Senate Hearing on Civil and Human Rights Highlights Discrimination in Justice System

On Tuesday, December 9, lawmakers and civil rights leaders testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on the current state of civil and human rights in the United States.

The hearing came on the heels of grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., that failed to indict White police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, unarmed Black men, and focused heavily on the need for reforms to end the harmful biases against people of color in our justice system.

During the hearing’s first panel, Sen. Cory Booker, D., N.J., and Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D. Ill., and Keith Ellison, D. Minn., gave testimony on the discrimination minority communities face when dealing with law enforcement, and called for an end to racial profiling. Gutierrez shared how he was profiled while entering the U.S. Capitol in 1996 when he was told by police that he did not look like a congressman.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, testified during the second panel, and discussed how people of color are falling behind according to nearly every measure of progress in the United States – including in education, unemployment, voting rights, and incarceration rates.

“Our justice system is in crisis. Racial and ethnic bias persist at every stage, from policing to trial to sentencing and, finally, to re-entry,” Henderson said. To combat such discrimination, Henderson called for commonsense reforms to prohibit discriminatory profiling, demilitarize local police, and establish police accountability.

Cedric Alexander, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, also testified during the second panel (read their testimony here).

While our country should celebrate how far we’ve come, we must acknowledge that, as Henderson noted, “stubborn obstacles to full inclusion and opportunity remain for our communities, and we’ve failed to establish the justice and equality that we all seek.”

Watch a video of Henderson testifying below:

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Come See the Documentary, “Commonwealth”

In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s oldest city, Philadelphia, schools are shut down as prisons are being built. The film “Commonwealth” documents what happens to communities like Philadelphia when states invest in prisons while at the same time slashing public education funding. “Commonwealth” is an in-depth look at whether life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are possible in the gritty birthplace of American democracy, as told by the students, advocates, and people of Philadelphia.

The documentary, partly inspired by this op-ed by Wade Henderson, will be shown this Sunday, December 14, at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. The Leadership Conference Education Fund along with DIRECTV will host the screening, which will be followed by a panel discussion and reception with the director and education activists working toward education equity. The film is an original DIRECTV documentary.

Join us for the screening and important discussion on Sunday, December 14.

Click here to RSVP.

Link to our Facebook Invite.

Watch the trailer below.

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What Leadership Conference Interns are doing to Broaden Discussions about Profiling

By Angela Pavao, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

On Tuesday, December 2, The Leadership Conference Education Fund interns hosted the final segment of our Faces of Profiling discussion series on discriminatory profiling in the United States. We designed the series to spark a wider dialogue about profiling and consider solutions through both policy-based and societal perspectives.

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During the first discussion on November 6, Jennifer Bellamy of the American Civil Liberties Union and Sarah Reece of the National LGBTQ Task Force discussed street-level profiling, highlighting its pervasiveness and explaining that many manifestations of profiling are vastly under-acknowledged – both in law and in conversation on the issue. The second event on November 13, which focused on counterterrorism profiling, featured Jasbir Bawa from the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and Jumana Musa from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The discussion revealed a culture of fear and misperception that permeates into law, giving law enforcement a blank check to discriminate and violating the rights of countless individuals. Finally, Laura Vazquez from the National Council of La Raza and Jheanelle Wilkins from The Leadership Conference joined us for the third discussion examining profiling in immigration enforcement. Participants came to see how national, state-level, and agency-specific policies all play a role in discrimination, though Laura noted a slow, positive shift away from strategies aimed at self-deportation and towards those involving societal integration.

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Attendees of the three discussions came from a diverse array of organizations. Some are already directly involved in profiling work. Many, however, came in with broader or varied lenses, such as drug policy, LGBTQ rights, and even veterans affairs. Despite their different backgrounds, everyone seemed to recognize that the systemic problem of profiling intersects with a wide range of other issues and requires a response from all segments of our population, not just those directly affected by it.

