One of the top news stories last week was fight between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a loosely assembled organization called the Tea Party movement. The fight started when Ben Jealous, the NAACP’s chairman, proposed a resolution condemning the Tea Party as a racist organization. He softened the language a bit before the final vote, but the softening was a distinction without difference. The official position of the NAACP is only racists participate in the Tea Party movement. In the course of battle, civilian casualties occur. Conservative new media mogul, Andrew Breitbart, discovered an NAACP video filmed earlier this year. It showed a woman named Shirley Sherrod, Rural Development Director for the USDA in Georgia, talking to an NAACP meeting. Her words on the video were awful. She talked about withholding information from a farmer that could have saved his farm from foreclosure. Her motivation was the color of his skin. Ms. Sherrod is black; the farmer white. The audience applauded and laughed its approval.
When the story broke on Monday, the White House forced Ms. Sherrod to resign. They even told her to pull her car to the side of the road and resign via her Blackberry. She did.
The White House proudly announced the firing, saying it had zero tolerance for racism. The NAACP endorsed the forced resignation, saying it, too, opposed racism of any kind.
But then the rest of the video appeared.
It turns out that Ms. Sherrod’s motivation for confessing her sin was not earn approval from the audience, but to set up her tale of redemption.
The farmer didn’t lose his farm. First doing the minimum possible, including introducing the farmer to white attorney, and gradually getting more deeply involved, Shirley Sherrod went beyond the call of duty to help the man and the family she almost destroyed. When the white lawyer she’d recommended turned out to be an empty suit, she helped the farmer find a better attorney—a black attorney, at that.
In the end, even the farmer’s wife stood up and contacted the press to tell them that Shirley Sherrod might have race issues, but she saved their farm and remains their friend.
What we all thought was a story of racism turned out to be a story of machismo and bad leadership. Ben Jealous is chairman of a once-great institution that has been in serious decline for a decade. In 2007, the NAACP laid off almost half of its paid staff. Since then, fundraising and membership have declined further. While many of the NAACP’s greatest battles are over—to the organization’s benefit and credit—the tactics used in the past no longer work to improve the lives of African-Americans. In fact, many argue that the NAACP’s opposition to school vouchers and free enterprise hurt the very people the organization represents.
To regain some relevancy, Mr. Jealous picked a fight with a non-organization. The Tea Party is a movement with less structure than summer sport coat. To make his case of racism within the movement, Jealous could point only to a handful of signs from a sea of 20 million people. He threw an anecdotal story involving two Congressmen that has never been proved despite $100,000 reward offer. In the course of Mr. Jealous’s reckless quest for relevance, he hurt an innocent woman. And he immediately blamed someone else.
We are told that leaders fight for their people, fight for their principles, fight for their organizations. That’s true when their people, principles, or organizations come under attack. But leaders don’t pick fights just to look tough, because fights always produce unintended consequences. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand killed two of my great uncles—one on the battlefield in France, and one at a young age because of lung damage from mustard gas. Who could have predicted in August of 1914?
Leaders avoid fights whenever possible, and they own up to their mistakes. Perhaps the NAACP will gain relevance again when it appoints a leader who understands that his mission is not to destroy, but to build.