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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Broken Promise of ‘Brown v. Board of Ed.,’ Sixty Years Later

Sixtieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision

Students, parents and educators rally at the Supreme Court on May 13, 2014 for the sixtieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. (AP Photo)

The Climax of an Era”—so declared The Nation’s headline marking the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, handed down sixty years ago this Saturday. For the few progressives left in those dark times, the Warren Court’s unanimous decision declaring “separate but equal” public facilities unconstitutional was “a fine antidote to the blight of McCarthyism and kindred fevers,” observed Carey McWilliams, soon to become The Nation’s editor.

More promising than the Court’s decision itself, McWilliams continued, was the widespread approval it garnered in a nation whose army had only been desegregated less than six years earlier. That overwhelming response, he argued, should be taken as support for liberalizing federal policy further: “For it demonstrates once again the measure of unity and confidence and pride that can be aroused whenever unqualified expression is given to the individual and social values to be found in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Fortunately we continue to redeem, often after costly delays and protestations, the promises to which we are committed by history and tradition and, we can now add, by current conviction.”

Sadly, as we know, those delays and protestations continued. In many ways they became even costlier as the civil rights movement zeroed in on the more institutionalized—and, therefore, less easily subverted—barriers to equality that had been erected in the course of hundreds of years of slavery and racial oppression. For The Nation, anniversaries of the Brown v. Board of Education decision have always served as opportunities to reflect on how much has been promised, how much delivered, how much still owed.

In 1974, the American historian John Caughey called Brown “the noblest and most influential judicial decision of the century.”

Brown drove Jim Crow from the drinking fountain, the waiting room, the lunch counter, the rest room, the elevator, the bus, the motel, the voting booth, the employment office, the salesroom, the public playground and the graveyard. That is not to say that racism has been extirpated. But all underpinning of government support has been withdrawn from almost every category of segregation or discrimination by race.

Caughey also noted the sad irony that, after much resistance, the South ultimately consented to school desegregation, while supposedly more enlightened parts of the country continued to resist:

Today, the prime concentrations of black children assigned to segregated schools are to be found in the Northern and Western cities. It is, furthermore, in these communities and on the school issue that the one great exception to the “Browning” of America is to be found. Here the order of the Supreme Court is evaded and resisted, usually under such slogans as local control or opposition to bussing, but with the anomaly that the one governmental body in town that still imposes and enforces segregation is the school system.

In 1994, The Nation headlined its fortieth-anniversary issue on BrownBroken Promise,” arguing in an editorial that “to attribute today’s segregation and inequality to the broad economic trends that over decades have devastated and isolated the nation’s cities” was “to ignore the dimensions of politics and racism.”

Years before she became a Nation columnist, Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams wrote an essay for that issue about meeting and talking to the surviving members of the family of the late Oliver Brown, who sued on behalf of his daughter, Linda.

Have you been disappointed by the years since 1954? I asked Mrs. Leola Brown Montgomery [Oliver’s widow]. Of course, she said. And then added, “But I don’t think that anybody anticipated the country’s response. The attorneys, the parents, we didn’t really understand the insidious nature of discrimination and to what lengths people would go to not share educational resources: leaving neighborhoods en masse because African-American children could now go to the school in your neighborhood. Not offering the same kinds of programs, or offering a lesser educational program in the same school—I don’t think anybody anticipated what we’ve ended up with…But we’re currently still in the midst of the country’s response, in my opinion.”

Brown was a case, Williams wrote, “that shaped my life’s possibilities, a case that, like a stone monument, stands for just about all the racial struggles with which this country still grapples.”

Perhaps the legacy of Brown is as much tied up with this sense of national imagination as with the pure fact of its legal victory; it sparkled in our heads, it fired our vision of what was possible. Legally it set in motion battles over inclusion, participation and reallocation of resources that are very far from resolved. But in a larger sense it committed us to a conversation about race in which all of us must join—particularly in view of a new rising Global Right.

The fact that this conversation has fallen on hard times is no reason to abandon what has been accomplished. The word games by which the civil rights movement has been stymied—in which “inner city” and “underclass” and “suspect profile” are racial code words, in which “integration” means “assimilation as white,” in which black culture means “tribalism,” in which affirmative active has been made out to be the exact equivalent of quota systems that discrimination against Jews—these are all dimensions of the enormous snarl this nation has been unraveling, in waves of euphoria and despairs, since the Emancipation Proclamation…

We remain charged with the task of getting beyond the stage of halting encounters filled with the superficial temptations of those “my maid says blacks are happy” or “whites are devils” moments. If we could press on to an accounting of the devastating legacy of slavery that lives on as a social crisis that needs generations more of us working to repair—if we could just get to the enormity of that unhappy acknowledgment, then that alone might be the paradoxical source of a genuinely revivifying, rather than a false, optimism.

