Black Faces

April 30, 2015

By: Anthony James

The characters of blackface have played a significant role in disseminating racist images, feelings, and perceptions worldwide. Desensitizing Americans to horrors of chattel slavery, these performances were lessons about the innocuousness of southern slavery. For more than one hundred years, the credence that blacks are an inferior species is fostered by multitudes of white performers in blackface.

In the United States’ early years, exaggerated red lips were painted around the mouths of white performers, like those of today’s circus clowns. In later years, their lips were usually painted white or unpainted. Costumes were usually gaudy combinations of formal wear; swallowtail coats, striped trousers, and top hats. Minstrel shows became hugely popular in the 1840s, exposing white audiences in the North to their first introduction to any depiction of black life. Minstrel show entertainment included imitating black music and dance and speaking in a “plantation” dialect. They would often feature a broad cast of characters: from Zip Coon, the educated free black man who pronounced everything incorrectly, to Mammy, a fat, black faithful slave who was really just obviously played by a man in a dress. Black children were depicted as unkempt and ill-raised pickaninnies. The joke about pickaninnies was that they were disposable; they were easily killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision. From 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows were unarguably the most popular form of entertainment in America, and it is possible that a resurgence of that old song and dance has once again become trendy.

The stigma left behind once the shows were no longer popular continued full steam ahead like a freight train filled with passionate disparagement of the Black people. Many white Americans during the time of the minstrels’ rise were already thinking in this regard, so to see it on stage for the purpose of entertainment gave the stereotypes life. Today, however, even with major steps in a more positive representation, the Black image remains stereotyped as if it were passed down hereditarily.

University of Florida students at a "Black Face party." Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

University of Florida students at a “Black Face party.” Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

From the University Of Florida to the University of California, Irvine to Arizona State University, blackface videos, images, and parties continue to pop up at predominantly white colleges across the United States. The people who attend these functions “dress like Black people,” wearing baggy jeans, gold chains and grills, bandanas, basketball jerseys, and more importantly is the blackface that puts the entire outfit together. Lets talk specifics, on Oct. 24, 2012 two members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the University of Florida wore blackface to a party called “rock stars and rappers.” The photos taken showed two men wearing thick gold chains, baseball caps and “pants that hang so low they show their boxer shorts.” Beta Theta Pi president Ethan McMahon said, “While their actions were not intended with any malice or ill will to any members of our community, clearly they were offensive, and we accept full responsibility accordingly.”

Following the trend, the fraternity at Arizona State University that decided to celebrate the national holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., by holding a party titled “MLK Black Party.” Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity attendees wore basketball jerseys, drank from cups made out of watermelons, and flashed gang signs for the camera. The idea of the party was for White students to “black out for MLK day.” Has this become more of an act of advanced ritualistic racism, or are young adults innocently and unknowingly making a mockery of Black history? The answer is not simple, but it does not matter because the outcome is the same.

Dartmouth College students at a "Blood and Crips" party. Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

Dartmouth College students at a “Blood and Crips” party. Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

In 2013, at Dartmouth College, a fraternity and sorority hosted a “Bloods and Crips” themed party. They invited attendees to dress up as either a Blood or Crip, referring to the notorious, predominately black street gangs based in Los Angeles. A partygoer described it as a “ghetto party” with racialized language, speech and dress.” She even acknowledged that over 200 individuals attended this event. Over 200 potential students “dressed as black people” attended and used slang-like language for the purpose of entertainment. However, the Fraternity made a statement saying, “The idea was never meant to be derogatory to any group, and was intended to introduce a costume theme to the party.”

As a student, my disappointment stems from the lack of empathy or effort to care about the consequences that stem from the actions demonstrated by my fellow colleagues, who represent the most prestigious of higher education facilities in the world. As a scholar, I understand that the best and the worst of history tend to repeat itself. However, as a member of the Black community, I am hurt. Hurt because of the constant refusal as humans to see ourselves in people who do not look like us. Some of these events felt racially inspired and prejudicially motivated, while others seemed clear that the parties involved had little cultural awareness or competency, and did not understand the historical implication of costuming in blackface. Either way the coin flips, the outcome is the same in the eyes of the communities forced to live the lives being depicted for amusement.

Even more disturbing are the locations in which these events are taking place. The future leaders of America are demonstrating the effects that black face had, and still has, on the depiction of Black life. While these are not acts of violent racist nature, how long before the ideas promoted by these caricatures spill over into something more sinister? The idea becomes a thought process, and the thought processes are then carried out in how you act and react. Before long, these seeds of thought become the very trees of public opinion in which Blacks were forced to hang from for years. To ignore that possibility is to ignore the very fabric of thought that brought this issue before us today. The new black face isn’t on television, you cannot find it on broad way at the theatre, instead it is what the future of America does on a Friday night.


