There are few things more precious to humans than the air we breathe; unfortunately, not all air is created equally.
If you need proof, take a ride across the Passyunk Avenue Bridge, past the sprawling oil refinery owned by the recently formed Philadelphia Energy Group, and spend a few moments wandering the streets of Schuylkill Southwest – where residents have spent decades dealing with the mysterious odors that periodically emanate from the glowing stacks less than a mile away.
Nearly three quarters of the neighborhood's population is African American – more than half earn less than $25,000 a year – and while their story is not unique, they share something in common with similar populations of Americans scattered across the nation's post-industrial landscape: They are being disproportionately deprived of quality air.
Over the years, research has shown that low-income and minority communities are breathing higher concentrations of dangerous chemicals and particulates than their upper income and white counterparts; and experts say they are paying the price for it, with higher incidences of learning disabilities tied to lead exposure, respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, and chronic heart disease and cancer.
Statistics show that African Americans are suffering the worst. Blacks are hospitalized for asthma at more than three times the rate of whites. Between 2001 and 2009 asthma rates in Black children increased almost 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with higher exposure to environmental pollutants listed as one of the causes.
Whether you choose to call it a “disproportionate burden of environmental risks and harms,” as the Environmental Protection Agency did in 2004, or “environmental racism” – the term preferred by community advocates – the problem is real, and it's not getting any better.
A new report from the NAACP shows that despite a federal mandate designed to narrow the gap, poor people and minorities continue to be impacted by coal industry pollution more than any other group. The NAACP ranked 378 coal-fired power plants on the basis of toxic emissions and demographic factors and found that the income level of people living near polluting facilities is more than $3,000 below the national average.
More than two-thirds of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired plant – the distance at which health effects from fallout are most likely to be felt. The dirtier the coal plant, the higher the proportion of minorities living near it. Of the four million people living within three miles of the nation's 75 “failing plants” – which account for the highest levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – 53 percent are minorities, while more than three quarters of the people living near the 12 “worst offending plants” are people of color, the NAACP found.
“Coal pollution is literally killing low-income communities and communities of color,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “There is no disputing the urgency of this issue.”
Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative, traveled the country as a co-author of the study and saw firsthand the human impact of these disparities.
“We saw a troubling pattern, and heard story after story of people who had health conditions that presented themselves after moving into areas near these plants, or saw a pattern of more people than the norm having these conditions,” she said, recounting the story of one resident who claimed that half the members of her church were on respirators.
Yet coal is hardly the only culprit. Thanks to its long history as a center of heavy industry, Philadelphia has earned the distinction of being one of America's most polluted metropolitan areas. In its 2012 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association listed Philadelphia tenth on its list of cities with the worst particulate pollution, and just last week Philly was ranked the third dirtiest city in the nation by Forbes – with 18.5 million pounds a year of toxic releases, according to EPA data. The City of Chester – which sits just outside Philadelphia and where three quarters of the population is Black – is home to the largest trash incinerator in the state, and for years has been a focal point of environmental justice activism.
A pattern of discrimination
The NAACP report is just one of a number of studies released over the past decade detailing the disproportionate impact of environmental pollution on communities of color. An Associated Press analysis of data from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory from 2005 shows African Americans are nearly 80 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is a problem. In 2009, the Ford Foundation sponsored a comprehensive survey of 300 metropolitan areas and determined that Blacks fare worse than any other ethnic group when it comes to exposure to air pollution from a variety of sources.
“If the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem,” the authors stated, “America must acknowledge that clean and safe air – which would seem to be a birthright of every person – is not currently an equal-opportunity affair.”
The study ranked the Harrisburg metropolitan area fifth in the nation for environmental racism, with minorities suffering more than 32 percent of the impact from industrial pollution despite making up just 13.5 percent of the population. Until it was shut down in 2003, the predominantly minority neighborhood of South Harrisburg was home to the largest dioxin polluting trash incinerator in America. (A plan to rebuild it forced the city into bankruptcy last year).
While both low-income and minority communities suffer disproportionately from environmental pollution, according to Philadelphia-based environmental attorney Mike Ewall – a long-time activist and founder of the Energy Justice Network – race plays a bigger role than class.
“If one were to compare a middle-class community of color to a low-income white community, and look at which community is more likely to have a hazardous waste facility sited there, the middle-class community of color would have a greater chance of being targeted for such a facility,” he said.
Patterson, of the NAACP, says that's because environmental racism is as much a function of political capital, or lack thereof, as it is about income. Black communities have faced a history of political marginalization, making it harder to fight off proposed polluting facilities or close down existing ones, she says. Also, while poor white and Black families might have similar incomes, African Americans tend to have less wealth, which is an important factor when it comes to buying property. Patterson points to a study that found property values average 15 percent lower in areas near a toxic polluting facility.
The federal government has been aware of these discrepancies since the early 1970s, and under President Bill Clinton resolved to do something about them. In an executive order signed in February 1994, Clinton called on the EPA to achieve “environmental justice ... by identifying and addressing...disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”
Twice since then, in 2004 and 2006, the EPA's Office of Inspector General has analyzed the agency's progress, and in both cases determined that it had failed to consistently integrate environmental justice into its day-to-day operations or direct regional offices to conduct environment justice reviews. Last year, the nonprofit Center For Public Integrity detailed dozens of open environmental justice cases “languishing” in the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, some of which are more than a decade old.
