Benjamin Todd Jealous was born to a mixed-race couple on January 18, 1973 in Pacific Grove, California. His mother was an African-American psychotherapist, and his father was a white education administrator. Both parents had participated in Baltimore’s desegregation movement during the 1960s.
While attending York School—a private Episcopal high school in Monterey, California—Ben Jealous became a community organizer who not only helped the NAACP register new voters, but also organized a youth voter-registration drive supporting the 1988 presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson. During his high-school years as well, Jealous spent a semester in Washington, DC, working as a page for Leon Panetta and as an intern for Sam Farr, two Congressional Democrats from California.
When Jealous began attending Columbia University in 1991, he continued his community organizing work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he focused heavily on the issue of health care in Harlem. As president of Columbia’s Black Student Organization, Jealous led a series of campus protests. One rally, for instance, called for the preservation of Columbia scholarships earmarked specifically for nonwhite students. On another occasion, in December 1992, Jealous and a group of fellow demonstrators climbed through a window of Columbia’s Low Memorial Hall to disrupt a board of trustees meeting. Specifically, the protesters were trying to prevent Columbia, which had recently purchased the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, from proceeding with its plan to raze that structure and replace it with a biomedical-research complex. Columbia suspended Jealous for one semester as punishment for his role in that protest, but two years would pass before he returned to the University.
Following his suspension from Columbia, Jealous moved to Mississippi to take a student-organizing position with the AFL-CIO. He then joined the African-American newspaper, The Jackson Advocate, initially as a graphic designer and then as an investigative reporter and managing editor.
Jealous returned to Columbia in the mid-1990s to complete his undergraduate degree in political science. Then, as a Rhodes Scholar, he earned a master’s degree in comparative social research from Oxford University in 1999.
From 1999-2002, Jealous served as executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the largest consortium of black community newspapers in the United States.
In 2002 Jealous was hired to head Amnesty International‘s U.S. Domestic Human Rights Program, where he focused chiefly on efforts to outlaw the death penalty for minors and to ban all forms of racial profiling. In 2004, Jealous and Amnesty International researcher Niaz Kasravi co-authored a 50-page report titled “Threat and Humiliation: Racial Profiling, Domestic Security, and Human Rights in the United States,” which received enormous media attention upon its publication. Arguing that “racial profiling affects a staggering number of people,” the authors called on the federal government to pass sweeping reforms.
In September 2008 Jealous was elected president of the NAACP. At the organization’s annual convention in 2010, he characterized the Tea Party movement as a white supremacist phenomenon: “Here comes the genetic descendent of the White Citizens Council, burst from its coffin, carrying signs and slogans like ‘Lynch Barack Hussein Obama.’” In the media firestorm that ensued, Jealous declared, inaccurately: “For more than a year we’ve watched as Tea Party members have called congressmen the N-word, have called congressmen the F-word. We see them carry racist signs and whenever it happens, the membership tries to shirk responsibility.”
In 2012 Jealous claimed that a series of Voter ID laws that recently had been passed in several states were, like the Jim Crow laws and poll taxes of an earlier era, manifestations of a “rising tide of voting suppression” that sought “to encode discrimination into law.” He warned that America was again facing “Selma and Montgomery times,” that “our democracy is literally under attack from within,” and that nothing less than “the battle to preserve democracy itself” was at stake. In March of that year, Jealous and the NAACP went so far as to take their arguments against Voter ID laws to the United Nations Human Rights Council. “In the past twelve months,” Jealous lamented around that time, “more U.S. states have passed more laws pushing more U.S. citizens out of the ballot box than in any year in the past century.”
Jealous resigned as NAACP president at the end of 2013. The following year, he became a senior partner at Kapor Capital, an Oakland-based firm that aims to “leverage information technology” for progressive “social impact” on behalf of “underrepresented communities.” He also joined the Center for American Progress as a senior fellow.
In July 2015, Jealous condemned “the problem of mass incarceration” of African Americans as an egregious “moral failing” of a crminal-justice system replete with “racial disparities.” “A black man in America today is three times more likely to be incarcerated than a black man in South Africa at the height of apartheid, and a white man is three-fourths as likely,” he stated. To address this matter, Jealous called for sweeping “criminal-justice reform” that would: send drug addicts “to rehab instead of to prison”; help “offenders who go into prison illiterate leave prison knowing how to read”; ensure that “the Department of Corrections actually helps correct the paths of our neighbors who have lost their way”; and “approach the most crime-ridden neighborhoods with humanity and understanding.”
Jealous ran for governor of Maryland in 2018, be he lost the election by a wide margin to the incumbent governor, Republican Larry Hogan.
In addition to his other affiliations, Jealous is an advisory board member of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
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