Graduation Rates at Historically Black Colleges Drop

Graduation rates at historically black HBCUs, which were already facing scrutiny under a national push to improve outcomes in higher education, have fallen over the last five years, according to U.S. Education Department data analyzed by The Associated Press.

The AP with more details:

The AP found graduation rates declined at 57 of the 80 four-year HBCUs that have complete data between 2006 and 2011. While total HBCU enrollment increased about 3 percent overall, the aggregate graduation rate for HBCU students fell from 37.7 percent in 2006 to 33.7 percent in 2011, the AP found.

That means of the 47,139 students who entered HBCUs six years before, just 15,885 had completed their degree by 2011, though the figures do not include transfers or part-time students.

Morehouse College, where President Obama spoke earlier this month, has one of the very highest graduation rates amongst HBCUs. An estimated 55%

Good News in Mississippi: School-To-Prison Pipeline Closes

Good News in Mississippi: School-To-Prison Pipeline Closes

The sealing of the school-to-prison pipeline in Meridian, Miss. has officially started after a U.S. District Court judge approved what the Department of Justice is calling “a landmark consent decree” that features a “far-reaching plan to reform discipline practices … that unlawfully channel black students out of their classrooms and, too often, into the criminal justice system.

In March, the Justice Department reached agreement with the Meridian Public School District to decrease excessive suspensions and expulsions of mostly young black students for trivial infractions like wearing the wrong colored socks. Kids were lucky if they were only suspended — in many of these cases, schools called the police to arrest the students, as young as 10 years old, and send them to juvenile facilities, as reporter Julianne Hing found last November.

This consent decree essentially cancels most, if not all, police intervention for any issues that ca  be “safely and appropriately handled under school disciplinary procedures.” This includes: disorderly conduct, school disturbances and disruptions, loitering, trespassing, profanity, dress code violations, and fighting that doesn’t include physical injury or weapons. Further, the school district can not share any information on students’ discipline records with any law enforcement agency unless court-ordered. It also requires schools to track discipline data, including by race, and then take corrective action if they find racial disparities. 

Last month, Jocelyn Samuels, deputy assistant attorney general for DOJ’s civil rights division, told Hing that Meridian “is just the tip of the iceberg,” and that this consent decree could be a model for tackling the national problem of excessive punishment of black students.

Yesterday, Samuels said in a press release: “The consent decree approved by the court today will propel meaningful reform in Meridian schools and serve as a blueprint for school districts across the country. We commend the Meridian Public School District for its commitment to keeping its students in safe and inclusive classrooms, and out of the school-to-prison pipeline.”

A separate lawsuit DOJ filed against the Meridian Police Department, Lauderdale County Youth Court and the State of Mississippi is still pending — the cops have not been let off the hook. 

Bad News in Mississippi: Rats-to-Prison Pipeline Opens

Bad News in Mississippi: Rats-to-Prison Pipeline Opens

A state prison in Mississippi is over-crawling with rats, and civil rights lawyers are suing the state over it — call it Master Splinter’s revenge. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections for their East Mississippi Correctional Facility for mentally ill inmates in Meridian, a city that’s also crawling with civil rights violations in its schools and police department. 

Ryan Nave at Jackson Free Press reports that the rat infestation is so bad there, “that some of the prisoners have adopted the disease-carrying vermin as pets, sometimes taking them on walks around the prison on leashes fashioned of paper clips and string.”

Writes Nave about the complaint:

“The complaint details numerous claims, including broken plumbing systems that result in people sometimes having to defecate in trash bags or food. It charges that chronic understaffing often leads to prisoner-on-prisoner altercations and rapes, as well as excessive use of force by corrections officers.” 

SPLC’s lawsuit against horrendous prison conditions in New Orleans led to a federal consent decree agreement reached in December. Under that agreement, a new prison currently being built in New Orleans is expected to enforce a number of reforms to improve conditions for inmates, including mental health and language translation services. SPLC recently asked a U.S. District Judge to review the new prison design to make sure it complies with that consent decree’s requirements.  

