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Category: General

Last Days & Time

[ 13 ] February 4, 2016 |

Maurice White, Dec.19, 1941-Feb. 4, 2016



Are You Tired of Slavery Movies?

[ 95 ] February 4, 2016 |


Kara Brown is damned tired of slavery movies. I am not, but I get that every other high-profile Oscar-nominated film about black lives is an exercise in filming black bodily trauma.

The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s Sundance darling period piece about the deadliest slave insurrection in American history, was purchased by Fox Searchlight on early Tuesday morning for $17.5 million. It was the largest deal in Sundance history, and coverage immediately suggested that The Birth of a Nation will function as some way through which the Academy can make up for this year’s diversity debacle.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion is a fascinating story, an important one, and an under-examined one. Nate Parker struggled for years to get the project made, and I have no doubt that—as with almost any film rooted in a black experience or with a mostly black cast—it was a frequently frustrating fight. I will certainly be buying a ticket to see The Birth of a Nation when it comes to theaters. But part of me is torn about sitting through yet another film that centers around the brutalization of black people.

Frankly, I’m tired of slavery movies.

It’s obvious at this point that Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype. Their love of the slave movie genre brings this issue out in the worst way. I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed “important” and “good” by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient.

Of the six films actually produced by black people that have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, three are about slavery or slavery-adjacent violence against black people (The Color Purple, Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave). The fourth is Selma and the fifth is Precious, two movies that focus on black women being emotionally and physically beaten down in almost every way possible. The last is the The Blind Side, where a white woman who butts in and makes a black kid who was already a promising athlete into an even better athlete.

From a simple visual perspective, I’m tired of being told that I have to watch black actors in physical pain and endure mental abuse for two hours in order to be worthy of a distinction. I don’t want to watch a black body being lashed open so white people can finally “get it.” I’m tired of black actors not only having to live through the trauma of acting in those films, but for also having few other options in front of them.

I am very excited for The Birth of a Nation, and I love how it steals the name back from D.W. Griffith. But I do get this. However, in the trajectory of Hollywood, there have hardly been any serious discussions of slavery at all. 12 Years a Slave was the first since The Color Purple. What else is there? Amistad is ridiculous and really about white people anyway. Django Unchained is a cartoon. Beloved wasn’t very good. Glory is sort of about slavery, but is really a Civil War film that doesn’t explore slavery itself all that deeply. And then???? That’s through a century of film. We need a lot more slavery films precisely because American politics and the rise of overt racism once again is seeking to erase black voices from politics and black history from relevance to the present. Thus says Mychal Denzel Smith in his response:

And while I understand, I disagree. I want more films about slavery. I want a Marvel Universe of films about slavery. I want so many films about slavery that white actors start to complain that the only roles they’re being offered are those of slave owners.

 I want more films about slavery because America would rather forget. We would rather pretend we know all there is to know about slavery and move on. We would rather act like we understand because we know it happened and that’s enough. But we don’t have any understanding of the economics of slavery, of how the racial caste system was built, of who was complicit in its maintenance, of how it defined our politics, of how it ended. The films about slavery that we have now barely scratch the surface on any of these issues. We basically just think it was a mean thing to do to people. Can a slate of slavery films completely solve this problem? Absolutely not. It would be foolish to think so. But as slavery gets pushed further and further out of our cultural memory by politicians and pundits who dismiss the institution as ancient history not worth discussing (while that history continues to be distorted), then a new cultural memory needs to come into place. I believe film is a place to build it.

Of course, let’s have black people making all kinds of movies. Let’s see black people in all kinds of roles, in front of and behind the camera, in pre- and post-production, in publicity and marketing, at award shows. I’m down for all of that. But films about slavery—lots and lots of films about slavery—should also find their place.

As a historian, this is I think a more useful response. Slavery needs to be driven home again and again to white Americans. They need to be confronted with it constantly. Right not, it’s far too easy to forget it happened, deny white privilege exists, and claim that only whites suffer real racism because something. That has to stop. A major strategy on how to do this is through cultural productions, including film, television, comic books, whatever.

For that matter, where’s the TV shows that center slavery? Or black history at all?

Is There Hope for Bangladeshi Workers?

