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December 17, 2021 NF Legislative Roundup: Looking Ahead to 2022

We’re that much closer to 2022! Here are some issues we expect to take center stage in the new year!

California

  • Freeway Expansion Bill
    • Why we’re watching: Lately, the news cycle has been rife with the historic injustices of highway construction. Now, Assemblywoman Christina Garcia in California, wants to introduce a bill in 2022 that would prohibit the state from funding highway projects in areas of high poverty and those where residents have suffered health effects from living near the resulting high air pollution of heavy traffic. We love this bill!

 Georgia

  • SB325
    • Why we’re watching: Following widespread, debunked claims of voter fraud in Georgia, a lawmaker there introduced a bill that would ban the availability of absentee ballot drop boxes. While claiming his proposal is the result of the pandemic slowing compared to last November, we can’t help but wonder if Sen. Butch Miller’s idea is more borne from a fear that Georgia is entering a new age of diversity and equity as we near 2022.

Maryland

  • Montgomery County Bill 49-21
    • Why we’re watching: After the Maryland legislature passed HB670 earlier this year, the governing bodies presiding over police operations were charged with creating police accountability boards. In Montgomery County, legislators proposed a system that would cap the board at five members, while requiring experience in “the management of a law enforcement agency.” In short, it dodges any actual accountability.
  • Climate Crisis and Environmental Justice Act
    • Why we’re watching: Our climate is changing and disproportionately hurting communities of color. Due to centuries of underinvestment and institutional racism, Black and Brown citizens breathe in harmful pollutants from cars more often than any other group. The proposed Climate Crisis and Environmental Justice Act would invest in clean energy while protecting such communities from further disparate punishment.

Texas

  • Book Banning
    • Why we’re watching: For people that care so much about “free speech,” why are they banning books? That’s what’s happening in Texas, where teachers aren’t allowed to teach anything perceived as inducing white guilt for institutional racism. We aren’t sure what sorts of books Texas legislators expect third graders to read but are sorely disappointed with this new law.

What do you think of the news in this week’s legislative roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or hit us up through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

Not every amendment is created equal.

The Bill of Rights is the nickname for the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can probably rattle off at least a few of those, especially the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedoms of speech, religion, petition, assembly, and the press. Believe it or not, today is the Bill of Rights Day, a time to observe the place these freedoms hold in our laws, society, and politics. This doesn’t mean, however, we can’t highlight where they still fail us.

The Sixth Amendment involves several courtroom rights for defendants, including the right to face one’s accuser, the right to a fair and speedy trial, and the right to counsel. Perhaps most famously, the Sixth Amendment promises a jury of one’s peers.

When it was written, “peer” most likely meant other citizens. Today, it’s come closer in meaning to “equitable.” After all, the Sixth Amendment additionally guarantees an “impartial jury,” and the best way to guarantee a fair trial is to build it with a diverse cast. In other words, an equitable jury limits the courts’ ability to inflict its inherent prejudices on defendants it has sworn to treat fairly.

We’ve seen the opposite scenario play out all too often.

An all-white jury acquitted the murderers of Emmitt Till in 1955. Before that, in 1932, an all-white jury sentenced the Scottsboro Boys, who had been falsely accused of sexually assaulting white women. No matter their racial makeup, juries aren’t perfect. But these are just two examples of a grim reality faced by defendants of color everywhere. Attorneys’ best weapon to stack juries is the peremptory strike, or the right to challenge a juror without reason. Both the defense and prosecution are allowed a few peremptory strikes to use at their discretion without ever needing to justify them.

In Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court took notice of this weapon. In that cause, a prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to remove all four Black candidates from the jury pool before going on to obtain a guilty verdict against the Black defendant. The Supreme Court ruled that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the root of desegregation, preempted such peremptory strikes. From then on, both prosecution and defense couldn’t use their challenges in a way that guaranteed anything but an impartial jury – especially as it related to race.

Our judicial system has not lived up to that promise.

