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Holder Endorses Voting Rights for Returning Citizens

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By James Wright
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that laws prohibiting returning citizens from voting even after they serve their sentences are wrong.

“By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes,” Holder said Tuesday at the Georgetown University Law Center in Northwest during a symposium sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The NAACP and other civil rights organizations are working to persuade 11 states, specifically Florida, Virginia and Delaware, to end the practice. There are an estimated 1.5 million disenfranchised returning citizens in Florida, a key battleground state in presidential elections.

Jotaka Eaddy, the NAACP senior director for voting rights, praised Holder for his stance.

“This statement does much to make combatting felony disenfranchisement a national fight and not just a state one,” Eaddy said. “The NAACP and several other groups have been fighting on the ground to rid our country of a practice that has its roots in black codes designed to eliminate black participation at the ballot box.”

Police Video Shows Brothers Beaten, Tased, Then Charged

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

After seeing a police video that was kept under wraps for months, Black Political Empowerment Project President Tim Stevens has asked Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala to drop assault charges filed against two brothers arrested in Homewood last July.

The video shows police stopping and detaining 20-year-old Will El and his 18-year-old brother as they exited a confectionary in Homewood.

“We then saw what appeared to be Officer (Frank) Welling slamming Will El against the wall. Anyone watching the video can clearly see Officer Welling putting on his black gloves immediately before this action took place. In light of the fact that these men were being compliant, I personally found this quite troubling. Even more troubling was the tasing of 18-year-old Beyshaud El, when he stood up to question why his brother was being slammed against the wall. Bay­shaud was tased until he was unconscious.”

After being beaten and Tasered, the brothers were then charged with felony assault. Their trial, which was supposed to begin Feb. 3, was postponed after Lt. Rayne Kacsuta, who initiated the stop, became ill.

“No drugs or weapons were found on these men. Now they currently face felony charges. We want those charges dropped,” Stevens said. “If there are any charges, according to the police video, maybe those charges should be against Officer Welling for slamming Will El for what appears to be for no reason.”

Brandi Fisher, founder of the Alliance for Police Accountability, arranged for the public viewing of the video, which was attended by around 50 people including the El brothers, Jordon Miles, Leon Ford, and Dennis Henderson–all of whom have been either wrongly detained, beaten or shot by police during recent arrests.

“These young men should not have been stopped in the first place, and after they emptied their pockets, and it was determined they had no weapons or drugs, they should have been let go,” said Fisher. “But that wasn’t enough for Lt. Kacsuta. These men were unlawfully detained and unlawfully charged. This is a pattern in the Zone 5 station and with the department in general.”

Fisher said she too is writing a formal request for Zappala to drop the charges.

“These boys are so young. People are out here shooting each other and you want to give these two 20 years for walking to the grocery store,” she said. “We’re aware that there’s a criminal element in Homewood that needs to be removed. We’re also aware that there’s a criminal element in the police force that needs to be removed. We’d like to work with the DA on both.”

A spokesperson for Zappala confirmed that Stevens’ letter had arrived but could not comment beyond that. No new trial date has yet been set.

U.S. Voting Hurdles Remain

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – If you thought that the United States Constitution guaranteed your right to vote, think again.

“While the right to vote is inherent throughout our founding document, and there are amendments prohibiting discrimination, nothing in the Constitution explicitly guarantees our right to vote. We, as Americans, possess no affirmative right to vote,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) as he introduced the bill he co-sponsored with Rep. Keith Ellison on the floor of the House of Representatives (D-Minn.) last May.

The Pocan-Ellison Right to Vote Amendment would provide all eligible citizens an affirmative right to vote and make it harder for state and local legislators to pass restrictive voting laws that have disenfranchised Blacks and poor voters in the past.

The bill gained little traction in Congress last year as lawmakers stumbled from one self-inflicted wound to the next. They bounced from the budget sequestration that forced automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that stalled economic growth, to repeated attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to the government shutdown that cost the economy billions. There was little time to get anything done, let alone constitutional reform, something that neither party has the stomach for.

But the right to vote amendment, restrictive voting laws and election reform were all on the menu during the recent Eighth Annual Voting and Elections Summit, presented by the Overseas Vote Foundation and U.S. Vote Foundation.

The summit featured election experts and voters’ rights advocates who addressed issues related to grassroots innovations in voting, midterm mobilization and new voting technology. Speakers also discussed the most recent developments in voting including the Voting Rights Act of 2014, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s report and last summer’s historic Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision that held that Section 4 of the law was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court demanded that the Congress update the preclearance formula in Section 4 that required states with a history of voting practices that discriminated against Blacks to clear any changes in voting laws in advance with the Justice Department. The court insisted on a more updated formula for determining the states covered under Section 4.

Before the VRA of 1965, Blacks, especially in the South, were subjected to poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and sometimes death in effort to vote. After the law was passed, the Justice Department often turned to Section 4 and Section 5 of the VRA to prevent discriminatory voting practices.