Lisa Jackson, the EPA's Administrator, has listed environment justice as one of the agency's top seven priorities and says her goal is to make environmental justice and fairness part of EPA's everyday decision-making. In 2010 the agency launched its EJ2014 initiative, which seeks to create a comprehensive roadmap for protecting and empowering communities over-burdened by pollution.
“EPA has always had a special role with respect to environmental justice, but in this administration, President Obama has really revitalized the larger issue of environmental justice, in which other agencies as well as ours are playing important roles,” she said, in an interview last March published in The Root.
But activists representing the environmental justice movement are dubious of the government's ability to get anything done without legislative changes to the current mandate, which according to its own language “is intended only to improve internal management” and lacks “any right, benefit, or trust responsibility, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law.”
Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network, says current law “lacks teeth” because it includes “no remedies; there's basically nothing enforceable in it at all.” He insists that any new initiative will require new laws with the power to hold polluters accountable, for instance, by revoking permits.
Meanwhile courts have tied private citizens' hands to deal with the problem through legal channels. Ewall points to a legal precedent set in 2001 that prohibits private lawsuits alleging a violation of Title VI civil rights without proof of intent. “If you can't prove that the disproportionate environmental impact is intentional, you're out of luck,” he said.
According to the EPA's website, while EJ2014 will “implement guidance [for] incorporating environmental justice into the fabric of its rulemaking process,” the program itself is “not a rule or regulation,” but “a strategy to help integrate environmental justice into EPA's day to day activities.” Among the proposed reforms are changes to the permitting process to include more community involvement.
Film director Woody Allen once famously said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” I imagine this is what GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney had in mind when he showed up to speak at the NAACP national convention in Houston this week.
Romney knows he has to peel away at least some Black votes from President Obama to have even an outside chance of winning this election. I don’t think any reasonable Republican expects a seismic shift in the numbers, but maybe if they could just get Obama’s projected 95 percent of the Black vote down to under 90 percent, they’d consider it a major coup, and from there, hey, anything can happen.
I’ll give Romney credit where credit is due. It took a lot of gumption for him to stand in front of that audience and vow to repeal Obamacare, slash education, and set the cause of civil rights back 75 years. He took the boos, the jeers, and the catcalls like a man, and endured what I’m sure was one of the most uncomfortable events in his extremely comfortable life.
Probably adding to his trepidation in front of the NAACP audience is the fact that he knows Republican outreach in minority communities ranges from nonexistent to open hostility. You have only to look at Arizona, where the frenzy to root out illegal brown people has reached such a fever pitch that they detained their own former governor for questioning because he’s, well, brown.
The images of watermelons, bone-through-the-nose witch doctors, and dressed up monkeys on their posters and signs at rallies tells you all you need to know about how the tea party-dominated GOP feels about Black people. Since Obama took office, the racists have shed any semblance of subtlety they may have once had, and gone into full-tilt skinhead mode. If you think the NAACP audience was rude in booing Romney a few times, try to imagine how the president would have been received at a meeting of the John Birch Society.
Now that they’ve angered, alienated, disenfranchised, and marginalized women, Blacks, browns, gays, the poor, the elderly, and anyone else who isn’t a Caucasian male millionaire, the GOP suddenly realizes the numbers they have left won’t win a national election. So what can they do?
Outreach, that’s what. Or at least, what passes for outreach when you’d really prefer to avoid altogether the people you’re forced to reach out to.
In the Republicans’ case, it means look forward this summer to images of Romney eating Cuban sandwiches in Miami, wearing a sombrero in San Diego, and showing up at Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans for fried chicken — probably wearing a hoodie.
They already know the lame attempt at outreach won’t do much good, but they’re obligated to put forth a cursory effort. Romney won’t make even the smallest dent in Obama’s numbers among African-American voters, and they know it. But since you can’t take any vote for granted in a tight race, he’s got to go places he doesn’t want to go, and smile in the faces people who know he doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
You saw the pictures of Romney back in May when he visited the Guion Bluford School in West Philly. I don’t believe I’ve seen a man so stiff and ill at ease, especially around children. He looked like he was waiting for a colonoscopy, not being serenaded by enthusiastic elementary school students.
Nervous? You bet. The last time Mitt Romney was around that many Black people was when he was — aw, who am I kidding? He’s never been around Black people, and it showed.
When the GOP convention was here in Philly in 2004, Republicans made a big deal of calling themselves, ‘The Party of inclusion.’ It’s even funnier eight years later, seeing as how they’re no closer to actual diversity than they were 50 years ago.
I was there for that convention, and at any given moment there were more Black people on stage than there were in the audience. I was also stopped by security volunteers and asked to show my press credentials an average of every 15 minutes or so. I remember saying many things about the GOP that week, but “party of inclusion” wasn’t one of them.
If Woody Allen was right, then the Republicans can count themselves 80 percent successful at reaching out to members of the Black community.
At least Romney showed up.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
The local branch of the NAACP joined with influential grassroots education organization Parents United for Public Education in filing a complaint against the William Penn Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group for what the complainants’ claim was a covert deal to push the School District of Philadelphia closer to privatization.
