5 Minutes With...

Generation B

Portland NAACP president Charlene McGee talks about Barack, BlackBerries and how perceptions color the world.

By Nancy Rommelmann May 19, 2009 Published in the January 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

For the past three years, the Portland NAACP has been inactive—no meetings, no phone number. When I tried to track you down… It was a P.O. box. We now actually have office space at the Urban League. I think [local] membership is currently 185. I want to increase that by 500.

How do you invigorate an organization that’s so deeply rooted in a movement that reached its apex 20 years before you were born? The fight for justice takes a different form now. The NAACP is approaching its 100th anniversary. In 1909 the biggest issue was employment discrimination. In the 1960s, the issues were people of color not being able to stay in hotels or eat in restaurants. In 2007, it’s lack of health care, gentrification, the over-incarceration of people of color.

Still, Hammerfest, a white supremacist gathering, occurred in Portland just last September. I was there, at the protest rally at Lents Park in Southeast Portland. You hear people say, “There’s no racism in Portland; everything is equal.” No: In 2007, we still have an event like that take place in our city. It’s scary, but it’s a reality.

“The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” sounds antiquated. What do we mean by “colored people” today? Does it include Hispanics and Native Americans? If you look at the issues that the NAACP addresses today, it definitely has transcended racial and ethnic lines. We have a focus point on immigrant rights. We have a position on the war in Darfur.

When I think NAACP, I think “black.” If you look back, the NAACP was founded by both Jewish people and African-American people. It’s open to everyone; we can use all the help we can get.

How do you reach out to youth—their BlackBerries? Text messaging, which Barack Obama is so big on, is the most effective means of reaching youth. Youth don’t like e-mails; e-mails are outdated. When I heard that, I was like, wow, I guess I’m old.

What will you tell them? “Go to the school board meeting,” or “Don’t forget to vote.” We want to increase voter registration among high school and college students to 90 percent. No one is reaching that demographic.

Speaking of Obama: A recent article in the New York Times mentioned that a significant number of black women, especially in the South, are wary of voting for him, because they’re afraid he’ll be assassinated. When Colin Powell was thinking about running for president, his wife said she was worried that someone would kill him. I remember my coworkers saying, “That’s crazy.” But my parents and all my African-American friends, we understood.

Understood because they remember. Yes. Those women down South remember Dr. Martin Luther King [Jr]; they remember black men hanging from trees and race riots. For our generation, we’re overcoming; we’re excited and feel empowered. But there’s this greater sense of fear.

So it’s a Catch-22. I’m a white woman, and it’s never occurred to me to think that Hillary Clinton will be assassinated. Exactly.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? A pediatrician. Then in college, an HIV and AIDS researcher, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Now, a catalyst of change.

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