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Slave Graves

[ 9 ] April 4, 2016 |
Samsung Techwin

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This is an outstanding project to categorize the grave sites of slaves, in part in hopes of saving them before they are destroyed.

This is what propelled me to create the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans. When the database is completed, it will be the first national repository of information on the grave sites of individuals who died while enslaved or after they were emancipated. Anyone who comes to the website will eventually be able to submit information about these places and conduct searches.

I am now processing preliminary submissions. It is painful to read about burial grounds that should be revered spaces but instead are covered by playgrounds and apartment complexes. I have learned that many grave sites of formerly enslaved Americans are abandoned, undocumented, desecrated by the asphalt of “development,” and lack any type of memorialization or recognition. The burial grounds are often found incidentally by developers under parks and office buildings, and for many of the sites, oral history is their only source of documentation. (This was the case for my family as well. Grandpa Ben’s daughter, my great-aunt, directed me to his burial site before she died in 2014, at the age of 101.)

Equally distressing are the struggles to save burial grounds that are in danger of being lost. For example, a community in Shelby County, Ala., is trying to rescue a cemetery of enslaved Americans and their descendants from a quarry company that acquired the land it is on. In Queens, N.Y., a church congregation is seeking to reinter the remains of a 19th-century woman who was unearthed in 2011 by a developer digging in what turned out to be a burial ground founded by enslaved Americans.

But of course this is far from just some historic preservation project. Rather:

Our country should explore ways to preserve the public memory of enslaved Americans. Their overlooked lives are an inextricable part of the historical narrative of our country — and not simply because they were the “beneficiaries” of the 13th Amendment. We should remember enslaved Americans for the same reason we remember anyone; because they were fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents who made great contributions to our nation. Regardless of our country’s history or our ambivalence about the memory of slavery, we can choose to remember the enslaved — the forgotten. They offer our contemporary society examples of resilience and humanity. Preserving their memory contributes to our own humanity.


The Testing Scam

[ 80 ] April 4, 2016 |


Diane Ravitch absolutely eviscerates the bipartisan education reforms of the last 15 years under Bush and Obama in a review of two new books for The New York Review of Books. The first shows the disaster that was Cory Booker and Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to remake the Newark schools by chartering them all, destroying teachers unions, and using students as subjects to experiment on through constant testing. The other is on a school in San Francisco that does a great job training students to be successful people and with a high college acceptance rate, but which is considered a “failing school” because most of the students don’t speak English as a first language and thus don’t fare well on standardized tests. The whole thing is very much worth your time. An excerpt:

Newark had one major attraction for the reformers. Its schools have been under state control since 1995. The governor had total control of the district, its budget, and its leadership. The district had been taken over by the state because of poor academic performance and pervasive corruption. But in the next fifteen years, the state had not gotten better results than the regime it displaced. Newark’s mayor since 2006, Cory Booker, wanted to uproot the school system and start over.

Booker had been raised in the nearly all-white suburb of Harrington Park, New Jersey, and had graduated from Stanford, Oxford, and Yale. He was a frequent guest on national television shows, and he moved easily among the rich, the powerful, and the famous. Russakoff describes a ride that Booker took with Governor-Elect Christie through Newark one night in December 2009, when they agreed to create a plan for a radical transformation of the Newark public schools. The confidential draft of the plan that Booker sent to Christie proposed turning Newark into “the charter school capital of the nation,” weakening seniority and tenure, recruiting new teachers and principals from outside Newark, and building “sophisticated data and accountability systems.”

In July 2010, Booker attended an invitation-only meeting in Sun Valley, where he mingled with fabulously wealthy hedge fund managers and high-tech entrepreneurs. There he met Mark Zuckerberg. Booker knew that venture philanthropists were looking for a “proof point,” a city where they could demonstrate the success of their business-style school reforms. He persuaded Zuckerberg that Newark was that city. Booker believed that a great education would set every child on the road out of poverty, and he also believed that it would be impossible to do this in the Newark public schools because of their bureaucracy and systems of tenure and seniority. That’s why he wanted to spend money turning the city into an all-charter district, without unions, where like-minded reformers could impose the correct reforms, like judging teachers by test scores, firing teachers at will, and hiring whomever they wanted.

