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Legislation Introduced to Update Voting Rights Act

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Attempts to Restore Protections Weakened by Last Year’s Disappointing Supr. Ct. Decision

By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

A bipartisan, bicameral group of congressional lawmakers has introduced legislation to update the Voting Rights Act, one of the central victories in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) recently introduced H.R .3899, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, in the House. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will file a companion bill in the upper chamber.

The legislation arose out of a June 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder that struck down Section 4 of the VRA. That key provision determined which jurisdictions would be covered by Section 5 of the law, which requires states with a history of discrimination against minority voters to obtain federal pre-clearance before implementing new election laws.

“Through months of negotiation and compromise, Congressmen Sensenbrenner and Conyers and I have agreed on a bipartisan and bicameral proposal to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were weakened by the Supreme Court’s decision last summer,” Leahy said in a statement. “Our sole focus throughout this entire process was to ensure that no American would be denied his or her constitutional right to vote because of discrimination on the basis of race or color. We believe that this is a strong bipartisan bill that accomplishes this goal and that every member of Congress can support.”

According to the new nationwide coverage formula set out in the bill, a state will be covered by Section 5 if it commits five voting violations in the last 15 years and at least one of the violations is committed by the state itself. A political subdivision within a state can be covered if it commits three voting violations in the most recent 15 years or commits one violation in that period and has had “persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout.”

The state or subdivision will be covered for 10 years unless they obtain a “bail-out.”

Civil rights groups hailed the bipartisan effort to update the historic legislation.

“We are highly gratified that Congress has worked so diligently in a bipartisan manner to address the issues that allows us to modernize Section 4 and other parts of the Voting Rights Act,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau chief and senior vice president for advocacy and policy.

Shelton told the AFRO he believes “strongly” that the bill “would pass constitutional muster.” However, he added, activists do have some concerns.

While most of the 16 states wholly or partially covered by Section 5 hail from the South, “as we watched the last few elections we saw big problems in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania that were not covered by the law,” he said. “We’d like to continue working with lawmakers to amend some parts of the bill to expand coverage [to such jurisdictions.]”

First signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the VRA has been reauthorized four times in the intervening years, usually with bipartisan support.

Conyers, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a cosponsor of the original VRA legislation, said he was glad to again do his part to bolster voting rights in America.

“After being sworn in as freshman member of the 89th Congress, the first vote of consequence that I took was for the Voting Rights Act,” he said in a statement. “Although the Shelby County v. Holder decision struck at the heart of the Act, today, it is with much pride that my colleagues and I are introducing a strengthened and renewed Voting Rights Act to reaffirm our constitutional commitment to the cornerstone of our democracy: the right to vote.”

Under Growing Pressure, Arizona State Bans Racially-Insensitive Fraternity

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By Floyd Alvin Galloway
Special to the NNPA from The Arizona Informant

PHOENIX – As most citizens across the country were celebrating the life and stellar accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. over the federal King Holiday Weekend in a respectful way – some by attending special programs and others by volunteering for community service – a band of students at Arizona State University had less honorable things in mind.

Pictures of Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity members holding a so-called “MLK Black Party” reflected almost every demeaning stereotype of African Americans imaginable, including White students drinking from watermelon cups, guests dressed in basketball jerseys and some flashing gang signs.

The embarrassing behavior brought back memories of the early 1990s when the state of Arizona was boycotted for its failure to observe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s holiday, costing the state an estimated $200 million. In 1991, the NFL pulled the Super Bowl out of Tempe for that decision. When the King decision was reversed, the boycott was cancelled and Phoenix hosted the Super Bowl in 1996.

The off-campus party on Jan. 19 wasn’t sanctioned by Arizona State University administrators – or anyone else who believes in common decency. Once the offensive photos surfaced on social media, they were met with disbelief and outrage by the Black community.

At January 22 press conference in front of Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism on campus, several African-American community leaders demanded action against the offending students and fraternity.

“It was just a raucous, racist rally, and they used Dr. King’s holiday as a mask for racial villainy and harassment,” explained local civil rights activist Rev. Jarrett Maupin.

India Purnell, president of Arizona State University National Pan-Hellenic Council, said, “For those that have taken part in the party, I urge you really reflect what you have done and on how you have represented yourself and the community.”

In the face of such obnoxious behavior, Purnell urged Black students to model Dr. King’s dignified behavior.

