Every journalist should be required to endure the bracing experience of being "covered." Nothing is more instructive for us journos than to put ourselves and our views in the hands of someone else to interpret to the world in all-too-brief quotes and sound bites.
Judging by my e-mails, my appearance in a "CBS News Sunday Morning" report on the NAACP's 100th anniversary convention this week left many viewers with a false impression.
They think that I said President Obama's election has made the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization unnecessary. That would be tantamount to saying that racism is no longer a problem that black people should care about, which would make me, well, precisely what some of my e-mailers say I am. Here's a sample:
"I understand the mainstream media will ferret out people like you to give the illusion 'all is well' but ... you do not represent the masses." Fred Thomas III, Los Angeles.
"Sadly enough, Mr. Page echoes the sentiments of many uninformed individuals who fail to recognize that racism persists (even when) ... we have a black president'." Tanya Jordan, no address.
"Stop hanging out with the Capitol Hill crowd and find your roots, brother." Ms. Pat Fox, Chicago.
Actually, I do not believe that President Obama's election has made the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization unnecessary. Rather, I fear that the NAACP is making itself irrelevant.
I raised a question on national TV that a lot people find too uncomfortable to raise in public in anything but hushed tones: If we did not have the NAACP these days, would anybody notice the difference?
Then I concluded out loud that, in too many instances, the answer would be no. Not because they aren't doing anything, but because too few people see the organization's work making a difference in their lives.
That disconnect helps to explain why the organization's treasury, membership rolls and name recognition among young people have been shrinking in recent decades. While we should celebrate the organization's past, I'm worried about its future.
I don't want the organization to disband. I would like to see it catch up with an era in which the biggest problems facing black Americans increasingly have less to do with skin color than with education and economics.
As one of many who have been able to take advantage of the heroic work and hard-won opportunities that the NAACP, among others, opened up, I applaud the organization's track record. But I am disappointed that it has not been more effective in reaching those who have been left behind, more isolated than ever in low-income communities and substandard schools, re-segregated not only from whites, but from upwardly mobile blacks, too.
It is an ironic tribute to the NAACP's noble history that its 100th anniversary convention must fight for airtime against the confirmation hearings for the first Latina to be named to the Supreme Court and by the nation's first president of African descent. Yet our disproportionately high unemployment rates, fatherless kids and black-on-black crime call for more than civil rights solutions.
We can't just sue our way back to strong families and lower black-on-black crime rates. Strong, committed NAACP members in hundreds of chapters across the country are helping to strengthen community institutions that can support strong families. Yet the prevailing attitude at the organization's national level was well expressed by Chairman Julian Bond when he declared the NAACP to be about "social justice, not social service."
Fair enough. As long as we hear stories like the Philadelphia area swim club that recently turned away a mostly black group of day care kids (a misunderstanding, the club's officials insist), the NAACP will find plenty of racial suspicions to keep itself going, perhaps even for another 100 years. But they also run the risk of becoming an organization for elites, rallying those who already have some financial, educational and community resources but missing those who need help the most.
Into this battle I welcome the new NAACP president and CEO, Ben Todd Jealous. The 36-year-old Rhodes Scholar is the first NAACP leader to be too young to remember the 1960s firsthand. Appropriate to his generation, he has announced a novel Internet-age idea: a cell-phone-based "rapid response system" for the reporting of alleged police misconduct.
If it works as hoped, the cyber-age concept could offer the organization a new networking tool to which the Twitter and Facebook generation can easily relate.
It could also offer something that fired up many of the civil rights changes in the 1960s: Racism that you can see on TV and not just wonder about.