 or e-mail, wford@washingtoninformer.com

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