[ 14 ] February 4, 2016 |


Above: Survivors and Families of the Rana Plaza Collapse Protest in Bangladesh, November 2013


In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, the European apparel companies (not the major U.S. ones like Gap, Target, or Walmart of course) decided it was in their interests to take a small measure of responsibility for their contractors. This led to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, creating a team of inspectors that would identify and pressure contractors to fix safety problems in the sweatshops. Since there is some apparel company effort to see changes, changes are seen.

The Accord is the first legally binding agreement between apparel brands and unions where companies are obligated to pay for contractor factory upgrades. It potentially covers over 1,600 factories employing over 2 million workers. Elements of the Accord include an independent factory inspection program which involves workers and unions, public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports and Corrective Action Plans (CAP), a commitment by signatory brands to provide funds for remediation and to maintain sourcing relationships, democratically-elected health and safety committees in all factories, and worker training programs, complaints mechanisms and the right to refuse unsafe work.

How has the Accord turned out? The current Accord Progress Overview shows that as of December 2015, 1,358 factory Corrective Action Plans have been published, and 1,600 out of 1,660 factories have been inspected so far. Nearly 100,000 electrical, fire and structural violations have been identified and about 20,000 have been fixed. However, most of the factory CAPs are behind schedule. Still there is some progress here.

But workers and movement allies know that it’s not enough for the Accord to fix up factories. A recent ILRF report on interviews with dozens of Bangladeshi garment workers, Our Voices, Our Safety: Bangladeshi Garment Workers Speak Out, found that while workers view the factory repairs as important, the ability of workers to organize is crucial. The report states:

Workers report they will not be safe without a voice at work. Fire, electrical, and structural safety in garment factories is essential and will save lives. But these renovations and repairs must be the foundation for additional reforms that address the intimidation and violence that keep workers silent, afraid to voice concerns and put forward solutions to ensure their own safety.

So there are minor improvements. That’s good. On the other hand, until Bangladeshi workers have real voices on the job, i.e., unions, they won’t really be safe. That’s going to take international pressure since it will probably require more action from the apparel companies. The best way this can happen, as the linked article suggests, is that you and I get involved in finding ways to support these workers, raise awareness, and spread information about the plight of these workers, demanding specific changes. That is what we need, pressure at home working with the workers overseas. This is why boycotts outside of those demanded by workers or buying your clothes at thrift stores to say you aren’t responsible for these conditions is not a useful way to act. We have to build solidarity with workers and act in order to improve their lives, not make ourselves feel righteous. Bangladeshi workers are making real demands. We need to support them since we are the ones wearing their clothes.

My question to readers and commenters who constantly defend the current system of globalization is to ask what you are doing to respond to the concerns of workers in Bangladesh and India and Vietnam and Cambodia. What would you tell them if they were in front of you? That their lives are so much better than they used to be so they shouldn’t complain so much?

Can “Peyton Manning” Win A Super Bowl?

[ 119 ] February 4, 2016 |


I recently posted the adjusted QB ratings of the Super Bowl winners going back to 1976. Let’s start by finishing off the list. (As a reminder, 100 is average; 120 means the QB rating is 20% above average.)

1975 Bradshaw 122
1974 Bradshaw 90
1973 Griese 122
1972 Morrall 129
1971 Stabauch 144
1970 Unitas 99 (Morrall 1 regular season start, 133; previous 2 years 91, 128)
1969 Dawson 106 (this is misleading, as Dawson was injured in the regular season, but led the league in adjusted passer rating in six of the previous 7 seasons, and performed at an elite level in the playoffs. He was a superstar, not the decent game manager his 1969 stats made him look like.)
1968 Joe Willie Namath 110
1967 Starr 97
1966 Starr 135

One upshot is that the NFL has been dominated by the passing game for a long time. Even going back to the beginning of the Super Bowl era, when the running game was somewhat more important and passing games were less efficient, the best teams have generally had star QBs and have almost always had at least good ones. Stabauch had a short career but was an unbelievable player at his peak. Starr in 1967 is like Dawson ’69 — his 1966 performance is much more representative of his abilities. Starr was a tremendously good player. Griese is a dubious Hall of Famer but was very good at his best. Morrall was inconsistent but a very good player overall. Namath, as is well known, is one of the most overrated players in NFL history, but he was a good QB at his best. (I should say Namath is also underrated by the NFL rating system. It actually works very well in the contemporary NFL, in which most good QBs complete a high percentage of passes, but it underrates and old-fashioned vertical passer like Namath.)

Now, let’s look at this year’s matchup:

Manning 67/Osweiler 95
Newton 115

Newton, as we’ve discussed, is a better player than his stats suggest given his surrounding skill talent, but even at that the Panthers passing game is well within the historic range of a credible Super Bowl champion. The Broncos, OTOH, are trying to do something without precedent. Osweiler would be one of the 2 or 3 worst QBs of a championship team ever. But he’s not starting the game in any case. The starting QB would shatter the record for the worst regular season QB to win the Super Bowl by a YOOOOOOOOGE margin. Nobody has ever won the Super Bowl with a starter remotely as bad as Peyton has been in 2015, not even when MEN were MEN and real teams GROUNDED and POUNDED.

One might be tempted to say that the stats underrate the performance of Denver’s passing game — we know they have an outstanding defense, but how can you go 12-4 with a passing game that inept in the modern NFL? The answer to this is that the Broncos aren’t really a 12-4 team in terms of quality. Point differential and DVOA predict future W-L much better than win-loss records themselves, and both show the Broncos as more like a 10-6 or 9-7 team. (DVOA puts them right between the Steelers and Jets — that seems about right.) And, just to preempt inevitable arguments that Denver winning a bunch of coin-flip games represents a repeatable skill, no there’s no reason to believe that great defenses tend to overperform their point differential. (The 2013 Seahawks had 13 expected and real wins. The 2008 Steelers were 12/12. The 2002 Bucs were 13/12. The 2000 Ravens were 13.5/12. The 1991 Eagles were 9.5/10. The ’85 Bears were 14/15.) The factors that have caused the Broncos to have a better record than their underlying performance are luck, luck, luck, and luck. And this is pretty obvious if you actually look at the games. I don’t see how Denver’s defense caused Reid and Belichick to make critical high downside-low upside blunders at key moments, caused one of the best kickers in Super Bowl history to miss an extra point, etc. etc. It’s a tribute to Denver’s defense that they dragged a passing game this bad to above-average performance, but above-average is all this team is. And the regular season overperformance was crucial to their playoff wins; a team with margins this narrow really needed the bye and home field in the conference championship game.

Carolina were also not as good as their 15-1 regular season record. But since then they’ve played arguably the two best regular season teams in the league and beaten one by a much greater margin than the 31-24 score suggested and beaten the other 49-15. DVOA now sees them as the genuinely elite team the Broncos aren’t, and I agree. The line has already moved a point towards Carolina, and I think 5 1/2 is still too low.

There is, of course, a caveat here. Manning has been absolutely horrible this year, but he’s also one of the greatest NFL players ever. It’s possible that with two weeks off and knowing that it’s probably the last game of his career, Manning can have one last good game, like he did against Green Bay. But it’s hard for me to see that. The Broncos had one sustained drive each in their two playoff wins, and Carolina is a step up on defense and they’re moving to a neutral field. It’s possible that Manning has one good game left in him, but I’m not sure he’s a lot better than his replacement-level regular season performance at this point.

Is it possible for Denver to win anyway? Sure. As the Tom Coughlin Giants proved, just because you’ve hit tails several times in a row doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. Probably the closest historical precedent is the 1970 Colts, who eked out a 3-point win in a famously blunder-filled Super Bowl with Earl Morall coming in to relieve a washed-up Johnny Unitas. (Evidently, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Osweiler at some point.) Unitas at that point was merely mediocre rather than actually bad like Manning was this year, but Manning is certainly capable of at least an OK game. It’s possible that Denver can keep the game close and again get the breaks and make the plays at the end. But unless Manning can step up his game significantly, I think it’s more likely that Carolina wins with relative comfort.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 15

[ 30 ] February 4, 2016 |

This is the grave of William “Boss” Tweed


I hardly need to provide a biography of the man whose name is synonymous throughout the United States with political corruption. Tweed, the child of Quakers like another paragon of virtue in American history named Richard Nixon, became a machine man from a youth, where he became a volunteer firefighter known for his ax-wielding violence against competing firefighting companies. He rose fast in the Democratic machine in New York and served a term in Congress in the 1850s. Then he realized where real power was located. By 1863, he controlled Tammany Hall and used it for massive personal profit, patronage, and corruption. Of course, as the U.S. was preparing for the Gilded Age with all its corruption, Tweed worked with men such as Jay Gould and Jim Fiske to rip off Cornelius Vanderbilt through the law, for which Tweed was repaid with massive amounts of stock. After 1869, Tweed controlled all politics in New York and stole left and right from every public project he approved, at least $25 million and probably significantly more. His downfall was quite swift; by 1871, he was out of power, he was on trial in 1873, and he died in prison in 1878, after once escaping to Spain aboard a Spanish ship and after he agreed to reveal the inner workings of his ring to his old enemy and now New York governor Samuel Tilden in exchange for release, which Tilden immediately reneged upon.

