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Julianne Malveaux

What Blacks Can Learn from South Africa

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(NNPA) Nelson Mandela turned 95 years old on Thursday, July 18. He has been hospitalized for more than a month, and the world holds its breath as we witness the decline of the lion that roared for freedom in South Africa. Mandela’s insistence and persistence for freedom for Black South Africans, which included a 27-year jail sentence, reminds us of the persistence it takes to make structural and institutional change.

We African Americans have been far more episodic in our quest for freedom. We galvanized around Brown v. Board of Education, again around the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fifty years ago, we were on the Mall in Washington, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, the most well-known of the several speeches delivered that day. We continued to fight for college admission, fair housing, and diverse police forces. And as these gains were attained, some of us stopped fighting.

Many in the Black middle class didn’t know what they should fight for. They had good jobs, nice homes, and good cars. They had gone to college and their children were, as well. Unless they were dyed in the wool civil rights activists, they were content to coast along. To be sure, there were micro aggressions they needed to manage, much as Ellis Cose’s Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care? (Harper Books, 1993) detailed. While there is a connection between many kinds of profiling, there is a big difference between being hassled at a department store and being unarmed and killed on the street.

The South African fight was clear, just as the fight for African American rights was in the sixties. The difference? African Americans made gains that were tenuous without continued protest. In South Africa, the pressure for protest has been continuous despite the gains that have been made. Even as Black Africans have been elected to leadership in South Africa, many see past the titular gains to ask about the living conditions of those who are not middle class, not moneyed, still living without electricity in townships. In contrast, few African American politicians speak for the least and the left out, the poor, the unemployed, the marginal. That there is an African American president of the United States has been more a muzzle than a motivator. Reluctant to criticize President Barack Obama, too many activists have swallowed their ire even as our president has ignored them.

As Nelson Mandela struggles to maintain life, one is reflective about the ways he was denied his freedom for so long. Mandela made a life for himself on Robben Island, as he navigated captivity and restriction, broken promises and crippled dreams. Because of Mandela’s persistent and gentle spirit, however, he prevailed enough to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Frederik Willem de Klerk) in 1993.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his work in the Civil Rights Movement. In accepting the Peace Prize, he said “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, peace and freedom for their spirits.” King laid out a game plan that many have only reluctantly embraced. We still have hunger, illiteracy and dissent in the U.S. Few have stepped up to deal with these matters with the persistence that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress had. When President Obama establishes a middle class task force, what does this mean for the poor?

Perhaps the comparison between US black people and those in South Africa is unfair. WE have had leaders like Nelson Mandela – Dorothy Irene Height comes immediately to mind – who have given their lives to the freedom struggle and have not wavered or cowered in the face of challenge. South Africa, like the United States, has class divides between the middle class and the poor, with a sometimes indifferent middle class more interested in profits than people. But when I think of Nelson Mandela’s persistence, I think of the many ways that we, African Americans, have dropped the ball.

Trayvon Martin is not the first young man to have been massacred in the streets, nor is he the first to garner national attention. Little has changed because we have not been persistent in our protest. The details in providing equal opportunity in South Africa may be flawed, but they represent movement. The episodic engagement of African Americans around justice issues pales in the face of South African persistence.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Looking Beyond George Zimmerman

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(NNPA) Trayvon Martin might not be dead except for the fact that George Zimmerman carried a gun and acted as a wanna-be policeman. Rev. Al Sharpton and others deserve props for rallying people and insisting that Zimmerman be brought to trial. Anytime a gun goes off, I think somebody has to go to trial, simply to ensure that their actions be accounted for. Zimmerman was found not guilty, but least he has been made somewhat accountable for his actions.

Zimmerman isn’t the only one slaughtering young Black men, though. Too many of our young brothers are slaughtering each other. In Washington, D.C., rising senior Omar Adam Sykes was killed on Independence Day. He was a victim of an attempted robbery, when two men approached he and a friend with guns. The Howard University police say that robberies on campus are on the decline, but I don’t think that Omar Sykes’ parents find that any consolation. Indeed, one young Black man lost to gun violence is too many, whether the perpetrator was a vigilante like George Zimmerman, or another young Black man who is so desperate for dollars that he will kill another brother.

Seventy-four people were shot, and a dozen killed in gun violence in Chicago during the July 4 weekend. Two of them were young boys, aged 5 and 7. Much of this is gang violence, and too many of the victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time. No matter. This scourge of gun violence is a plague on our nation, but especially on the African-American community.

