Friday, June 10, 2011

Vote on Crenshaw-LAX Line Reflects Shortcomings of the Current State of Black Politics

The recent decision by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Board to reject a motion that would have put the Crenshaw-LAX Line underground through Park Mesa Heights was met with universal disgust within the Black community. However, it was the powerful public body’s treatment of the proposed Leimert Park station that elicited the strongest response. In a manner that confused almost everyone in attendance, the MTA Board agreed to consider a station at the cultural and social epicenter of our community only if cost for the rail line stayed significantly below budget. Considering that light rail development is supposed to spur economic growth in areas surrounding specific projects, not approving a stop at Leimert Park would appear to re-affirm a preference on behalf of the power structure to leave Black people desperate and destitute.
However, as we recover from another disappointing vote from another governmental agency maintained by our tax dollars, there must be a moment of reflection on the broader implications. As members and leadership in our community we must ask why it is so easy for decision makers to reject our demands. We must allow ourselves to understand why the Black community is being dismantled in very public ways and very little is being done about it. The answer to these inquiries – like the late great Malcolm X taught – lies in the events of the past. An examination of Black history in Los Angeles and abroad reveals the unsettling truth that we are now suffering from the dependence of a political theory based upon integration. While there have always been those in our community that believed in building an independent economic and social power base, the vast majority of our people always felt more comfortable with fighting for access to traditionally white institutions. Exacerbated by the dismantling of the Jim Crow legal system in the 1960s, the most talented Black minds and skilled laborers sought and many times received, positions with white employers or jobs in government. The result of this scenario was a three decade long “brain drain” from our community. Those who would have been successful Black entrepreneurs were working as employees at Fortune 500 companies. Black financial institutions, which could have served as the primary investors in Black-owned firms, barely or never truly existed.
The deep pain and betrayal felt by each of the 500 Black people who attended the MTA Board meeting two weeks ago is born, in part, out of frustration with ourselves. Long set on a path of integration, we chose to make the public sector the main equalizer and purveyor of economic prosperity in our community. In the absence of a strong Black business and capital class, we depended upon government to provide us with jobs, contracts and projects to benefit our community. Unfortunately, we continue to learn, as we did two weeks ago, that public sector is simply the tax-payer supported aspect of the same racist system that has disrespected Black people in every imaginable way for over 500 years. If there is a silver lining to the total denial of our community’s demands around the Crenshaw-LAX Line, it is that we are reminded of the teachings of Marcus Garvey who said, “Power is the only protection from injustice.” If we love Crenshaw and want to make the area serve our interests, we must really own it. Who in our community has the investment expertise to lead an effort to buy large parcels of property in Leimert Park and the Crenshaw Corridor? Who in our community has the planning expertise to lead a community visioning process on how we want the Crenshaw we own to look like?
Even if MTA voted to approve and fund a Leimert Park station and underground passage through the Crenshaw Corridor, Black people would not have been able to ignore the preverbal elephant in the room. Our businesses owners in the area are largely renters and suffer from low sales. Some of them are barely in operation, have unattractive facade, or quality product lines. These are facts that aren’t just known by us, but by our opponents who sit on the MTA Board, City Council and any other public body. The MTA is very aware of the impact their decision not to fund a Leimert Park station or approve a subway for Crenshaw. They clearly understood that their actions, if not reverse, could serve as the death nail in the last concentrated Black community left in Los Angeles. While we should continue to mobilize our community to Board meetings in large number, we must commit ourselves to a process that will produce long term solutions. We must get serious about owning our community by becoming real owners of the land and key businesses in the area. If we do so, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, or any other politician would not dare express a racist disregard towards our people when it comes to the Crenshaw-LAX Line, a station at Leimert Park or other issues of importance. For in a capitalist system, we must either become owners or eliminate the system through prolonged revolution. We must choose one or the other.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Close Another Pipeline to Profit—End Prison-based Gerrymandering


California has the largest prison system in the Western world and it is busting at the seams. Media outlets report triple-bunking and inmates sleeping in gym areas. Prisons are so overcrowded that inmates are dying at a rate of one per week. Recidivism is so high that more Black and Brown men and women are returning to prisons than graduating from high schools in South Los Angeles. Perhaps the state see’s a more lucrative payoff in the prison system than the educational system. If that’s not enough, with the groundswell of 2010 Census promotion critics would argue that another way that California and other states are capitalizing off of the prison system is by counting inmates in the wrong place—resulting in inaccurate distribution of political power and funding.

