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When the past is present…


Discovering Black America’s Jailed Gems

By Jarrett L. Carter,

It’s no secret that black and brown men are leading the numbers of incarcerated in America, but what is a mystery is how this country plans to rehabilitate its inmates.

black-man-laptop-Brand X Pictures

Photo credit: Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Enter Southern University System President Ron Mason and his “Five Fifths Agenda for America,” which proposes that HBCUs take a vested interest in the intellectual lives of prisoners.

Enter Southern University System President Ron Mason and his “Five Fifths Agenda for America,” which proposes that HBCUs take a vested interest in the intellectual lives of prisoners. “Try to envision most HBCUs making the investment in admissions and recruitment to uncover the ‘hidden stars;’ Black men who don’t have the test scores or grades to qualify for regular admission, but have demonstrated a talent and character indicating a solid probability of college completion and life success.”

Read more here.


Bobby Jindal Appeals Ruling On Bernette Johnson, Black Supreme Court Justice

By Kathy Finn of Reuters, in the Huffington Post

NEW ORLEANS, Sept 8 (Reuters) – Lawyers for Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have challenged a U.S. federal judge’s ruling that would allow a black state supreme court justice to become the court’s next chief justice.

Bobby Jindal

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Jindal, who is Indian-American, on Friday asked an appeals court to review a lower-court decision to allow black justice Bernette Johnson’s to succeed a white chief justice retiring next year. The dispute over whether Johnson should be the first black justice to head the Louisiana court has highlighted long-standing racial tensions in the state.

In a statement released by one of his lawyers, Jindal said the matter should be settled by the Louisiana Supreme Court and the federal government should not be involved. A lawyer for Johnson called Jindal’s position a throwback to the days when Southern states used the principle of “states rights” as a smokescreen for racism.

Read more here.


Today Marks the Founding of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History

From the ASALH website

Dr. Carter G. Woodson  (1875-1950), known as the “Father of Black History,” founded the ASALH (Association for the Study of African American Life and History) on this day in 1915.


Carter G. Woodson, son of former slaves, earned his PhD from Harvard and came to be called the “Father of Black History.” He founded ASALH in 1915.

The son of former slaves, Woodson understood how important gaining a proper education is when striving to secure and make the most out of one’s divine right of freedom. Although he did not begin his formal education until he was 20 years old, his dedication to study enabled him to earn a high school diploma in West Virginia and bachelor and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago in just a few years. In 1912, Woodson became the second African American to earn a PhD at Harvard University.

Under Woodson’s pioneering leadership, ASALH created research and publication outlets for black scholars with the establishment of the Journal of Negro History (1916) and the Negro History Bulletin (1937), which garners a popular public appeal.

In 1926, Dr. Woodson initiated the celebration of Negro History Week, which corresponded with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  In 1976, this celebration was expanded to include the entire month of February, and today Black History Month garners support throughout the country as people of all ethnic and social backgrounds discuss the black experience.  ASALH views the promotion of Black History Month as one of the most important components of advancing Dr. Woodson’s legacy.

The organization continues Woodson’s legacy of speaking a fundamental truth to the world – that Africans and peoples of African descent are makers of history and co-workers in what W. E. B. Du Bois called, “The Kingdom of Culture.” ASALH’s mission is to create and disseminate knowledge about Black History, to be the nexus between the Ivory Tower and the global public.


The Gift, by Charles Bibbs.

In honor of all the work that Dr. Carter G. Woodson has done to promote the study of African American History, an ornament of Woodson hangs on the White House’s Christmas tree each year.

ASALH is holding its 97th annual convention in Pittsburgh PA from September 26 to 30th on the theme: Black Women in American Culture and History.


When Family Trees Are Gnarled by Race

By Brent Staples in the New York Times

DNA testing and access to electronic databases make it easier now to uncover the truth of family origins. But the news has tended to focus on the white ancestors of black families, and far less so on the hidden black forebears and their “white” descendants. Even now, discoveries of black ancestors in white family histories generate surprise.

That was the case in the announcement earlier this summer by, an online genealogy company, that President Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, a white woman born in Kansas, was very likely related to John Punch, a black man who lived in Virginia in the mid-17th century. Punch, a well-known figure in the history of slavery, was one of three runaway servants — the other two were a Dutchman and a Scot — who were captured in Maryland, returned to their master and hauled into a Virginia court.

