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Popular speaker Umar Johnson faces fines over lack of psychology license

Umar Johnson, who tours internationally speaking to crowds on "Pan-Afrikanist" thought, will have a hearing in Harrisburg.

Umar Johnson on stage.
Umar Johnson on stage.Read moreEdgar Cervantes/Flickr

Umar Johnson is taking a break. The popular Philadelphia-bred pundit had just finished a four-city "Kwanzaa tour" of Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and Detroit. He spoke on special education, the black family, and what's called black uplift, themes he regularly mines for his  342,000-user Instagram following.

But over the holiday season, Johnson used that Instagram account to rally support for himself: His primary Facebook and GoFundMe have been suspended, he told his audience, and he faces discipline from Pennsylvania's Board of Psychology.

The state Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs has charged Johnson, known as "Dr. Umar," with portraying himself on his website as a psychologist who practices counseling services without a state license to do either. If that is proved, the board could levy fines and order Johnson to pay for the cost of the investigation.

In 2014, Johnson shared his vision of converting a defunct Virginia historically black college into a boarding school that he would name the Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey RBG International Leadership Academy for Black Boys. (Johnson regularly describes himself as a relative of Douglass, another claim that critics dispute.) He set a $5 million fund-raising goal that he hoped to hit by August, but did not. He had been raising money on GoFundMe, and recently said they'd hit around $400,000 before their campaign was suspended. This comes after accusations, prominently argued on the Root, that Johnson's fund-raising lacked transparency and his organization lacked 501(c)(3) status.

Johnson, who has described himself as "Black America's No. 1 Most Requested Scholar-Orator," the "prince of Pan-Afrikanism" and "the foremost expert" on the "school-to-prison pipeline," has experienced waves of criticism along his rise to national fame. Many social media users have lambasted his political and philosophical views, among them strong condemnations of homosexuality, interracial marriage, and ADHD medication.

His detractors have long questioned whether the degrees he lists were earned and whether he has scammed the public by calling for donations for the boarding school. His fans, however, hear a uniquely clear thinker dedicated to the uplift of black children who has been unfairly maligned.

The Root verified in July that Johnson has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Johnson was notified of the state investigation in August. In a response that month, Johnson explained that he worked as a school psychologist for the School District of Philadelphia, Chester Upland School District, and various charter schools, which required certifications as a school psychologist but not a state license to practice psychology.

Although a Department of State spokeswoman said Tuesday his hearing had been postponed because Johnson's lawyer requested a continuance, she said Wednesday it was back on for 9 a.m., Jan. 8.

Johnson refused to answer a reporter's questions. In brief comments, he said he was "tired" of the "despicable" coverage of him from mainstream media.

In a recent YouTube video, he stated that he grew up in North Philadelphia, near Eighth Street and Susquehanna Avenue. He described a childhood where at least once he stayed in a homeless shelter, and where quite often he loved watching movies at a neighborhood theater.

A decade ago, he was a regular speaker at Black & Nobel, the black-owned bookstore at Broad Street and Erie Avenue. Hakim Hopkins, Black & Nobel's owner, lamented Johnson's recent plight and noted that Johnson doesn't need a license to deliver his message online.

"I don't think he was doing it for the piece of paper, he was doing it because so many people want to hear and see him," said Hopkins, who isn't convinced these events were a final goodbye. "I don't think he can stop doing it."

Observers have affiliated Johnson with "hotep" political movements. Often gathering in online discussions, hoteps are known for a blend of Afrocentric affinities, black radicalism, and social conservatism. Molefi Kete Asante, a noted Temple University scholar, disagrees that Johnson and like-minded thinkers are Afrocentric.

"It is an academic theory; it is a philosophy. It's founded on facts and information," Asante said. "He hit a market of people who are hungry for information who do not necessarily know how to discern what is based on evidence and what is not."

This story has been updated.

This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the degree he received from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.