Although an average California State Prison stay is about 16 months, every ten years the US Census Bureau counts women and men in prison not as residents of their home addresses but as residents of the correctional facilities where they are incarcerated. This is startling considering that California law does not define a prison cell is a residence (California Election Code, §2025). Still, when it comes time for redistricting in 2011 the census count from state prisons will be used to redraw state and local district boundaries. Given the current counting method, smaller counties (whose population numbers are padded by prisons) will have the same amount of voting power as larger counties with largely non-incarcerated residents. This is not only a state issue; this has also become a national issue. In one Iowa City, the use of this faulty census data resulted in a local resident being elected to city council with only 2 votes because 96% of this particular district was incarcerated and could not actually vote. In one northern California senate district, more than 11% of the district is made up of incarcerated persons. These are cases of political representation without resident population and can lead to a controversial practice called gerrymandering. This is when legislative districts are drawn in a way that can influence election outcomes. Prison-based gerrymandering is when the prison census is used to pad population counts—counts that can ultimately influence voting power, policy, and funding for over a decade.

Why does this matter?

Los Angeles County contains 28% of California’s population. Thirty-four percent of the state’s prisoners come from the county—yet the county contains only 3% of California’s state prison cells. That means that about 31 percent of the approximately 165,000 people in the state prison system are being counted in the wrong county. Prison-based gerrymandering should raise eyebrows throughout California especially in those counties that along with Los Angeles County contain the highest concentrations of communities containing formerly incarcerated residents that have returned home.

Furthermore, those of us that do work relating to the criminal [in]justice system know all too well that many of the hundreds of thousands women and men incarcerated across California are products of sentencing inequity and financial exploitation. In the case of prison-based gerrymandering, grassroots organizers must challenge this practice of exploitation and demand that our incarcerated brothers and sisters be supported and not again used for profit. We must stop prison-based gerrymandering dead in its tracks and hold officials accountable to bring needed resources to our community through a proper census count.

Taking Action

The stakes are high and we should make sure our communities are supported not exploited. Our communities must not be diluted of voting power and resources—no matter how big or small. Conditions in poor and working class communities have been exacerbated by the economic downturn and we need resources now more than ever. We must work to close the loop that makes prison-based gerrymandering possible.

Grassroots statewide forces need to organize and become key players in a statewide effort to end prison-based gerrymandering in California. Voters have continuously elected representatives that fall short of moving the interests of constituents that elected them. We must demand that our state officials take a stand on behalf of their constituents—incarcerated or not. Call the office of your State representatives and demand that when it is time to vote for prison counting legislation, they vote in favor of a census practice where inmates are counted as residents of their own communities.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Oscar Grant and the need for Nation Building

