Derrick Johnson serves as president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He has spent his career fighting for justice to improve the lives of Black people and people of color. The Detroit native is a former state president of the NAACP Mississippi State Conference. Following the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, Johnson founded One Voice Inc. and focused the program’s efforts on education, training and civic engagement to improve the quality of life for African Americans. Johnson is a graduate of Tougaloo College and South Texas College of Law.
This is the tenth part of a series where civil rights leaders, cultural influencers, advocates and critical thinkers explain race relations, societal change, community protest and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. The group, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson and #OscarsSoWhite Creator April Reign, pose their thoughts on race relations during the summer of 2020 and how America may move forward less divided. Join the conversation on social media using #PassTheMic.
Derrick Johnson, President and CEO, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Q: How would you describe the civic unrest occurring in America right now?
A: The Civic unrest in America right now is unfortunate, however, it is not a surprise. Decades of oppression, discrimination, and systemic racism have lead us to this point. When Black people and communities of color have attempted to make their grievances known, we’ve been muzzled and told that our concerns are not valid. The reckoning that we’re witnessing has been festering for a long time. We now have an opportunity to set a new course for future generations. The status quo that has existed with regards to how our society has operated is no longer acceptable. It has proven to be repressive and does more to benefit a minority of our country, rather than a majority.
Q: Is this a fleeting moment or have we reached an inflection point where lasting change is possible?
A: We’ve reached a point where change is possible for us during this time. I honestly believe there is no final destination when it comes to balancing the powers of our society. We must continue to challenge ideologies, systems, and people to make sure that our country treats all people with respect and dignity. We must continue to progress forward and ensure that we don’t resist change when it comes. There are some in our society that would like to see this country regress back to a time when Black people and people of color don’t have a voice in shaping this democracy. We must stay vigilant and ensure that doesn’t happen.
Q: Is there another moment in history that relates to the moment we are living through now?
A: I think every generation has a moment that propelled them forward. While this moment is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, it is reminiscent of monumental moments throughout history that have shaped the course of our future as a nation. This generation will remember this moment as their moment for change. It will impact the way they view the world and relay it to their children and grandchildren.
Q: What specifically needs to happen for Black lives to matter in the United States?
A: For Black lives to matter in this country, we must change the culture of America to one that is inclusive, anti-racist, and open for all. We can do that by evaluating the plight of Black people in this country and then actively work to fix the issues. From housing discrimination to bias hiring practices to police brutality, there are practices that are detrimental to our progression in this society and once we begin to fix these issues, we can show through action that Black Lives Matter.
Q: What does social justice mean to you personally and why should others care?
A: Social Justice speaks directly to how people are treated in this country. Social justice is changing the minds, culture, political and economic opportunities that exist in order to create better outcomes for all people. Everyone should care about social justice as it is essential to ensuring a cohesive way of life for everyone. Social justice is something you fight for even when your way of life may not be threatened. It is a selfless act to engage in this work, but in the end, it benefits your family, friends, and the generations that are to come.
Q: What solutions will heal racial divisions and disparities?
A: Outside of implementing policies and legislation, we must realize that we are all human at the end of the day, which makes no one better than another person. We look to race as a caste system in this country, and that has caused a lot of turmoil for this country. More bad than good since the beginning of time. We must dispel this notion that any race is better than another and look at the humanity of people. There are more things that unite us than divide us in regards to our way of life. We should certainly focus on that.
Q: How do you feel about the future?
I remain always hopeful that we are always moving toward a brighter and more inclusive future. The hope is that each generation that is to come will be better than those that have been. If we give up hope that things can be better, we forgo our will and ability to implement change. The future is what we make it, and from what I can tell, the future is in the hands of motivated activists and organizers.