Letter to the Editor: Ridley-Thomas donation is valuable to academic community, it shouldn’t be riddled by scandal

At face value, this month’s headlines seemed disturbing: the University of Southern California had referred a donation made to the School of Social Work by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to federal officials for investigation. USC said it turned the matter over to the investigators because the school forwarded the donation to the United Ways of California, which would later be used for a black voter research project run by his son and former state Assembly member Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.

The article, which was initially published by the Los Angeles Times,  was consumed with innuendoes and veiled accusations. However, the factual element of the article was correct when it articulated that Mark Ridley-Thomas is working to engage one of the County’s premier universities to bring academic rigor and methodology to the issues around African American voting. For many Californians, it is no surprise that the L.A. politician would be actively involved in efforts to bring attention and resources to the cause of black voting rights.

Throughout his career, Ridley-Thomas has shown singular dedication to reversing the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans, who make up a plurality of his constituents. He has championed this cause during his nearly three decades representing South Los Angeles in the City Council, in the state legislature and now on the county’s Board of Supervisors. Undoubtedly, his extraordinary public service and his dedication to community progress have made him the most powerful black elected official in the state.

Along the way, he also founded the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project, a political action committee that has registered more black voters than any other organization in the state under his leadership. AAVREP raises hundreds of thousands of dollars from individuals, unions and private businesses to run workshops and voter registration drives. It is particularly focused on the upcoming midterm and 2020 elections.

Undisputed data show it is the black vote — particularly that of black women — that fuels progressive elections. The black vote put Barack Obama in office and the black vote will determine the election results of Donald Trump, whose racist leanings are well documented. AAVREP is a vital organization for the black community. Political observers can readily conclude there is a powerful effort to disrupt AAVREP’s progress and its critical mission.

Around the country, state legislatures controlled by conservatives have gerrymandered districts to not only minimize the progressive vote, but also to specifically undermine the black vote. Ridley-Thomas has relentlessly shaken academic lethargy in the areas of public policy and social issues affecting the black community. Scholars and visionaries recognize that without the involvement of the academic community, the experience of black voters remains, at best, anecdotal — and seriously undervalued. Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ new initiative, the Policy Research & Practice Initiative, exists to correct this oversight by collecting hard data about black needs and voting patterns.

He has made it no secret that this research will form the bedrock of serious academic treatment, informed public policy and the efficient deployment of social services. It is understandable and reasonable that Ridley-Thomas would turn to the former School of Social Work dean Marilyn Flynn, with whom he has worked successfully on a number of projects, to encourage USC’s interest and foster a collaboration to produce that hard data.

Last month, I attended the 109th National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Annual Convention in San Antonio, Tex. The delegates left the convention committed to register, educate and turn out voters across this nation. Thus, we are embarking on our national campaign, “Turn Out 2018 Civic Engagement Movement.” Our national campaign is synonymous to AAVREP’s local goals. Moreover, PRPI is a relevant component to enhance our current 2018 movement and to advance the cause of the NAACP.

Unfortunately, this controversy over USC’s handling of Mark Ridley-Thomas’ donation will detract from the larger good. Consequently, if we fail to produce verifiable research into the lives and experiences of black Californians, we will all be poorer for it. I trust that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas will move forward with the PRPI initiative with or without USC. I encourage him to use every tool within his power to increase and document the political participation of African Americans. The NAACP’s mission compels us to pursue this civil rights issue with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.


Carl Henley

NAACP – Los Angeles Chapter President