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George Curry

Focus on Poverty, not the Middle Class

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(NNPA) Several of us were sharing our views on radio Sunday night with Gary Byrd when my friend and colleague Cash Michaels urged us to remember that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while organizing poor people.

This is a good time to remember that as President Obama seeks ways to strengthen the middle class and civil rights leaders focus on celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington.

The idea of organizing a Poor People’s Campaign was discussed during a Nov. 27-31, 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planning session in Frogmore, S.C. With the nation’s attention focused on the Vietnam War, Dr. King wanted to redirect the conversation to what the Bible calls the least among us by focusing on jobs and income.

Dr. King’s idea was to bring poor people from all over the country to Washington, D.C. in order to put a face on the suffering of people. While still firmly committed to nonviolence, his plan was for a dramatic presence that would disrupt traffic and shut down the nation’s capital.

“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the streets and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way,’” King said. “And we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.”

Just as his close advisers had urged him not to give his “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963, variations of which they had heard earlier, most of Dr. King’s inner circle disagreed with his decision to embark on a Poor People’s Campaign.

Children activists and former civil rights attorney Marian Wright Edelman recalled in her book, Unfinished Business, “William Rutherford, who had organized the Friends of SCLC in Europe in 1966 and was appointed executive director of SCLC during the summer of 1967, declared that, ‘basically almost no one on the staff thought that the next priority, the next major movement, should be focused on poor people or the question of poverty in America.’ At the time James Bevel wanted to remain focused on combating slums in northern cities, Hosea Williams promoted voter registration campaigns in the South, Jesse Jackson wanted to continue to develop Operation Breadbasket, and Andrew Young worried that SCLC’s budget of under a million dollars necessitated smaller campaigns in the South.”

But Dr. King forged ahead, calling for $30 billion to be spent on anti-poverty measures, employment and housing construction. King was helping organize garbage workers in Memphis when he was assassinated. Ralph D. Abernathy, his successor and close friend, continued with plans for the Poor People’s Campaign.

Instead of the militant protest Dr. King had envisioned, however, the highlight of the Poor People’s March to Washington was not shutting down the capital, but the erection of Resurrection City, a collection of tents pitched in D.C. Various executive agencies were lobbied on behalf of the poor and leaders called for an Economic Bill of Rights. The shantytown was disbanded after six weeks.

In the view of many observers, Dr. King posed a greater threat to the power structure when he began organizing poor Blacks and Whites. But there is an even better opportunity to unite poor people today because so many Whites have become impoverished as a result of a recession and high unemployment.

Poverty is officially defined as a family of four living off of $23,021 or less a year. Today, a record 46.2 million people –15 percent of the U.S. population – are considered poor. The Associated Press reported:

For the first time since 1975, the number of White single-mother households living in poverty with children has surpassed or equaled Black ones in the past decade. Since 2000, the poverty rate among working-class Whites has grown faster than among working-class non-Whites, rising 3 percentage points to 11 percent.

Still, poverty among working-class non-Whites remains about double that of Whites.

Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, believes Dr. King was on to something when he sought to unite poor people across racial lines.

“Poverty is no longer an issue of ‘them,’ it’s an issue of ‘us.’ he told the Associated Press. “Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects Blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need.”

This is no time to keep Dr. King frozen in the memory of the 1963 March on Washington or his “I Have a Dream” speech while neglecting his true calling to eradicate poverty five years later. As he said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

Finally, the Barack Obama I Voted For

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(NNPA) For more than four years, I have said that I liked candidate Barack Obama better than I like President Obama. Candidate Obama addressed the question of race head-on when pressured to distance himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago pastor who led him to Christianity. But President Obama has been a different story.

According to research conducted by Daniel Q. Gillion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, in Obama’s first two years in office, the nation’s first Black president made fewer speeches and offered fewer executive policies on race than any Democratic president since 1961.

Frederick C. Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, noted that Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor.

In the words of scholar Michael Eric Dyson, “This president runs from race like a Black man runs from a cop.”

Obama’s first comment on Trayvon Martin was that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. But he didn’t say what he would do to make sure Black male teenagers are not treated the way Trayvon was treated by George Zimmerman.

