Open Letter to St. Louis Media

Dear St. Louis Media Professionals:

Hi. Remember me? I wrote to local media outlets a few weeks ago to announce that I had resigned my job as an archivist at Washington University to protest class bias in admissions. My open letter of resignation provided a detailed account of that problem. But no one here in St. Louis decided to do a story on the issues I raised. So I thought I’d do you a service by telling you why the public would be interested.

Dating back months before my resignation, I talked to many people here in St. Louis about Wash. U. and its lack of social diversity. These are well-informed people who have lived here many years and, in some cases, all their lives. Almost all of them were unaware of these facts:

1. Wash. U. discriminates in favor of applicants who are “legacies,” children of rich and, in most cases, white alumni.

2. Wash. U. is ranked last in social diversity among top national universities by U.S. News & World Report.

3. Wash. U. is a tax-exempt institution.

When the people I spoke to learned those three facts, they were outraged. When I noted Point 3, most initially thought I was joking.

In other words, local residents were shocked and angered upon hearing basic facts about the third-largest employer in the region, an institution with (according to the latest federal data) a $5.3 billion endowment that is subsidized by taxpayers. I don’t mean to tell you your business, but I would say that constitutes a failure on the part of St. Louis media.

When I reached out to local media, most simply ignored me. Two reporters did call, however. One interviewed me for about a half hour, but failed to write a story. The other lost interest as soon as he realized I was not a professor. I’m not sure how he formed that false impression. But I would suggest that, at some point, some of you might want to consider deciding newsworthiness based on the facts and their relevance to the public, rather than the social status of the person stating the facts. I wish I could get a rich, famous person to tell you that.

Attendance at a prestigious college confers lifelong advantages, so the stakes are high. For a working-class person who lacks high-level connections or the financial means to work unpaid internships, a degree from a highly rated university is often essential for a successful career. Discrimination in college admissions has devastating, permanent consequences.

Let’s look at a hypothetical case of two applicants to see how Washington University discriminates, and how taxpayers foot the bill. Student A is working class and the first in her family to apply to college. Student B is a wealthy legacy, and her parents donated substantial money to Wash. U. Student A has the better academic record. But Wash. U. rejects her and admits Student B, based on legacy preference.

Student B’s parents made donations to Wash. U. to ensure that their academically deficient offspring got admitted instead of someone more qualified. In other words, they paid bribes. Since Washington University is a registered non-profit, Student B’s parents got to take tax deductions on their bribes.

Likewise, when Wash. U. accepts such bribes, the university does not pay taxes on them: federal, state, or local. When the university invests money on Wall Street, the proceeds from those investments are also tax-free. And, finally, when Wash. U. uses some of that money to make purchases, it does not pay sales tax.

Who pays for all those generous tax breaks that subsidize discrimination? Student A’s family and everyone else who pays taxes and does not benefit from legacy preferences. If Student A’s family lives in St. Louis, the system is especially unfair to them, because they pay state and local taxes from which Wash. U. is exempt.

I think about such families often. You should try thinking about them once.

You’re not concerned about the effect of Wash. U.’s discriminatory policies on working-class St. Louisans. But there are other angles you could take on my story. For instance, I challenged The New York Times about errors in the paper’s coverage of Wash. U. and social diversity. At first, Editor Jane Karr refused to make the more important changes and also resorted to elitist insults. Then she made the corrections.

That’s right. I got The New York Times to correct one of its articles. That’s a big deal: it’s the closest a working-class person like me ever gets to writing an article for the NYT. Normally, you’re interested in stories of local people who get noticed by members of the elite who live on one of the coasts. Normally, you’re on the lookout for cases in which coastal elitists express condescending attitudes about people in the region. But not in this instance.

Are you really too scared of Wash. U. to take on this story? What else could be the problem? All the assertions I made in my resignation letter were based on publicly available sources, linked in the letter itself. I realize that my claims may have seemed shocking, but that is only because no one had put all the facts together before.

If you had any questions about me, my letter, or my motives, you could have asked. I told both reporters I spoke to that I would be happy to provide copies of my excellent work evaluations from supervisors, lest they think my resignation was somehow about my job, rather than the reasons I stated in my letter. Neither was interested.

I don’t expect this letter to change the minds of you media-makers who ignored this story. But there is one more question I’d like to ask. Over the past few weeks, many have commented on the case of Rob Kuznia, a reporter who received a Pulitzer Prize after he had already quit journalism for a job in public relations. If that happens to you (a PR job, not a Pulitzer), do you think your work will change much?

Sincerely,

Chris Pepus

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Open Letter to the Ferguson Commission

Clayton, Missouri, seat of St. Louis County government
Clayton, Missouri, financial center and seat of St. Louis County government

Dear Ferguson Commission Members:

Thank you for taking on the task of finding ways to heal our community. I would like to offer a proposal for your consideration. It is time to use tax policy to redress severe inequalities.

The killing of Michael Brown Jr., and the events that followed, demonstrated once again that institutionalized racism is alive in St. Louis—City and County. But I am encouraged by the new proposal from one of your commission’s working groups, which calls for additional police training aimed at reducing racial bias. Last October, veteran activist Percy Green II advocated that police receive regular psychological testing and be required to live in the communities they serve. I believe those recommendations are also essential.

We must confront racism in policing and in other aspects of daily life. But we must also deal with economic divisions. Municipalities like Ferguson receive a large part of their operating funds from a race- and class-biased system of excessive fines. That poisons relationships between police and community, creating a system that more closely resembles a colonial occupation than the protection of free citizens.

These are the main economic causes of that system: the rich do not pay their fair share in taxes, and rigid divides between jurisdictions prevent the wealth of St. Louis from benefiting all St. Louisans. For the past three-and-a-half decades, the wealthy have received one huge tax cut after another. When the rich avoid taxes, the working class gets squeezed. And working-class African Americans are by far the most frequent targets of profiteering law enforcement.

Likewise, Michael Brown Jr.’s story highlighted educational inequalities. It brought media attention to issues of poverty and budget shortfalls at Normandy High School, problems that symbolized the struggles of so many public schools. Again, this is about taxes, and those who do not pay their share.

I propose that, in addition to raising taxes substantially on the rich in general, we revoke tax exemptions for rich, socially exclusive colleges. I recently resigned my position as an archivist at Washington University to protest taxpayer-subsidized class bias in admissions. Wash. U. is the least economically diverse top national university in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Only 6% of that university’s undergraduates receive Pell Grants, a federal scholarship for low- and middle-income students.

Washington University also lags behind in racial diversity: 6% of Wash. U. undergraduates are African American and 5% are Hispanic, according to the most recent federal data. Yet that university is exempt from taxes—federal, state, and local—despite possessing an endowment of (at last federal count) $5.3 billion.

Wash. U. administrators recently set a goal of 13% Pell Grant recipients in the 2020-21 freshman class, which may not even be enough to get Wash. U. out of 25th and last place on the U.S. News economic-diversity list. For comparison, here are the latest (2012-13 academic year) percentages of Pell Grant recipients at local four-year colleges:

Harris-Stowe State University: 84%

Fontbonne University: 43%

Webster University: 41%

Lindenwood University: 39%

University of Missouri at St. Louis: 34%

Maryville University: 34%

Missouri Baptist University: 23%

Saint Louis University: 15%

Washington University: 6%

(Figures are based on federal data available here and here.)

I am sure that Wash. U. administrators would tell us that theirs is a leading international university and that such local comparisons are unfair. But the University of California at Berkeley is rated higher than Wash. U. in most rankings and has an endowment with less than one-fourth the value of Wash. U.’s. However, 36% of UC Berkeley undergrads are Pell Grant recipients. I do not believe that colleges with enormous wealth, such as Wash. U., deserve tax exemptions, unless they do at least as well as UCB in enrolling Pell recipients.

Washington University also discriminates blatantly in its admissions policies. That university offers preferences for rich, and mostly white, children of alumni, known as “legacies.” That system of hereditary privilege has no place in the 21st century. It is especially unfair to working-class St. Louisans, whose children are placed at a disadvantage when applying to Wash. U., but who have to pay regressive sales taxes that Wash. U. is allowed to avoid.

To be fair, Washington University provides services to the St. Louis community, especially in the form of programs that offer free health care for some low-income patients. But the value of those services is outweighed by the negative effects of the university’s tax exemptions. Also, a university is ultimately about students, and decisions about which students to admit should not be discriminatory. The problem with institutions such as Wash. U. is that they want to act like country clubs and be taxed like charities.

St. Louis University, with a 2012 endowment of $852 million and only 15% Pell Grant recipients in its undergraduate student body, also stands out as a rich institution sadly lacking in social diversity. As such, SLU should also lose its tax exemptions. Many assume that religious institutions are guaranteed tax exemptions by the U.S. Constitution. That is not true; it is simply a matter of policy.

There is also a simple, practical consideration. Whenever anyone proposes a corporate tax increase, we always hear that it will drive out business. Well, St. Louis’s rich colleges are not going anywhere. We’ll never see Chancellor Mark Wrighton uproot Washington University, put it on the world’s largest flatbed truck, and drive it to Kansas to take advantage of tax cuts for business. (Sorry, Governor Brownback.)

There is little information on the financial value of tax exemptions for private colleges. Those institutions’ private status restricts access to data, and most experts have ignored the issue. In 2013, however, Brian Schmidt, former executive director of the Missouri General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Tax Policy, estimated tax losses from properties Wash. U. owned in University City, excluding those on the main Wash. U. campus. He reported that there was “a loss of potential tax revenue totaling $1,056,279 in 2012.”

That revenue loss relates to only a portion of Wash. U.’s property, and property tax is only one area of taxation. The university is also exempt from paying taxes on the purchases it makes, the donations it receives, and its income from investments on Wall Street. Despite the effects of the financial crash of 2008, Wash. U.’s endowment grew by an average of $118 million a year between 1999 and 2012—all tax-free. We can no longer afford such indulgence, if we ever could.

As I write this, events in Baltimore are providing a grim reminder that the problems that caused the Ferguson crisis still plague the country and the world. To solve those problems, we need to address economic inequalities as well as racial ones. Fairer tax policies, including taxation of rich, socially exclusive universities, must be part of the solution. I respectfully urge you to say so in your report.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Chris Pepus

St. Louis County resident and taxpayer

The New Racial Scapegoating

Racism and right-wing extremism have returned with a boldness not seen since the Jim Crow era. The signs are clear. Right-wingers openly gloated about the police killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown Jr., shortly after they lionized armed racists at the Bundy ranch who challenged the existence of the U.S. government. Meanwhile, George Zimmerman basked in the folk-hero status that conservatives bestowed on him after he killed unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. To complete the picture, there are attacks on voting rights, anti-immigrant outbursts, and the spectacle of the Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, embracing a group regarded as a “domestic terrorist movement” by the FBI.

The explanation for resurgent hate-mongering seems equally clear: the country elected and re-elected an African-American president. If we need another explanation, we can cite white conservatives’ fears about immigration and changing U.S. demographics. But a central cause of the racist revival has gone unnoticed. Right-wingers opened a toxic new era of racism when they decided to scapegoat minorities for the financial crisis.

The crisis, and the bipartisan giveaways to the banks that were responsible for it, demolished conservatives’ claims about regulation and made a joke of their professed devotion to “fiscal responsibility” and “self-reliance.” Naturally, Republican politicians and right-wing media could not allow their followers to see the crisis in its true light. They needed to find someone to take the fall for Wall Street’s thefts. So they launched a massive campaign to blame racial minorities, especially African Americans.

At the center of that campaign is the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act. The CRA set out this objective for federal bank regulators:

to require each appropriate Federal financial supervisory agency to use its authority when examining financial institutions, to encourage such institutions to help meet the credit needs of the local communities in which they are chartered consistent with the safe and sound operation of such institutions.