Gaps in current policy play a significant role in the prevalence of discriminatory profiling and, therefore, were one of the main points of conversation over the course of the series. In the end, however, discussions reflected the complex reality that solutions must extend beyond legislation. For example, the speakers in our first discussion cited egregious cases of intentional and targeted profiling, but also discussed the role of unconscious, implicit bias and mistrust. The counterterrorism discussion started with gaps in executive guidance and law, but veered into the topic of stereotypes and the portrayal of certain ethnic groups in popular media. Finally, the immigration talk covered the implications of President Obama’s recent executive action, but also made a connection to recent calls for community-policing programs and their relevance to Latino populations.

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We hope that these discussions informed, expanded dialogue, and sparked a passion for learning more about these issues – and will ultimately encourage those who attended to take action.

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Another Way American Schools are Failing Native Youth

As part of the White House Tribal Nations Conference on December 3, President Obama launched an initiative to bolster opportunities and strengthen conditions for American Indian youth.

The White House also released the 2014 Native Youth Report, which reveals that schools lack “culturally relevant curriculum and culturally competent staff that understand how to reach Native youth” – even though 92 percent of Native American students go to public schools.

According to the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students graduate from high school at lower rates than other racial or ethnic groups and are much less likely to have an undergraduate degree. They also have less access to high-level courses in high school, and most aren’t proficient in reading or math by eighth grade.

One way schools are failing AI/AN youth that isn’t mentioned in the Native Youth Report is the continued, troubling use of native mascots – an issue that has gained attention on a national level not because of a school mascot, but because of the mascot of the professional football team located in Washington, D.C.

In a report released in July on native mascots, the Center for American Progress says the football team’s name is more than just racist: it has real effects on AI/AN youth every day.

The report, “Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth,” reveals that offensive mascot names can foster hostile learning environments for AI/AN students, result in lower self-esteem and mental health, and lead to the development of cultural prejudices since the stereotypical depictions are often understood to be true.

AI/AN youth, according to the report, have a suicide rate that is 2.5 times higher than the national average. Native mascots not only misrepresent the AI/AN community – they mask an enduring affliction that is felt every day.

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How the United States Could be a Global Leader on Disability Rights

In 1992, a United Nations General Assembly resolution established December 3 as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in order to “promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.”

Today, 22 years after that initial proclamation, the United States can still do more to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Despite signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) more than five years ago in July 2009, the United States has yet to ratify it.

The CRPD is an international human rights treaty that provides a vital framework for creating legislation and policies around the world that embrace the rights and dignity of all people with disabilities. It has been ratified by 138 countries and – though we aren’t one of them – it was inspired by U.S. leadership on disability rights and is modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which protects individuals with physical and mental disabilities against discrimination in areas such as employment, public accommodations, and transportation.

Two years ago on December 4, 2012, a Senate vote (61-38) on the treaty fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required to adopt an international treaty, disappointing disability rights advocates and the broader civil and human rights community.

The United States inched closer to ratification this July when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced the treaty, a move Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said “sends a signal that the U.S. needs to be a global leader in honoring the dignity of people with disabilities.” Nearing the end of the 113th Congress, the world is still waiting for that global leadership. Now, it’s up to the Senate to finally ratify CRPD.

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Transportation Equity Caucus Lifts Up Advancements in Equitable Transportation

By Kaidia Pickels, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

On November 12, the Transportation Equity Caucus held a tele-briefing to learn how state and local transportation ballot initiatives can be used to ensure access to mobility and advance equity in communities across the nation. As we reflect on the recent midterm elections, these initiatives will be more important than ever in ensuring equitable access to public transportation.

Three transportation advocates joined the meeting to share the work that they’re doing to develop and support these ballot initiatives: Ashley Robbins of the Center for Transportation Excellence, Brionte McCorkle of the Georgia Sierra Club, and CeCe Grant of Americans for Transit.