Obama’s first words in the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal were predictably insipid.

In his written statement, Obama said: “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”

To quote another president, I thought, “Well, there he goes again.”

But last Friday, candidate Barack Obama and President Barack Obama finally became one. He spoke with passion, without the aid of a TelePrompTer or notes, about what it’s really like to be a Black man in America.

“There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me,” he told reporters in the White House briefing room. “There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”

He explained, “And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws – everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”

While being candid about how Whites generally treat Blacks, President Obama was equally frank when he said a Black person faces a greater likelihood of being killed by another African-African than by a White person.

“I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a White male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”

The president demonstrated real courage by addressing race in America without being forced to as was the case with Rev. Wright. Moreover, he challenged us not to let the last chapter of Tayvon’s life be marked a misguided not guilty verdict.

“And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed – I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation.”

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

Criminal Injustice System Failed Trayvon

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(NNPA) Watching television Saturday night, I sat in stunned silence as the jury returned its not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in connection with the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Then, I was jolted by a comment made by Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda: “… We live in a great country that has a great criminal justice system. It is not perfect but it is the best in the world and we respect the jury’s verdict.”

In what country does de la Rionda live? Surely, he couldn’t be referring to the United States. Granted, making the prosecutor prove his or her case against a defendant is a great idea. So is the notion of being presumed innocent until proven guilty. But when it comes to African Americans, this is by no stretch of the imagination “a great criminal justice system.”

I don’t say this out of any bitterness over the failure of the jurors to convict Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin. Yes, I thought Zimmerman was guilty of murder or, at the least, manslaughter. But as much as it pains me, I must also acknowledge that the state of Florida did a poor job prosecuting Zimmerman.

Trayvon’s death is a cold reminder that the Black homicide rate is more than six times that of Whites. According to 2010 FBI statistics analyzed by the Violence Policy Center, the homicide rate for Black victims was 16.32 per 100,000, compared to a rate of 2.66 per 100,000 for Whites.

For Black women, the rate was 4.28 per 100,000, compared to 1.48 per 100,000 for White females. And African-American men were homicide victims at a rate of 29.50 per 100,000, compared to 7.08 per 100,000 for White males.

“America faces a continuing epidemic of homicide among young black males,” according to the introduction to a Violence Policy Center report titled, “Black Homicide in the United States: An Analysis of 2010 Homicide Data.” The report, published in January, continued, “The devastation homicide inflicts on black teens and adults is a national crisis, yet it is all too often ignored outside of affected communities.”

And what happens when criminal cases move through America’s “great criminal justice system?”

Richard Pryor used to joke that criminal justice in the U.S. means “just us.” Although the comedian usually evoked a laugh – unlike Zimmerman lawyer’s knock-knock joke – this is no laughing matter.

American Progress, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, collected some interesting statistics and published an article titled, “The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States.”

Among the facts:

 

  • People of color make up about 30 percent of the U.S. population, but 60 percent of those imprisoned.
  • Once convicted, Black offenders receive sentences that 10 percent longer than White offenders for the same crimes. In addition, Blacks are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than White defendants and 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison.
  • Although African-Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users, they are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. Although Black juveniles are approximately 16 percent of the youth population, 37 percent of their cases are moved to criminal court and 58 percent of African-American youth are sent to adult prisons.
  • Blacks are twice as likely to be arrested during a traffic stop than Whites and four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with police.

 

News coverage and commentary on the Zimmerman trail demonstrated the toxic state of race relations in the U.S., despite having a Black president in the White House.

Geraldo Rivera said on Fox News Friday, “I see those six ladies in the jury putting themselves on that rainy night, in that housing complex that has just been burglarized by three or four different groups of black youngsters from the adjacent community. So it’s a dark night, a 6-foot-2-inch hoodie-wearing stranger is in the immediate housing complex. How would the ladies of that jury have reacted? I submit that if they were armed, they would have shot Trayvon Martin a lot sooner than George Zimmerman did. This is self-defense.”

This is the same Geraldo Rivera who said last March, “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman.”