Ja’han Jones, president of African American Men of Arizona State University, wrote in an open letter to the campus. At the press conference, he said, “I extended a welcome for us to sit down and talk about the issue. I question why they would be willing to tarnish a legacy which spans beyond of 115 years for such a party.”

The fraternity, already on probation since 2012 for excessive hazing and other infractions, was subsequently banned from ASU and some students face possible expulsion.

”We regard the behavior exhibited as completely outrageous, extraordinarily offensive and wholly unacceptable,” said James Rund, ASU’s senior vice president for Educational Outreach and Student Services. “This kind of behavior is not tolerated by the university, and we intend to take swift and immediate action. We just don’t have room at the university to tolerate that kind of conduct.”

ASU determined that the fraternity violated the school’s Student Code of Conduct, including violating the of terms of the previous suspension; violating rules or applicable laws governing alcohol, including underage consumption; distribution of alcoholic beverages; and engaging in discriminatory activities, including harassment and retaliation.

Alex Baker, a spokesman for the national fraternity, said the group does not condone racist or discriminatory behavior.

“It is with embarrassment and regret when a few individuals within our organization make decisions that do not align with the values and principles of Tau Kappa Epsilon,” Baker said in a statement.

ASU is continuing to investigate the actions of individual fraternity members and other students who may have violated the ASU Student Code of Conduct. Upon conclusion of that investigation, ASU will take additional disciplinary action, if warranted.

“I think it’s pretty ignorant of them. Some these kids should think before they go making crazy decisions and posting stupid pictures. Leave the day to reflect such a great man and historical figure,” said Gabriel Rodriquez, an ASU junior.

Jocelyn Henderson also a junior, agrees with the revocation of the fraternity and those that participated in the party. “All the students that took part in it should be expelled.”

The incident drew national attention, adding pressure on the administration to take some action. Local Black leaders had threatened a boycott of ASU sporting events if swift action was not taken to address the controversy.

Rand, the ASU senior vice president, said: “When students gather as part of a university recognized organization, whether it is a varsity sports team, the student newspaper, an academic club or a fraternity, students are expected to conduct themselves in manner that reflects the core values of ASU, which include respect for all people, races and cultures.”

'Disrespected' Obama Appointed the Most Black Judges

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Despite the unprecedented levels of obstruction from Republicans in the Senate, President Obama has managed to get a higher rate of Black judges confirmed than any other president in history, according to a court watchdog group.

Research compiled by the Alliance for Justice, a national organization dedicated to progressive values and the creation of a just and free society, shows that so far during the Obama administration, Blacks have accounted for 18.7 percent of the federal judicial confirmations, a sharp increase over the George W. Bush administration, where 7.3 percent of the judicial confirmations were Black. During the Clinton administration, 16.4 percent of the federal judicial confirmations were African American.

During the Obama administration, 41 percent of the federal judges that have been confirmed are women, compared to 22 percent under George W. Bush and 29 percent for Clinton.

President Obama has also managed to get more Asian Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and gays confirmed to the federal bench than either Bush or Clinton.

“This is the best slate of judicial nominees I’ve seen from any president since I’ve been at the Lawyers’ Committee, since 1989,” said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit group that works for equal justice under the law. “I’ve never seen a more diverse slate, I’ve never seen a more highly-rated slate, I’ve never seen a slate with this kind of deep diversity.”

Yet, the current slate of judicial nominees has faced unparalleled delays in the Senate. President Obama’s judicial nominees have waited an average of 115 days between judiciary committee vote and confirmation, more than double the average wait time of President Bush’s nominees. Forty percent of President Obama’s district court picks have waited more than 100 days for a vote on the Senate floor, compared to 8 percent of President Bush’s nominations. Sixty-nine percent of President Obama’s circuit court judicial nominations have waited more than 100 days for a vote on the Senate floor. Only 15 percent of President Bush’s circuit court nominations waited that long.

Meanwhile, the problem of judicial vacancies is getting worse. During President George W. Bush’s sixth year, there were only 48 judicial vacancies. By 2013, however, there were 91 vacancies.

The slow churn in the Senate’s judicial confirmation process continues to strain resources. By 2010, civil litigants were waiting more than two years (25.3 months) for a jury trial. That same year, the federal government spent $1.4 billion to house prisoners before the start of their trial, due in part to the lack of judges to hear cases, according to the Justice Department.

