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Putting the IRS 'Scandal' into Perspective

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(NNPA) Like too many events since the beginning of the Obama presidency, various attacks on the administration by the Republicans end up being about less than what they at first seemed, though the hoopla that accompanies the initial charges is frequently deafening. Think about the attack on ACORN through a disingenuously edited video tape or the later attack on Shirley Sherrod, selectively using words from a speech of hers in order to convey a message that was not hers at all. The IRS “scandal” is another case in point.

The first bits of information to which we were exposed were aimed at leading us to believe that the IRS was attacking conservative groups. President Obama acted with outrage saying that such an alleged attack was inexcusable. But then, as each day has passed, additional information rises to the surface and the “scandal” becomes a bit more complicated. First and foremost, it now appears that the IRS did not target conservative groups alone. In fact, the conservative/Tea Party groups that were under scrutiny were only one third of the groups that were being challenged.

Other groups that were exposed to the same sorts of challenges included liberal and progressive organizations as well as a few organizations that were, apparently, not political at all. To the extent to which the conservative groups were being observed at all, it probably can be directly connected to the sudden rise of the Tea Party formations and their obvious political agenda.

While there are serious questions that need to be asked of the IRS regarding their methodology, there appears to be little evidence of the sort of anti-conservative witch-hunt that right-wing pundits suggest is underway. Those ultra-conservatives who are attempting to make the IRS “scandal” out to be something akin to Watergate have actually lost touch with both history and reality.

What may be more important in the midst of this “scandal” is the hypocrisy of those Republicans who are sounding the fire alarm. The NAACP’s former Board Chairman, Julian Bond, made this precise point. It was only a few years ago—under the George W. Bush administration—that the NAACP found itself under the gun with the IRS. Yet where were these Republican lovers of freedom? I remember very little coming from their side of the aisle protesting what was clearly a blatant political move by a Republican administration.

Let us not stop there. Various instruments of the US government that are supposed to exist for non-political purposes have at various times been used—under Republican and Democratic administrations—in order to suppress or discourage dissent. Worse, there have been institutions explicitly created in order to eliminate dissent entirely. One case in point of the latter is the infamous program of the FBI known as COINTELPRO (the Counter Intelligence Program). COINTELPRO was used in the 1960s and early 1970s as a means to infiltrate and disrupt social justice and social protest movement across the board, including but not limited to the Black Freedom Movement. The Republican Party was not at the lead in criticizing such programs.

This is all to say that before anyone jumps to conclusions, certainly in the midst of the IRS “scandal,” it is worth doing a bit more investigating. President Obama should do likewise. I appreciate his interest in demonstrating his fairness, but it is also worth his pointing out, in no uncertain terms, when and where the Republicans are manufacturing crises—whether with respect to the IRS or the budget deficit—in order to advance their own regressive agenda.

Just a thought.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.

Homeowner Bills of Rights Emerge as Remedies to Foreclosure

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(NNPA) A few days ago, HUD released data showing that more 620,000 troubled homeowners received more than $50 billion in principal reductions and savings. These actions were the direct result of the National Mortgage Settlement, negotiated by America’s largest banks, state Attorneys General, and the Obama administration. Despite this success, the Congressional Budget Office recently reported that 13.2 million mortgages remain underwater, which is defined as owing more than the homes are now worth.

Earlier this year, the Center for Responsible Lending and its ally Consumers Union jointly offered state policy remedies known as Homeowner Bills of Rights (HBORs) that would protect homeowners, further reduce foreclosures and stabilize local housing markets. Key to these state initiatives is that homeowners gain a private right of action and the right to halt a foreclosure sale when a servicer breaks the law. The foreclosure cannot proceed until the servicer complies with the law. Other HBOR recommendations called for lawmakers to:

  • Ban ‘dual-tracking,’ the practice by mortgage servicers of pursuing foreclosures while at the same time processing a request for a loan modification;
  • Require lenders to establish straightforward timelines, clear procedures for homeowner outreach, detailed denial notices and an affidavit detailing the homeowner’s rights to appeal; and
  • Require lenders to engage in loss mitigation activities to prevent avoidable foreclosures.

For communities of color, where the economic recovery has yet to be felt, HBORs are particularly important because of well-documented disparities in foreclosures. For example, Black Floridians risk of imminent foreclosures is doubled that projected for the entire state.

Earlier research by the Center for Responsible Lending found that more than half (52 percent) of the lost wealth resulting from living in close proximity to foreclosures was borne by minority census tract homeowners. In the District of Columbia and seven states –California, Florida, Illinois, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey and New York – an even greater share of lost wealth occurred in minority communities.

Additionally, African-Americans remain at a higher imminent risk of more foreclosures in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois.