Disenfranchisement of Felons

April 28, 2015

By: Adam Melrose

President Abraham Lincoln once said that democracy is government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The Merriam Webster dictionary defines democracy as “a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting.” By this logic, and by the language of the Fourteenth Amendment, it appears obvious that every citizen of the United States is afforded the right to vote. However, approximately 5.8 million legal citizens of the United States are unable to vote, barred from polling booths by state laws. These citizens are barred by laws that prevent those with felony convictions from voting. This removal of voting rights from convicted felons is known as felony disenfranchisement.

A Brief History

The practice of felony disenfranchisement is rooted in the common law of England through a social policy known as “civil death.” While the English used this doctrine to escheat a felon’s property to the state upon conviction, this practice of civil death in the United States was far more commonly applied to the removal of voting rights. While originally the removal of voting rights was reserved only for the conviction of crimes that were considered “egregious violations of the moral code,” states began to expand the penalty to a broader range of felonies in the 1870s. Some scholars believe that the rise in state disenfranchisement laws was a direct response to the elimination of the requirement that a citizen must hold property to vote. These scholars also believe felon disenfranchisement as an alternative method created by the wealthy to reduce the voting power of the lower classes.1

After the Civil War, some of the Southern states even tailored their felony disenfranchisement statutes to target crimes traditionally committed in a higher frequency by blacks. This racist approach was personified by laws in Mississippi that allowed murderers to vote, but disenfranchised those who committed crimes of theft or arson. While today it is unlikely that the old racist rationales for disenfranchisement exist to the same degree, the effects the laws have on modern society are similar to the effects felony disenfranchisement had in the past.

The Modern Effects

A disenfranchised population of 5.8 million people means that nearly two percent of the United States population is unable to vote. While at first blush this might seem like an insignificant number, it is estimated that had this disenfranchised population been able to vote, they would have affected the results of seven United States Senate races. In addition, Al Gore would have won the presidential election in 2000, as Florida would have been won by Al Gore instead of former President Bush.2 This is clearly a significant impact on the democratic system; a clear and obvious impact on any election caused by disenfranchisement is worrisome, and an election as important as a presidential election should make anyone sit up and take notice.

map of fd laws by state web

One of the core issues with the current system of felony disenfranchisement is that it is not limited to the period of time in which the citizen is serving active time in prison for their felony conviction. In fact, in the majority of states in the U.S., disenfranchisement continues through parole and probation, even though there is no practical hurdle to prevent these men and women from voting. Even worse, in twelve states, citizens convicted of felonies are prevented from voting even after they complete all court-mandated probation requirements. These people are again members of society, and they should have an equal voice in electing those who will shape the world around them.

There are even some indicators that civic participation, including voting, have a positive impact on recidivism rates. If nothing else, the clearly disproportionate impact that felony disenfranchisement laws have on communities of color should raise the question whether these laws are having their intended effects, whatever these intended effects may be. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one in five black adults is disenfranchised, unable to vote on issues that truly matter to them.3 There have been some legal challenges to felony disenfranchisement that have helped to change the tenor of the conversation, and these legal struggles continue today.

Legal Challenges to Felony Disenfranchisement

The primary way that felony disenfranchisement has been challenged has been the argument that disenfranchisement policies are unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The applicable section of the Fourteenth Amendment is as follows:

[n]o state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without the due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.4

 

Felons do not lose their citizenship, and citizens are allowed to vote. At face value, it would appear that since voting is a fundamental right of the United States democratic system, any law denying that right to vote “abridge[s] the privileges” of lawful citizens. However, the most recent Supreme Court case on point, Richardson v. Ramirez, more than forty years ago, held that the historical interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s intent was not to abolish felony disenfranchisement, as disenfranchisement existed at the time and there was no explicit mention of abolition.5 Notwithstanding this defeat in the highest court, some states have begun to move forward with policy reforms to felony disenfranchisement.

