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Mobilizing Key Groups Can Change Politics of the Deep South

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – As voters’ rights advocates and civil rights leaders commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, new study by the Center for American Progress finds that shifting demographics in the South can help to accelerate meaningful social and political change.

The report titled, “True South: Unleashing Democracy in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer,” defined the Black Belt, a region known for its rich soil and history of plantation slavery, as regions in the following Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

According to the report, between 2000 and 2010, “the non-Hispanic white population in the South grew at a rate of 4 percent, while the so-called ‘minority’ population in the region experienced a 34 percent growth, the greatest out of any region in the country.”

Nearly 60 percent of Blacks live below the Mason-Dixon line and Blacks account for about 20 percent of the total population in the South. The report also noted that 40 percent of the Blacks that relocated “to the South since 2000 were between the ages of 21 and 40 years old” and researchers said this group will likely settle and start families increasing the number of Blacks living in the region.

The report continued: “These trends could have a major effect on the region’s politics because voters of color tend to be more progressive and vote overwhelmingly for progressive candidates.”

Changing demographics, frustration with right-wing extremists and the growing number of young voters will play a role in the growing progressive electorate pushing back on “a long history of polarization” in the Black Belt.

Republican state lawmakers in the Black Belt, who may feel threatened by the growing diversity among potential voters, have enacted a number of laws that have a disproportionate impact of the quality of life of the poor, Blacks and other minorities.

According to the report, “nine states have passed laws requiring voters to bring photo identification to the polling booth in order to cast a traditional ballot” and governors in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, “effectively denying health care to millions of their citizens, overwhelmingly the poor and people of color.”

The report continued: “Eleven states have passed ‘right-to-work’ laws, which discourage organizing by unions. They are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.”

During a panel discussion about the CAP report, Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP State Conference and the national co-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary, said that there’s “a deficit of morality in the South, because people are not seen as people they are seen as exploitable cheap labor.”

Johnson added that access to the polls free of voter suppression, access to quality education, access to health care and workers’ rights are the primary issues that civil rights activists must focus on and organize around so that the South can progress.

The report said that today’s civil rights leaders and stakeholders should learn three key lessons from the Freedom Summer of 1964: voter registration can overcome voter suppression, coalition-building is the key to transformative political power, and that a successful movement is a marathon, not a sprint.

Stacey Abrams, House minority leader in the Georgia State Assembly, said people that have never voted hear about voter intimidation and voter suppression, but they don’t know what that means.

“You don’t know if you’re going to stand in line and cause trouble, you don’t know if you’re going to lose your job, you don’t know what that card is that you keep hearing about and you know that you don’t have whatever ID they think you should have,” said Abrams.

More than 800,000 Black, Latino and Asian Americans are not registered to vote in Georgia, said Abrams. It takes less than half of that, just 260,000, to change a statewide election.

“If you change Georgia, you begin to change the South and if you change the South you change the nation,” explained Abrams. “All of those social policies that we like to talk about can be lived in the Deep South and if they are lived and realized they can be exported to the rest of the country.”

Abrams said that voters’ rights advocates and community stakeholders have to start talking about voter identification in a more positive way.

Ben Jealous, senior fellow for Center for American Progress, former president of the NAACP, and author of the report said, “Right now, when we talk about the South, we end up talking about voter suppression. What we really need to be talking about is the need for massive voter registration.”

The report said that “registering just 30 percent of eligible unregistered black voters or other voters of color could shift the political calculus in a number of Black Belt states” and “Registering 60 percent or 90 percent would change the political calculus in an even greater number of states.”

The CAP report cited Maryland, where a number of progressive policy changes are taking hold, as an example of a state where a slavery was once commonplace and now a diverse electorate has had a significant political impact.

“It is easy to forget that Maryland enslaved half its population at the time of the Civil War and that it is the state from which Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass escaped,” said the report. “Yet Maryland sits below the Mason-Dixon Line, and it practiced legalized segregation up until 1954.”

In just a few years, “The Free State” has experienced a number of key legislative reforms including a ban on the death penalty, the legalization of same-sex marriage, decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, and the extension of early voting and same-day registration.

The report continued: “Maryland shows what can happen when people come together across old lines of separation and division to promote progressive values and policies. Maryland is not seceding from the South, instead it is demonstrating what the South’s future can and should be.”

Still, the report suggested that changing politics in the Black Belt won’t an easy battle for pollsters and others seeking to energize potential voters in the South and across the country.

