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U.N. Mixes It Up in Ivory Coast, Showing New Muscle

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

The United Nations, which authorized French troops to attack the hideout of the former president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, shifted its role from peacekeeper to aggressor in that country’s deadly electoral dispute.

Former president Gbagbo who had refused to step down after a narrow defeat to Alassane Ouattara in a November poll, was arrested in a basement bunker with his wife and some staff. Incoming president Ouattara insisted that no French troops entered the basement hideout, although the U.N. acknowledged that it OK’d the military strikes on the president’s compound.

The U.N. intervention in the West African nation is being seen as an extension of the body’s previous green light to the use of force in Libya. A “humanitarian” bombing campaign was approved in that case to defend rebels opposed to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The action against Ivory Coast was supported by all the Security Council members including Russia and China, which in the past did not interfere in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations.

With Mr. Ouattara now the sole leader in charge of the country, observers question whether it will be enough to end the fighting. Ethnic violence has festered during the lengthy tug-of-war with Gbagbo, particularly in the west of the country, with hundreds of people killed as both sides in the conflict committed atrocities against civilians, aid groups say.

Meanwhile, in France, Gbagbo spokesman Alain Toussaint, accused French special forces of carrying out a coup in its former colony on behalf of Ouattara.

"It was a coup d'etat which had no other aim but to gain control of the resources of Ivory Coast," Toussaint told reporters in Paris.

Republicans Seek Drastic Cuts in Minnesota Human Rights Department

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By Mel Reeves, Special to the NNPA from the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder –

“They [Republicans] seem intent on taking away the state’s ability to fight for equal rights. We believe that it is morally and ethically wrong,” explained Bobby Joe Champion. He was responding to Minnesota House and Senate Republicans, who recently passed the Public Safety Omnibus Bill that included deep cuts to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR).

The House version of the bill included a 65 percent cut, and the Senate version requested a 50 percent reduction in the MDHR budget.

“We need to be doing more, not less,” suggested Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey. According to Lindsey, the proposed cuts would make it even more difficult than it already is to process cases in a timely manner. Presently, Lindsey says that his limited staff takes more than 400 days to complete investigations into charges. “No way can we be effective with this level of cut,” said Lindsay. Presently, the Human Rights Department spends 80 percent of its budget on staff and operating costs.

However, Republicans proposing the cuts suggested that the department spends the majority of its budget on education. “We changed their mission and tied the state funds to enforcement, and if they want to use federal funds for education and outreach, that was fine,” said Tony Cornish.

But according to Lindsey, only six percent of the budget is spent on education. Lindsey said he suspects that the reason that this exaggeration has been used as justification to cut his budget is because it is a part of a national right-wing campaign. It is a campaign whose goal is to cut out or restrict enforcement of human rights statutes across the country.

Republican governors in Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Idaho are among those who have recently sought to reduce the size and scope of their states’ human rights departments.

“What this bill says,” explained Republican Rep. Kerry Gauthier “is that Minnesota — which has an issue in discrimination in employment, the worst in the country — is going to walk away from human rights.” Gauthier was referring to a recent Star Tribune article that cited several studies indicating that Minnesota has the largest Black-White unemployment gap in the nation (20.4 percent for Blacks vs. 6.6 percent for Whites).

Presently, the Department of Human Rights investigates charges of illegal discrimination and ensures that businesses seeking State contracts are in compliance with equal opportunity requirements. It also strives to eliminate discrimination by educating Minnesotans about their rights and responsibilities under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Incidentally, Minnesota was ahead of its time when it passed its Human Rights Act in 1954. The act prohibits discrimination because of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, and sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, public services and education.

“Such discrimination,” reads the act, “threatens the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of this state and menaces the institutions and foundations of democracy.”

Champion, in floor debate on the bill, pointed out that the cuts would cripple the department’s ability to carry out its mandate to enforce the Minnesota’s anti-discrimination laws. “What sort of message does that send to our broader society?” asked the local legislator. But, Republican legislator Cornish insisted that the bill “didn’t gouge” the MDHR but only “reduced their budget.”

Cornish also suggested that businesses that are required to show proof that they are compliant with anti-discriminatory hiring laws should be doing more than $250,000 in State contracts. Presently, businesses doing $100,000 in State contracts have to comply with the MDHR and show proof that they are compliant with State anti-discriminatory laws.

Last year, MHDR had 805 charges of discrimination filed. Most frequent were complaints of disability discrimination (325), followed by complaints of racial discrimination and religion (261). There were 207 gender discrimination complaints.

On a more encouraging note, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton insists he will maintain the MHDR’s budget at the same level as in the past biennium. Dayton reaffirmed his commitment last week in his response to the Black Economic Summit held recently in North Minneapolis.

Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to mellaneous19@yahoo.com

The Journey Towards Housing Fairness Continues for African-Americans, Latinos

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New Report Finds Disparities in Maintenance of REO Properties

By Charlene Crowell, NNPA Columnist –

When the Center for Responsible Lending examined the demographics of the housing crisis, it determined that for every 100 African-American homeowners with a mortgage, 11 have either lost their homes or were at imminent risk of foreclosure. For Latino families, the figures were even worse – 17 of every 100 Latino homeowners with a mortgage are affected by foreclosures. From 2009 through 2012 African-American and Latino communities will together lose $350 billion due to depreciation in values from nearby foreclosures.

Just as communities of color were targeted for high-cost subprime mortgage loans, now the high concentration of foreclosed properties in these same communities has led to yet another dilemma: a disproportionate share of neglect among bank-owned foreclosures. Also know as real-estate owned (REO) properties, these formerly-occupied homes are bringing blight and contributing to further deterioration of the quality of life in communities of color.

A new report from the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) in Washington, D.C. describes an investigation of 624 bank-owned properties in four markets: Dayton, Ohio; Hartford, Connecticut; Maryland’s Price George’s County; and Richmond, Virginia. Field staff visited and evaluated the exterior condition of REO properties in these markets based on a 100-point scale. The goal was to determine whether banks and their third-party contractors were equitably maintaining the properties owned.

In three of the four metro areas, properties located in either White or stably integrated neighborhoods were managed substantially better than those in communities of color. In the White or integrated communities, REO properties showed evidence of well-maintained lawns, secured entrances and professional sales marketing. By contrast in communities of color, poorly maintained yards, unsecured entrances, poor curb appeal and appearances of abandonment were evident.

The report notes that while Prince George’s County is a “rare example of a racially and ethnically integrated suburb”, its Black neighborhoods, scored well below those of its integrated neighborhoods.

According to NFHA, “A bank risks violating civil rights laws if it owns a home in an African-American or Latino neighborhood and fails to take the same steps to maintain, market, and sell it as it would take for a home in an area with a largely white population.”

The NFHA report also calls for banks, federal regulators, and local governments to take measurable steps to erase the noted disparities.

“It is imperative that banks take affirmative steps to maintain, market, and sell all REO properties according to fair housing best practices standards. It is also imperative that federal regulators and enforcement agencies examine the ways in which banks and the vendors that they hire conduct this business” advised NFHA. “Lastly it is imperative that local municipalities and residents remain vigilant and ensure that the concentration of REO properties is not impeding fair housing choices.”

The irony is that these findings and recommendation are emerging during the nation’s observance of Fair Housing Month. The month-long observance is intended to commemorate the historic signing of the Fair Housing Act on April 1l, 1968.

Enacted four years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination by race in housing sales, rentals, and financing and was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Later in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Fair Housing Amendments which prescribed powers for the Department of Justice along with enforcement penalties and expanded protected classes to include disabilities and familial status.

Yet, despite the passage of time and the enactments, fair housing has yet to reach many Americans of color. The laws may have changed; but discriminatory practices still remain in the housing industry.

The journey towards housing fairness continues.

Charlene Crowell is the Center for Responsible Lending’s communications manager for state policy and outreach. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

HIV Positive Former Inmates Face New Obstacles in Society

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By Tamara E. Holmes, NNPA Correspondent –

Life isn't easy for African American men and women re-entering society after incarceration, but the prevalence of HIV in the Black community creates a new set of challenges. Many former inmates may find themselves at an increased risk of contracting HIV once they leave prison, and those who are already infected often have difficulty finding sufficient medical and emotional resources on the outside.

The barriers for anyone leaving prison are great, says Lena Asmar, director of clinical and support services for AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, an organization that advocates for people with HIV and AIDS. Finding affordable housing and getting a job can be frustrating. "All of that coupled with HIV is huge," Asmar says.

Despite urban legends exaggerating the presence of HIV/AIDS in prison, only about 1.5 percent of state and federal prisoners are HIV positive, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. For men and women who don't have HIV, there are inherent risks when they return to their homes and communities.