The Dutchman and the Scot had their terms of service extended, but the court ruled that the “Negro named John Punch” would serve said master for life. The difference in their treatment led historians to view Punch as a figure whose story crystallized early attitudes toward the Negro and anticipated the formal legal and social constructs that would be used to justify chattel slavery.

To avoid an increasingly hostile legal climate, one branch of the Punch family decamped to North Carolina, where its members were recorded as “mulatto” in early records. Another branch that remained in Virginia — and became known as white — eventually migrated to the frontier, forming part of the Dunham family line.

All of this makes for interesting reading. But the anguish that families often endured when close relations cut them off in the process of shedding their colored identities cannot be overstated.

Imagine being rejected by a parent, sibling or child for racial reasons and you get some sense of the suffering that befell black families whose members set sail into whiteness, never to be heard from again.

Read the full article here.

Additional Resources

Williams, Gregory Howard. Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, 1996.

Broyard, Bliss. One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets, 2007.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, 1912/1995.


Michelle Obama’s DNC Dress Designed by African-American Designer Tracy Reese

By Jorge Rivas of

First Lady Michelle Obama’s dress at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday was designed by designer Tracy Reese.


First lady Michelle Obama takes the stage during day one of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mrs. Obama wore a custom designed dress by designer Tracy Reese. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Reese, 48, is originally from Detroit, Michigan, and a graduate of New York City’s Parsons School of Design. Before launching her own label, Reese was head of the Women’s Portfolio for Perry Ellis.

“I found out Mrs. Obama was wearing one of our designs when she stepped out on stage to make her beautiful speech,” Reese told Entertainment Weekly. “In the midst of [New York Fashion Week] preparations, seeing [her] in one of my designs was a truly extraordinary moment.”

“This particular fabric is a rich Italian silk jacquard in a great formal design,” Reese went on to point out about the one-of-a-kind dress.


Rep. Emanuel Cleaver Ditches Prepared Speech and Takes DNC to Church

By Jorge Rivas of

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, ditched his prepared DNC remarks half way through his speech on Wednesday night and urged Obama to “hope on!” [Congressman Cleaver was famously spit upon by a Tea Party protester while walking to the Capitol in March 2010 to vote on the healthcare reform bill.]

[Watch Rep. Cleaver's entire address, or begin at about 5 minutes into the speech to see the unscripted portion – and the very enthusiastic audience response to it.]

“There is something essential in the human spirit that searches for hope. We are driven by hope,” said Cleaver. “President Barack Obama has been lampooned for speaking of hope; hope for a better America. I want to encourage our president and all of us to continue to hope for an America that remembers, recognizes, and fervently protects its greatness.”

“Yes, Mr. President, hope on. Continue to hope, Mr. President,” Cleaver, who is also a United Methodist pastor, went on to say.


New Study Confirms Racial Bias in Criminal Sentencing

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Taking a fresh approach to long-standing problem in the study of crime, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor and colleagues at the University of Chicago and Harvard University have demonstrated conclusively for the first time that racial bias affects judicial sentencing decisions….

LA prisoners NewOrleansTimesPicayune

Prisoners in a Louisiana jail

In their study, they take advantage of the fact that the criminal justice system randomly assigns cases to judges. “What that means,” Abrams says, “is that if you have a large enough sample of cases, on average across judges they’re going to get the same types of cases, meaning the same mix of race of the defendant, the same mix of crimes.  Everything about the cases, assuming they’re randomly assigned, should be the same on average for each judge, including the variables we can’t observe.”

Working with a large data set of felony cases from Cook County, IL, the investigators use a statistical technique called a Monte Carlo simulation to show that judges take race into account in their sentencing decisions.

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

They look at what they call the “racial gap” in sentencing – the difference between sentences for black defendants and white defendants – and find that it varies across judges, showing that race is affecting sentencing decisions. “We find evidence of significant inter-judge disparity in the racial gap in incarceration rates, providing support for the model where at least some judges treat defendants differently based on their race,” Abrams and his co-authors note in the study. “The magnitude of this effect is substantial. The gap in incarceration rates between White and African-American defendants increases by 18 percentage points (compared to a mean incarceration rate of 51% for African-Americans and 38% for Whites) when moving from the 10th to 90th percentile judge in the racial gap distribution.”

