Scott Shepherd on the Emmett Till Case

In this previous post, I discussed the Emmett Till murder case and specifically two key developments that took place in 2007. In that year, a Leflore County, Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Carolyn Bryant, the woman involved in the incident with Till that motivated the murder. In the aftermath of the grand jury’s action, the FBI released its report on the case, which, when looked at closely, raised serious questions about the grand jury’s decision.

A persistent mystery about the case is the question of exactly what happened when Emmett Till went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, where Carolyn Bryant was keeping store. It has been pretty well established that Till later whistled at Mrs. Bryant outside the store, but her claims that Till grabbed and propositioned her in the store have been utterly discredited, for reasons I discussed in the other post.

In June, journalist Gary Glennell Toms posted his interview with Scott Shepherd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and now an anti-racist activist. Shepherd is from Indianola, Mississippi, where he was close to relatives of Carolyn Bryant and others who knew her. (Shepherd’s parents were in the latter category.) Based on that background, he has some ideas about what may have happened in the Bryant store the day Emmett Till walked in.

Shepherd told Toms that it was “common knowledge” in the Indianola community that Carolyn Bryant had a “bad habit” of “flirting with young kids, young boys, and just about anybody that came into the store.” The interviewer followed up on that point.

Toms: Did this also include black boys?

Shepherd: Yes.

Toms also asked Shepherd about the 2007 grand jury decision. “This does not surprise me,” Shepherd said, “because this is the county that Byron de la Beckwith came from and was a prominent figure in, Leflore County.” In 1963, Beckwith murdered Medgar Evers, field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP and a leading civil rights activist. Beckwith was finally convicted of the murder in 1994 and died while serving a life sentence. “They did get [i.e. convict] Byron de la Beckwith in another county, in Jackson,” Shepherd noted.

Here is the full interview:

 

Advertisements

The Murder of Emmett Till

Racist violence has many defenders in America today. The cases of Michael Brown Jr. and Eric Garner prove that clearly enough. The grand-jury rulings in those cases reminded me of another grand jury that refused to return an indictment: the one in Mississippi in 2007 after the Emmett Till case was re-opened.

Only 14 years old in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered for offending a white woman. Two white men were charged, but were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. That injustice symbolized the evils of segregation and intensified support for the Civil Rights Movement.

The case was re-opened in 2004 by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the FBI investigation centered on the woman Till offended, Carolyn Bryant. When a Mississippi grand jury refused to indict Bryant in 2007, major media didn’t see any problem. The local prosecutor was African American and so were many grand jury members. What could be wrong?

I studied the FBI report and found some answers to that question. I wrote an article on the report for Razorcake magazine. When I offered the article to other magazine editors as a reprint or the basis for a follow-up assignment, no one was interested. (As you read this blog, you’ll find that to be a recurring theme.)

I have been planning to include a version of the article in a zine of my writings. Here is that version. I believe we should link the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice cases to the Emmett Till case. They show the persistence of racist evils and point to the need for modern-day justice.

Speaking of which, Carolyn Bryant is still alive and could be charged by a new grand jury. 

The FBI Report on the Murder of Emmett Till

Original version published by Razorcake, May 13, 2007

On March 30, the Federal Bureau of Investigation publicly released its 2006 report on the Emmett Till case. In 1955, Till, a black teenager from Chicago, went to Mississippi to visit relatives. During a trip to a store, he whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the store’s owner. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Bryant’s husband Roy and her brother-in-law J.W. Milam kidnapped Till. Emmett’s mangled body was found a few days later. A local jury acquitted J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant of murder, but the pair later acknowledged that they had slain the fourteen-year-old Till. The two admitted murderers are both dead, but evidence recently uncovered by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp indicated to federal authorities that there might have been other perpetrators who remained alive.