Connecticut to Allow Undocumented Immigrants to Apply for Driving Licenses

Connecticut to Allow Undocumented Immigrants to Apply for Driving Licenses

The Connecticut state senate on Thursday narrowly approved a measure that will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy has pledged to sign the bill, which passed the Senate by a 19-16 vote.

“This bill is first and foremost about public safety. It’s about knowing who is driving on our roads, and doing everything we can to make sure those drivers are safe and that they’re operating registered, insured vehicles,” Gov. Malloy said in a statement. “There’s a reason these measures have been supported by local police and city leaders, and that other states are taking similar common-sense steps. They’re changes that benefit everyone taking a car out onto our roads and highways.”

Malloy also called on the federal government to allow all immigrants to apply for driving licenses.

“It should also be noted that, like many issues, action on the federal level would address this problem in an even more comprehensive and sensible way. I continue to support those broader efforts at national reform, and urge Congress to follow the example being set by Connecticut and other states,” Malloy went on to say.

Immigrant rights advocates are also applauding the decision. 

I know there are a lot of people who don’t think this makes sense but really it does benefit all of us in terms of reduced insurance premiums. The fact that you won’t have a bunch of uninsured drivers on the road, the fact they will be paying fee revenue to the state,” Angel Fernandez-Cavero of the immigrants right group CONNECT told WTNH.

The new law, which will make 54,000 undocumented immigrants eligible for a driving license, takes effect on January 1, 2015. (There are about 120,000 illegal immigrants in Connecticut, according to Reuters.)

Maryland, Illinois and Oregon adopted similar legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driving licenses this year.  New Mexico, Washington and Utah have permitted undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers licenses for several years.

Cheerios Ad Starring Interracial Family Ignites Racist Hate Storm

Cheerios Ad Starring Interracial Family Ignites Racist Hate Storm

We’ve seen interracial couples on television for decades but corporate companies have largely stayed away from including them in advertising. 

The sitcom “I Love Lucy,” which premiered in 1951, was the first television program to feature an interracial couple starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In 1975, “The Jeffersons” also featured one of the first black and white couples on TV with Tom and Helen Willis (Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker), neighbors of George and Louise Jefferson. More recently shows like “Boy Meets World,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” have featured interracial couples in leading roles. 

Earlier this week Cheerios released a commercial featuring an interracial couple and their daughter and you’d think it would be no big deal since we’ve seen interracial couples on TV for decades. Not so.

The ad, posted to YouTube on Tuesday, received such a negative response that Cheerios had to close the comments section on the video sharing site. The ad also made it to Reddit where the discussion thread is still thriving with bigoted comments.

Cord Jefferson at Gawker highlited the following racist comment on Reddit: “Shoving multi-culturism down our throats when we know it fails.. awesome.”

It’s been 46-years since the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that prohibiting marriage between people classified as “white” and people classified as “colored” was unconstitutional. The case, Loving vs. Virginia, led to a decision that ruled all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States were unconstitutional. 

Despite the court ruling and more than half a century of interracial couples on TV, the bigotry (at least online) is still alive and thriving.

Tim Nudd at Ad Age points out that the controversy may stem from people just not being used to seeing interracial couples in ads that are lobbying for their dollars. 

“The problem is that TV ads have always lagged TV programming in this regard, as so many brands are clearly scared of being perceived as making a political statement with the casting of their commercials,” Nudd write at AdAge. ”Thus, the Cheerios ad, despite its characters being representative of tens of thousands of actual couples in America, sticks out like a sore thumb.”

The good news is that there are some people complaining the ad doesn’t go far enough. 

“Every commercial with an interracial family show a black man and white woman. You never see Asians or Native Americans or Mexicans or even a white man with a black woman,” wrote one user on Reddit. “I’m not satisfied with the family, they need to be more interracial.”

Kendrick Lamar Thinks ‘Molly’ Is Bad for Hip-Hop

Kendrick Lamar Thinks 'Molly' Is Bad for Hip-Hop

Everybody’s favorite rapper, aka Kendrick Lamar, sat down with MTV’s Sway recently to talk about the impact of “Molly” on rap. Molly, of course is the powdered form of the ecstacy compound MDMA and everybody from rappers Danny Brown and French Montana to 2 Chainz has shouted it out in recent songs. But to Lamar, the only thing that “Molly” does for hip-hop is water it down.