The core issue is the multimillion-dollar funding of the BCG’s analysis of the school district operations and its subsequent recommendations, which include the closure of dozens of schools and a major overhaul of the district’s administration.
Parents United and the NAACP jointly claim that the William Penn Foundation funded the analysis, and therefore should be registered as a lobbying firm with the city’s Board of Ethics.
NAACP Philadelphia Chapter President Jerry Mondesire and members from Parents United announced the filing of the complaint a few feet away from the Board of Ethics offices.
“When private money can trump democracy, can trump public debate, can trump bringing people around a constructive and positive table, all we have is conflict, which is where the discussion has been,” said Parents United member Gerald White, who added that parents were largely kept in the dark about the relationship between the school district, the William Penn Foundation and the BCG. “Many people have attempted to make this discussion about public schools or charter schools, but this about our children, their future and the future of our city - it’s certainly about our parents being able to participate.
“So we filed the complaint, hoping the Ethics Board will have a full hearing to look into whether or not the William Penn Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group violated the city’s lobbying law,” White continued. “The importance of that is transparency. If they filed as lobbyists, they would have to report not only what they spent, but the facts and information on a regular basis that would then give the public an opportunity to comment.”
For his part, Mondesire said the local branch of the NAACP has long supported public education, and wouldn’t stand idly by as decisions are made that affect the quality of education for Philadelphia public school students, the overwhelming majority of which are African-American.
“We have consistently supported public education, and that is the reason why we joined the complaint, because we believe that public schools in this city, right now, are threatened,” Mondesire said. “In less than ten days, some 50 to 60 schools will be announced to be closed, and we don’t know what the real agenda was, how these schools came to be on this target list, and whose interests are best being served.
“We think the big money that was raised by the William Penn Foundation and spent by the Boston Consulting Group were answerable to a different agenda,” Mondesire continued. “Different from that of the NAACP’s, from Parents United and different from [that of] parents in general from all across this city. We want total transparency.”
Newly hired district Superintendent William Hite Jr. said the permanent school closure list will be released next week. Further acerbating the situation is the district’s recent decision to do away with the three-month wait period between when a school is announced for closure and when the closure process actually begins. The district now has the ability to announce a school is closing and immediately proceed to shut it down.
The William Penn Foundation released a statement that dismissed the lawsuit, and noted that the foundation has been a positive entity in public education for several generations.
“We are aware of their complaint, and our attorneys are confident that it is without merit,” read the statement from the foundation. “The William Penn Foundation has been a force for public integrity and civic good in the Greater Philadelphia region for nearly 70 years, and we will continue that tradition through our efforts to improve children’s futures, protect the environment, and nurture creativity and rich cultural expression.”
Calls and e-mails to the Boston Consulting Group weren’t returned as of Tribune press time.
The latest version of the controversial report, “Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools: Key Findings and Recommendations,” included many provocative suggestions, with the closure of dozens of schools perhaps the most contentious.
“We estimate that SDP could close 40–50 schools in the near-term. This would increase its facilities utilization from 72 percent to 90 percent or greater and would save $32 million to $40 million a year in operating costs, depending on the size and types of facilities closed. In addition, these analyses are based on today's utilization level,” read a portion of the report. “Over the next five years, the number of seats in free-standing, lottery-based charter schools and cyber charters is anticipated to increase by roughly 21,000. If students switch from District-operated to charter schools at rates similar to the past, SDP's enrollment is likely to drop by another 15,000 students. To maintain utilization at 85 percent would necessitate the closure of an additional 15 to 20 schools over the next five years.”
School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard released a statement that confirmed and explained the nature of the district’s relationship with the foundation and with BCG.
“The School District of Philadelphia retained the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), following a competitive bid process, to conduct detailed analyzes and develop recommendations to stabilize the District’s finances and ensure that all students have better access to safe, high-quality educational options that prepare them for college and careers,” read the school district’s statement, in part. “The District was the only entity involved in defining the scope of work done under the contract, and the District is and will continue to be the only entity that decides which recommendations and best practices identified by BCG will be implemented in our schools.
“The School District is very grateful for the support that the William Penn Foundation has provided to the children of Philadelphia and public education overall,” the statement continued. “We look forward to continue working with the William Penn Foundation and other philanthropic organizations as we move forward in creating a safe and high-achieving school system for all students.”
Hours at five local PennDOT licensing centers have been extended to give Philadelphia voters greater opportunity to get a photo ID for voting.
“Extending our hours in the state’s largest county demonstrates PennDOT’s continuing willingness to help customers comply with the Voter ID law,” said Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, a statement released late Monday.
New hours — on Thursdays only — start Sept. 27 and run through Nov. 8.
Licensing centers at 801 Arch St., 1530 South Columbus Blvd., 2320 Island Ave., 919-B Levick St., 7121 Ogontz Ave. will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Though Schoch gave no reason for the decision, Mayor Michael Nutter recently made a personal appeal to Gov. Tom Corbett, asking him to extend hours for licensing centers in the city.