Reform: A State by State Effort

There is no doubt that much of the resiliency of felony disenfranchisement laws is the lack of exposure about how onerous the hurdles are that convicted felons must overcome to once again become a voting member of society. Recent public opinion surveys show that eighty percent of Americans support the re-establishment of voting rights for felons once they complete their sentence, and sixty percent of Americans support voting rights for those still on probation or parole. These numbers sit in stark contrast to the majority of states that have laws contrary to public opinion, and help to show that lack of exposure is a serious issue in the reform movement. This is especially true where the individuals most affected by felony disenfranchisement are themselves unable to vote for representatives sympathetic to their plight. This quandary alone shows the dysfunction in the felony disenfranchisement statutes structure, and some states in recent years have come to this realization, and begun to act accordingly.

In the past twenty years, eight states amended or repealed lifetime disenfranchisement laws, ten states have made it easier for convicted felons to enter into the restoration process, and two states expanded voting rights to citizens on probation or parole. North Carolina now requires state agencies to create a process where citizens can be more fully informed about their voting rights under North Carolina law. While states have made some strides to combat unfair felony disenfranchisement, the battle is nowhere near complete.

Regardless of any individual’s personal opinion on whether a person convicted of a felony should be allowed to vote, it is important that society has the conversation about the costs and benefits surrounding felony disenfranchisement. The benefits are nebulous in nature, and ridiculous in reality: preventing “bad people” from voting because bad people make bad decisions. But the benefits of allowing felons to vote are many: the restoration of the key right of democracy; the potential for reduced recidivism rates; a more complete voice of the people through the voting process; and a basic adherence to simple standards of equality. This is a conversation that should be had, and one that the very people under attack are unable to fix for themselves.

1 – Elliott, W. E. Y., The rise of guardian democracy: The Supreme Court’s role in voting rights disputes, 1845- 1969, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1974).

2 – Uggen, C. & Manza, J., Democratic contraction? Political consequences of felon disenfranchisement in the United States, American Sociological Review, 67 (6), 777-803 (2002).

3 – Uggen, C. & Manza, J., Voting and subsequent crime and arrest: Evidence from a community sample, Columbia Human Rights Law Review, 36 (1), 193-215 (2004).

4 – U.S. Const. Amend. XIV.

5 – Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24, 54-56 (1974).


Faking Change…

April 23, 2015

By: Suzette L. Steptoe

In 1619, the Dutch introduced the first Africans to America, planting the seeds of a slavery system that evolved into a nightmare of abuse and cruelty that would ultimately divide the nation. In simple economic terms, American colonists benefitted from slave labor as they were able to sell their goods on the open and global markets at rates far cheaper than their competitors. America’s westward expansion and the North’s growing abolition movement provoked a great debate over slavery that extended into the American Civil War. The war ended in 1865, and roughly four million slaves were set free. The end of slavery was a prominent achievement in human rights. But while many historians are quick to discuss the social, economic, political and judicial effects, they tend to overlook how America was founded, and still heavily relies upon, forced servitude.

Legally abolishing slavery prompted some of the former slaves to leave the southern states because the southern way of life undermined their new rights. Conversely, many stayed and to remain shows one of the impacts of slavery. For so long, Black people were born into and bred for slavery. After hundreds of years of being forced into a way of life, when that force was lifted, it may have been difficult for the freed people to “force” themselves to do or be something other than submissive. But some were stronger than others which resulted in conflicts arising between some of the newly freed slaves and the landowners. These freed men rightfully “expected the federal government to give them a certain amount of land as compensation for all the work they had done during the slavery era,” but the landowner’s only concern was to continue controlling the various markets and maintain their production rates. Out of this conflict arose a system of cheap labor known as sharecropping.

Sharecropping allowed families to rent small sections of land in return for a portion of the crops at the end of the year. The landowners charged these families exuberant fees for renting and using the land which included the cost of seed, equipment, and food. After the landowner deductions, even with a good harvest, sharecroppers could only afford to continue working the land and, in essence, remained enslaved. When landowner’s had growing concerns for what would happen should the freed men decide they no longer wanted to work land they did not own, the solution came in the form of new laws.

Laws known as “Black Codes” were passed to authorize the arrest and imprisonment of former slaves for “crimes” such as being unemployed. These codes taught the Southern states to use “the criminal justice system as a tool of racial control [by convicting and sentencing Blacks] under. . . unjust laws that criminalized them for [merely] existing as free Black citizens.” These codes marked the beginning of Black people having the most contact with the criminal justice system. And as most prisons were destroyed during the war, a huge problem arose regarding where and how to house these prisoners. With so many Blacks being imprisoned, the states realized they could eliminate some costs and, at the same time, increase revenues by leasing these Black prisoners to landowners. This system of convict leasing became another means of nearly free Black labor the landowners had at their disposal. By simply changing the title of slave to prisoner, landowner’s once again had free reign over Black men. And just like slavery, those Black men were “overworked, brutally whipped and even killed” while under the control of White landowners.