There is a small bar surrounding the gravesite. There is a gate in the front. I did what any visitor should do. I opened the gate, walked in, and left a nickel on Tweed’s tombstone.

Boss Tweed is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

The Venezuela Catastrophe

[ 132 ] February 4, 2016 |


It’s a disaster that will get worse before it gets better:

“The only question now is whether Venezuela’s government or economy will completely collapse first,” writes Matt O’Brien in a jaunty overview of this fucked up global fucked-spot. What happened? An incompetent government combined with a huge drop in global oil prices have produced an economy that is shrinking at a breathtaking clip, crumbling infrastructure, a lack of goods for people to buy even if they could afford it, and runaway inflation. (It is worth noting that the government’s top economic official “rejects some basic tenets of conventional economics, for example that printing too much money causes inflation.”) Venezuela’s oil production is falling, and oil prices are falling even faster, leaving the government woefully short on funds. They’re set to default on their national debt. Corrupt officials may have embezzled hundreds of billions of dollars. Venezuela is rated one of the most corrupt countries on earth. The nation’s biggest company is begging the government to seek international aid “to avoid the collapse of the food supply.” Unfortunately, most of their neighbors are too pissed off at them to care.

From large-scale cronyism to trying to deny basic economic realities with price and currency controls that have no chance of working, it’s an all-too-common and all-too-awful story.

How Screwed Are Democrats in the House?

[ 151 ] February 4, 2016 |


Get used to this guy

Really, really screwed.

The Cook Political Report came out with ratings Wednesday for how House elections are shaping up. The simple math: Just 33 seats out of 435 are truly competitive, including 27 held by Republicans and six held by Democrats.

For Pelosi’s plan to work, Democrats would need to hold all six of their seats and pick up all 27 from Republicans — 12 of which the Cook team says “lean Republican.” And even then it wouldn’t be enough.

It’s the latest evidence that a combination of Americans’ polarization, the concentration of Democratic voters in fewer districts, and the GOP’s overwhelming control over redistricting after the 2010 Census have made it a very tall task for Democrats to take back the House at any point this decade.

Or even, for that matter, next decade. As Aaron Blake wrote in 2013:

What redistricting also did, though, was allow Republicans to draw very favorable state legislative maps. Those maps will also make it hard for Democrats to regain control of those chambers and, by extension, overhaul the existing GOP-friendly maps at both the state and congressional levels.

Nobody is saying Democrats can’t win back the U.S. House in the coming years, but most everyone agrees that it’s significantly more difficult today than it was before and that Democrats need a sizable wave to do it. In fact, they would need to win as much as 55 percent of the popular vote, according to the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, something neither party was able to achieve even in the wave elections of 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Republicans have truly gamed the system by taking over the states. The lack of a good state strategy for Democrats is a real problem here and that’s actually where the House strategy has to start. The problem of course is that Republicans have gerrymandered the states just as badly as they have the congressional districts in those states. This is probably a multi-decade problem that only ends if a huge wave election takes place that can knock out a bunch of entrenched people and then that wave continues until the next census. In other words, very unlikely barring it happening precisely in 2020. Maybe left populist candidates can win some seats and provide a glimpse of how Sanders-power can work downballot in ways that Hillary-centrism can’t. We’ll see. There’s no reason not to be skeptical until these people win elections.

Is the New Gilded Age a Myth?

[ 67 ] February 4, 2016 |


Above: A suffering capitalist of the Gilded Age

In a bizarrely argued article, historian James Livingston says yes and that’s because capitalists were the ones getting screwed in the original Gilded Age.

The late 19th century, supposedly the golden age of laissez-faire capitalism, was actually a nightmare for capitalists. They whined incessantly about their falling profit margins and, more significantly, about how the American people didn’t appreciate their contributions to economic growth. “The manufacturers want a greater profit,” as E.S. Meade, the authority on trust finance, put it, “without such a desperate struggle to get it.” By the time the crisis of the 1890s arrived, capitalists figured they had lost the class struggle, and they were right. According to reputable businessmen, journalists, economists, and politicians, the so-called Gilded Age of the late 19th century was one long depression, and workers rather than capitalists were the principal beneficiaries.