Nutter asked that hours be set from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“The citizens most in need of new identification are very likely those who have the least amount of daytime availability and physical mobility, namely workers who do not have flexibility to take time off during the middle of the work day or seniors who are unable to travel far distances or who rely on public transportation,” the mayor wrote in the letter dated Aug. 28.
He also asked Corbett to consider a list of other items, including providing a dedicated counter devoted exclusively to handling voter ID applications.
Since March, when Corbett signed the voter ID law, PennDOT has issued about 7,000 voter IDs at licensing centers across the state. About 2,600 have been issued in Philadelphia.
On Thursday, the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a suit seeking to overturn the law, but voter advocates continue to urge voters to prepare for the worst and get the state required ID.
“We’re urging people, no matter what the court decides, to continue to get ID,” said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the state and local chapters of the NAACP, one of the parties seeking to overturn the law.
Critics of the law argue that it will disenfranchise voters – many of them Black.
Estimates vary widely but some suggest as many as 280,000 voters in Philadelphia alone lack proper ID. That number was compiled by a local voter advocacy group. The state’s official estimates suggested that about 187,000 voters lack ID.
The Tribune, in culling through voter data, has estimated that 39 percent of active African-American voters in Philadelphia — more than 152,000 people — lack state-required photo identification needed to cast their ballot on Nov. 6.
Poverty, lack of education and more support racial inequity in sentencing, recidivism prevention
Research studies abound that detail the racial disparity inherent in America’s prison system — a system that has seen more African-American men behind bars in the last thirty years than at any time since the end of slavery.
The various studies and reports show numerous causes behind the disparity — the War on Drugs, poverty, mental health issues, high recidivism and a limping public education system.
“The prison system is a massive industry,” said attorney, civil rights advocate and author Michelle Alexander. Alexander, whose recent book, “The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in an Age of Color Blindness” lacerates not only the justice system, but also Black leaders for not carrying on a vigorous fight to change things.
“Many private and corporate interests benefit from the prison system,” she said. “From the corrections officers to providers of prison health care. Manufacturers of tasers receive lucrative contracts as well as those phone companies who service inmates — charging high rates for family members to talk with them.”
Recently, even ultra conservative politician Newt Gingrich publicly joined hands with the NAACP in calling for criminal justice reform.
“If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane alternatives — especially alternatives that do not involve spending billions more on more prisons — it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners,” Gingrich wrote in a statement read during a recent news conference led by NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous. “Conservatives, such as myself, should not consider criminal justice reform off-limits and I am pleased that our movement has begun to tackle these issues head-on.”
The recent release of the NAACP report, Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate – Under Educate gives a startling sense of just how much the prison system has been costing local municipalities. For example, in Philadelphia, more than $290 million is spent to imprison offenders from just 11 of the city’s neighborhoods. The report shows that while these neighborhoods comprise only one-quarter of the overall population of Philadelphia, they account for half of the $500 million dispensed to imprison criminals sentenced in the city.
“Philadelphia residents also foot two sets of incarceration bills that limit what they can spend on schools: As state taxpayers, residents of Philadelphia pay their portion of Pennsylvania’s $1.6 billion state prison budget, and city residents also pay $218 million to run a local jail,” the report said. “Of the city’s 35 lower performing schools, 23, or 66 percent, are clustered in or very near neighborhoods with the highest rates of incarceration — where the biggest taxpayer investment is being made towards incarceration. By contrast, of Philadelphia’s 28 higher performing schools, 21, or 75 percent are in neighborhoods with the lowest rates of incarceration.”
The report goes on to say that during the last twenty years, as the criminal justice system has grown, and absorbed a greater portion of state funding, spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
“The majority of inmates serving time are in for minor offenses,” Alexander said. “Millions are swept into the system for non-violent offenses that get ignored in white middle class communities. But once you’re swept in, a criminal record follows that person for the rest of their lives. We’ve created an under caste in our society — a population relegated to permanent second-class status. The majority of these people are working-age Black men who have criminal records and we’ve ensured that they continually cycle in and out of the justice system.”
Leon King, attorney and former commissioner of the Philadelphia Prison System said that in Pennsylvania what fuels the disparity is the high rate of recidivism.
“Even during the recession, while education budgets were slashed, funding for prison building increased,” said King. “Recidivism is a huge problem in Pennsylvania — basically what happens to an ex-offender once they’re returned to the community? Will they be able to find a decent job? If they need drug treatment, is that in place? If they have mental health issues — and many of them do — is there long term help on that level? There is more organizing on recidivism than we’ve ever seen, but at the same time the community court has been closed, the gun court has been closed and they’re not expanding the mental health court. Now, if I’m a judge and a defendant comes before me and I see a long list of arrests and incarcerations, my decision is going to probably be to incarcerate this person again — for a longer period of time. We know what the problems are, and we know what the issues are. The question is, are there real, serious plans to address the problems or are we going to just put together another committee or commission and engage in more talk?”
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act — legislation designed to eliminate the gap in sentencing between offenses for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Since far more Black men are in prison for offenses involving crack cocaine, criminal justice reform advocates saw this as a major victory. Even more recently, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy was in Philadelphia meeting with African-American leaders on what changes need to be made in how the federal government approaches, not just the battle against the flow of illegal drugs, but ways to help offenders — dealers and addicts move past the drug culture.
