(Update: the psychology board took no immediate action after the Jan. 8 hearing and Dr. Umar Johnson declared victory afterward. See below for details.)
Dr. Umar Johnson, aka Dr. Umar Ifatunde, is someone whose beliefs veer considerably from the mainstream, and in some cases could even be considered hate speech.
But controversy and the label of “black nationalist” hasn’t stopped the Philly thinker, who call himself as the “Prince of Pan-Afrikanism,” from building an audience of some 350,000 followers on Instagram and Facebook with his Afrocentric views, criticism of the U.S. education system and medical industry, and conservative social views like opposition to homosexuality and interracial marriage. And since 2014, he claims to have fundraised hundreds of thousands of dollars from followers for his envisioned Frederick Douglass Marcus Garvey Leadership Academy.
On Jan. 8, Johnson’s credibility will be questioned by the state at a hearing in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania’s State Board of Psychology has accused Johnson of presenting himself as a psychologist without a license, and say he could be fined $10,000 per violation.
Johnson, who is gearing up to visit Asia later this month, did not respond to Metro’s request for comment. But he asserted in a letter to the state that he has been a “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Certified School Psychologist” since 2001.
“I take my job as a school psychologist very seriously, and I respect the profession of psychology a great deal, as to become a psychologist has been a goal of mine since attending elementary school in North Philadelphia,” Johnson wrote the state, adding that he is interested in meeting them so he can become a licensed psychologist.
On social media accounts, Johnson has accused the state of persecuting him, lashed out at journalists who report on him, questioned who reported him to the authorities and even accused his father, Philly social justice activist Jamal Johnson, of betrayal. (Jamal Johnson said his son “has me and my family’s full support.”) He posted numerous videos from a hotel room in Harrisburg on Jan. 5 discussing the hearing on his @drumarjohnson Instagram account before it was abruptly suspended (it remained inactive as of Jan. 7).
Johnson is known for his ongoing fundraising campaign to open his hypothetical Leadership Academy and vocal discussion of educational issues for African American youth. In 2014 he led an unsuccesful effort to reopen the now-defunct HBCU St. Paul’s in Virginia with his envisioned school. He claimed to have raised $125,000 through Paypal in 2015 for the school before the website froze his account in 2015 for lacking official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. He had reportedly raised another $400,000 in a Gofundme last year, but that campaign is currently suspended.
Despite the massive support evidenced by his donor-driven campaigns, Johnson remains at the fringes of mainstream culture over his extreme social views, with many accusing him of bigotry. Johnson has promulgated the theory that vaccines cause autism and that AIDS and Ebola were manmade. He has been accused of hate speech for opposing homosexuality and interracial marriage. He supports extreme social restrictions—for example, saying that girls at his hypothetical school would face expulsion if they had “unnatural hair,” which he defined as “perm, wig, weave, European hair colors, extensions, sew-ins, straightening comb, etc.” In 2016, he was yanked at the last minute from delivering a commencement speech at Martin Luther King High School in West Oak Lane.
As far as his background, some of it checks out. The family of abolitionist Fredrick Douglass denies that Johnson is a descendant of Douglass, but acknowledged he is a ‘blood-relative’ of the family (he says he is descendant of Douglass’ first cousin and possible half-brother Steven Bailey).
Johnson says he spent years working for the School District of Philadelphia, which the district confirmed. He says he has worked for Chester-Upland School District and various charter schools.
Watch Johnson spar with Roland Martin:
Doctor or no, state certifications dating back to 2001 do identify Johnson as a “school psychologist.” In 2010, he was identified as a “certified school psychologist” in a lawsuit, primarily built on his opinion and testimony, that argued Lower Merion School District had discriminately placed a child of color in remedial classes. (The case was dismissed).
That case ties into a major theme of Johnson’s work. He published “Psycho-Academic Holocaust: The Special Education and ADHD Wars Against Black Boys” in 2013, and his his attacks on the effects of prescription medications on African American youths and the failures of the U.S. educational system have found a considerable audience.
With a massive following for his posts on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook about these and other subjects, Johnson is a prolific cultural figure who also advances some of the same conspiracy theories as fellow social media star Alex Jones, of Infowars.
“He’s divisive, he’s a bit off-putting, but I’d be dishonest to say there isn’t an audience for the type of narratives and thought-processes he puts out there,” said Christopher “Flood the Drummer” Norris, a local activist and writer who is the acting morning host on WURD 900. “He calls himself the prince of pan-Afrikanism. I think a lot of people don’t even know what that means … There will always be an audience for Dr. Umar Johnson, but it will not be a wide audience, and I will not be in it.”
Below watch Johnson declare victory after the hearing to a group of supporters: