Carolyn Bryant and the Murder of Emmett Till

Carolyn Bryant, laughing at the legal system for nearly 60 years. Left to right: Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant, Juanita Milam, J.W. Milam.
Carolyn Bryant, laughing at the legal system for nearly 60 years. Left to right: Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant, Juanita Milam, J.W. Milam.

In my freelance-writing career, I have been publishing regularly (with certain gaps) since 2003. Of the many articles I wrote that were largely ignored, there were some that I swore I’d re-publish if I ever got any attention. After the thousands of views my blog received in the past couple days, now is the time.

This is the first of a series of articles I am stubbornly re-publishing. When the FBI report on the Emmett Till case came out in 2007, I wrote an article about it for Razorcake. I was preparing a new version of the piece for publication last year, and ended up posting it on the blog. Here it is again. (Thanks to Keith Beauchamp for all his work on this case.)

Why wasn’t Carolyn Bryant indicted for manslaughter in the case of Emmett Till?

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.

 

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Welcome to New Readers + Updates

Welcome, new readers! If you liked my resignation letter, I have other posts on discrimination at America’s colleges and universities here and here. Next week, I’m going to have more posts on higher education and taxes. They’re incendiary but undeniable.

In addition to writing about class bigotry, I address other forms of discrimination on this blog. Wondering about the upsurge in racism and right-wing paramilitary activity? It’s not just that some people harbor fear of a black president. It’s also because conservatives spent years trying to blame racial minorities for the financial crash. You can read about that here.

As for myself, it’s been a hectic few days: exciting but worrying. As I told a friend the other day, financial ruin is a definite possibility. I never was in charge of a business myself. But I gather that potential employers often frown on it when you write a letter to the boss of your old firm like the one I sent Chancellor Wrighton. I’m single and never made much money. I don’t have any family money (and the very thought of such a thing just made me laugh). In the short term, I’m getting by on what little I have saved and my expected severance pay from Wash. U.

I’m hoping I can raise enough money through donations to concentrate on writing the sort of posts you see linked above. I am working on a book and also a bunch of other posts and articles on social class and the law, religious fundamentalism, racism, bigotry against working-class women, and, yes, higher education.

The institutions that are supposed to bring us honest reporting and commentary are too elitist and corrupt to do so. Direct funding by readers is the only real way forward. Even if you can only give 5 or 10 bucks, I’d be grateful for that. The “Donate” button is at upper right. (If you work at Wash. U. and you donate, I won’t tell on you.)

If you’re on the fence about donating, here’s something to consider. In 2004, The Chronicle of Higher Education took a poll and found that 75% of Americans opposed college-admissions preferences for legacies, children of alumni. In practical terms, legacies are children of rich alumni, most of whom are white. (You can read more about that poll and the issue of legacies in general here.) In other news from 2004, George W. Bush, the poster boy for legacy preferences, stated that he thought such preferences should be abolished.

Why do legacy preferences still exist, when even George W. Bush wouldn’t defend them 11 years ago? Why are they so rarely discussed? Leading liberal publications will occasionally allow an op-ed piece criticizing the policy (like the one by Richard Kahlenberg that I linked above). But liberal media-makers should have declared war on legacy preferences ages ago. Why haven’t they? Maybe we can get a hint of the answer if we look at the backgrounds of leading journalists, as I did in the case of New York Times columnists here.

You won’t find me shying away from the issues that media should be covering but won’t. I like to take the direct approach. Also, I’m not afraid to risk paying a big price for telling the truth. I think I demonstrated that on Wednesday.

Thanks for reading. Please stick around and tell your friends.

PS: I don’t allow comments, for reasons I discuss in my FAQ page, but you can reach me at:

classblog@zoho.com

I’m also on Twitter: @ChrisPepus

No Longer Blocked by Facebook. See Greg Palast’s Facebook Page Saturday

I believe the title encapsulates the major announcements of the evening. Facebook is now allowing my blog to be posted on its site’s pages. Look for a link to my resignation-letter post on Greg Palast’s Facebook page on Saturday.

If you’re new to Greg Palast’s work, be sure to check it out. He has broken some of the biggest stories of recent years. Here is a review I wrote of Palast’s book Vultures’ Picnic for Razorcake. Who are the vultures? Find out in this report on Democracy Now!

Update (3/28): My resignation letter post is now linked at Greg Palast’s Facebook page. Thanks to Greg and his team members Leni ‘Badpenny’ von Eckardt and Nicole Powers, not only for posting the link but for pressuring Facebook to lift the ban. Were it not for friends like them and Evie Hemphill (thanks, Evie) raising the issue, I might still be blocked on Facebook.