The report estimated that nearly 21 million members of the so-called “Rising American Electorate,” consisting of “people of color, unmarried women, and youth voters ages 18 to 29 years old,” that voted in 2012, might not vote in the 2014 elections.

Organizers and voters’ rights advocates still have a long march ahead.

“What the ‘Freedom Summer’ taught us is that the antidote for massive voter suppression is massive voter registration,” said Jealous. “There is a dormant majority throughout the South that can be unleashed if we can get back to the spirit of the ‘Freedom Summer’ and focus on massive voter registration.”

Family Instability Affects Children's Cells

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – While sticks and stones can break bones, new research indicates that family struggles can hurt children on a molecular level.

The study, published in the July issue of Pediatrics, involved 75 African American families with children age 5 to 15 (out of a sample of 80) in the New Orleans metro area. Researchers found that the more “family instability” a child had experienced over time, the shorter his or her telomeres were.

Dr. Stacy Drury, author of the study, describes telomeres as “shoelace caps” on the ends of a chromosome that keep the strands from unwinding. Chromosomes (our inherited strands of DNA) have to replicate to allow a cell to multiply. Telomeres allow a chromosome to copy itself without errors – but every time a chromosome replicates, its telomeres shorten until the chromosome can no longer copy itself properly. When chromosomes can’t copy, a cell can’t either – so it dies.

Shorter telomeres mean shorter cell life. That means the cells of children under chronic stress are aging and dying faster.

“All of [your] biological systems, when you’re stressed, are put on high alert. When you’re on high alert too long you start to speed up the whole aging process, and cells are showing the effects sooner than the rest of the body,” says Drury, who also serves as director of the Behavioral and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Laboratory at Tulane University. “That’s one things that we were surprised to find. We weren’t sure we’d see this effect in kids this young.”

This effect – chronic stress manifesting as cellular burnout – has long been linked to poor health outcomes. Drury explains that the shortening of telomeres can be seen as the earliest warning sign of these outcomes.

The study, citing other research, states: “Exposure to early adversity increases risk for negative health outcomes across the life course, yet it is unclear whether specific experience or cumulative exposure is the most biologically toxic. Toxic stress likely influences child health and development, particularly risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, and mental illness.”

Drury’s team also took into account other factors that could influence a child’s development, such as body mass index, age, maternal education as an indication of socio-economic status, household monthly income, and more. Almost none of these factors had any bearing on telomere length — except for a few peculiarities around gender and age.

Overall, children exposed to instability have shorter telomeres than unexposed children, but this genetic wear-and-tear seems to affect girls more directly than boys. For girls, the link remains strong over time, and is not influenced by other variables, including the type of instability they experience.

(The “family instabilities” examined in the study were family incarceration, suicide of a family member, and witnessed violence. The study breaks down the effects by “witnessed violence” alone; “family disruption,” which is the other two instabilities together; and a cumulative measure of any combination of these experiences over time).

For boys, a few factors can influence the severity of the effects. For example, boys who see violence have the most significant likelihood of shorter telomeres, as opposed to other forms of instability. Yet, maternal education seems to provide a buffer for boys 10 years old or younger. Conversely, the older a boy is as he experiences family instability—cumulatively, or individual instances—the shorter his telomeres will be.

“The effects of this family instability…we saw it in all kids, but we really saw it in girls,” says Drury, adding that the difference persists in adulthood, but there hasn’t yet been enough research to determine how early the difference appears. “One thing that might play a role is the rate of development—whether it’s biological differences, or social interaction, or differences with a child’s place within and outside the family system.”

Another inexplicable tidbit from the study: the children who had experienced the most instability tended to have younger parents and mothers who were more highly educated.

For concerned caregivers who may not be able to control their child’s exposure to life’s hardships, Drury recommends creating a buffer zone with areas that are within your control.

“Telomere length definitely changes, it’s not a static measurement. You have to have early intervention for prevention…better nutrition, talk about holistic health, exercise, and sleep,” she says, adding that communal support helps as well. “If moms and dads with exposure to family struggles are focusing on ways to buffer the impact on their kids, these things become more important.”

President Obama Acts to Ease Student Loan Debt

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGNTON (NNPA) – From 2003 to 2014, student debt in America skyrocketed from $250 million to $1.2 trillion, surpassing credit card debt. As more students, especially Blacks students, rely on grants and loans to get through college, President Barack Obama has stepped up with a series of executive orders to ease the pain of borrowers in college and after they graduate.