That September, Zuckerberg, Booker, and Christie announced the gift of $100 million on The Oprah Winfrey Show, to tumultuous applause. When Winfrey asked Zuckerberg why Newark, he responded, “I believe in these guys…. We’re setting up a $100 million challenge grant so that Mayor Booker and Governor Christie can have the flexibility they need to…turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”

As Russakoff points out, “What Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to achieve in Newark had not been accomplished in modern times—turning a failing urban school district into one of universally high achievement.” Like other reformers, Booker earnestly believed: “We know what works.” Zuckerberg’s money would give him the chance to prove it. But while the media saw Booker as the “rock star mayor,” he faced a growing budget deficit and soaring violent crime when he returned from his frequent fund-raising travels.

Meanwhile, even in much wealthier places than Newark, real education, not to mention recess, gets sacrificed to the cult of standardized testing.

Stop Trying To Fix Poor People

[ 124 ] April 4, 2016 |


One of the two fundamental problems with American welfare policy is that at its core, it assumes that the poor are morally deficient and need to be fixed instead of just poor. So rather than just increase the money in these programs, politicians blather on about the morality of the poor, which is an excuse not to fully fund them.

We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. We don’t try to address poverty directly, or alleviate it; we simply try to change the way poor people behave, especially poor parents. Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.

Policy that addresses poverty by punishing the poor for their perceived misdeeds plays on some popular misunderstandings, especially about marriage and parenting. Many non-poor people mistakenly believe that our lax attitude toward marriage is behind the child poverty problem. That’s why a Heritage Foundation claim that marriage reduces the chance of living in poverty by 82 percent has been a staple on the Republican campaign trail this season, and welfare money has been diverted from alleviating poverty to promoting marriage among the poor.

First, single parenthood doesn’t just cause these social ailments, it also reflects them. Some of these problems are merely the consequence of whatever caused their parents to be single in the first place: poverty, illness, incarceration, weak relationship skills, and so on. In other words, successful people are more likely to raise successful children and to have successful marriages. Research on marriage among poor Americans clearly shows that the majority want to be married, but they aren’t for a variety of reasons related to their poverty. Faced with poor prospects in a marriage partner, some women reason, “I can do bad by myself,” as reported in the book “Promises I Can Keep,” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Some couples place marriage on a pedestal, and plan to postpone it until they are financially stable. As one young man with a pregnant girlfriend put it, “I’d rather get engaged for two years, save money, get a house, make sure … the baby’s got a bedroom.” For too many, however, that moment never arrives.

Poverty clearly lowers the chance of a successful marriage, even as being single may make it harder to escape poverty. This pattern is the subject of a long-running debate among social scientists. Although we can’t agree on the exact breakdown of cause and effect, any reasonable researcher will concede it runs both ways.

But the second answer is perhaps more important for today’s poverty debates. It is that the number of single-parent families doesn’t drive the poverty rate – rather, it mostly helps determine which families and children will be poor, not how many will be. How many people live in poverty is largely the outcome of our policy choices, about jobs and wages, and support for poor families. A key study compared poverty rates and family structure in 18 countries, finding that the United States had the highest rate of poverty among single-mother families – more than 40 percent, compared with 5 or 10 percent in the Nordic countries. No country had as large a difference in poverty rates between single mothers and the rest of the population as the United States – that’s our unique penalty for single parenthood.

This has always been a problem with the nation’s response to the poor. From the early charity programs of the antebellum period to Social Darwinism to the Salvation Army to the present, the poor’s poverty is consistently seen as their own fault and something that can be fixed if we intervene in the right way. So the problem becomes unwed mothers instead of a lack of economic opportunity. Why blame capitalists when you can blame 23 year old women who lack a GED?

Meanwhile what the poor actually need are good-paying jobs for people without college educations, which are fewer and farther between in our outsourced, automated, subcontracted, franchised, temp worker economy.