Alexander said it all sounds good, but she doesn’t see any real, evident changes.
“I wish that were the case,” she said. The Obama Administration has changed its rhetoric but not the practices. There’s still a huge gap in the ratio of funding for prevention as opposed to criminal prosecution. Yes, there’s been a change in sentencing policy. But it’s past time to start moving people in the system forward to getting their lives back on track. I think we need to shift more to the public health model because the reality is that these people are locked out of mainstream opportunities. Once you’re locked out, odds are you will return to whatever it was that put you in prison in the first place. We have to provide quality education and quality work opportunities and control joblessness. We reduce joblessness —we remove the spark for crime.”
When NAACP members from Cheltenham, Jenkintown and nearby Northwest Philadelphia gather for their July meeting, the focus will be on voter education in the neighborhoods.
The group welcomes new members to join them as they embark on voter registration drives and education about the new Voter ID laws. The next session will be held at the LaMottCommunity Center, Willow Avenue and Sycamore Street, July 16 at 7:30 p.m.
This was the message of the Cheltenham Area NAACP branch when they held their
recent gala. With the theme “Your Power, Your Decision, Vote” the gala took place at the Flourtown Country Club, 150 McCloskey Road in Flourtown on June 23. Radio One executive and Concerned Black Men member E. Steven Collins, of Laverock, served as the master of ceremonies.
One of the highlights of the program was when musician and composer Brian Michael Evans of West Oak Lane sang a new jingle penned by family therapist and local radio personality Lucille Ijoy of Mount Airy. It focused on getting one’s photo identification and culminated with the words, “I got mine, I got mine, I got mine.” The NAACP audience joined in singing the lyrical tune about voter education for this November’s elections.
“Dr. Ijoy came to me with this song about voter identification,” Evans said. “I put some music to it and here is it is. There are people out here who don’t want us to vote. We have our first African American commander in chief and that’s why there is this movement to erode our right to vote.”
Additionally, four community members were honored for their contributions to civil rights and community service. The Humanitarian Award recipient was longtime State Rep. Lawrence Curry of Jenkintown. While David Poindexter received the Educational Achievement Award, attorney Michael Coard was the Social Justice Award recipient. Additionally, educator Bonnie Johns received the Community Service Award for her volunteer efforts with youth.
There were also four $500 scholarships given to local high school students as a result of an essay competition earlier this year. The winners were Jenkintown High School senior Aury Krebs, Springfield High School senior Calvin Speight, Plymouth Whitemarsh High school student Janelle Marie Grace, and Cheltenham High School graduate Francine Marquis.
“Some say that the NAACP was founded in 1909 so it’s old and irrelevant,” said Harvey L. Crudup, branch president of the local chapter, in his welcome. “We still need to fight discrimination. This is the most respected, most effective civil rights organization in America.”
“One of the things I’ve learned is that you have got to be taught to hate,” Curry said. “There is still more work to be done. It doesn’t stop now. Come together to overcome.”
The local chapter is involved in a Voter ID Registration and Education Campaign. They are supportive of the “Protect Our Vote” initiative and are partnering with the NAACP of Pennsylvania in defending voting rights.
To volunteer for this campaign contact John Jordan at the NAACP of Pennsylvania at (215) 715-5681.
If you’re Black in America, it appears that the country’s most important political strategists, and its most visible political candidates, have already written you off. They’ve decided, somehow, that you no longer matter, that your vote is not worth “courting,” as they try to gather the support they need to win the upcoming Presidential election.
Strategists in both parties don’t bother reaching out to you because you’ve already made it abundantly clear that you don’t have any issues that you, yourself, are willing to fight for. Republican strategists, specifically, don’t try because they believe we put allegiance to the Democratic Party ahead of all else.
In fact, following a recent highly questionable poll, conducted on behalf of BET, the pollster announced that Barack Obama commanded 94 percent of the Black vote, and that Mitt Romney could claim 0 percent. None, not a single digit, nothing.
It didn’t sound plausible. After all, we all know there will always be SOME Black Americans who still relate to the “Party of Lincoln.” There will always be SOME who consider themselves “conservative,” “extreme capitalists,” members of the “religious right,” or just plain “anti-Democrats,” for their own reasons.
At the same time, Democratic strategists haven’t felt the need to address our issues, because they know they can count on us, like clock-work, providing high-80 percent, and low-90 percent support levels to their party, no matter what.
To the Republicans, therefore, we’re seen as a “lost cause;” to the Democrats we’re considered “cooked, packaged, and ready for delivery.” With our track record of voting overwhelmingly Democratic in presidential elections dating all the way back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and our “love and adoration” for Barack Obama, the Democrats, not surprisingly, feel no concern, at all, that we will stray from the “reservation,” on election day.
So where does that leave us with November 6 fast-approaching?
After marching and dying for the right to vote, after the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, after fighting to register every eligible Black voter in our communities, nationwide, we’ve been reduced to mere “bystanders” in our country’s most important election.
There are 42 million Black people in the U.S. and, as of November, 2010, we constituted 12 percent of all the country’s registered voters. That compares to Hispanics, who represented 7 percent of all registered voters, Asians, who represented 2.5 percent of registered voters, and whites who saw their numbers decline by 2.9 percent, to 77.5 percent of registered voters, by the same date.
