Thousands of people from across the country are in downtown San Antonio this week for the annual convention of the NAACP.
The 109th gathering of the civil rights organization is focused on voting and civic engagement, with a theme of “Defeat Hate. Vote."
“The consequence of the 2016 election is one in which individuals pursued a course of action to divide this nation by stoking the flames of fear,” said Derrick Johnson, the national NAACP president. “We are watching an increase in racial hatred, violence, and activities that’s germinating from this White House. It is our goal not to allow what is taking place to become the norm.”
The conference comes at a time when racial tensions in the U.S. are rising.
There have been pro-white supremacist rallies, incidents in which people call the police on African Americans engaging in everyday activities, and videos of hate speech or actions posted online.
Johnson said the convention's goal is to provide its members and delegates the tools to engage and energize voters. According to the Pew Research Center, voter turnout among black Americans dropped for the first time in 20 years in 2016.
“Voting is the currency in any democracy so we must turn out the vote in ways in which this is a presidential level activity because if we don’t, our future is at stake,” Johnson said.
For 2018, the NAACP is focused on local and congressional races, association leaders said. “We’ve got to go home, register people to vote, take people to the polls,” said Gina Stewart, a board member from Memphis. “I’m a pastor. Our buses will be rolling to ensure that people get to the polls if they don’t have transportation, because it’s critical and the time is now.”
Part of the NAACP’s focus includes reaching out to the youngest voters. The organization’s youth and college division held dozens of workshops at the conference led by college students to foster advocacy and civic engagement.
Historically, young adults have voted at lower rates than older adults. But in 2016, the voter turnout rate increased among millennials and those in Generation X, but not for black millennials.
A few minutes before a workshop on campus hate crimes Wednesday, Eastern Michigan University student Candice Crutcher said she thinks the recent increase in voter ID laws and tendency to think politics is boring are both to blame for the drop.
“A lot of people our age are really, like, apolitical … without realizing everything you do is political,” Crutcher said. “The water you drink, the air you breathe, the food you eat, everything is political. … And you should vote because who’s making those decisions affects you.”
Crutcher said she’s not sure whether that tendency has changed during the current administration.
“I like to think so, because everyone’s been saying this election specifically can change so much, and it can,” she said.
Marquise Hunt, a student at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, said in order to increase voter turnout among young adults, the effort needs to switch from simply registering people to vote to educating them about why their vote matters.
“And understanding that the presidential election is not the only election. We expect to elect the president, where the real work happens from the bottom up,” Hunt said. “If you haven’t even been involved in your election locally, then how can you expect some sort of change when these are the same individuals who have continued to play a role in the system in the first place?”
Hunt, who led the workshop on campus hate crimes, thinks people with racist views feel freer to express those views under President Trump.
“If they think that the president of the United States can get away with it, than they can too,” Hunt said.
National NAACP Board Chairman Leon Russell shares that view. He’s an outspoken critic of President Trump, saying his words and actions mark him as racist.
“Muslim Ban — how many days after he was sworn in? Snatching children away from their mothers and fathers (and) not creating a system that would follow those folks? Yeah, he’s a racist,” Russell said.
Russell said actions and comments by the president — like saying there were good people on both sides of the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville — can be a dog whistle for others with bias to act out.
“Clearly what he’s done is given permission,” Russell said.
Russell, Johnson and other NAACP leaders have four months to see whether their strong convictions and civic push translate to a strong turnout at the polls.
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