Read more about the study here.

Read a review of Michelle Alexander’s book here.


A Ballot Box Tactic Has Deep Historical Roots

By Sherrilyn A. Ifill in

In states from Florida to Pennsylvania, Republican Party efforts to diminish minority voting strength for this year’s presidential election are a sobering reminder that the struggle for full civil rights is not over. But  It is, at its core, an attempt to negate the important victories of the early 1960s that laid the foundation of our modern representative democracy….

By 1966, after the [poll tax, literacy and "understanding" tests,] and other barriers had been removed by the Supreme Court and by the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we’d begun the decades-long battle — still under way — to ensure that state and federal officials would enforce the laws that the Supreme Court had upheld. Once these structural barriers to voting were removed, those Southern white Dixiecrats (who formed the base of the modern post-civil rights Republican Party) committed to maintaining their political power and shifted their tactics to adjust to the new normal.

Because black and urban voters now proved a crucial vote in elections throughout the country, the politics of race-based fear increased and spread rapidly to the North. There, entrenched powers also sought to marginalize the potential for new voters to change the political landscape….

[T]he Republican war on voting should not be viewed solely through the lens of race. Instead it should be seen as part of a larger attack on political participation, with deep historical roots that hark back to the darkest days of American democracy. Combined with the effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Republican voter-suppression efforts are a sobering reminder that we are only half a century removed from the time when, in many states, voting strength was based on race, wealth and place. These new voter-suppression tactics bring us perilously close to reliving those days.

This is what voter fraud really looks like, and all Americans, not just African Americans, stand to lose.

Read more here.

To gain an even greater understanding, see our exhibit Political Parties in Black and White.


The Case of the Disappearing Black Voter

By Sasha Issenberg in Slate

Sixty percent of Milwaukee’s black voters have disappeared.


Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Democrats have feared for years that one of the particular challenges of running campaigns in 2012 would be simply locating their voters.  The party’s constituencies (young people, immigrants, minorities) tend to be among the most mobile demographic groups.  And as NPR speculated this week in an analysis of battleground-state foreclosure figures, the housing crisis will likely only have made things more difficult for Democrats looking for their supporters.

New data from Milwaukee give an indication of how dire the Democrats’ disappearing-voter problem already is….Starting in April, [canvassers] spent eight weeks knocking on 120,882 doors across 208 of Milwaukee’s 317 wards to raise awareness of the gubernatorial recall election scheduled for June.  The doors had one thing in common: the voter file said they were all home to a registered voter whom a commercial data vendor had flagged as likely to be African-American.

boarded up house

RICHMOND, CA – JUNE 14: Weeds grow past the height of a picket fence in front of an abandoned house. May foreclosure filings surged 9 percent to 205,990 filings, including default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions. The spike is the first monthly increase since January. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But the voter file represented a fiction, or at least a reality that had rapidly become out of date.  During those eight weeks, canvassers were able to successfully find and interact with only 31 percent of their targets. Twice that number were confirmed to no longer live at the address on file  — either because a structure was abandoned or condemned, or if a current resident reported that the targeted voter no longer lived there.

Read more here.


As Republican convention emphasizes diversity, racial incidents intrude

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Jon Cohen of the Washington Post

TAMPA — From the convention stage here, the Republican Party has tried to highlight its diversity, giving prime speaking slots to Latinos and blacks who have emphasized their party’s economic appeal to all Americans.

But they have delivered those speeches to a convention hall filled overwhelmingly with white faces, an awkward contrast that has been made more uncomfortable this week by a series of racial headaches that have intruded on the party’s efforts to project a new level of inclusiveness.

The tensions come amid a debate within the GOP on how best to lure new voters. The nation’s shifting demographics have caused some Republican leaders to worry not only about the party’s future but about winning in November, particularly in key swing states such as Virginia and Nevada.

“The demographics race we’re losing badly,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

On Tuesday, convention organizers ejected two attendees after they reportedly threw peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman and told her, “This is how we feed animals.” Organizers called the conduct “inexcusable and unacceptable.”

Read more here.