No chains, No change…

The mid-1980’s introduced the War on Drugs, an anti-drug effort which focused on urban, Black neighborhoods. Although there was no great difference in drug use and sales across racial lines, Blacks were more likely than Whites to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and incarcerated which resulted in the prison population tripling in thirty years. As Blacks are arrested three times as often as any other race and comprise fifty-nine percent of inmates incarcerated for drug-related offenses, these numbers indicate just how drug offenses have become the new Black Codes so it is not surprising that “for a Black man in his thirties, one in ten is in jail or prison on any given day. . . and one in three has the likelihood of a lifetime incarceration.”

Politicians and policy-makers created a so-called link between skin color and criminality and began to promulgate the idea that lawlessness was a “colored” problem. This hoopla resulted in a scheme known as racial profiling that used law enforcement as a tool to discriminate. The rates of minority, mostly Black men, arrests and convictions due to racial profiling indicates just how the legal system maintains the misleading link between criminality and race and focuses on those who have a lower claim to social resources. But several scholars warned that the prison industrial complex scheme was targeted at, and a detriment to, minorities and the underprivileged. In her article entitled, Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, activist, author, and tenured professor Angela Davis said, “imprisonment has become the [first response] to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are [hidden] in poverty. These problems often are. . . conveniently grouped together under the category “crime” and [this criminal behavior is automatically attributed] to people of color.” Seventeen years later, this still rings true.

With the rates at which Black men were imprisoned, prison overcrowding was inevitable. When problems arose regarding the financing of new prisons, for-profit, private prisons replaced the nineteenth century landowners. In the mid-1980’s, in conjunction with the War on Drugs, private prisons began contracting with governments to be paid monthly or per diem rates to house prisoners in its facilities. These contracts generally include occupancy requirements that mandate facilities to be kept at as much as eighty to 100 percent capacity at all times. Additionally, corporations such as the Corrections Corporation of America (“CCA”), the largest for-profit, private prison corporation in operation, retains the right to refuse inmates that are classified as disruptive or cost more to house like the physically or mentally ill .[i] As its name suggests, making a profit is the business of for-profit prisoning and this can only be accomplished by keeping beds full by any means necessary. With this at its helm, is there really a question as to why CCA co-chaired a task force that initiated a campaign to adopt harsher sentencing laws? Laws such as the “3 Strikes” law, which mandates life imprisonment for three felony convictions, and the “Truth in Sentencing” law, that requires inmates to serve eighty-five percent of their sentences before being considered for release all but guarantee prisons will burst at their seams while simultaneously stuffing the pockets of White, private prison executives such as George Zoley and Henry Wedell.[ii]

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In 2013, CCA posted nearly $1.7 billion in revenue in one quarter alone and in that same three month period, CCA earned $300 million in profits. Not a bad gig if you can get it. But if that ain’t enough, due to government contracts, 100 percent of that money came from taxpayer dollars. However, and unfortunately, corporations are not the only ones profiting from convictions, incarceration rates and unjust imprisonment. Members of the legal community are cashing in on this cow too. In 2011, a Pennsylvania judge participated in a conspiracy to unjustly incarcerate juvenile offenders in private detention centers owned and operated by his friends. This collusion netted millions of dollars. After being convicted of accepting bribes, the judge was rightfully sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison.

Private prisons are simply convict leasing with greater profit margins. More than thirty-seven states have passed laws permitting the use of convict labor by commercial enterprises such as Dell, Intel, Nordstrom’s, Target Stores, and many more. Companies will gladly pay inmates, on average, around two dollars a day to enjoy the fruits of investing in inmate labor. For these corporations, inmate labor is like finding a pot of gold as inmate labor means corporations never have to worry about employee strikes, unemployment insurance, vacations, late arrivals or absences, or family issues. Financially, corporations have no need to worry about profit shortages as incarceration rates lead to an overwhelmingly, increasing prison population that guarantees a steady labor force.

