On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership–specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.



My fifteen seconds of fame (clicking off Amazon.com)

My cameo in the New York Times.

(cross-posted at Blog of the Century)

The below glamorous picture appeared in the New York Times the other day, in its story “Online shoppers are rooting for the little guy.” Although I hate to be exploited as eye candy. it’s been fun. I’ve been getting calls and emails from old high school and college friends, and many other.

Photo by Peter Wynn Thompson

The Times noted my decision to go cold turkey on Amazon.com. Until September, I had been spending more than $1,000 annually at Amazon. After September, I have spent $0 there.  One might think, reading that story, that I was a random person who abandoned Amazon out of my desire to support small businesses. In fact, the Times found me because I wrote this web column for the Nation on cyber Monday, which explained the main reason for my decision: Amazon’s shabby treatment of its workers.

I hope that you read this terrific story by Spencer Soper describing shabby labor practices at Amazon’s Lehigh Valley warehouse, where books, CDs and other products are packed and shipped. We all have a responsibility to spend our consumer dollars to promote and reward responsible corporate behavior. In my view, Amazon’s behavior falls short of this standard.

The Public Be Damned: Using the Amtrak Script to Destroy the Post Office

If the conversation about the end of the U.S. Postal Service sounds familiar, it’s not just because we’ve heard variations of it since 1970, when the old Post Office Department became a separate business.  It’s also because the destruction of mail delivery closely parallels the wrecking of American  passenger rail.  Apparently the Congress has it in for quasi-public institutions with work forces composed disproportionately of African-Americans.

Passenger rail has always been a losing proposition; the money is in freight.  But until the late 20th Century, as the price of using public assets—tracks, switches, signals and the rest—freight railroad companies were required to carry passengers at a loss.  Then somehow this social compact broke down.  Both railroads and their regulators started talking as if railroading were an ordinary commercial enterprise instead of a public utility.  Ordinary for-profits aren’t expected to maintain business lines at a loss.  Indeed, to the extent they do so, they’re considered incompetent.  So the people making money from national railroad facilities were able to persuade Congress that they shouldn’t have to bother maintaining passenger service.  In other words, the railroads figured out how to shift their burden—what had been a simple cost of doing business—to the public.  Voila: Amtrak.

Independent passenger rail was bound to be a financial failure, and it was.  So year after year after year Congress has complained about Amtrak’s losses and tried to reduce them by shrinking the system until by now it’s small enough to drown in the proverbial bathtub.  Little-noticed along the way is the fact that many of the jobs being lost belong to black people.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first black-led union recognized by the AFL, and probably the most powerful union dominated by African-Americans in the United States.   Much of the foundation of the black middle class was laid on the decent wages and benefits and pensions fought for and won by that union.  So whatever hurts Amtrak—and these days, pretty much everything does—also hurts the African-American community.

Now connect the dots to the Postal Service.  Mail, like rail, is a public utility.   (If you doubt that, take a look at the Constitution, where the Post Office rates a specific mention.)  A group of companies—the mailing houses and catalog producers—get to use this public utility to make a private profit, and they’re doing very well by that arrangement.

Once again, though, the price they were supposed to be paying for this benefit was to subsidize service to individuals.  So once again, someone re-conceived this public utility as an independent corporation subject only to the iron law of profit and loss.  Now the profitable commercial service can  continue on its merry way while the money-losing public service is forced to resort to the kind of cuts which predict—if they don’t actually cause—an imminent visit to the scrapheap (or bathtub).

And once again, an outsized group of the fired employees are African-Americans, because the Post Office was an equal opportunity employer before the phrase had even been coined.  So right in the middle of the Great Recession another pillar of the black middle class is knocked down.

There is an alternative to the current flood of crocodile tears over the death of written communication.  We could return to the social compact that regarded mail service—and rail service, for that matter—as something to be paid for by the people who benefit from it most.  That doesn’t mean those of us who receive an occasional Saturday letter, or sometimes take the Metroliner—it means the freight shippers.  In the case of the Post Office, at least, the public has been subsidizing them instead of the other way around.  End that particular piece of corporate welfare and see how many post offices can suddenly re-open.

Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that these two agencies, staffed by black workers, have been asked to do the impossible and then punished for failing to manage it.  But coincidences of this kind—which permit imposition of exceptional harm on one group provided the primary purpose of the harm is making money—are precisely what is meant by the term “institutional racism.”

It isn’t too late to remember that rail and mail are public utilities and to govern them accordingly.  Otherwise, we’re just echoing the words of an earlier Gilded Age, spoken by a railway man as he was cancelling a mail train: “The public be damned!”