“It’s been a countdown process since the president took office. They were counting down his first [term] in hopes that he wouldn’t have a second [term]. Now they’re counting down his second [term] because they know he can’t run again,” said Arnwine. “And that’s the game they’ve been playing.”

Arnwine added: “This political gaming results in damage to the American public.”

Senate Republicans are gamming the judicial nomination process, utilizing a tradition that began nearly 60 years ago, when a segregationist led the Senate Judiciary Committee. The “blue slip” policy enabled a senator’s objection to a president’s judicial pick from his or her home state.

GOP Senators from Georgia have used the “blue slip” practice to delay some of President Obama’s nominees for Georgia’s northern district for years.

In an effort to fill those judicial vacancies in Georgia’s northern district, President Obama worked with Republican Senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, striking a deal that has drawn sharp criticism from some of President Obama’s long-time supporters and Democrats from the state.

According to Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) and other Democrats who objected to President Obama’s judicial selections for Georgia district, a deal was struck without consulting with civic groups that normally vet judicial nominees in that state.

Scott expressed his concerns about the nominees in a recent letter to Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Scott wrote: “If confirmed, the federal bench in Georgia will not reflect the current demographics of the state for at least another generation. There will soon be only one active African-American district court judge in Georgia. In addition, the views of some of these nominees reflect the regressive politics of the past. I want to share some very important and critical background information with the Committee before these nominations are considered.”

Scott added: “It is an abomination that these nominees for lifetime appointment were drafted in secret, not vetted by any legal groups among the President’s supporters, and announced on a holiday weekend. We must not allow lifetime appointed judges to be rammed through the hearing process without sufficient input from the people who will be affected by their future judicial actions.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) Lewis, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a former Atlanta-based civil rights group, said he and other Black leaders object to some of the Obama appointment of federal judges in Georgia.

“The group cites serious concerns that the proposed candidates do not adequately reflect the diversity of the northern district and that the selection process lacked meaningful community input,” Lewis said in a statement. “Additionally, the coalition finds it troubling that several nominees include persons who have advocated in favor of Georgia’s voter ID laws and for including the Confederate Battle Emblem as part of the Georgia State Flag.”

Mark Cohen defended Georgia’s restrictive voter ID laws that some civil rights leaders say discriminate against the poor and minorities. As a Georgia state legislator, Michael Boggs voted in favor of keeping the Georgia state flag that was based on the Confederate flag.

Georgia’s Black population is 31 percent, twice the national average. In Alabama Blacks account for nearly 27 percent of the state’s population and roughly 17 percent of Florida’s state population. Only one of the judges currently serving on the 11th circuit court responsible for those states is Black and only one out of six of President Obama’s nominees for that circuit is Black.

After years of blocked nominations and procedural delays employed by the Republicans, who are in the minority in the Senate, Democrats, headed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pushed the button on the “nuclear option” last November that that allowed them to cease debate on a particular issue with a simple majority. The historic move cleared the way for some of President Obama’s judicial nominations and executive-level positions to be confirmed.

“The [Obama] administration has really had a difficult row to hoe because of the difficulties in the Senate,” said Arnwine of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The Senate has accorded this president less respect, less deference, and less cooperation than any president I’ve seen.”

The Obama administration’s success in the federal judiciary has not come without sacrifice. President Obama has been forced to withdraw five Black judicial nominations, most recently, William Thomas, an openly gay Black judge in Florida, because of a lack of support from Republican senators.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are calling on Senator Patrick Leahy, who chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, to reform the “blue slip” process.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said that the “blue slip” process is being abused and that is having a chilling effect on qualified Black judicial candidates.

“The reform that we pressed so hard for in the filibuster reform process itself will be still-born if the ‘blue slip’ process is not also reformed,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.).

Rep. Butterfield said that no one is letting the president off the hook, because more diversity is still needed in the 11th circuit where Cohen and Boggs, two White male judges, were just nominated.

Butterfield said that the 11th circuit serves a large population of African Americans, that’s why the region needs more Black judges on the bench.

”It’s the Deep South and we must have some movement,” said Butterfield. “If it means repealing the blue slip process that has been observed for years, then the blue slip needs to be discarded.”

White House Seeks to Help Expand Education Opportunity

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Thirty years ago, one year of tuition, room, and board at a nation’s four-year, degree-granting institution cost $8,756 on average (or $3,499, when adjusted for inflation).

As of 2010, that figure had almost tripled to $22,092 – and that’s just for one year.