In an effort to analyze the epidemic of lynchings suffered by Black people during the early twentieth century, the great Marcus Garvey once stated that Europeans and Asians escaped such a fate “because they are represented by great governments, mighty nations and empires…” With each painstaking, agonizing day of the trial of Johannes Mehserle – the former BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 – Garvey’s words and the subservient position Blacks hold within American society proves increasingly true.
First of all, Robert Perry – the judge on the case – has a well-known history of excusing the brutal and outright illegal behavior of police officers. As the judge in the Rampart Scandal, he led a court that allowed Los Angeles police officers guilty of stealing and selling drugs, shooting unarmed residents and participating in bank robberies to go free. Second, there are no Black people on the jury. As this writer stated in an article written months ago, one of the first tactics that the system does to protect its police officers in this type of trial is to rig the composition of the jury so that Blacks – the most critical group of the police – are either small in number or non-existent. While usually this is done by moving the case to a court in a white suburban community (see Rodney King or McDuffie cases), the system was able to get the same result by moving the trial to Downtown Los Angeles. Third, the District Attorney’s strategy on behalf of the murdered young Black man has been questionable at times. When the jury was finalized and no Black people were on it, the DA should have instantly filed a legal challenge out of concern for a lack of a fair trial. However, they chose not to do so. Despite the fact that every legal expert following the case stated that Mehserle’s intent had to be clearly proven in order to avoid an acquittal or a light sentence, it’s questionable if the prosecution was able to do so. That is why in spite of the great organizing of the Los Angeles Coalition for Oscar Grant and the scores of folks who trek down from the Bay Area for court dates, there is a sense of acquittal flowing in the air.
However, as Black people we know that this “aint no new thing”. We have lived through centuries of abuse and murder that has gone unpunished in America’s so-called justice system. Police brutality, like lynchings in Marcus Garvey’s day, were accepted by the legal establishment as something that happens to Black people without any need of punishment for the perpetrator. In these times we are reminded that America’s legal system still operates upon principles established to maintain the chattel slave system. As we near the end of the Mehserle trial – with our hearts and minds anxiously awaiting the verdict – the question inevitably becomes what can be done? Surely, we can and should continue to protest in large numbers to show the masses that injustice will not be accepted. Furthermore, those of us who organize around the issue of police murder and misconduct must seriously attack and remove the web of laws and legal interpretations that make California one of the most difficult states in the nation to convict cops of felony crimes. However, the ultimate solution to the police terror that has helped to define the reality of 30 million Black people in America, regardless of income or stature, is building independent social, political and economic power. As long as we continue to depend on the police as our primary source of protection and depend on the courts – in its current makeup – for legal remedy, we will never break ourselves out of the dependent relationship that has made us vulnerable to suffering abuse at the hands of authorities – be it police or politicians.
Garvey once concluded that “action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of their own freedom.” To that end, we must take the energy created around the Oscar Grant case and develop grassroots organizations capable of building the economies of our neighborhoods, improving education and decreasing crime and violence without depending exclusively on the police force. While many people would assume block clubs and neighborhood councils carry out these functions, they often struggle to do so because of restraints resulting from their relationship with the City’s bureaucracy or police departments. As Garvey taught us many years ago and as the Oscar Grant case demonstrates to us today, in order to transform our existence from dependence and victimhood to one of power, freedom and justice, we must build power that is independent from this system that sanctions the murder of Black men in the streets and provides protection for the perpetrator in the courts.

Lets get to work.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Growing Up Alone – A Look at the Dilemma Black Youth and Young Adults

For nearly thirty years, there has been an uncomfortable and persistent conversation within the Black community concerning the condition and behaviors of Black youth and young adults. As a people whose expectations for success were increased by the civil rights/Black Power Movement, the youth and young adults that came of age in the 1980s through the new millennium were supposed to have it easier and realize the dream of Dr. King. However, suffering through the realities of the Crack cocaine epidemic and street gang wars that claimed thousands of Black lives, many of our people – particular some elders and Black elite – became disenchanted with their own kids and grandchildren and bought into the mainstream narrative that Black youth and young adults, in particular, had largely become a group of disrespectful, violent savages.

With every news report of another gang-related murder or music lyrics laced with the “N” word, this problematic perception grew in the hearts and minds of many of our own people which resulted in collective behaviors that further isolated and damaged a vulnerable group of young people beset by the impacts of white supremacy, Reaganomics and police brutality. While there were elders, community leaders and members of the Black elite that understood the changing and complex landscape impacting Blacks born in the waning decades of the 20th century, too many still defaulted to simplistic and useless explanations to the rise of gang membership, poverty and political apathy among the youth. Some of their theories centered on the evils of hip hop music or lack of prayer allowed in schools. As convenient and appealing as these explanations may be, they fail to hold the white power structure accountable or expose the divisive dynamics within our community. Below are two scenarios that became prominent within the last 30 years, which highlight the dilemmas of our young people.

Enrolling Black Children in Schools Outside of the Black Community
Desperate to keep their children away from the so-called “riff raff” youth found in our community’s public schools and emboldened by the integrationist leanings of the civil rights movement, many Black parents – particularly the middle and elite class – began enrolling their sons and daughters in schools in predominately white areas. While their actions were in many respects understandable, this decision by a critical mass created additional problems for their own children who had to struggle for support, credibility and acceptance within a white-dominated, racist learning environment that did not and could not affirm the self-worth and identity of a Black child. Furthermore, since school is where many life-long social practices are honed and developed, the scenario described above effectively prevented many Black youth from relating to and learning to work with their Black peers, who still went to school in the ‘hood. Since many of the highest achieving Black students began attending public or private schools in white areas, talented, yet low-performing Black students who suffered from a plethora of familial and socio-economic distractions were isolated to underfunded or neglected schools in the Black community. In short, the educational conditions and practices within our community have worked together to create divisions within the younger generations and ineffective leaders who have grown up relatively separated from the masses of Black people. While the recent development of charter schools and magnet programs in our community have kept some Black youth from heading to Santa Monica or the West Valley for school, these models have still re-enforced, in many respects, the self-destructive pattern of dividing the talented Blacks from the struggling masses.