* * *

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On fiftieth anniversary of Brown, in 2004, The Nation published essays by Michael Klarman, Claude M. Steele, and David Garrow, among others, as well as a forum, “Beyond Black, White and Brown,” edited by Eric Foner and Randall Kennedy, reflecting on the legacy of the decision and “the prospects for future change.” Much of what the contributors wrote remains relevant and true today—perhaps only more so.

Pedro Noguera and Robert Cohen: The de facto segregation of so many of our nation’s schools I no longer an issue that generates conflict and controversy. Like the growing prison population and homelessness, racial segregation is accepted as a permanent feature of life in America. Across the country, schools are segregated in terms of race and class, and as was true before Brown, the vast majority of poor children are relegated to an inferior education.

Frank H. Wu: Supporters of affirmative action invoke the spirit of Brown; opponents of the programs complain that there is no comparison to be made. Yet if Brown is to stand for something, ought it not at least to stand for the proposition that, if we believe we must have institutions that are inclusive, we also should take action to insure that they are so?

Asa Hilliard III: In the absence of a real understanding of the structure of domination, some of the worst elements of segregation have returned, in new guises. Tracking is less visible, but it persists. Today’s scripted, standardized, cookie-cutter, minimum-competency managed instruction, sometimes by private contractors, with severely reduced parent and community involvement, is offered mainly in low-income minority cultural group schools. Affluent public or private schools rarely if ever use the scripted, non-intellectual robotic programs. This is the new segregation.

Jacquelyn D. Hall: We now face a situation in which the federal courts are preventing local communities from pursuing race-conscious policies, while segregated housing remains deeply entrenched. The result will be two school systems: one filled with nonwhite children from low-income families and one with middle-class children, most of whom are white, along with our most qualified teachers.

We cannot address this crisis by commemorating the Brown decision in the register either of triumph or declension. Instead, we must grapple with the long civil rights movement as an unfinished revolution whose gains are once again being partially reversed. The culprit now, as in the past, is not just overt racism but public policies that are ostensibly colorblind, yet deliberately shape the landscape of race. We need stories that dramatize the hidden reality, stories that have no satisfying upward or downward arc, stories that call us to a struggle whose end is still not in sight.

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This will be the final installment of “This Week in ‘Nation’ History.” A new archives blog will appear at TheNation.com tomorrow, titled “Back Issues,” which will highlight past articles from The Nation relevant to current topics of the day or of independent interest. As the oldest weekly magazine in the Western hemisphere, there is little that has escaped our notice. Curious how we covered something? Richard Kreitner, the editor of “Back Issues,” will be soliciting readers’ requests: write to him at rkreitner@thenation.com.

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Ukraine Needs Russia and the West

John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands after a meeting at the United Nations, September 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Violence in Ukraine is spreading. The Ukrainian military and police are splitting apart, a reflection of the fissures in that deeply divided country. Pro-Russian separatists are taking over government buildings and police stations in eastern Ukraine. Pro-government mobs have burned protesters alive. The referenda on self-rule cobbled together by pro-Russian movements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions deepens the divisions. Zealots on both sides could drive the country into a bloody and destructive civil war.

The United States has no direct national security interests at stake in Ukraine, but we do have an interest in a united and functional Ukraine that has stable relations with its European Union neighbors to the west and with Russia to the east. And the United States surely wants to forestall a crisis that could disintegrate into civil war, economic collapse and chaos, possibly destabilizing a weak European economy.

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But if the United States is to help stabilize Ukraine and prevent a much larger European crisis, then the American political establishment and much of the mainstream media will need a sober reassessment of reality.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

No More Tale of Two Cities? How de Blasio’s 2015 Budget Could Make New York More Equal

Mayor de Blasio

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio with former Obama advisor David Axlerod and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, March, 6, 2014 (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

“Budgets are not just a collection of numbers, they are not just an accounting document,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio when he revealed his FY 2015 budget last week. “They reflect fundamental values.” A municipal budget, to trot out an old chestnut, is the way a society writ large votes with its dollars.

So we should be optimistic about de Blasio’s $74 billion plan, which, as New York Magazine explains, espouses “his consistent priorities: education, housing, the homeless, and raises for municipal workers, all in service of combating income inequality.” The Times editorial board stodgily declares that “there is a lot to like in what Mr. de Blasio is proposing.” And Brent Budowsky of The Hill writes (under a headline non-ironically anointing the mayor as the “FDR of New York”), “[The budget] will be a standard for progressive experimentation and execution in the same way Roosevelt created a New Deal for America that not only survives today but also includes many brilliantly successful and popular policies, such as Social Security.” New York–area members of Congress are eagerly praising the budget, too.

