New Majority Rising

19-1 New Majority Rising Section Break

New Political Spaces | Vol. 19, No. 1 – 2012 | Credits

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Organizing the New Majority

Interview with Bertha Lewis

Bertha Lewis is president and founder of the New York-based action think tank, Black Institute and former president and chief organizer for the community organizing group, ACORN. A veteran organizer and powerful public speaker, Bertha has been organizing since the 1980s. The following is an excerpt from a conversation recorded for Radio RP&E on the occasion of Urban Habitat’s State of the Region where Lewis gave one of the keynote addresses to the equity advocates gathered.

B. Jesse Clarke: What does good organizing mean to you and what were the issues that first got you involved?

Bertha Lewis: Well, you know, we’re a membership organization and we organize low- and moderate-income folks. We take our issues from our members and fight on things that affect them. But the fight has to benefit our members and at the same time, move public policy.

For years, people understood that the banks put a red line around black and brown neighborhoods and you couldn’t get credit to buy and if you could, you were exploited. After the savings and loan debacle, we saw that there was something called the Community Reinvestment Act and we created programs where folks were counseled so that they really understood about buying something that they could afford. Our interest was for them to stay in their homes long-term. For years we fought to get banks to open up and actually give credit so that low-income people could buy if they were counseled. And for years we tried to sound the alarm about predatory lending and subprime mortgages because [previously] we could not get credit into our neighborhoods. Then the banks discovered, “Ah, there’s gold in them there poor people’s hills!” and the frenzy around subprime loans and predatory lending [started]. We were railing against it but, of course, who listens to us?

Sure enough, what we predicted would happen, did happen. Here’s what folks don’t tell you about the foreclosure crisis: in New York, we had a one percent default. Why? Because all of our folks were counseled and we always counsel people into buying homes and having mortgages that can withstand any hardship. But they don’t talk about folks [who were] counseled and survived the foreclosure crisis.

Clarke: When you look back at our system, what’s the thing that’s got to change? I mean, the Community Reinvestment Act was supposed to get people into homes. But it was flipped on its head to: Let’s give them a loan package they could never repay and let’s double the price of their house and get twice as much money, and then let’s take it back and sell it for a quarter of the price back to ourselves and then sell it again! It’s terrible. If you had a crooked landlord doing this on a one-on-one basis, everybody would be going, wait a minute now. You sold it first and you sold it twice, and so on.

Lewis: But that’s exactly what’s happening.

Clarke: How are we going to change that?
Lewis: Here’s where I think all things come together. Number one, the whole financial collapse came about because there was no regulation and regulations that were on the books were not enforced because it’s the free market and, you know, business needed to thrive. We had a mindset in this country that actually worshipped rich people. So, anything that benefitted making money and rich people was fine. You see this being manifest today. There really is a war on the poor. If we can exploit you, if we can pay you below minimum wage, if we can exploit your labor, then something is wrong with you, poor people. What the Right and those conservatives understand is, there are more of us than there are of them.

The rise of the Tea Party was not accidental. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. The day after the 2008 election when the Right lost, they immediately set about organizing... and looking at the 2010 midterm elections. This is why I’m always on a “Wake up, progressives” tour, you know? Wake up, Left! Don’t sleep here because you must organize, organize, organize all the time.

ACORN had the largest voter registration operation in the country. At its height, we accounted for 25 percent of all voter registration. Karl Rove in 2004 put his sights on us because we had a minimum wage ballot initiative in Florida. We registered over a million people and moved those people to the polls based on issues; the issue of raising the minimum wage, not on a personality. Even though George Bush won that state, people who may have voted for Bush also went to the other section of the ballot and voted to raise the minimum wage. That was dangerous. The New York Times published Karl Rove’s emails saying: This is the real danger to the Republican Party and to the Right; we must go after them. So, there ensued AttorneyGate. You remember Alberto Gonzales and the resignation of those U.S. attorneys who said, “We’re being used for political purposes.”

Clarke: Right.

Lewis: It all started with us. So, they had their sights on us for a while and developed a way to go after us. It was really quite brilliant: Take your strength and turn it against you. Discourage these new voters—young people, people of color. We’re hurtling toward being a majority minority country. You’ve got to blunt that somehow.

Clarke: Where are the places you’re starting to see emerge this powerful alliance of communities of color and progressives and women to actually turn this right side up again?

Lewis: Well, I think this is why the election this year is so important. Because you’ll begin to see, like you say, this new majority, this coalition of folks who find that they have interests in common. Women are under attack. Black folks are under attack. Brown folks are under attack. Left folks are under attack. Progressives are under attack. Our cities are under attack. People can see very clearly—it’s in their self-interest to come together. When the Right attacks, they really set up an atmosphere for groups to come together and really be stronger and fight back because the Right becomes so extreme that everyday people can see it’s crazy. But we understand that we are in a real war. There’s no complacency here. You have women of all stripes coming together saying, listen, they can pass a law in Texas cutting healthcare for 300,000 poor women, mostly black and brown. They can do some draconian things here. So I’m happy. Because, you know, as an organizer, we thrive in polarizing situations. And America is polarized more than ever before.

Clarke: Well, but you said when you were a community organizer—without any Alinsky training—you looked at the individual interest of each member—and our self-interest is at stake. We’re being attacked as progressive. We’re being attacked as people of color. We’re being attacked as women. But then, you said there was a second ingredient—what was that second ingredient?

Lewis: Public policy... It’s not just what affects your members, but what kind of policies we put in place that are going to benefit more than just your identified folks—and that’s the key.

Clarke: We need an ‘action tank’ to pick up these policies and present them out there so that this new majority can take them.

Lewis: You know what? What’s good for people of color, what’s good for black folks, is good for America and good for the world. Like General Motors, you know? If we don’t look at stuff from the point of view of black people and people of color here in the United States throughout this, we’re ignoring things that could help our country.

[For the Black Insittute], I decided that we need to have three strategies: (1) Data, research, and polling. There are studies and data that sit on dusty shelves in academia about people of color, about black folks. But there is no company that exclusively polls people of color. We’re always a tab in a larger poll. (2) If you could bring down the data and the research and, as Malcolm X said, make it plain, [you could] turn it into public policy. Train people on how to turn it into legislation. (3) You’ve got to be able to move it on the ground, because you can have all the advocacy in the world and the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t move it on the ground through grassroots organizations and mobilize people around it, it won’t make a difference. So that’s what I want: Research, which is sort of symbolized by the head. Leadership, training and development, signified by the heart. And then, being able to move it on the ground.

Clarke: In closing, I want to give our audience at Radio RP&E a little taste of your remarks at the State of the Region...

Lewis: Whether we call ourselves the new majority or just the majority, I do not accept the idea that we are going to wait until 2050 and then shazam! all of a sudden, we will be the majority. We already are. Look from city to city and from region to region and you can see people of color are already the majority. We’ve got to realize that we are the majority already and act like it. We don't need to wait until we get to critical mass, we are at critical mass.

We're here talking about changing demographics, what do you think the Right is doing? Voter ID and voter suppression, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the attack on healthcare and contraceptives, access to healthcare for poor women—what do all these things have to do with each other? Fear of a black planet!

We have an opportunity right now to move people to the polls based on their own self-interests and issues. So, the message is this: If we are the new majority, start acting like it! Let us make sure that electoral politics, as well as real, on-the–ground, knock-on-doors, face-to-face organizing is part of that.

B. Jesse Clarke is the editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment.


New Political Spaces | Vol. 19, No. 1 – 2012 | Credits

To order the print edition of "New Political Spaces" use the back issues page.

You can also subscribe to the Radio RP&E podcast feed or listen on iTunes

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



8- Strategies for Change: 
Audio icon BerthaLewis-RPE.mp331.27 MB
PDF icon 19-1.clarke-lewis.pdf1.41 MB

Mitchell Silver Keynote Address April 2012


Keynote speakers Mitchell J. Silver, president of the American Planning Association, and Bertha Lewis, president and founder of The Black Institute, delivered exhilarating and passionate calls to action as they spoke about the changing demographic in the United States and how to ensure that low-income people and people of color have the infrastructure and policies in place to support their success.

To read and listen to an exclusive interview with Bertha Lewis or read the transcript of this speech please visit Radio RP&E: New Political Spaces.

Bertha Lewis Interview Transcript (Raw)