This has created a vastly disparate system. A 2020 UC-Berkeley study found that in California, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to expel Black jurors 75% of the time, Latinx jurors 28% of the time, and white jurors only 0.4% of the time. A 2018 study found that in North Carolina, appellate courts have never reversed a case due to minority juror discrimination. Several other states have similarly ignored the spirit of the Court’s ruling in Batson without genuine consequences.

Our judiciary also boasts inequity in its staff. In Nevada, a state where minorities constitute 51% of the population, the entire Supreme Court is white. Every appellate judge in Alabama is white too, despite the state being 35% nonwhite. Almost half of all states have all-white supreme courts, including 11 in which people of color amount to over one-fifth of the population.

Despite Supreme Court rulings, statutory limitations, and massive demonstrations, not enough has changed since the days of Emmitt Till and the Scottsboro Boys. An overreliance on Supreme Court rulings creates doubt and debate where we cannot afford either. Our criminal justice system is rigged against minorities, as its amendments demonstrate. The groups of people with the most control over the accused’s fate – the judges and the jury – are almost never representative of the overall population.

This is what we mean by “systemic” racism. Neither our institutions, nor our laws, are built to propagate equity, but rather the status quo. Until we address even the smallest expressions of this discrimination, equality will elude us.

December 10, 2021 NF Legislative Roundup: Fixing Longstanding Injustice

Our country isn’t normally in the business of solving longstanding injustices, but here are some recent examples of it trying to do just that.

Arizona

  • Indigenous Water Access
    • Why we’re watching: As the result of longstanding unfair treatment by the U.S. government, Indigenous groups often have little to no access to clean water. Now, Arizona senators have introduced legislation allowing tribes along the Colorado River to lease water for use outside of their reservations. This is not a sufficient reform to combat this historic injustice but creating such an income stream for Indigenous groups is a good start. Other states are following suit along the Colorado River as well.

California

  • Manhattan Beach
    • Why we’re watching: In the 1940s, the Bruce family owned a stretch of land in California on which they operated a resort for other Black families. They endured racism and intimidation from the community until the Manhattan Beach government used eminent domain to kick them off their land. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a law returning the land to the Bruce family, leading activists to wonder what other land reclamation efforts to pursue elsewhere – there’s certainly no shortage.

Federal

  • Emmett Till Lynching
    • Why we’re watching: After a 2017 discovery that Carolyn Donham lied in her testimony that ultimately led to 14-year-old Emmett Till’s lynching, the U.S. Department of Justice reopened the case. After a lengthy investigation, nobody was arrested and Till was not cleared of his supposed crime. When given the chance to rectify a longtime, infamous miscarriage of justice, our government did nothing.
  • Family Separation Reparations
    • Why we’re watching: Compared to the other injustices on this list, family separation is rather young. It came to light in 2018, when immigration agencies were found to have separated young children from their parents at the border, locking each up in dilapidated cages. The Biden administration has been negotiating with these families, internally settling on $450,000 as settlement. We hope the government carries through here.

Virginia

  • Robert E. Lee Statue
    • Why we’re watching: We’ve had it out for Confederate statues for some time now, and for good reason. They’re a terrible, racist reminder of this country’s past. Now, the city of Charlottesville will melt down a prominent Robert E. Lee statue and donate the metal to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to create new artwork that will “transform a national symbol of white supremacy into a new work of art that will reflect racial justice and inclusion.” We can’t wait to see it.

What do you think of the news in this week’s legislative roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or hit us up through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

Abolish the death penalty.

The American colonies began executing convicted criminals in the early 1600s. Capital punishment was a part of contemporary English society, although colonists eventually keyed in on first-degree murder as the main justification for execution. In the 1800s, scores of people began to oppose the practice. Western European anti-execution activists saw great success following World War II, an event during which too many people died unnecessarily. One by one, countries abolished the death penalty until the United States was the only remaining superpower to endorse executing criminals.