Among the budget’s highlights is a $41 billion allocation, over the next ten years, to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. De Blasio says that this—”the largest, fastest” affordable-housing program ever attempted on a local level—will create around 194,000 construction jobs and 7,000 permanent jobs. The New York City Housing Authority will receive $70 million for repairs and security upgrades. An additional $14.4 million will go toward providing shelter for both homeless families and single homeless adults. Says Denise Miranda of the Urban Justice Center, “De Blasio ensures that no New Yorkers will have to choose between living in a mold-infested NYCHA apartment or being homeless.” (That any New Yorker ever did, of course, is a sad example of the city’s prior commitment to affordable housing.) And $17.75 billion will be used for settling outstanding contracts with the city’s labor unions. (In today’s antilabor climate, the fact that “union” isn’t a bad word in the de Blasio administration is a very big deal.)

De Blasio’s budget is a vital wake-up call to a city that saw gentrification and de facto segregation rise under Mayor Bloomberg’s watch, especially where housing is concerned. “Mayor de Blasio’s [housing] plan could help decelerate the seemingly irreversible social segregation that is plaguing New York,” writes Richard Eskow at the Campaign for America’s Future. “What happens if this plan isn’t carried out? Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn will increasingly become white, wealthy enclaves. Gentrification will drive lower-income families out of even the outermost boroughs. Service workers and other lower-earning workers could soon face commute times that rival those of apartheid-era South Africa. The rich cultural diversity that has been New York City’s hallmark will disappear, and the school desegregation called for in Brown v. Board of Education will become impossible to achieve.” It’s frightening indeed when New York City can see Johannesburg as a “peer” on desegregation.

In a related item, the budget calls for a twenty-five percent increase in public-library funding, further demonstrating the mayor’s commitment to providing cultural and educational opportunities across the city, and not just in its elite Midtown core.

Could we finally be leaving Mayor Bloomberg’s Gilded City behind? In the introduction to our special issue about the Gilded City last year, we quoted James Parrott, chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York, as saying, “New York City’s government is significant enough in its breadth…that the policy tools exist and the wherewithal exists to do something at the margins to lessen inequality.” De Blasio recognizes this. He also recognizes that he serves at the pleasure of the people—all 8.3 million of them—and that his mandate encompasses all of them.

A city in which white people, who make up 37 percent of the population, but earn 51 percent of the income—and where African-Americans and Latinos, who constitute 47 percent of the population, yet take home only 34 percent of the income—keeps its fingers crossed when it calls itself “great.” So does a city that, during the Bloomberg administration, denied shelter to record numbers of homeless individuals and families.

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As De Blasio’s term unfolds and as his budget takes actual shape, the city government will work provide both real and symbolic results for the people, an upgrade from too many years of relying solely on the symbolic. To see just how potent this new brand of progressivism has become, just look at the scene from the recent sixteenth birthday party of New York’s Working Families Party—which de Blasio helped found. In a speech, honoree Cynthia Nixon announced, “We’re at the beginning of a great progressive era in New York City… Bill de Blasio, [public advocate] Letitia James, [city council speaker] Melissa Mark-Viverito. That is a holy trinity if I ever heard of one. We’ve had so many victories lately, and I feel that if we keep working, we have so many more coming.”

It’s said that the ideas behind New Deal were invented, developed, and tested in New York City in the 1910s and ’20s before going national under FDR. Behind De Blasio and WFP’s “holy trinity,” perhaps the New New Deal can start here, too.

 

Read Next: Robert B. Reich: How to Shrink Inequality.

To Get Back at Russia, the GOP Is Playing Games With Nuclear Safety

A demonstrator mans a barricade in Kiev, February 21, 2014 (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

In a move that’s in equal measures frightening, foolhardy and dangerous, Senate Republicans, led by Bob Corker (TN), last week introduced the Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014. I’d say the world just became a little bit less safe, but that wouldn’t be accurate. The world just became a lot less safe.

Included in the bill’s Cold War–era rhetoric is a provision that puts a freeze on US participation in the New START Treaty, and one that limits overflights heretofore authorized by the Open Skies Treaty. It will also accelerate deployment of ballistic missile defenses in Europe. While this isn’t quite Dulles-style brinkmanship, it is entirely too close for comfort. Senator Corker and his allies have needlessly pushed us that much closer to an armed conflagration.