The U.S. Department of Justice re-opened the case in 2004. In 2006, the FBI passed its report on to the local district attorney, Joyce Chiles, and advised her to focus her investigation on Carolyn Bryant (by then remarried and going under her new husband’s name of Donham). In February 2007, a grand jury refused to return any indictment against Mrs. Bryant. The newly released FBI report offers the closest view yet of the case. Large portions of the document are blanked out, but the visible text reveals that the Bureau collected a great deal of evidence against Carolyn Bryant.

One of the goals for the unnamed agent(s) who wrote the report was to establish the time frame for the murder. Numerous witnesses stated that the whistling incident took place on August 24, 1955. On August 28, at approximately 2:30 a.m., Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam took Emmett Till from the home of his great uncle, Mose Wright, at gunpoint. Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River on August 31. Over the years, there has been much debate about the events that followed Emmett’s abduction.

A timeline entry in the report reveals a key part of the story:

Sunday – August 28, 1955 – Time Unknown, Early Morning: Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam and a man named Kimbrell brought Till to [name blanked out] at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi.”

Roy and Carolyn Bryant lived in rooms behind the storefront. The timeline states that Till was not murdered at the store, so the most likely explanation is that the kidnappers took him there to be identified by the woman he had offended. (Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were not in town on the day of Till’s confrontation with Carolyn Bryant.) The other available evidence confirms that interpretation. At the 1955 murder trial, both Sheriff George Smith and one of his deputies testified that Roy Bryant admitted taking Till to his wife at the store to verify that he was the one they sought.

Whether Carolyn Bryant identified Emmett Till is a crucial question. In 1955, Mississippi law defined manslaughter as “killing of a human being, by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another.” Camille Nelson, a Saint Louis University law professor and an expert on criminal law, explains the idea of culpable negligence: “The question is, would a similarly situated reasonable person have recognized what identifying Till could lead to? This ‘ought to have known’ test is central to establishing negligence.” So if Carolyn Bryant identified Till and knew (or should have known) that he might be killed as a result, that would be manslaughter. Nelson adds that, “at the very least, given the socio-political climate of the day, [Carolyn Bryant] ought to have known that Emmett Till was in grave danger.”

The report contains a first-person account of the meeting at the store on the night that Till was murdered—an account not found in the 1955 trial transcript. The story appears twice, with slightly different redactions each time. On the second occasion, the text states that the speaker was Carolyn Bryant. In her statement, Mrs. Bryant confirmed that the kidnappers brought Till to the store, but several key sections have been blanked out:

“I think it happened pretty much like he, like they said. I think they probably asked me who, if [long blank] I believe. Because I really think no matter what [long blank] said no that’s not him because [blank]. I think he [Roy Bryant] told me he was gonna take him back.”

The words “no that’s not him” could be taken to support the theory that Carolyn Bryant told her husband that Till was not the one she had seen at the store a few days earlier. However, the context is missing and the words that can be seen are at least as consistent with admission as denial. For instance, the opening of the sentence—“Because I really think no matter what [blank]”—suggests that she was trying to explain the fact that she identified Till and to downplay her role in his death. The claim that her husband told her that he was going to “take [Till] back” would be consistent with Carolyn Bryant refusing to identify Emmett, but that would not explain why he was murdered immediately thereafter. The most telling aspect of that section is the heading, which somehow escaped deletion. It describes Mrs. Bryant’s statements as “admissions.”

The report offers further indication of Carolyn Bryant’s involvement in the crime. An anonymous African-American man gave the FBI agent(s) a statement that, on one evening shortly before the Till murder, a group of men drove up in a truck, grabbed him, and threw him in the back. A black man he knew named Washington was the one who seized him, but Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were both in the vehicle. Roy Bryant ordered Washington to throw the young man off the truck after someone whose name is deleted said, “that’s not the nigger!” and “Roy, I keep telling ya, that’s not the one.” The vehicle then drove off.