Fox News even invited Mark Furman, the former detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, to discuss the role of race in jury selection for Zimmerman’s trial. Lawyers for O.J. Simpson presented evidence that Furman had used the n-word more than 40 times over a 10-year period. Yet, Furman, who pled no contest to perjury charges and sentenced to three years of probation, appeared on Fox News’ “America Live” to talk about race.

When Zimmerman earlier selected Fox News as the only network he would grant an interview to, he was right at home.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is Becoming the New Thurgood Marshall

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(NNPA) If you’re looking for the justice on the Supreme Court who mirrors Thurgood Marshall’s tenure on the bench, it is not Sonia Sotomayor, the “Wise Latina.” And it certainly isn’t Clarence Thomas. It is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the nation’s highest court.

This became clear in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case. With Elena Kagan recusing herself, the court voted 7-1 to send the case back to court of appeals for additional review. The lone dissenter was Ginsburg.

“The University of Texas at Austin (University) … has steered clear of a quota system like the one struck down in Bakke, which excluded all nonminority candidates from competition for a fixed number of seats….” she said. “ Justice Powell’s majority opinion in Bakke “rules out a racial quota or set-aside, in which race is the sole fact of eligibility for certain places in a class.’ And, like so many educational institutions across the Nation, the University has taken care to follow the model approved by the Court in Grutter v. Bollinger.”

In sending Fisher back to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, the 7-1 majority emphasized that the lower court should apply a standard of strict scrutiny, meaning the University must prove that it has tried all available race-neutral approaches before allowing race to be considered a factor in admissions.

Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, “I have said before and reiterate here that only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious.”

Continuing to address the issue of race directly, Ginsburg said, “I have several times explained why government actors, including state universities, need not be blind to the lingering effects of ‘an overtly discriminatory past,’ the legacy of ‘centuries of law-sanctioned inequality.’ Among constitutionally permissible options, I remain convinced, ‘those that candidly disclose their consideration of race [are] preferable to those that conceal it.’”

In Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act challenge, Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Stephen G. Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. The conservative majority struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, effectively gutting one of the nation’s most effective tools to curb discrimination against Black voters.

“In the Court’s view, the very success of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act demands its dormancy,” Ginsburg said. “Congress was of another mind. Recognizing that large progress has been made, Congress determined, based on a voluminous record, that the scourge of discrimination was not yet extirpated.”

She explained, “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) has worked to combat voting discrimination where other remedies had been tried and failed. Particularly effective is the VRA’s requirement of federal preclearance for all changes to voting laws in the regions of the country with the most aggravated records of rank discrimination against minority voting rights.”

Quoting a 1966 decision in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, Ginsburg said, “A century after the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guaranteed citizens the right to vote free of discrimination on the basis of race, the ‘blight of racial discrimination in voting’ continued to “infec[t] the electoral process in parts of our country.”

The Voting Rights Act directly addressed that infection, Ginsburg stated.

“Although the VRA wrought dramatic changes in the realization of minority voting rights, the Act, to date, surely has not eliminated all vestiges of discrimination against the exercise of the franchise by minority citizens,” she said. “Jurisdictions covered by the preclearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to approve, auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the preclearance remedy eliminated.”

Ginsburg noted, “After considering the full legislative record, Congress made the following findings: The VRA has directly caused significant progress in eliminating first-generation barriers to ballot access, leading to a marked increase in minority voter registration and turnout and the number of minority elected officials. But despite this progress, “second generation barriers constructed to prevent minority voters from fully participating in the electoral process” continued to exist, as well as racially polarized voting in the covered jurisdictions, which increased the political vulnerability of racial and language minorities in those jurisdictions.”

She noted that Congress, not the judiciary, should have the final say on voting matters.

“The Constitution uses the words ‘right to vote’ in five separate places: the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments. Each of these Amendments contains the same broad empowerment of Congress to enact ‘appropriate legislation’ to enforce the protected right. The implication is unmistakable: Under our constitutional structure, Congress holds the lead rein in making the right to vote equally real for all U. S. citizens. These Amendments are in line with the special role assigned to Congress in protecting the integrity of the democratic process in federal elections.”

