NAACP President Derrick Johnson: ‘Our right to breathe is on trial’

Cyril Josh Barker | 4/8/2021, midnight
With a high-profile police brutality case going on, the COVID-19 vaccine rolling out across the country, and the first few ...
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson NAACP photo

With a high-profile police brutality case going on, the COVID-19 vaccine rolling out across the country, and the first few months with the new administration in the White House, Black America continues pushing forward through the changes. NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson says equity should be front and center.

Among the things the over 110-year-old civil rights organization is doing right now include suing the Georgia Secretary of State and State Election Board over a recent voter reform bill, fighting for COVID-19 vaccine equity, and calling on the U.S. Senate to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

In an interview, Johnson said so much is at stake as the nation watches the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.

“What’s on trial is our right to breathe. What’s on trial is our criminal justice system,” he said. “What’s on trial is whether or not America can live up to its promise to ensure that equal protection of the law is afforded to all citizens and whether or not we can hold law enforcement agencies accountable for how they treat African Americans across the country.”

The House of Representatives has already passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and it now goes to the U.S. Senate. The act is a civil rights and police reform bill with provisions including enhanced accountability for police officers who commit misconduct and granting power to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to issue subpoenas to police departments.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, Johnson says he’s fully aware of the vaccine hesitancy in the Black community. He said he’s seeing accelerated access to vaccines being available for Black Americans.

“I’m beginning to see a sharp ramp-up of access to the vaccine all across the country,” he said. “We’re not going to convince anyone to take the vaccine, we’re just telling people ‘know your options.’ Understand the risk and be able to project the outcome. Our goal is to keep ourselves healthy, keep our families healthy, and keep our communities healthy. If you contract COVID-19, you go from being someone that’s hesitant to someone who’s a vessel to impact other people.”

COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated existing disparities in the Black community, especially in the healthcare system. Johnson says that health officials must address access to health care universally and push for more diverse representation among healthcare professionals.

“We need more people who are from our communities serving our communities at a greater percentage,” he said. “That builds a line of defense to attack some of the persistence health problems our communities have been confronted with.”

As the nation continues recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson said Black Americans are in the center of the conversation when it comes to bringing back the economy, bringing back jobs and reopening cities.

President Joe Biden unveiled his American Jobs Plan last week that would create millions of jobs to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Johnson said the NAACP has a seat at the table for the plan.

“So much opportunity is in front of us and that’s the framework that’s coming out of the White House,” he said. “Now it’s about Congress making sure they draft the legislation to cover the details. The members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP and other organizations will be pushing as hard as possible to make sure money gets to our communities and our people as fast as possible.”