“Sometimes you have the trends that’s not that cool. You may have certain artists portraying these trends and don’t really have that lifestyle and then it gives off the wrong thing. And it becomes kinda corny after a while,” Lamar told Sway. “When everybody consciously now uses this term or this phrase and putting it in lyrics, it waters the culture down. So it’s really just time to move on. It’s really about keeping hip-hop original and pushing away the corniness in it.”

Watch Kendrick Lamar’s interview with Sway over at Okayplayer.

Alice Walker Absolutely Does Not Want Alicia Keys to Perform in Israel

Alice Walker Absolutely Does Not Want Alicia Keys to Perform in Israel

Alice Walker and Alicia Keys are two well-known black female artists whose work exists in very different worlds. Walker is a renowned author and outspoken activist and Keys is a Grammy-winning recording artist. That’s all to say that, generally speaking, their paths don’t cross much. But on Wednesday, Walker released an open letter to Keys in which she tries to get the singer to consider the political consequences of an upcoming performance in Israel. And she throws some serious shade.

Walker writes:

Study: Immigrants Put Billions More Into Medicare Than They Use

Study: Immigrants Put Billions More Into Medicare Than They Use

Conservative arguments against immigration reform took another blow yesterday with the release of a new study about immigrant contributions to the federal safety net. According to a new study published in the journal Health Affairs, immigrant communities contribute billions more to the Medicare Trust Fund than they use. And since the opposite is true of the U.S. born, immigrants are paying for everyone’s grandmother’s healthcare.  According to the data, this will remain true for decades to come.

The new findings should come as a bit of an embarrassment to fiscal conservatives who are threatening to hold up or derail the immigration overhaul over stated concerns about health care costs.  The L.A. Times reported last week that Republicans in the House hoped to include language in an immigration bill that would lead to the deportation of immigrants who failed to pay hospital bills. The new data makes quite clear that immigrants are already paying those bills, and some.

The article in Health Affairs figures expenditures from naturalized, documented and undocumented immigrants left nearly $14 billion in Medicare Trust Fund surplus in 2009.  That’s in contrast to $31 billion in deficit from U.S. born people who paid in less than they used.  Between 2002 and 2009, immigrants produced $115 in Trust Fund surplus. 

This surplus is mostly because immigrants tend to be younger, working age adults who contribute more than their share to payroll taxes.

“Most of the surplus from immigrants was contributed by noncitizens and was a result of the high proportion of working-age taxpayers in this group,” the from Harvard and The City University of New York researchers wrote.

The authors add that immigration reform will expand this number of workers who labor in the formal economy and pay these taxes.

“Policies that restrict immigration may deplete Medicare’s financial resources,” the authors wrote.

The report is the latest to establish that immigrants and immigration are good for the overall economy. Everyone except the Heritage Foundation and its minions seems to agree. In fact, the Heritage Foundation’s latest report on the fiscal costs of immigration and immigration reform has been widely discredited on methodological grounds and because its co-author wrote a Harvard thesis arguing that immigrants aren’t as smart as native-born people. That revelation made bluntly clear that fiscal arguments against immigration are more about cultural and racial anxiety than they are about cost. The new data from Health Affairs should help nail shut the Heritage report’s coffin.



George Zimmerman Legal Team Asks Public for Cash

George Zimmerman Legal Team Asks Public for Cash

George Zimmerman is set to go on trial to face charges for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin next month but he’s out of money and has turned to his website to raise funds. 

Zimmerman’s attorneys posted on their website Wednesday that his defense fund had less than $5,000 left. The fund had almost $315,000 in January.

“We’ve calculated that we need another $120,000 to give George the defense he deserves,” the lawyers wrote  “At the barest minimum, we need $75,000 to give George a fighting chance.

“Had we declared indigency, George’s defense would end up costing Florida taxpayers more than $1,000,000. As it stands now, with a little extra support, we’re going to get through trial for less than half that figure, and we’ll have done it, not with taxpayer funds, but with the money generously donated by people from across the country who believe George is innocent and that he is being wrongly prosecuted,” the post says.

According to the website, neither of the lawyers, Mark O’Mara and Don West, have been paid for their services.