The other fundamental problem with our welfare policy is racism. While not all the poor are people of color or immigrants, many are. And if West Virginia and eastern Kentucky they are mostly white, we find ways to denigrate them anyway. The problem of the poor is also “the problem of black people.” Or Mexicans. Or the Irish in 1850. Or Italians in 1910. Or whatever. But always black people. Focusing on actual poverty alleviation would mean having to deal with the inequalities at the heart of our society, which means dealing with white supremacy and structural racism. And we can’t be having that, now can we.

Self-Driving Cars

[ 441 ] April 4, 2016 |


Atrios is right. Self-driving vehicles ain’t going to happen, at least not in the United States.

Volvo’s North American CEO, Lex Kerssemakers, lost his cool as the automaker’s semi-autonomous prototype sporadically refused to drive itself during a press event at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

“It can’t find the lane markings!” Kerssemakers griped to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was at the wheel. “You need to paint the bloody roads here!”

Shoddy infrastructure has become a roadblock to the development of self-driving cars, vexing engineers and adding time and cost. Poor markings and uneven signage on the 3 million miles of paved roads in the United States are forcing automakers to develop more sophisticated sensors and maps to compensate, industry executives say.

And I am glad they won’t happen either, as trucking is one of the last OK paying job for working people without college educations.

Today in the Sixth Extinction

[ 80 ] April 4, 2016 |


White nose in bats found in the West, a 1300 mile jump from its previous known location.

The disease that’s wiped out at least 7 million bats in the East and Midwest has now jumped to the West. Hikers in Washington, 30 miles east of Seattle, found a sick little brown bat on March 11 and took it to a wildlife sanctuary, where it died a few days later. The USGS National Wildlife Health Center analyzed the remains and announced that it had white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that irritates bats and rouses them from hibernation in the dead of winter. They leave their caves to forage, but soon starve from lack of insects. Once the infection gains a foothold in a bat colony, the mortality rate can reach 99 percent.

The deadly disease has jumped more than 1,300 miles from where it was last detected, in Nebraska and Minnesota. “This news is extremely disappointing and unnerving,” says Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, adding that it’s probably been spreading in Washington, and perhaps other parts of the Northwest, for a while. “Researchers in Eastern caves have found that it can take a few years for fungal loads to build up to the point of causing disease in bats,” says Coleman, “so it may be that the fungus has been in the area for a few years already and is widespread.”

As to how white-nose syndrome reached Washington in the first place, the most likely explanation is that a caver visited an infected cave in the East, then carried spores on gear or clothing to the Cascades. The stricken bat seems to be a Western subspecies of little brown bat, Coleman says, so it probably wasn’t a bat from back East that somehow got translocated. Another possible, but unlikely, route for transmission could have been a shipping container from Asia or Europe that came into Seattle or Vancouver carrying an infected bat. State and federal researchers will be combing the area where the bat was found to try to locate other sick bats, and the public is also requested to notify the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife about any bats they find dead or see flying in the daytime — usually an indication of illness.

Someday, our children and grandchildren will wonder what bats were. We will say they were real. They will think bats are like unicorns.

Saying No

[ 4 ] April 3, 2016 |

Tonight’s film is a genuinely useful PSA from 1982 about women taking control over their own bodies. Plus the biggest douche in the film has Larry Bird hair.


[ 10 ] April 3, 2016 |



If you are going to be at the OAH this week in Providence, drop me a line. Maybe we could do a get together or something. Not sure if Attewell is attending this year, but there’s never anything wrong with an LGM get together, even if it’s just with me.

Incidentally, I am participating in two historians talk off the cuff sessions roundtables. The first is on New Perspectives on American Socialism, which is the conference’s first slot on Thursday at 12. Then on Friday at 1:50, I am moderating a panel I organized titled “State of the Field: Intersections between Labor and Environmental History.” If anyone cares, come and say hi.