The capitalists were, of course, poor-mouthing and propagandizing, but the numbers validate their accounting. Income shares shifted toward labor and away from capital in this period, in an exact inverse of what we have witnessed over the last 40 years (when, not incidentally, wages and median family incomes have stagnated, corporate profits have soared, and executive compensation has skyrocketed). By 1890, this possibly disturbing distribution of income between capital and labor had become so significant a public issue that the Senate Finance Committee commenced hearings to investigate it.

From the standpoint of capitalists, why did income shares perform so badly in the so-called Gilded Age? It’s all about the relation between real wages and productivity. If real wages are rising and productivity isn’t, labor’s share of national income will rise at the expense of capital’s share. That’s what happened in the late 19th century. If real wages are stagnating and productivity is increasing, capital’s share of national income will rise at the expense of labor’s share. That’s what happened in the late 20th century.

In the so-called Gilded Age, real wages increased dramatically but labor productivity didn’t, so capitalists suffered. Extraordinary economic growth happened, no doubt about that then or now, but workers were, as the capitalists complained, the principal beneficiaries. For example, real wages in the nonfarm sector increased roughly 30 percent between 1884 and 1896 (unemployment wasn’t rising), but productivity flatlined. The opposite is true of our time.

Why, then, did workers win the class struggle of the late 19th century? Not because they were represented by trade unions. Only 10 percent of the labor force belonged to such a thing. And not because they weren’t militant — between 1881 and 1905, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics kept meticulous records, the number of strikes, lockouts, establishments affected, and participants increased at a rate that would panic contemporary observers. With almost no union representation, workers won — they were the victors in the majority of strikes and lockouts measured in the late 19th century by the BLS.

They won because skilled workers, not bosses, controlled machine production in the factories — until the late 1890s, they had the decisive voice on hours, conditions, even compensation — and refused to cede that control. They won because they shared their gains with unskilled workers, who then followed their lead when bosses tried to enforce new work rules and push came to shove.

And most important, workers won because the labor movement of the so-called Gilded Age was a cross-class construction. Like the larger socialist movement, then as now, it was never the exclusive property of “the” working class, just as the pro-capitalist movements of our own time aren’t the exclusive property of people with the unlikely pedigree of Donald Trump. Workers won those strikes in the late 19th century because the local middle class — farmers, journalists, lawyers, merchants, shopkeepers — stood with them in defiance of what it perceived, correctly, as a threat to its own existence: the distant leviathan (usually a railroad company) that would cut any cost and gut any custom in the name of the bottom line.

This is quite odd. And it’s not that Livingston is a right-winger; Jacobin has published him several times. He is however a professional contrarian and fundamentalist believer in consumerism. And that’s what this is really about–Livingston sees himself as opposing the big bad historical establishment. I would say a good general rule is that when historians as great as Glenda Gilmore, Jefferson Cowie, Thomas Sugrue, Steve Fraser, and many others (including myself in the far less great category), not to mention people like Krugman and Piketty and Stiglitz, and cultural commenters around the nation and world are noting the very clear connections between the inequality, exploitation, political corruption, and corporate domination of the current United States and the manifestations of these problems in the late 19th century, that there’s probably a lot of truth to it. Contrarians love to see themselves as challenging staid establishments. The problem, as it is for Livingston, is that you have to squint really hard and look past a lot of reality to make points that might have a grain of truth in them.

To say the least, capitalists did not lose the Gilded Age. This is utterly laughable and I’d say an embarrassing argument to make. Now, you can say that capitalists often didn’t understand what was in their best interests and that the modern corporation that would maximize efficiency and long-term profits still needed to be solidified. That did take until the 20th century. And certainly skilled labor was trying–but ultimately failing–to hold onto the labor theory of value and control production. But most of the claims here are half-truths. Workers did not win these strikes in the Gilded Age. I’ve documented that plenty here. In fact, the only major strikes workers did win were those like at Cripple Creek or the Pennsylvania anthracite strike of 1902 where government intervened to mediate or stop private armies from killing the workers. The Great Railroad Strike, Pullman, Homestead, the 8-hour day strikes up to the Haymarket, the entirety of the Knights of Labor–these were all crushed through a combination of violence, hostile judges, organized anti-union business cartels, and politicians. It is true enough that real wages did grow a bit during this period, but this is hard to compare to today’s economy, because in the Gilded Age the nation was transitioning from a rural economy with a small urban population to an urbanized population with enormous industrial capacity. Moreover, it’s far from clear in the literature whether labor’s actual share of the economy grew. And skilled workers may have won short strikes to protect their control over work–but they were losing the overall war over this issue by a landslide. Livingston’s “up to the 1890s” bit is doing a lot of work here–the capitalists were wresting control from workers and succeeding by this time, something that the Taylorites would finally win decisively by the 1910s.