That story matches an account published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper in 2004. In the newspaper article and in the report, the victim stated that he was carrying molasses and snuff home from a nearby store when the attack occurred and that he suffered broken teeth during the incident. In the Times-Picayune article, the victim, Willie Lee Hemphill, specified that Carolyn Bryant was the one who told the men that he was “not the one.” That shows that the kidnappers looked to Mrs. Bryant to provide identification. In contrast to Hemphill, who was released on her word, Till was tortured and murdered after the men asked her to identify him. Likewise, Carolyn Bryant’s involvement in the two cases demonstrates that she participated in efforts to kidnap Till over some time.

District Attorney Chiles was unavailable for comment. For their part, many in the news media have assumed that Carolyn Bryant was a helpless pawn in a murder plot hatched by her husband and brother-in-law. Randy Sparkman put that case bluntly in an article for Slate magazine, writing that Mrs. Bryant was “a Southern wife who did as [she was] told” and who “would have felt [she] had no other choice.” But when weighing Caroline Bryant’s culpability, it is critical to recall exactly what she told her husband about the incident at the store. She claimed that Till grabbed her hand and asked “How about a date, baby?” She further said that, after she struggled loose, Till put his hands around her waist and asked, “What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it?” Other statements she attributed to Emmett included an “unprintable word,” and assurances that he had been “with white women before.”

In 1955 Mississippi, black males were lynched for far less than that. Carolyn Bryant’s lurid claims inspired the men who committed the murder, and the evidence shows that she was lying. According to his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and other relatives, Emmett Till suffered from polio at age five and was left with a speech impediment that would have made it impossible for him to say the words Carolyn Bryant attributed to him without halting or stammering. (Mrs. Bryant’s various accounts of the incident at the store never included any mention of a stammer.) Also, Ruthie Mae Crawford, who accompanied Till to the store that day, said that he did nothing more threatening than put money into Mrs. Bryant’s hand while making his purchase and whistle at her one time outside the store.

Carolyn Bryant claimed that a witness saw the latter moments of her confrontation with Emmett and could confirm that part of her account. She stated that her brother-in-law’s wife, Juanita Milam, was in the back room of the store on the day of the incident. According to Mrs. Bryant, after Till grabbed her, she “called out” to Mrs. Milam and asked her to come to the front room.

According to the FBI report, however, Juanita Milam “stated she was not at the store when this incident occurred.” She also told the FBI that she believed that Carolyn Bryant made up the whole story:

“The only way I can figure it is that she did not want to take care of the store. She thought this wild story would make Roy take care of the store instead of leavin’ her with the kids.”

The evidence that Carolyn Bryant lied about her confrontation with Till destroys the image of her created by elements of the press. She looks far more like an instigator of murder than a passive wife who “had no other choice.” She must have known that, after hearing her false story, her husband and the others were likely to kill young Emmett. All they needed was someone to identify him.

There appears to be a large discrepancy between the report’s evidence against Carolyn Bryant and the grand jury’s decision not to indict her. Of course, it is always possible that some evidence did not hold up in court. However, it is rare that a grand jury refuses a prosecution request for an indictment. In light of Mississippi’s terrible record on racial issues in general and on the Till murder in particular, this case demands further scrutiny.

The American Way of Education

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, 1909-1933, by John Singer Sargent.
Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, 1909-1933, by John Singer Sargent.

In America, media coverage of higher education is horrendous. Journalists and commentators refuse to address social-class bias in university admissions. In Britain, there is some awareness of that issue, but coverage is still deficient. And when British media-makers discuss American higher education, the result is often bizarre. They are able to see class bias in their native Britain, but unable to see it in America.

A couple years ago, I wrote this piece criticizing the rosy portrayals of elite American colleges by British journalists and activists. I argued that Britons’ false image of the Ivy League is an advantage for the prime minister, David Cameron, and other right-wingers who want to raise tuition fees and privatize UK higher education.

I submitted this piece to the London Review of Books. I never received a reply, but the issue has not gone away. So here it is.

The American Way of Education

As the Cameron government and private interests remake British higher education, they are aided by the American Ivy League’s commanding position in international rankings. In order to compete, the argument goes, British universities must emulate their most prestigious American counterparts, which happen to be private establishments that charge high tuition. Howard Hotson (LRB, 19 May 2011) and others have pointed out the fallacies of that approach, but the Ivy example retains wide appeal in the UK.