When you consider the fact that one out of every eight registered voters in this country is a Black person, it's difficult to accept the fact that both parties, both major candidates, have gone out of their way to exclude us from the national political conversation.
Black unemployment has remained consistently at a level that is about twice as high as white unemployment. In fact, the government recently reported that, as of the end of September, Black unemployment stood at 13.4 percent, while white unemployment was 7.0 percent (Hispanic unemployment, by the way, was announced at 9.9 percent).
Somehow, for some reason, Black folks in this country continue to catch way more hell in the job market than everybody else.
Do we care? Are we holding anybody accountable for that? Do we want that pattern to be turned around by whoever wins on November 6?
If that’s what we want, we certainly haven’t said so. Maybe we’re beginning to believe that it’s normal and appropriate for Black people to be twice as unemployed as whites, more unemployed than Hispanics, and almost three times more unemployed than Asians (4.8 percent).
Maybe what Black folks used to say about themselves, in the South, years ago, is still true: “We’ve been down so long, getting up don’t even cross our minds.”
How about the disproportionately negative impact of high-rate subprime mortgage loans and home foreclosures on the Black community? The Center for Responsible Lending has disclosed that about 11 percent of Black homeowners are in “some state of foreclosure, “ and that more than one million Black families will lose their homes in the year 2012.
The Washington Post has reported that those foreclosure rates would damage the credit scores of future generations of Blacks — permanently.
In addition, due largely to a combination of discriminatory lending practices, and Blacks often being “first-fired” in corporate layoffs, Black home ownership has dropped from 50 percent, six years ago, to 44.8 percent, in 2011. That compares to a 74.1 percent home ownership rate for white Americans.
Who should be held accountable for not interceding with financial institutions and large corporations on our behalf, in these situations? Maybe it should be the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, Mitt Romney and the beloved President Barack Obama. None of them seems to be interested in the job.
Also, schools in Black communities are the most underfunded and the worst-performing in the country, so, as bad as things are now, our futures most likely will be even worse.
How else have candidates demonstrated their complete disregard and disdain for Black voters? Among other things, they leave your communities out of their budgets, and they don’t visit your neighborhoods, when it’s time to make a political speech.
Hey, judging by the content at the last, sorry “presidential debate,” both candidates also seemed to go out of their way to avoid even saying the words "Black," "African American," "West Indian," or "African." Even when the esteemed Mr. Obama talked about his family on Wednesday, he was very careful only to mention the respect and admiration he holds for his grandmother and grandfather, who came from Kansas, while saying not a single word about his grandmother or grandfather from Kenya.
That didn't seem to matter to us.
We were, apparently, too focused on whether the "Republican who ignores us" or the “Democrat who ignores us" put on the best show, during the debate.
There was no outcry about the absence of our issues from the two candidates’ talking points, from any of our so-called Black leaders.
Even worse, since the campaign began, we have been able to identify no senior-level campaign operatives in either the Romney campaign or the Obama campaign. With Black folks having already declared their undying allegiance to Barack Obama and his re-election, we shouldn’t have been shocked by such a situation among the members of the Republican candidate’s brain trust.
But, Team Obama, despite its assumption that Black voters have nowhere else to go, could have benefitted significantly from input at the senior level that might have helped to keep 14 million potential Black voters energized and turned out, on Election Day.
Perhaps we should have gotten a clue when the president opted not to attend the NAACP National Convention, or when he failed to attend the Black Caucus Gala, just last month, or when he joined Romney in declining an invitation from the National Newspaper Publishers Association to engage in a public discussion of Black issues.
After the debate, Team Obama immediately began to circulate among other excuses, the notion that the President’s dispassionate, unfocused and losing performance was based on his concern about being perceived as an “angry Black man."
Hey, there’s a time and a place for everything — including justifiable anger.
What the African-American community needs; in fact, what America needs, is a new generation of intelligent, courageous, issues-focused, “angry Black men and women” to go along with the “angry Hispanics,” “angry Jewish people,” “angry gays," “angry Asians,” and "angry whites” that we already have as part of our national political process.
Until we, in the Black community, identify such people, and put them to work for us, we’ll most certainly continue to be "political bystanders" in our own county’s most important elections.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.
Publicly and privately, most Republican strategists tout the party line on Voter ID. Publicly, it’s on principle, they say, with legions of conservative think tankers, fellows and analysts providing “reams” of data and evidence on hints and instances of “voter fraud.”
“The fraud denialists also must have missed the recent news coverage of the double voters in North Carolina and the fraudster in Tunica County, Miss., — a member of the NAACP’s local executive committee — who was sentenced in April to five years in prison for voting in the names of ten voters, including four who were deceased,” said Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky. “And the story of the former deputy chief of staff for Washington mayor Vincent Gray, who was forced to resign after news broke that she had voted illegally in the District of Columbia, even though she was a Maryland resident.”
Still, opponents of Voter ID, a legal measure that has hit the political landscape in a wave of state legislative maneuvers and referenda, dismiss such talk as delusional and lacking on pure numbers. Whether or not GOP-fueled fears and gossip are true, it doesn’t change the fact that one of the most obscure legal battles in recent American history is actually turning into one of the most knuckle-up and personal fist fights of the 2012 election season.