To meet this economic hurdle, 39.6 million Americans have turned to the student loan market, taking on more than $1 trillion in debt of last year, according to the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office. Higher education, once a pipeline to the American Dream, is quickly becoming just a pipedream for low-income and underserved Americans.

On Thursday, President and First Lady Obama invited education leaders and decision-makers to the White House to announce an intervention to allow more Americans the chance at a degree. The Expanding Education Opportunity summit aims to foster collaboration and brainstorm solutions to the dearth of college opportunities for low-income and disadvantaged students. The summit is part of the President’s overall education agenda, which has advanced through Congress in fits and starts.

President Obama addressed the attendees and the press, stating, “The one reason we’re here today is we want to make sure more young people have a change to earn a higher education. Today is a great example of how we can advance this agenda without a bunch of new legislation.”

Without a college degree, children born in the bottom 20 percent of income distribution have just a 5 percent chance of getting into the top 20 percent as adults — and only a 55 percent chance of ever making it out of that income bracket, according to a 2008 Brookings Institute study.

But there was a catch: Those invited could only attend the summit if they put their money where their mouths are. Attendees were required to submit (for review) a concise in-house plan of new actions for 2014 to combat the opportunity gap, and publicly commit funds to execute their plan.

“We do not have a more clear ladder of economic mobility than the attainment of a college degree for someone born into a low-income family. And yet the research shows that if you are born in the bottom quartile, by the accident of birth you have only a nine percent chance of graduating from college,” says Director of the National Economic Council, Gene Sperling, who organized the summit. “We are a country that does not believe that the outcomes of your life should be overly determined by the accident of your birth. Yet these numbers show that to make good on that, we have to do much more as a country to help more people to succeed in college.”

In preliminary efforts, the Department of Education and stakeholders identified four areas of focus that could have the greatest impact in expanding access to higher education: Matching students to their best possible schools and encouraging completion; increasing the pool of college-ready students; reducing inequalities in college advisement and test prep; and making remediation more effective.

An array of secondary institutions are included in the ongoing initiative, such as MIT, College of the Holy Cross, Princeton University, Vassar College, and Navajo Technical University. HBCUs Howard University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, and Spelman College are also making commitments. Notable organizations involved include the College Board, Posse Foundation, and the American Association of Community Colleges.

Participants were required to focus their plans and resources on improving one or more of these areas. A majority of the schools and organizations involved have made pledges around increasing match and college completion.

The University of Chicago, for example, has pledged $10 million for its College Success Initiative, which will reach 10,000 high schools across the next 10 years. Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts has a program that offers full scholarships for low-income, non-traditional age college students. Scripps College in California will increase its financial aid and scholarship endowment by $35 million over the next five years. Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College will allow incoming freshmen to start remediation before their first semester. College Board is setting up partnerships to waive student application fees.

Morehouse is piloting an alternative to the SAT/ACT. Howard is boosting success among low-income STEM students and matching Pell Grants by 100 percent. Morgan State is expanding its pipelining partnership with the Community College of Baltimore College, as well as an initiative to help students who’ve left the university in good academic standing complete their degrees. And Spelman will continue to fundraise to financially support upperclassmen may not graduate due to the recession.

Absent from the summit is the trouble of ballooning college costs. The omission is deliberate; back in August, the president made college accountability, quality, and affordability his personal undertaking. His plan includes the creation of a College Scorecard (by 2015, which will be based on access, affordability, and outcomes), linking student’s financial aid to their class completion, bolstering technology, and more.

The institutions and organizations involved will reconvene next year, when the White House will evaluate their progress and more entities will be invited to join the strategy.

Before introducing the president at the summit, Mrs. Obama shared her own college experience, painting the story of a first-generation college freshman who didn’t know how to navigate a campus and didn’t see anyone with whom she could identify.

“I didn’t even bring the right sized sheets for my dorm room bed . . . I was a little overwhelmed and a little isolated. But then I had an opportunity to participate in a three-week, on-campus orientation program that helped me get a feel for the rhythm of college life,” she said. “And once school started, I discovered the campus cultural center . . . where I found students and staff who came from families and communities that were similar to my own. They were there to answer the questions I was too embarrassed to ask anyone else. And if it weren’t for those resources and the friends and the mentors, I honestly don’t know how I would have made it through college.”

Congressional Black Caucus Faces Tough Battles in 113th Congress

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CBC to Lead Fight for College Loans, Jobs, Judicial Posts

By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

In a Congress likely to be steeped in the politics of this year’s midterm elections, the Congressional Black Caucus said it will continue to fight for issues important for communities of color.