Clarke:   (01:30) Welcome to another edition of Radio RP&E.  I want to welcome to our studio Bertha Lewis, president and founder of the New York based action think tank Black Institute and former president and chief organizer for the community organizing group ACORN.  A veteran organizer and powerful public speaker, Bertha has been involved in organizing since the 1980s. (02:00)  You know, and actually that’s where I wanted to start.  I mean if you could just, you know, just talk a little bit about your beginnings.  I mean, the Bronx 1980s.  How did you end up getting involved in this whole organizing world and what were you doing?
Lewis:  Well it was really sort of organic, you know.  I didn’t know anything about Saul Alinsky or anything like that.  I just—a group of us had answered an ad in the Village Voice newspaper (02:30) that said, “Low rent deal.  Be an urban homesteader.  Take two apartments, make a live/work space.”  And I was in the theater.  I was producing original plays at that time.  And, of course, we were all up in the Bronx.  We’re just like, yes, we’re so earnest and [laughs] but the building that we got lured into, (03:00) no windows, no floors, no plumbing, no heat.  You know, we were truly urban homesteaders and that’s where I learned to sweat pipe and do drywall.  And we all sort of helped each other.  It was very, very romantic and very exciting, but at the time, this was what was affordable to us.  
And I remember being at the theater just getting ready to open a play. (03:30) I got a phone call from my neighbor who called the theater and said, “Bertha, there are men here with guns and they say we have to get out.”  And I know it sounds dramatic, but I left the theater that day and never returned.  And it became the beginning of a battle just to fight for my home.  You know, back then in the South Bronx, there were many distressed buildings (04:00) and you had these speculators.  They would come and buy them up for—make a deal with the city for taxes.  And we were an earnest little group of tenants and we did what everybody told us to do and we actually were two weeks away from having the property sold to us as a group so that we really would be urban homesteaders.  And I tell you, (04:30) it was in my life an epic battle to really understand what organizing was about and the political implications and having every single day to fight for your own home.  So those are my beginnings and, you know, seven years later (05:00) I didn’t have any job.  A guy who had helped us all along the way, his name was Nelson Rodriguez—
Clarke:  Wait, wait.  Did you keep the house?
Lewis:  Well, here’s the thing.  
Clarke:  OK.
Lewis:  Nelson Rodriguez said, “Well, you know, if you don’t have a job, you should come and apply with the organization I’m with called Banana Kelly”.  And I said, “To do what?”  And he said, “Well, we have an opening for a community organizer”.  I said, “Well, what the hell is that?” (05:30) He said, “Well, you really are doing what you’ve already been doing here”.  I said, “Do you mean to tell me that people will pay you to fight for justice?”  And he’s like, yeah.  And that was it.  And we did have the eight year battle.  It’s very difficult to hang together and stick together and we thought we had lost.  I went to work for (06:00) ACORN.  20 years later—and this, again, is bizarre—20 years later, New York ACORN took over possession of that same building, rehabilitated it, and now it houses 40 low-income families.  I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.  [laughs]
Clarke:  Wow.  Well, you know, as long as we’ve moved in to that (06:30) ACORN period—and I was interested, too, because I read that in the nineties that you organized against redlining using the Reinvestment Act.
Lewis:  Community Reinvestment Act.
Clarke:  The Community Reinvestment Act to pressure banks to see what you could do to stop redlining for the homeowners that were in the Bronx.  The cycles come and go, but that is kind of an amazing—I mean, just talk a little about what was the story?  I mean, after that speculative wave (07:00) and some people were trying to actually buy houses and live in their own houses, what was the role of ACORN and your work there in terms of the Community Reinvestment Act?
Lewis:  Well, you know, we’re a membership organization and we organize low and moderate-income folks.  And we take our issues and fight on things that affect our members.  But two things have to happen.  One, the fight has to benefit (07:30) our members.  But two, at the same time, it’s got to move public policy.  For years people understood that the banks put a red line around black and brown neighborhoods and you couldn’t get credit to buy and if you could, then you were exploited.  So after the savings and loan debacle, we looked and saw that there was something called (08:00) the Community Reinvestment Act that said if these banks are going to merge, then they really do need to create a real program.  And we actually created programs in which if folks were counseled so that they really understood about buying something that they really could afford, our interest was for them to stay in their homes long-term.  So for years we fought to get banks (08:30) to open up and actually give credit so that low-income people could buy if they were counseled.  And for years we tried to sound the alarm about predatory lending and subprime mortgages because it was ironic.  For years we could get credit into our neighborhoods.  And then banks discovered, ah, there’s gold (09:00) in them there poor people’s hills.  And so the whole frenzy around subprime loans and predatory lending came in.  We were railing against it but, of course, who listens to us?
Clarke:  The New York Reinvestment [Coalition].
Lewis:  I mean, and all across the country.  And sure enough, what we predicted would happen did happen.  Here’s what folks don’t tell you about the (09:30) foreclosure crisis story.  In New York, we had a one percent default.  One percent.  Why?  Because all of our folks were counseled and we always counseled people into buying homes and having mortgages that could withstand any hardship.  So they don’t talk to you about if folks are really counseled and it you work with them, (10:00) they survived the foreclosure crisis.
Clarke:  And they got loan products [without]--    
Lewis:  Exactly right.  Exactly right.
Clarke:  --balloon payments, escalating interest rates and surprise clauses and upfront fees that—
Lewis:  So, it really makes me, you know, it really makes me crazy because you fight so hard to get some benefits for poor people.  But in our free market economy, folks will always find a way to exploit that. (10:30)
Clarke:  Well, you know, if you look at the work that the successors to ACORN doing now—here in California you have Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.  And I know there’s 18 or 20 chapters, or no longer chapters, but separate independent organizations across the country carrying on some of that work.  But how do you see the relationship between this foreclosure crisis, this devastation of the, not surprisingly, in our views that the same communities that were redlined well, that first were segregated in the 1940s, (11:00) then were integrated so to speak [laughter] in the 1960s.  They were redlined and then they were predatory lent.  Now they’re being foreclosed.  When you see that organizing and you see ACCE carrying on this kind of work and the other community organizers, what do you see happening?  And, you know, you go back to in our system, what’s the thing that’s got to change?  I mean, what—if a Community Reinvestment Act wasn’t strong enough to keep them from flipping it on its head?  Here we go.  We’re going to get people in their homes. (11:30) Now let’s flip it on its head.  Well, let’s give them a loan package they could never pay for and let’s double the price of their house and get twice as much money and then take it back and sell it for a quarter back to ourselves and then sell it again.  So it’s a terrible—if you had a crooked landlord doing this on a one-on-one basis, everybody would be going, wait a minute now.  You sold it first and you sold it twice, and so on.  
Lewis:  But that’s exactly what’s happening.
Clarke:  So where do you see this—where do we get involved if the Reinvestment Act (12:00) was a weak instrument?
Lewis:  Well, I mean—
Clarke:  How are we going to change that?  What is ACCE doing?  What are the other groups—
Lewis:  The Community Reinvestment Act was just a tool.  Here’s where I think all things come together.  Number one, the whole financial collapse came about because there was no regulation and regulations that were on the books were not enforced because it’s the free market and, you know, business needed to thrive. (12:30) We had a mindset in this country that actually worshipped rich people.  And so the culture became anything that benefitted making money and rich people was fine.  You see this being manifest today.  There really is a war on the poor.  If we can exploit you, if we can pay you below minimum wage, (13:00) if we can exploit your labor, then something is wrong with you, poor people.  Here’s what’s good.  What’s good is folks like ACCE here in California and, like you say, 17, 18, 19 groups, we will multiply.  And it’s when the right attacked ACORN.  What it did was just spur social justice (13:30) Frankensteins, for lack of a better—you know.  People got so outraged.  And they said, you know what?  We know what the attack looks like now.  We can protect ourselves against that and we will proliferate.  And that’s what happens.  What the right and those conservatives don’t understand is there are more of us than there are of them and groups get stronger. (14:00) Voting matters because what really matters are local elections.  What we see happening in these state Houses, we see an attempt to suppress voters.  We see an attempt to even stop registering voters because that’s what really counts.
Clarke:  Yeah, well, I want to get back to that and the period after ACORN, (14:30) with such a vicious, cooked-up campaign to blacken the name of the organizers that were actually engaged in some very good work.  The notion that the voter registration cards were somehow defective was part of the libel.
Lewis:  A brilliant strategy, by the way.
Clarke:  But the, and the nonsensical story of pimps and whores.  (15:00) We hope that part has been undone in terms of our readership, but if it hasn’t, [we’ll put a sidebar for] it.
Lewis:  Good.
Clarke:  But the question about what--this is a long campaign they’re involved in.  First off, they went after the biggest voter registration outfit in the country after an election, by the way, which was swung by the new voters.
Lewis:  That’s right.
Clarke:  And then they have passed, I don’t know, 18 voter suppression, voter ID, citizenship check laws.
Lewis:  30.
Clarke:  30?  Oh. (15:30) I haven’t been counting.  They’re moving fast.  And then the [Alec] group is—
Lewis:  That’s right.
Clarke:  --churning them out.  So where do you see this—when it first happened with ACORN, it was like, oh it’s just this nutty right-wing guy’s website.  And he pays a videographer to go around and do mean stuff.  And boy, that’s weird.  It caught on so bad.  I wonder what happened and gee, too bad.  Oh, where is that group?  Oh, too bad.  They’re out of business.  So it kind of caught people’s up.  Now we’re into this.  Like you said, we know they’re—so how do you see that (16:00) trajectory and where are we in that process right now, because we have another election just coming up in—
Lewis:  We do.  I mean, the rise of the Tea Party was not accidental.  You’ve got to give credit where credit is due.  The day after the 2008 election when the right lost, they immediately, immediately set about organizing.  They immediately set (16:30) about looking at the 2010 midterm elections, immediately.  This is why I’m always sort of like on a “Wake up, progressives” tour, you know?  Wake up, left.  Don’t sleep here because you must organize, organize, organize all the time.  You began to see a tactic because those of us who consider ourselves on the left (17:00) and progressive, you know, we’re really very civilized about our arguments.  We always think that they have to be grounded in fact.  Well, the other side doesn’t care about fact.  It is all about winning and maintaining power.  
When you go after the largest voter registration operation in the country—at our height, we, ACORN accounted for (17:30) 25 percent of all voter registration.  Karl Rove in 2004 put his sights on us because we had a minimum wage ballot initiative in Florida.  We registered over a million people and we moved those people to the polls based on issues, the issue of raising the minimum wage, not on a personality.  Even though (18:00) George Bush won that state, people who may have voted for Bush also went to the other section of the ballot and voted to raise the minimum wage.  That was dangerous.  The New York Times published Karl Rove’s emails saying this is the real danger to the Republican Party and to the right.  We must go after them.  So there ensued AttorneyGate. (18:30) So you remember Alberto Gonzales and the resignation of US attorneys who said, “We’re being used for political purposes.”
Clarke:  Oh, right.  Right.  The whole scale just slipped my mind for a while there, didn’t it?
Lewis:  It all started with us.  So they had their sights on us for a while.  And they developed a way to go after you and it was really quite brilliant.  Take your strength and turn it against you. (19:00) Discourage these new voters, young people, people of color.  We’re hurtling toward being a majority minority country.  You’ve got to blunt that somehow.  And so they take a long-term view.  And all politics is local, so if you can affect city council, state Houses, now you’ve set yourself up with an atmosphere in which—Wisconsin (19:30), you know, you can go after labor.  You can go after those groups that represent poor people.
Clarke:  Well, but if you turn that on its head, if you look at these demographic trends and you see the majority minority, minority majority, the majority of the majorities, which has been really here all along, especially if you take a look at the women’s vote.  So if we look at that 99 percent, OK, well we’ll do the math later.  66.6 percent.  But that majority has been here.  But now that the new majority is really gaining (20:00) that kind of threat, where you see the fear in places like Arizona in that top demographic that people over 65 are 80 percent white and the people under 35, there’s 60 percent people of color.  You see that gap and you see that shift.  Thinking about the contours of the new majority coalition, what are some of the—you know, you turn this on the head.  You had that right-wing strategy looking 10 years out.  What are the contours and where are the places where you’re starting to see emerge (20:30) this powerful alliance of communities of color and progressives and women to actually turn this right-side up again?
Lewis:  Well I think this is why this election this year is so important.  Because I think what you’ll begin to see is, like you say, this new majority, this coalition of folks who find that they have interests in common.  You know, women are under attack.  Black folks are under attack. (21:00) Brown folks are under attack.  Left folks are under attack.  Progressives are under attack.  Our cities are under attack.  So people can see it very clearly and see it’s in their self-interest to come together.  See, that’s what I mean.  It’s like when the right attacks, they really set up an atmosphere for (21:30) groups to come together and really be stronger and to fight back because the right becomes so extreme that everyday people can see this is crazy.  But we understand that we are in a real war.  There’s no complacency here.  And you have women of all stripes coming together saying, listen, they can pass a law in Texas cutting healthcare from 300,000 (22:00) poor women, mostly black and brown.  They can do some draconian things here.  So I’m happy.  It’s almost like—[laughter] because, you know—
Clarke:  Thank you, Rush.
Lewis:   --as an organizer, we thrive in polarizing situations.  And America is polarized more so than ever before.
Clarke:  Well, but when you go back to this (22:30)—you said when you were a community organizer without any Alinsky training, nonetheless you looked at the individual interest of each of these members and our self-interest is at stake.  We’re being attacked as progressive.  We’re being attacked as people of color.  We’re being attacked as women.  All of us have this self-interest.  But then the second ingredient, you said there was a second ingredient.  It wasn’t just enough to look out for your interest because, sadly, we have seen the end road (23:00) of looking out for your own interest in the labor unions.  You’ve seen the end road of looking out for your own interest in the narrow definition of feminism that could get a Secretary of State.  You know, we’ve seen that looking out for your own interest without the second—what was that second ingredient?
Lewis:  Public policy.
Clarke:  And for this new majority, what are the policies?
Lewis:  Well, remember when I said the unique thing about ACORN—and now our model is being duplicated—is you not only look out for your members’ (23:30) self-interest for them, because we were like a community union.  That was our model.  But whatever the campaign was not only had to benefit your members but change public policy so that it benefitted other folks that were in a like situation.  I think that’s the key and I think what people—even labor—realizes now that they are under (24:00) this brutal attack, they have been under attack for decades.  I mean, you know, we’ve seen union membership go down in this country.  And unions, organized labor was at its height when?  When it came outside of the workplace and actually got involved in social justice issues like civil rights that affected their members. (24:30) So it’s not just what affects your members, but what kind of policies that we put in place that are going to benefit more than just your identified folks and that’s the key.  And I think that’s what community organizations are looking at now.  No more can you put a shell or a bubble around you.  You really do have to open up.  
And I think, I think what has happened is sort of like the old clichés, you know. (25:00) I used to always say they come for me in the morning; they’re coming for you at night.  And now people have seen that played out and it’s very real.  It’s extremely real.  And folks are saying, you know what?  When you work for social justice, this is not just a hobby.  This actually affects the world.  It actually affects my neighborhood (25:30) and I have to look outside of myself.  That’s why, I think, community groups like ACCE here in California grow stronger, grow better out of this adversity and out of recognizing we are at war and we need to have allies of all stripes.
Clarke:  So, now if we were to get to that place, and we see some of it stirring here in California for sure.  And we did sort of sidestep the last little (26:00) right-wing wave in terms of our elections, but we didn’t exactly stop it and turn it back, either.  It’s still washing over us, particularly as we look at the real impact.  So when you’re talking about the policies, I know that now that you’ve moved on to create a new organization called the Black Institute and you’re thinking about, particularly, the policies—it’s sort of a think and action.
Lewis:  It’s an action tank.
Clarke:  Action tank.  OK.  So it’s taking action.  What policies—because, you know, when you said you organized in Florida for minimum wage (26:30) in the state of Florida, so they upped the minimum wage in the state of Florida.
Lewis:  Right, right.
Clarke:  So, you know, that’s a pretty basic idea.  But there’s sort of a mystification here like, well, we need an action tank to pick up these policies and present them out there so that this new majority can take them.
Lewis:  Well, I mean, it is very simple but you don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. (27:00) Now this thing called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC.  Now people know that word, they know that acronym.  They know that this is a right-wing think tank.  Well, of course, there’s millions of them.  You know?  I mean, what was the senior Bush, you know, a thousand points of light?  You know, they’ve got the Heritage Foundation (27:30) and the Cato Institute and this and this and this.  And for years, people hadn’t really heard about ALEC.  But groups like ACORN and others, we knew about them.  And again, I think what we have to do is trust each other and not fall into the trap of being territorial, of saying, well—of falling prey to foundationitis, where a foundation (28:00) will say, “Well, we’ve already got one of those.  We don’t need another one.”  Well, to hell with that.  Community groups have got to find ways to do earned income so that you don’t rely on the kindness of strangers, so that you can weather the storm.  We need a thousand points of light.  And in 2009 after I began to reorganize the ACORN chapters (28:30) because, you know, you’ve got to live to fight another day.  And another cliché, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Well, they didn’t kill us.  They made us stronger.  And you morph in to what you need to do.  
And I remember standing down by the White House and there’s these dueling kind of protests going on about healthcare. (29:00) And you had these people saying, “Well, the American public doesn’t really want universal healthcare.  They don’t want single payer.”  And I said, “What America are you talking about?  Who are the people that you’re talking about?”  Not being able to affect comprehensive immigration reform in the 21st century (29:30) when the country, again, the browning of America had begun decades before, this fear of a black planet was just palpable.  And I decided, you know what?  What’s good for people of color, what’s good for black folks is good for America and is good for the world.  So, like, General Motors, you know?  (30:00) So if we don’t look at stuff from the point of view of black people and people of color here in the United States and throughout the [this war], then we’re ignoring things that could help our country.  
I decided that we needed to have three strategies.  One, data, research, polling.  There are studies and data that sit on dusty shelves in academia (30:30) about people of color, about black folks.  There is no company who exclusively does nothing but poll people of color.  We’re always a tab in a larger poll.  So if you could bring down the data and the research and as Malcolm X said, (31:00) make it plain, turn it into plain language, turn it into public policy, train people on that, train people on how to turn that into legislation.  But then you have to have the third element.  You’ve got to be able to move it on the ground because you can have all the advocacy in the world and you can have the best ideas in the world but if you don’t move it on the ground through grassroots organizations, organize, and mobilize people around it, (31:30) it won’t make a difference.  So that’s what I wanted the Institute to be.  Research, which is sort of symbolized by the head.  Leadership, training, development, signified by the heart.  And then being able to move it on the ground.  Green for grassroots.  I figured after the ordeal that I’d gone through with ACORN, (32:00) I knew about forming ACORN chapters.  I also knew that there were other organizations that really met that challenge and came up.  And I said, well, if I could connect with them and we start working together, we could deal with immigration.  The face of immigration is a lot blacker than the frame that it’s all about undocumented Latinos.  You know, (32:30) there is a huge, huge black population of immigrants from the Caribbean, from South America, and from Africa and they need to be included in that narrative.  The privatizing of education, this is serious because now that these urban school districts have more melanin in them and have more color, all of a sudden now, (33:00) once again, let’s privatize.
Clarke:  And make some money off it.
Lewis:  Then you’ve got to—the environment and, of course, economics.  So we have three strategies, four areas of interest, and for me this idea had been brewing in my head for a very long time and I just said what the hell?  We’re in a war, so I may as well fight the war the way that I think is most effective for me (33:30) and that’s what I’m doing with the Black Institute.  And that’s why I’m here in California today.  
Clarke:  Well, that’s a great segue into what we’ll be actually doing tomorrow.  And I want to acknowledge that this is part of a project here that the Urban Habitats Bay Area Social Equity Caucus is putting on for the State of the Region conference, which will be featuring a powerful public speaker, Bertha Lewis, (34:00) and we’ll be getting more of this stuff tomorrow.  And we want to thank, especially, the people who are putting the conference on:  Frank Lopez, who’s not in the room with us right this minute, but who will be listening to this soon.
Lewis:  Yea, Frank.  Yea.
Clarke:   Frank, he’s been doing quite a job.  But actually the entire Urban Habitat staff’s been pulling on.  And I want to also thank our board engineer today, Joe Feria-Galicia and Christine Joy Ferrer, publishing assistant in the house.  So thanks for joining us, Bertha, and we’ll look forward to (34:30) finding out the three strategies, the four areas, and the key to building the echo chamber of the left.
Lewis:  [laughs] Yes, yes, and I thank you guys for having me on.  This is fabulous.  It’s wonderful to have your own media outlet.  Because remember, what did the right do?  Little by little, they did their right-wing talk radio, took over radio stations.  (35:00) So—
Clarke:  Here we go.
Lewis:  We can do the same thing.
Clarke:  And we’re starting it here.  Thank you again, Bertha.
Lewis:  Thank you.  
[End of Audio]