Which is the point, argues one prominent white Republican consultant who refuses attribution due to close business and political ties within the African-American community. “This is about winning. Pure and simple,” says the source in a conversation with the Philadelphia Tribune. “This is, not really, about race or anything doing with racism like a lot of people on the left are claiming. I know it might look like that, but I think that a lot of people are really underestimating what lengths Republicans will go to just to win a race. And if that means disenfranchising a few people along the way, then that’s just the way it is.”
That the source insisted on anonymity speaks to the sensitive nature of the topic. The moral optics of the fight clearly do not favor Republicans, especially the voting blocs of state legislators who keep putting the measures in place in an effort to eliminate shenanigans at the polls. Nine states, mostly clustered in the South, require some form of legitimate identification to vote; more than two dozen states — including Pennsylvania — have some sort of Voter ID law in the proposed legislative pipeline. Key political battleground states like Ohio and Florida (known to turn the tide of an election) have “repressive election legislation” according to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, which shows it all on a big, colorful interactive map on its website.
Many of the laws are passed in states with large African-American populations – the same population that provided Democrats with enough bounce in 2008 to catapult Barack Obama into the White House.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) President Ben Jealous, thinks they’re more angry about the color of the man in the White House than they are about his politics. “You’re talking about the oldest and most successful head game in the realm of racist politics,” argues Jealous, who rattles off a chronology of key moments in history where the Black vote has been suppressed. Jealous eagerly gives the rundown, arguing that throughout this country’s history, there’s a direct correlation between major moments of progress for African Americans and the subsequently bad aftertaste of racist response. “You have to do the investigation and look back years ago. Voting bans today are identical to voting bans of years ago.”
To Jealous, it’s an all out assault, driven in part by the Obama’s win in 2008. Since then, he said, “more bills have been pushed through to limit ballot access than in any other time in U.S. history. When our democracy expands, people who object to the direction of it are going to find creative ways to suppress it.”
“The urgency is on state-sponsored voter suppression. These are laws that require multiple forms of Voter ID and there are, in many instances, thousands of older Black folks who don’t have the ID.”
The impression, based on Jealous’ observations and the standing consensus of many prominent Black political leaders and civil rights icons, is that Voter ID is the Battle of the Bulge. It’s an African American Alamo, the last big political stand of 2012 that requires just as much sweat, vocal push and blood – if need be – as the 1960s civil rights mass movements. There are two problems however.
On one hand, there’s a growing internal discussion within the Black political community that shows some cracks in that consensus. Some Black Republicans, many privately out of fear of public humiliation at the barbershops and churches, take their party’s line on the issue, claiming that it’s an embarrassment that Black leaders would actually admit that large numbers of Black folks don’t have one of the most common pieces of personal baggage in existence: their ID.
Consultant and strategist Raynard Jackson, however, is a bit more brazen and open about it. “To my knowledge, I have never heard anyone claim they were discriminated against if they were not allowed to fly or enter a government building because they didn’t have an I.D.,” blasts Jackson, who feels the “21st century poll tax” argument is overblown. “To the contrary, people know the rules in advance, so therefore they comply.”
“I don’t know anyone — young or old, Black or white — who doesn’t have any form of government sanctioned I.D.”
Former U.S. Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL), who is Black, won’t take Jackson’s side on that argument, but he has stunned Black politicos and civil rights types with his persistent charge on behalf of his home state’s Voter ID law – considered by the Lawyer’s Committee and other organizations as one of the most egregious in the South. “I was certainly critical of the Georgia Voter ID law,” Davis’ backtracks a little. “[But] I’ve looked at the issue and what Alabama has done over the past several months. Any Voter ID should make an exception for different circumstances and make identification available free of charge.”
Davis, a former member of the Congressional Black Caucus up until he suffered a stinging defeat in a gubernatorial primary in 2010, shifts uncomfortably these days at the accusation that he’s “sold out.” The tone in his voice gets considerably sharper when pitching Alabama’s voter ID law further, at some points pivoting. “There is a group of individuals out there who don’t have a driver’s license. Those individuals should have a chance to get identification, so they have the opportunity to vote. I don’t think a fair Voter ID law is going to disenfranchise any group of people.”
But, beyond the sparring and philosophical open-mic battles, the other problem deals with awareness.
It’s just not that sexy an issue.
Conduct an informal survey of average Black folks working to make ends meet in, say, North Philadelphia or Southeast D.C. on Voter ID, and chances are they’ll stare at you in befuddlement.
Ask those under the age of 25 and younger about it, and you’re likely to get more information on Nicki Minaj’s latest tattoo.
It’s a challenge Jealous is aware of. After speaking fluidly and almost non-stop for nearly 20 minutes on the topic, he’s reached a pause on that question. Still, he doesn’t sound frustrated. He just regains footing and boasts the confidence an NAACP president is supposed to have.
“The NAACP can always get as much attention as TMZ. You look at the Troy Davis situation where it was one of the most visible events in 2011,” says Jealous.
