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Who’ll fight bias now?


It’d be nice to be able to say that the work of the National Conference for Community and Justice is done; that discrimination and other forms of oppression no longer exist; that the 77-year-old anti-bias organization fought the good fight and won; and now it’s time to start enjoying the fruits of its work in an open, inclusive society built on mutual respect.

No one is saying that as the doors to the NCCJ’s Iowa Region office are about to close. What the group’s representatives are saying officially is that a projected deficit of $80,000 is insurmountable and closing on Dec. 31 is unavoidable.

If only it were that simple. Saying the NCCJ folded because of severe financial problems is like saying the Civil War was just about ending slavery.

Working for equality isn’t easy. You have to want it, and you have to be willing to take on your family, friends and neighbors to get it. And you have to be willing to admit you’re part of the problem – even if you aren’t peppering your speech with the “N-word” or laughing at bigoted jokes about immigrants or dragging homosexuals to their death or conducting yourself in any way that could be considered overtly biased.

Overt discrimination, the kind that will get a company sued for millions of dollars, has mainly disappeared. Because the consequences are so great, bias is more insidious now, harder to spot. The problem with systemic oppression and institutional racism is that many people don’t understand it. That’s one of the things that made the NCCJ’s job so tough. It was too financially dependent on corporations. It’s a chilly climate for any non-profit to raise money, but more so if it’s asking corporations for a donation and then pointing out that, by the way, they’re part of the problem.

That’s the kind of stuff that can put board members who serve primarily to articulate their corporate employers’ commitments to diversity in an uncomfortable position. It’s one of the reasons the NCCJ board tried to gag Jesse Villalobos, the director of policy and programming for the Iowa Region who’s not afraid to take on the white power structure and other systems that allow bias and bigotry to fester.

He has admirers, like the woman in the downtown law firm who laughed admiringly that “he ran that damn essay again” –“that damn essay” being the one that that called the first Thanksgiving a holiday in celebration of the genocide committed on America’s indigenous population. To others, including some board members, “that damn essay” is a metaphor for everything that went wrong at the NCCJ. It was a last straw for some formerly fierce NCCJ supporters, who took their money with them as they distanced themselves from the group.

Blaming Villalobos and others is too easy. How can an anti-bias organization send a clear, articulate message if its advisory board members are fighting among themselves about what that message should be? The NCCJ, in its final months, was nothing if not dysfunctional, from the top down. The board’s failure to identify and resolve the group’s internal problems is what made it impossible to overcome the 80-grand deficit.

Established decades before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in 1955, before federal troops quelled riots so James Meredith could become the University of Mississippi’s first black student in 1962, before blacks marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to demand protection for voting rights in 1965 and before civil rights luminaries like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, the NCCJ’s work had just begun.

Who will pick up that fight against racism, bias and bigotry now? A watered-down version of the NCCJ that aligns itself with a set of issues that don’t shake anybody’s paradigms? Sure. That’ll work – if the goal is to keep oppressive and discriminatory systems in place, that is.

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