“Section 5 [of the Voting Rights Act of 1965] was amazingly effective at blocking the use of new discriminatory practices in the covered jurisdictions,” said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In the wake of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, state legislators rushed to pass new restrictive laws that were once automatically blocked by the Justice Department.

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a private, nonpartisan, conservative-leaning think tank dedicated to research and education on public policy issues, economics and social welfare, said that Chief Justice John Roberts used “powerfully faulty logic” in his decision in the Shelby County case.

“Imagine there is an intersection which has a long history of people speeding going through the town traffic accidents deaths. So, they put in speed bumps traffic lights speed cameras stiff fines and remarkably over a period of time, no problems, no deaths,” said Ornstein. “Then you get authorities saying, ‘We solved that problem now let’s take out the speed bumps, take out the cameras, never mind the fines.’”

Orstein continued: “And my goodness, before long, mayhem occurs.”

Now, because of the Supreme Court decision, the Justice Department is forced to play whack-a-mole filing lawsuits against the most onerous, most visible voting laws.

“The real problem is you have a lot of these local jurisdictions, nobody is going to have the resources to bring the lawsuits,” said Ornstein. “There will be stuff below the surface that we will not see that will have a real impact.”

In an effort to reverse the damage of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, lawmakers crafted the Voting Rights Act of 2014 in the House of Representatives. The bill requires all states to publicize any last minute changes to voting laws. If a state committed five or more violations in the last 15 years, they would automatically fall under the supervision of the Justice Department.

Cities and counties face a lower threshold under the new bill; if they commit three violations in a 15 year period, the Justice Department can step in and require preclearance for any changes in voting laws and could effectively block laws before they disenfranchise voters. Under VRA 2014, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi would require preclearance for any changes.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) referring to VRA 2014 during his keynote address at the summit. “The bipartisan cooperation that has allowed us to get this far will ultimately carry the day and allow us to meet these challenges made by the Supreme Court and continue strong enforcement around our most fundamental right a sacred right, the right to vote.”

As many voters’ rights advocates applauded the bipartisan effort on the bill they also noted the shortcomings, especially the soft touch given to restrictive voter ID laws.

“Although the Lawyer’s Committee doesn’t agree with every single provision of the act, this is a true demonstration, a meaningful action on this critically important issue for our country,” said Barbara Arnwine, the president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Ornstein was less optimistic about the bill.

“Despite the fact that this is sponsored in a bipartisan way there is no appetite in the leadership of the House of Representatives to move a voting rights act. We have to start thinking about other alternatives,” said Ornstein.

Panelists during the afternoon session on breaking down voting barriers also took aim at the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s recent report on the “American Voting Experience.” The commission’s report recommended increasing opportunities for eligible voters to register online, expanding early voting opportunities, upgrading the certification process for voting machines, and increasing training for poll workers.

The panelists acknowledged the limits of the report and noted the commission failed to tackle restrictive voter ID laws that swept in after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby v. Holder.

“The commission has no enforcement power. There’s also a question of whether or not the states are listening,” said Gilda Daniels, an associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore. “I don’t see the federal government passing any of these suggestions.”

STEM Education Gap Threatens American Economic Success

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – At a time when 6.7 percent unemployment (or, 11.9 percent among African Americans) is an improvement, the STEM sector still has more available jobs than qualified American professionals. And according to a study released last week, the United States’ will halt its economic success unless the racial gap in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is addressed.

The report, STEM Urgency: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education in an Increasingly Unequal and Competitive World, examines the inadequacy of STEM education, particularly among African Americans and Latinos, and how that inadequacy impacts U.S. economic power. The paper is presented by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank dedicated to research and policy analysis on issues affecting African Americans and other people of color.

The Joint Center also convened a panel last week to introduce the paper and discuss its findings.

According to the report, just 17 percent of degreed and employed Black professionals hold a STEM degree. In the field itself, African Americans make up just 3.9 percent of the ranks of all science and engineering occupations. White STEM professionals hold 71.8 percent of these jobs.

“While these trends are troubling for the nation overall, a disproportionate number of people of color—particularly African Americans and Hispanics—are even further away from becoming STEM-literate and having the ability to thrive in a hyper-competitive, global marketplace,” the report states. “Closing the gap in college graduation rates for African Americans and Hispanics could add a significant number of people to the workforce able to do jobs that require advanced skills and are in high-growth areas of the economy.”

Once the global pinnacle of innovation, the United States now ranks 47th in math and science education quality, according to the World Economic Forum. This dearth in quality STEM education and professional training has resulted in a few widespread problems.

For starters, students of color (excluding Asians)—even those who have the interest in and access to STEM training—tend to be discouraged from continuing their studies. The report points to a 2012 White House council study, which found that high-performing students consider available coursework “uninspiring.” It also found that 40 percent of the 1,226 female, African American, Hispanic and American Indian chemists and chemical engineers surveyed had had a teacher or employer discourage them at some point.