One reason for that appeal is British progressives’ habit of making elite US universities seem more socially inclusive than they are. When Oxford and Cambridge come under fire—as well they should—for low enrolment of working-class and poor students, critics of those institutions often claim that the Ivy League is more egalitarian. The tactic is familiar (‘Why can’t you be more like your American cousins?’), but foolish. It denies the unequal nature of private university education in the US, and paves the way for American-style inequality in Britain.

In April 2011, for instance, the Guardian published an article praising racial and social diversity at Harvard.[i] The writer, Jeevan Vasagar, cited Harvard’s announcement that record numbers of African-American and Hispanic applicants had obtained places in the university’s incoming class.

Racial diversity is one thing; social diversity is another. Regarding the latter, Vasagar wrote:

Harvard also appears to do better than elite universities here on a key indicator of encouraging poorer students. In 2008-09 the proportion of students on federal Pell grants at Harvard was 15%.

By contrast, data collated by the Sutton Trust charity indicates the percentages of pupils eligible for free school meals at leading English universities range from 0.8% at Oxford and Cambridge to 5.3% at King’s College, London.

In a study last year, the Sutton Trust noted ‘that the American Ivy League may be enrolling higher proportions of low income students.’

The Guardian’s claim about the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at Harvard also appeared in the report by the Sutton Trust, an organization dedicated to ‘promoting social mobility through education.’[ii] For his part, Vasagar closed by drawing a connection between the Ivy League’s private institutional wealth and access for disadvantaged students.

The Ivy League also benefits from greater wealth from their lavish endowments than England’s universities. More than 60% of the students admitted to Harvard this year will receive need-based scholarships averaging more than $40,000.

On that evidence, the Ivy League looks much more socially inclusive than Oxbridge. Fifteen percent is certainly a better showing than 0.8 percent, and think of all those low-income students enjoying generous scholarships made possible by Harvard’s overflowing coffers. However, that cheery depiction of social equality is misleading on every point.

Let’s start with the discussion of Pell Grants, a form of federal aid to university students with financial need. Not all those who receive Pell Grants are ‘poorer students’: eligibility for the program extends well into the middle class. The US government awarded Pell funds to tens of thousands of applicants with family incomes in excess of $60,000 in 2008-09.[iii] In 2009, median household income in America was just $49,777.[iv] Conversely, the Sutton Trust’s figures on access at English universities were based on a cohort of students in which only 12% received free school meals.[v]

So the Guardian and the Sutton Trust compared Harvard’s enrolment of students from the bottom 50-60% of the US income scale to Oxbridge’s enrolment of the poorest 12% of English students. It is difficult to imagine less useful points of reference. The Sutton Trust’s report did note that ‘Pell Grants are awarded to families with higher household income than those qualifying for [free school meals] in England,’[vi] but no similar clarification appears in the Guardian’s article. Either way, it is impossible to know how many (or how few) Pell students at Harvard have family incomes comparable to those of participants in the free-meals program.

The Sutton Trust and the Guardian distorted the comparison further by exaggerating Harvard’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients. The Trust’s source (and probably the Guardian’s) for the 15% figure is a report in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. That report is in error. A study by the Chronicle of Higher Education placed Harvard’s percentage of Pell students at 6.5% in 2008-09.[vii] In a letter to the Chronicle, Harvard admissions officials acknowledged that the 6.5% figure was correct, though they argued it was misleading.[viii] They stated that, had the Chronicle not counted students from the university’s extension program, the percentage of Pell beneficiaries at Harvard would have been approximately double the figure published in the report. (The Pell program is reserved for students on a degree course, and few extension students at Harvard are.)