Deficit Spending

[ 104 ] April 3, 2016 |


Yglesias is making a lot of sense here. With interest rates this low, the nation should just borrow the money to rebuild its infrastructure and not worry about some existential need to pay off the debt. Of course, that no one can say this in the political realm is a sign of just how drastically Republicans have changed the debate in the 40 years, to the point that even as our freeway overpasses are collapsing beneath us and subway systems shutting down, we can’t even begin to talk about these issues without detailed plans on paying back the big, bad, evil debt. Instead, we should just build it and figure it out later if necessary.

The debate we ought to be having about federal infrastructure spending right now is whether we have a way to channel money into useful projects — not how to “pay for” the spending.

America is not currently experiencing a shortfall of financing options. On the contrary, global financial markets are practically begging us to go borrow some more money. The interest rates available are so outlandishly low that virtually anything that was useful at all (i.e., not a mixed-traffic streetcar or a relocation of a bus terminal to a less convenient location) would have a rate of return higher than the cost of funds.

Under the circumstances, there’s no good reason to try to finance projects with taxes rather than debt. Doing so is only going to increase political opposition to your plan — no tax reform, no matter how cleverly designed, can fail to offend a powerful interest group or two — and make it less likely that the project will get done.

And global markets, again, are telling us not that America’s taxes are too low but that we’re not borrowing enough money. There’s a global shortage of American debt. Indeed, a 2014 International Monetary Fund analysis concluded that in rich countries like the US, “public investment that is financed by issuing debt has larger output effects than when it is financed by raising taxes or cutting other spending.”

It’s better, in other words, to just build the projects than to fuss about paying for them. We need a good dose of irresponsibility.

Red Lives Matter

[ 127 ] April 3, 2016 |

The Black Lives Matter movement has been great in basically all conceivable ways. But I think there is one exception to that, which is that, at least in my readings and observations, been fairly blind or downplaying that not only are the cops killing black people for any reason imaginable, but are doing the same to Latinos and Native Americans as well. I have no doubt that many BLM leaders are well aware of this and no doubt part of the problem is that the media, including large swaths of the leftist media, see racial problems in the United States still primarily in terms of African-Americans and whites. But the interruption of the Netroots Nation presidential candidate forum last year that was specifically discussing immigration and the oppression Latinos face by BLM protestors was lacking in the intersectionality one would hope for from such a movement, something which almost no one noted in the aftermath. On the community level of course, this all has different dynamics, since police murders of people of color naturally enough unite the people who are in that community and who of course then tend to be of the same racial and ethnic groups. But still, more attention to the fact that racial discrimination in this country is not exclusively against black people would be really useful. Because the cops are slaughtering Native Americans too, in this case shooting a woman 5 times accused of stealing.

“Loreal is a victim of discrimination, and we want justice,” Curley said. “We can all relate to this case because we have all been racially profiled by law enforcement. While we are saddened at (Loreal’s) death, we’re not surprised because we know that this is a systemic issue.”

Curley said the group supported the independent investigation into the shooting and asked the Navajo Nation to take a more active role in this case.

In a statement, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said, “We hear about these types of shootings happening across the country. If there is no legitimate justification for taking Tsingine’s life, then the Navajo Nation wants the fullest extent of the law to be taken in serving justice.”

Vice President Jonathan Nez posted the following statement on Facebook: “The Navajo Nation sends our condolences to her family during this tragedy. Significant numbers of Navajo citizens have expressed public outcry over this violence. We will continue to investigate.”

Tsingine’s family admitted she had some mental health issues, but they didn’t go into detail.

Organizers of a vigil scheduled for Saturday demanded that the name of the officer involved in the shooting be released and that their concerns on police brutality against Native Americans be taken seriously.