Bertha Lewis Keynote 4/26 Raw Transcript

Bertha Lewis;

[00:00]Ok how y'all doing?  Now the people that had the fried chicken, no napping, all right, no napping because you're on camera and you will be recorded.  And ah?  So what was I doing between 2007 and 2012? [00:30]I got carted off to the right wing gulag.  My god its cold in the gulag, but that’s all right.  Glen Beck and I had our affair.  That’s why he does the thing that he does and says the things he says about me, he wanted to have a love child.  But I saidvno Glen, [01:00]the demographics are changing.  Well I guess, you know Mitchell was so great, you know, this guy.  The PowerPoint, everything all fancy-smancy, but really on time and really got us to thinking about what’s really real and digging down into the numbers. [01:30]You know?
So my message today is whether we do need to figure out what to call ourselves, the new majority or just, we are the majority instead of minority and I do not accept the fact that we are going to wait until 2015 and then shhhh, all of a [02:00]sudden we will be the majority, we already are.  See I don't believe all the stuff that these people try to tell us, we already are.  Look from city to city and even from region to region and we say well, you know, people of color are already the majority there.  When you start putting that stuff together, that means we got to realize that we are the majority [02:30]already and we need to act like it.  We don't need to wait until we get to critical mass, we are at critical mass.  I mean you can even look in this room, right?  You know that not too long ago this room was decidedly melanin challenged. [03:00]But we got our melanin and all melanin thing on now. 

Let me just give you a brief little thing about the Black Institute and who we are and yes, I did not focus group the name.  People were saying, whoa, don't call it the Black Institute, you know, you want to be more universal.  And I'm like, Black is universal, Okay? Okay? [03:30]and every color in the rainbow. 
I was standing in D.C. in 2009 when the Healthcare debate came up and there was this tiny little group of people walking around with tea bags and talking about "We don't want universal Healthcare, we don't want single payer and the American people [04:00]don't want it and we have a poll."  And I'm like what Americans are you talking about?  Who?  Because people in my hood definitely want universal Healthcare.  So who are you and then it all became, begin to come together for me, and I began to understand and to realize that these were the people that the day after [04:30]the 2008 election, the Right started to organize these people.  We were all partying, feeling good, you know.  Yeah we finally got it, first Black President.  [We're peoples racial]  Whoo.  Everything's going to be all right now.  Wrong! [05:00]Wrong.  The minute you stop organizing, the minute you stop bringing people together, you have lost. 

So what I'm here to say today in all of my different remarks is, regional planners, those of you who are doing research, data collection, and writing fabulous [05:30]things like this.  Listen, the one thing that you better have, is you need an organizing component.  [Remark from crowd]   Absolutely.  Absolutely.  After I did reorganize the former ACORN chapters, and it was, you know, its all good because [we'll send that girl with that said (singing) can you [06:00]makes you stronger, a little longer.]  I can’t remember what it is but you get the point.  Theses bastards tried to kill us and when you are faced with death, things flash before your eyes.  And the things that flash before your eye are what actually really count.  That you cannot be moderate, you do have to be radical [06:30]because they will lie on you and they will attack you no matter how reasonable you believe you are being, understand that.  So for me when I saw these town hall meetings turn into debacles it became clear that they had to remove ACORN from the chess board because you would [07:00]know if the ACORN red shirts had been in on those town hall meetings, they would have been an entirely thing, entirely different.  Also what I realized was that these folks were serious, there was fear of a black planet, that they would do whatever it took, however long it took, to change the dynamic. [07:30]We're here talking about changing demographics, what do you think they're doing?  What do you think they are doing?  Voter ID and voter suppression, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, [08:00]the attack on Healthcare and contraceptive and access to healthcare by poor women.  What do all these things have to do with each other?  Fear of a black planet.  Fear of you all and your regional planning and what kinds of things you are planning.  Maybe we ought to change the terminology to not [08:30]be [social-like really] but social fairness.  Every last one of you in the room today is a threat.  You are a threat to the powers that be.  You need to understand what a danger you are.  Get that in your heads, you are dangerous.  I know, "I'm kind of nice, I got, I have multiple [09:00]degrees, I'm not like those other people, I'm doing research, nothing wrong here, you crazy Bertha, you go and make people afraid."  Well guess what? [09:30]You cannot hide because you are dangerous and that’s how they look at you. 
We don't have progressive elected officials, you think because you elected someone, because they're Latino, or they're Asian, or they're Black, that somehow or another they have a predisposition to social justice? [10:00]  This is why we are in the fix we're in today.  Because we try to say well if we support this one or that one maybe we'll get one or two things because intrinsically we understand they're not progressive, they don't even know how to think progressively. [10:30]  Now any funders in here, don't get your pantyhose in a wad, I'm not trying to foment partisan politics because I know that is forboden for 501c3's, however, issue advocacy is not, and the issue is, what is progressive policy [11:00]and you cannot have progressive policy if you don't have progressive elected officials, you just can't, it won't work.  Folks come into a room, they hear race, they get up and leave, they hear gender, they get up and leave.  When you go to these city halls and you go to the state houses, the reason that we're having so many problems [11:30]today was again the day after Barack Obama was elected, those folks on the right were already at the 2010 elections, already.  You think that because we have the facts and the data that Americas is browning and that there will be people of color in the majority that these folk are sitting back? [12:00]  They are looking back at their counterparts in South Africa.  You think that a [par time] can't come here when everybody is black and brown and in the majority?  You better think again, because the powers that be don't care about your numbers if you don't [12:30]act like numbers are your power. 

It’s an understanding, the demographic change, we got to be a little bit deeper.  I keep saying Black, I keep saying Black and not African American.  Why?  Because you got people like Mitchell, all mixed the hell up. [13:00]This is not your traditional up from the South migrating Negro, this is super Negro.  As regional planners, [13:30] you got to dig down into who these demographics are.  You've got to look at how you are going to effect comprehensive immigration reform.  It has to be part of your plan, because guess what, it isn't just about borders and Latinos [14:00]hopping over fences and having anchor babies.  If we're looking at the economics of this country and regionally, our comprehensive immigration reform, if it'll ever come please God, we need to look at who's coming into this country, African immigrants are the most [14:30]highly educated of all immigrant groups combined. 
There’s a dirty little secret going on in this country about education, where education and immigration cross. The recruitment of international teachers.  These are professionals and they are coming up from the Caribbean, [15:00]Black immigrants from South America as well as Africa, and its a cottage industry of recruiters that not only charge the teachers, but the system.  I don't know if any of you heard about Filipino teachers in New Orleans [15:30]that were practically indentured servants, had their passports taken away, forced to live in trailers, and give part of their earnings back to their recruiters, it was like an international professional coyote.  But here's the other thing, I was, I was over at Howard College and [16:00]talking to a class and one of the students said to me "you know Mrs. Lewis, I know what the left is all about, I know what progressives are all about, I know what we want, but I just can't figure out what the right wants because it just doesn't seem to be clear to me."  And I said well, it right in front of [16:30]your face...privatize everything.  Privatize everything.  The war on public education is raging all around us.  It is predatory education.  We will no longer have public schools in a minute if we don't watch out. [17:00]International teachers are being recruited to populate charter schools.  That is their new thing, be aware of this, be aware. 
If we are talking about geography and people moving around and us being in the majority, in urban settings and [17:30]inter-suburban setting, all of a sudden when the school system is now black and brown it got to be privatized.  It just like gentrification happens after we take away services in neighborhoods and we call it urban renewal but you remove the folks out of [18:00]that system, it is the same thing that is happening in public education, be aware.  You got to be able to put that into your formula.