That may be true, but it is beside the point. Many American universities operate extension programs, without causing the percentage of Pell Grant recipients on campus to fall into single digits. The Chronicle’s report listed the 50 wealthiest universities in America. Harvard ranked first in wealth, but 49th in enrolling Pell scholars. At eleven institutions on the list, Pell Grant students made up less than 10% of total enrolment. Ten of those institutions are private, including four of the eight Ivy League universities. At the other end of the scale, the state-supported University of California at Los Angeles had the highest proportion of Pell Grant recipients: 30.7%.[ix]

What about Harvard’s announcement that over 60% of its incoming students in 2011 obtained need-based scholarships valued at over $40,000 (a statistic that Jeevan Vasagar linked to the wealth of Ivy League universities)? The numbers look impressive, but Vasagar should have mentioned the annual cost of attending Harvard, which officials at that institution placed at $52,652 for the 2011-12 academic year.[x] The most salient point about Harvard’s press release is that nearly 40% of the new students had no need for the university’s scholarships.

The Guardian’s readers could be forgiven for concluding that America’s leading private universities are far superior to Oxbridge in terms of access, but such a conclusion is baseless. For its part, the Sutton Trust continues to treat the Ivy League as a model of social inclusion. In February, the Trust published this statement on its web site: ‘Harvard’s modern view of the role of the university enables it and other elite [American] universities to maintain the highest academic standards, but also to ensure that clever students from less privileged backgrounds get a chance.’[xi]

Other UK commentators fall readily into the same trap. During the Laura Spence affair in 2000, the mirage of Ivy League social equality made another British appearance. Spence, a student from a Tyne and Wear comprehensive, obtained an offer of admission and scholarship aid from Harvard, despite being rejected by Magdalen College, Oxford. Her applications became the focus of national controversy when Gordon Brown attributed her Magdalen rejection to ‘an old establishment interview system.’[xii]

The headmaster of Spence’s school, Dr Paul Kelley, coupled his criticism of Oxford with warm praise for Harvard. According to the BBC, Kelley ‘admired the way Harvard University handled its admissions, which involved a panel of 20 people considering a candidate’s qualifications, test and interview results “blind”—without knowing who the candidate was or where they were from.’[xiii]

Whether that paraphrase reflects Kelley’s understanding or the BBC’s, the reader is invited to believe that Harvard officials scrupulously prevent applicants’ social backgrounds from bearing on admissions decisions. That belief could not be farther from the truth. Like most top American universities, Harvard grants enormous preferences to ‘legacies,’ children of wealthy graduates.

In his 2006 book, The Price of Admission, Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal detailed numerous cases in which Harvard granted admission to legacies with records decidedly inferior to those of other successful applicants. ‘A conservative conclusion would be that the university welcomes [i.e., admits] well over half of applicants from the families of its biggest donors,’ he wrote.[xiv] At the time Golden’s book was published, Harvard’s overall admission rate was 9.3%. Today, it is 5.9%.[xv] Who says there is no aristocracy of birth in the USA?

America’s top private universities are riddled with class privilege. It is understandable that conservatives would laud such establishments, but self-defeating for opponents of social exclusion to do so. If Ivy League practices are adopted in the UK, they will only worsen educational disparities. When critics of Oxbridge portray the Ivy League as a beacon of equality, they give the attack on British universities the cover of American myth.

[i] Jeevan Vasagar, ‘Harvard admits record numbers of African-American and Latino students,’ 12 April 2011 (www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/apr/12/harvard-black-latino-record-admissions).

[ii] ‘Responding to the new landscape for university access,’ the Sutton Trust (no author specified), 22 December 2010, p. 16 (www.suttontrust.com/research/responding-to-the-new-landscape-for-university-access/); ‘About Us,’ a statement from the Sutton Trust web site (www.suttontrust.com/about-us/).

[iii] ‘2008-2009 Federal Pell Grant End-Of-Year Report,’ Table 15, U.S. Department of Education (www2.ed.gov/finaid/prof/resources/data/pell-2008-09/pell-eoy-2008-09.html).

[iv] ‘Historical Income Tables: Households’, Table H-8, U.S. Department of Education (www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/household/).