Bilateral reduction of nuclear arms is not an acceptable bargaining chip in this situation. The US nuclear arsenal endangers Americans as much as it does Russians, and this petty nuke-rattling by Corker’s war party puts the entire world at risk. Explains Corker without even a hint of self-awareness, “We need to inflict more direct consequences on Russia prior to Vladimir Putin taking additional steps that will be very difficult to undo.” Threatening to “inflict direct consequences,” especially where nuclear disarmament is concerned, is chilling. The mutual reduction of nuclear weapons that New START Treaty calls for is not, as the All Souls Nuclear Disarmament Task Force puts it, “a favor which the U.S. is doing for Russia; it is in the self-interest of both parties (and the rest of humanity).”

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It’s ludicrous to think that we “defend peace,” as Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) claims the bill does, by ratcheting up military tension—especially nuclear tension. Our nuclear-disarmament agreements, like the New START Treaty, are fragile enough as it is. It is also folly to take Senator John McCain’s (predictably) belligerent stance that the only way to get anywhere with Vladimir Putin is with increasing—and increasingly military—aggression. We’ve held the entire world’s population captive by playing nuclear chicken before; to engage in such a strategy again is beyond reckless. The Cold War is over; we must use diplomacy, not short-sighted chest-thumping to resolve this crisis.

Let’s de-escalate and defuse this situation with rational thought and an appropriate dose of wariness (and awareness) before we start counting and aiming our weapons. Let’s follow the lead of OSCE, which is responding to the Ukraine situation with “high-level diplomacy and multilateral dialogue” on one end, to “monitoring, fact-finding and military visits” on the other. There are nuclear weapons involved here; we won’t be able to shoot first and ask questions later.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen: Cold War against Russia—without debate.

Healing the Rot at the Heart of the Criminal Justice System

(Reuters)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

At 6:23 pm last Tuesday, as many Americans sat down to eat dinner, Clayton Lockett lay down to die. More accurately, an Oklahoma prison official strapped him to a gurney, sedated him and then injected him in the groin with an untested mix of two more drugs—one to stop his breathing, the other to stop his heart.

Quickly, it became clear that the coldly clinical execution—what the head of the Oklahoma American Civil Liberties Union called “a human science experiment”—had gone horribly awry. At 6:36 pm, despite Lockett’s being pronounced unconscious, his head lifted off the bed. He began moving and mumbling. At 6:39, convulsing, he uttered the words, “Oh, man.” By the time the director of prisons announced that there had been a vein failure and issued a stay of execution, it was too late. At 7:06 pm, Lockett suffered a massive heart attack and breathed his last—forty-three excruciating minutes after the execution began.

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While Lockett was undoubtedly guilty of heinously raping a young woman and shooting and burying alive another, his state-administered death—just the latest in a horrific series of botched executions—serves as a stark reminder that the death penalty has been a moral, economic and practical failure. According to a new study, one in every twenty-five people sentenced to death between 1973 and 2004around 300 people—was likely innocent. Many of these wrongful convictions stem from a well-documented racial bias in the criminal justice system—55 percent of death row inmates are black or Hispanic, and those who kill whites are far more likely to receive the death penalty than killers whose victims are black. Keeping the country’s 3,000-plus inmates on death row costs us billions—California alone spends $184 million annually on capital punishment—all for a system that experts agree has never been proven to be a successful deterrent.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

The Most Popular Tax in History Has Real Momentum

Robin Hood Tax

A demonstraton in London in support of a Robin Hood Tax. (Reuters/Andrew Winning)

The European Financial Transaction (a k a Robin Hood) tax scored a big legal victory on April 30, when a challenge regarding the legality of the tax brought by the British government was thrown out by the European Court of Justice. The ECJ has struck a serious blow for fairness, as the dismissal essentially chastises the British government for championing the interests of the UK’s financial industry over those of its citizens. David Hillman, spokesperson for the Robin Hood campaign, told The Guardian, “This futile legal challenge tells you all you need to know about the government’s misguided priorities: it would rather defend a privileged elite in the City than support a tax that could raise billions to tackle poverty and protect public services.”

What’s more, these “misguided priorities” of David Cameron’s government became all the more apparent last Friday, when an analysis of the Bank of England’s £375 billion stimulus program determined that those public funds, according to the International Business Times, “[have] made the wealthiest 5% even richer, worsened the economic recovery, made pension pots smaller, failed to stimulate business investment, and given a bonus to financial services.” To recap, then, Britain’s response to the financial crisis has included flogging for the finance industry at the ECJ and giving them a £375 billion gift from the public coffers—what one analyst actually calls a “Robin Hood tax in reverse.”