“We must make the conflict visible. And we are working state by state and nationally to make that happen. You finally start getting conversations on street corners and in barbershops. They have to understand that their right to vote is under attack.”
During an angry and vocal rally held outside of the Municipal Services Building Thursday morning, members of the NAACP, several union representatives, clergy, state and city legislators took turns commenting on the Pennsylvania Voter ID law.
The rally, which was hosted by the NAACP, took place before the state Supreme Court heard testimony regarding the controversial law that has been the target of opposition since Republican Governor Tom Corbett signed off on it. Opponents of the law have said it was not designed to prevent voter fraud but to disenfranchise voters who most likely will cast their ballot for Pres. Barack Obama in the upcoming election.
“This law is nothing less than a criminal offense against democracy,” said Philadelphia NAACP President J. Whyatt Mondesire. “We’re out here to let the government know that this voter identification law is wrong and based on a lie. We have not stopped fighting to turn this thing around. Despite attempts to use voter ID as a way to block the vote, we will make sure that people vote. Today, we use the voice that the NAACP has been fighting to protect for over a century.”
Referencing deceased civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Harry T. Moore, who were murdered while working to register African Americans to vote, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said the law amounts to a modern poll tax.
“This year, in this country, we have seen more states pass laws to push voters off the polls than in the past 100 years,” Jealous said. “Turning the tide, we have won in Texas and we have even won in the Republican states of Michigan and Virginia, but we find ourselves here challenging the law again. We won in Wisconsin and Minnesota and yet here we are, in the cradle of our democracy, fighting to keep the right to vote. This is not a Republican thing or a Democratic thing. It is an extremist thing. All of us should have the right to vote.”
According to a legal brief filed by the city , City Commissioners Stephanie Singer and Anthony Clark, and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the Voter ID law would place unconstitutional burdens on more than 100,000 voters in the city. At least 186,000 registered voters in Philadelphia have no form of PennDOT identification. At least 175,000 registered voters have expired PennDOT identification. The brief goes on to state that approximately 361,000 of the city's 1,100,000 registered voters may not have sufficient identification to cast their votes on Election Day.
Opponents of the law say that despite virtually no evidence of voter fraud — the problem that the law was supposed to prevent — voter ID is necessary to protect the integrity of the ballot. During hearings in March, before Corbett signed the law, attorneys for the Commonwealth could provide no instances of voter impersonation fraud. Following the passage of the measure into law, the U.S. Department of Justice requested information to determine Pennsylvania’s compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That section prohibits voting procedures or practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership or membership in a language minority. That information request was subsequently refused by James Schultz, general counsel for the Corbett administration. In a letter responding to the DOJ request, Schultz said the federal government had no authority to either request or compel the Commonwealth for that information.
“The question is why you really had to change the law?” asked the Rev. Dr. Kevin, R. Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, during the rally. “Did you change the law because you knew that people lack photo ID in poor black and brown communities?
“We have to vote because people died for out right to vote. We have to vote because Medgar Evers died for us. We have to vote because hundreds of thousands marched for us.”
HOUSTON — The head of the NAACP on Monday likened the group’s fight against conservative-backed voter ID laws that have been passed in several states to the great civil rights battles of the 1960s.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, the CEO and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said these are “Selma and Montgomery times,” referring to historic Alabama civil rights confrontations. He challenged those attending the NAACP’s annual convention to redouble their efforts to get out the vote in November.
“We must overwhelm the rising tide of voting suppression with the high tide of registration and mobilization and motivation and protection,” he said.
“Simply put, the NAACP will never stand by as any state tries to encode discrimination into law,” Jealous said.
The power to vote will be a key theme of the weeklong 103rd convention, which was expected to host about 8,000 attendees. An appearance by Attorney General Eric Holder was postponed from Monday until Tuesday, and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Vice President Joe Biden were also expected to speak at some point.
Since 2010, at least 10 states, including Texas, have passed laws requiring people to show a government-issued photo identification card when they go to the polls.
Supporters of voter ID laws, including many conservative Republicans, contend they are necessary to protect against voter fraud. But opponents say instances of such voter fraud are extremely rare and that voter ID laws could suppress turnout among the elderly, poor and some racial minorities who are less likely to have driver’s licenses or passports and who might find it harder to miss work or lose pay to obtain proper ID.
George R. Brown Convention Center was only about half-full for Jealous’ hour-long speech, but by the end he had much of the crowd standing and shouting, “Forward ever, backward never!”
“Our democracy is literally under attack from within. We have wealthy interests seeking to buy elections and when that ain’t enough, suppress the vote,” Jealous said. “There is no battle that is more important or urgent to the NAACP right now than the battle to preserve democracy itself. Let me be very clear, our right to vote is the right upon which our ability to defend every other right is leveraged.”
He cited the group’s 103 years in existence as proof it wouldn’t cede ground on voting rights.
“If you let someone diminish the power of your vote you will already have lost a battle.”
Jealous said with 120 days remaining before the November elections, his organization’s members could allow the election to be stolen from them “or we can double down on democracy and overcome the tide of voter suppression.”
“If we simply accept things as they are and allow those who wish to turn back the clocks and tides of all that we have gained, and block the forward movement of our movement for human rights ... we will have failed in our mission and our calling,” he said. — (AP)