[v] ‘Responding to the new landscape for university access,’ p. 5, note 3.

[vi] Ibid., p. 16.

[vii] ‘Students With Pell Grants at Colleges With the 50 Largest Endowments,’ a data table accompanying the article by Beckie Supiano and Andrea Fuller, ‘Elite Colleges Fail to Gain More Students on Pell Grants,’ the Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 March 2011 (chronicle.com/article/Pell-Grant-Recipients-Are/126892/). Note: the data table showing percentages of Pell Grant students at individual universities is behind a subscription wall, but I have a copy.

[viii] William R. Fitzsimmons and Sarah C. Donahue, ‘Harvard’s Extension School Enrollment Affects Pell Statistics,’ a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 April 2011. Fitzsimmons is Harvard’s dean of admissions and Donahue is the university’s director of financial aid. I also checked to ensure that the letter to the Chronicle was authentic, and received an e-mail from a Harvard official stating that it was.

[ix] ‘Students with Pell Grants at Colleges with the 50 Largest Endowments.’

[x] ‘Harvard at a glance,’ summary posted on the Harvard University web site (www.harvard.edu/harvard-glance).

[xi] ‘Let’s put British youngster [sic] in the Ivy League,’ the Sutton Trust (no author specified), 27 February 2012

(www.suttontrust.com/news/media/lets-put-british-youngster-in-the-ivy-league/)

[xii] ‘Chancellor attacks Oxford admissions,’ BBC online (no author specified), 26 May 2000, (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/764141.stm).

[xiii] ‘Head “delighted” with admissions debate,’ BBC online (no author specified), 26 May 2000 (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/765244.stm).

[xiv] Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission: how America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges—and who gets left outside the gates (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), p. 26.

[xv] ‘The Class of 2010 is the most diverse in Harvard history,’ Harvard Gazette (no author specified), 30 March 2006 (news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2006/03/the-class-of-2010-is-the-most-diverse-in-harvard-history/); ‘A Brief Profile of the Admitted Class of 2016,’ Harvard College Office of Admissions web site (no author specified: http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/apply/statistics.html).

David Brooks versus Class Bigotry?!

Detail from the Limbourg Brothers' book The Very Rich Hours of the Duc du Berry.
Detail from the Limbourg Brothers’ manuscript The Very Rich Hours of the Duc du Berry.

David Brooks, New York Times writer, leading conservative, and stereotypical preppie, recently shared some thoughts about race. “People have tried to link Ferguson to Selma and Jim Crow, but something is off,” he wrote. According to Brooks, that’s because “the nature of racism has changed. There has been a migration away from prejudice based on genetics to prejudice based on class.” “This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging,” he added.

It’s nice that Brooks acknowledges the existence of “prejudice based on class.” That’s more than most liberals will do. But that admission is at odds with the class bigotry that lies at the heart of Brooks’s writings. For starters, it’s absurd for him to claim that there is a sharp distinction between prejudice based on genetics and prejudice based on class. Much class prejudice is based on crackpot genetic theories devised by Brooks’s fellow right wingers, particularly Charles Murray.

In 1994, Murray re-launched bigoted junk science by publishing (with Richard Herrnstein) The Bell Curve. The book’s authors argued that those who were born rich were genetically superior to those who were born poor. They also claimed that people of Asian or European ancestry were genetically superior to people of African or Latin American ancestry. Murray and Herrnstein’s book was mainly based on publications financed by the Pioneer Fund, a eugenicist group that at one time supported the Nazis and has since moved on to supporting neo-Nazis.

This article by Jim Naureckas highlights the demented positions of the Pioneer Fund, including this quote from Roger Pearson, one of the group’s top recipients of financial support: “If a nation with a more advanced, more specialized or in any way superior set of genes mingles with, instead of exterminating, an inferior tribe, then it commits racial suicide.”

Conservatives in the media eagerly promoted the Pioneer Fund’s pseudo-science, and in 2012, Murray published a follow-up volume called Coming Apart, in which he argued that working-class whites are morally inferior to rich whites, based on theories about heredity.