We have an opportunity right now to move people to the polls based on their own self-interests and issues. [18:30]ACORN at its height accounted for 25% of all voter registration in this country.  One organization.  Well with that dubious distinction, we had a bull’s-eye on our backs that was huge, you see, in a way, why we had to be removed. [19:00]I mean it makes perfect logical sense.

Using this Trayvon Martin moment again in your planning, where was Trayvon Martin shot?  In a gated community that arguably according to whomever [19:30]you want to believe was 50/50 in terms of white vs. people of color.  A gated community.  Again, the rise of these types of developments have proliferated…proliferated.  If we want to look at what kind of housing [20:00]we're having, anytime you have a gated community, that already sets up a certain mentality.  Are you keeping people in or you keeping folks out?  Is there free movement even between the neighbors in this place?  Regional planners, think about the proliferation of gated communities and its not just the rich, [20:30]we convinced moderate, middle income folks that they should be in gated communities too.  This is why we have this whole flight to the suburbs.  Lets have a house and a yard for the dog.

Well I'm a boomer. [21:00]Let me tell you a little secret about boomers.  We get cranky and once we hit a certain age, we revel with it.  Early on in our life we were like, so restricted and all of a sudden the big sexual revolution and we got loose, and then we got too loose [21:30]and had to pull back.  And yeah, we seen far too much, and we actually have seen you know in our short lifetime things change drastically so we get cranky, and we like it because we can finally be cranky and talk about all the things that we see that we don't like and that other people shouldn't like and [22:00]one of the things that we don't like is people not being call what they really are, like you all, dangerous.  There's nothing safe about you.  The fact that revolutions and what you all are doing, it costs money.  Sorry funders in the room but most folks sitting up in here [22:30]are suffering from foundation-itis.  No foundation can tell me that they are suffering, not when the stock market is over 13,000.  There's no such thing.  You bounce back and your investments have bounce back even better and greater than before. [23:00]Think about self-sufficiency.  We are not going to be able to do the things that we want if we don't have self-sufficiency.  We need our own bean pies.  The Nation of Islam don't give a damn about what you think of about them because they got a bean pot.  And we got to think [23:30]about that.  What is our self-sufficient motto?  You cannot keep relying on the kindness of strangers because they have an agenda.  We got to change our minds about how we are going to fund our own revolution and it isn't going to be from government grants or from totally from foundations, it cannot be, because if it is, [24:00]the revolutions certainly will not be televised.

But because there were folks who actually said we are going to tell the truth and shame the devil...bull.  Occupy.  The occupy movement has does more for your regional planning than you all have done for a decade. [24:30]You should give them a hand.  Because no one was talking about inequality before these crazy ass people laid down and said "that’s it, no more, no more."  You got to join up with labor.  Please, please, please.  And god knows [25:00]they can be a pain in the ass.  Lord knows, I know, but you got to go to them because what is happening.  Changing demographics, their rank and file demographics are changing.  Don't let some guy in a suit, who's a business suit, he's a business agent.  They don't even call themselves organizers anymore, they're business agents. [25:30]You say look, I know what your rank and file looks like.  I know who they are, there is no separation between labor and community because their rank and files live on streets which are neighborhoods, which are part of communities, if they would only recognize that, we have to help them.  Wisconsin didn't happen by accident and they need us, they need us, [26:00]they need us.  You don't have to beg, you need to tell them come and invest with us.  There has to be an inside outside strategy here.  Stop the bickering, stop the crumb snatching, please just stop it.  Its my turf, you know, [26:30]some funder tells you, "well we already got one of those."   Why don't you come up with something different, or here’s a dollar, I want all ten of you to share it because we want to maximize.  I mean sometimes you just got to walk away [27:00]and say no, the 10 of us say that is unacceptable, the work is too important and you will respect us and you will recognize us.  I know again that sounds real radical [inaudible] don't tell us to do that but you have too.  You just have to take a different tact.

I said in Detroit and I'm going to say it again, [27:30]I don't care how academic you are, I don't care how researcher in it you are, I don't care.  Every last one of you needs to have a political voter registration, voter turnout door-knocking component.  If you don't have it within your own organization than you better get with someone who does, and they exist. [28:00]You must do this.  Earlier I was in the demographic section and they were saying, "Oh the universities used to have departments just devoted to different ethnicities and they don't have it anymore.”  Well damn, that’s unacceptable.  All we been doing is how we are the new majority, so [28:30]if we're so new, lets get real and start exerting that power right now.  Who are the African Americans?  That’s a whole different class of folks.  Black faces need to be at the table when we talk about immigration reform.  When we talk about immigration reform, we got to talk about changing how we treat professionals.  Theses are our cousins; [29:00]we need them here to fight the battle with us.  So it is disturbing to me when I don't see a real effort to say, yes we're going to use Twitter, yes we're going use Facebook, we're going to go into the cloud.  That was really frightening to me because I had just gotten down with cyberspace then [29:30]they said, "go into the cloud."  I was like, nah.  No more of that forced march thing for me.  I’ve seen too many science fiction movies where none of us are in the future except [inaudible]. 

So the message is this.  If we are the new majority, start acting like it. [30:00]If we are the new majority, let us make sure that electoral politics as well as real on the ground knock on the door face-to-face organizing is part of that.  The Black Institute has three strategies: The head, data, research, polling but it doesn't mean anything if you cant make a claim and bring it down to the heart which is [30:30]leadership turning all that rusty dusty stuff into reality and training people to do it but none of it, it will always be advocacy if you don’t move it on the ground.  You still have to knock on doors.  You ain't getting away from that.  You can have all the videoconference you want. [31:00]And here’s the proof right in your own publication, Black and Latino coalition's Black anti-immigrant laws in Mississippi.  Whenever I’m in Mississippi I try to be inside after dark.  So if they can do it in Mississippi, we can join website to website, strange bedfellows and all kind of coalitions, we have to do it [31:30]for our own survival, you cannot do it alone.  And so, in conclusion, you want to call to action?  You gonna get up off your ass right now.  Stand up, stand up, stand up.  Mic check, Mic check.  We are the majority, and we will rule. [32:00]We are fired up, and tired of all the bullshit, and we wont take it anymore.  We are the majority, not in 2050, we are the majority right now, and we will rule.  Thank you.

Voter Suppression Disenfranchises Millions

The right to vote is under attack all across our country. Conservative legislators are introducing and passing legislation that: (a) creates new barriers for those registering to vote, (b) shortens the early voting period, (c) imposes new requirements for registered voters, and (d) rigs the Electoral College in select states.

Although voter fraud is exceedingly rare, conservatives have been fabricating reasons to enact laws that disenfranchise as many potential voters as possible among certain groups, such as college students, low-income people, and minorities.[1] Rather than modernizing our democracy to ensure that all citizens have access to the ballot box, these laws hinder voting rights in a manner not seen since the Jim Crow laws enacted in the South to disenfranchise blacks following Reconstruction.

It should be noted that these proposals being introduced in states as different as Florida and Wisconsin is no coincidence. Rather, they are drafted and distributed by corporate-backed entities like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), according to an investigative report by the Center for American Progress.[2] Corporations, such as Koch Industries Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and The Coca-Cola Co. pay ALEC a fee for access to members of state legislatures, so that the corporate representatives and ALEC officials can work together with elected representatives to draft model legislation. As ALEC spokesperson Michael Bowman told NPR, the system is especially effective as legislators, “will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters.”

The investigative report also included a leaked copy of the model Voter ID legislation approved by ALEC’s board of directors in 2009. It prohibits certain forms of identification, such as student IDs, and has been adopted as the preferred model by both Tea Party organizations and Wisconsin’s Republican legislators, State Representative Jeff Stone and State Senator Joe Leibham.

Similar legislation had been proposed in Missouri and other states during the early part of the last decade, but it frequently failed to pass. Seeking new avenues, the George W. Bush administration prioritized the conviction of voter fraud to the point where two U.S. attorneys were allegedly fired in 2004 for failing to pursue electoral fraud cases at the level required by Attorney General John Ashcroft. But after three years of scrutiny of the 2002 elections, Ashcroft’s efforts had only produced 95 charges of election fraud. News reports from 2007, however, pointed out that simply “pursuing an investigation can be just as effective as a conviction in providing that ammunition and creating an impression with the public that some sort of electoral reform is necessary.”[3]

Having laid the groundwork, ALEC is now spearheading these antivoting laws anew. A number of nonpartisan organizations ranging from Rock the Vote to the League of Women Voters to the Public Interest Research Group, are challenging ALEC’s efforts. Additionally, the Department of Justice is reviewing some of the new state laws for possible violations of the Voting Rights Act in nine southern states because of their history of voter suppression in the past.

Speaking on the subject at the Campus Progress National Conference in Washington, D.C. on July 6, 2011, President Bill Clinton told the young audience that the reason why laws making it harder to vote were being proposed and passed across the country was that “They are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate.”

Conservatives are scared because more young and minority voters are entering voting age and their collective impact is growing accordingly. In 2008, about 48 million millennial generation voters—those born between 1978 and 2000—were old enough to vote. By 2012, that number will be 64 million, or 29 percent of all eligible voters. According to analysis by the Center for American Progress, by 2020, all of the millennial generation—about 90 million—will be eligible to vote and will comprise around 40 percent of American voters.[4]

Simultaneously, the number of minority voters has increased from 15 to 26 percent between 1988 and 2008.[5] These young and minority voters strongly support progressive staples, such as investing in renewable energy[6] and maintaining Social Security,[7] which affects election results. In 2008, young voters and Hispanics delivered two-thirds of their votes to President Obama.[8]

The growing influence of staunchly progressive voters has conservatives scared to the point of extreme measures. Backed by large corporate donors, they are looking for any proposal or law that will help negate this change in voting demographics. While this is their motivation, the right to vote is an American right that should be protected for those of all political persuasions.

Right now, the protection of anti-voter suppression measures put in place during the 1960s is preventing the enactment of the Voter ID law in key states. In some states, the issue will become a ballot measure whose outcome is decided by the voters, while in others, the laws have already been passed and must be aggressively challenged through legal and electoral measures, so that our system of democratic elections can get back on the right track.

1.    Justin Levitt, The Truth About Voter Fraud, (Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law, 2007). < Fraud.pdf>
2.    Tobin Van Ostern, “Conservative Corporate Advocacy Group ALEC Behind Voter Disenfranchisement Efforts,” Campus Progress, March 8, 2011. <>
3.    Mark Follman, Alex Koppelman, and Jonathan Vanian, “How U.S. Attorneys were used to spread voter-fraud fears,”, March 21, 2007. <>
4.    Ruy Teixeira, New Progressive America: Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority, (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2009). <
5.    Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, The Path to 270: Demographics versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election, (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2011). <>
6.    Joel Benenson and Amy Levin: Youth Poll Results (Benenson Strategy Group, New York, September 15, 2009). <>
7.    Alliance for Retired Americans, “Social Security: A Promise to All Americans,” (2010). <>
8.    Teixeira, New Progressive America.

Scott Keyes is a researcher at the Center for American Progress (CAP) Action Fund. Ian Millhiser is a policy analyst and blogger on legal issues at CAP and the CAP Action Fund. Tobin Van Ostern is communications manager for CAP’s Campus Progress project. Abraham White is a communications associate with Campus Progress. 

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Web Special: Citizenship Verification, Obstacle to Voter Registration and Participation

Several states across the country have instituted voter identification requirements that force voters to provide proof of identity in order to cast a regular ballot at a polling place.  Although these laws passed quietly at first, drawing little to no national attention, they have more recently been the subject of increased national scrutiny and debate.