On Thursday morning Zimmerman’s website announced they had raised $12,000 on the first day of the latest fundraising campaign. 

Sheriff Joe Arpaio Will Appeal Racial Profiling Decision

Sheriff Joe Arpaio Will Appeal Racial Profiling Decision

In a video statement yesterday, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, AZ said he would appeal a major federal court ruling from last week that ordered an end to practices of racial profiling.  The decision from Judge Murray Snow of U.S. District Court in Phoenix, was a major blow to the Sheriff who has made a career as a flamboyant anti-immigrant force who admits to targeting Latinos during neighborhood sweeps and traffic stops.

“We will appeal this ruling,” Arpaio said yesterday (see video above).

In the meantime, Arpaio said that he ordered his deputies to stop detaining undocumented immigrants solely because of their immigration status. “[T]he court’s order is clear,” he said. “We will no longer detain persons believed to be in the country without authorization whom we cannot arrest on state charges.”

But the impact of the ruling in the Melendres v. Arpaio case is not yet clear. Though the court issued an immediate injunction against unconstitutional practices of racial profiling, Arpaio’s statement suggests he may continue to target immigrants under the pretense that they’ve broken state laws. Arpaio’s 800 deputies regularly stop and arrest Latinos in Maricopa County by citing state laws written to target immigrants, including one anti-human smuggling law that makes it possible for the county to charge individuals with smuggling themselves into the country.  

This shiftiness leads many to wonder about the impact of the injunction. “We’re going to have to wait and see what happens,” says Carlos Garcia, an organizer with Puente Arizona. “For people to be able to go to work without fearing that they are not going to be stopped or raided would something amazing.”

In his statement, Arpaio also shifted blame for his department’s profiling practices to the federal government.

“One hundred of my deputies were authorized and trained by the federal government, ICE, to enforce federal immigration law,” he said. “Now, a federal court has ruled that federal training was unconstitutional, and it led to racial profiling.”

Maricopa County deputies were indeed trained by federal officials to act as immigration enforcers through the 287(g) programs and were instructed they could use race as a factor in making stops, according to the decision from Judge Snow. But while the federal government helped empower Arpaio’s worst practices, when the 287(g) terminated the agreement, Arpaio continued to detain immigrants and changed his justification saying that he had inherent authority to enforce immigration laws.

Garcia and other advocates are also concerned about the thousands of people who Arpaio has already arrested.  

“Who knows how many people have been illegally detained and arrested who’ve ended up with criminal convictions or removed,” said Cecillia Wang, an attorney with the ACLU, which brought suit. “Our case really was looking for injunctive relief to bring an end to the policy and practice of targeting Latinos and detaining people because of immigration status.  But this decision does not have any direct impact for people already facing changes.”

Litigants will head to court again on June 14th when Judge Snow will outline next steps to remedy the illegal profiling practices. These could include the introduction of an independent monitor and data collection requirements. 

Ten Members Of Congress Urge Washington Redskins To Change Name

Ten Members Of Congress Urge Washington Redskins To Change Name

A group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill is calling on the Washington Redskins to drop the name that has long been deemed offensive to Native Americans, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

The ten members of Congress sent letters to Redskins owner Dan Snyder, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Redskins sponsor FedEx, and the other 31 NFL franchises.

“Native Americans throughout the country consider the ‘R-word’ a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos,” read the letter to Snyder.

The letter goes on to say:

“The current Chairman and Chief of the Penobscot Nation, Chief Kirk Francis, recently stated in a joint statement that the [R-word] is ‘not just a racial slur or a derogatory term,’ but a painful ‘reminder of one of the most gruesome acts of … ethnic cleansing ever committed against the Penobscot people.’  The hunting and killing of Penobscot Indians like animals, as declared by Chief Francis, was ‘a most despicable and disgraceful act of genocide’…

“In this day and age, it is imperative that you uphold your moral responsibility to disavow the usage of racial slurs.  The usage of the [R-word] is especially harmful to Native American youth, tending to lower their sense of dignity and self-esteem.  It also diminishes feelings of community worth among the Native American tribes and dampens the aspirations of their people.