What did David Brooks, self-proclaimed enemy of class bigotry, have to say about Murray and Coming Apart? “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society,” Brooks wrote in an NYT column. He entirely accepted Murray’s depiction of the poor as immoral and lazy and the rich as moral and hardworking. “Members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive,” he wrote.

Let’s look at that word, productive. As economists have shown, the productivity of the American worker has doubled since 1980, but median family income has utterly stagnated. See this chart and accompanying analysis by economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi.

Mian and Sufi identify where the monetary gains from higher worker productivity are going:

First, owners of capital are getting a bigger share of GDP than before. In other words, the share of profits has risen faster than wages. Second, the highest paid workers are getting a bigger share of the wages that go to labor.

The owners of capital are seizing the proceeds of workers’ increasing productivity. And though many capital owners were born rich and don’t work, Brooks is convinced that they are morally superior, uniquely hardworking folks. Then there is the matter of Wall Street’s criminal practices, which crashed the world economy and garnered massive bailouts for the perpetrators, in violation of conservative talk about morals. Brooks confuses predation for productivity, an error he commits so frequently that you might think it stems from a hereditary defect.

In a previous post, I discussed the favored tactic of Nicholas Kristof and other liberals: loudly decrying racial prejudice in order to distract from the issue of class. Here we see conservatives’ response: pretending to care about class in order to undercut liberals on race. Both sides gain by keeping their arguments within those parameters.

Liberals get to look progressive without actually caring about working-class people. Conservatives get to parry liberals on race, while pretending to support working-class whites. Since both ideologies are creations of the elite, both sides are eager to avoid doing anything to help the working class. Neither Kristof nor Brooks gets anywhere near the root of America’s problems, but they perfectly sum up liberalism and conservatism: a series a mirrored rhetorical feints, repeated endlessly by the same posh players.

If David Brooks genuinely wants to fight against class bigotry, he can begin with five easy steps.

1.  Condemn Charles Murray and his other enablers.

2. Endorse criminal proceedings against the bailed-out Wall Street fraudsters who crashed the economy.

3. Call for the end of gross inequalities in the U.S. tax code that allow members of the non-working investor class to pay a lower tax rate than many wage laborers.

4. Demand an end to class discrimination in higher education. For starters, that means no more legacy preferences. There could hardly be a more blatantly discriminatory act than granting college admission to an over-privileged but under-qualified applicant at the expense of a better, but less wealthy, applicant.

5. Call for the expansion of civil rights laws to include social class. If Brooks doesn’t know how to go about that, here is an article I wrote on that subject last year.

Or, alternatively, Brooks could just admit that he has nothing but contempt for working-class people and that right wingers’ invocations of class are nothing more than a race-baiting tactic.

Nicholas Kristof Just Doesn’t Get It

The grand-jury decision in the Michael Brown Jr. case has been followed by some unrest, much peaceful protest, and horrifically similar cases in other parts of the country. It has also been followed by revelations that make the grand jury’s refusal to indict appear indefensible. Darren Wilson’s testimony was a farrago of racial stereotypes and comic-book action sequences. Likewise, as Lawrence O’Donnell showed, the prosecutors failed to represent the law on police shootings accurately, giving the grand jury the false impression that it was legal for police to fire at a suspect just because s/he attempted to flee the scene.

Amidst this series of travesties, many in the media have claimed to find the answers to Ferguson’s (and America’s) problems. The New York Times is good at claiming to have the answers and that’s especially true of columnist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof’s series, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” presents important facts about racial disparities in America. But when it comes to the economic problems at work in Ferguson, he is as ignorant as those he criticizes.

Kristof’s starting point was the Pew Foundation survey that showed that 80% of African Americans agreed that the Michael Brown case “raises important issues about race,” while only 37% of whites agreed. Kristof then listed statistics showing that easy assurances about racial progress are misguided. Here are two grim facts he discussed:

Because of the catastrophic experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated today than employed, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Nearly 70 percent of middle-aged black men who never graduated from high school have been imprisoned.