Why is Facebook Blocking My Blog? A New Mini-Series

I’m still trying to find out why my blog is blocked from being linked on Facebook. On the chance that there was some malware problem on WordPress, I reported the issue there. I’m not a “premium member,” so it was referred to the site’s Help forums. I’ve not seen anything there to suggest that WordPress is the problem.

And, frankly, it seems highly unlikely that the difficulty is with WordPress. If there is malware on a post on my blog, why has no one who visited the blog told me about a computer problem? Why haven’t I had a computer problem? Why hasn’t WordPress administration reported a problem to me? Why does there seem to be no malware on anyone else’s WordPress blog?

So I sent a message to Facebook. Here it is. I’ll let you know if I hear anything. – Chris

Dear Facebook Management:

I’m not on Facebook myself, but friends who are on FB have been blocked from linking a post from my blog. They received a message saying the link was “detected to be unsafe.”

I don’t see how that could be the case, because it is simply a link to a WordPress.com blog. Also, there are no images in the post, obscene or otherwise. There is no threatening language. There isn’t even any swearing. My blog has received more than 1,800 views over the past couple days and no one has reported any computer problem to me.

My friends, including journalist Greg Palast, have complained to Facebook administration about this. You can read a conversation about that and see the link to my blog on Twitter here:

https://twitter.com/ChrisPepus/status/581160924125478913

You can also see that Twitter users are clicking and re-tweeting the link, apparently without incident.

I ask you to fix this problem as soon as possible. We frequently hear that social media provide a place where everyday people can quickly communicate their views to others around the world. That ceases to be the case if communication is unfairly blocked by site owners.

Sincerely,

Chris Pepus

 

 

Resignation: Re-post and Updates

Hi, everyone. I’d like to provide some updates and re-publish yesterday’s open letter of resignation protesting class bias in admissions at Washington University in St. Louis. (You can find the full text of that post at the end of this message or here.)

At the close of my resignation letter, I gave the standard two-weeks notice. But the university administration decided that there was no need for me to hang around for two more weeks. Or two more hours. One of my supervisors stopped by my office yesterday morning to ask me to leave and pick up my key, ID card, and university Metro pass. Everyone was very polite. My understanding is that I will be paid for the two weeks, plus the time I worked in this pay period and my severance pay, which is unused vacation. If all that is correct, then I have no complaint about the way they directed my transition from employee to former employee.

In other news, I heard from friends that Facebook has prevented them from linking this blog. (I’m not on Facebook myself.) One received a message from Facebook saying “the content you’re trying to share includes a link that our security systems detected to be unsafe.” I created a Bitly version of the URL and that didn’t work either. Another friend reports that the link initially worked fine and that she received positive feedback from commenters before the link got taken down. My friends have complained to Facebook administration.

Why did Facebook block my blog? I want to tell the Facebook bosses that my blog is on Wordpress, which, in case they hadn’t heard, is not a malware-scam site.

Did someone report a computer problem after clicking the link to my blog? Who? In the past 32 hours or so, I’ve had over 1,600 views of my blog and no one has reported a problem to me. Nor have I heard of any problem from WordPress. The resignation-letter post is on my Twitter feed and it’s being happily re-tweeted without incident as we speak.

It couldn’t be that Facebook has some problem with the content. Could it? There isn’t even any swearing in that post. If they object to the content, they should admit that and state exactly what the problem is. I stand behind every assertion in that post and there are extensive hyperlinks where you can check my facts for yourself.

Incidentally, one of those complaints to Facebook was made by renowned journalist Greg Palast (of BBC and Guardian fame) and his team. I hope Facebook isn’t trying to tell the Palast team that they can’t post certain political content on their page. If so, that won’t end well for Facebook. There is probably an innocent explanation for all this, but in any case, Facebook needs to stop blocking this blog.

If you feel inclined to share my post on Facebook, please give it a try, and complain to them if they block you. Let me know what happens. My Twitter handle is @ChrisPepus and the contact e-mail for this blog is classblog@zoho.com.

Anyway, here is the text of that original post.

Class Bigotry at Washington University in St. Louis: A Resignation

I just sent the following open letter of resignation to Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.

Dear Chancellor Wrighton:

I’m Chris Pepus and I work in the university’s Film & Media Archive. I am sending you this open letter to resign in protest against ongoing class bias in the university’s admissions policies.