A smaller number of states have adopted requirements that affect citizens before they ever make it into the ballot box or even on to voter rolls:  citizenship verification to register to vote.  These requirements have received little to no national attention, but are spreading quietly from state to state.  They will make registration more onerous for every citizen and have the potential to disenfranchise a large number of people.  This article will discuss the various citizenship verification provisions in the states, the reasons proponents offer for them, and why we should be concerned about their proliferation.

Citizenship and Voting
The right to vote in the US has come to be closely tied to citizenship and membership in the demos.  Although into the 1800s, white non-citizens who had declared their intention to become citizens were permitted to vote in some states, today non-citizen voting is limited to a handful of local jurisdictions, meaning that in the overwhelming majority of local elections, and in all federal and state office elections, the franchise is limited to citizens.

During much of the late 20th Century, citizens “proved” their eligibility, including citizenship, by affirming or swearing to it, under penalty of perjury. In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”), also known as the “Motor Voter law,” streamlined the registration process for federal elections to increase voter access and participation, requiring the creation of voter registration forms that could be completed by mail and directing the states to provide opportunities to register to vote when individuals obtained drivers licenses or other social services provided by the state.   The federally mandated forms provide a space for registrants to swear they are citizens, 18 or over, and otherwise eligible to vote.

In 2004, Arizona became the first state to require that an individual’s citizenship be proven by more than the oath of citizenship provided in the NVRA.  Since then, three other states have passed similar laws and several others have considered them.  As of April 2012, legislation was currently pending in an additional seven states.  These citizenship verification laws fall into two general categories: (1) verification through documentary proof of citizenship and (2) verification by database cross-reference.  

Verification through documentary proof of citizenship:  
In 2004, Arizona voters passed Proposition 200, known as the “Protect Arizona Now” initiative.  It required documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, identification in order to cast a ballot, proof of eligibility for non-federal public benefits, and that local officials report suspected undocumented immigrants to federal officials.  Proposition 200 revised Arizona election law to require that county registrars reject any application for registration that did not contain or come accompanied with acceptable proof of citizenship.  Accepted documents include an Arizona driver’s license issued after 1996, a passport, a birth certificate, or naturalization papers.   While a copy of a passport or birth certificate could be submitted with a by mail registration form, naturalized citizens presenting their naturalization papers must present original documents in person for inspection at their county registrar’s office, and an individual supplying only a naturalization number will not be registered until the number is verified with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”).    

In 2011, the Kansas legislature passed the Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act, which required photo ID at the polls starting January 1, 2012 and proof of citizenship to register to vote starting January 1, 2013.  However, pending legislation seeks to move the effective date up to June 1, 2012, so that it would be in effect for what Kansas Secretary of State has called, “the spike in registrations” associated with the 2012 Presidential Election.   Acceptable forms of proof of citizenship in Kansas include a passport, birth certificate showing US citizenship, a drivers license from a state that requires citizenship for licensing, Bureau of Indian Affairs ID card or number, and naturalization papers or numbers (but numbers must be verified with ICE before an applicant is added to the rolls).

In 2011, Alabama passed HB 56, the “Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.”  This Act has been called the strictest state anti-immigration law in the nation and has garnered international attention and several lawsuits.  However, while aspects some aspects of the law, such as the requirement that police inquire into citizenship status when there is reasonable suspicion that a stopped individual may not be a citizen or the requirement that local public school officials investigate students’ citizenship status, have drawn intense attention, very little attention has been paid to Section 29 of the Act, which requires proof of citizenship prior to being added to the voter rolls.  The law accepts the same documentation as Kansas (in fact, Section 29 is nearly identical to the Kansas law, which might not be surprising since Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is said to have authored the majority of Alabama’s HB 56, as well as Arizona’s AB 1070).   

Citizenship verification by cross-reference:  
In 2008, the Georgia legislature passed a law requiring verification of registrants’ citizenship before they can be added to the voter rolls.  The Georgia law requires verifying registrants’ citizenship with the state’s drivers’ license database, since individuals are listed as citizens or non-citizens in that database.  If an individual is listed in the license database as a non-citizen, her citizenship must be verified, through documentation or though communication with ICE, before she can be added to the voter rolls.  Although the US Department of Justice originally objected to Georgia’s law,  it has since relented and precleared it.  As such, Georgia is free to pursue its policy unless another challenge invalidates it.  Like the Arizona, Alabama, and Kansas laws, the precleared version of the Georgia law only applies to new registrants in the state.  

In 2011, Tennessee passed a law requiring that the statewide voter rolls be cross-referenced with other state and federal databases to identify potential non-citizens who are registered to vote.   When such cross reference raises a question about a voter’s citizenship status, county officials are to send the voter a notice requiring her to produce proof of citizenship within 30 days or be removed from the voter rolls.  Acceptable proof of citizenship includes a birth certificate, passport, naturalization papers, or other documentation accepted by the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986.  Unlike the laws in Arizona, Kansas and Georgia, the Tennessee law will check citizenship of all registered voters.   

Arguments for Citizenship Verification:

Proponents of citizenship verification argue that it is necessary to safeguard the electoral process from fraudulent non-citizen voting and protect the votes of legal citizens.  They argue that due to lax registration requirements in the NVRA,   particularly the lack of any proof of eligibility, non-citizens can and are registering to vote and even voting.   Arguments for proof of citizenship generally follow some incarnation of the following formula:  (1) registering to vote is very easy, with no safeguards or requirements to prevent fraudulent registration; (2) there are many non-citizens in the country, including millions of “illegals”; (3) such non-citizens could register to vote if they lie about their citizenship and could then cast illegal ballots; and (4) several recent elections have been decided by small margins, so illegal non-citizen votes could affect electoral outcomes.  Although some advocates admit that “there is no reliable method to determine the number of non-citizens registered or actually voting,” they state that that “thousands” of non-citizens are registered in some states, and “tens if not hundreds of thousands may be present on the voter rolls nation wide.”   Some even claim that 9/11 terrorists were registered to vote and actually voted.  

In addition, citizenship verification and voter ID policies are claimed to be necessary to protect legal citizens’ votes and increase their confidence in the electoral system among legal citizens.  Votes cast by non-citizens are said to cancel out or dilute the votes cast by legal citizens.  This risk of non-citizen illegal voting, in turn, decreases legal citizens’ confidence in the electoral system, leading to a decrease in participation among legal citizens.  By restoring confidence in the system, proponents argue, citizenship verification and voter ID will increase participation among legal voters.

Given the fervor of advocacy for anti-fraud provisions and intensity of claims of fraud and non-citizen voting, one would expect ample evidence of widespread fraud.  However, there is very little evidence of non-citizen voting fraud, meaning non-citizens who knowingly register and vote despite knowing they are not eligible to do so.  There are very few claims of non-citizen voting, compared to total votes cast, and subsequent investigation turn up very few, if any, documented cases of non-citizens voting.  For example, an analysis of voting crime records in California between 1994 and 2006 found 161 complaints about non-citizen registration.  Of the 104 cases where State officials determined there was a criminal violation, 101 resulted in no action because the defendant lacked intent to commit fraud, and only 2 resulted in a criminal conviction or guilty plea. During this same period, more than 75 million votes were cast in California.    Similarly, an investigation of “illegal voting” in the 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State found only two non-citizens, both university students, voted in the election; out of 2.9 million votes cast.  The vast majority of the 1,678 complained of “illegal votes” were cast by felons.

Reasons for concern:   
Since citizenship is required to vote in the vast majority of elections in the US, one might wonder what harm there is in asking individuals to prove their citizenship in order to register and vote.  Aside from the lack of evidence that the current system is unreliable, citizenship verification does provide cause for concern due to the likely effect of making registering to vote, and therefor participating in our democracy, more difficult.

Registering to vote will be more onerous for everyone:  
Citizenship verification requirements place an additional hurdle in the voting process by requiring more information for registering to vote and/or remaining on the voter rolls.  

Documentation challenges:  
All new voters in several states will have to prove their citizenship through documentation.  However, not all citizens possess the required documentation.  It is estimated that only 30% of US citizens (including children) possess a US Passport, arguably the most reliable method of proving citizenship.  Many citizens do not have access to other documents, such as a birth certificate.  While the Kansas and Alabama laws allow a person without documentation to petition for registration, this places additional requirements and delays on the process, which could affect the ability to vote in a given election.  For example, most jurisdictions require voter registration to be completed 30 days prior to an election; pursuing hearings to establish citizenship could easily delay a registration past that threshold.  

In addition, for a substantial portion of the population, a birth certificate alone will not be sufficient to prove citizenship for registration.  In Kansas and Alabama, the names and sex on the birth certificate much match that on the voter registration form.  For some populations, such as married women, for example, there is likely to be an inconsistency between their birth certificate name and voter registration name, requiring them to take the additional step of completing a form explaining the reason for the inconsistency under penalty of perjury.  The fact that these laws permit an applicant to swear to their identity on forms but not to their US citizenship is an interesting contrast.  

Database Accuracy
Although database verification methods don’t put the onus on voters to provide documentation at the start, they still pose challenges to registration.  Databases may erroneously identify citizens and non-citizens, either due to data input errors but also due to old data.  For example, driver’s license data on citizenship may not be updated after an individual naturalizes, leaving him flagged as a non-citizen in the database and subject to voter registration problems.  In Georgia, such an individual would not be added to the voter rolls until further documentation or verification proved citizenship, and in Tennessee, a voter would be purged from voter rolls if unable to prove citizenship within 30 days.  

Harsher impact on particular groups:  
In addition to the general impact on all citizens seeking to register, these laws may have a particular impact on members of certain groups who have or are perceived to have a higher risk of being non-citizens.  

Perceived “foreignness”
Experiences from past elections show that citizenship-based challenges often fall most severely on those perceived to be “foreign” regardless of their actual citizenship.  Such challenges to voters on the basis of citizenship have been based on stereotype more than fact, with Latinos, Asian Americans, and Middle Eastern Americans feeling the biggest brunt.  For example, in the 1999 elections in Hamtramck, MI, poll watchers challenged voters on the basis of citizenship selectively in the polls without proof of non-citizenship.  Challenged voters were Arab American, and challenges were based on Arab sounding name, accent, and/or appearance.  Some voters were made to take oaths of citizenship even though they carried US Passports with them to the polls.  In the 2004 election cycle, one Georgia county registrar required voters with Latino surnames to appear in court to prove their citizenship and eligibility to vote.   In 2005, an individual in Washington State challenged the citizenship eligibility of several voters who had registered to vote when they got their drivers’ licenses, on the basis that they had names “that appear to be from outside the United States.”

Registration disparities:
As noted above, most current citizenship verification laws apply only to registrants.  Since people of color, particularly Latinos and Asian Americans, are registered at lower rates than non-Latino whites, laws that affect only new registrants may have a more heavy effect among these communities.  Table 1 shows the percentage of voting age citizens for various racial groups who reported being registered to vote in 2008 and 2010.  Since participation among registered voters is roughly the same among racial groups, one of the biggest obstacles to Latino and Asian American participation is becoming a registered voter.  Citizenship verification laws present an obstacle to all new voters, but may have the largest effect on groups with low registration rates.  

Although voting is limited to citizens in nearly all jurisdictions, citizenship verification laws are a blunt instrument with a potentially disenfranchising effect.  Citizenship verification laws will make registering to vote more difficult for all voters and may have particularly strong effects on the political participation of Latinos and Asian Americans.  While Voter ID laws and controversies have captured the majority of press attention, citizenship verification laws have been cropping up and passing quietly.  More attention should be paid to citizenship verification laws and more time spent questioning whether the burden they impose is in the interests of US democracy.  

Ana Henderson is the Director of Opportunity and Inclusion at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy and a Lecturer-in-Residence at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

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Latino, Black Political Clout Grows in Florida and North Carolina

The face of the Southern electorate is changing and nowhere is the shift clearer than in Florida and North Carolina. In these two critical battleground states, the share of white voters has shrunk since the 2008 presidential election, while the number of African American, Latino and other people of color voters has steadily grown. However, new voting restrictions could undermine the political potential of this shift towards an increasingly diverse electorate.