This discouragement is reflected in higher education. According to the report, if the proportion of Black and Hispanic students who earned science and engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2010 had been raised to the same rate as Asian science and engineering grads, 48,000 more graduates would have entered the STEM field that year alone. Additionally, the gaps in STEM education also have implications on employment. The national unemployment rate has been above five percent since the recession, peaking at 10.2 percent in 2009—or nearly 16 percent for African Americans. Meanwhile, jobs that depend on STEM skills will grow 17 percent in the next four years. As the study explains, “Individuals and families left behind might earn their way to better standards of living—but only if they have the skills to compete in a global economy. That is the opportunity STEM presents, in that STEM education gives people the wherewithal for employment in jobs that pay well.” For this reason, Joseph Miller, co-author of the study and deputy director and senior policy counsel of the Joint Center’s Media and Technology Institute, believes adults already in the workforce also need access to STEM training. “We need to talk about K-12 education and those investments have to be made, but we also need to put an eye toward lifelong learning,” he says. “We are culturally pessimistic about the versatility of the American worker.” That idea may be reflected in the influx of foreign-born skilled workers. Tech companies have had such trouble filling their ranks that they routinely hire via “temporary workers in specialty occupation” (H-1B) visas. According to the study, more than a third (35.6 percent) of all foreign-born Americans aged 25 and older with a science and/or engineering degree were born in India, China, or the Philippines. Also, the Obama Administration is currently seeking to strengthen the nation’s ability to attract overseas talent through administrative reforms in the Department of Homeland Security. In short, African Americans and Latinos represent a large pool of American potential talent that isn’t being developed. And with changing demographics—the Census predicts that the nation will be majority-minority by 2043—this underdevelopment will continue to hinder the nation’s ability to compete globally. “We’re talking about the implications on the future of our country,” Miller says. “We’re talking about building infrastructure, we’re talking about cybersecurity; we need Americans working on these things. And if we’re not investing in the communities that are going to be the majority, it’s foolhardy of us.” The study shies away from making specific recommendations, but does state that possible solutions will require public-private partnerships and investments. The authors hope their research will also be used to create effective legislation. “It’s a complicated problem, but it’s complicated not because we don’t know what works.” Miller explains. “It’s complicated for political reasons. We wish we had all the answers, but research will shed light on how policy should be designed.”

Black Unemployment Rises to 12.1 Percent

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The Black unemployment rate increased from 11.9 percent in December to 12.1 percent in January, according the Department of Labor’s latest monthly report.

At 12.1 percent the Black unemployment rate is nearly double the national unemployment rate of 6.6 percent. The unemployment rate for Black men over 20 years old jumped from 11.5 percent in December 2013 to 12 percent in January, compared to White men who experienced a decrease in their unemployment rate from 5.6 percent in December 2013 to 5.4 percent in January.

The jobless rate for Black women over 20 years old didn’t change from December to January, staying flat at 10.4 percent, compared to White women who saw their unemployment rate tick down from 5.3 percent in December to 5.2 percent in January.

Young Blacks, 16-19 years-old, continue to suffer the highest rate of unemployment among all worker groups at 38 percent. The jobless rate for Whites in the same age group is 17.5 percent. Many economists believe that lack of job experience during their teenage years, hinders Blacks from learning crucial job skills at a young age, stunting any future job prospects.

The labor force participation rate, the number of people who are either employed or looking for work, rose for all adult worker groups. In a statement on the jobs report, U.S. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez noted the increase in the labor force participation rate and the slowly shrinking unemployment rate as signs of economic progress in the flailing economy.

That progress has not trickled down to the Black community, where the jobless rate for Blacks is nearly twice the national average. The labor force participation rate also increased among Blacks, which may indicate that more Blacks were looking for jobs in January, but hadn’t found one.

Last Thursday, Republican senators buried a deal that would have extended unemployment benefits for 1.7 million Americans. Perez said that Congress remains a roadblock to progress.

On a post on the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities website Chad Stone, the center’s chief economist, wrote that, “Families rely on unemployment benefits to meet basic needs like food, health care, and housing while they look for work.”

Stone continued: “If Congress doesn’t restart the [long-term unemployment benefits], the number of affected workers will continue to climb each week, reaching 4.9 million by the end of the year.”

Stone wrote that jobless benefits go to people that spend the money quickly which has a positive effect on the overall economy.

“In fact, without the consumer spending that those benefits generated, the Great Recession would have been even deeper and the recovery even slower,” wrote Stone.

In an effort to find ways to spur job growth, last week, the Congressional Black Caucus announced plans to create a “Full Employment Caucus.” The caucus will “host expert economists and policymakers to discuss proven job-creation proposals and implement strategies for their adoption.”

In a statement on the creation of the caucus penned by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), the CBC members implored lawmakers to make job creation a top priority.

According to a report by the Macroeconomic Advisers, an independent economic research, partisan gridlock and budget cuts have stripped $700 billion from the economy and slashed 2 million jobs from the labor force.

“Achieving full employment isn’t only about helping jobless people. When we return to full employment, investors and businesspeople have more customers. When we return to full employment, workers have power to bargain for higher wages,” the statement said.

The CBC statement continued: “Finally, when we return to full employment, crime declines as desperate people gain a paycheck and a purpose.”

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