Lack of Response to the Crack Epidemic by Black Leadership
For many in Black leadership, the post-civil rights era was supposed to be about moving forward in new and expansive ways. We were inspired by the growth of Black mayors and Jesse Jackson’s run for President. We were encouraged by the growth in the number and visibility of the Black middle class. On television, the Cosby Show and A Different World showed that a Black oasis within white America was on the brink. In the midst of the celebration, however, conditions were being created in the Black community by the white power structure (i.e. Iran Contra Program) and other entities that introduced problems not yet seen. By the mid-1980s, a new form of drug called “crack” came onto the scene. While there had been drug epidemics before in our community, this was different in so many ways. Given the white power structure’s elimination of many domestic living wage jobs and cuts in public services to the poor, crack became arguably the primary economic engine in many parts of the Black community for over a decade. It may be embarrassing to admit, but while many Black people lost their lives to this drug, many also paid their rent, bought groceries or started businesses because of the crack game. This created a scenario where local drug dealers and gang leaders became the heroes of a large number of youth and young adults who were not being touched by more positive examples of Black leadership. Furthermore, the aggressive behavior associated with crack addiction and the growth of street gang combat over the control and distribution of dope created heightened levels of murders, assaults and robberies. By the end of the 20th Century, some Black neighborhoods had lost thousands of lives to drug-related murder and addiction. Sadly, however, since the crack epidemic and gang violence were seen as “poor Black people” problems, many civil rights organizations – with their middle-class orientation – were inadequately prepared to respond. Churches witnessed the devastation among their members but couldn’t successfully solve the issue through its traditional means of prayer and preaching. In the meanwhile, the numbers of children in foster care skyrocketed and incarceration rates rose to record highs – thus creating an overwhelming sense of loss, grief and anger within many Black youth and young adults that still haven’t gone away.

The two preceding examples highlight the complexities of conditions impacting Black youth and young adults. In the course of trying fight back the impact of white supremacy, members of our own community made decisions, at times, that actually made the situation worse – particularly for our young people. Thankfully, we have the capacity to change mistakes made in the past. The issue of poor education, drug addiction and gang violence remain and we have the opportunity to address these problems in more creative and dynamic ways. However to do so, we must do at least for things:
1. Embrace every Black child as a member of our family through word and deed
2. Teach Black children about our fight for freedom and justice
3. Challenge and eliminate any thoughts that re-enforce division within our community (i.e. income, geography)
4. Get out into our community and organize