The writer also focused on education, noting that “the best escalator to opportunity may be education, but that escalator is broken for black boys growing up in neighborhoods with broken schools.” “We fail those boys before they fail us,” he added.

Decent jobs are also “escalators,” and St. Louis used to have more such jobs. In fact, that city was once a manufacturing center, until corporations and their wealthy stockholders decided that good wages and benefits took too big a cut out of their profits. The country’s owners moved manufacturing jobs from places like St. Louis to impoverished countries where they could get away with paying only pennies an hour. That job exodus was a key factor in the massive transfer of wealth from workers to the already rich.

What did the already rich do with that boon? For starters, they hid a bunch of the take from the IRS. According to a 2012 study by Tax Justice Network, the world’s rich are concealing $21 trillion—equal to the value of the U.S. economy plus that of Japan—in tax hideouts.

The wealthy also went on an unusual spending spree, buying politicians who slashed the taxes the rich paid on whatever money they couldn’t hide. There went the tax money needed for education.

And there went the tax money needed to support municipal government in general. Jurisdictions like Ferguson supplement their revenues with fees and fines, many of them related to minor traffic infractions. As this National Public Radio report showed, such levies are Ferguson’s second largest source of revenue, bringing $2.6 million into city coffers last year. And let’s not forget that Darren Wilson’s confrontation with Michael Brown Jr. began as a jaywalking stop.

When you look at the racial environment in Ferguson, you cannot separate it from the economic environment. And you cannot separate the economic environment from the global sweatshop system and maldistribution of wealth in general.

What does Nicholas Kristof have to say about that? Well, he addressed the issue of sweatshops in an NYT column published shortly before President Obama’s first inauguration. Obama had promised to revise trade agreements in order to improve terms for workers and consumers. The president did not keep his promise, but, when it looked like he might, Kristof wrote:

Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about ‘labor standards,’ I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh [Cambodia]. . . while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.

You see, Kristof dislikes labor standards because they “add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.” And that would mean fewer sweatshops for the people who want to keep them open—not the owners, silly, the children. Think of the children! In Phnom Penh, Kristof spoke to a woman named Vath Sam Oeun who was trying to earn money by picking saleable items out of the garbage. The columnist wrote that Oeun “hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job.” “A sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous,” wrote Kristof.

He might want to test that assertion by interviewing the families of the 1,129 workers who died in 2013 when an industrial complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. As for Kristof’s larger argument, it is an exercise in question-begging. What if we rejected Kristof’s advice and barred companies that don’t meet labor standards from exporting goods to North America and Europe? Then the companies that do meet standards would no longer have to face unfair competition from rivals that violate basic rules. Wouldn’t it be better to make the incentives work in favor of safe conditions and living wages?

Likewise, if we taxed the elite’s hoard of wealth and used legislation to raise wages for workers around the globe, we would have a healthier economy and a means of funding economic development, education, and housing in places like Phnom Penh. And Ferguson. But none of those possibilities seem to have occurred to Kristof.

Such hypocrisy is all too common among leading pundits. We working-class people must recognize that rich, white liberals love to act gung-ho on racial justice in order to distract us from their class privileges and their support for class bigotry. This is the real message of Kristof et al:

“Look, we could argue all day about why my friends and I are rich, while others have nothing but debt. So let’s focus as narrowly as possible on race. Above all, let’s ignore the fact that my favorite trade policies destroy economic opportunity and undermine workplace safety for millions of African American workers, as well as other workers.”

Ferguson is a hotspot of economic exploitation and it didn’t get that way solely because of prejudiced whites in the general populace. We must also blame the elite’s war on the livelihoods of working people—especially, but not exclusively, African Americans. Nicholas Kristof is one of the chief apologists for that war.

Kristof is right to worry about racial disparities in America. But regarding the economic causes of suffering in Ferguson and communities like it, the only thing he “gets” is his dividend statement.