Public protests grew in the mid-1900s, and in 1968, the federal government established an unofficial moratorium. Four years later, the Supreme Court codified this stoppage in Furman v. Georgia, declaring capital punishment unconstitutional. This prompted several states to create their own laws permitting the death penalty as a workaround. In 1977, executions resumed under this patchwork of new laws, many of which were subject to Supreme Court decisions.

During McCleskey v. Kemp in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that statistical, racial disparities in death penalty application were not sufficient to invalidate the punishment. That decisions opened the floodgates for a huge increase in executions.

In 1998, the numbers of new death sentences peaked at over 300. A year later, executions peaked at 98. Ever since, capital punishment in sentencing and in practice has steadily declined to 34 and 22 in 2019, respectively. Despite this drop-off, we’ve seen an uptick in racial disparities concerning the application of the death penalty.

Those disproportionate impacts exist at every level of the capital punishment process. We apologize in advance for all the figures listed below.

Since 1977, 308 Black defendants have been executed for murdering at least one white victim while 34 white defendants were executed for murders involving at least one Black victim. In 294 of the former cases, juries sentenced Black convicts to death for murders only involving white victims while only 21 of the latter cases involved only Black victims. The application of the death penalty is such that Black people are put to death at a higher rate for murdering only white people than vice versa.

Almost half of all murder victims are Black, but in 2019, 27 of 34 new death sentences came in cases where the victim was white. The same disparity holds true for executions as well. Around 73% of all executions in 2019 involved only white victims.

Of course, this starts with juries and their sentencing habits. Over half of those sentenced to the death penalty were people of color in 2019. In 1980, that figure was only 45.6%. The percentage of white prisoners on death row has been dropping steadily for decades now and shows no sign of slowing down.

There was a time when our country came close to abolishing the death penalty. But then states, mostly in the South, couldn’t bear to part with it. Ever since, it’s been a tool of systemic oppression and overincarceration. We have an obligation to highlight such disparate applications of the law and oppose them. Our criminal justice system is flawed enough, something the country has become more cognizant of in the last year and a half. It’s high time we remove its ability to deliberate killing its constituents, given our institution’s ingrained racism.

Wellington Webb: Banning menthol cigarettes creates more problems than good

The following op-ed was authored by Wellington Webb and ran in the Denver Post in November.

Almost a decade ago, our state officially recognized the failures of a prohibition against cannabis. By legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, Colorado became a national leader in the fight for criminal justice reform and against the over-incarceration of Black and Brown citizens. Since then, we’ve made long strides toward building a more equitable state. Recent proposals in Denver to outlaw menthol cigarettes, however, threaten this pursuit.

Rather than local communities patch-working new laws, there should be one state law. Because let’s be real. If one community outlaws menthol cigarettes, buyers will just drive a few blocks to the next community to purchase them.

Now we say you can smoke weed but you can’t smoke menthol cigarettes. We are giving police a reason to stop every person smoking a cigarette to check if it’s menthol.

On its face, this provision seems race neutral. But menthol cigarettes, which fall under the broad umbrella of flavored tobacco, are used by mostly Black smokers. In fact, this group chooses menthols over other products 90 percent of the time. Any prohibition on menthols will, in effect, impact Black Coloradans. By singling out products they use most often, our lawmakers are opening the door to an ominous medley of discriminatory possibilities.

Personally, I have never smoked because of the adverse health effects. But not everyone falls into this demographic.

If this is approved, an underground market may develop to reconcile the demand for menthols with their sudden illegality. Eric Garner was murdered by police officers for selling loose cigarettes.

It is also unfair to local businesses if this new mandate gives them just two weeks to address their industry. This is too quick to decide on an issue of this magnitude.

Bans on illicit substances have created a sprawling prison-industrial complex that supports itself on the backs of minorities. Strict enforcement during the war on drugs has irreparably damaged our neighborhoods and torn apart families. Law enforcement hardly needs more reason to stop us from going about our lives. But that’s what a menthol ban could do.

