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And now, just as the N.A.A.C.P. has recovered its financial health, it is being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is reviewing the group's tax-exempt status on the grounds that it engaged in partisan politics, a no-no for nonprofits. N.A.A.C.P. chairman Julian Bond, who has accused the Bush Administration of drawing its "most rabid supporters from the Taliban wing of American politics," calls the probe an attempt to silence the group. "We're not going to allow any institution to prohibit us from fighting racism," he says.
Perhaps an even bigger challenge to the organization is the task of coming up with a clear and inclusive agenda. During the civil rights era, poor and middle-class blacks were united in their need for basic access to schools, housing and jobs. Now a growing black middle class has moved out of the inner cities and become increasingly detached from the needs of poor blacks. Some 27% of black households earned more than $50,000 a year in 2001, vs. just 12% in 1971, according to U.S. Census data, adjusted for inflation. Despite those gains, about 20% of blacks remained below the poverty line in 2002, up from 18% in 2000. Poor blacks struggle with high incarceration and unemployment rates. An estimated 30% of black men under 40 have been in jail, and according to a study by Community Service Society, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income people, almost half of black men in New York City are jobless. But middle-class blacks are more concerned about affirmative action and cuts in Pell grants to pay for college tuition.
Critics inside and outside the group say the N.A.A.C.P., which was founded in 1909 and claims some 500,000 members, needs to shift gears. "There was a time to do a lot of marching," says Elijah Cummings, a Democratic Congressman from Baltimore and the outgoing leader of the Congressional Black Caucus. "Now it is time to do a lot of negotiating." That means reaching beyond liberals who have supported the civil rights agenda. Even within the black community--and the N.A.A.C.P.--there is a growing conservative voice. Some 11% of blacks voted for Bush in 2004, up from 8% in 2000. Mfume notes that the N.A.A.C.P.'s 64-member board of directors has more than a dozen Republicans. And the nine-member executive search committee charged with finding Mfume's successor includes in its ranks a prominent white Republican, Jack Kemp, who was Housing Secretary under President George H. W. Bush.
In some ways, this Republican faction signals a return to the original political allegiances of African Americans. In homage to Abraham Lincoln's ending slavery, most blacks voted Republican until Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt wooed them into his New Deal coalition in 1932. Now the Republicans are injecting different ideas. Kemp, for example, suggests that the government eliminate capital-gains taxes on inner-city entrepreneurs in order to put more funds into urban pockets of impoverishment. Only 5% of blacks are self-employed, vs. 11% of whites.