In this environment, then, the real, non-reversed Robin Hood tax has serious momentum within Europe, just as the eleven-nation coalition behind it is expected to make an important announcement about the first phase of the tax on May 5 or 6. The proposed tax includes a 0.1 percent tax on stock and bond trades and a tax of 0.01 percent on derivatives. It’s now expected that the tax will indeed be phased in, with the levy on stock-trades comprising the first step. Reportedly, the finance ministers involved in the negotiations plan to use the rest of the year to negotiate over taxes on derivative-trading, which could be introduced later in a second phase. While the German government is reportedly determined to get an agreement from the outset to include derivatives, there has been some resistance, including from the supposedly more left-wing French government.

The Robin Hood Tax is, as European FTT campaigners say, the “most popular tax in history,” and such high regard—even for something as seemingly unromantic as a 0.1 percent tax—isn’t difficult to understand: FTT revenue can be used to create jobs; spur economic development beyond the financial industry; and combat climate change, global poverty and HIV/AIDS. One measure of the tax’s popularity is that this week’s announcement about the FTT’s first phase has been scheduled to occur during the lead-up to the European Parliament elections of May 22–25, and support for the tax is expected to be a major vote-getter. Not exactly an American-election-style “October Surprise” to be sure, but certainly a signal to candidates: Robin Hood matters to European citizens. You can lend your name to the movement, too, by signing the “1 Million Strong” petition.

Even if this week’s announcement isn’t everything campaigners have been hoping for, the announcement itself will send a strong signal that the European FTT—despite the UK’s legal challenge, despite a strong backlash from the financial industry, and despite concerns from the US Treasury Department about possible impacts on US investors—is moving ahead. We’re seeing more and more popular, judicial, and—increasingly—legislative support for the tax in Europe.

This kind of visible success should boost efforts to build support for such a tax in this country, currently represented by Representative Keith Ellison’s (D-MN) Inclusive Prosperity Act. While the Obama administration has not yet supported the idea, there is increased openness in the Treasury Department to at least take a closer look at a FTT as one possible remedy for high-frequency trading (which happens to be the subject to Michael Lewis’s latest best-selling book, Flash Boys).

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Thanks in part to Lewis, there’s increasing awareness of how these high-speed/high-frequency traders are rigging American markets in their favor. (Lewis writes, “…[I]f a single Wall Street bank were to exploit the countless minuscule discrepancies in price between Thing A in Chicago and Thing A in New York, they’d make profits of $20 billion a year.” And obviously, as Flash Boys illustrates, that exploitation of those countless minuscule discrepancies is only available to a handful of deep-pocketed outfits with access to certain blazing-fast fiber-optic cable lines, effectively reducing much of the stock market down to a few guys in a black box making 10,000 trades per second. “It is hard to see the benefit to society as a whole of enabling such trades,” muses The New York Times’s Floyd Norris in a discussion of the book.)

But as Sheila Bair, former head of FDIC, has put it, an FTT “would penalize those who destabilize our markets with rapid fire trading, while rewarding those who invest for the long term.”

In the City of London and on Wall Street, the price of doing business should be paid by, well, those doing business. We pay a steep opportunity cost—”dead weight loss,” as Robert J. Barbera of the Center for Financial Economics at Johns Hopkins puts it—when we give the finance industry free reign to make money by any means necessary, even if it destroys the economy for the rest of us. They’re on the right track in Europe; here in the US, we need to join them.

Read Next: Alissa Quart: “Who Takes Care of the Nanny’s Kids?.”

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Here’s What John Steinbeck Would Have Thought of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

It is so important, when advocating for social justice, to have the right enemies. It’s a lesson the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have taken to heart, as The Nation’s Lee Fang shows in next week’s issue. Like other alt-labor organizations, the CiW—which has made impressive and promising gains in securing for Florida’s tomato pickers higher wages, safer working conditions, and freedom from sexual, physical and verbal harassment—has been hassled by shadowy operatives and right-wing front organizations funded by the very industry it is trying to reform. Last fall, the spokesperson for an anti-worker group showed up at a CiW rally with a man hoisting a Soviet flag in front of the Immokalee activists, as the spokesperson took pictures. Similarly, as Fang writes, “Picking fights with restaurant workers has been good business for out of work Republican operatives.”

The fight to win decent and humane treatment for farmworkers in the United States is one that, until recently, had made scandalously little progress in the seventy-five years since it first became a topic of national conversation with the publication of John Steinbeck’s novels during the Depression. In 1936, the same year he published In Dubious Battle—about radical activists trying to organize fruit pickers in California—Steinbeck wrote an essay for The Nation in which he described the dire situation faced by Dust Bowl migrants looking for work in California’s fields and directly identified the parties responsible.