The 10 Congress members who signed the letter include the co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) and Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona), Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin), Michael M. Honda (D-California), Donna M. Christensen (D-Virginia), Zoe Lofgren (D-California), Barbara Lee (D-California), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa).

As the Washington Post’s Mike Jones noted, the Redskins franchise has no comment on the letter. Redskins owner Dan Snyder has previously said he “will never change the name of the team.”

‘What Kind of Asian Are You?’ Answered in Hilarious Video

'What Kind of Asian Are You?' Answered in Hilarious Video

Ever been asked where you’re from? Or where you’re parents come from?

For Comedy Week on YouTube, David Neptune and Ken Tanaka (author of Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book for Grown Ups) directed a video called “What Kind of Asian Are You?” that takes the question head on. 

Apple Announces New Upgrade: Former EPA Chief Lisa Jackson

Apple Announces New Upgrade: Former EPA Chief Lisa Jackson

Former EPA chief Lisa Jackson will be vice president for environmental initiatives at web products company Apple. CEO Tim Cook announced the Jackson hire during a live interview he gave during the D11: All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Jackson will “be coordinating [environmental] efforts across the company,” and will report directly to Cook.

Jackson, who was the first African American EPA chief administrator, resigned after her first four-year term in February. During her time there, she made environmental justice — policies that address disproportionate environmental burdens on poor neighborhoods and communities of color — a priority for the federal government. 

Jackson told Politico about her hire: 

“Apple has shown how innovation can drive real progress by removing toxics from its products, incorporating renewable energy in its data center plans, and continually raising the bar for energy efficiency in the electronics industry. I look forward to helping support and promote these efforts, as well as leading new ones in the future aimed at protecting the environment.”

Cook stated at the D11 conference that Apple’s data centers ran on 100% renewable energy and that they had the largerst solar farm of any non-utility company.

Jackson, who grew up in New Orleans, worked in government and public service for basically her entire professional career, after obtaining a Masters degree in chemical engineering from Princeton in 1986. Last month, Jackson told a story to The Moth about evacuating her mother from New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina federal levee failures and floods. Jackson was working for New Jersey state government at the time, and she had a moment then when she realized that had she worked for the private sector she could have “bought my mother a new house, or raised the one she had.” But her mother encouraged her to remain in public service.

Perhaps now, a new house is in the works.  

Wal-Mart Smacked With $110 Million in Fines for Environmental Crimes

Wal-Mart Smacked With $110 Million in Fines for Environmental Crimes

Mega-retail company Wal-Mart plead guilty on Tuesday for Clean Water Act violations that involved years of illegally and improperly handling hazardous liquids and pesticides in California and Missouri. The company is on the hook for $81.6 million in criminal environmental fines for violating federal laws and another $30 million to resolve state environmental law violations. 

Documents from the U.S. District Court in San Francisco say that “from a date unknown until January 2006, Wal-Mart did not have a program in place and failed to train its employees on proper hazardous waste management and disposal practices at the store level. As a result, hazardous wastes were either discarded improperly at the store level - including being put into municipal trash bins or, if a liquid, poured into the local sewer system - or they were improperly transported without proper safety documentation to one of six product return centers located throughout the United States.”

In Missouri, Wal-Mart employees improperly handled pesticides that customers had returned.  “Truckloads of hazardous products, including more than 2 million pounds of pesticides, were improperly handled under Wal-Mart’s contract,” said Tammy Dickinson, U.S. Attorney for Western District of Missouri.

In 2006, Wal-Mart began sending certain damaged household products, including regulated solid and liquid pesticides, from its six return centers to Greenleaf LLC, a recycling facility located in Neosho, Mo., where the products were processed for reuse and resale. Because Wal-Mart employees failed to provide adequate oversight of the pesticides sent to Greenleaf, regulated pesticides were mixed together and offered for sale to customers without the required registration, ingredients, or use information, which constitutes a violation of Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA.

For all of these violations, Wal-Mart will pay roughly $110 million in criminal fines, at least $20 million of which will go to community service projects and programs to train people on how to legally handle hazardous waste.  Their plea agreement includes requirements to ensure adequate environmental personnel and training at all levels of the company, proper identification and management of hazardous wastes, and the development and implementation of Environmental Management Systems at its stores and return centers. Compliance with this agreement is a condition of probation imposed in the criminal cases.

