In the face of recent catastrophic crises, rallying cries like “the pandemic doesn’t discriminate” and “we’re all in this together” have become popular in the United States. The problem is, neither phrase is really true.
While COVID-19 has killed 225,000 people in the U.S., from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds, it has been twice as lethal for Black Americans. The resulting economic recession cost 22 million people their jobs, but disproportionately impacted people of color. And the slow economic recovery is playing out along racial lines, too: by September, only 7% of white workers were still unemployed, compared to 12% of Black ones. Meanwhile, police violence and its aftermath has an uneven impact on communities of color—an enduring reality underscored by President Donald Trump, who deployed federal law enforcement officers to confront peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors and who failed to condemn white supremacists when asked to do so during a presidential debate.
In other words, it’s been a challenging year for the NAACP, the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization, and its president, Derrick Johnson. Johnson, who got his start in racial justice activism as a student at Tougaloo College, a small, historically-Black institution in Mississippi, recalls learning at the knee of Civil Rights Movement leaders, who would visit his campus in the 1990s. Julian Bond, John Lewis, Asa Hilliard and Benjamin Hooks would talk about the fight for equality, he recalls—a fight that isn’t finished yet. “As a result of that, I got involved and began to understand my role and the responsibility,” says Johnson, age 52. “I had to advocate for the African American community, particularly around issues dealing with civil rights.”
On a recent Wednesday, TIME sat down, virtually, with Johnson to discuss how the Trump Administration has exacerbated the pandemic’s effect on Black Americans, what’s at stake in the upcoming election, and how the NAACP is continuing its 111-year-long fight for equality in the final days leading up to Nov. 3.
The conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How do you think those civil rights leaders who visited your college campus decades ago would think about what’s happening today?
There’s this great song, “Freedom is a constant struggle.” [Those civil rights leaders] would probably think of that song as being a reality: for every two steps forward, you will have a step backwards. The real opportunity in today’s moment is to see the peaceful protesters in the streets across the country that look like America: young, old, Black, white, male, female. That is something that that did not happen during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
There’s a Trump re-election ad where the victim of a crime tries to call 9-1-1 and is sent to voicemail. It implies that Biden and his fellow Democrats won’t adequately fund the police. [Biden has said he would invest in increasing diversity within police departments rather than defunding them.] What are your thoughts on how the “defund the police” movement is being weaponized politically?
Fear has always been used to divide. And unfortunately, the fear tactics that we see now caused us to be in a reality that in a Trump America, our economy is collapsing, that we are quarantined, that we have a health pandemic that has killed 200,000 people and some are projecting that it will kill anywhere between 350,000 to 400,000 people before the end of the year. In Trump’s America, we are seeing mass protests across the country and a level of discomfort between communities and law enforcement agencies. In Trump’s America, we are seeing school districts crippled and many districts have not allowed children to come back to classes for in-person learning. We shouldn’t talk about the hypothetical of what would be under another person’s governance when the governance we have is something that we have never seen before.
Do you think Black Americans will turn out to vote more than in 2016 because of everything that’s happening right now—and the outsized effect on their health, on their wallets, and on their ability to survive?
Since 2016, every election that has happened, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in turnout, not only in the African American community, but across communities. People are fed up. The high turnout in 2018 is evidence of that: we had never seen a midterm election with that type of turnout in the African American community, but also in all communities. I think the level of discomfort Americans are suffering through is a true indication that we must have some change. And that change is not only at the top of the ticket, [but] all the way down the ballot. If we don’t have the change, I don’t know if this democracy will be recognizable in another four years.
How much of this—the staggering COVID-19 death count, the wildfires, the police shootings, one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression—could have been prevented if Trump hadn’t won in 2016?
Many of the things you just outlined could have been avoided. All of the things that could not have been avoided, the response could have been better. And in all situations, it has been system failure as a result of him being in office, whether the response was defective, or the outcome didn’t have to be [as bad]. We had early warnings of a global pandemic, and [the Trump Administration] did nothing to respond. Not only did we not do anything to respond, he politicized the response that the public health experts said we needed to do: socially distance, wear a mask, shut down certain functions. Here’s a global health pandemic impacting the nation, and we still are lacking a federal response. We have a state by state response; we don’t have a federal response. That has severely damaged our economy. And the only thing he could say is that the stock markets are coming back, but what about the average American worker? What about the communities across this country that are being impacted?
With all of these things disproportionately impacting Black Americans, should Congress start considering reparations more seriously than it has in the past?
At the NAACP, we have always supported HR-40, a bill that was introduced by Rep. John Conyers in the 1980s that [calls for] studying reparations to understand what [they would] truly mean. When there’s state intentional harm, there has to be a repairing of that harm. What does that look like? How does that unfold? It was defined for Japanese Americans who were put in internment camps. It was defined for Holocaust survivors who had to endure the fascism of Hitler’s Germany. We have to define it for the intentional governmental harm against African Americans. And it’s not based on something that happened a century ago. Some of that harm is ongoing.
What has the NAACP been doing to prepare for Election Day?
Our focus is, how do we increase voter participation in the African American community, particularly for individuals who are infrequent voters? We found for the first time in 20 years after the 2016 elections, that Black voter participation went down, not up. It is our goal to increase the Black voter participation to a level much higher than what we’ve seen in 2016. And really, to see if we can get to the all-time high turnout of 2012.
Have you had any success so far?
We see a level of enthusiasm and energy that’s driving the energy in African American communities. All of our polling research and focus groups are telling us that there’s a level of fear and concern that’s pushing people towards the polls. I think the selection of Sen. Kamala Harris [as the Democratic nominee for Vice President] gave an additional boost to African Americans’ comfort and confidence to participate in this election.
What tools are you using to boost participation?
We don’t tell people how to vote. We’re non-partisan. We don’t support political parties. We’re an organization with units in 47 states, 2,200 across the country. We are targeting areas where we know African American turnout dipped in 2016. And we’re working hard to increase that turnout to 2012 levels. We have a digital campaign; we’re on black radio; we’re doing direct calls. We have a relation organizing model, we are using all of the tools that were tested over the last three years to communicate directly with voters as often as possible. We have [also recruited more than] 163,000 volunteers who are making calls and talking to their neighbors. And that volunteer recruitment is ongoing.
What do you think is at stake for for many of the people that are coming to volunteer? For you, personally?
Fear. Fear is being displayed or discussed in many ways. Fear, that if we don’t stop the direction that we’re going in, the harm it can have on our community and this nation. There is nothing about the current political discourse that’s inviting African Americans to want to stay where we are.
What gives you hope these days?
A lot gives me hope. When you see the energy across the country, around peaceful protests, that’s hopeful that there are enough caring people in this country who see what we see, and [are] willing to take to the streets and protest peacefully. And my hope is that that level of energy across all of our communities continues to the ballot box.