The online website Slate estimates that more than 6,500 people have been killed this year through gun violence. The Centers for Disease Control says it is at least twice as many. Since the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., there has been a marked concern about gun violence. Concern, however, does not move legislation. Those politicians who have been purchased by the National Rifle Association lament gun violence but are unwilling to do anything about it. So the violence continues.

There are heart-breaking stories of those who are massacred. Young men and women at the cusp of adulthood who happened to be “hanging out” with friends on the wrong corner. Fathers who agitated an enraged driver. Children who “got in the way” of a random bullet. The NRA says that guns don’t kill, people do. But people without guns can perhaps wreak havoc without creating a fatality.

While the population of the United States exceeds 300 million, there are about 280 million guns in civilian hands. Every year, 4.5 million firearms, including about 2 million guns have been sold. While many do not own guns, those who do keep acquiring them – the average gun owner had nearly seven guns in 2004, up from four guns 10 years earlier. More than 30 people are victims of gun violence each day. A third of them are under 20; half are between 18 and 35. Gun violence is the leading cause of death of African Americans in that age group.

What if George Zimmerman had not had a gun? If he did what he was told to do, police officers may have come and questioned Trayvon as he proceeded to the house of his daddy’s friend. Or perhaps there may have been a fist fight. There surely would not have been a deadly bullet, and while Zimmerman was the slayer, our gun laws are complicit in Trayvon Martin’s execution.

How many young people have been victims of unintended violence, victims of drive by violence, people just minding their business and losing their lives for minding their business? How many people with axes to grind would whoop and holler instead of carrying guns to workplaces, schools, and other places? How many crazy legislatures are relaxing gun laws to allow people to carry guns in bars and near schools? How many retailers, such as Starbucks, refuse to ban guns in their establishments (in states where openly carrying guns is legal)?

As we mourn for Trayvon Martin, let us also recognize the scourge of gun violence. If we restricted gun ownership, this tragedy, and thousands of others, may not have happened.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Limiting Women's Right to Choose

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(NNPA) I was 20 years old when Roe v. Wade was decided. A year before the decision, a young woman who lived in my dormitory attempted to abort herself and hemorrhaged so badly that she was hospitalized. I’ll never forget the blood on the floor of her room, and the anguished screams of her roommate. The young woman never returned to school, her promising future cut short because she could not obtain a legal abortion. Now, there is an effort to return to the days of back alley abortions, or the days relatively wealthy women left the country to obtain legal and safe abortions. Republican-dominated legislatures in several states are committed to limiting and perhaps even eliminating women’s right to choose.

The same Republicans who would limit a woman’s right to choose, are the same who say there are too many government regulations. Some would dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, institute a flat tax, eliminate the minimum wage and dismantle affirmative action. In North Dakota, the governor signed legislation to outlaw abortion after only six weeks of pregnancy. The law may not be constitutional but its passage sends a dangerous signal to women who support choice.

Texas State Senator Wendy Davis garnered national headlines (and the appreciation of many women) when her 11-hour filibuster defeated (at least temporarily) a proposed law that would forbid abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. If enacted, the Texas law would also require abortion clinics to have additional equipment, making them far more expensive to operate.

The North Carolina legislature has presented a similar law to the governor, who promised not to sign such legislation when he ran for office. But the governor does not have to sign the legislation for it to become law, since his failure to sign will effectively ratify the law. Should Gov. Pat McCrory veto the law, there are enough votes to override his veto.

Senator Marco Rubio is likely to introduce similar legislation in the United States senate, making the effort to limit women’s right to choose a national mandate.

Meanwhile, a January Gallup poll indicated that just 29 percent of all Americans support overturning Roe v. Wade. Eighteen percent said they had no opinion, and 53 said that Roe should not be overturned. The Republican push to limit abortion rights, though, effectively limits or overturns Roe v. Wade. While many suggest that African Americans are more conservative on things like abortion rights, a 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, two-thirds of African Americans, support a woman’s right to choose. Marcia Ann Gillespie, former editor of both Essence and Ms. magazines once wrote, supporting the right to choose, that choice is the essence of freedom, and many of those who support abortion rights do so not because they want women to have abortions, but because they want women to have choices.

Limiting abortions to less than 20 weeks, increasing licensing requirements, forcing women to wait 24 hours (or more) before getting an abortion, requiring doctors to show pictures of fetuses, are all ways to erode abortion rights, and limit women’s choices. Many Republicans don’t want to increase the minimum wage, but they want to limit women’s options. The zeal they exhibit for limiting abortion isn’t matched by zeal to feed children once they are here. Indeed, between sequestration and proposed legislation, dollars available for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the old Food Stamps program) have been falling. In other words, these folks care about unborn children until they are born, then they can go for self.