There is a reason to mandate certain personal behaviors to protect the public, such as getting vaccinated for COVID. Then there are lawmakers who just go too far to outlaw junk food or menthol cigarettes.

Some freedoms of choice should exist, even if deemed unhealthy, especially when a new law is bound to create more harm than good.

Wellington Webb is the former Mayor of Denver, a role that he occupied from 1991 to 2003. In addition to being the first Black man to hold that title, Webb is the author of The Man, the Mayor and the Making of Modern Denver and frequently lectures on civic and racial justice issues. 

December 3, 2021 NF Legislative Roundup: The Little Things

Our politics often get caught up with grandiose, sweeping reforms. But the little things matter too, as we highlight below!

Arizona

  • Federal Land Nomenclature
    • Why we’re watching: Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland declared “squaw” a derogatory term and ordered it removed from federal lands, where it appears 67 times. The word is a commonly used racist term that sexualizes Indigenous women, according to Native American leaders, and we sure won’t miss seeing it. The names of federal landmarks might seem like a little issue, but steps to make our public spaces more equitable are always a good idea.

Connecticut

  • Hair Discrimination
    • Why we’re watching: Connecticut recently joined the list of states to ban hair discrimination, or the prohibition of certain hairstyles typically associated with a specific race. The legislation signed by Gov. Ned Lamont is a version of California’s Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act and will ensure minorities don’t have to face baseless accusations about unprofessionalism.

Federal

  • Prison Phone Calls
    • Why we’re watching: On average, a 15-minute phone call from a jail or prison costs $5.74. The correctional telecommunications industry makes over $1.4 billion every year from these calls, a cost passed to disproportionately minority and low-income families. This issue isn’t discussed enough, given its staggeringly predatory nature.

Maryland

  • Beltway Widening Project
    • Why we’re watching: If you’ve followed us for a while, you know that we talk about tree equality often. The Maryland Department of Transportation is working to widen the Capital Beltway by adding two toll-managed lanes and clearing hundreds of acres of forest. This may seem like a non-issue, but the state should be investing in more environmentally friendly transportation and planting trees, not tearing them down.

Pennsylvania

  • Driving Equality
    • Why we’re watching: Last year in Philadelphia, the Driving Equality bill ended the police practice of stopping cars for several categories of small traffic violations, such as a single broken light or improper registration placement on a license plate. This might seem like a little fix, but it has drastically improved community-police relations and cut down on unnecessary officer-minority interactions.

What do you think of the news in this week’s legislative roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or hit us up through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

Why isn’t English our official language?

We have a trivia question for you: What is the United States’ official language?

You may think it’s English, and we wouldn’t blame you. But right now, our country has no official language. English is certainly the de facto official language, but Congress has yet to codify that tradition. Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom similarly boast English as the unofficial standard language, so we are in good company.

Amid an increase in anti-immigration sentiment, many groups have called for the government to officially declare English as the official language. Shoppers in stores have angrily told non-English speakers that “To live here, you need to speak English.” Even former President Donald Trump argued that it’s necessary to assimilate to American culture. In response, statehouses across the country have penned and passed legislation legally designating English as their official language.

In everyday life, these laws are mostly toothless. It’s a different story, however, if someone with limited proficiency interacts with government bodies. “Official English” laws restrict the use of other languages in workplaces and schools. These policies also end bilingual education, driving exams, and outlaw ballots written in any other language. So, in addition to alienating non-speakers, these laws complicate some of the most essential sectors of our civic life.

Let’s call a spade a spade. These laws are racist.

Proponents argue that such policies will save the government money in translation services and improve immigrants’ economic productivity. Inherent in these assertions are the ideas that immigrants don’t want to learn English and that this legislation will boost proficiency. Both these arguments are deeply flawed.