Friday, May 21, 2010

Election Day 2010 – White Supremacy’s Comeback or Desperate Last Stand

With President Barack Obama’s historic victory in the 2008 presidential campaign, some believed that the racist and pro-corporate individuals and organizations that have ruled the United States for decades were on their way out the door. While such a bold prediction may come true at some point in time, the mindset of racial hatred and corporate greed among some seem to be on the rise. The Tea Party movement – a network of front groups for the Republican Party’s most conservative leadership – has organized large-sized rallies throughout the nation putting fear in elected officials from coast to coast. In Arizona, politicians have legalized racial profiling in the name of “immigration reform” and attacked ethnic studies programs in high schools. Even in the midst of post-Health Care Reform jubilation, Black Congressional members – like John Lewis – were subjected to mobs of angry whites spewing out “Nigger” and other racial epithets.
It is within this problematic context that California prepares for its June 8th primary election. In a year where voters will be choosing a new Governor and a practically new legislature, we will also be confronted with arguably some of the most important and impactful ballot initiatives in recent memory. While there is a lack of high profile subjects such as affirmative action or immigration, these initiatives will shape critical issues like car insurance, energy and elections for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, since most were placed on the ballot by the same conservative element that has emboldened the anti-people of color fervor currently sweeping the country, their passage threatens to make the Golden State more unlivable for so many.
Below is a brief analysis of some of the problematic initiatives that will appear on the June 8th ballot:
Proposition 14 – This measure ended up on the ballot as result of a deal made between then-State Senator and current Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado and the governor in exchange for votes on a 2009 budget deal. If passed, Proposition 14 would eliminate the current system of partisan elections in California. Hence, voters registered with any political party could vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. This would mean that the two candidates with the highest vote count from the primary would face each other in the general election – even if they are members of the same party. Proposition 14 would have a huge impact on our communities because it would increase campaign-related cost and make it more difficult for progressive, community-minded candidates to be elected.
Proposition 16 – Energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric (PG & E) spent over $34 million to put this measure on the ballot. Why? Quite simply the company, which earned over $1 billion in profits last year, wants to eliminate competition from publicly owned energy providers, which tend to charge less for services. If passed, Proposition 16 would require a 67% approval margin by voters to allow local governments to use public money to start or expand electric services. This is clearly an effort by a huge corporation to protect its interest and profits at all cost.
Proposition 17 – According to current state law, only a driver’s safety record, years of driving experience and number of miles driven annually can be considered in determining pricing for coverage. If Proposition 17 passes, car insurance companies can include gaps in coverage as a factor in price-setting. Like Proposition 16, this measure is the brainchild of a corporation – in this case Mercury Car Insurance – who spent millions of dollars to protect its profits at the expense poor and working class taxpayers.
In addition to the above measures, there are a couple ballot initiatives that appear benign, but may end up having a detrimental impact of our community. These include:
Proposition 13 – If passed, this measure would change the state constitution to allow certain types of earthquake safety repairs made to property to be excluded from the tax assessment process. Since state law doesn’t differentiate between personal and corporate property, home owners and corporations would be able to take advantage of Proposition 13’s benefits. While providing home owners with incentives to make their property safer is a good idea, we cannot afford to provide another tax loophole for greedy corporations who want to avoid paying their fair share of taxes to the state.
Proposition 15 – If passed, this measure would create a pilot program where candidates running for Secretary of State in 2014 and 2018 could choose to receive public money for their campaigns. Major party publically financed candidates would be eligible for $1 million in base funding and $4 million in matching funds for the primary election. For the general election, that amount would increase to $1.3 million in base funding and $5.2 million in matching. Moreover, the money for the pilot would come from a $700 bi-annual tax collected from state lobbyist. Despite its intent to clean up state politics, Proposition 15 falls short in the following important ways:
This program only pertains to the Secretary of State races in 2014 and 2018, which significantly limits its impact
If there is not enough money in the fund for eligible candidates, those candidates would have to raise money from the very private interest the measure seeks to neutralize
Proposition 15 does nothing to impact the influence of lobbyists who are skilled at hiding their money in special accounts and projects of politicians
Increases the importance of Independent Expenditures, which will allow special interest and lobbyist to impact elections with less restrictions
As demonstrated by the June 2010 state ballot, conservatives and corporate forces are on the attack. While many of us are still languishing in the post-Obama victory fog, opponents of our community are pushing subtle and complicated legislation that will make it much more difficult for people of color and the poor to live lives of dignity and freedom. In order to defeat this complex manifestation of contemporary racism, we must dedicate our selves to serious political education, grassroots community organizing and fervent fundraising. More importantly, we must believe that we deserve better in every aspect of society and put those expectations into action.
Lets get to work.