Washington University has consistently ranked last in social diversity among leading colleges, measured by the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants, a need-based federal scholarship. In January, your administration promised a new commitment to social diversity, but we both know it is a sham. It is time the people did as well, since they pay for Wash. U.’s tax exemptions.

Describing your new policy in The New York Times, David Leonhardt wrote that your administration “will commit to more than doubling the share of undergraduates with Pell grants, to at least 13 percent, by 2020.” He was wrong. Your administration committed to ensuring that 13% of students in the 2020-21 freshman class are Pell-eligible. The number of Pell recipients in preceding classes could be lower, even significantly lower, and you would still be able to say that you kept your promise.

Leonhardt also wrote: “The leaders of Washington University in St. Louis have decided that it has a distinction they no longer want: the nation’s least economically diverse top college.” He was too optimistic on that point as well. Currently, Wash. U. is last in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of economic diversity at its top 25 national universities, with only 6% of students receiving Pell Grants. You could meet your goal of increased Pell numbers and still be last in that ranking.

Even modest increases in Pell enrollments by Wash. U.’s nearest competitors at the bottom of the U.S. News list (Cal Tech at 11%, Notre Dame and Princeton at 12%) will keep the university ranked 25th out of 25. If Wash. U.’s increase in Pell recipients among pre-2020 classes is low enough, those three institutions can keep their Pell enrollments where they are and Wash. U. will still remain in last place.

Likewise, if we consider just how many Americans are financially eligible for Pell Grants, we can see how hollow your promise is. According to a recent report by the Southern Education Foundation, most U.S. public-school students are officially low income, based on eligibility for anti-poverty programs. Certainly a majority, and probably a large majority, of those students would qualify for Pell Grants—if they went to college. In light of that fact, a ratio of 13% Pell recipients in the freshman class five years from now appears positively miniscule.

Look closer and it gets worse. Eligibility for Pell Grants has increased dramatically since the 2006-07 academic year. The number of the program’s recipients is up 73% nationwide. Among those with family incomes over $60,000 per year, the number of Pell recipients has grown by nearly 900%. (Those figures are based on raw data available here and here.)

Aided by that enormous expansion (weighted disproportionately toward middle-class students), other socially exclusive universities, such as Harvard, have seen their percentages of Pell students rise out of single digits, finally. But not this institution. In recent years, Wash. U. has actually been declining in terms of social diversity.

The barriers to inclusion will not be removed at Wash. U., or other leading colleges, until an aggressive policy of affirmative action based on social class is added to existing affirmative-action programs. Your new “commitment” is a travesty of that essential policy.

Your administration has described the plan to increase Pell enrollment as “ambitious” and cultivated the notion that it is difficult to enroll qualified working-class people. But the case of the University of California at Berkeley destroys such myths. According to the latest federal data, 36% of UC Berkeley’s students receive Pell Grants, compared to, again, 6% at Washington University. UCB has managed to enroll six times the percentage of Pell recipients as Wash. U., despite having (according to contemporary federal data) an endowment of $1.2 billion, as opposed to Wash. U.’s $5.3 billion.

Nor can anyone say that UC Berkeley’s academic reputation has suffered due to its socially inclusive admissions policy. In the most recent installment of the prestigious Times Higher Education rankings, UCB is rated 8th in the world to Wash. U.’s 42nd. The University of California at Los Angeles, with an even higher ratio of Pell recipients on campus (39%), ranks 12th.

You may well note that Wash. U. is placed ahead of UC Berkeley and UCLA in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, but that is principally because U.S. News assigns great weight to institutional wealth. The most salient category of the magazine’s rankings is the “peer assessment score” given by administrators and faculty at other colleges. In that category, Wash. U. is rated 4 out of a possible 5, versus Berkeley’s 4.7 and UCLA’s 4.2.

If you and other top administrators can’t figure out how to reach the degree of social diversity that UC Berkeley has achieved with an endowment valued at less than one-quarter of Wash. U.’s, perhaps you should all resign and let administrators from UCB replace you.

This institution’s terribly low percentage of Pell Grant recipients is the result of systemic class bias. The university’s official pronouncements make that all too clear. Wash. U. administrators have attempted to excuse low enrollment of Pell Grant recipients by resorting to doubletalk insulting to working-class people.