The law was designed to discourage “redlining,” in which banks refuse to make loans to residents of certain neighborhoods, irrespective of the applicants’ credit. Redlining is a cornerstone of housing discrimination motivated by race bias, class bias, or both. With good reason, the authors of the CRA believed that if a bank accepts deposits from residents of a particular area, the bank should not systematically exclude those residents from its services.

Did that law cause an economic meltdown three decades after it passed? Let’s look at what the experts say. Dean Baker, an economist who issued early warnings about the dangers of the housing bubble, has repeatedly written that the Community Reinvestment Act is not to blame for the financial crash. In 2011, Baker wrote: “The biggest actors in the subprime market were mortgage banks like Ameriquest and Countrywide . . . They were not covered by the CRA.” “Many of the worst loans were made to finance homes purchased in newly created exurbs,” Baker added. “The CRA is about having banks make loans in inner city areas where they take deposits.”

The U.S. government’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission reached the same conclusion. In its 2011 report, the Commission stated that “the CRA was not a significant factor in subprime lending or the crisis . . . Research indicates only 6% of high-cost loans—a proxy for subprime loans—had any connection to the law.”

Even Bloomberg Businessweek published a piece rejecting right-wingers’ attempts to blame the CRA for the crisis. In a September 2008 article in that publication, Aaron Pressman wrote that “loans made under the CRA program were made in a more responsible way than other subprime loans.” In fact, “CRA loans carried lower rates than other subprime loans and were less likely to end up securitized into the mortgage-backed securities that have caused so many losses.”

Pressman also offered helpful suggestions for anyone looking for government policies that contributed to the crash.

Better targets for blame in government circles might be the 2000 law which ensured that credit default swaps would remain unregulated, the [Securities and Exchange Commission’s] puzzling 2004 decision to allow the largest brokerage firms to borrow upwards of 30 times their capital and that same agency’s failure to oversee those brokerage firms in subsequent years as many gorged on subprime debt.

Of course, that sort of analysis was the last thing leading conservatives wanted their followers to see. The Community Reinvestment Act was a terribly weak basis for a frame-up, but rightists lacked a better one. So they pushed their trumped-up case as hard as they could.

On September 25, 2008—ten days after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection—Laura Ingraham was a guest on The O’Reilly Factor. Host and guest both endorsed the lie that the crash was due to CRA-driven efforts to force banks to make home loans to “minority communities.”

Ingraham: Bill, the problem here is government intervention in the free markets. Nineteen ninety-five, when Bill Clinton decided to tell, you know, Robert Rubin to rewrite the rules that govern the Community Reinvestment Act and push all these institutions to lend to minority communities, many were very risky loans. That was a noble idea, perhaps, but that certainly wasn’t following free-market principles. This big pressure on institutions to dole out money and these risky loans started this whole ball rolling at Fannie [Mae] and Freddie [Mac].

O’Reilly: I don’t disagree with you.

That same month, Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto put the same message more succinctly: “Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster.” In October 2008, Lisa Schiffren at National Review offered the McCain campaign advice on how to address the financial crisis:

Obama and his allies . . .  overrode traditional banking norms, which they called racist. Now we are all paying for their leftist ideology. For a real fight, mention the Community Reinvestment Act.

Sean Hannity followed the same line in November 2008, saying that “The federal government and the Democrats, they forced these banks, through the Community Reinvestment Act, to make these risky loans.”

The right’s obsessive scapegoating has continued apace since 2008. In 2010, Glenn Beck called the CRA a “scheme that really led to all of the things that we’re now having to bail banks out for.” And here is Rush Limbaugh in 2013: “There was a thing called a Community Redevelopment or Reinvestment Act. I’m not sure of the title.” It appears that you have researched this matter carefully, Mr. Limbaugh. Please continue. “[The CRA] was a plan designed to get people into houses who had no business being in houses because they couldn’t afford them.” Limbaugh then specifically excused Wall Street: “You might have heard that the banks were responsible, that the banks did this. The banks were under federal orders.” Lest his listeners miss the point of his broadcast, Limbaugh said: “Most of the beneficiaries of the subprime mortgage were minorities.” Lest his listeners still miss the point, he added: “Racial minorities.”