Virginia Governor Will Restore Nonviolent Felons’ Voting Rights

Virginia Governor Will Restore Nonviolent Felons' Voting Rights

Yesterday, a task force commissioned by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli found no legal basis for either the governor or the general assembly to automatically restore the voting rights of former convicted felons, but the governor found a way to do it anyway. This morning, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced that he would lift the permanent civil rights ban for those convicted of nonviolent felonies, but he’d have to do it on a case-by-case basis. This means, for the thousands who currently can’t vote (or run for office) due to a nonviolent felony on their criminal record, the governor will send a letter to each person he can find telling them their rights are restored. Before this, a person with a nonviolent felony had a two-year wait after release from prison to begin an application process that might lead to their rights restored within 60 days of submitting that application. Those with violent or drug felony convictions will still have to wait five years to apply for rights restoration.

According to Rebecca Green, co-director of the Election Law Program at William and Mary Law School in Virginia, the fact that the governor can simply write a letter to individuals to restore rights shows that his powers are expansive enough that he should be able to provide automatic rights restoration, while the fact that those with violent and drug felonies still have to wait and apply shows there continues to be a lack of due process. 

“In a world where the governor could literally flip a coin to determine whose rights are restored and whose aren’t, I don’t understand why he then couldn’t issue blanket restoration for all rights,” says Green. Yet, if McDonnell did attempt a blanket restoration, “he would be doing what the [task force said the] legislature can’t do, which is change the law.”

The task force’s findings that the governor can’t do sweeping restoration is an “odd argument given the broad authority the Virginia Constitution delegates to the governor to restore rights,” says Green. Green helped prepare an amicus brief in a U.S. District Court case where former Richmond city councilmember Sa’ad El-Amin is suing the state to overturn the felony disenfranchisement law on the basis it has racist origins. A federal judge is allowing for that racial history to be explored to determine if the law is, in fact, unconstitutional on equal protection grounds.

The irony here is that El-Amin may now no longer have standing in that case. El-Amin himself has a nonviolent felony conviction, for tax crimes, which invalidated his voting rights. He is legally challenging the disenfranchisment law, but he never himself applied for restoration of his rights. Now he doesn’t need to. The governor will be sending him a letter telling him his rights are now restored, which might affect his standing. 

Indeed, finding every person in the state with a nonviolent felony to send a letter too will be tough for the governor. As Secretary of the Commonewealth Janet Kelly told the Richmond Times-Dispatch

“If you’re sitting in prison right now, we know where you are,” Kelly said. “If you got out of prison 20 years ago, we don’t know where you are.”

Overall, roughly 350,000 people lack voting rights due to felony convictions in the state. A report from the NAACP on felony disenfranchisement in Virginia says that if the governor had to review an application from every disenfranchised person it would take him 51 years to get through them all. That application review is now gone for nonviolent felons, but stay tuned to see how this affects those with  violent felonies. 

UPDATE (1:03 P.M. EST)

From civil rights community law organizing nonprofit Advancement Project:

Following the Governor’s announcement, Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly is meeting this afternoon with Virginia grassroots rights restoration advocates and national civil rights organizations, including Advancement Project, to discuss implementation. 

“We commend Gov. McDonnell for doing what his predecessors would not - taking an executive action to loosen Virginia’s grip on its antiquated felony disenfranchisement law,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis. “We are interested in hearing his implementation plan for re-enfranchising as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. While today’s announcement represents a positive step forward, Virginia still needs a more permanent solution through a Constitutional amendment from the General Assembly to automatically restore civil rights for all citizens who have served their time. We hope to build on this development in order to move Virginia fully toward America’s promise of a robust and inclusive democracy.”

Many grassroots advocates, several of whom have been personally impacted because of prior felony convictions, are also attending this afternoon’s stakeholder meeting with the Governor’s office.