For instance, Provost Thorp consistently tries to justify Wash. U.’s record of social exclusion by pretending that the university had to choose between strengthening academic excellence and enrolling more working-class students. Last December, Student Life quoted the Provost’s remarks on why the administration had failed to address the university’s low Pell enrollment. “Wash. U. has made some smart strategic decisions that may have made it the place that it is,” he said. “It’s easy to say that this should have been done differently, but . . . to say we shouldn’t have invested in things when we did is kind of false logic [ellipses original].” Back in October, he offered the same excuse, with a more aggressive conclusion: “We’re not going to apologize for that.”

If Provost Thorp cannot bring himself to apologize for the university’s derisively low number of working-class students, I question whether he is capable of apologizing for anything. At the least, his remarks show that he isn’t facing the problem.

It is deceitful to claim that administrators ever had to choose between academic excellence and social inclusion. In 2012, economist Elise Gould found that low-income students who earned high scores on 8th-grade tests were less likely to attend college than rich students who scored low on the same tests. There is an enormous pool of talented students who are not being recruited by other leading institutions.

Maybe the student who would have brought new prestige to Wash. U. through, say, a great scientific discovery wound up working at Wal-Mart because the university instead admitted a less qualified rich person now busily engaged in coasting through life. Had you been interested in enhancing academic excellence, rather than enhancing the privileges of the rich, recruiting qualified, low-income students would have been a central element of your campaign to improve the university’s reputation.

Instead, Wash. U. grants preferences to “legacies,” children of alumni and especially rich, well-connected ones. Make no mistake: legacy preferences are viciously discriminatory. They allow rich applicants who have had every advantage to take rare admissions places from better qualified, working-class applicants who overcame a great deal. Such bias in favor of the rich has a corrosive effect on the entire admissions process, since it fosters an environment in which the wealthy are viewed as superior. It reinforces institutionalized class bigotry.

You know that discrimination based on social class is wrong. In fact, you have admitted as much. Last year, your administration inaugurated the Bias Report and Support System on campus. Among the categories of discrimination reportable under the system is bias based on “socioeconomic status.”

That was a fine idea. But it is pointless to have a policy against class bias if the admissions office is exempt. The aristocratic monstrosity of legacy preferences will persist as long as non-legacies and their families allow. It is time we stopped allowing.

That means the people must cease to subsidize class bias with tax exemptions. Washington University does not pay taxes on its donations, investment income, or purchases. Those exemptions have consequences. Among the social ills highlighted by the Ferguson crisis are chronic underfunding of public schools, and municipalities’ fiscal reliance on a racially biased system of excessive fines. If we want to begin to heal suffering communities such as Ferguson, rich individuals and corporations have to start paying their fair share in taxes. That includes wealthy, socially exclusive universities such as Wash. U.

I have learned a lot working at the Film & Media Archive, which houses materials from powerful documentaries on civil rights and social justice, e.g. Eyes on the Prize and The Great Depression. I got to help researchers learn more about such subjects as the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and labor activists who fought racism and economic oppression.

The stories contained in the archive’s materials can be very inspiring. But they can also be a criticism of your life. These days, they feel like the latter to me. I am ashamed of myself for failing to send you a letter like this one before now. My working-class status and freelance writing on class issues also accuse me, despite the reasons I gave myself for staying on the job this long. (“I need the health insurance.” “The work schedule lets me write on evenings and weekends.” “I can use vacation time for writing.”)

After my years at Wash. U., I no longer believe that elite private colleges can be reformed. I believe education must be public, and free to students. In any case, no university as wealthy as this one should be allowed to keep its tax exemptions unless it ends legacy preferences and does at least as well in admitting Pell Grant recipients as UC Berkeley. We need that tax money for the education of the people, not just the rich.

No top American college is as far away from social diversity as Wash. U., and you are clearly happy for it to stay that way. So here is my two-weeks notice. I can no longer stand to be associated with the class bigotry that is deeply entrenched in this institution.

Sincerely,

Chris Pepus

Note to blog readers:

If you agree with this letter, please share it with your friends. Writers on higher education frequently note that there is no national movement demanding access to top colleges for working-class people. That is largely because writers on higher education refuse to address class bias directly. That omission may have something to do with the backgrounds of leading journalists, who are mostly graduates of socially exclusive, private, East Coast colleges.

I hope that you will use the donate button at the upper right of the page to support my work. (In case you’re wondering, I don’t have another job lined up.) The media elite have systematically excluded views like the ones expressed in my letter. That monopoly will continue unless the people support alternatives to it.

Thanks for reading.

Chris

Class Bigotry at Washington University in St. Louis: A Resignation

I just sent the following open letter of resignation to Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.

