How money matters: LA’s NAACP

The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP is not going to hold a dinner to honor Donald Sterling and Leland Spencer, as it had previously announced.  Its unpaid president, Leon Jenkins, is stepping down from his position, and the national office of the NAACP has announced it will develop new policies about who the organization might properly honor and why.

The Sterling case was actually pretty clear.  The owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, under fairly constant fire for racial discrimination in his rental policies, had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the organization.  Maybe this was unrelated to his business activities, maybe it was personal atonement.  In any case, it was an opportunity to cleanse a reputation with a second lifetime achievement award.  A fancy black tie dinner advertised in the newspapers is one way to try to sanitize a reputation.

Jenkins himself had surely been thinking about what it takes to rehabilitate a reputation.  Formerly a district court judge in Detroit, Jenkins faced a federal indictment for taking bribes of money and firearms.  Although he was acquitted of criminal charges, the Michigan Supreme Court removed him from the bench, and ultimately he was disbarred.  He moved to California to start over, like so many others, but had been unable to gain admission to the California bar, which found that he was deceptive about his financial dealings.  He had, for example, failed to disclose a $25,000 loan he had taken from restauranteur Leland Spencer, who employed Jenkins–and was also to be honored by the LA chapter of the NAACP.  (details in the New York Times report here.)  It sure looks like impropriety!

But advocacy organizations need money to advocate.  Office space, professional labor, phone lines, computers, photocopiers don’t come for free, and Jenkins reported raising over $2 million, some portion of which went to support the national organization, which has had its own financial problems.  How picky can any organization be when people who are willing to write big checks come calling?  (In this case, obviously at least a little pickier.)  And unlike some sponsors, there’s thus far no indication that Donald Sterling wanted anything more than public praise.  Jenkins took the money from Sterling and the national NAACP took its share from Jenkins’s LA chapter.  No doubt, no matter how scuzzy Donald Sterling appeared, Jenkins and others thought they could do something useful with the money.

[Meanwhile, everyone didn’t make the same calculations.  Ultimately, UCLA rejected a $3 million gift from Donald Sterling that would have gone to research on kidney disease.  Is that a good move?  for science?  Will Donald Sterling spend the money on something more valuable?]

Old notions of democratic theory premised a notion of countervailing resources, in which some groups had more money, some more intense commitment, some more supporters.  Increasingly, however, it seems like money just means more–and if the other resources seem to falter, well, it means even more.

 

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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