If Livingston wants to take the words of capitalists so seriously, maybe he should also take the words of workers and their advocates seriously, whether Upton Sinclair or Sam Gompers or Emma Goldman or P.J. McGuire. Whether anti-capitalists or pro-capitalists, workers and activists consistently talked about the great oppression faced by workers in the era. Gompers and McGuire might have focused on the decline in power among skilled laborers, Goldman and the IWW on the industrial classes, Sinclair on immigrant laborers crushed in Chicago meatpacking. But all agreed on the broader issue that industrial capitalism as presently construed was very bad for workers. Yet Livingston completely ignores all of this to make his contrarian argument. He does because you have to ignore it. And that’s the root of the problem with the whole essay–it’s cherrypicking at its historical finest.

Are Charter Schools the New Separate But Equal?

[ 105 ] February 4, 2016 |


A lawsuit in Minnesota claims they are, effectively arguing that their existence is discriminatory to children of color, even when the charters specifically target those students.

Alex Cruz-Guzman, who came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, lives in a poor, minority neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Determined to provide his five children with a quality education, he and his wife were able to send their two oldest daughters—who are now in college—to desegregated St. Paul schools. But it’s become more difficult to find such schools in St. Paul today, and the Cruz-Guzmans were told they would likely be unable to send their three younger children to integrated institutions, even when they offered to transport their kids themselves.

So Cruz-Guzman became a plaintiff in a lawsuit—one that may shape the future of American education. Filed against the state of Minnesota by two veteran civil-rights attorneys, Daniel Shulman and his son John Shulman, the suit accuses the state of allowing schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students to proliferate. A 2015 Minneapolis Star Tribune analysis found that elementary school students in the Twin Cities attend more racially segregated schools than they have in a generation. Children who attend such schools, the lawyers argue, achieve far less than their peers in integrated institutions. The lawyers also say that the growth of charter schools, which are even more racially segregated than traditional public schools, have exacerbated these trends.

The Shulmans are seeking a metro-wide integration plan to satisfy what they argue is the state’s constitutional obligation to prevent segregated schooling. They cite the state constitution’s education clause, equal protection clause, due process clause, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act to make their case.

Not everyone agrees that this kind of integration is legally necessary or the best way to meet children’s needs. Some see the suit as a threat to parents’ right to choose the schools that would best serve their children. This is particularly true for parents of color, who sometimes send their children to charters in the hopes of avoiding what they see as hostile traditional schools.

John Cairns, one of the most experienced charter school attorneys in the nation, is working against the lawsuit. “If the state is going to do anything, then they’d have to attack parental choice,” says Cairns. “While the plaintiffs are inexplicit about what their remedy would be, in our view, they’re explicit that their remedy would address charter school enrollments. The only way they could do that is to have some conclusion that parental choice is unconstitutional.”

Daniel Shulman sees in this argument an echo of Plessy v. Ferguson. He thinks charter school advocates are arguing, in effect, that separate schools can be equal. “We don’t think that’s true or the law. If they follow the law, they’ll say separate is not equal, and not equal is inadequate,” he says. “All the data will support that … test scores, graduation rates. School segregation is a national tragedy and disgrace.”

This is an extremely controversial issue because by saying that charter schools should be included under school integration laws, it would undermine ethnically or religious-based charters. That would upset a lot of parents of color, especially in an area with very high Hmong and Somali populations. The evidence that students in integrated schools perform better than students in schools where poverty is concentrated, including charter schools, is pretty high. The NAACP is mixed on this, welcoming the lawsuit but unsure where to stand. And of course this has led to the rise of all-white charter schools as well.

In other words, is it the state’s duty to ensure diversity with mixed-race and mixed-income classrooms? Or should people be able to opt out in self-segregation through private and charter schools? I rather strongly favor the former as a personal choice but I’m not sure entirely how to legislate it, especially given the favorability of the charter option among some parents of color desperate to avoid public schools. Certainly this is a tougher and more complex issue than the usual union-busting and privatization issues around charters.