Dear Chancellor Wrighton:

I’m Chris Pepus and I work in the university’s Film & Media Archive. I am sending you this open letter to resign in protest against ongoing class bias in the university’s admissions policies.

Washington University has consistently ranked last in social diversity among leading colleges, measured by the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants, a need-based federal scholarship. In January, your administration promised a new commitment to social diversity, but we both know it is a sham. It is time the people did as well, since they pay for Wash. U.’s tax exemptions.

Describing your new policy in The New York Times, David Leonhardt wrote that your administration “will commit to more than doubling the share of undergraduates with Pell grants, to at least 13 percent, by 2020.” He was wrong. Your administration committed to ensuring that 13% of students in the 2020-21 freshman class are Pell-eligible. The number of Pell recipients in preceding classes could be lower, even significantly lower, and you would still be able to say that you kept your promise.

Leonhardt also wrote: “The leaders of Washington University in St. Louis have decided that it has a distinction they no longer want: the nation’s least economically diverse top college.” He was too optimistic on that point as well. Currently, Wash. U. is last in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of economic diversity at its top 25 national universities, with only 6% of students receiving Pell Grants. You could meet your goal of increased Pell numbers and still be last in that ranking.

Even modest increases in Pell enrollments by Wash. U.’s nearest competitors at the bottom of the U.S. News list (Cal Tech at 11%, Notre Dame and Princeton at 12%) will keep the university ranked 25th out of 25. If Wash. U.’s increase in Pell recipients among pre-2020 classes is low enough, those three institutions can keep their Pell enrollments where they are and Wash. U. will still remain in last place.

Likewise, if we consider just how many Americans are financially eligible for Pell Grants, we can see how hollow your promise is. According to a recent report by the Southern Education Foundation, most U.S. public-school students are officially low income, based on eligibility for anti-poverty programs. Certainly a majority, and probably a large majority, of those students would qualify for Pell Grants—if they went to college. In light of that fact, a ratio of 13% Pell recipients in the freshman class five years from now appears positively miniscule.

Look closer and it gets worse. Eligibility for Pell Grants has increased dramatically since the 2006-07 academic year. The number of the program’s recipients is up 73% nationwide. Among those with family incomes over $60,000 per year, the number of Pell recipients has grown by nearly 900%. (Those figures are based on raw data available here and here.)

Aided by that enormous expansion (weighted disproportionately toward middle-class students), other socially exclusive universities, such as Harvard, have seen their percentages of Pell students rise out of single digits, finally. But not this institution. In recent years, Wash. U. has actually been declining in terms of social diversity.

The barriers to inclusion will not be removed at Wash. U., or other leading colleges, until an aggressive policy of affirmative action based on social class is added to existing affirmative-action programs. Your new “commitment” is a travesty of that essential policy.

Your administration has described the plan to increase Pell enrollment as “ambitious” and cultivated the notion that it is difficult to enroll qualified working-class people. But the case of the University of California at Berkeley destroys such myths. According to the latest federal data, 36% of UC Berkeley’s students receive Pell Grants, compared to, again, 6% at Washington University. UCB has managed to enroll six times the percentage of Pell recipients as Wash. U., despite having (according to contemporary federal data) an endowment of $1.2 billion, as opposed to Wash. U.’s $5.3 billion.

Nor can anyone say that UC Berkeley’s academic reputation has suffered due to its socially inclusive admissions policy. In the most recent installment of the prestigious Times Higher Education rankings, UCB is rated 8th in the world to Wash. U.’s 42nd. The University of California at Los Angeles, with an even higher ratio of Pell recipients on campus (39%), ranks 12th.

You may well note that Wash. U. is placed ahead of UC Berkeley and UCLA in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, but that is principally because U.S. News assigns great weight to institutional wealth. The most salient category of the magazine’s rankings is the “peer assessment score” given by administrators and faculty at other colleges. In that category, Wash. U. is rated 4 out of a possible 5, versus Berkeley’s 4.7 and UCLA’s 4.2.

If you and other top administrators can’t figure out how to reach the degree of social diversity that UC Berkeley has achieved with an endowment valued at less than one-quarter of Wash. U.’s, perhaps you should all resign and let administrators from UCB replace you.

This institution’s terribly low percentage of Pell Grant recipients is the result of systemic class bias. The university’s official pronouncements make that all too clear. Wash. U. administrators have attempted to excuse low enrollment of Pell Grant recipients by resorting to doubletalk insulting to working-class people.