Governments and corporations maintain that through work schedules and salaries, inmate work programs make inmates productive, moral and turn prisoners into “real people with real ambition.” Most inmates will not argue against programs designed to reduce idleness or assist in providing marketable skills, work experience and wages. However, inmate work programs have long since subtracted any sort of inmate development initiatives from the equation and added commercial gain as it is now commonplace for economies to totally rely on inmate labor to the detriment of their communities. In 2013, when the Robeson County Correctional Center (“RCCC”) in Lumberton, North Carolina, closed its doors, officials were worried about how to compensate for the lost work generated by inmate labor. Twenty-six inmates were each paid one dollar a day for work that would cost the county $750,000 a year in non-inmate salaries. RCCC depended on inmate labor to such a large extent that officials considered employing inmates from surrounding counties as opposed to hiring non-inmates. It is choices such as these that speak directly to the nation’s unemployment rates. But what if an inmate decided he did not want to work or would not work for the wages offered? Well, quite frankly, he would be placed in segregation until he complied, labeled “uncooperative” and transferred to a less “desirable” facility and/or risk losing any good time earned. And how ironic is it that inmates are forced to work for companies that, because of their convictions, these same companies would refuse to hire once released? Reminiscent of sharecroppers working lands they would never actually own?

The United States’ leads the world in incarceration rates. With a 500 percent increase over the last forty years, [iii] inmates have become hot commodities for governments and corporations alike. Although inmate labor is a new form of inhumane exploitation that has been condemned by human rights, political and social organizations, government contracts with private for-profit prisons have bred inmates to be the mechanisms for the high profit margins of big businesses. Any time a person is commanded to work without being provided just compensation, an obvious human rights violation occurs. The Black man has withstood centuries of use and abuse due to America’s history of implementing policies directed at Black men that yield nearly free labor. These policies continue as corporations and governments that continue to support inmate work programs have, inherently, brought slavery full circle.

“There’s no such thing as free. There are only different and more horrible ways to be enslaved.”     

Lauren DeStefano

[i]  Andy Kroll, This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall, Mother Jones, http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/09/private-prisons-occupancy-quota-cca-crime (Last visited March 27, 2015).

[ii]  Beau Hodai, Corporate Con Game: How the private prison industry helped shape Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, http://inthesetimes.org/article/6084/corporate_con_game (Last visited March 27, 2015); Ray Downs, Who’s Getting Rich off the Prison-Industrial Complex?http://www.vice.com/read/whos-getting-rich-off-the-prison-industrial-complex (Last visited March 26, 2015).

[iii] E. Ann Carson and Daniela Golinelli, Prisoners in 2012-Advance Counts, U.S. Department of Justice: Bureau of Justice Statistics, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p12ac.pdf. (Last visited March 27, 2015).


The “Miseducation” of The Black-Student Athlete

April 16, 2015

By: Anthony James

And since all the ballers leaving college early, I turn on the T.V. and don’t see no brothers with degrees lately…” sung rap artist J.Cole during a performance on David Letterman. As the lyrics spoke directly to me and a few other young former black student-athletes in attendance that night, I began to wonder just how true that assertion was.

The academic underperformance and underrepresentation of black men in NCAA Division 1 colleges and universities aren’t matters of concern to campus leaders and policy makers. Often lost in the lulling disguise of diversity, except when campus statistics explicitly reminds us of it, is the fact that there is one place where black men are not underrepresented on many campuses. On sports teams, particularly football and men’s basketball, black males make up just 2.8% of the student bodies at these schools, yet represented an astounding 57.1% of football players and 64.3% of basketball players.[1] The disparity of non-athletic black students versus athletic black students on Division 1 college campuses signals an exploitation of the athletic ability of these black student athletes for profit, and graduation rates display a disdain for the nurturing of their academic potential.

Photo courtesy of Deadspin.com.

Photo courtesy of Deadspin.com.

The focus on athletic performance rather than the student-athlete’s overall academic experience causes many athletic programs to recruit players that, while athletically talented, are not equipped to succeed academically. The statistics showing that black athletes graduate at lower rates than other black students attending the same institutions illuminate the fact that black student athletes are not recruited using the same level of academic scrutiny as every other student. Collegiate institutions recruit these players and then profit from their athletic abilities as the players mainly focus on becoming professional athletes. Although many student-athletes aspire to play professional sports after college, the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft fewer than 2% of student-athletes of all races each year.[2]

According to a recent study of the 76 largest programs in collegiate athletics in the 6 conferences whose member institutions customarily win football, basketball championships, and play in multimillion-dollar bowl games, just 50.2% of all black athletes in revenue producing sports graduate within six years. Racial inequities in Division 1 universities across America are evidenced by the schools’ acceptance rates, let alone their graduation rates. What is shocking, however, is that these trends are so widespread, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and athletics conference commissioners have done little to nothing in response to them. Even more egregious is the response–or lack thereof–from the American public, including former black student-athletes, college sports enthusiasts, and journalists, who have more than accepted this to be the norm.