Today In Republican Anti-Anti-Racism

[ 105 ] February 3, 2016 |


Barack Obama did something today:

President Obama Wednesday delivered the comforting sermon to U.S. Muslims that their community leaders have been requesting for years, framing Islam as deeply American and its critics as violating the nation’s cherished value of religious freedom. Obama’s comments came in his first visit as president to a U.S. mosque.

Cue the Donald:

Trump, who has long slyly suggested that Obama is not a Christian, said on Fox News on Wednesday night that Obama might have visited the mosque because “maybe he feels comfortable there.”

OK, but what do you expect from a buffoon like Trump? Let’s turn things over to the moderate, reasonable, establishment, thinking person’s Republican candidate, Marco Rubio:

“Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque,” Rubio continued. “Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there’s going to be discrimination in America of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam. And by the way, radical Islam poses a threat to Muslims themselves.”

“But again, it’s this constant pitting people against each other — that I can’t stand that. It’s hurting our country badly,” Rubio said. “We can disagree on things, right? I’m a Dolphin fan, you’re a Patriot fan.

“Some people believe in civil rights and religious freedom for Muslims. The President should not divide the country by implicitly opposing those of us who disagree with him in public.” And there’s nothing anomalous about this; Rubio is running at least as Islamophobic campaign as Trump.

In conclusion:

Obama and Rubio follow very different theories of the proper treatment of social minorities. One of those men is president of the United States, and the other has no business holding that position.

Talking Venture Brothers With Elana @ Graphic Policy Radio

[ 18 ] February 3, 2016 |


In my ongoing mission to corner the market on the very precise niche that is the intersection between history, politics, pop culture and comic books, I’ve started a new podcast where I’ll be talking about the Venture Brothers with Elana from Graphic Policy (and maybe some guest hosts from time to time).

In this episode, which will be airing live at 9pm Eastern, we discuss the premiere of Season 6, “Hostile Makeover,” in which Team Venture moves to New York City, and we check in on the new status quo.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 14

[ 44 ] February 3, 2016 |

This is the grave of J.P. Morgan.


The Gilded Age capitalist’s Gilded Age capitalist, J.P. Morgan was born to a wealthy Hartford family in 1837. He became a banker in London in 1857. He came back to the US in 1858 and started working in his father’s banking firm in 1860, buying his way out of the Civil War with the surrogate. He started his own firm with a partner in 1871.

Morgan became the Gilded Age’s leading financier. He had so much money that he bailed out the United States Treasury during the Panic of 1893 by selling gold directly to the government in exchange for a 30-year bond issue. Doing this undermined Cleveland’s hopes for reelection in 1896 and helped lead to the Democrats nominating William Jennings Bryan, a man not seen as in Wall Street’s pocket. Morgan did the same thing in the Panic of 1907, with Theodore Roosevelt providing legal immunity to Morgan for the antitrust deal he felt it would take to accomplish. In 1900, Morgan worked with Charles Schwab and Andrew Mellon to buy out Andrew Carnegie’s steel company. They successfully did so and created U.S. Steel, one of the largest monopolies of the Gilded Age. He bought up entire region’s worth of railroads and the coal mines to feed them, as well as the homes of the nation. He bought up insurance firms,

All because his daddy set him up in business. America, truly a meritocracy, then and now.

Morgan mostly stayed out of labor conflicts directly, unlike his contemporaries like Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and George Pullman. Instead, he focused on profiteering, having surrogates take care of labor. For example, it was Morgan’s interests that owned the Pennsylvania anthracite coal mines during the famous 1902 strike, when the coal situation became so desperate that Roosevelt intervened to mediate, not crush the strike. Morgan’s close association George Baer was the head of this side of the business, famously saying, “These men don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

This was the worldview of Morgan and his associates. If Morgan personally stayed in the background in labor disputes, he consistently acted in the interests of big bankers, often directly to the detriment of labor. Plus, his monopolies were so out of control that it was his Northern Securities Company that Roosevelt targeted for violating anti-trust law, giving him an unearned reputation as a “trust-buster.” In fact, Roosevelt was generally fine with monopoly and Taft used anti-trust legislation a lot more often against monopoly capitalism. But Morgan had been so aggressive that he crossed Roosevelt’s line.

The House of Morgan since 1913, J.P. Morgan is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.

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