For instance, Provost Thorp consistently tries to justify Wash. U.’s record of social exclusion by pretending that the university had to choose between strengthening academic excellence and enrolling more working-class students. Last December, Student Life quoted the Provost’s remarks on why the administration had failed to address the university’s low Pell enrollment. “Wash. U. has made some smart strategic decisions that may have made it the place that it is,” he said. “It’s easy to say that this should have been done differently, but . . . to say we shouldn’t have invested in things when we did is kind of false logic [ellipses original].” Back in October, he offered the same excuse, with a more aggressive conclusion: “We’re not going to apologize for that.”

If Provost Thorp cannot bring himself to apologize for the university’s derisively low number of working-class students, I question whether he is capable of apologizing for anything. At the least, his remarks show that he isn’t facing the problem.

It is deceitful to claim that administrators ever had to choose between academic excellence and social inclusion. In 2012, economist Elise Gould found that low-income students who earned high scores on 8th-grade tests were less likely to attend college than rich students who scored low on the same tests. There is an enormous pool of talented students who are not being recruited by other leading institutions.

Maybe the student who would have brought new prestige to Wash. U. through, say, a great scientific discovery wound up working at Wal-Mart because the university instead admitted a less qualified rich person now busily engaged in coasting through life. Had you been interested in enhancing academic excellence, rather than enhancing the privileges of the rich, recruiting qualified, low-income students would have been a central element of your campaign to improve the university’s reputation.

Instead, Wash. U. grants preferences to “legacies,” children of alumni and especially rich, well-connected ones. Make no mistake: legacy preferences are viciously discriminatory. They allow rich applicants who have had every advantage to take rare admissions places from better qualified, working-class applicants who overcame a great deal. Such bias in favor of the rich has a corrosive effect on the entire admissions process, since it fosters an environment in which the wealthy are viewed as superior. It reinforces institutionalized class bigotry.

You know that discrimination based on social class is wrong. In fact, you have admitted as much. Last year, your administration inaugurated the Bias Report and Support System on campus. Among the categories of discrimination reportable under the system is bias based on “socioeconomic status.”

That was a fine idea. But it is pointless to have a policy against class bias if the admissions office is exempt. The aristocratic monstrosity of legacy preferences will persist as long as non-legacies and their families allow. It is time we stopped allowing.

That means the people must cease to subsidize class bias with tax exemptions. Washington University does not pay taxes on its donations, investment income, or purchases. Those exemptions have consequences. Among the social ills highlighted by the Ferguson crisis are chronic underfunding of public schools, and municipalities’ fiscal reliance on a racially biased system of excessive fines. If we want to begin to heal suffering communities such as Ferguson, rich individuals and corporations have to start paying their fair share in taxes. That includes wealthy, socially exclusive universities such as Wash. U.

I have learned a lot working at the Film & Media Archive, which houses materials from powerful documentaries on civil rights and social justice, e.g. Eyes on the Prize and The Great Depression. I got to help researchers learn more about such subjects as the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and labor activists who fought racism and economic oppression.

The stories contained in the archive’s materials can be very inspiring. But they can also be a criticism of your life. These days, they feel like the latter to me. I am ashamed of myself for failing to send you a letter like this one before now. My working-class status and freelance writing on class issues also accuse me, despite the reasons I gave myself for staying on the job this long. (“I need the health insurance.” “The work schedule lets me write on evenings and weekends.” “I can use vacation time for writing.”)

After my years at Wash. U., I no longer believe that elite private colleges can be reformed. I believe education must be public, and free to students. In any case, no university as wealthy as this one should be allowed to keep its tax exemptions unless it ends legacy preferences and does at least as well in admitting Pell Grant recipients as UC Berkeley. We need that tax money for the education of the people, not just the rich.

No top American college is as far away from social diversity as Wash. U., and you are clearly happy for it to stay that way. So here is my two-weeks notice. I can no longer stand to be associated with the class bigotry that is deeply entrenched in this institution.

Sincerely,

Chris Pepus

Note to blog readers:

If you agree with this letter, please share it with your friends. Writers on higher education frequently note that there is no national movement demanding access to top colleges for working-class people. That is largely because writers on higher education refuse to address class bias directly. That omission may have something to do with the backgrounds of leading journalists, who are mostly graduates of socially exclusive, private, East Coast colleges.

I hope that you will use the donate button at the upper right of the page to support my work. (In case you’re wondering, I don’t have another job lined up.) The media elite have systematically excluded views like the ones expressed in my letter. That monopoly will continue unless the people support alternatives to it.

Thanks for reading.

