Race and Elections with NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson

On November 10th, Meridian hosted a virtual Insights@Meridian with NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson who shared his perspectives on the election, Black voter turnout, the impact of the racial justice movement on the elections, and what the next Administration, Congress, and new Supreme Court may mean for civil rights. Through a moderated conversation and Q&A, foreign ambassadors and private sector leaders also learned about the NAACP’s historic and continued efforts to strengthen democratic practices in the United States and provide equal opportunities for all citizens. 

Below are the top takeaways from the conversation:   

The Meridian 5: Insights@Meridian on Race and Elections with NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson

1. RACISM IN THE U.S. IS ABOUT PUBLIC POLICY. The NAACP was founded in 1909 with a mission to secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons. Johnson iterated that the organization’s mission is based on an understanding that, “It is through public policy that change can happen and that racial hatred is more about structures than individual behaviors.”  “When a child is born, their zip code determines their quality of life,” he stated, adding that school zoning, social security and the federal mortgage program are few examples of the racial inequalities in the United States. Many of these programs intended to benefit have blind spots and the African American community is unable to fully benefit from them. COVID-19 has only further exposed these disparities, especially within the healthcare system. Addressing these disparities in public policies not only helps African American communities but all citizens. 

2. GET OUT THE VOTE. As a non-partisan organization, the NAACP does not advocate for any particular political party, rather they focus their efforts on increasing voter turnout in African American communities. This election, through a data-driven program, the NAACP identified African American voters who voted infrequently and built an approach where they began to communicate with infrequent voters across the country, particularly in priority states where the African American voice would have an impact on the outcome of the election. Johnson stressed the importance of African Americans having their voice heard and playing a role in electing a candidate based on how parties have articulated their willingness to address structural barriers for their community. Johnson cited increased voter turnout in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Atlanta as examples of their success. The NAACP’s commitment against voter disenfranchisement is further exemplified by their filing of lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia in an effort to ensure every legitimate vote is counted. “We cannot have a representative democracy if we don’t allow citizens to truly participate in an open and free election,” stated Johnson. We need to ensure all votes are counted so we can get to a place to address public policy.  

3. EXPAND THE VOTE. Citing high voter participation in countries such as Australia, Canada, and Germany, Johnson affirmed the NAACP’s support for compulsory voting. “In order to have a representative government, people need to be engaged, and mandatory voting is a way to increase engagement.” The U.S. needs to address the overarching administration of our election to make sure there are an equal number of polling places and the necessary number of voting machines in all polling places based on county populations. Johnson is also a proponent of scannable paper ballots due to the convenience of the instant vote and the ability to do an audit or recount if necessary. Expanding access to voting not only promotes equal access to voting across the country but also makes voting less partisan and more transparent as it provides citizens an increased opportunity to participate. “We cannot tout our democracy globally if we don’t practice it domestically,” he exclaimed. Furthermore, Johnson supports restoring the right to vote for those who have been incarcerated once they’ve completed their sentence.  

4. INCOMING ADMINISTRATION. President-elect Joe Biden has committed to racial equity being one of his priorities in his forthcoming administration, and Johnson believes the incoming administration will reflect more of America’s ethnic and racial composition. Many individuals with skills and talents have been locked out of the benefit of those skills and talent, not just in the African American community, but other minority communities as well. Johnson is hopeful that “we’re opening up the spigot, so to say, of a talent pool that has been untapped for far too long.”  

5. UPHOLDING THE SOCIAL CONTRACT. Over the past year, the U.S. has been forced to reckon with its history of racial inequality.  Johnson referred to the lack of equal rights as a failure to live up to the social contract that all men and women are created equal, and emphasized the need for a collective effort to address racial inequities. When discussing how leaders like Stacey Abrams have aided the efforts of the NAACP to increase voter turnout, Johnson further touched on the theme of collective community efforts as he believes we must move away from the idea that any single person is responsible and instead recognize that we all have the ability to enact change.    

Insights@Meridian  is designed to provide ambassadors and other senior diplomats with an intimate opportunity to hear directly from Administration leaders, members of Congress, policymakers, and business visionaries on vital policy issues of the day. 

Project summary

Race and Elections with NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson | November 2020
Number of Attendees: 35
Regions: Africa, Europe and Eurasia, Near East and North Africa, Western Hemisphere
Countries: Andorra, Bahrain, Ireland, Cyprus, Croatia, Estonia, Israel, Mexico, Mozambique, Singapore, Somalia, Rwanda, United Arab Emirates, United States
Impact Areas: Civic Engagement, Human and Civil Rights
Program Areas: Convening