Many of those who would not regulate the economy, would regulate what a woman does with her body. And this movement is gaining. Some cite religion, and others quite cynically talk about the children that are “killed” even before a fetus is viable. While Republicans are not the only people who oppose abortion rights, as more state legislatures have turned Republican, the effort to pass laws limiting abortion rights has renewed impetus.

I don’t think anybody “likes” abortion, but it is an effective way to end unwanted pregnancies, and many women make this choice for financial and other reasons. Shouldn’t women use birth control? Of course, but there is no form of birth control that is infallible (not to mention the abortions some women have in cases of rape and incest), and attacks on organizations like Planned Parenthood reduce the amount of sex education and contraception available. Forty years ago, women were shackled by their inability to make choices. Now, women have options and possibilities. Any woman who has an aversion to abortion doesn’t have to have one. It’s that simple.

I don’t remember the girl’s name that hemorrhaged in my dorm. I do remember her big orange Afro, her quick smile, and her love of learning. And when I think of her, I think of Langston Hughes writing about “a dream deferred.” We can’t go back to those days of back alley abortions. Just as Republicans are going state by state to limit women’s rights, those who support choice should go state by state to preserve them. We need more state legislators like Senator Wendy Davis. We can’t go back!

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

A Maximum Effort Needs to be Made for the Minimum Wage

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(NNPA) It seems that the term “poverty” has been sidelined from our national discourse, even though 15 percent of all Americans, and 26 percent of African Americans experience poverty. The Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law on June 25, 1938, so perhaps 75 years later is a good time to explore the roots of the minimum wage and why it remains important.

The genesis of the Fair Labor Standards Act was a note a girl wrote in Bedford, Mass. when Franklin D. Roosevelt was campaigning for his second term as president. The note said, “I wish you could do something to help us girls…We have been working in a sewing factory. Up until a few weeks ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week…Today the 200 of us girls have been cut to $4, $5 and $6 a week.”

In the middle of the Great Depression, young women were earning between 10 and 15 cents an hour. Responding to the note, Roosevelt signed legislation that dealt with issues of the terms and conditions of work, including wages. The law limited weekly hours to 44, established the minimum wage at 25 cents an hour, and banned child labor. When the law was passed, it applied to industries that employed only a fifth of the workforce. Private household workers (or “domestics,” mostly African American women), and farm workers (mostly African American at that time, though later mostly Latino) were exempted from the law.

There was enormous resistance to the legislation. Indeed the bill was, at one point, described as “unconstitutional.” Roosevelt signed 121 bills, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, after Congress had adjourned. Essentially, FLSA restored textile workers, and many like them, to the $11 a week that was considered barely livable. In a fireside chat, Roosevelt chided the bill’s detractors, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

Fast forward. Now domestic workers are included in the Fair Labor Standards Act to the point that employers are required to issue these workers W-2 forms if they are regular workers, to withhold Social Security and other federally-mandated taxes from their pay, and to match Social Security contributions as required by law. Of course, many of these workers are paid informally, or “under the table,” and they make less than the minimum wage.

Those who receive tips as little as $30 a month in tips earn just $2.13 an hour. That’s certainly something to think about when providing your server between 15 and 20 percent at the end. Some restaurants may offer more than the minimum $2.13 an hour, but many do not pay as much as minimum wage (currently $7.25).

While agricultural workers should, technically, earn the minimum wage, there are enough exceptions to this provision that many agricultural workers do not earn $7.25 an hour. Additionally, undocumented immigrants have little leverage at the bargaining table. They earn less than the minimum wage when they are desperate for employment. Small farms are also exempt from paying the minimum wage.

Someone who earns the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, earns about $15,000 a year. If they are an hourly worker without benefits who takes any time off, the $15,000 earnings drops off. While many minimum wage workers are part-time workers, some cobble together several part time jobs to make enough money to live.

For full-time workers, parents, and others, the minimum wage is hardly a living wage. President Obama has suggested raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour over a three-year period, taking the annual minimum wage for a full-time worker to almost $19,000 a year. The Federal Minimum Wage Act would increase hourly wages to $10.10 by 2015, making annual pay about $21,000 by that year. It would also index the minimum wage to inflation. The feisty and fantastic new Senator from Massachusetts, lawyer Elizabeth Warren, has indicated that she considers $22 an hour (or about $45,000 a year) a living wage.