There is no data to suggest that immigrants are, by nature, unwilling to learn English. Alternatively, the Migration Policy Institute concluded that the lack of English as a second language (ESL) classes is the main culprit for low proficiency in immigrant populations. The same report found an astounding enthusiasm to take these courses, which was hampered by a general lack of federal funding. Besides, data doesn’t even support the idea that such laws increase proficiency. Eleven states have had language policies for 25 years, and six of those claimed the highest percentage of less-than-proficient residents.

In short, mandating English throughout government does nothing but complicates life for those who need our support the most. There are plenty of other arguments against passing such laws. Not only does multilingualism support global competitiveness, but English-only documents would sacrifice useful tax revenue by the millions. These are just a few of the arguments against “official English,” but the most important one is a lot simpler.

It gives racists an excuse to harass people with different colored skin, not that they have ever needed one.

Whenever “official English” worms its way back into the news cycle, it’s our duty to beat it back. Far-right politicians, activists, and talking heads alike have begun to endorse cultural battles rather than focus on concrete policy to improve their constituents’ lives.  You can be certain that videos of racists confronting less-than-fluent speakers in stores will continue to go viral. As that happens, it’s important to remember that these policies tangibly affect the wellbeing of communities of color everywhere.

November 19, 2021 NF Legislative Roundup: School Is Out

As students gear up for fall break across the country, here are some of the school-related headlines that caught our attention recently.

Arizona

  • Arizona State University
    • Why we’re watching: This September, three members of the Arizona State University’s (ASU) Multicultural Solidarity Coalition confronted students wearing “Police Lives Matter” apparel. Someone at the scene recorded a video, which quickly went viral. During an investigation of the incident, ASU officials asked the student leaders to consider “how to be more civil to white people when we discuss race,” a sure sign of a tilted investigation.

Minnesota

  • Prior Lake High School
    • Why we’re watching: Earlier this week, Prior Lake High School students used racial slurs to harass a 14-year-old student, the video of which appeared on social media. In response, Prior Lake students and those from nearby schools gathered outside the scene of the incident to protest that event and share their personal stories of similar abuse.

Missouri

  • Springfield School District
    • Why we’re watching: In response to the unfounded nationwide panic over critical race theory, Missouri Attorney general Eric Schmitt sued Springfield school district leaders for their response to an open records request. The request included documents that supposedly revealed the school’s teaching of critical race theory, when instead they outlined the negative effects of ignorance and xenophobia. Oh, the irony.

Nevada

  • University of Nevada, Las Vegas
    • Why we’re watching: While so many schools experience racist and discriminatory confrontations, we should applaud those succeeding. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas recently kicked off its Minority-Serving Institution Speaker Series this month, which is hardly a surprise given the school’s special designations for serving Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic students.

Washington DC

  • Howard University
    • Why we’re watching: We’ve recently seen a nationwide renewal in labor organizing. Over a month ago, Howard University students began protesting housing conditions and a lack of student representation in university-wide decisions. This week, their protest came to an end as officials agreed to their demands, which is a huge win for the country’s most prominent Historically Black College or University.

What do you think of the news in this week’s legislative roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or hit us up through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

American Education Week? More like, American Education weak.

American education week is a time to celebrate the concept of a free, quality education for all children and honor those who make it possible. Teachers and students in classrooms across the country will undoubtedly host parties, reflect on the difficult last year of teaching, and look to the future of education. And while it’s mostly K-12 institutions that will observe the holiday, they would be remiss to ignore the troubles plaguing postsecondary education.

education

The biggest such problem is our growing student loan crisis.

As of 2020, the United States boasted $1.57 trillion of outstanding student loan debt. If that was a country’s GDP, it would rank eleventh highest in the world. We racked up this outrageous figure by endorsing a predatory system reliant on the skyrocketing cost of higher education. This trend holds true across almost any period as well. For example, in 2002, average in-state and out-of-state tuition were $3,738 and $10,409, respectively. In 2022, those same costs are projected for $11,631 and $28,238. These are tuition increases of 211% and 171% over just 20 years.