There are in California…two distinct classes of farmers widely separated in standard of living, desires, needs, and sympathies: the very small farmer who more often than not takes the side of the workers in disputes, and the speculative farmer, like A.J. Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, or like Herbert Hoover and William Randolph Hearst, absentee owners who possess huge sections of land…. These two classes have little or no common ground; while the small farmer is likely to belong to the grange, the speculative farmer belongs to some such organization as the Associated Farmers of California, which is closely tied to the state Chamber of Commerce. This group has as its major activity resistance to any attempt of farm labor to organize. Its avowed purpose has been the distribution of news reports and leaflets tending to show that every attempt to organize agricultural workers was the work of red agitators and that every organization was Communist inspired.

Some of Steinbeck’s essay can be read as a précis for The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. The following passage could be a description of the Joads.

Let us see what the emigrants from the dust bowl find when they arrive in California. The ranks of permanent and settled labor are filled. In most cases all resources have been spent in making the trip from the dust bowl. Unlike the Chinese and the Filipinos, the men rarely come alone. They bring wives and children, now and then a few chickens and their pitiful household goods, though in most cases these have been sold to buy gasoline for the trip. It is quite usual for a man, his wife, and from three to eight children to arrive in California with no possessions but the rattletrap car they travel in and the ragged clothes on their bodies. They often lack bedding and cooking utensils.…

It is fervently to be hoped that the great group of migrant workers so necessary to the harvesting of California’s crops may be given the right to live decently, that they may not be so badgered, tormented, and hurt that in the end they become avengers of the hundreds of thousands who have been tortured and starved before them.

It is interesting to note that Steinbeck’s essay came a few months after Mary McCarthy’s scathing review of In Dubious Battle, from the March 11, 1936, issue of The Nation. She called the novel “academic, wooden, inert…. Mr. Steinbeck, for all his long and frequently pompous verbal exchanges, offers only a few, rather childish, often reiterated generalizations.”

* * *

Of course, the closest farmworkers in the United States came to genuine progress was the movement led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, which first achieved national prominence in the mid-1960s. It was neither a perfect nor an especially successful movement; as Marshall Ganz recently wrote at TheNation.com: “California farm workers today are in even worse shape than when Cesar’s struggle began. There is no union to speak of any more, nor has there been for years.” Nonetheless, Ganz adds, “The significance of the farm worker movement was quite real for a period of some fifteen years, enhanced by its role as a crucible for training a new generation of organizers who contributed to the progressive movement more broadly, and, in particular, as a spark for the broader Chicano movement.”

In 1978, the UFW initiated a campaign to convince the University of California to set aside for the farmworkers a portion of its research funding devoted to agricultural mechanization, arguing that the university and the state had a responsibility to help out the workers whose lives would be upended by increased automation. In “The Farm Workers’ Next Battle,” in the March 25, 1978 issue of The Nation, Chavez explained his thinking:

History will judge societies and governments—and their institutions—not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and powerful but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and helpless.

In our boycotts, we always assumed that supermarkets and other corporations must take seriously the needs of society, and especially the needs of the poor, even though they are answerable only to their stockholders for the profits that they earn. We often asked, if individuals and organizations did not respond to poor people who are trying to bring about change by nonviolent means, then what kind of democratic society would we become? And some corporations did respond by joining with millions of Americans in honoring the farm workers’ boycotts.

If corporations and other social institutions can recognize their moral responsibility, how much more should we expect from a great university that is supported by all the taxpayers, including the farm workers, particularly when that university is a direct cause of hardship and misery for the poorest of the poor in our society? It is appropriate for the people to expect that an institution responsible for educating their children will be an example to the young by demonstrating through its policies and deeds its commitment to a just and peaceful world. How can the university teach justice and respect for the freedom and dignity of all people when it practices the opposite with its money and its people by refusing to live up to its own moral and social obligations?

* * *

In a more recent example of The Nation’s coverage of the farmworkers struggle, former Nation poverty correspondent Greg Kaufmann profiled the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—first discussed in The Nation by Mica Rosenberg, a former intern now at Reuters, in “The Trouble With Tomatoes” (April 1, 2002). In his article on “How to Build an Anti-Poverty Movement, From the Grassroots Up,” from this past February, Kauffman wrote:

If you want to see what is possible through grassroots organizing by those who are most affected by poverty—or what it means to set a seemingly unreachable goal and persevere, or understand your opposition and find new ways to challenge it—look no further than the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

When the CIW was founded in 1993, it was as a small group of tomato farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, trying to end a twenty-year decline in their poverty wages. Who is historically more powerless than farmworkers? Yet today, most major buyers of Florida tomatoes have signed agreements with the CIW to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes. These agreements have resulted in over $11 million in additional earnings for the workers since January 2011.