About 2 million people earn the minimum wage, and another 1.6 million actually earn less. These are the people recorded, not the actuality of those paid under the table. This represents less than 5 percent of the workforce, but this is why we should pay attention to them. African Americans, Latinos, and women are most likely to be represented in this 3.6 million. They are more likely to be young (though those 18-25 are adult and may be raising families), less educated and single. They are the least and the left out. They are young women raising families, students trying to scrap together living expenses, or those with qualifications but not opportunities.

These folks work in service and hospitality industries, serving our food, parking our cars, taking care of our mamas, and cleaning our rooms when we stay in hotels. I don’t care if they are 4.7 percent of the labor force, less or more. The bottom line is that it is overtime to raise the minimum wage.

(CORRECTION: In my column last week, I erroneously said the Howard University College of Medicine did not admit any African-American males this year. I restated a comment I heard during a “think tank” at Rodham Institute. I was extremely remiss in not fact-checking this statement. According to Howard, as of June 18, 2013, of the 120 newly admitted medical school students, more than 30 percent are African-American men. My apologies to Howard University and anyone inadvertently affected by this mistake.)

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Health Disparities: A Function of Assets, Access and Attitudes

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(NNPA) Last week, I attended a “think tank” conversation with leaders of the Rodham Institute, a newly- established center at George Washington University is dedicated to reducing health disparities in Washington, D.C. This is an important effort because Washington is such a divided city. East of the Anacostia River – Wards 7 and 8 – are the poorest areas in the district, with some of the most challenging problems. They have an obesity rate of more than 40 percent, which is more than the national average, and more than the extremely poor state of Mississippi. There are food deserts east of the river, where it is easier to get potato chips than an apple or banana. While there are rudimentary hospitals and health centers, most referrals to a specialist will likely require a Ward 7 or 8 resident to take an expensive taxi ride across the river. This city is rife with health disparities.

Washington isn’t the only city with these issues. Whether you are in San Francisco, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas, there are areas that can be described as predominately Black and predominately poor. To be sure, there are well-off people in these predominately Black areas. They live there by choice, and have the resources and luxury of mobility that gives them access to some of the best hospitals in the city. But the poor don’t, and when health centers consolidate or close, they experience additional barriers to health care.

Health disparities are a function of assets, access and attitudes. Those with greater assets have more access to healthy food, better health care, and more information. Those without assets do not, and often make a decision to forego medical treatment in favor of food. Some of these folks can’t or don’t know to go to cost-savings stores which as Costco (which now has a store in the District of Columbia), where bulk healthy food is readily available. Some, stuck in habit, prefer greasy food to baked options. Many do not make the connection between eating choices and heart disease. Assets and access are linked.

And there is the issue of attitudes. Too many physicians don’t take poor (and African American) patients seriously. The Institutes of Medicine released a study in 2002 that showed that African American and Latino men were less likely than others to get painkillers for a broken bone. A subsequent study showed that African American children were likely to get differential treatment in emergency rooms. Too many poor people use emergency rooms for primary health care because they lack health insurance or access to good health care.

The attitude gap is also internal. Too many poor (and Black) people don’t take good care of themselves, which explains some health disparities. Frequent exercise and good eating habits go a long way toward healthy living, as do regular checkups. Some folks don’t know how to do the right thing. Some folks don’t have access to the right thing. And some people just won’t do the right thing.

One of the ways the attitude gap could be bridged is by admitting more African Americans to medical school. However, one of the speakers at the Rodham Institute conference indicated that not one African American man was admitted to this year’s class at Howard University’s medical school! If historically Black Howard University won’t admit African American men, who will?

Former Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton closed out the conference, graciously laying out her vision for the institute and answering questions. She said that health disparities are a function of inequality, and that’s the point that sticks. Too often we look at the results of inequality without looking at the causes. Health disparities, the achievement gap, unemployment differentials are all a function of inequality. Dealing with these gaps on a piecemeal basis doesn’t get us close to finding solutions.

How do we close the income and wealth gaps that are at the root of so many other gaps? In the current conservative environment, talk of income or wealth transfers is just that – talk. Conversations about reparations are even more meaningless in this environment, especially when the entire Congressional Black Caucus won’t sign the Conyers bill on simply studying the impact of slavery on contemporary American life.

The Rodham Institute has laudable goals, a wonderful founding director in Dr. Jehan El-Bayoumi (full disclosure – my doctor), and a great community focus. In working to eliminate health disparities, perhaps this group will get us a bit closer to closing economic disparities as well.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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