College education is less affordable now than it ever has been. To finance such a tall task, families are turning to private and public student loans. This type of borrowing works like almost any other: The government or a private institution finance your education based on financial need, then ask for repayments when you graduate. On its face, it seems like a sensible solution to a growing problem.

But student loans often carry excessive interest rates.

During the pandemic, the federal government reduced interest rates to 0% in a bid to help those struggling financially. Outside of that once-in-a-lifetime effort, loan rates keep rising despite other economic activity. Fixed interest rates for private students loans can range from 3.34% to 14.99%, according to NerdWallet. The variable equivalent rates aren’t much of an improvement and can be anywhere from 1.04% to 12.94%. In short, student loans are riskier than other financial assistance, such as that accompanying a car purchase of mortgage.

This is a problem that disproportionately affects communities of color. Black graduate borrowers owe an average of $25,000 more than their white counterparts. Nearly 30% of that group make monthly payments of more than $350, leading to higher degrees of financial hardship among borrowers of color. Perhaps most astonishing is that Black bachelor’s degree-holders boast an average of $52,000 in student loan debt, far surpassing any other ethnicity.

While the raw figures paint a picture, all these disparities have real-life ramifications. A third of Hispanic borrowers report a strong hesitance to getting married and having children due to their loan debt. Almost 50% of Black borrowers said they were likely to put off buying a home. Similar numbers of Black loanees report working more than they would prefer. These impacts all contribute to a lesser quality of life and mental health for minorities, both of which have taken a toll during the pandemic more broadly.

A massive financial crisis becomes more likely every day. The federal government’s unwillingness to support student loan borrowers alongside the exploding cost of education have created an untenable environment for low-income families to break the cycle of poverty. It’s worth noting that all these troubles can be waved away by executive order, a central promise of Democratic candidates in 2020.

That is a promise on which we must demand action. College isn’t getting any more affordable and financial institutions are still willing to prey on low-income families. By holding our leaders accountable for their promises, we can destroy the crushing cycle of poverty that plagues communities of color.

November 12, 2021 NF Legislative Roundup: Good Isn’t Good Enough

This week, we’re looking at some half-measures in social justice reforms. Sometimes, good isn’t good enough.

Colorado

  • Recidivism Reduction Fund
    • Why we’re watching: This week, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced a new program encouraging businesses to hire formerly incarcerated workers in a bid to reduce the state’s recidivism, which nears 50% over three years. The new initiative is a good step in the right direction, but ignores the systemic issues that create recidivism, like prioritizing punishment rather than rehabilitation during imprisonment.

Connecticut

  • Ned Lamont Executive Order
    • Why we’re watching: Gov. Lamont issued an executive order for Connecticut’s corrections facilities to reform prisoner behavior protocols, but only after he vetoed the PROTECT Act, which would’ve statutorily limited solitary confinement. Prisons have now revised in-cell shackling rules and increased the frequency of mental health evaluations.

Minnesota

  • Use-of-Force Data
    • Why we’re watching: In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, Minneapolis enacted a set of reforms that included raising the threshold for officers’ use of force. The success of these reforms is unclear after all this time, because the publicly reported data is incomplete. What use is police reform if the public cannot understand its impacts? 

New York

  • Statewide Prison Closures
    • Why we’re watching: Following the footsteps of her predecessor, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the closure of six state prisons early next year, aiming to transform some of those facilities into substance abuse centers. Despite this positive step forward, Rikers Island is still open, an affront to the entire criminal justice movement and those still held captive there.

Pennsylvania

  • Mental Health Crisis Response
    • Why we’re watching: After murdering Walter Wallace Jr., Philadelphia has settled a wrongful death lawsuit and announced police mental health issue reforms, including providing more nonlethal weapons to officers. The question remains: Why didn’t officers have access to such tools earlier? As police arsenals across the country grow, it’s unthinkable that police only possessed lethal weapons at any point in the line of duty.

What do you think of the news in this week’s legislative roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or hit us up through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

 

 

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