In addition, through its Fair Food Program, the CIW has persuaded corporate buyers to purchase tomatoes only from growers who sign a strict code of conduct that includes zero tolerance for forced labor or sexual assault. As a result, the majority of growers (those accounting for 90 percent of the tomato industry’s $650 million in revenue) have agreed to that code. If major violations occur but don’t get corrected—and there’s a twenty-four-hour hotline for worker complaints—corporations will not buy from those growers.

The Fair Food Program serves as a new model of social responsibility, and its influence is clear in the recently signed agreement between retailers and factory owners in the Bangladesh garment industry. Follow the CIW not only to get involved with farmworkers but for a sense of what can be achieved through strategic, fearless organizing.

In the roughly seventy-five years since farmworkers began organizing for their rights, the nature and tactics of the opposition have, in their essentials, never changed. Neither should the determination of the farmworkers’ friends. “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat,” Tom Joad promises his mother in The Grapes of Wrath, “I’ll be there.”

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

What Cliven Bundy Learned From the Koch Brothers

Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada, April 12, 2014 (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s fifteen minutes of fame are up. He was a Fox News poster boy when he refused to pay fees for grazing his cows on federal land and greeted federal rangers with the threat of armed resistance. But when he voiced his views on the joys of slavery for “the Negro,” his conservative champions fled from his side.

What is interesting about Bundy, however, is not his tired racism but rather his remarkable sense of entitlement. His cattle have fed off public lands for two decades while he refused to pay grazing fees that are much lower than those he would have to pay for private land (and lower even than the government’s costs). “I’ll be damned if this is the property of the United States,” he says, claiming he won’t do business with the federal government because the Constitution doesn’t prohibit Americans from using federal lands.

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As we’ve seen in recent years, this sense of entitlement pervades the privileged. Billionaire hedge fund operator Stephen Schwarzman feels so entitled to his obscene hedge fund tax dodge—the “carried interest” exemption—that he viewed Obama’s call to close the loophole as “a war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Tom Perkins, co-founder of venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, considers mere criticism of the wealthiest Americans akin to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Elizabeth Warren Wants to Give Students a Fighting Chance

Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the launch of Higher Ed Not Debt, March 2014. (Credit: Layla Zaidane, Generation Progress)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

As commencement season approaches, graduating students will soon hear words of wisdom from speakers offering experience, advice and inspiration. One thing they’re not likely to hear about is the $1.08 trillion elephant on the quad—our nation’s student debt crisis.

That is how much US households are estimated to owe in student loans, twice as much as in 2007. In fact, student debt now exceeds credit card debt, putting millions of families at risk of bankruptcy. Forty percent of households headed by someone under the age of thirty-five are saddled with student debt, unable to buy homes, raise families and secure their futures. This doesn’t just hold back individuals—it holds back our economic recovery. Meanwhile, Congress manufactures false debt crises instead of solving this very real one.

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Enter Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who intuitively understands the urgency and scale of the crisis. Indeed, Warren is not just a longtime student of bankruptcy in the United States, but someone who understands what it means for a family to be at risk of losing everything. As she writes in her new book, “A Fighting Chance,” out today, the rules are such that a sudden event—divorce, illness, unemployment—can pull the rug out from under anyone. “A turn here, a turn there, and my life might have been very different, too,” she writes.

Editor’s Note: Click below to listen to Elizabeth Warren read from the prologue to the audiobook version of A Fighting Chance.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Time to Return Earth Day to its Radical Origins

Earth Day 1970

Over 20,000 people attended the first Earth Day observance in Philadelphia, April, 1970. (AP Photo/Bill Ingraham)

Two years ago, Mark Hertsgaard argued in The Nation that “instead of rallying public pressure for far-reaching reforms, Earth Day is becoming, at least in the United States, a bland, tired ritual that polluters and politicians have learned to ignore or co-opt.” He proposed that an effort to “save Earth Day” should be focused on returning the day to its radical origins:

Frustrated by such cynicism, some environmentalists have called for abolishing Earth Day. But that would be throwing the baby out with the polluted bathwater. Instead, why not recall the real history of Earth Day and revive its original—and much more demanding—vision?