Of course, where this is happening is in Arizona, in New Mexico, in South Dakota, in Oklahoma–in other words, far away from the eastern media and where those journalists come from and pay attention to, including the leftist publications. That should change. Discrimination against Native Americans is widespread. They get slaughtered by cops all the time. We need an anti-police violence, anti-racist movement that is about all the oppressed races in the United States. Our racist past allows us to forget marginalized groups all too often. Our anti-racist organizations shouldn’t do the same.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 26

[ 1 ] April 3, 2016 |

This is the grave of Howard Zahniser:


Howard Zahniser was the long-time head of the Wilderness Society and the architect of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which he dedicated his professional life to getting passed. Zahniser grew up in small-town western Pennsylvania, which he always loved and considered home. He began exploring the forests of his home state as a child. In the 1930s, he worked for USDA Bureau of Biological Survey (the precursor to the modern Fish and Wildlife Service) and during World War II worked for the Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering. During this period, he started writing for nascent environmental journals and magazines. He then became Executive Secretary of the Wilderness Society in 1945, turning it into an overtly political organization with the agenda of making federally-designated wilderness a real thing.

Zahniser led the fight against the Echo Park Dam, beginning in 1949, that would have flooded a major portion of Dinosaur National Monument as part of the larger Colorado River Project. Along with people such as the Sierra Club’s David Brower, Zahniser managed to squash that project, a huge early victory for environmentalists. This also gave momentum to a wilderness campaign that would preserve swaths of land from any development such as dams, logging, and mining. The bill slowly gained momentum through Zahniser indefatigable work lobbying for it, building relationships with Congress, working with recalcitrant developmentalist legislators, and dedicating his life to this single goal.

Unfortunately, Zahniser also had a bad heart. Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964 into law on September 3, 1964, designating 9.1 million acres of public land as wilderness. But Zahniser had died on May 5, 1964.

Howard Zahniser is buried in the Pennsylvania woods and hills he loved. His grave is at Riverside Cemetery, Tionesta, Pennsylvania.

Today in the Republican War on Women

[ 218 ] April 3, 2016 |


Louie Gohmert, saying the quiet parts loud again.

Texas Representative Louie Gohmert has just established himself as public enemy number one for women by publicly opposing H.R.4742, a new bill that would increase federal support for entrepreneurial programs for women in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math.

A satirical site creates an explanation for Gohmert, which unfortunately was picked up in the original link as being real, as was pointed out in comments. But really, given current Republican rhetoric, it would hardly be surprising that Gohmert actually believes this.

Gohmert’s explanation for opposing this bill is that it discriminates against boys. In his own words, “this program is designed to discriminate against that young, poverty-stricken boy and to encourage the girl. Forget the boy. Encourage the girl.” In addition to this backwards argument, he continued on, launching into a ridiculous tirade about how this is also the wrong way to treat women. Naturally, he also had to bring in God and God’s intentions for women.

‘And, you know, that’s just not the way God intended us to be treating women. I know that everybody is today talking about equality and we’ve got groups that are trying to make us believe that women are equal to men. However, that’s just not the case. God didn’t make us equal. It is ourselves, we have created this illusion of equality. And you want to know what the most powerful evidence of that there is? Simple biology. We have parts they don’t and vice versa. So right then and there you’ve got proof of God’s master plan.’

‘Women were created for one thing and one thing alone. We are insulting the Lord by allowing women to act like men. Women are beautiful creatures, no doubt about that. We marry them, we look after them, we provide for them and we love them, but that does not mean they are the same as us. It is the job of a woman to stay at home, to maintain the household, to bear children and look after them after they’re born. Nowhere in the scriptures does it say that women should be chasing after fancy titles and knowledge. The only knowledge they need is the one we men allow them to have.’

Louie Gohmert may be an idiot. But this is really pretty close to the belief system of many Republicans. I guess affirmative action is for women after all too and that has to stop just like it does for people of color stealing the white man’s jobs! We all know that God intended for all good jobs to be held by white men. Why is the gov’ment getting in the way of Jesus?

On a more serious note, I will say that I strongly oppose special STEM-promoting bills or lower tuition for STEM students or the like because a) they largely are nothing more than job training programs for the jobs available in 2016 as opposed to providing larger skills that will allow students to be able to transition through jobs in life, b) they are short-sighted in terms of thinking about the relationship between students and jobs, and c) they are part of the open war on the humanities going on across the country.