Several states have worked to advance HBOR reforms, including California, Minnesota and Nevada. California, the first state to enact an HBOR, took effect in January with a private right of action and rules for servicers foreclosing. In cases where the homeowners prevailed in legal disputes, the lender may become responsible for attorney fees and court costs.

Already, a California court recently ruled in favor of a state homeowner. A preliminary injunction halted foreclosure proceedings in the case of Singh v. Bank of America where the lender dual-tracked the homeowner.

In Minnesota, where there were three times more foreclosures in 2012 than in 2005, their HBOR gives borrowers a private right of action to stop a wrongful foreclosure sale. Through a bipartisan effort, the state’s House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill. With a companion version having already passed in the state’s Senate, Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to soon sign the measure into law.

In Nevada, a bill similar to that of California, aims to codify a single-point-of-contact with servicers, require civil penalties for banks that violate default procedures, and give borrowers a private right of action. The bill unanimously passed the state’s Senate and now awaits a vote in the Nevada Assembly.

Hopefully more states will embrace the emergence of HBORs. In a recent blog, Tracy Van Slyke, director of the New Bottom Line, summed up the status of economic recovery: “This work is not just about righting past wrongs. It’s also about the future of our retirement, our kids’ lives, and the kind of communities we want to live in and about our country’s economic future.”

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

Discrimination against the Unemployed

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(NNPA) It will strike many of you as counter-intuitive, but there has been a rising phenomenon of unemployed workers suffering discrimination when they have sought work because…they have been unemployed. This is not an exaggeration. In fact, the situation is so serious that the City Council of New York passed an order prohibiting discrimination against the unemployed, an order that was vetoed by the mayor, but was then overridden by the Council.

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, the problem of discrimination against the unemployed has been gaining attention. It was so odd that few people actually took it seriously. After all, an unemployed person looking for work is what one would expect, right?

What has happened is something that is quite common within our economic system–capitalism. When there is an economic downturn, the labor market gets flooded with people who are looking for work. In that situation, employers often have the upper hand and start to cherry-pick from that available pool of workers. Instead of treating someone who has been out of work for a long time but has been seeking work as a committed and diligent worker, many employers treat them with suspicion, acting as if there was something wrong with the worker that kept them out of work. Instead of appreciating that there have been and are millions of workers who have been displaced, either due to temporary downturns or, as has been the case with many Black workers, as a result of structural changes in the economy, too many employers are prepared to write off the long-term unemployed as nonredeemable.

Most employers will not acknowledge that they are biased against the long-term unemployed when they deny someone a job. Instead, the job-seeker may not get an interview or may be politely dismissed. If you add onto that other factors, such as age, race, and gender, a long-term unemployed person can find themselves moved into the category of the permanently unemployed, with little chance of getting work.

Younger workers face the challenge of discrimination for being unemployed, but it plays itself out differently. A younger worker who has been the victim of long-term unemployment is frequently viewed as not serious and not willing to make sacrifices. I had a discussion with a wealthy businessman some time ago who was bemoaning what he saw as too many younger workers taking advantage of unemployment insurance in order to avoid starting at the bottom and working their way up. This sort of prejudice appears to be very common among many employers.

New York City took the right step in banning discrimination against the unemployed. Hopefully, other jurisdictions will do likewise. But at the end of the day, government intervention in another way will be essential. We not only need laws prohibiting discrimination against the unemployed; we need jobs for the unemployed. Government should be committed to both steps.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.

Racists Don’t Like Being called Racists

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By Julian Bond
NNPA Guest Columnist

I have always suspected that racists didn’t like being called out for their racism. Now I have proof.

When I told MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts on May 14 that the Tea Party was “the Taliban wing of American politics,” a firestorm erupted. Arguing the IRS was correct to target them for extra scrutiny, I also said “Here are a group of people who are admittedly racist, who are overtly political” and therefore worthy of IRS concern.

I was not prepared for the slew of angry emails, including two from self-identified Black people (your worst nightmare, one said) I received. Many of them suggested I leave the country, reminiscent of the “Go back to Africa” chants racist crowds of Whites shouted at Black protestors in my youth.

One said my advanced age – I am 73 – meant I would not be around to make such mischief much longer, and I should prepare for that quick eventuality.

A few suggested my employer fire me, not knowing that I retired from that job a year ago. Several of the messages were badly written with misspelled words, including one from a relative by marriage – you can’t choose your in-laws – reading “Your calling folks Talabans borders on Traitorism.”

This same correspondent noted I had been “head of the most classic Racist group in our country,” referring to the NAACP, whose board I chaired for 11 years. Others characterized the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights group, interracial in membership and dedicated to racial integration since 1909, in the same way.

After an exchange of messages with some of them, trying to convince them that while I opposed it, I didn’t condemn every member of the Tea Party, the interactions became more civil and less hostile. Some even wished me well.

But to a person they rejected the labels “racism” and “racist,” even as I thought I had proved that the Tea Party has had racist, anti-Semitic and nativist elements from its beginning until today.

One source is a study conducted for the NAACP by the Institute for Research and Education for Human Rights. Their study, called Tea Party Nationalism, found “Tea Party ranks to be permeated with concerns about race and national identify and other so-called social issues. In these ranks, an abiding obsession with Barack Obama’s birth certificate is often a stand-in for the belief that the first black president of the United States s not a “real American.”

It says Tea Party organizations have given platforms to anti-Semites, racists and bigots and “hard-core white nationalists have been attracted” to Tea Party protests.

The link between the Tea Party and the Taliban was made by a prominent Republican office holder.

In 2008, the Washington Post reported that former chairman of the Republican Congressional Committee and present day Congressman Pete Sessions likened the GOP House minority to the Taliban, saying, “Insurgency, we understand perhaps a bit more because of the Taliban.”

Just as my arguments failed to convince my correspondents, so apparently does the actual evidence.

Not the ugly racist signs and placards displayed at Tea Party rallies, not the shouts of the “n” word aimed at members of the Congressional Black Caucus, not the spittle hurled at civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis, not the racists expelled from the Tea Party for their venom, not the association of many members with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a lineal descendant of the White Citizen Council, not the anti-gay slurs aimed at former Congressman Barney Frank (d-Mass.), not the members whose racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia should be an embarrassment – not all or any of this could get them to acknowledge the label “racist.”

My Black correspondents even claimed that their race prohibited them from being racists, as if skin color was a proscription against ignorance. And many of my presumably non-Black correspondents accused me of being a racist, so my race apparently offered me no protection from this evil.

What is the lesson here?

That the label “racist” has become so toxic almost everyone rejects it? That the toxicity makes the label unacceptable but its actual practice is still tolerable for many?

Or that it is a defense against itself? As the relative-I-try-not-to-claim wrote, “I don’t know any white people who hate blacks like you advocate blacks should hate whites.”

Or only that while the United States has made much progress in race relations, we still have a long, long way to go?

Julian Bond is Chairman Emeritus of the NAACP and a Professor at American University in Washington.

Black Revolutionary Assata Shakur is no Terrorist

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(NNPA) When the FBI announced that they were placing fugitive Assata Shakur (Joanne Chesimard) on the list of most wanted terrorists and that they were offering an additional $1 million for her capture, it caught most of the world by complete surprise. Assata has been living quietly in exile in Cuba where she was given political asylum for 30 years. The former member of the Black Liberation Army escaped captivity after being tried and convicted—under controversial circumstances—in connection with the killing of a New Jersey State policeman. Several other allegations against her were dropped either through acquittals or mistrials.

Assata Shakur had been a member of the Black Panther Party, later joining the Black Liberation Army. Like many other Black activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she witnessed the vicious repression of the Black Freedom Movement—and other movements of the time—by agencies of the U.S. government, including through the use of the now notorious COINTELPRO (the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program). COINTELPRO involved the infiltration and disruption of organizations that the FBI concluded were a threat to the U.S. elite. Disruption included rumor-mongering, provocation, the encouraging of splits, imprisonment and murder. The intensity of the repression of the Black Freedom Movement, in this case, led many activists to conclude that, at a minimum, self-defense was necessary. For others the conclusion was that a military arm of the Black Freedom Movement was needed.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions arrived at by Assata Shakur, one thing is very important: she was never a terrorist. Let us be clear about the meaning of this word that we hear so regularly these days. A “terrorist” is someone who uses military methods/violence against civilians in order to advance a political objective. There is nothing in the activism of Assata Shakur that displays anything approaching terrorism. Additionally, since her exile, she has not been involved with any activities in the U.S.A. that could be construed as terrorist.

So, what is this about? It appears that the main inspiration for this outrage is to derail any efforts at the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Upon the reelection of President Obama, there have been rumors circulating that there might be efforts to remove Cuba from the list of countries supporting terrorism. There were additional suggestions that there might be efforts towards normalization.

There are groups in the U.S.A. who oppose normalization of relations with Cuba and they will do anything that they can to disrupt such efforts. Whether those elements convinced the FBI to take this step is irrelevant. The fact is that this step complicates discussions about changing the terms of U.S./Cuban relations. Right-wing Cuban exiles as well as ultra-conservative elements in our political establishment have an interest in the status quo; most of this country is more interested in improvement in relations with Cuba.

For this reason, we need to understand the upping of the ante on Assata as not only a threat to her existence, a violation of Cuban and international law, but also a cynical move to disrupt efforts to end the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere.

Now is the time to demand that President Obama and Attorney General Holder reverse the decision of the FBI. Let’s end this ridiculous melodrama.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.

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