Black People - Stand Up and Condemn Arizona Senate Bill 1070

As a Black man who works primarily to address the issues of my community, I AM asking the Black community to see Arizona Senate Bill 1070 for what it truly is – racism in a legislative form. Given the sentiment in some parts of the Black community that undocumented immigration is a cause for decreased job opportunities for our people, my argument may be difficult to initially accept. However, we must reject the very strong, and in some ways understandable urge to utilize our deplorable employment situation to condone racism in a very blatant form.
SB 1070 – in its original and modified form – is law based upon the same problematic premise that has killed, injured and maimed our people for hundreds of years. It espouses the belief that a non-white racial group must be monitored, contained and controlled through the most aggressive means of the law. For example, SB 1070 gives non-immigration enforcement police officers the power to identify and detain individuals as undocumented immigrants. In the version first signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, this can happen during any contact that police officers deemed legitimate. The revised draft states that officers can only do so during a stop, arrest or detainment. From our community’s standpoint this change means little. Historically, legal language such as this has been used to substantiate the practice of racist Black codes in the post-Civil War south and our current scourge of racial profiling by law enforcement. Like the above examples, SB 1070 provides cops with the unfettered ability to enforce racist perceptions of a particular group – regardless of evidence. To this point, and despite rhetoric around the bill’s non-racist intent, there is nothing contained in the bill that clearly protects U.S.-born citizens who happen to be Latino from getting pulled over and arrested at higher rates as a result of this legal maneuver. This is yet another disturbing and unfortunate parallel with law enforcement’s racial profiling of Black people.
Another problematic clause in SB 1070 is the fact that law enforcement officers can arrest anyone, without warrant, who they believe committed a crime that could lead to deportation. Given our historical struggle with being abused and mistreated by the U.S. justice system, Black people should strongly reject the expansion of law enforcement’s power to arbitrarily arrest anyone. We should reject this because we know from our own history that this power has and will continue to be used to incarcerate higher numbers of people of color – citizen or not. As our experiences with slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and de-facto discrimination prove, whenever the white power structure targets a particular group, they will empower a diverse array of individuals with policing rights. During the 19th century, southern whites of almost every economic level and occupation could detain any Black people for anything. SB 1070 creates a similar situation by empowering every law enforcement officer in the state of Arizona to arrest and deport individuals for immigration-related offenses. These are principles and practices that Black people must reject and fight against every single time.
With unemployment in double digits and many of our neighborhoods becoming increasingly Latino, the Black community has found it difficult to build solidarity with the immigrant rights movement. Furthermore, the immigrant rights movement has done a terrible job of bringing in Black people – even Black immigrants – into the work. However, one of the reasons Black people has played the vanguard role of bringing and expanding justice within the United States is our capacity to do what is moral and just in the face of isolation and opposition. It is consistent with our community’s historical struggle for human rights and equal opportunity to strongly denounce SB 1070 and the copy cat legislation that promises to follow.
In spite of our legacy of progressive and revolutionary activism, there will be those in the Black community that will insist that undocumented immigration must be dealt with aggressively, due in large part to the perception that Latino immigrants have taken jobs from our people. While immigration has presented some challenges – especially around community demographics – we must remember that living wage jobs in areas like South Los Angeles began disappearing years before Latinos became the majority in the area. Companies like General Motors, Kaiser Steel and Firestone began moving out of U.S. urban areas as early as the 1960s because they wanted to exploit workers in other countries for lower pay. As Black people, we must ultimately look at ourselves for our employment problems. Despite an increase of Black college graduates over the last 30 years, our own Black business class has not successfully created living wage jobs in our community. Perhaps if we practiced the principles of Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad and stayed dedicated to the model of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, we wouldn’t be so pre-occupied with the perception of another group taking our jobs. Perhaps if our Black elite and business class invested, rather than avoided poor Black communities like Westmont-Athens and Watts, we would be further along in terms of providing employment to our people who need it the most. In any case, we cannot cease to carry on our community’s dual mission of achieving liberation for our people and fighting for justice in the world abroad. This, in my opinion, would necessitate a strong condemnation of SB 1070.

Healthcare (Insurance) Reform

How does the bill affect you?

Since President Barack Obama was sworn into office, the nation has been on edge about his campaign promise, change. Health care reform has been high on his agenda, especially with the failing economy the previous administration (George W. Bush) so kindly established. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 45 million Americans are uninsured. Twenty percent include African Americans.

Historically, Black health care and coverage have been on the bottom of the totem pole, warranting Blacks to provide care themselves.

Dr. Samuel Shacks, former King Drew physician and medical expert, says African Americans’ health care is inadequate and has been since the Civil Rights era of the ‘60s. Black physicians began to open up their own hospitals and private practices in the late 1800s.

“A majority of Blacks received insurance coverage initially through Black benevolent societies created by freed slaves after the Civil War,” Shacks explained. “Activities such as these were pre-modern forms of voluntary private health insurance.” He says two major Black insurance companies of the time were Golden State Mutual of Los Angeles and The Spaulding Insurance Company of Atlanta.

Though African Americans made provisions for themselves, Shacks says the government’s health care was ultimately inadequate, especially when Black hospitals and insurance companies began to dwindle.

Obama’s health care plan, which is actually a health insurance plan, is supposed to close the gap between the un(der)insured Americans and those with decent packages. Nearly 32 million uninsured citizens are supposed to be covered through this new plan.

Since passing on March 23, nationwide, people have been trying to figure out exactly how the law is going to impact them. While the plan will not be in full effect until 2014, experts and health care professionals are attempting to break down the facts. Last Wednesday, MA’AT Club for Community Change held a public forum about Obama’s health care bill, bringing to light the possible impact the bill could have on the African American community.

Njideka Obijiaku, main facilitator of the event, says this plan is a step in the right direction, but there are flaws to the bill that should be ironed out later.