While it's true that many inmates engage in high-risk behavior--such as unprotected sex, injection drug use, and tattooing--while in prison, it's wrong to assume that former inmates play a huge role in the high HIV-infection rate in the Black community. The data just doesn't support that fact, says Joseph B. Richardson, Jr., Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's Department of African-American studies. In fact, in many communities where the HIV-infection rate is high, former inmates may have a higher risk of contracting HIV on the outside, Dr. Richardson points out.

One of the biggest mistakes a former inmate can make is assuming that a partner has been celibate while he or she has been in prison. Men, in particular, often assume their partners were faithful while they were incarcerated, says Dr. Richardson. However, that partner may have been engaging in other relationships during that time, and new partners whom former inmates meet "can possibly be engaging in unprotected, high-risk sex," Dr. Richardson adds.

Precious Jackson, a women's-health educator at the Los Angeles-based Center for Health Justice, stresses how important it is for couples to communicate about sex, as well as the risk of HIV after a partner has been released from prison--and suggests that both parties get HIV tests. "You want to make sure that both of you are healthy," she says.

For those former inmates who have HIV, the greatest challenge may be maintaining their health. The prison system is responsible for inmates' care while they are incarcerated, says Edward Harrison, president of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, but once inmates leave prison, they must find health-care coverage on their own. Not doing so immediately could be harmful. "You need to take HIV medications with regularity," Asmar says. "If you don't, they may not work."

Not surprisingly, it can be difficult to find affordable medical coverage or receive help from programs that provide HIV treatment for the uninsured, such as AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAPs), which often have waiting lists. In addition, the difficulty that a former inmate may face finding a home and a job could also affect his or her health. "What often makes people's health decline after they get out of incarceration is not having stability to take their medication," Asmar says.

If you know someone with HIV who is scheduled to be released from prison, help him or her obtain appropriate care and treatment by following Asmar's tips:

Find an advocate: Local AIDS service organizations, often called ASOs, can provide information about programs and services that may offer financial help. They can also provide contact information for other organizations that can help out with other needs, such as housing and job placement.

Explore local hospital offerings: Some hospitals have community health centers that provide services for free or at a discount. "Look for one that does infectious-disease work and has providers that are not judgmental and know about HIV," Asmar says.

Get emotional assistance: Former inmates often experience feelings of isolation after returning home from prison. "People sometimes come out with no support. Sometimes their families have turned their backs on them and don't want anything to do with them," Asmar says. Look for HIV/AIDS support groups that can find people who are experiencing some of the same fears and frustrations.

The key is for HIV-positive former inmates to start making connections so that they can better handle the challenges that accompany living with HIV. "The problems of isolation and stigma are huge," Asmar says.

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

Tax Delinquencies Hampering Black Communites in Pittsburgh

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

A new audit of the city’s real estate acquisitions and holdings shows that although the bulk of the properties taken for tax delinquency are in predominantly Black neighborhoods, most saw more properties resold.

The audit released last month by Controller Michael Lamb found the City is the major owner of vacant, tax-delinquent properties in the following city neighborhoods: Perry South, California-Kirkbride, Garfield, Homewood North, Homewood South, Beltzhoover, Hazelwood, Middle Hill and Larimer.

“Many City owned vacant and tax-delinquent properties are in our most underserved communities,” he said. “We must make every effort, including working with the citizens in the community in which these properties are located, to get these properties back on the City tax rolls. We also must create a system so these properties are given regular maintenance. They are contributing to neighborhood blight and in some cases are safety hazards.”

Lamb’s audit further notes that the city’s recent practice of only taking properties that have a high probability of resale—rather than taking all delinquent properties—has reduced its holdings and generated new tax revenue.

During the period covered by the audit, July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2010, the city sold 466 properties assessed at nearly $11 million for $3.6 million. Its share of the tax revenue now being generated is just under $118,000 per year.

Of the neighborhoods indicated above, only Hazelwood saw a net gain, of six, in delinquent properties. However, the delinquent properties not acquired by the city remain—just off the books. The audit indicates little can be done about them.

Some can be adapted for reuse and may be given to communities for other purposes than residential use such as community gardens like those in Homewood, East Liberty, or Hazelwood, or like the apiary in Homewood, or for parklets like the one in Polish Hill.

Conveying these properties to other community owners, even for promising uses has also been limited because several such owners are themselves delinquent and are forbidden to take on additional property.

Nonetheless, the report recommends the city increase its efforts to work with neighborhoods schools and other groups to utilize vacant properties for community purposes.

“We have properties that continue to be delinquent, so we have to reach out to communities, even if its’ just to help maintain empty lots,” said Lamb. “The system is working, the side-yard sale program is successful, but it’s not enough. It’s an ongoing struggle.”

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