The NCAA made approximately $912.8 million last year, with 83% of that coming from Division 1 college basketball tournaments. In light of these tremendous earnings, however, NCAA has an amateurism policy that does not allow students to be compensated for their efforts on or off the court while in college. Instead they go by the “pay-for-play” motto, which loosely stands for the idea that a full ride scholarship or partial scholarship for the athlete’s education is payment enough.

Even in light of major concerns with that application, I’m inclined to agree with the overall fairness of that contractual transaction in theory. A college degree is something so many bright young Americans struggle to afford, let alone attain. But where is the equal exchange for the black-student athletes that do not graduate from these Division 1 institutions who make millions a year off of their jersey sales, television revenue, ticket prices, likeness promotions and contributions to the win column?

This national issue becomes a national racial issue for two reasons. First, because black-male student athletes make up more than half of the sports teams at these schools, it is fair to assume that they are the majority affected by its decision-making. Second, while the entire student-athlete body is potentially comprised of victims of capitalism at its finest, white-male student athletes are twice as likely to graduate within four years. Therefore, white-student athletes are arguably receiving just compensation, in the form of a degree for their work on the field and court. The African-American community, or American community for that matter, is not looking for and does not expect the NCAA and Department of Education leaders to create a simple solution to this problem. There isn’t one. The assumption of responsibility by the NCAA and Division 1 institutions for these more than marginal racial gaps in the opportunity of higher education for black-male student athletes is all that is being called for.

[1] Comeaux, E., & Harrison C. K., Faculty and Male Student Athletes: Racial Differences in the Environmental Predictors of Academic Achievement, Race, Ethnicity and Education, 10(2), 199-214 (2007).

[2] Id.


“A monumental day for not just civil rights, but human rights and human dignity”

February 12, 2015

Less than two weeks ago these powerful words were uttered by Bernice King, the great Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter, in a courtroom just down the road from our law school. In this same courtroom, even the presiding judge, Judge John C. Hayes III, announced: “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.”

What happened in the courthouse to illicit such powerful statements? A group of young men, known as the “Friendship Nine,” were vacated from their convictions of over fifty years ago. The Friendship Nine was made up of David Williamson, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Willie Thomas “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, Mack Workman and Robert McCullough. On January 31, 1961, these eight young black men from Friendship College, along with Civil Rights activist Gaither, carried out a sit-in at a lunch counter of the five and dime store in Rock Hill, SC, now the site of the Five & Dine. All nine were charged with misdemeanor trespassing charges.

Five of the Friendship Nine members sit at the lunch counter of the Five & Dine in Rock Hill on December 17, 2014. Photo courtesy of Jason Miczek/Reuters/Landov.

Five of the Friendship Nine members sit at the lunch counter of the Five & Dine in Rock Hill on December 17, 2014. Photo courtesy of Jason Miczek/Reuters/Landov.

The Friendship Nine’s sit-in quickly became a hallmark for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, as they initiated the “Jail No Bail” protests nationwide. This form of protest means that jail time is chosen over paying court fines. The Friendship Nine were sentenced to 30 days of shoveling sand at a prison camp. The idea that these nine clean-shaven young college men were shoveling sand in prison, sparked a movement across the South. Suddenly, there was a reinvigorated effort to end segregation, and to do so by not just paying the monetary consequences that challenges to the law would impose.

The Friendship Nine has a very special quality to them. Not only did they reinvigorate the movement across the South, but when these sentences were recently vacated, even the courtroom players were symbolic: Judge Hayes is the nephew of the judge who handed down the original sentence; Ernest A. Finney, Jr., the original lawyer who defended the case on behalf of the Friendship 9, came back and represented them again; and the prosecutor for the State, Kevin Brackett, apologized profusely on behalf of South Carolina.

Along with the court’s multiple statements made regarding the importance of “righting” history and vacating these judgments, the court is allowing this case to live on. Every state has some kind of recordkeeping system in place that destroys criminal records after a certain number of years. For this case in particular, however, Mr. Brackett asked that these records be maintained so that the men would be remembered in history forever. When consenting to this request, Judge Hayes stated, “This will remain part of our history as corrected.” We, in our own experience here at the Clinic, have run into more than enough destroyed records issues when trying to help people seek relief of their past convictions. The fact that these records are being maintained shows the true importance and value the State of South Carolina has placed on the case of the Friendship Nine.

 

Stay tuned… We are working to cover this impactful story further!