“We all know that 2013 was one of the least productive years in the history of the Congress,” said CBC Chair Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) in a press call on Jan. 15. “Yet, the Congressional Black Caucus diligently worked on a number of issues and was successful in influencing policies that benefitted our communities and that would, but for us, be disregarded or completely ignored.”

Many of the priorities on the CBC’s 2014 agenda reflect ongoing concerns from 2013—reducing poverty and closing the income inequality gap, the challenges facing historically Black colleges and universities and increasing diversity in judicial nominations.

Poverty continues to be a scourge in Black communities—almost 10 million African Americans, including 4 in 10 Black children, live in poverty; almost 12 percent of African Americans are unemployed, etc.—cited Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who heads the CBC’s Poverty and the Economy Task Force.

Due to the CBC’s persistent efforts on reducing poverty, however, the issue has “gained momentum on Capitol Hill,” Lee said, and the CBC will continue to build on those gains.

The CBC will continue to advocate for an increased federal minimum wage, or living wage; it will continue to garner support for the Half in Ten Act, legislation – authored by Lee – which would create and implement a plan to cut poverty in half within 10 years, and it will continue to lobby for bills that create more high-earning jobs.

“We know the best pathway out of poverty is a job,” Lee said.

Deputy Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said the CBC will also continue to support the Affordable Care Act, and Medicare and Medicaid. The latter were key contributors to the gains made by the War on Poverty launched by President Lyndon Johnson a half-century ago, he said.

Another key initiative on the CBC’s “War on Poverty” will be its advocacy for the “10-20-30” initiative, which would require that at least 10 percent of federally appropriated money be spent in those communities where 20 percent or more the population has been locked below the poverty level for at least 30 years.

The targeted spending approach was first introduced by Clyburn as an amendment to the rural spending section of theReinvestment Act. It resulted in funding for 4,655 projects totaling nearly $1.7 billion in chronically impoverished counties.

“We believe we have come upon a formula that can be used in our budget to direct resources to communities irrespective of the color or ethnicity of the people that live there,” he told reporters. “We are asking for that ’10-20-30’ approach to be included in other parts of our budget so that we can tackle poverty at the community level.”

Attempts to create income equality must also address education, and, for the Black community, HBCUs play an integral role. But the recent recession and changes in federal policy—such as changes in the credit eligibility criteria for Parent PLUS loans and a 5.1 percent cut in HBCU budgets due to sequestration—are endangering those higher education institutions, CBC members said.

“There is clearly a crisis at HBCUs as a result of Parent Plus loans,” said Fudge.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education made the underwriting standards for these popular loans more stringent and implemented those changes without input from or explanation to HBCUs. Within one year, Parent Plus loan denials skyrocketed by 50 percent for parents with students at HBCUs, Fudge said.

According to the Association for Public and Land-Grant Universities, 14,616 students at HBCUs learned their parents had been denied Parent PLUS loans in fall 2012; and HBCUs lost about $168 million as a result of the large number of students who were not able to start or continue their college education.

Overall, according to Education Department statistics, 101,740 fewer African-American students enrolled in higher education institutions in fall 2012.

In September 2013, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan apologized for the debacle to a group of HBCU presidents, administrators and faculty gathered for the annual National HBCU Week Conference in Washington, D.C.

“I know it’s been hard, it’s been frustrating, and some of you are angry,” Duncan told the group, according to Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “I am not satisfied with the way we handled the updating of PLUS Loans, and I apologize for that.”

Despite the apology—and despite the CBC’s appeals to the department—revisions have yet to be made, Fudge said.

The CBC will continue to agitate for those changes as it will for a less homogenous judiciary, members said.

“We feel that it is pretty important to have African-American judges, both at the trial and the appellate level in every circuit in our country,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). “The problem is that we have Republican United States senators who have been blocking this progress.”

Out of the 55 African Americans nominated to the bench by President Obama, only 42 have been confirmed, Butterfield said. Additionally, 43 seats at the district and appellate levels remain empty.

“The president needs to be more proactive in nominating African Americans to the bench [and] we would hope he would be less conciliatory with those Republican senators who have demonstrated that they are obstructionists,” said the North Carolina Democrat. “What we’ve got to do is continue to put pressure on the White House…and at the same time we need to encourage the Senate leadership to proceed with confirmation proceedings.”

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