Right after the State of the Union ended, I located a guy who’d been seated a few steps away: Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP. We chatted very briefly about two of the GOP’s nominees, the ones who’ve argued that they can do more for black America.
Slate: Ron Paul answered a question about his old newsletters by saying he was the most anti-racist candidate: He wanted fair criminal justice reform. Did you buy it?
Jealous: We’ve found common cause with libertarians across the South, for years. In Texas, Ron Paul’s state, we’ve passed a dozen progressive criminal justice reforms last year, working with the Tea Party. In South Carolina we got one-to-one on crack versus powder, which we couldn’t get Congress to do when Democrats controlled it. In Georgia, we just pushed through the biggest review of criminal justice policy in the entire country, again, working with a Tea Party governor and Tea Party supporters. Criminal justice reform is, if you will, the big silent agreement in this country. It’s ideas like treatment instead of incarceration appeal from libertarians to liberals alike, to progressives and conservatives alike.
If you divide the Tea Party, it divides into three groups: The libertarians, the fiscal conservatives, and the social conservatives. And when you go them and say rehab is seven times more effective than prison, they pay more attention. The pot-smoking wing pays attention. The Christian conservatives, who are very involved in prison ministry, already know it. So Ron Paul has a point that policies he is promoting, on criminal justice reform, are policies that need to be discussed and would have a positive impact on the black community.
Slate: Have you talked to Newt Gingrich about speaking at the NAACP’s conference since he suggested that he could talk to you about food stamps versus paychecks?
Jealous: I expect Newt and I will speak at some point this Spring. We don’t get involved in presidential debates. I only talked about it because he talked about us. But I expect we’ll sit down. He’s been very supportive of our work on criminal justice reform; actually, there’s an endorsement from him on our website right now, an endorsement of our latest report. I look forward to talking to him when the dust has settled.
Slate: In context, I didn’t think he was saying anything inflammatory. I mean, he was in New Hampshire, not the South.
Jealous: Yeah, but he was talking to South Carolina. That’s the cheapest way to campaign in South Carolina, when you’re butt’s stuck in New Hampshire. But the notion that black votes prefer food stamps to work is preposterous and it’s insulting. Should he be the nominee, he will be invited. He didn’t come when he was speaker, but if he’s the nominee, we hope he will come.