A 2012 study by the Center for American Progress, said that 81 percent of Blacks who earned bachelor’s degrees graduated with debt compared to 64 percent of White students.

According to the CAP report, “African Americans, are graduating with more student debt: 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree recipients had more than $30,500 in debt compared to 16 per­cent for their White counterparts.”

Fifty-six percent of Blacks aged 18 to 34, saddled with debt, post-poned buying a home, because of the ailing economy.

President Obama issued the executive orders the same week the White House released a report that detailed the student debt crisis, state-by-state.

Student loan borrowers in California topped the list, owing more than $100 billion. Borrowers in New York owed more than $73 billion, in Texas more than $71 billion, nearly $62 billion in Florida and about $50 billion in Pennsylvania.

There’s no denying the impact of a college education on the lifetime earnings of a graduate.

“The median annual earnings among recipients of a Bachelor’s degree or higher (age 25 and over) with full-time work was $62,300 in 2013, or $28,300 more than their counterparts with only a high school diploma,” stated the report.

Unemployment rates for young Black college graduates are also significantly lower than the jobless rates for Blacks that only finished high school, 13.1 percent compared 34.7 percent, according to a 2014 report by the Economic Policy Institute, but rising tuition costs continue to imperil the dreams of millions of young Blacks.

“Over the past three decades, the average tuition at a public four-year college has more than tripled, while a typical family’s income has barely budged. More students than ever are relying on loans to pay for college,” the report explained. “Today, 71 percent of those earning a bachelor’s degree graduate with debt, which averages $29,400. While most students are able to repay their loans, many feel burdened by debt, especially as they seek to start a family, buy a home, launch a business, or save for retirement.”

The report continued: “For too many low- and middle-income families this essential rung on the ladder to opportunity and advancement is slipping out of reach.”

Many Black families are unable to contribute financially to help cover college tuition, making student loan programs even more critical for those students. However, defaulting on student loans can have lasting consequences, including damaged credit ratings, garnished wages, and can even have a negative impact on future employment prospects, the report said.

Working with the Department of Education, President Obama launched the “Pay As You Earn” program that caps loan payments for students already making payments at 10 percent of their earn monthly earnings.

“This executive action is expected to help up to 5 million borrowers who may be struggling with student loans today,” the report said.

President Obama also partnered with the Department of Treasury in an effort to help Pell Grant beneficiaries learn how to claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit, an initiative started in 2009 “which provides up to $2,500 to help pay for each year of college.”

The president is also working with trade groups and businesses to increase awareness about repayment options and improve financial literacy.

Recently, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has pushed a bill that would have allowed borrowers to refinance their student loans. Earlier this month, the legislation faded in the Senate on a 56-38 vote, largely opposed by Republicans who said that the bill was an election year stunt engineered by the Democrats. The proposal would have saved students about $2,000 over the life of their loans.

President Obama’s executive actions come more than a year after some historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were forced to turn students away, because of the stricter requirements for the PLUS loan program. Other Black schools furloughed faculty and staff and slashed budgets to stay afloat when enrollment tanked. The rule change disproportionately affected Black families, who suffered heavy losses during the most recent housing crisis and the recession that followed.

The president’s most recent actions may help alleviate some of the pain felt by Black students and HBCUs by the PLUS loan program rule changes.

“At a time when a college degree is so critical to the future of today’s students it has also never been more expensive,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. “So, making college more affordable is critically important, but with more than a trillion dollars in outstanding student loans, we also have to do more for people who have already borrowed for college to repay their loans.”

‘Promising’ Cancer Treatments on the Horizon

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Cancer is the nation’s second-leading cause of death for both Blacks and Whites. While there is no known cure for cancer, a flurry of FDA approval requests to treat the most threatening cancer cases has researchers optimistic that progress is being made toward an eventual cure.

As Dr. William Chambers, national vice president of Extramural Research for the American Cancer Society, explains, “Things are happening on all fronts, not just in research, but in clinicals as well.”

Much of the developments are around immunotherapy, an established concept that includes all treatments that employ or manipulate a patient’s own immune system to target the illness.

Researchers seem to be most interested in improving cancer vaccines, which can be preventative (prophylactic), or used as treatment (therapeutic). Two prophylactic vaccines that fight viruses known to cause cancer are already on the market, i.e., the HPV and hepatitis B vaccines. But so far, such vaccines only work for the small subset of cancers caused by viruses. Still, this hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to create a vaccine against cancer itself.

