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Racist Letter Addressed to Black Students at Pennsylvania School

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By Christian Morrow, Special to the NNPA from the New Pittsburgh Courier –

“Maybe if you niggers wernt (sic) in this school, west a (sic) might actually be a perfect school. So do us a favor and get the f… out you motherf… niggers!”

That is just part of a letter eight African-American students found on their seats—personally addressed—when they arrived for their first-period classes at West Allegheny High School in Imperial, April 15.

“It was a total surprise to me. I wasn’t so much scared as shocked,” said sophomore Lewis Walls. “I never expected anything like this to happen.”

Calls to the district for comment were not returned by New Pittsburgh Courier deadline.

Walls’ mother, Sheila Johns, contacted the Courier about the incident 10 days later, after growing frustrated with the lack of action by the school district.

“They’re saying it’s an isolated incident and they’re investigating, but they don’t know who did it,” she said. “Some parents think it could have been an adult because some of the spelling mistakes seem intentional, but we don’t know. A lot of us came out here to get away from the craziness in the city and to get a better education for our kids—and now we get this.”

Bonita Pannell’s daughter Tyler also received a letter, but Pannell, whose children have been in the West Allegheny District for several years, said this incident is just the latest in a long progression.

“My son is 27 now, and things like this were going on when he was still here,” she said. “There have been incidents of nasty texts, calling people names in the cafeteria and the principal keeps saying they are isolated incidents. But, if there are this many, how isolated can it be?”

Pannell said some think it could be related to a fight between a White girl and a Black girl the day before, which resulted in both being suspended. However, the White girl received 10 days for instigating the fight, twice as much time as the Black student.

“The principal said they are looking at security tapes, but how long does that take,” she said. “So we’ve gotten together and sent a certified letter to the principal and superintendent asking for a May 2 meeting with all the parents, before we take this to the school board May 11.”

Don Elvoid’s two sons also had letters addressed to them. Both were so angered by the incident that the vice principal asked her to take them out of the school for the rest of the day.

“I’d heard it stemmed from the fight too, but that’s just rumors,” she said. “I tell my boys to deal in facts, but right now we don’t have any. So, when we meet with the principal, we’re going to ask for some changes. Kids shouldn’t have to put up with this. Now that we’ve sent the letter, I expect a different tone.”

Walls agreed, he said one student in his class let loose a verbal assault laced racial epithets on another Black student in the cafeteria about a month earlier.

“He’d have been the obvious suspect for the letter, but it couldn’t have been him—he was suspended at the time,” Walls said. “I mean, two years ago, I was at a Catholic school that was racially balanced so I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I’d like it to stop. I don’t think I should have to go through this again, neither should anyone else.”


Mumia Abu-Jamal's 1982 Death Sentence Again Declared Unconstitutional

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Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has unanimously declared that Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence is unconstitutional.

In today’s decision, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its 2008 finding that Mr. Abu-Jamal’s sentencing jury was misled about the process for considering evidence supporting a life sentence.

The Court found that, in violation of the United States Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Mills v. Maryland, the jury was improperly led to believe that that it could only consider unanimously agreed upon evidence favoring a life verdict. This mistake rendered Abu-Jamal’s death sentence fundamentally unfair.

The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and Professor Judy Ritter of Widener Law School represent Mr. Abu-Jamal in this appeal of his 1982 conviction and death sentence for the murder of a police officer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“This decision marks an important step forward in the struggle to correct the mistakes of an unfortunate chapter in Pennsylvania history,” said John Payton, Director-Counsel of LDF. “Again acknowledging the existence of clear constitutional error in Mr. Abu-Jamal’s trial, the Court of Appeals’ decision enhances confidence in the criminal justice system and helps to relegate the kind of unfairness on which this death sentence rested to the distant past.”

Ritter noted that, “Pennsylvania long ago abandoned the confusing and misleading instructions and verdict slip that were relied on in Mr. Abu-Jamal’s trial in order to prevent unfair and unjust death sentences. Courts now use clear and unambiguous language to advise sentencing juries about their ability to consider evidence that favors a life verdict. Mr. Abu-Jamal is entitled to no less constitutional protection.”