The Politics of the Individual vs. The Politics of Solidarity

[ 153 ] April 2, 2016 |


The comment thread for yesterday’s Chicago Teachers Union strike post was typical. Inevitably during any strike, especially a public sector strike, people who claim to be liberals find their sense of solidarity with working people ends precisely at the point where they might be personally inconvenienced. They put aside the great common ground they should have with the strikers to create policies that would benefit all and instead engage with a politics of personal short-term selfishness. That’s sad. When BART workers go on strike for better wages and working conditions, it absolutely makes things harder for commuters. On the other hand, if the city wants to make life miserable for BART employees, that is going to therefore lead to tired drivers, long-term service deterioration, and the general decline of the system. Not to mention that better paid employees place more money into the economy, which stimulates the city, allows a middle-class to still exist (very important in a place like San Francisco), and creates a principle of paying working people dignified salaries. Is all of this worth a few days of not having the BART system operational? I would certainly think so, but many people struggle to think outside of their own current situation at a given time.

Similarly, the Chicago Teachers Union is striking because of the general failure to invest in education at the city and state level, the attacks by Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Rauner and on unions generally (he’s nothing more than 1-issue governor and that issue is union busting), Rauner’s unwillingness to pass a budget, not to mention the larger issues of police violence and injustice in Chicago. These issues affect every person in Chicago. But if taking an action to fight for these issues is a bad thing because for one day I have to deal with child care, a day that is basically like a snow day except that you time to prepare for it, then there’s no really no hope for any kind of coalition to fight for broader issues of racial justice. Sure it makes life harder for parents for one day or one week. That sucks. But life is far longer than one day or one week.

What is solidarity? There are many definitions but I think at the core is the willingness to accept and embrace personal inconvenience in order to support larger causes of justice. Rather than focus on just how such an action affects me on a particular day, you need to take yourself out of the equation and evaluate a particular action based upon whether you would support it if it does not affect you at all. If a Black Lives Matter protest decides to blockade I-93 through Boston when I am driving up there and I am delayed for an hour, I might be frustrated. But I also have to remember that the broader cause of justice is far more important than whatever I have going on in a given day. It is my duty as a human to support whatever action is necessary to end police violence against people of color. That’s far more important than the talk or band I want to see. Moreover, what cause has been advanced without inconveniencing the public? Protests block streets, strikes take money out of the economy, ACT-UP made people feel uncomfortable, the Black Panthers scared whites, environmentalists threaten entire industries to save the planet. Direct action is disruptive. If you can’t support it whenever it might possibly affect you in some way, you don’t really have the right to think of yourself as someone supports justice.

As for individual strikes, we don’t necessarily have to support each and every one, although if you claim to be a liberal or on the left, the burden is on you to say why you can’t support it. There are two fundamental scenarios where it makes sense not to support a strike. The first is when it’s about a turf war between two unions. At that point, it’s dependent on the situation. The second is when the strike is aimed at hurting the broad cause of justice rather than defending it. Thus, while police absolutely should have the right to unionize and collectively bargain a contract, the NYPD engaging in a slow down because Bill DeBlasio wants to do something about their open racism and use of violence is not something we should support. Unfortunately, it makes many on the left engage in open union-busting that would do nothing to stop police violence instead of fighting the evil at hand. Otherwise, while one can question the wisdom and strategy of given actions, anyone who makes claims to be liberal needs to be showing at least some support for the principle of collective action by workers to both maintain the middle class and fight for larger issues of social justice, as the CTU did on its strike yesterday.

It’s funny to me that people say the labor movement is antiquated, unimaginative, ineffective, etc. And that it needs to use new tactics or more aggressive tactics in order to force change to society. And then when they use those tactics, large swaths of the general public, including those who claim to wish for a stronger labor movement, judge the strike entirely based upon how it affects themselves on the given day of the strike. That’s not the politics of solidarity. That’s the politics of the empowered narcissistic individual. And it’s at that point where people start supporting the position where they would have supported Reagan firing the air traffic controllers. The public supported the firing not because PATCO was engaging in an illegal action. They supported it because by doing so, they shut down the airlines and got in the way of people’s travel plans. The politics of individual desire defeated the politics of solidarity in 1981 and it continues to do so today.

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