“Most effort has been toward therapeutic vaccines, which seek to immunize those who already have cancer,” Chambers says. “But because there are so many factors, it’s tough to provoke an immune response.”

Therapeutic vaccines either boost overall immune response, or teach a patient’s immune system to recognize and target afflicted cells.

Provenge, the first, and currently only, FDA-approved therapeutic vaccine, does the latter. Provenge is used for prostate cancer and has been shown to add close to four more months of life for near-terminal patients. Although the mortality rate is low for prostate cancer, Black men are more than twice as likely as White men to die from it. They are also 60 percent more likely to contract it in the first place, according to the American Cancer Society.

Provenge is what’s known as a dendritic cell vaccine. It is created from a patient’s own immune cells, and cancer cells. The immune cells are enhanced for growth, “taught” to recognize those cancer cells, and re-implanted into the patient, where the cells multiply and alert the immune system to fight cancer cells like the one sampled.

On another front, Pfizer is partnering with a French pharmaceutical company to create a standardized tumor-cell-based vaccine. This type of treatment samples a tumor cell and reengineers it to be more detectable to the immune system; when the cell is reintroduced to a patient, his or her immune system recognizes and attacks all cells like it. Unlike customized vaccines such as Provenge, this treatment uses a random tumor sample from a patient to create a generalized vaccine that can be used in anyone with a comparable diagnosis.

Pfizer’s is slated to being clinical trials for this treatment next year.

In addition to vaccines, there are monoclonal antibodies, man-made proteins engineered to infiltrate unchecked cancer cells, and make them visible to the body’s immune system. AstraZeneca, for example, is poised to release such a treatment, known as MEDI4736. In its first round of clinical trials, tumors shrank in 19 percent of patients (diagnosed with a few different cancers), and another 39 percent had their cancer stabilize for a year or longer. The treatment is currently in its final round of trials.

A Swiss company is developing a similar treatment for bladder cancer; in its first clinical trial, 52 percent of patients saw their tumors shrink in 12 weeks. Merck is working on a monoclonal antibody to extend the lives of patients with advanced melanoma.

There are also impressive cancer treatment developments happening outside of immunotherapy. This month, researchers at Cleveland Clinic reported they’ve discovered a protein that could slow the growth and spread of cancerous tumors.

Pfizer is ready to release a drug that slows breast cancer development and extends the lives of patients whose advanced-stage breast cancers have spread. In its second round of trials, the drug, palbociclib, reduced the risk of the cancer worsening by 51 percent, and stabilized the patients for close to 20 months.

Of course, these innovative, often personalized treatments come as significant cost. The required three doses of Provenge total $93,000. Medicaid covers it, but 40 percent of prostate cancer patients are under the age of eligibility. Yervoy, FDA-approved to extend survival in patients with advanced melanoma, is $120,000. The companies that make each treatment offer payment plans.

“Like anything, prices will go down with general application, but yes, it’s expensive and labor intensive. …[B]ut they are getting better at it,” Chambers says.

Even when the medical community masters these advancements, treatment will likely remain expensive for patients (even with insurance), until the market is flooded.

“The success we’re seeing in clinicals is pretty impressive, and I’m optimistic this will move forward quickly,” says Chambers of the American Cancer Society. “And I’m seriously hoping that will be the case because…it’s really looking promising.”

GM's Eric Peterson Loves Dealing in Diversity

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By George E. Curry
NNPA Editor-in-Chief

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (NNPA) – After working 37 years for General Motors, it is not unusual for Eric Peterson, vice president of Diversity Dealer Relations, to walk into a Black dealership and be introduced to one of the owner’s children.

“See that man there,” a dealer recently told his son, pointing to Peterson. “He helped me get started. And if you do what you’re supposed to do, he’ll help you, too.”

Peterson has helped many Black dealers for nearly four decades. Not only has he helped them get started, he has helped keep them grow their business.

“Everyone has a story,” Peterson recounted. “My passion is helping people realize their dream. It makes me feel good about what we’re doing.”

And GM has done a lot.

“GM has a long history of diversity and inclusion before it became popular,” Peterson explained. “We started the first minority supplier program in ’68. We started the first minority dealer program in ’72. Rev. Leon Sullivan was the first African American on a major board and that was GM. We started the first dedicated women’s program in 2001. No other manufacturer has done that. Diversity and inclusion has been in GM’s DNA.”