Mr. Abu-Jamal he has been on death row in Pennsylvania for 29 years.

Women Overcoming the Shame and Stigma of HIV

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By Tamara E. Holmes, NNPA Contributor –

For years Del'Rosa Winston-Harris kept her HIV diagnosis a secret. When seeking HIV/AIDS resources, she says, "I went to places that were way outside of where I lived so no one could identify me." When a friend ran into her at the hospital and asked why she was there, "I said, 'I'm here to get my cancer checkup,' " the 49-year-old recalls. "My biggest concern was that I couldn't tell anybody."

A fear of disclosing one's HIV status is not unusual because stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS is ingrained in American society, says Bambi W. Gaddist, Ph.D., executive director of the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council. Most people would rather look the other way than acknowledge how many people are living with HIV, Dr. Gaddist says. "After 30 years of AIDS, people are still asking, 'Is that a problem?' " And, unlike diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's, there's the often unspoken rationalization that those with HIV brought the disease upon themselves.

"HIV is a human immunodeficiency virus that's causing a fight inside my body, yet people have made it about lifestyle," says Elveth Bentley, 46, of Atlanta. As a result of that widespread perception, many women hide their HIV status, fearing that people will judge them for having sex or succumbing to an addiction.

But, AIDS activists are hoping to change that. In March, SisterLove, an Atlanta-based reproductive-health organization that focuses on HIV/AIDS, launched a mini documentary series called "Everyone Has a Story," which features interviews with Black women who have HIV sharing the realities of life with the disease.

"We want to get more HIV-positive women talking and disclosing and really stepping into leadership where HIV/AIDS is concerned in the community," says Tiffany Pennick, a spokeswoman from SisterLove. The documentary series is part of the organization's 2020 Leading Women's Society program, in which 2,020 HIV-positive women will be trained during the next decade to help other women across the world better manage their sexual and reproductive health.

The Power of Disclosure

Both Winston-Harris and Bentley participated in the documentary series, which covers such experiences as disclosing HIV status to family members for the first time, finding a support network, and dealing with strained family relationships. While both women are now more comfortable sharing their status with loved ones and strangers alike, the documentary gives them an even larger audience for their stories.

Winston-Harris began the process of disclosure after watching a friend who'd kept her diagnosis a secret die alone. Realizing how isolating the stigma of HIV could be, she had an epiphany.

"The idea of dying alone is one thing, but living alone is another," she says. "I realized somebody had to speak up and let people know this is a disease that anyone can get."

For Bentley, the road to disclosure began as she noticed how damaging shame could be. "You lose your sense of identity when you begin to buy into the stigma," she says. "You let the disease define you." She also saw that self-defeating behaviors often accompanied shame, such as avoiding the doctor's office or HIV clinic because of a fear of being seen.

Since disclosing their HIV status, both women have felt empowered and seen their lives improve. "I've learned how to communicate and socialize with any kind of person," says Winston-Harris.

I can meet people where they're at now. Pre-HIV, I didn't know how to do that."

Bentley feels the same: "If I tell you about my HIV status myself, I've taken the power from you to say anything about it. What can you really say that I have not already said?"

There's also a political benefit that comes from sharing one's struggle with HIV. "When we get more women to do that, then we will see a social movement like we've seen with breast cancer," says Dr. Gaddist. "Until we get to that, we'll never have a social change."

For those who are struggling to move past the stigma of their diagnosis, Winston-Harris and Bentley share some of the insights that have helped them overcome the shame;

Forgive yourself. Before you can learn to ignore others' judgments, you've got to get past your own, says Winston-Harris. "I can remember being so angry with myself," she recalls. Once she stopped blaming herself for her HIV status, talking about it became easier.

Find purpose in your story. Whether you're using your voice to educate others about HIV or to build intimacy in your personal relationships, understand why it's important for you to share your story with others, advises Bentley. When you feel fearful about opening up, let that purpose motivate you.

Know that it's a process. While disclosing your HIV status will likely get easier over time "it's still uncomfortable," says Bentley, particularly when you're talking to people whose opinions matter to you. "The unknown is always uncomfortable, but you find your voice more and more each time."

