By Eric L. Hinton
They are ghastly images seared into the public consciousness. Much like the horror of witnessing innocent victims leaping to their deaths before the towers fell on September 11th, the images of countless blacks wading through floodwaters and clinging to rooftops with hand-scrawled “Help Me” signs, shook the nation to its core. The disaster that killed nearly 1,900 people, mostly poor black residents of New Orleans, and caused over $81 billion in property damage, prompted many across the nation to shake their heads in disbelief. Could this really be happening here? In the United States? In 2005?
At the time James Rucker was serving as a director of grassroots mobilization for MoveOn.org. The organization, which serves a largely white base, develops and executes fundraising, technology, and campaign strategies for progressive causes. Prior to Katrina he and Color of Change co-founder, Van Jones, had been kicking around ideas for something like MoveOn for black people. As Rucker sat in his living room watching alarming footage from Katrina stream across his television, he felt compelled to act.
“When Katrina happened it became this very clear moment around the country when you saw black people effectively had no political power. The level of disservice and neglect that happened in the aftermath was unacceptable. And it wasn’t as if the White House was reacting ‘Oh my goodness Black America is going to have our heads for this.’ It spoke to a political impotence on the part of Black America,” said Rucker.
A few days later Color of Change was born. It started out focusing on Katrina, fighting for everything from housing rights, to FEMA payments, to the protection of displaced survivors’ voting rights. In the six years since the web-based, African-American political advocacy group launched, 800,000 members have contributed to or taken part in various lobbying and public education campaigns.
Today the work is focused on an eclectic mix of targets ranging from the obvious — Glenn Beck and Fox News — to the unexpected, such as the Congressional Black Caucus. The fledgling organization has morphed and grown into a force that investigates claims of police brutality, insists on criminal justice reform, examines media misrepresentation of blacks and demands accountability from elected officials.
Among its victories Color of Change counts raising public awareness and money for the legal defense of the Jena Six, six black boys who initially were charged with attempted murder in the 2005 beating of a white student in Louisiana.
In 2009 Color of Change launched a campaign urging advertisers on Glenn Beck’s Fox News show to pull their ads. Coincidentally or not, Beck announced in April he’d be leaving Fox at the end of June to head a new subscription-based internet TV network, GBTV. So with Beck already a notch on the organization’s bedpost, their current ire is aimed at another Fox analyst, Eric Bolling. In June Bolling took to the airwaves and attacked President Obama in what many interpreted as overt act of racism.
“Guess who’s coming to dinner? A dictator,” Bolling said, referring to the President Ali Bongo of Gabon. “It’s not the first time he’s had a hoodlum in the hizzouse.” Moments later Bolling showed a picture of the rapper Common, who had previously appeared at a White House poetry event, prompting the conservative host to blurt out, “What’s with all the hoods in the hizzy?”
The act was so egregious, even by Fox’s standards, and the condemnation so universal, that it forced Bolling and the network to offer a rare, if weak, apology.
“On Friday, we did a story about the President meeting with the President of Gabon,” Bolling said. “We got a little fast and loose with the language, and we know it’s been interpreted as being disrespectful, and for that, I’m sorry. We did go a bit too far.”
The apology fell far short of the mark, said Rashad Robinson, who in May joined Color of Change as Executive Director. “Our role is to hold the media accountable,” said Robinson. “When Eric Bolling went on TV and really went over the line it gave us an opportunity to speak to what Fox News is and what their real goals are, which is as a race-baiter and a company that uses racial stereotypes to advance a nasty agenda against black folks all around the country.”
David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think-tank that analyzes issues impacting the socioeconomic status of minorities, believes groups like Color of Change, that use the web as an organizing tool, are poised for greater impact in the coming years.
“Groups like these can be quite effective. As an example look at President Obama’s 2008 campaign. In terms of money-raising and communicating a message to people and getting them out to events..there was an enormous web presence in the campaign.”
But Bositis is less enthusiastic about the organization’s strategies for taking on entities like Fox.
“The Fox News business strategy is to appeal to people who are not going to think like Van Jones,” Bositis said. “On the other hand, if they went after American Idol that might hurt Fox’s bottom line. Glenn Beck was not a major profit source. If you’re going to ultimately be successful you’ve got to hit pain points.”
Hitting those “pain points” is something that Robinson and his group are committed to doing. Robinson, who has previously held leadership roles at GLAAD, The Right to Vote Campaign, and FairVote, said the group’s mandate is more critical than ever as the 2012 presidential campaign comes into focus.
“We are unapologetically black. Our political agenda is about advancing our community, to have an opportunity to advance the power and political strength of Black people in America and we take on issues that serve that,” Robinson said. “We don’t see those issues as Democrat or Republican. We see those issues as being in the best interest of the community.”