Chris

Update (March 28): As you may have read, this blog was blocked on Facebook for obscure reasons, but that is no longer the case. Here is a link to this post to share on social media, if you like: bit.ly/1NfjGYu

Also, you can find more updates and information here.

 

The White-Trash Scapegoat

In 2011, I wrote this article about media class bigotry and its consequences. There have been some further developments on this story. I’ll have a post on that later. But here is the original piece.

The White-Trash Scapegoat (Razorcake, August 29, 2011)

The financial elite are stealing America. Under Democratic and Republican administrations, the rich seize ever more of the nation’s wealth—especially during Wall Street-created crises. In fact, the economic cycle now consists of a series of recurring scams. At its core, the present crisis is a repeat of the Savings & Loan boondoggle of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Both followed the same trajectory: deregulation, banker fraud, stock-market nosedive, insider bailout, recession.

The scale of the theft is no surprise when compared to similar cases in history, but the lack of opposition is remarkable. Why don’t the American people unite against the rapacious elite? The answer: “scapegoating.” When confronted with populist anger, the rich and their allies simply direct it toward other, much more vulnerable targets. There has been useful reporting on the practice of blaming the country’s problems on racial minorities, non-Christians, immigrants, and gays. Even so, the media consistently ignore one group of scapegoats—except when scapegoating them—working-class whites, or “white trash” in elitist terminology.

The best way to understand the crusade against working-class whites is to look closely at a celebrated expression of it: Tad Friend’s New York magazine article “White Hot Trash!” Widely reprinted, the 1994 piece fit neatly into a pervasive media campaign that drew public attention away from business scandals by demonizing workers and the poor. Such tactics paved the way for the (Non-Corporate) Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Surveying the national scene, Friend saw an army of vicious white trash on the attack: “white trash best encapsulates the galloping sleaze that has overrun both rural and urban America,” (italics original). When he described these enemies of decency, his words struck a familiar tone. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling characterized the western empires’ colonial subjects as “half devil and half child.” For his part, Friend wrote: “White-trash behavior is defined by childlikeness and the headlong pursuit of easy gratification—quite often, sex.” Throughout the article, he mixed moralizing with voyeurism and treated character as a function of social background. Weighing in on Paula Jones’s sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton—the tabloid news item of the day—Friend turned the case into a question of lineage: “our president’s family tree has bubbas on every branch.”

The New York writer produced a long list of offenses and invariably found white trash at the root of the evil. Whether it was crimes against high fashion (“candy-apple lipstick, chipped cherry-red nail polish, fishnet stockings . . . tattoos”), going to strip clubs (“places like Stringfellow’s, where a table dance costs $20 and where men in ties and suspenders watch topless women crawl around”), altercations with the police (“consider slaphappy Hungarian Zsa Zsa Gabor”), or even murder (“Any vestiges of our expectations about guilt . . . vanished with the Menendezes”), one gang was behind it all.

Many of the specifics in Friend’s bill of indictment are absurd, but there is a more fundamental problem with his analysis. Why do the rich feature so prominently in his rogues’ gallery of white trash? The Menendez brothers grew up in a wealthy (not to mention Hispanic) family. Zsa Zsa Gabor also came from a well-to-do background. Ties, suspenders, and $20 table dances also don’t fit the white-trash profile. The writer explained: “A clear symptom of the white-trash epidemic is that trash signifiers and behavior have become slipperier.” Watch your step, rich people. You might slip and start acting like white trash.

To support his claim that a light-skinned, proletarian horde was razing the civilized world, Friend cited the worsening poverty rate among whites in the U.S. and offered quotes from “scholar Charles Murray.” (Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s fatuous book The Bell Curve, in which the authors labeled African Americans and the poor genetically inferior, was published less than a month after “White Hot Trash!”) “White trash’s connotations increasingly describe America,” Friend summarized. “The country is becoming underclass-laden, illiterate, promiscuous, and just plain fat.” He evidently believes that poverty and illiteracy are personal choices, on a par with overeating. “The country is becoming underclass-laden” is a revealing statement. According to Friend, poverty is something that the poor do to the nation rather than the other way around.

Friend’s attack was wide ranging, but he never strayed far from the topic of sex at its most lurid. This passage demonstrates how closely poverty and depravity are linked in his mind.