No Class for Low Class

February 3, 2015

By: Johnny Hollis

In reflecting on the transition from an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) to law school, I realized that highlighting disparities based on race alone totally missed the point of what the real issue is in our country.[1]  That issue is the socioeconomic challenge that widens the gap between those who can escape poverty through educational means.   There are many American citizens forced to live under the oppression of poverty because of socioeconomic challenges that rob them of the chance of obtaining an education.

1

How Does Socioeconomic Status Affect Education?

Socioeconomic status is the measure of influence that the social environment has on individuals, families, communities, and schools.[2]  Most of the time it is simply referred to as class, and is a strong indicator of performance in academic settings.  Socioeconomic status is often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation, and is conceptualized as the social standing or class of an individual or group.  When viewed through a social class lens, privilege, power, and control are emphasized.[3]

A student who comes from a higher socioeconomic status has the greatest opportunity to succeed in academic studies.  Their parents are in a position to encourage creativity and extended studies.  The student has less financial worries and is able to focus solely on the academic challenges and tools presented.  The student is confident, poised, and excels without much external interference.[4]

As with other areas of life, a person who grew up in a lower class may have to overcome challenges such as maintaining health, a living area, transportation, and adequate food.  The simplest tasks become monumental because the power of money cannot be used to cross the hurdle.  For example, a young man who came from a poor family cannot call home and ask his parents to buy his books.  So either he must use the books in the library (which are in short supply and high demand), or he must work more in order to purchase his books, both of which may detract from his study time.  Additionally, if he is placed in a position where there is no on-campus housing, then he likely has worry about paying rent and utilities on top of tuition and other academic expenses.  While his wealthy colleague has a parent who may generously pay for living expenses, the poor student has to work in order to live.

2

When it comes to the classroom, instructors often do not understand the reason that a student may have to work, or why a student is sleepy or not performing well.  The instructor can only perceive that the student is on edge and is performing poorly in the class.  An oft-proclaimed mantra is: a student is responsible for his own future.  Failure to succeed can be perceived as laziness or incompetence.  It is difficult to relate to the poor student without an understanding of the systemic imperatives that deflect, detract, and deter poor students from escaping the cycle of poverty.

Paul Gorski, an associate professor in New Century College and a Research Fellow in the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, states that:

If we convince ourselves that poverty results not from gross inequities (in which we might be complicit) but from poor people’s own deficiencies, we are much less likely to support authentic antipoverty policy and programs. Further, if we believe, however wrongly, that poor people don’t value education, then we dodge any responsibility to redress the gross education inequities with which they contend. In our determination to “fix” the mythical culture of poor students, we ignore the ways in which our society cheats them out of opportunities that their wealthier peers take for granted. We ignore the fact that poor people suffer disproportionately the effects of nearly every major social ill. They lack access to health care, living-wage jobs, safe and affordable housing, clean air and water, and so on—conditions that limit their abilities to achieve to their full potential.[5]

How Do We Move Forward

Historically, our nation has experienced difficulty in providing the tools needed to achieve “the American dream.”  While schools are plentiful, the cost of college education continues to skyrocket.  Since 1985, the college education costs have risen over 500%.  This deters the amount of poor students who attempt to achieve a college degree.  These rising costs also leave those who do attend college with an even greater debt.  According to U.S. News, over 25% of graduate students will graduate with college debt that tops $100,000.  As our nation moves forward, we could advocate for making college education more affordable, while restructuring our public assistance programs towards promoting post-secondary education.

The Washington Post writes that Germany eliminated or significantly reduced tuition because they understood that the rise in cost “discourage[s] young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up study . . . and [ensures] that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge.” [6]   In France’s public institutions, undergraduate tuition is based on the income of a student’s parents.  Meanwhile, in Sweden, one of the richest countries in the world, PhD programs are completely free.

Perhaps the United States is far from reaching a point in its politics and social policies to allow for the free education programs that are provided in Germany, France, and Sweden.  However, we can challenge the current public assistance regulations and incentivize recipients who return to school and learn a trade or earn a professional degree.  If we can at least make college education and graduate studies more affordable, this will be a huge step towards abolishing the obstacles that create no class for low class.