“Theoretically, it creates access for a lot of folks,” she said. “The bill has a lot of holes and a lot of things that sound good, but when it comes down to practical implementation, I’m sure there will be amendments, copies will be modified, gaps that were left open will be more amplified. The discussion is certainly not closed.”

When looking at the bill as it relates to the African American community, Obijiaku recognizes that there are some disparities in health care compared to mainstream Americans, especially those living in more affluent areas. She says some of the main issues Blacks are currently facing are equity and disparity, sighting the quality of health care in South Los Angeles compared to care in Westwood, for example. She also points to the closing of Martin Luther King Hospital.

“Economic development doesn’t sound like it’s related to the health care debate, but it is,” Obijiaku explained. She says access and quality have historically been the issue for the Black community, but through the president’s bill, low-income areas and cities flogged with compromised care will have better access.

Individuals who qualify will receive subsidies of amounts comparable to their income. Businesses will not formally be mandated to provide health care provisions for their employees.

Small businesses are broken down into two groups: category 1 - those with 49 or fewer employees and category 2 - those with 50 or more.

Category 1 employers will not be held accountable for supplying their employees with insurance. Category 2 employers will be issued a $2,000 fine for not providing insurance for employees. The government will offer tax credit for covering 35 to 50 percent of insurance costs for employers who do provide insurance, however.

Under the new law, everyone will be required to obtain some kind of coverage, but there are a few exceptions. Native Americans, undocumented people, incarcerated people, and individuals with religious objections will not be required to obtain insurance.

What about the ones who can’t afford it? Low-income, under employed and unemployed people have opportunities to gain access through government subsidies. Individuals making less than 14,000 a year (households 29,000 a year) will not have to pay no more than 3-4 percent of their incomes for insurance. Individuals making $44,000 a year (households $88,000 a year) will not pay more than 10 percent of their income for insurance. These changes will take effect in 2014.

Obijiaku also explained that Medicaid would be expanded, therefore providing more access for people falling under the low-income bracket.

Individuals making $200,000 a year (households $250,000 a year) will get hit with a tax increase. These changes will take effect in 2011.

There is a fine for individuals who choose to avoid paying for coverage of $95 in 2014, $325 in 2015 and $695 in 2016. According to Obijiaku, the enforcement has not been detailed at this point, but the government will issue hardship waivers.

The bill purportedly will impact seniors in a positive way. Before the bill, many seniors on Medicare fell into a “donut hole,” making seniors responsible to pay for medication.

“I think they will be impacted well. Currently, folks on Medicare are spending between $2750 and $6154 on prescription drugs. You have this very large group of people who had high prescription costs who fell in this donut hole. The biggest piece of the bill eliminates that donut hole,” Obijiaku said.

She added that the bill also invests in preventive services, increasing payouts to primary care physicians and eliminates co-pays for government-approved services. However, Medicare Advantage participants will see the funding for the program be cut over the next 10 years. The savings will go back to Medicare.

“I see the benefits and challenges (for African Americans). People will theoretically have increased access to health insurance. However, for communities like ours, where you have major hospitals close down, you are not only putting a lot of strain on outside health facilities, but you are also putting a high strain on community clinics,” she said.

The bill offers an influx of resources to community health facilities, but it is unclear how the resources will be used. President Obama is requiring clinics to double their client capacity over the next five years. Obijiaku is concerned because of other factors that currently impact health care quality in neighborhoods of color.

“I think there were things that were not included and not thought totally out; the capacity of our community clinics, the education within our communities and you have the infrastructure that exists in communities of color,” she shared. “There is also a question of health education. I think there are some social disparities that weren’t taken into account that have major implications on Black health.”

Shacks agrees. He believes Black health care should be a civil rights issue at this point, but the Obama administration is failing to adequately address the root of the disparity.

“The recently passed ‘health reform bill’ did not take specific notice of ethnic disparities,” Shack commented. “The solution to better health for all Americans rests with the needed evidence-based answers to the etiology of Black health disparities.”

He gives the Obama administration an “F” for failing to address Black health care.

Despite the efforts the bill makes to broaden access, other issue remain for Black health. Obijiaku says insurance reform does not address the needs of the general African American population, however, the bill does have the potential to decrease the gap.

MA’AT Club for Community Change has more information available to the public. E-mail Njideka Obijiaku at Obijiaku has a Masters degree in public health from Drexel University.