Bon anniversaire, Mademoiselle Liberté, et reste la très bienvenue

125 years old, still young and still hot. I love her.  I love where she stands, I love her crown of radiant wisdom and her torch and her book of laws, I love Miss Lazarus’ poem, I love that she’s an excellent sculpture on her own terms.  I love that you can buy bronze paperweights of her, and that she’s so familiar she can figure in cartoons and movies, in parts or in whole. I love that we fixed her up for another century (Bartholdi did a good job, but he (and Eiffel) didn’t know enough about electrolytic corrosion when you rivet copper onto a steel frame). I love the French for thinking the American experiment was their project, too.

Among the liberties she recalls today is freedom from broken bodies, ruined lungs, blindness, and the poverty industrial disability used to assure.  Here is where she was made: a filthy, smoky hell worse than any of Piranesi’s dungeons: not a pair of goggles or steel-toed shoes in sight, and just walking across the floor could break your leg. Every breath put asbestos in your lungs. Imagine the noise: this was a metalsmithing factory with everyone banging on sheet metal with a hammer.  Going up on the scaffold? Safety harness…what are you talking about?  Just try not to break any equipment when you land; you, we can replace tomorrow.

That’s where everything was made back then.  When she was restored in 1986, things were very different: for example, the workers had protection from Eiffel’s asbestos .  Save a thought for OSHA, child labor laws, Social Security Disability insurance, and the unions who made it safe to go to work in the morning and make stuff for us.

Why is MALDEF Honoring Walmart?

The other day I received an invitation from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) for its annual fundraising dinner in Los Angeles.  But what struck my eye was the icon in the middle of the invitation: “Walmart: Gala Chair.”

Let’s be clear what it means to be a gala chair: it’s essentially something of an honor in exchange for a contribution.  For Walmart, it means that they get the public relations benefits of being a MALDEF supporter; MALDEF, of course, gets the check.  All of this is good and mutually beneficial.

Except that, as is well known, Walmart has one of themost egregious employment records of any large American company.  It underpays its workers, and sometimes doesn’t even pay them at all.  As Harold Meyerson documented in a superb article last year, Walmart helps run a collection of warehouses where the workers suffer in terrible conditions.  Oh, and most of those workers are Latino.

Every nonprofit has to deal with a fundamental problem: advancing the organization’s mission and preserving the organization itself do not always dovetail.  Compromises have to be made.  When I was a board president of a legal service organization in East Los Angeles, we received decent-sized grant from Altria, the new name of Philip Morris.  No one likes tobacco companies, but if we didn’t take the grant, we would have been forced to lay off two lawyers and close down an effective program.  We took the money.

But this is different.  It’s one think to take some money: it’s quite another to honor the organization and place it high in your promotional materials.  And Walmart isn’t just another company: it’s the world’s largest retailer, with gross receipts in excess of many countries’ GDP, which is at the heart of an American business structure actively seeking to undermine workers’ rights and eviscerate middle class jobs.  This is a compromise too far.  It attacks the very constituencies that MALDEF claims to be working for.

I often wonder about why the nations’ progressive movement is so weak, especially in comparison to the Right.  There are many reasons, of course, but perhaps one of them is the inability of organizations to work together in coalition, to not take the easy way out if it would mean undermining their coalition partners.  My contacts at the AFL-CIO and Change To Win told me that neither organization was even aware of this, much less being able to voice their opinions when it was being considered.  In and of itself, MALDEF’s poor choice isn’t the cause of the Right’s ascendancy, but it does show that sometimes the biggest obstacle to progressive change are some alleged progressive organizations.

We raised the debt ceiling. The cracks in the floor remain unrepaired.

Some thoughts for Labor Day.

I thought President Obama did a beautiful job in this speech today. He showed some fight. He needs to.

Oh yeah. Here is my op-ed about Chicago’s economic challenges in today’s New York Times. I interviewed Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others. A little excerpt:

[Jackson] had choice words for banks and for Tea Partiers, whom he called “kamikaze zealots.” His bluntness is jarring. National politicians don’t talk like that.

Maybe they should. Mr. Jackson brings an urgency, an identification with struggling people that is otherwise lacking…. Lambasting the debt ceiling agreement, he said: “They’ll raise the roof, but the cracks in the floor will go unrepaired.”

On Wisconsin!

On Tuesday I’ll drive from Chicago up to Sauk City, Wisconsin, to do voter protection, that is, pollwatching while holding a law degree.  Wisconsin historically has offered exceptionally inclusive voter access, including in-precinct same-day registration.  But one of the many delightful consequences of the Republican takeover of the state is a photo-i.d. law which isn’t supposed to take effect til the first of the year but is unclear enough to make for messy election days–precisely what the sponsors intended.  So I’ll go up there and do what I can to make sure everybody can vote, and hope that the selfsame “everybody” will throw the anti-collective-bargaining rascals out.