“[Courtney] Love’s delight in looking like ‘a 14-year-old battered rape victim,’ a ‘kinderwhore,’ [Friend did not provide the source(s) of those quotes] is a nutshell of white-trash chic. So, too, are the suggestively named Tease-brand baby-doll T-shirts, which evoke a Lolita-at-the-Dairy-Queen thing. (Real-life Lolita Bridget Hall, the 16-year-old model with an eighth-grade education from Farmers Branch, Texas, stayed with Ford Models head Eileen Ford when she came to New York but refused to eat her chili because it didn’t come from a can.)”

How did Bridget Hall get to be a “Lolita”? Are all young, female models Lolitas, or just those whose parents could only afford canned food? There is certainly room to criticize the photographers, clothiers, and advertisers responsible for producing sexualized images of models who resemble (or are) children, but why denigrate the model herself? An honest treatment of the issue would require investigation of the fashion industry, the posh snobs who run it, and the customers who pay colossal sums for its wares. Then there are the magazines that devote obsessive coverage to the details of models’ lives. For instance, New York now offers an online profile of Bridget Hall, including the names of celebrities she has dated and a list of her key characteristics as a model: “Body, Cheekbones, Hair.” It is easy to see why Friend preferred to place blame for the fashion world’s Lolita fixation on the narrow shoulders of a girl from an impoverished, rural background.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Friend resorted to this film reference: “Like the urbanities in Deliverance, we have found ourselves in the grinning clutches of sexually predatory backwoodsmen,” he bellowed. “White-trash culture commands us to ‘squeal like a pig!’ And we’re oinking.” There is no stopping the white-trash war on society. By Friend’s lights, even white-collar crime is a blue-collar problem: “Whitewater, though numbingly complex, is at bottom a pure good-old-boy scam.”

With that claim, he went too far. Between overeating, the headlong pursuit of sex, command performances on Cops, and forcing businessmen to frequent strip clubs, there hardly seems to be enough time in a white-trash day to devise new ways to evade financial-industry regulations. At the least, Friend should have admitted that his stereotype of the lazy, white-trash slob was inaccurate.

Of course, Whitewater amounted to only a small sidebar on the Savings & Loan crisis, which was still siphoning off billions of tax dollars when New York published its screed against white trash. Come to think of it, the chief perpetrators of the S&L bailout, President George H.W. Bush and his treasury secretary, Nicholas F. Brady, hail from the same old-money background as Tad Friend. As a matter of course, all three attended posh prep schools and Ivy League universities. The grandson of a famous industrialist, Brady went to Yale, where the Bush clan has been a fixture since the 1840s. Friend’s family tree has Ivy aristocracy on every branch: one of his ancestors was the first president of Yale. It is not surprising, therefore, that he decided to give it the old school try and tell his readers that society was rotting from the bottom rather than the top.

Though the article was syndicated nationally at the height of political correctness, no one in the media seemed to notice anything wrong with it. Friend became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1998, and he included “White Hot Trash!” in a 2001 collection of his magazine pieces. Had he chosen just about any other group as the target for his blunt expressions of hatred, his tenure as a writer for top magazines would have been cut short in favor of a challenging new career as Michael Savage’s on-air sidekick. Class bigotry, on the other hand, is considered perfectly respectable.

When it comes to scapegoating working-class Americans for the sins of the elite, Tad Friend is one example among many. After the billionaire-funded, corporate-shilling Tea Party emerged, Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, and other liberals called the group’s members “rednecks” and “hillbillies.” Some liberals still apply the “hillbilly” epithet—and other disparaging terms for low-income whites—to the Tea Party, even though an April 2010 CBS/New York Times poll showed that the typical Tea Partier has a higher income than the average American and is more likely to possess a college degree.

Liberals’ contempt for right-wing “rednecks” caused a mighty outcry at Fox News Channel: Conservatives are always ready to pose as defenders of everyday folks against liberal smears. Pretending to like working people (of any race) is a tough task for right-wingers, especially when Republican politicians need fall guys. In 2004, published photos revealed the grisly results of the Bush administration’s systematic use of torture against prisoners of war. The president, vice president, and defense secretary were directly responsible for the brutal policy, but not according to Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. In the pages of that newspaper, rightist pundit John Podhoretz blamed Bush’s torture program entirely on low-ranking soldiers. He also condemned a large segment of society, calling the soldiers “white-trash ghouls.” Conservative would-be populists, usually so easy to enrage, remained silent when Podhoretz and Murdoch showed what they really thought of working-class whites. Contempt for white trash is a point of bipartisan agreement.

For decades, the country’s elite has thwarted populism by making scapegoats of the powerless. Our economic nightmare will never end unless Americans learn to see through that tactic—even when the scapegoats are working class and white.