Little remembered today is the fact that even the first Earth Day itself, back in April 1970, occurred amidst vigorous internal debate among environmentalists as to whether it represented a genuinely promising burst of ecological consciousness or was merely a crafty diversion on the part of an establishment eager to redirect the energies of young activists away from the more pressing, more sensitive issues of race, poverty and the Vietnam War. In an April 6, 1970 article in The Nation, the Chicago-based journalist Raymond R. Coffey examined how students and professors active at the University of Michigan’s “teach-in on the environment” that March—the precursor to the first official Earth Day the following month—were deeply conflicted about how quickly mainstream politicians acted to co-opt their event.

Ecology has become a very important issue on campuses this season, and this teach-in was the forerunner—a kind of model—for thousands of college and high school colloquia to be held on April 22, dubbed “Earth Day” by the sponsors. The beleaguered environment is the kind of issue, some think, that might capture the idealistic spirit and the concern of young people as did the Peace Corps and Vietnam….

The attractiveness of environment as a political issue is fairly obvious. An uncompromising stand against dirty air and for clean water should win votes, and hardly hits the same mark on the controversy scale as does taking a strong position on Vietnam.

Coffey then quoted several Michigan students who noted that it was precisely the issue’s attractiveness to politicians which ought to given environmental advocates pause.

“I’m uneasy about why we’re here,” [James] Shapiro, a new hero of the New Left told the crowd of 15,000. “I think maybe we’re here to waste our time. I think some people want us to divert our energy…to forget there is a criminal war going on in Vietnam…to forget that 50 million people in a country that put a man on the moon don’t have enough to eat.” …

Barry Bluestone, a graduate student in economics and a veteran of political movements on the Michigan campus, told a reporter that he believes leaders in the political and industrial establishment are deliberately pushing the environment issue “to take some of the force out of the anti-war, anti-racism, anti-poverty issues.” And even [Douglas] Scott, the teach-in co-chairman who has been largely nonpolitical as a student, said many young people suspect their concerns are being diverted by the environment cause.

While conceding that “it was by any reckoning an extraordinary happening,” Coffey wrote that “some of the stunts—such as sledge-hammering an old automobile into junk after convicting it of pollution in a mock trial—seemed on about the level of panty raids, but panty raids with a conscience.” Yet he acknowledged that “much of the activity was a good deal more sophisticated than that.”

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The students’ incipient concerns with Earth Day were reflected twenty years later in a characteristically fiery but sobering essay by Kirkpatrick Sale, later a Nation contributing editor, titled “The Trouble With Earth Day.”

In general the environmental organizations in this country and the official agencies that have grown up in response to them have not, over the past two decades, gotten beyond the most elemental Where-does-it-hurt? questions; certainly they have not raised the deeper, subsequent questions or demanded the still deeper answers. Earth Day 1990, I regret to say, for all its ballyhoo and good intentions, has moved not one step out of that mire….

It is an operation—however well meaning, however many good people involved—that is, at its core, a shuck. For after telling us where it hurts, it gives us only the most simplistic sorts of remedies. Its first is personal “life-style” Band-Aids for hemorrhaging wounds and do-it-yourself surgery; its second is the nostrum of federal laws and regulations, providing the patient with more of the kind of cures that created the disease. And it never gets around to asking—much less proposing answers for—those fundamental questions this society must be forced to face: Who, really, is causing the degradation and destruction of the environment? How can they be stopped, and stopped short, not just “regulated” and “overseen” and reformed? Why has society allowed this to go on, to the point that all oxygen-dependent species, including humans, are imperiled, and why do we seem powerless to prevent it? What would it take to accomplish the serious, wrenching, full-scale readjustments that in fact are necessary to save the earth, including reduced standards of living, consumption and growth; severe population reduction; and a new, modest, regardful relationship with the earth and its species? Who is going to carry this literally vital message to the American people? And when? For the time, as every new crisis lets us know, is later than we think.

But importantly, Sale did not think Earth Day entirely without value, and his conclusions are as valid today, a quarter-century later, as they were in 1990.

However, I do not despair of Earth Day entirely. I belong to three organizations that will be taking part in activities of one kind or another in New York City; I will be participating in a couple of forums and giving a talk during Earth Week; and I will get up early on Sunday to travel out to the middle of Pennsylvania to give another talk on Earth Day itself. It is obviously a time when at least some part of the population will wish to hear messages about the earth, and they need not all be shallow and individualistic.

In short, we must make of Earth Day what we can. Many I know will take the opportunity to criticize it, in a friendly fashion, and to educate when and where they can. Many will regard it as an occasion to organize and recruit for one righteous cause or another. And many will treat it merely as day one of a campaign to carry on with the spirit of Earth Day (or their version of Earth Day) in a more concerted and farseeing way.

Whether in 1970, 1990, or 2014, the most important day to advocate for the Earth is not April 22nd—it’s April 23rd.

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

 Take Action: Stop Cove Point

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

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