In recent years, state and local ballot initiatives related to public transportation have had a 71 percent success rate, which indicates that work needs to continue on these levels as long as Congress continues to stall comprehensive transportation projects. However, one of the main priorities for transportation advocates is that these local ballot initiatives include methods to ensure equity for all populations. An example of this would be offering free or reduced fares for those who are economically disadvantaged and structuring service to transit-dependent populations that most need access. Ensuring this type of equity can be done by working with the communities themselves to develop initiatives that are equitable and don’t impose a financial burden. Ashley Robbins also talked about ballot initiatives in Detroit and Indianapolis that will be introduced as early as 2016, which provide opportunities for advancing an equity agenda.

One local ballot campaign demonstrates the importance of the engagement of diverse voices from equity leaders. A coalition of 25 environmental, religious, transportation, and civil rights groups, led by the Georgia Sierra Club, worked to bring public transportation back to Clayton County, Georgia. In 2010, Clayton County lost its bus service, leaving many county residents without transportation options. In response, the coalition pushed for new elected leadership that would support transit, having learned a lesson in ensuring local support from a 2012 statewide transportation referendum that failed to pass. On November 4, 2014, the county voted to raise its sales tax by 1 percent to fund the expansion of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority into the county with 74 percent of voters in the county in support of the measure.

CeCe Grant shared Americans for Transit’s groundbreaking voting model that advocacy organizations and local practitioners can use to understand the political climate where they are campaigning to conduct more efficient work. Despite the majority of transportation ballot initiatives being passed in recent years, there were still some losses. This model will allow campaigners to understand their data, where their support is, and when they can confidently go to the polls in hopes of successfully passing their ballot measure. The model identifies voters who can be persuaded to vote for transportation ballot initiatives and the number of transportation riders and supporters in the region. With this information, strategies can be developed to cultivate persuadable voters and transit riders into full-fledged transit supporters.

With recent reports highlighting dangerous trends in transportation funding and the 114th Congress set to convene in January 2015, now is the time to increase efforts to ensure equitable transportation at the local and regional levels. To learn more about transportation equity, please visit the Transportation Equity Caucus’s website.

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Faith Leaders Gather in Washington to #StopTheDebtTrap

This week, representatives from more than 20 states are in Washington, D.C., for Faith & Credit Advocacy Days, an effort to launch a collective initiative by faith, financial reform, and consumer protection groups to support strong action on payday lending by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Civil rights groups also want stronger regulation of the industry. At its annual meeting in December 2013, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights voted unanimously for a resolution urging states, Congress, and federal agencies to increase regulatory oversight and enforcement of payday lenders.

Why does the civil and human rights community care?

As the resolution notes, payday lending is similar to other discriminatory financial practices – like redlining and predatory mortgage schemes – that target minority and low-income communities. Payday loans can provide a quick route for consumers who may otherwise not qualify, but many must be fully repaid in a short period of time. In fact, payment is often due when the borrower is next paid, and many lenders require advance access to borrowers’ checking accounts.

According to a CFPB report released last year, this repayment structure and lack of underwriting creates for many consumers a cycle of indebtedness. “To the extent these products are marketed as a short-term obligation,” the report says, “some consumers may misunderstand the costs and risks, particularly those associated with repeat borrowing.”

The Center for Responsible Lending, which organized this week’s activity, notes that these consumers are disproportionately African American and Latino, and found in a 2009 study in California that “Payday lenders are nearly eight times as concentrated in neighborhoods with the largest shares of African Americans and Latinos as compared to white neighborhoods, draining nearly $247 million in fees per year from these communities.”

Last month, The Leadership Conference joined more than 450 groups in signing on to a letter urging the CFPB to stop the payday loan debt trap. “Beyond the research, all one needs to do is travel a street in a low-income community or community of color to witness the strikingly high concentration of payday and high-cost lenders,” the letter says. “Additionally, these loans are particularly devastating to individuals with a fixed-income, such as seniors on retirement or Social Security Income.”

Starting this week during Faith & Credit Advocacy Days, advocates are using the hashtag #StopTheDebtTrap to begin an online conversation around payday lending issues. To learn more about payday lending, visit Center for Responsible Lending’s resource page here.

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