According to an analysis of state voter registration data by the Institute for Southern Studies ( ), the most rapid change has been in North Carolina, where the percentage of voters who identify as Hispanic doubled between 2008 and 2012. Even more striking, the share of the electorate identifying as "other"—that is, not white, black, Hispanic, or American Indian—rose by 252 percent.  Overall, the total number of voters not identifying as white has grown by 5.6 percent in four years, bringing their share of the electorate to 29 percent.

The chart below shows how the North Carolina and Florida voting populations have shifted. (In North Carolina the period is from March 2008 to May 2012. The second row in the chart shows how Florida's electorate changed between the July 2008 general primary and the January 2012 presidential primary).

These trends have put North Carolina remarkably close to Florida, where voters of color grew a more modest 2.2 percent between July 2008 and January 2012, but still represent 30 percent of all registered voters.

  If the number of voter registrations for black, Latino and other communities of color seem lower than expected given recent census data, the reason may lie with the sweeping new restrictions that have forced the League of Women Voters to cease registration drives entirely while the new laws undergo court review.

Restrictions Hamper Voter of Color Registrations

A March 2012, New York Times article—drawing on analysis by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith—found that in the eight months since the state's new laws went into effect, 81,000 fewer new voters had been added to the rolls, compared to the same period four years ago.
Civil rights advocates have argued that the restrictions would hit African American and Latino voters hardest because, as the Brennan Center and others have noted, they are more than twice as likely to register through registration drives as white voters.

Additionally, there is concern that bills requiring picture IDs (passed in Florida and likely to be on the North Carolina Republican agenda for the current legislative session), limits on early voting, and attempts to end Sunday "Souls to the Polls" turnout drives can and will disproportionately impact the ability of voters of color to exercise their political clout.


Chris Kromm is the executive director and publisher of Facing South and Southern Exposure, where an earlier version of this article appeared.


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New Battleground States: Georgia and Arizona

The 2010 Census clearly documents a profound population shift in the U.S., which could be a game-changer for the progressive community. However, given the  regressive rhetoric and policies of conservatives  toward voters of color (VOC) and progressive whites, states like Arizona and Georgia are rapidly turning into key battlegrounds. The populations of both states have increased significantly since 2000 and each has gained a new congressional seat and an extra Electoral College vote.

In Arizona, VOCs now make up 24 percent of the voting population. In 2008, an impressive 74 percent of registered voters went to the polls. In Phoenix, long a Republican stronghold, the population grew by 9.4 percent to nearly 1.5 million with significant numbers of them being people of color. The city recently elected a Latino city councilman and a Democrat for mayor.

A similar dynamic exists in Georgia. The current political landscape resembles that of 1998 when hyper-partisan rhetoric motivated communities of color to get out and vote. With a 30 percent VOC share of the electorate, candidates of color made significant gains then and progressive candidates won the governorship and Democrats retained control of both houses of the legislature.

Today, people of color in Georgia make up close to 35 percent of the voting age population. In the 2008 general election, VOCs made up 34 percent of the vote share. If every eligible VOC votes in 2012, the potential impact would be significant, especially in cities like Atlanta and Athens-Clark County, which together have over 230,000 "key" VOCs.

Electoral Impact of Reactionary Policies
From the rhetoric on immigration in states like Arizona and Georgia and the threats to veto the DREAM Act, to the voter suppression and &quot;stand your ground&quot; laws, progressives and communities of color have had their rights, their families, their dreams, and their lives trampled upon. Now they have had enough and are starting to take a stand and fight back.

The Supreme Court hearings over Arizona's SB 1070 law caught the attention of people of color everywhere and now we are seeing signs of an energized electorate. With enough resources, this energy could be transformed into a victory for candidates, such as Arizona’s Richard Carmona for U.S. Senate and Kyrsten Sinema for U.S. Congress, and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams for State General Assembly. In fact, if enough determined voters go to the polls, regressive policies can be replaced by progressive laws in states like Arizona and Georgia.

History has shown that VOCs can make a difference in the outcome of elections. A case in point is Illinois, where the total vote increased from 10 percent in 2006 to 19 percent in 2010. The strong turnout from VOCs brought a candidate (Pat Quinn) who embraced progressive views to the governorship—with just one-third of the white vote.

By closing the gap between eligible and likely voters, we will have a better chance of regaining our voice and enacting progressive policies. A progressive candidate could win Georgia with just 41 percent and Arizona with just 37 percent of the white vote.

African Americans and progressive whites have often come together before and can continue to do so to develop transformational relationships that dramatically impact politics, culture, and economics. But we must also remember that the local political machines have never just been about whites and African Americans but also Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. So, rather than creating anxiety in political circles, the expanding share of the electorate of these communities should reinforce our commitment to an all-inclusive brand of politics. 

Kirk Clay is the senior advisor for PowerPAC (, an organization focused on politics and civic engagement.


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Sit-ins and Voter Registration in 1960

A Nashville, Tennessee lunch counter sit-in circa 1960. ©Jimmy Ellis/Nashville Tennessean.

In 1960, the young civil rights movement faced a split between advocates of direct action and electoral work. The movements for justice today face a similar divide, between direct action strategies, such as Occupy and more traditional efforts to advance the agenda through the electoral system.

In the summer of 1960, Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers, and other local Black leaders in Mississippi told Bob Moses that they needed help with voter registration more than they needed demonstrations against segregation. He promised he would return in the summer of '61, and in July, he began voter registration work in McComb, Mississippi. Staunch long-time Movement supporters, such as Harry Belafonte and many of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders also believed that SNCC should focus on voter registration rather than direct action, such as sit-ins and Freedom Rides. They argued that poor, rural blacks had no money for lunch counters or other public facilities and that what they needed most was political power that in Mississippi had to begin with winning the right to vote.

Victoria Jackson Gray Adams, 1964 Democractic National Convention. ©1964 George Ballis/Center for Documentary Expression & ArtOther SNCC leaders—many just released from Parchman Prison and Hinds County Jail—argued that the Freedom Rides and other forms of direct action must continue. The protests were gaining momentum and bringing the Movement into the darkest corners of the Deep South, raising awareness, building courage, and inspiring young and old. They were deeply suspicious of?  President John F. Kennedy's demand that they switch from demonstrations to voter registration, and they were unwilling to abandon the tactics that had brought the Movement so far in so short a time.
In August, the issue came to a head when SNCC met at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. After three days of passionate debate, SNCC was split right down the middle—half favored continuing direct action, the others favored switching to voter registration. Ella Baker proposed a compromise—do both. Her suggestion was adopted.

Amid the fires of the Freedom Rides and the heat of debate, SNCC as an organization was rapidly evolving away from its campus/student roots. More and more SNCC activists were leaving school to become full-time freedom fighters. With money raised by Belafonte, first Charles Sherrod, then Bob Moses, and then others were hired as SNCC &quot;field secretaries,&quot; devoting their lives to the struggle in the rural areas and small towns of the South.

As so often turns out to be the case, when committed activists passionately disagree over strategy, both sides are proven correct. Both direct action and voter registration are needed. Each supports and strengthens the other. The determination and courage of student protesters inspires and encourages their elders, and the growing political power of adults organized around the right to vote supports and sustains the young demonstrators. Instead of splitting the organization apart, they forge a unifying compromise. By respecting that fellow activists could passionately disagree over strategy and tactics—yet remain allies—they strengthened SNCC and the Movement as a whole.

In 2012, supporting candidates and ballot initiatives are not really equivalent to fighting for full citizenship for African Americans as in the 1950s and 60s. Then, voter registration was an assertion of equal citizenship and social equality against white-supremacy. Voter registration was a more radical and confrontational challenge to the powers-that-were than were direct actions, such as Freedom Rides and sit-ins. Far more people were killed and jailed fighting for the vote than were for sit-ins against segregation. So, in a sense, it turned out that voter-registration was a form of direct action.
That said,  our movement today has to incorporate both direct action and electoral engagement. It is as true today as it was back then. For me, the most important lesson is that by respecting the fact that fellow activists could passionately disagree over strategy and tactics—yet remain allies—they strengthened SNCC and the Movement as a whole.

Bruce Hartford was active with CORE, SCLC from 1963-67 in Alabama, Mississippi and California. This article is excerpted from a timeline of the Southern Freedom Movement during the years 1951-68, published at


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Black-Brown Strategy Beats the South's Anti-Immigrant Wave

By David Bacon

In April 2012, an anti-immigrant bill similar to the ones passed in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina legislatures was stopped cold in Mississippi—contrary to all expectations.

Tea Party Republicans, confident of rolling over any opposition, had enlisted Kansas Secretary of State and co-author of Arizona’s SB 1070 Kris Kobach, to push the bill with Mississippi state Representative Becky Currie, who introduced it. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which designs and introduces similar bills across the country, also had its agents on site in Jackson. The timing could not have been better. In November 2011, Republicans took control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction, making Mississippi one of the last Southern states to give up Democratic control of the legislature—a final triumph for the Nixon/Reagan Southern Strategy. But these were not just any Republicans. When Governor Haley Barbour, now ironically considered a “moderate Republican,” stepped down, voters replaced him with Phil Bryant, a rabid anti-immigrant whose venom rivals that of Lou Dobbs. And yet, the seemingly inevitable did not happen.

Instead, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus fought a dogged rearguard war from the opening of the legislative session in January 2012. Over the preceding decade, the Caucus had acquired a reputation for defeating over 200 anti-immigrant measures. This session, however, they had lost all the crucial committee chairmanships that had made it possible for them to kill the earlier bills. But they did not lose their voice.
“We forced a great debate in the House, until 1:30 in the morning,” says state Representative Jim Evans, caucus leader and AFL-CIO staff member. “When you have a prolonged debate like that, it shows the widespread concern and disagreement. People began to see the ugliness in this measure.”

People’s Voice Trumps Special Interest on HB 488
Like the other bills created by Kobach and ALEC, HB 488 stated its intent clearly: “to make attrition through enforcement of the public policy of all state agencies and local governments.” In other words, to make life so difficult and unpleasant for undocumented people that they leave the state. Without papers, residents would not be able to get so much as a bicycle license or a library card, and schools would have to inform authorities about the immigration status of their students. And the police were mandated to verify the immigration status of all they arrested—an open invitation to racial profiling.

“The night HB 488 came to the floor, many black legislators spoke against it, including some who’d never spoken out on immigration before,” says Bill Chandler, director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA). “One objected to the use of the term ‘illegal alien’, while others said it justified breaking up families and ethnic cleansing.”

Many white legislators were also inspired to speak against the bill. Nevertheless, it was rammed through the House to the Senate, also controlled by Republicans for some years but presided over by the more moderate Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves. Reeves could see the widespread opposition to the bill, even among employers, and was less inclined to toe the Tea Party line. Instead, he appointed Hob Bryan, a rural Democrat, to chair one of the Senate’s two judiciary committees and sent him HB 488. Bryan’s committee killed it.

On the surface, it appears as if fissures within the Republican Party facilitated the bill’s demise, but the real reason lies elsewhere.
As the debate and maneuvering played out in the capitol building, its halls and grounds were filled with angry protests and noisy demonstrations for several days. The grassroots upsurge produced political alliances that cut deeply into the bill’s support, and calls for its rejection came from the sheriffs’ and county supervisors’ associations, the Mississippi Economic Council (a.k.a. chamber of commerce), and employers—from farms to poultry packers.

That upsurge was neither spontaneous nor a last-minute emergency mobilization.

“We wouldn’t have had a chance against this without 12 years of organizing work,” Evans explains. “We worked on the conscience of people night and day, and built coalition after coalition. Over time, people have come around. The way people think about immigration in Mississippi today is nothing like the way they thought when we started.”

Two Decades of Strategic Organizing Pays Off
In the late 1990s, veterans of Mississippi’s social movements like Evans, Chandler, attorney Patricia Ice, Father Jerry Tobin, activist Kathy Sykes, and union organizer Frank Curiel came together—not in the hope of stopping a bill 12 years later—but to build political power. Their vehicle was MIRA, which partnered with the Legislative Black Caucus and other coalitions fighting most of the progressive issues facing the state.

Their strategy was based on the state’s changing demographics. Over the last two decades, the percentage of African Americans in Mississippi has been rising. Black families driven from jobs by factory closures in the north have been moving back in a reversal of the Great Migration of the last century. Today, at least 37 percent of Mississippi’s population is African American—the highest of any state in the country.