That’s language that would make Thurgood Marshall proud.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

Affirmative Action Polls Show Deep Racial Gulf

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(NNPA) In the months leading up to this week’s Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, a public opinion poll by ABC News and the Washington Post showed that 76 percent of Americans oppose affirmative action in college admissions. However, a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 68 percent of Americans favor the principles behind affirmative action.

How do Americans really feel about affirmative action? The short answer is that it depends on how the question is asked.

The ABC/Washington Post question, asked June 5-9, was posed this way: “Overall, do you support or oppose allowing universities to consider applicants’ race as a factor in deciding which students to admit?”

Of those responding, 76 percent opposed, 22 percent voiced support and 2 percent were undecided.

Public Religion Research Institute, which conducted a poll May 15-19, phrased its question differently: “In order to make up for past discrimination, do you favor or oppose programs which make special efforts to help blacks and other minorities get ahead?”

More than two-thirds of the respondents – 68 percent – favored such efforts, 24 percent opposed, 6 percent were unsure and 2 percent provided other replies.

Note the wording of the questions. The ABC/Washington Post question provided no context for evaluating affirmative action admissions, only whether respondents support or oppose using race as a factor. On the other hand, the Public Religion Research Institute approach placed the issue within the context of “past discrimination” and using “special efforts” to help people of color get ahead.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted May 30-June 2, showed Americans evenly divided on the issue.

Respondents were asked to choose between two statements: A) Affirmative action programs are still needed to counteract the effects of discrimination against minorities, and are a good idea as long as there are no rigid quotas and B) Affirmative action programs have gone too far in favoring minorities, and should be ended because they unfairly discriminate against whites.

In that poll, 45 percent of the respondents said affirmative action programs are still needed to counteract the effects of discrimination against people of color. But the same margin – 45 percent – said they feel the programs have gone too far and should be ended because they unfairly discriminate against Whites.

A closer examination of the numbers show a deep racial divide. For example, 71 percent of African Americans strongly believe affirmative action programs are still needed, compared to only 20 percent of Whites and 39 percent of Hispanics. Another 11 percent of Blacks feel affirmative action should continue, but did not feel as strongly about it. Among Hispanics, 29 percent were in that category and 14 percent of Whites.

When supporters – strong and not as strong – are added together, 82 percent of African Americans want to retain affirmative action, compared to 68 percent of Hispanics and 34 percent of Whites.

When you add the two categories of those wanting to abolish affirmative action, a majority of Whites – 56 percent – support such a move, compared to 7 percent of African Americans and 24 percent of Hispanics.

A CNN/ORC poll, conducted June 11-13, asked the question: Do you approve or disapprove of affirmative action programs at college and law schools that give racial preferences to minority applicants?

The reference to “racial preferences” is a loaded term unlikely to elicit a favorable response. In this case, 68 percent of respondents said they disapprove of affirmative action as it was defined, 29 percent approved and 3 percent expressed no opinion.

Affirmative action should be viewed in light of overall racial attitudes in America.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, people of color and Whites have closely aligned views on whether Dr. King’s dream of equality has been fulfilled.

In the CNN/ORC poll conducted Jan. 14-15, respondents were asked: “Martin Luther King gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ at a civil rights march in Washington in 1963. In your view, do you think the U.S. has fulfilled the vision King outlined in that speech, or don’t you think so?”

According to the poll, 51 percent of Whites in the U.S. believe Dr. King’s vision has been fulfilled; 49 percent of non-Whites subscribe to that view. Unfortunately, the poll does not separate the Black responses.

In an Aug. 4-7, 2011 USA/Gallup Poll, 55 percent of Black respondents said they believe relations between Blacks and Whites will always be a problem, compared to 44 percent for Whites, with 2 percent unsure.

That same poll showed how differently Blacks and Whites view the proper role of government.

When asked about the role government should play in trying to improve the social and economic position of Blacks and other people of color, 59 percent of Blacks said the government should play a major role, 32 percent said a minor role, 8 percent said no role and 1 percent was unsure. Among Whites, only 19 percent said the government should play a major role, 50 percent said a minor role, 30 percent said no role and 1 percent was unsure.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

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