[1] http://www.ed.gov/edblogs/whhbcu/one-hundred-and-five-historically-black-colleges-and-universities/

[2] http://www.education.com/reference/article/socioeconomic-status/

[3] http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/factsheet-education.aspx

[4] http://www.education.com/reference/article/socioeconomic-status/

[5] http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr08/vol65/num07/The-Myth-of-the-Culture-of-Poverty.aspx

[6] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/29/7-countries-where-americans-can-study-at-universities-in-english-for-free-or-almost-free/


Public Education: A Right Entitled to All

January 19, 2015

By: Brandon Pierce

Today was the day: Kevin’s first day of school.  Ten years old, gifted, and sitting with his pencil in hand—Kevin was ready.  The teacher came before the class and gave the instructions for the first assignment:

Gawd muwrein!  I clike fund ans he book? If topher largetwen to climbegan.  What limse anders plast forh.”

One fact I forgot to mention is that Kevin didn’t speak English.  He didn’t even speak Spanish, or any other well-known language in the United States.  Kevin was from a small Guatemalan village where one of over fifty ancient Mayan languages was spoken.  But there he was, in his first American classroom, receiving his American education.

Kevin is one of the over 68,000 unaccompanied minors that have entered the United States illegally since October 2013.  In November 2014, the U.S. Department of Education issued a fact sheet that outlines the basics about the illegal, unaccompanied minors’ rights.  As detailed in the fact sheet, once these minors have been apprehended in the U.S., they are put in the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) custody.  While in HHS custody, the children are sheltered in government centers where they receive educational services.  Most children, like Kevin, are released into the United States under the custody of a family member or legal guardian (known as a ‘sponsor’).  While in the guardian’s care, these children attend classes in public schools, often times without knowledge of the English language.  But who would allow such a thing?  The United States Supreme Court would!

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America: Home of the Educated

“Denial of an education is the analogue of denial of the right to vote: the former relegates the individual to second-class social status; the latter places him at a permanent political disadvantage.” – Justice Marshall (Plyler v. Doe)

In June 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court Justices held in Plyler v. Doe that no state should constitutionally deny any person a free public education on account of his immigration status.  Put simply, undocumented children have the same right to a public education as U.S. citizens.

This issue arose out of restrictive Texas education laws.  With regard to undocumented children, Texas education laws mandated that the state: (1) withhold funds otherwise meant for educating children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States and (2) deny enrollment to those children in Texas public schools.

What did it mean to be “legally admitted” in the United States?  Pursuant to state policy, a person was legally admitted if he: (1) presented documentation demonstrating he was legally present in the United States, or (2) federal immigration officials confirmed such documentation was in the process of being obtained.  Ultimately, a group of students from Mexico that did not satisfy the “legally admitted” criteria filed a lawsuit to challenge the Texas education laws.  The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  There, Texas’s education laws were held unconstitutional.

The Court based its rationale on the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  More specifically, the Court referenced a provision referred to as the “Equal Protection Clause.”  That clause states, “No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  Therefore, unaccompanied children in the United States are entitled to public education.

New York State of Mind

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”                          – Emma Lazarus

Let us consider New York City (NYC): the proverbial gateway into America’s land of opportunity.  For the 2014-15 academic school year, NYC public schools have enrolled over 2,000 unaccompanied minors.  Like Kevin, many of these children have never had one English language course.  To combat this dilemma, NYC schools have implemented the English Language Learners (ELLs) program.  ELLs is a bilingual program that promotes the social and academic development of students who have recently arrived to the U.S. without proficient English skills.  Devora Kaye, NYC’s Department of Education spokeswoman, endorses such progressive actions, reaffirming the Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe.  She asserts the department’s belief that “every child has a right to a great education, and we are committed to providing children who have escaped violence with the academic foundation and access to services that they need to establish a path to long-term achievement.”

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By contrast, not all of New York’s actions have shown a general consensus toward the notion of “education for all.”  New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reviewed approximately 20 percent of the state’s school districts.  Within those districts, the NYCLU discovered that the majority has assembled arduous barriers for undocumented students, thus, potentially preventing their enrollment.  Consider this: seventy-three New York school districts require birth certificates for enrollment.  (Nineteen of those districts require the “original” birth certificate.)  In response, the NYCLU urged state education officials to formulate a model universal enrollment form and list of permissible evidentiary documents.  This is meant to develop uniformity within the state’s education system.

What Does This Mean for Other Children like Kevin?

Analysts are certain that more unaccompanied children are coming, but what is unclear is how they will be welcomed.  This dilemma must be met with an unwavering commitment to U.S. values and standards.  Equality and justice have long been the staple of America’s uniqueness.  If we deny those considerations to all mankind, then we have given up our uniqueness in the world.  In sports language, we have forfeited.  In war language, we have surrendered.  In scientific language, we have become neutral.  In short, we have compromised our national value.  Let us reclaim our true selves through equality and justice because education is a right entitled to all!


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