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‘We need to blow up the caste system’: NAACP President on achieving equality

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson joined Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers to discuss what #blackexcellance means to the United States, the important of recognizing Black History month, and what new barriers the NAACP is tackling to achieve racial equality in the United States.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

KRISTIN MYERS: Today the prestigious NAACP Spirit Award nominations are out. And I sat down with the president and CEO, Derrick Johnson, to ask whether this year, after the turmoil of 2020, if those awards were more important than ever.

DERRICK JOHNSON: It absolutely has taken on special significance. It's an opportunity for us to not only celebrate the art and entertainments that derives from our community, but is also a recognition that we need to really drill down on. More people are using their platform for social justice, as we pursue a better future that can only happen if all of us use the tools available to empower people to be engaged. Because 2020 did show that if we're not engaged, there can be some consequences that none of us would like to see.

KRISTIN MYERS: So then speaking more broadly, because we now have the start of Black History Month, do you think a month like this is needed now more than ever, given all of the events that happened in 2020?

DERRICK JOHNSON: Well, for some of us, Black history is all 365 days of the year. For others, it's an opportunity to learn and appreciate the contributions that African-Americans have made to society. And we have a history of this country to have a very unfortunate blind side, which is not inclusive of the contributions that we have made and has also allowed for a level of white supremacy to exist, which is a fallacy.

And so this month is a stopping point for some to begin to recognize the sacrifices made, the contributions that were given, and the opportunities looking forward. For the NAACP, we recognize that every day is Black History moment for us to make, to celebrate, and to share.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now, when we think about Black History Month, and when I think about the NAACP Image Awards, I think a lot about Black excellence. And I'm curious to know what the markers are for you when we're not going to need hashtags like #blackexcellence anymore-- not because Black excellence doesn't exist, but because it is so normalized, so entrenched in our society that it is not necessary to really call it out as such.

DERRICK JOHNSON: Well, I taught undergrad, adjunct professor at Tougaloo College, my alma mater. And every semester, I would bring in five Harvard Law students. In this particular year, there was a lot of students who had gone undergrad at Hampton. One of our colleagues asked, why do we need the HBCUs if we want everybody to be equal? And she gave the perfect point here.

She said, when I was on the campus-- when she was on the campus of Hampton, all she had to do was worry about succeeding, going to class, and enjoying that experience. But while she was at the-- on the campus of Harvard Law School, she always felt like she had to defend and to justify her existence. That's when success exists is when we can have that Hampton on an HBCU moment in society, where all we have to worry about is pursuit of our vocations, our careers, and to be excellent, and not have to defend or justify our position.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now we have a new administration. We have this Democratic trifecta, at least for the next two years. What bold plans need to be enacted, you know, to really have measurable impact on Black lives in America?

DERRICK JOHNSON: Well, we came out earlier with this administration to talk about the need to have someone exclusively focused on racial equity. If we are unwilling to address the barriers that exist and identify opportunities for the future, we will continue to be on this treadmill of racial inequality, a caste system. We need to blow up the caste system and open up an opportunity for a true diversity looking towards 2030, and not possibly trying to revisit 1950.

KRISTIN MYERS: So there's obviously a huge role that the private sector is going to have to play in that. It can't all just be done by the federal government. As you see it, what role do businesses have in being part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem?

DERRICK JOHNSON: Well, they have to reflect their customer base. They have to ensure that decision makers are at the table at all levels, whether it's on the board, in the C-suite, in middle management, in management, that it is a business imperative. As this nation continues to evolve in their demographics, as the globe have already evolved quickly for the business community, you cannot truly open up new markets and maximize profits if you have huge blind spots around race and race inequities.

And as we turn the corner, we must remove the structural barriers. We have a student loan debt crisis that's going to cause harm to our economy. It is economic stimulus if we figure out how to address that debt crisis so more individuals have money to put into the stream. That's a stimulus.

We have too many barriers in place when it comes to housing and housing stock based on antiquated practices of redlining or disinvestment. We need to invest in targeted community with place-based strategies, so home values can go up and individuals can participate in the greatest wealth generator in this country. And that's home ownership.

We need to ensure that corporate barriers that have been put in place are removed. There is one thing to have mentors in the corporate setting. There's another thing to have sponsors. We need more individuals with tools and skills to get sponsors and be able to oversee portfolios for profit and loss needs so that we can grow the pipeline of executives. They exist. They just need sponsors within the corporate setting to move them along the way. And if that happens, it can bring much shareholder value.

KRISTIN MYERS: I'm wondering if you think we need more awards as well to award Black Americans in fields like science and health and mathematics and engineering, outside of the entertainment and media space.

DERRICK JOHNSON: Well, over 40 years ago, we established the ACT-SO Program to honor and celebrate our ninth through 12th graders through a set of academic awards in the sciences, in the STEM, 32 categories. Because we also recognize that those young, talented critical thinkers were being underdeveloped and underappreciated, so we wanted to create a space for them.

At the end of the day, it's less about awards and more about outcomes. We need outcomes that best reflects the society and the needs to create holistic communities and a more productive economic system in this global economy.

KRISTIN MYERS: I'm wondering when you would consider the work of the NAACP to be finished, or when would you consider that you've worked yourself into obsolescence?

DERRICK JOHNSON: When race is no longer a consideration for individual decisions, when individuals recognize the caste system that has been created for not only decades and centuries in this country must be abolished once and for all, when my children and your children are able to exist on equal footing without the soft or hard barriers that's put in front of them, when individuals who are born in zip codes are able to realize the same quality of existence as anyone else in this country.

Those are the things that we need to be fighting for, that one's zip code, one's ethnic background, one's race, one's gender is no longer a barrier to an individual being able to contribute all of their gifts and talents. And their gifts and talents are being developed through the systems that we put in place.

KRISTIN MYERS: Do you think that we'll get there any time soon, where the NAACP is no longer needed?

DERRICK JOHNSON: We will continue on this struggle until we get to freedom. And freedom is not about bondage with chains. Freedom is the bondages that the limitations of structures put in front of our communities will cost of our race.

KRISTIN MYERS: And that was NAACP President Derrick Johnson. As we've mentioned, the NAACP Image Award nominations are out. They've been coming out over the last couple of minutes. I wanted to mention one-- Beyoncé, outstanding female artist. She also got a nomination for her song "Black Parade," that receiving a nomination for Outstanding Soul and R&B Song.