(Last weekend at the Bughouse Square debates–the Newberry Library’s annual effort to restore the fine art of soapbox speaking–the central topic was public-sector collective bargaining.   The young man speaking in opposition wore a Solidarity t-shirt as he argued that “public employee collective bargaining inserts needless conflict between citizen and citizen.”  Does he realize that Solidarity was a public-sector union?)

I’m going to Wisconsin because it’s a political situation about which I can do something–contra the whole debt-ceiling mess, about which I can do absolutely nothing.  I disagree with my colleagues on the left who think the President got backed into a corner on the debt ceiling because he’s weak.  He got backed into a corner because he’s actually trying to govern and the people he’s dealing with are not.

When the President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, skeptics wondered what he could possibly have done to deserve it.  It seemed pretty straightforward to me: his election meant the restoration of constitutional government in the world’s only superpower.  What could be more essential to peace?

Unfortunately, the Constitution had been damaged more than most of us realized, and merely electing a President didn’t guarantee its restoration–not when anti-government idealogues control the legislature and the judiciary.   All the finger-pointing on the left ignores the extent to which the right is engaging in the deliberate destruction of our governmental system.

The idea that people who hate government are controlling ours is actually more frightening than the notion that the President somehow betrayed us by averting a default.  The scary thing is, he did as much as he could.

May Day Mayday

This semester I laid on a freshman seminar about Art and Despair, partly because I was already offering Arts and Cultural Policy,  partly because Cal had set up a program to encourage freshman seminars about art and promised Oakleys for any art event on campus.  And partly because at that point in the fall I was particularly uncertain about how to present policy analysis to my students with a straight face as something that could make a difference, or had any relevance, in a world where something aggressively mindless, ugly, and terrifying was slouching towards the ballot box to be born, and a corrosive slime was steadily leaking out of Fox and coating what we used to call public deliberation.

At that time a song popped into my head, which I was unable to put aside.  I hummed it, played on the piano, and listened to it, for example here.  This had ambivalent results. On the one hand, I was further despondent reflecting on the loss occasioned by Wunderlich’s early death falling down a flight of stairs, then by all the other blighted and shortened young lives spent in war and lost by neglect.  But the song is a hymn, the content is neither sappy nor dishonest (Schubert, another life truncated by neglect, paid real dues), and my realist, skeptical intention not to fall for a cheap sentimental anodyne was overcome by the art. A world that has music is worth pushing a pretty big rock uphill for.

“Something is going on here”, I thought.  Continue reading “May Day Mayday”

Unilateral Disarmament in the Class War

What’s worse? That the Right has been waging class war on working Americans for three decades? Or that progressives haven’t even been aware of it?

Some outrage in Blue Blogistan about a proposed law from House Republicans that would deny union members and their families of Food Stamp benefits if they are on strike.  Chait notes that “obviously the intent here is to increase the bargaining power of management vis a vis its workforce by increasing the threat of severe deprivation to anybody contemplating a labor strike. I don’t believe these members of Congress actually sought to punish the spouses and children of striking workers, but when you’re waging class war, collateral damage is inevitable.”

Very true.  Well, guess what?  The joke’s on us because this horrid bill is current law. 7 U.S.C. sec. 415(d)(3) reads:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a household shall not participate in the supplemental nutrition assistance program at any time that any member of such household, not exempt from the work registration requirements of paragraph (1) of this subsection, is on strike as defined in section 142(2) of Title 29, because of a labor dispute (other than a lockout) as defined in section 152(9) of Title 29: Provided, That a household shall not lose its eligibility to participate in the supplemental nutrition assistance program as a result of one of its members going on strike if the household was eligible immediately prior to such strike, however, such household shall not receive an increased allotment as the result of a decrease in the income of the striking member or members of the household: Provided further, That such ineligibility shall not apply to any household that does not contain a member on strike, if any of its members refuses to accept employment at a plant or site because of a strike or lockout.

This provision, according to my colleague Noah Zatz (who specializes in employment law and public benefits law) was put in by the Reagan Administration in 1981.  In other words, the provision that progressives are screaming about now has been the law for nearly thirty years now.  And no one has seen fit to do anything about it.  (Food Stamps is now called the “supplemental nutrition assistance program” so it’s the same program).

This reveals two points:

1)  There is nothing in current Republican policy that really diverges from Reaganism.  The entire push of the American Right since Reagan has been to crush labor in particular and working Americans in general.  This is just working out of the general program.

2)  It says something quite pathetic about the state of progressive America that none of us seemed to know anything about this, and that promoting the rights of working people has been pushed so far to the background that we can’t even see a lot of its most pernicious manifestations.

What’s worse?  That the Right has declared class war on working Americans?  Or that progressives haven’t even been aware of it?