“I appreciate today’s announcement and hope that Gov. McDonnell will use the full extent of this executive action to restore rights to as many people as possible,” said Michael Edwards, founder and director of Secure Organization Building Educational Recovery, Inc. (S.O.B.E.R.). Edwards lost his right to vote for distribution of marijuana in the 1970s, before finally having his rights restored in 2011. “Since the new rules make a distinction for people with certain kinds of convictions, I’d like to see some other process in place to more efficiently re-enfranchise these individuals who pay taxes and live in our communities.”

UPDATE (10:10 A.M. EST): 

Virginia New Majority, a non-profit that organizes community and conducts leadership development programs for progressive causes, is planning a major voter registration drive on the heels of Governor Bob McDonnell’s planned announcement to streamline the rights restoration process for people with non-violent felony convictions.

“Gov. McDonnell is taking a huge step forward today. We’ve been actively working on this issue for the past four years. It’s a huge milestone for us,” said Tram Nguyen, Deputy Director of Virginia New Majority.

“We’re going to celebrate today, but we have to get right back to work tomorrow. We’re making plans to ensure that people with non-violent felony convictions will be registered in time for the November elections,” said Jon Liss, Executive Director of Virginia New Majority. “We don’t know how many people will be impacted by the Governor’s decision, but we think it will be in the thousands.”

Virginia New Majority is meeting with the Governor and other advocacy groups following the press conference to finetune the new rights restoration process. The state-based civil rights group also intends to continue its push for a permanent solution that would automatically restore voting rights for everyone who has a felony conviction.

Task Force Says No Automatic Voting Rights Restoration for Former Felons

Task Force Says No Automatic Voting Rights Restoration for Former Felons

In Virginia, where over 350,000 people can’t vote due to past felony convictions, legal experts have said for years that the governor could allow former incarcerated felons to vote again by issuing an executive order that strikes that law. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced in January that he wanted the state’s general assembly to pass a law that would automatically restore voting rights to those with felonies. Today, a task force Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli assigned to the matter issued a report saying that neither the governor nor the general assembly have the legal power to restore former felons’ voting rights. 

The governor can only restore rights on a case-by-case basis and modify the clemency process. Gov. McDonnell did that last year to accelerate the number of people whose rights were restored —  4,659 as of April 12. But the “number of Virginians convicted of felonies who apply to have their rights restored is a relatively small percentage of the total number of persons” currently disenfranchised, reads the report. 

The general assembly can only restore rights by amending the state’s constitution, according to the task force, a much more difficult process that would involve passing a proposal through the entire legislature plus additional approval made by state referendum. 

The task force instead recommended two alternatives to a constitutional amendment: Assign individual rights restoration application reviews to an existing state agency or create a new agency for this work; or,  “augment the staff of the Secretary of the Commonwealth” for more rights restoration reviews. 

The Commonwealth currently has two employees working on clemency matters , but the secretary says this staffing level is “appropriate” for timely application reviews. 

The declaration that the governor can’t issue an executive order to do this automatically is a setback to civil rights organizations, many of which have built entire campaigns around pushing the governor to take this exact action. Many of them simply aren’t buying the task force’s findings.

The Virginia Constitution makes it clear that the Governor has the exclusive power to remove political disabilities from people convicted of a crime,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project. “The Virginia Code reinforces this, allowing the Governor to restore voting rights by whatever process he alone deems appropriate. Previous governors in Florida and Iowa - Republican governors, at that - have also signed executive orders for automatic rights restoration. The Attorney General’s conclusion is incorrect, and it is wrong to continue Virginia’s policy of punishing and keeping citizens politically isolated for years after paying their debt and re-entering society.”

“The Committee’s findings shouldn’t halt any action by Governor Bob McDonnell to sign an executive order automatically restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions,” said Tram Nguyen, deputy director of Virginia New Majority. “Gov. McDonnell called on the Legislature during his State of the Commonwealth address to pass a bill that would automatically restore voting rights for people with felony convictions. That didn’t materialize. We were hoping that today’s announcement would be a prelude to an executive order. We’re still cautiously optimistic the Governor will do the right thing, regardless of today’s outcome.”

Virginia is one of only two states — the other Kentucky — that has yet to update its felony disenfranchisement laws in any substantial way since the 19th century, when it was placed. In March, a U.S. District Court in eastern Virginia allowed a legal challenge to the disenfranchisment law to move forward on the grounds that it may violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. 