At its peak, there were 400 dealers of color, approximately 150 of them Black. Like the overall figures, the number of minority dealers has also sharply declined. In 2013, there were 208 minority dealerships, tops in the industry. That figure is 211 minority dealers, 44 of them Black.

The company continues to rebound after going through a government-backed bankruptcy in 2009. As part of that Chapter 11 reorganization, the company discontinued its Hummer, Pontiac and Saturn brands and sold Saab to a Dutch automaker.

“When we went through bankruptcy, we downsized our overall dealer portfolio,” Peterson recounted. “We lost about 25 percent of our dealers. Part of it was going through the downturn of ’08 and ’09 – a lot of guys just couldn’t make it because business was off 50 percent. We lost about 25 percent overall, we lost about 28 percent of our minority dealers. Among African Americans, we lost about 33 percent.”

He said GM’s decision to ditch four of its eight brands hit Black dealers especially hard.

“When we put Saturn dealerships in, when we put Hummer dealerships in, we put a lot of African Americans in because those were the new points of opportunity,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately, when we had to downsize and consolidate our network, we went down by four brands – from eight to four – and unfortunately, we lost Hummer, we lost Saturn, we lost Pontiac and we lost Saab. So when we lost those, we lost a lot of those dealers.”

Looking back on that period, Peterson said, “While it wasn’t pretty for anyone, we were trying to survive.”

Even in the best of times, it’s not easy to survive.

In order to be successful as a dealer, Peterson said, one has to be what he calls a student of the game, realizing, for example, that a dealer may make a sale, but it is the service department’s reputation that drives customers back for repeat business.

“A lot of them are starting to grow their portfolios,” Peterson said, referring to Black dealers. “Tony March and Ernie Hodge have like 18 different franchises. Very few people know about them because they just work, they just make it happen. It is not uncommon for our dealers to have multiple stores.

“Most of our dealers are first generation [owners] and that’s a challenge when you competing against other dealerships, which are mostly family-owned. It’s not uncommon for them to have second-, third-, or fourth-generation dealers in place, where they’ve just passed it down. We haven’t had that luxury yet.”

But he encourages more Blacks to consider becoming dealers, noting that a business person has to come up with 15 percent of the fee needed to open a dealership [a minimum of $350,000]. Because GM has its own finance and mortgage company, it can provide the rest of the startup capital and finance inventory. In addition, the company pairs future owners with mentors for a year before they operate a dealership.

Sometimes dealers fail before succeeding. Pamela Rodgers, who owns Rodgers Chevrolet in Woodhaven, Mich., is a case in point.

“When she first started, she was working for Ford in accounting or something of that nature,” Peterson recalled. “She heard about our program – it cost about $70,000 at the time, which tells you how long ago it was. She said, ‘I’m going to try that.’ The first time, she wasn’t successful.”

That was in the 1980s. Now, Rodgers is clearly successful, seeing her sales grow from $14 million to $80 million and recently being named Black Enterprise magazine’s Dealer of the Year.

Most of GMs minority dealers — nearly 86 percent – are profitable, just below the company-wide figure of 89 percent. They sold 126,617 new vehicles in 2013, brought in $8.5 billion in revenue, employed more than 12,000 people and 68 minority dealerships earned $1 million or more in net profit.

Though his title encompasses the word “diversity,” Peterson is clear that Blacks must not get marginalized as companies shift from favoring affirmative action, primarily for Blacks and women, to diversity, which is a broader term that can encompass a variety of groups.

“Now, everything is becoming more multicultural, everything is becoming more minority and diversity focused and is taking attention away from ethnic groups,” he said. “From my perspective, we get lost in that shuffle.”

To avoid that, Peterson makes the business case from growing the number of dealers who look like him.

“A lot of people say, ‘It’s a nice thing to have minority dealers.’ This is a business imperative. With GM, 25 percent of our cars are bought by African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans; my perspective is that we need to grow that.

“As I tell people I work with, increasing the number of minority dealers, minority suppliers, minority agencies, minorities that work for GM is a business imperative because you need the right people at the table that can relate to this growing segment we have out there. If we don’t do this, someone else will. I want to increase our market share. It’s all about business.”

Peterson started in the mailroom of GM and successfully climbed the corporate ladder. But after moving 10 times and holding a variety of jobs, he gets the most satisfaction from increasing the number of Black dealers.

“The better days of my life outside of God and my family is putting dealers in,” he said. “On the day they are signing that agreement, they have this big smile on their face and say, ‘I finally made it.’”

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