It’s politically fashionable to question the relevance of the 103-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But the NAACP is still one of America’s most revered institutions, and deservedly so – which is why the country took notice last summer when the organization passed a resolution calling for the restoration of civil political discourse amid the boorish bile that passes for public debate in the U.S. today. It’s also why the country has every right to be roundly disappointed in the NAACP for hypocritically flouting its own pledge on Wednesday, when it invited Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to address its convention in Houston – and then very uncivilly booed him.
The extended jeers, which Romney later conceded he anticipated – and which some have accused him of baiting for the benefit of his conservative base – were a response to his promise to repeal President Obama’s signature reform legislation, the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. The law’s aim of accessible, near universal health care coverage matters quite a bit to an African-American community whose unemployment level has been almost twice the national rate during the Great Recession; and Romney probably could have found a more diplomatic way to broach the subject. Nevertheless, Obamacare is one of many issues starkly dividing the U.S. in this election year, and last year’s NAACP resolution was meant precisely to encourage respectful hearings from both sides – a courtesy from which the NAACP’s conventioneers apparently believed they were exempt.
They did listen politely to Romney for the most part, even offering applause when he insisted, perhaps not all that convincingly, that he’ll help more African-Americans join the middle class. But unfortunately cable news doesn’t notice politeness; it’s the rudeness that gets you on MSNBC and Fox, and the real problem with what happened in Houston is that it gives Americans another excuse to resign themselves to gratuitous partisan barking. They’ll reason that if the NAACP can’t resist the vitriol even after renouncing it just a year ago, then it’s futile to expect the rest of us to stop following Gretchen Carlson and Bill Maher down Incivility Avenue.
Perhaps the most significant thing the NAACP did on Wednesday was re-open the door to charges of liberal double standard – just as Obama supporters were trying to enjoy the high ground after the Supreme Court’s decision last month to uphold Obamacare. The country was rightly mortified in 2010 when right-wing Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina made his irate “You lie!” outburst during Obama’s State of the Union address. The NAACP’s boos may not have been as mean-spirited as Wilson’s heckle (we’ll pause here to let the left-wingers shout “False equivalency!”) but the bottom line is that if a convention of white conservatives had invited Obama to address them this week and then hooted at him, it would have led Rachel Madow’s show.
The boos in Houston risked giving off the kind of air of intolerance for which Democrats like to scold Republicans. It’s as if the NAACP had invited Romney to lay out his platform but rather absurdly told him: Criticizing Obama or his policies is off limits. It simply doesn’t work that way, and that’s what we thought the NAACP’s 2011 resolution had acknowledged – that we’ve got to get back to absorbing dissenting viewpoints instead of demonizing them. After Romney’s Houston speech, one NAACP member told CNN, ”I wasn’t booing him as a person, I was booing his agenda.” Tea Partyers say the same thing after disrupting political addresses they don’t like, but that doesn’t make it acceptable – something liberal groups like Code Pink, which specializes in interrupting speeches like one given by conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington this year, need to understand as well.
Earlier this year, the NAACP chapter in Martin County, Fla., cancelled an invitation to black GOP Congressman Allen West to be its fundraiser keynote speaker. The conservative West represents the district that includes Martin County; but after he publicly remarked, astonishingly and repeatedly, that “there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party,” the NAACP chapter kiboshed his speech. Some conservatives cried censorship, but the chapter’s decision was in fact in keeping with the NAACP’s call to discourage the kind of polarizing rhetoric that makes the American body politic, the heir of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, sound like a dysfunctional banana republic.
Romney certainly isn’t the guy the African-American community is going to vote for in November, and he acknowledged that in Houston. But he said he accepted the NAACP’s invitation because he hopes to “represent all Americans,” and even if you consider that a disingenuous sentiment on his part, it too is in keeping with a spirit of civil discourse. The NAACP didn’t help its relevance problem this week by breaching that spirit. Or maybe it did, sadly, given all the attention the booing got. If that’s the case, then it’s as much the nation’s problem as it is the NAACP’s.