Following the boom in casino construction in the 1990s, people from Mexico and Central America, displaced by NAFTA and CAFTA, started migrating into the state to work in the poultry plants, farms and factories. Guest workers were also brought in for the Gulf Coast reconstruction and shipyards. Today, Mississippi has several established Latino communities whose children are achieving voting age.

In MIRA’s political calculation, blacks, immigrants and unions are the potential pillars of a powerful political coalition. HB 488’s intent to drive away immigrants is an effort to make that coalition impossible.

MIRA is not just focused on defeating bad bills. It built a grassroots base by fighting immigration raids at the Howard Industries plant in Laurel (2008) and at other worksites, and its activist staff has helped families survive sweeps at apartment houses and trailer parks. MIRA also brought together black workers suspicious of the Latino influx and immigrant families worried about settling in a hostile community, with the idea that political unity based in neighborhoods protects all groups.

For unions organizing poultry plants, factories and casinos, MIRA became a resource helping to win over immigrant workers. It also brought labor violation cases against employers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Alliance of Friends and Adversaries Pays Off
Despite being adversaries otherwise, employers and MIRA both opposed workplace immigration raids based on the “attrition through enforcement” idea and recognized a mutual interest in fighting HB 488. Since 1986, U.S. immigration law has forbidden undocumented people to work by making it illegal to hire them. The enforcement of this law (part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), especially under the Bush and Obama administrations, has caused thousands of workers to be fired. In the last decade, Congressional proposals for comprehensive immigration reform have called for strengthening sanctions and increasing raids and firings.

“Those bills violate the human rights of working people to feed their families,” says Chandler. “Employers... didn’t like workplace enforcement either. All their associations claimed they didn’t hire undocumented workers, but we all know who’s working in the plants. We want people to stay as much as the employers do.”

During the protests, the organizers underlined this point by giving legislators sweet potatoes with labels saying, “I was picked by immigrant workers who together contribute $82 million to the state’s economy.”

“Forcing people from their jobs forces them to leave,” Chandler continues. “[That’s] an ethnic cleansing tactic.”
Although MIRA allied with employers over HB  488 for tactical reasons, it is primarily a labor coalition that helps workers defend themselves against employers. In fact, MIRA has actively fought guest worker programs used by the Mississippi casinos and shipyards to recruit workers with few labor rights. To fight HB 488, MIRA bussed in members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529 from poultry plants in Scott County, laborers from Laurel, Retail and Wholesale union members from Carthage, catfish workers from Indianola, and electrical union members from Crystal Spring. The black labor mobilization was largely organized by the new pro-immigrant leadership of the state chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the AFL-CIO constituency group for black union members.

Religious congregations—Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutherans, Muslims, and Jews—along with the Mississippi Human Services Coalition, also brought people to protest HB 488. The groups around MIRA and the Black Caucus fought not only this bill, but many others introduced by Tea Party Republicans, on a wide range of issues: banning abortions when fetal heartbeat is detected; promoting charter schools; restricting access to workers compensation benefits; and taking away civil service protection from state employees.

Big Picture is Bleak Without Sustained Organizing
According to Dr. Ivory Phillips, a MIRA director and member of the Board of Trustees of the Jackson Public School District, charter school proposals, voter ID requirements, and anti-immigrant measures are all linked.

“Because white supremacists fear losing their status as the dominant group in this country, there is a war against brown people today, just as there has long been a war against black people,” he says. “In all three cases—charter schools, immigration reform, and voter IDs—what we are witnessing is an anti-democratic surge, a rise in overt racism, and a refusal to provide opportunities to all.”

Tea Party supporters also see these issues as linked. Following the defeat of HB 488 and in the wake of a debate on charter schools, Representative Reecy Dickson, a leading Black Caucus member, was surrounded by a shoving crowd, which hurled racist epithets at her.

“We need political alliances that mean something in the long term,” says Chandler. “Permanent alliances and a strategy for winning political power that includes targeted voter registration that focuses on specific towns, neighborhoods and precincts.”

Despite the national implications of stopping HB 488, the resources for the effort were almost all local. When MIRA emptied its bank account over the fight, additional money came mostly from local units of organizations like the UAW, UNITE HERE and the Muslim Association.

“The resources of the national immigrant rights movement should prioritize preventing bills from passing as much as fighting them after the fact,” warns Chandler.

On the surface, the fight in Jackson was a defensive battle waged in the wake of the Republican takeover of the legislature because the Tea Party threatens to bring HB 488 back until it passes. Yet Evans, who also chairs MIRA’s board, believes that time is on the side of social change. “These Republicans still have tricks up their sleeves,” he cautions. “We’re worried about redistricting and a Texas-style stacking of the deck. But in the end, we still believe our strategy will build power in Mississippi. We don’t see last November as a defeat but as the last stand of the Confederacy.”

David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer. For more articles and photos see This article was first published in The Nation.


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"We wouldn't have had a chance against this bill without 12 years of organizing work."

Selma to Montgomery March: From Voting Rights to Immigration 1965-2012

Every year, the NAACP holds a rally from March 4-9 to commemorate the Selma to Montgomery march and draw attention to the issues facing African Americans in America.  Since the passage of Alabama’s HB 56—the nation’s worst anti-immigrant law—the NAACP has reached out to organizations around the country to build lasting relationships between Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights communities over their common history of struggle. The event marks the coming together of a broad movement for a renewed call for civil rights in America. This year, a core part of their agenda was a demand to repeal HB 56.    

Gamaliel, a grassroots network of non-partisan, faith-based organizations in 18 U.S. states, South Africa and the United Kingdom, is now taking on the voting rights issue. They are working together with the NAACP and other social justice organizations on “Get out the Vote” initiatives for the Fall elections. 

Among the participants in the Selma to Montgomery march this year was 28-year-old Carlos Pinedo, who emigrated from Mexico with his family at the age of eight. In the racially diverse community in Chicago’s South Suburbs, young Pinedo soon became conscious of the tensions and boundaries between blacks, Latinos and whites and quickly adopted the racial stereotypes he learned from his new friends. Growing up in Blue Island, Illinois, Carlos and his brother Jose became targets of racial profiling themselves. Things took a nasty turn when Jose was arrested by ICE officers in front of his mother on Mother’s Day for failing to present a state-issued picture ID to police officials who were questioning him for no legitimate reason. He was deported to Mexico, leaving behind his family and newborn child.

The incident prompted Carlos to become a leader with the South Suburban Action Conference (SSAC) and Gamaliel’s Civil Rights of Immigrants Task Force, working to raise awareness about racial profiling and its negative impact on families. In 2010, SSAC was able to persuade Blue Island Mayor Donald Peloquin to sign a resolution allowing undocumented immigrants to present the Matricula Consular as a valid form of identification.

Pinedo decided to participate in the march because, as he says, “I felt that now more than ever, I needed to show my community that what I have been working for is really worth it. In this way, I can stand for the ones who have no voice.”Florida Immigrant Coalition marches from Selma to Montgomery, 2012. Courtesy of Equal Voice News.

The march made Pinedo acutely aware of other communities all over the U.S. who have been fighting for the same thing—namely, human rights.

The Reverend David Bigsby, co-founder and president  of the Gamaliel National Clergy Council, also attended the march. He was at Morehouse College in Atlanta during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March. “Voting rights were especially important to me because neither my parents nor anyone in our family had ever voted, except me,” he recalls. “They feared what would happen if they attempted to register. Most of them could not read very well and did not think their vote would make a difference. The 1965 march caused my father to find the courage to vote for the first time. He had served in WWII but did not feel he was a valued citizen.”

One young leader with Gamaliel, Eliza Perez-Montalvo, is responding to the call for renewed black-brown unity, saying: “Marching today is the beginning of my journey.”

Alma Campos is the communications coordinator for Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, a Gamaliel affiliate.

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Atlanta: Unsafe at Any Speed

Transit Fatality Raises Issues of Race, Poverty and Transportation Justice

in July 2011, an all white jury in suburban Atlanta convicted Raquel Nelson, an African American single mother of three, of second degree vehicular homicide for the death of her four-year-old son in a hit-and-run incident on a busy thoroughfare. She was also charged with reckless conduct for crossing a roadway other than at a crosswalk and faced a three-year jail sentence.

The story is tragic and seemingly incomprehensible, especially when you learn that the driver of the vehicle was eventually caught, admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs, had two previous hit-and run- convictions, and was blind in one eye—but received just six months in jail under a plea bargain. However, taken in the context of Atlanta’s history, the incident does not seem so strange and is a good illustration of the challenges Atlanta faces going forward.

Tragic Story
Nelson and her three children lived in an apartment complex in a northern suburb of Atlanta. Since she did not have a car, grocery shopping entailed catching two buses to the nearest WalMart with three kids—aged nine, four and two—in tow. On that fateful day (April 10, 2010), the bus was late picking them up from WalMart, which caused them to miss their connection. It being a Saturday, they had to wait an hour for the next bus and only arrived at their stop—located along a busy five-lane arterial where vehicles travel at 50 miles per hour—after dark.
The nearest traffic signal with a crosswalk being a third of a mile up the street, bus riders routinely crossed the street near the stop, and that evening was no exception. As Nelson, carrying the toddler and the groceries paused at the narrow median, four-year-old A.J. darted into the road. When Nelson attempted to pull him to safety, a van hit all three, killing A.J. and injuring Nelson and her youngest.

A few months later, the grieving mother was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide because, according to the county prosecutor, she had caused her son’s death by illegally crossing the street. Fortunately for Nelson, on July 26, 2011 a judge agreed to give her a new trial and she has since filed an appeal to get all the charges dismissed.

Atlanta’s History Shapes Present Realities
A.J. Nelson was killed on Austell Road, a state highway that cuts across suburban Cobb County, carrying around 40,000 vehicles per day. The traffic signals are spaced over half a mile apart to provide the least delay for drivers; and sidewalks, if they exist, are an afterthought. Whoever planned, built and expanded the road to carry an increasing number of cars never imagined the needs of people like Raquel and her children because suburban Atlanta was built for the car.

When the civil rights movement succeeded in integrating public facilities in Atlanta—schools, transit, parks, and pools—the white population responded by fleeing to the suburbs to create enclaves of private space. In the 1960s, about 60,000 whites moved out of the city of Atlanta while the population of Cobb County increased by 83,000 or 72 percent. Rapid economic growth in the region and subsidized mortgages made the suburbs—with low-density housing connected to commercial destinations by high speed arterials—affordable to middle class families. And post World War II investment in transportation infrastructure made the suburbs more accessible—but only if you had a car.

In 1965, voters in Cobb County—which was 94 percent white—rejected an option to join the newly forming Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) because they did not want the poor African Americans they had fled in Atlanta to be able to reach their communities. Similar decisions were made by two other suburban counties, which is why the heavy rail network is limited to the two counties containing the city of Atlanta.

Raquel Nelson grieves over her son’s death. ©2011 Atlanta Journal ConstitutionA Landscape Determined by Race Shifts
In 2010 when Nelson was staying in Cobb County it was only 56 percent white. After decades of white flight the demographics of the region changed; the poor and people of color were pushed and pulled out of the city. The majority of the economic growth in the region took place in the northern suburbs.  Despite the lack of public transit, workers were drawn to the job prospects. Middle class African American families left the city to escape failing schools and high crime rates. Immigrants from Latin America and Asia settled along a major arterial out of northeast Atlanta. The poor quality housing stock built immediately after World War II transitioned into affordable housing. By 2010, 85 percent of Atlanta’s poor lived in the suburbs.

In response some white households moved farther out to the second ring of suburbs or in some cases back to the city. In the 1990s the white population in the City of Atlanta started to increase, in part attracted by the public amenities of living in the city. Intown neighborhoods were gentrified and poorer residents forced out. In the run up to the 1996 Summer Olympic games, Atlanta began demolishing all of its public housing projects. The city is still majority non-white, but in the last census it lost 30,000 African American residents and gained 22,000 white ones.