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes frequently about emotional health and wellness.

Maryland HBCU Legal Case Over Funding Concerns Pushes Forward

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By Shernay Williams, Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

Donique Warden, a junior at Coppin State University, remembers a time when the school library stayed open until 2 a.m. “Now it closes at 11 and I don’t even get off work until 11 p.m.,” she said. “When I asked librarians about it, they said it’s because they don’t have the money to keep it open that late anymore.”

She says “it makes no sense” that she has to purchase almost half of her books from other schools because they aren’t stocked in Coppin’s library. The sports management major said her friend at Morgan State University also criticizes her school because resources for facilities like the library are “slim to nothing.”

In spite of all the new buildings, in 2011, many students are still reflecting on the disparities that exist for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Maryland.

The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Higher Education and a cluster of current students and alumni from Maryland’s four HBCU’s say Warden’s experiences demonstrate inequity in state funding. The group is suing the state and the Maryland Higher Education Commission for upwards of $2 billion, a sum their funding expert estimates was collectively withheld from Coppin, Morgan, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore between 1984 and 2009.

“If these institutions had not been discriminated against for all these years or if Maryland had taken the steps to enhance them, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be comparable to (traditionally White institutions),” said Michael D. Jones, civil rights attorney representing the coalition. Jones contends the funding disparity has led to fewer resources, aging facilities, and ultimately, lower retention rates at HBCUs.

The case’s six-week trial is set to begin June 27.

The matter has been in litigation since October 2006, after the coalition was angered that the state boasted of full compliance with a partnership agreement established in 2000 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that dictated Maryland’s HBCUs achieve parity in funding, facilities and academic program development. The lawsuit alleges that the state is in violation of the agreement and the requirements of the agreement have not been completed.

The eight plaintiffs that filed in addition to the coalition are predominately comprised of Morgan graduates and students, one Coppin graduate and a student from Bowie State University. The HBCUs themselves are not parties in the case.

Program duplication is also at the center of the complaint.

Jones said during the pre-1954 era of segregation, it was vital for Black and White institutions to offer the same academic programs because Blacks were not allowed to attend White institutions. Yet, when colleges were forced to integrate and “level the playing field,” the Supreme Court mandated that states eliminate all vestiges of segregation, including uneven funding levels and duplicate academic programs.

Plaintiffs say the legal case is fighting for HBCUs to be given the opportunity to offer unique, high demand programs; have state-of-the-art facilities and be allocated funding to make their universities more appealing, particularly to prospective students from different racial backgrounds.

The AFRO’s calls to the Higher Education Commission for comment were directed to Assistant Attorney General Catherine Shultz. I n an e-mail, Shultz forwarded a memorandum that detailed the state’s position in the case.

The state alleges they have satisfied all requirements under the partnership agreement and severed any discriminatory policies that are traceable back to segregation. In memos dated April 22, the state contends the plaintiffs “conjured up” racial disparities in Maryland’s university funding system, adding that even if inequities exist, they were the result of the long-term effects of the state’s previous practices, not their current policies.

The defense also argues that HBCUs have received enhancement funding during the last several years, even raking in 55 percent higher on average than other institutions, with the exclusion of College Park. They’ve filed a motion of summary judgment to settle portions of the complaint out of court.

Some HBCUs, including Coppin State University, have begun to receive “back funding” they were previously denied during the years, which has allowed their campuses to undergo a physical renaissance, but Jones says “the key phrase is that these HBCUs are starting to get funding.”

“When we say that they are entitled to additional funding, we are factoring in that they have been getting additional funding in recent years. But the point is that it is starting and not even Maryland officials contend that it is enough.”

He said former secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, Dr. James E. Lyons, admitted HBCUs were underfunded, and members of the state’s appointed HBCU assessment boards found that the recent enhanced funding was “essentially not enough to get HBCUs out of the hole they were in.”

“I don’t see how the state can diagnose a problem but withhold a cure,” Jones said. “If you know that it’s related to funding than they should fund it.”