Here’s a Cheesy Slow-Motion Video of Brittney Griner’s Debut Dunks

Here's a Cheesy Slow-Motion Video of Brittney Griner's Debut Dunks

It’s safe to say that WNBA rookie Brittney Griner has already changed the game of women’s basketball. Yes, the 6’8” center dunks. But she’s also among the highest profile openly gay athletes in the country.

Griner made her professional debut over the weekend when her Phoenix Mercury lost to the Chicago Sky. She dunked twice, and it’s such a big deal that someone made a slow-motion video out of it.

Prince Is At the Center a Copyright Battle With Video-Sharing Site Vine

Prince Is At the Center a Copyright Battle With Video-Sharing Site Vine

Two important things to note about Prince. First, the singer will turn 55 (yeah, you read that right) on June 7. Second: he’s at the center of a fairly recent dispute over what exactly constitutes copyright infringement in the digital age.

Here’s what happened. Last month, the singer’s record label issued a takedown notice to Twitter to remove eight Vine posts featuring footage from a recent concert. Vine, of course, is the rapidly-growing video-sharing app that’s currently available to anyone with an iPhone. The videos were eventually removed from the site, but that’s not the point. But a key question emanating from the case is this: Can you infringe on someone in six seconds? In Prince’s case, the answer is obviously yes.

Jeff John Roberts takes a pretty deep dive at Gigom into some of copyright’s more recent history, specifically how fair use battles have played a big role in the development of hip-hop.

Right now, we’re enjoying a rich new age of images — everything from Vine videos to BuzzFeed cat GIFs that are shared, recast and then shared again. If lawyers began to throw copyright grenades into this mix, these splendid strains of creativity could be quickly snuffed out.

Roberts’ look is really worth reading in its entirety.

Oklahoma’s Latinos Join Recovery Effort Amid State’s Cultural Change

Oklahoma's Latinos Join Recovery Effort Amid State's Cultural Change

Back in 2011, CNN reported on the culture clash between Oklahoma’s white residents and its fast-growing Latino population. Like many parts of the country, Oklahoma’s population is growing a lot browner. The number of Latinos in the state has doubled over the past decade, from 179,000 to more than 332,000. 

That cultural shift hasn’t been easy. State lawmakers have passed some of the country’s harshest immigration legislation. Senator Ralph Shortey (R-Ok.) summed up some up the backlash, telling CNN that Latinos “are not assimilating and enriching the culture of Oklahoma. They are invading the culture…Oklahoma is not the melting pot…(Latinos are) not doing their culture any favors when it’s shoved into Oklahomans’ faces.”

It’s within that context that NPR’s Code Switch blog looked at how some undocumented Latino residents are fairing in the aftermath of last week’s devestating tornado, which struck just outside of Oklahoma City. Citizenship has become a key factor in people’s decisions about whether or not to seek help in recovery, and even the storm itself has unveiled some of the barriers faced by the country’s millions of undocumented immigrants.

From Code Switch:

“It’s stressful,” Amelia says in Spanish.

Amelia cleans offices to support her and her 8-year-old daughter. They lived in a trailer home in Moore that was in the path of last week’s tornado. When the storm came through town, Amelia rushed to pick her daughter up from Plaza Towers Elementary School. They then took cover under a bridge. Amelia says it’s a miracle they survived, but they still lost nearly everything.

“I was desperate,” Amelia says, “But also afraid to ask for help.”

But she knew she had no choice but to take the risk. It took her three days to build up her courage. Then she got in her car, talked to church volunteers and went to a public health clinic for counseling. She even approached an official and asked how the government could help rebuild her life. She says she can’t imagine having done any of this before the tornado.

Read more about Latinos in Oklahoma’s storm recovery efforts over at Code Switch


Watch Yassin Bey’s (aka Mos Def) New Video on Stop-and-Frisk

Watch Yassin Bey's (aka Mos Def) New Video on Stop-and-Frisk

Native Brooklyn rapper Yassin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, released a video last week that speaks out against the New York City Police Department’s controversial Stop-and-Frisk policy. The song, called “Don’t Tread On Me” is a public service announcement released in partnership with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group that took the NYPD to federal court over the practice.

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