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US House hears testimony on voter discrimination

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — Since the Democrats took control of the U.S. House last November, their efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA) — gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision — have continued despite entrenched Republican opposition. On Sept. 10, the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties once again focused the nation’s attention on the VRA with a hearing titled “Evidence of Current and Ongoing Voting Discrimination.”

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United Staes Capitol (Photo by: Wiki Commons)

By Benjamin Barber

(Special from Facing South) — Since the Democrats took control of the U.S. House last November, their efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA) — gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision — have continued despite entrenched Republican opposition.

On Sept. 10, the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties once again focused the nation’s attention on the VRA with a hearing titled “Evidence of Current and Ongoing Voting Discrimination.”

Witnesses included several prominent civil rights leaders: Derrick Johnson, NAACP president; Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties’ Voting Rights Project; Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, and Natalie A. Landreth, senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund.

Also on the panel was J. Christian Adams, president and general counsel of the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation and a former member of the Justice Department under the Bush administration. Adams has been known to spread false and exaggerated claims about voter fraud.

The witnesses began by reporting their findings of ongoing voter discrimination at the state and local level.

After the Supreme Court effectively struck down the Section 5 of the VRA that required states and counties with a history of voting discrimination — most of them in the South — to get federal preclearance for election law changes, Republican state lawmakers began promoting restrictive voting laws that explicitly targeted voters of color. Of the 13 Southern states, 11 adopted such laws in Shelby’s wake. Among them are states that were covered in whole by the preclearance requirement, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, as well as those covered in part, such as North Carolina.

“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously warned about the Supreme Court’s decision striking down a part of the voting rights act was like, quote, throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm, and sure enough, after the decision a downpour came with a wave of discriminatory voting laws,” said the ACLU’s Ho. Among them were measures that required voter ID, scaled back early voting periods, cut polling locations, restricted absentee ballots, and limited voter registration.

Gupta, who previously led the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, emphasized the impact of polling place closures on voter turnout. She referenced a report recently released by The Leadership Conference that examined polling places in 750 counties once covered by Section 5. It found that 1,688 polling places were closed between 2012 and 2018, largely in Black communities. Polling place closures often lead to long lines, voter confusion, and transportation challenges.

“Without preclearance, states are under no obligation to evaluate the discriminatory impacts and potential harms of polling place closures,” said Gupta.

The NAACP’s Johnson pointed out that without preclearance and a responsive Justice Department the burden of combating voting discrimination has fallen on legal organizations and voting rights activists. “Our branches and members are asked to do what used to be the job of the federal government — protect the right to vote,” he said. “To be clear, we’re fighting back wherever and whenever we can. This is not sustainable. Congress must step up to combat this nation’s epidemic.”

Noting that prior to Shelby jurisdictions had to clear changes to their purge practices with the Justice Department, the Brennan Center’s Perez reported that almost 16 million people were removed from the voting rolls between 2014 and 2016. “It’s difficult to address the effects of bad purges until it is too late,” she said. “That’s why Section 5’s preclearance process is well tailored to address not only voter discrimination and other forms but the purge problem specifically”

Landreth focused on how losing preclearance protections has affected Native American voters. In the first election after Shelby in formerly preclearance-covered Arizona, for example, Maricopa County reduced the number of polling places from hundreds down to about 60 in 2016, resulting in voters standing in line for as long as six hours to cast a ballot. The voters were forced to sue to get polling places reopened.

“Why do these voters have to sue to not wait in a four- to six-hour line?” asked Landreth. “Because preclearance is gone.”

Besides detailing problems, the hearing also considered solutions — and all of the witnesses agreed that restoring Section 5 of the VRA was critical. There are currently several bills in Congress that would restore the VRA, all of them stalled in the legislative process because of inaction by Republican leaders.

“Make no mistake — Congress has ample evidence [of the need] to restore the Voting Rights Act to its full strength,” said Johnson. “No one can deny the strong record that supports immediate passage.”

This article originally appeared in the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, www.southernstudies.org. The Institute for Southern Studies is a nonprofit research and media center that exposes injustice, strengthens democracy and builds a community for change in the South.

This article originally published in the September 16, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

This article originally appeared in The Louisiana Weekly.

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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