Dr. Earl Richardson, who is not a plaintiff in the case but fought for similar resources as the former president of Morgan State University, said Maryland’s HBCUs should receive the same investment as other public universities. “But you can’t do that by providing the same percentage increase for those that have it and for ones that don’t,” he said. “The gap that has historically existed between HBCUs and other public colleges only gets wider and you are putting more into the already advantaged before you have leveled the playing field.

“Unless you have comparable facilities, comparable resources, comparable funding and a mix of programs to attract the very best students as well as some on the margin, than these schools are not going to be able to compete."

Warden concurs. “I love my school and I just wrote a story about the importance of HBCUs,” she said. “But I feel like something needs to be done.”

Obama Aims to Reconnect with Loyal Black Voters

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By Starla Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from the Final Call –

CHICAGO - In 2008, Barack Hussein Obama was elected with overwhelming support from Black voters. More than 90 percent of Blacks voted for him in the presidential election and his victory was a source of pride.

However, while the president's approval ratings are still high, recent polls show a decline in popularity. Announcing his plans for re-election in April, maintaining strong support among Black voters is key. Unemployment among Blacks is still high at 15.5 percent despite the overall unemployment rate decreasing.

Critics say President Obama may be taking the Black vote for granted as members of the Democratic Party have been accused of for years. “Where previous Democratic administrations have treated Black communities with benign neglect, Obama's policy is best described as depraved indifference,” wrote Glen Ford, executive editor of Black Agenda Report in a recent online posting.

With that perception in mind, the Obama administration recently launched a series of town hall meetings targeting Black communities across the U.S. Almost simultaneously, the White House launched http://www.whitehouse.gov/africanamericans, as a way for Blacks to get information on policies, programs, and initiatives the administration says help the Black community.

The town hall meetings, themed, “Winning the future,” are open forums, which allow the public to ask questions directly to White House personnel. Michael Blake, director of African American and Minority Business Outreach from the White House Office of Public Engagement was in Chicago, in mid-April, for a town hall meeting on the city's South Side.

Along with Mr. Blake, the event featured and Congressman Danny Davis Jr. (D-Il) and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and was moderated by radio host Matt McGill of WVON 1690 AM. Hundreds packed a standing room only overflow room at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church to voice opinions about the White House agenda for the Black community.

One area of success shared Mr. Blake, was the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) through the U.S. Commerce Department being awarded $7 billion in grants to advance the growth of minority owned businesses. However, this includes Black, Latino, and women-owned businesses. What remains unclear is what dollar amount was received by Black-owned businesses.

Questions remain as to why information has been so slow reaching the Black community. One problem could be that the Obama administration has not allocated enough resources to spread word of their accomplishments, which directly impact Black people, even Mr. Blake admitted that this “office of African-American affairs” is comprised only of himself and an intern. Additionally, Mr. Blake said, he only sees President Obama “every few weeks.”

Congressman Davis reminded the audience President Obama took office when the country was about to go to “hell in a hand basket.” Mr. Davis told the audience he was not present to be an apologist for the White House or President Obama but said were it not for steps taken by the administration; he is not sure whether the banking system would have survived.

“If we didn't do the health reform that people are trying to erode and wipe out, just in my congressional district alone the health reform bill improves healthcare and access for 350,000 people,” said Rep. Davis to applause.

Blake said though there is a long way to go, progress has been made he said that has benefited the Black community. “People are still hurting right now and we're not where we need to be and we're trying to get to where we need to be, but as Congressman Davis will tell you, it's hard right now working with some folks that don't want to work with you,” a clear reference to the Republicans, he told the audience.

The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan warned President Obama prior to his election about the forces that govern domestic and international politics. He has also encouraged President Obama to use his prominent position to speak for the weak and speak for the poor who supported him overwhelmingly. In a previous interview with WVON's Cliff Kelley, Farrakhan said that as a Black man, President Obama does not wish to address the concerns that God wants the American government to address, such as the lack of justice for the weak, poor, and Brown, Red, Black and poor White.

A vocal group attempted to pose questions to Blake regarding President Obama's decision to go to war with the North African nation of Libya, however, the meeting was ended abruptly before they could receive answers.

Before ending the meeting Blake urged audience members to contact his office at 202-456-4772 or email him at africanamericans@who.eop.gov to share their concerns.

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