The vast majority of low-income and minority residents have cars, as evidenced by the fact that only three percent of all trips in the region are taken on public transit. For the six percent of households that do not have a car, getting around is very hard because buses are infrequent—averaging once every 30 minutes during peak hours—and only about 12 percent of the region is accessible by transit. Like Raquel Nelson, transit riders in the Atlanta region tend to be the poorest of the poor—making only 37 percent of the median income of the region—and are overwhelmingly people of color. (Fewer than 20 percent are white.)

Transit is systemically underfunded in Atlanta and recently, one suburban county to the south cut bus services entirely. Owing to race and geographic politics, the state of Georgia does not contribute to transit operations, making MARTA the largest transit system in the U.S. without state assistance. The only dedicated source of transit funding is a one-cent sales tax in the two counties containing the city of Atlanta.

Transportation Choices, but not for the Poor
Nelson was riding on a Cobb Community Transit bus the night A.J. was killed. In response to the shifting demographics, Cobb and two other suburban counties started their own bus service and are now pushing plans to have rail service extended to them.

Historically, transit has been seen as a social service, a way to get poor people to the most basic of destinations, and not vital transportation infrastructure. But now, a coalition of environmental and business groups and elected local officials view rail as critical to Atlanta’s ability to compete globally and a way to relieve congestion on the freeways. They are pushing for a new sales tax measure to fund transportation projects in the region, half of which are transit.

Previously the transportation problem in Atlanta was defined by elites as congestion but the discourse is shifting towards providing more choices. Choices not for people like Nelson, who have to depend on infrequent buses and walk on unsafe roads, but for automobile users who cannot easily access public transit.

Although the discourse around transit is changing, none of the jury that convicted Nelson had ever been on a bus in the region—except for the special MARTA bus that shuttles fans to the Atlanta Braves games from the nearest rail station. (That service continued uninterrupted even when service for everyday riders was cut by 11 percent.) From their perspective as automobile users, the jury members could not understand the choices Nelson had to make or the risks she had to take on a daily basis, navigating the transit system with her children. They apparently believed that the onus was on her—the pedestrian—to avoid the intoxicated driver and that she should have walked the extra two-thirds mile to use the crosswalk.

Sadly, A.J. Nelson is part of a growing statistic; currently Atlanta has an average annual rate of 1.6 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents. The increase is partially due to the mismatch between the transportation infrastructure and the needs of a growing population of low-income and immigrant residents in the suburbs. Families with children trying to cross busy multilane highways is a common sight, as are dirt paths paralleling roads where no sidewalks exist.

Infrastructure and Institutional Solutions Needed
Not much has changed on Austell Road since A.J.’s death. The transit agency put up a sign at the bus stop warning people to use the crosswalk up the road. But it is routinely ignored by area residents.

Atlanta needs to undertake a serious retrofit of its auto-oriented land use and transportation infrastructure to avoid repeating this tragedy and to accommodate or even encourage transit use. It is especially important now that the poor and carless are increasingly residing in the suburbs. The current push for new transit is focused on creating options for drivers, especially rail. But transit that focuses on serving peak hour trips or requires car access does not help the carless mother trying to get her groceries on a Saturday afternoon. Instead of choices, the solution needs to be accessibility for everyone.

In order for this to occur, the empathy gap between someone like Nelson and the members of the jury has to be bridged. Although they live in the same community, they have no concept of each other’s lives. Changing perceptions about transit as a mode will require changing the perceptions of people who use it. This means not ignoring Atlanta’s history of race and class divisions.

The ending of this story is yet to be determined; Nelson gets a new trial and Atlanta has the ability to change its path. Recognition of the institutional structure of inequity and a commitment to reversing this legacy in transportation and regional development policies can reshape Atlanta’s future. 

Laurel Paget-Seekins has lived in Atlanta for seven years without a car and works with the Partnership for Southern Equity to develop and advocate for a just transportation and development policy. She has a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering.


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The Road Ahead for Atlanta

We have had an opportunity to work with Atlanta’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to create something called the Social Equity Advisory Committee, which is charged with holding the planners and others at MPO accountable for issues of equity, balanced growth and inclusion. I think now, more than ever, it is very important for us as equity leaders to not only focus on winning the game, but also changing the rules.

How do we define and measure equity through the various planning agencies? How do we create formal processes where people get involved and engage in the decision-making? How do we create spaces and opportunities for communities of color and low wealth communities to actually be engaged—not just invited to the table—as people involved in moving our communities forward? 

The civic engagement process initially was created at a time when you had the nuclear family—a two-parent household, suburban America, and people who had time to get involved in meetings. Now our society is a lot more diverse in terms of age, race and income. Because of that, there are diverse ways by which we must give our community the opportunities to engage and act. For me, that is also where the sweet spot exists.

“It’s not enough for us to do the research and come up with great ideas if people can’t hold onto them.The role of an organization like Partnership for Southern Equity or PolicyLink is to push for a re-imagining of how everyday folks can be involved in the decision-making process. It’s not enough for us to do the research and come up with great ideas if people can’t hold onto them and believe in them and be willing to sit at the table and push, because then they will just be reports on the table. It is our responsibility to not only educate and inform communities and be in places where other stakeholders may not necessarily have an opportunity to be engaged but to also push for new opportunities for engagement.

In metropolitan Atlanta, we are soon to decide whether to approve an 8 billion dollar transportation referendum.  The MPO has done the best that they could in terms of providing opportunities for people to get engaged, but there is still a segment of our population that could not be involved. Unfortunately, there still are individuals in communities—specifically communities of color and low wealth communities—that still don’t realize the magnitude of this referendum. So, we have had to actually go into the community—with Partnership for Southern Equity—and have our own regional forums, not just about the referendum but about how transportation has become a barrier to opportunity. Using feedback that we receive from the people that are participating, we will finally create a transportation equity policy agenda for our region. That is the way we have to become more engaged, more involved, and create new and innovative mechanisms for people to not only be seen, but also be heard, which I think is even more important.

Nathaniel Smith is the founder and cheif equity officer of Partnership for Southern Equity, Atlanta. This interview took place at Urban Habitat’s State of the Region Conference 2012. To hear the full interview, visit


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California's Broken Ballot Initiative System Endangers Civil Rights

Ballot initiatives play an increasingly important role in setting policy in California on every issue from healthcare and the environment to same-sex marriage. In 1911, when wealthy special interests had corrupted politics in Sacramento and crippled the people’s ability to hold government accountable, California established the initiative, referendum, and recall to give the people the power to make or unmake their own state laws and to remove their elected officials. But today, that system is not functioning as it was intended, especially for California’s new majority.

Wealthy special interest dollars fuel the initiative economy, which coupled with a lack of review and oversight, plus poor voter education on ballot measures, has led to poorly drafted proposals, legal challenges and attacks on people’s civil rights. This is not the empowering direct democracy reformers had envisioned.

In 2011, the Greenlining Institute launched an unprecedented effort to identify a set of reforms to fix our broken system. With funding from California Forward, the James Irvine Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we conducted a two-part public opinion survey of a representative sample of California adults in June and December, 2011.1 More importantly, we convened 17 community listening sessions across 14 cities to learn more about real voter experiences, attitudes and ideas for direct democracy. The input we received from the community, in addition to that from a 33-member advisory panel of policy experts, good government groups, and community-based leaders, helped us develop a reform agenda that can start to return the initiative system to its “citizen democracy” roots.

Following is a summary of key findings from our poll and listening tour, along with recommendations for reform.

Initiatives Often Attack Civil Rights
Our survey found that 73 percent of California voters believe the rights of various groups of people are often attacked via the initiative system, while 44 percent felt their own rights have been attacked. Some of these initiatives have proven unconstitutional but owing to a lack of review or oversight prior to voting, their violations only become apparent after they are litigated and overturned in court. We need a mechanism to keep the initiative system from being misused or abused. One way—favored by 81 percent of California voters—would be to review proposals for legal and constitutional issues and drafting errors before they get on the ballot.

Considering the costs of signature-gathering, running a campaign, and litigation, a system of review and oversight at the front end of the process could save both the state and initiative proponents money, while reducing attacks on people of color and other disenfranchised groups.

Petitions Unavailable to Non-English Speakers
Those who do not speak English are excluded from determining what goes on the ballot simply because initiative petitions are available in English only.
The Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 outlawed discrimination in voting with a series of provisions designed to ensure that all eligible citizens can exercise their right to vote free from intimidation or discrimination. Section 203 of the law requires counties with significant limited-English populations to provide elections materials in relevant languages. For California, this has meant that we provide materials, such as voter guides and sample ballots, in at least Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tagalog. But this requirement does not currently extend to initiative petitions being circulated in hope of getting on the ballot.

According to Migration Policy Institute, California’s Limited English Proficient (LEP) population grew by 56 percent from 1990 to 2010, to roughly 6.9 million. About 47 percent of California’s naturalized citizens do not speak English very well. It is unacceptable, therefore, that a majority minority state like California does nothing to proactively integrate these voters into our direct democracy.

The Greenlining Institute has sponsored legislation (SB 1233), which is being authored by Senator Alex Padilla (D-San Fernando Valley), to make initiative petitions language accessible.

Big Money’s Great Influence Over Initiatives
Californians are clearly frustrated by the influence of big money on the initiative process. It can cost proponents upwards of $2 million to qualify a measure for the ballot and several more millions to run a successful campaign afterwards. Consequently, groups with low and moderate means cannot run effective proactive campaigns and often end up on the defensive side of issues. While we cannot legally limit the amount of money spent on ballot initiatives, we can keep wealthy interests accountable by making information about top funders more readily available.

In our survey, 85 percent of registered voters said it is important to know who is funding initiative campaigns—both for and against measures—when making decisions; and 78 percent wanted that information presented to them in the California voter guide. Fifty-nine percent also said that they would actually be less likely to vote for a legislator who opposed legislation, such as The California Disclose Act (AB 1648), that would improve disclosure of top donors on political campaign advertisements.

Process and Language Defy Comprehension
Our survey found that 30 percent of California voters mistakenly think that they have to vote on all propositions listed on a ballot to make it valid. Disturbingly, this incorrect belief is held by 42 percent of black and 53 percent of Latino voters.

When undecided about how to vote on a ballot measure, 44 percent of California voters said they “make the best decision they can.” As one participant in our listening tour said, “I will look at the fiscal if I’m not sure. If it is going to cost money, I vote no. The state doesn’t have any money.” But the fiscal estimate alone does not give voters the whole picture. Currently, the state voter guide does not provide an analysis of a proposition’s social impacts—its effects on things like the poverty and unemployment rate and the environment. We found, however, that a strong majority (60 to 70 percent) of California voters would like to have information about a proposal’s social impacts.

Also, many community members described the current voter guide language as “complex,” “confusing” and “legalese,” and expressed a need for simplifying the language to be consistent with the reading levels of the average California adult.

The Future of the Ballot Initiative System
Ultimately, initiative reform is about enhancing the ordinary citizen’s access to and use of the initiative process while at the same time, protecting vulnerable groups from being attacked by the initiative process.

If we want an initiative system that: (a) enables California’s new majority to participate, (b) protects against attacks on civil rights, and (c) allows people to hold their government and wealthy special interests accountable, we have to include people of color in the discussion.

There is no quick fix to the complex problems we face in trying to reform the initiative process, but the recommendations outlined here would be a good place to start. Some reforms can be enacted by the legislature and may get approval relatively easily but the more extensive and complex reforms may very well require their own ballot initiatives. 


1.    Daniel Byrd, Michelle Romero, and Chanelle Pearson: California Ballot Reform Panel Survey 2011-2012. (The Greenlining Institute, Berkeley). Publications archives at: <>

Michelle Romero is program manager of Greenlining Institute’s Our Democracy program.

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RP&E Release Party, June 27th, 6 p.m. - New Political Spaces

Public Property —
Popular Power

New Majority Rising

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 @ 6:00 p.m.

Pacific Coast Brewing Company
906 Washington St. @ 10th St.
Oakland, California.

Join us in conversation about the role of emerging majorities, Occupy, and the power of the public to create new political spaces.

Drink, eat, mingle! Meet the writers and editors behind the magazine. All ages invited (under 21 okay) and wheelchair accessible. Please R.S.V.P. to for more info call (510) 839-9510 ext 303