Those lies by Limbaugh were double-barreled. The evidence indicates that most borrowers who received subprime loans were white. More fundamentally, the “beneficiaries of the subprime mortgage,” as Limbaugh calls them, were not the people who took out those loans. The true beneficiaries were the financial institutions that bundled worthless home loans into securities, sold them to unsuspecting customers, crashed the world economy by doing so, and then received a fortune in government handouts.

Right-wingers’ cover-up for Wall Street created an ugly new strain of race-baiting. Fox-watching, Limbaugh-listening white people had long been presented with vicious stereotypes of minorities, particularly African Americans. The two main stereotypes are the violent criminal and the welfare cheat: witness George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton campaign ads and Ronald Reagan’s fictitious Chicago welfare queen. But terrible as those slurs are, they have certain limits.

Before the ’08 crash, if you were a white conservative living in a suburb, small town, or rural area with few black residents, your fear of black criminals probably did not seem an immediate, daily threat (depending, of course, on your level of paranoia). And, as much as you might fulminate against “minorities and illegal immigrants on welfare,” your (fictitious) grievance against them was probably restricted to complaining about paying taxes to support “freeloaders.”

All that changed in the wake of the right’s post-crash scapegoating. In Foxworld, the urban thug and the welfare queen both graduated to white-collar crime on a global scale. After September 2008, if you or someone close to you lost a job, lost a home, or suffered other economic fallout, conservative media were there to tell you that greedy minorities were the ones who did it to you. It was—is—a whole new chapter in the classically American story of misdirected anger.

It is easy to see the impact of that gross distortion of reality. If you believe the Fox-Rush gang, you believe that your post-2008 economic struggles were caused by minorities, and especially black people, taking homes they didn’t deserve and threatening your job and home by wrecking the economy. That belief lies at the root of the current manifestation of racism, which is intensely focused on the idea of defending home and neighborhood. George Zimmerman is a hero to conservatives because they regard him as a man ready to use force to stop the black threat to the neighborhood—or in his words, stop a “fucking punk” who was “looking at all the houses” and “up to no good.” Cliven Bundy takes on a similar role for right-wingers, claiming to defend God-given property rights against a black man in the White House. Bundy’s friends at Fox News Channel distanced themselves from him when he stated their racism a little too explicitly, but neither the appeals to armed violence nor the racism underlying them are going away any time soon.

If that seems far-fetched, consider the case of Representative Steve King (R., Iowa), who equated President Obama with Kim Jong-un because of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s decision to cancel the Washington Redskins’ trademark. Back in September 2009, King took a leading role in the effort to protect the banks by demonizing minorities. In a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, he characterized the financial crash by combining the stereotype of the black welfare queen with the stereotype of the black criminal, throwing ACORN into the mix for good measure.

These are the things, some of the things, that ACORN has done. They’ve contributed to the toxic-mortgage situation that brought about the economic meltdown, just a year ago. And they’ve done so by shaking down lenders, by demanding contributions from lenders.

Rep. King’s speech displays all the elements of the right’s racist scapegoating: corrupt minorities and their allies staging a shakedown, demanding homes and money they don’t deserve, while powerless white bankers are compelled to go along. And those imaginary events are supposed to have taken place when George W. Bush was president, before Barack Obama—described by conservatives as a black “thug” from Chicago—moved into the White House.

If you believed right-wingers’ explanation for the crash and recession, you would wonder what could possibly stop the onslaught against your livelihood by minority home-stealers/economy-wreckers and their federal allies. You would view white police officers as a crucial line of defense against black lawlessness. You might even conclude that nothing short of “Second Amendment solutions” could save you.

Conservatives took the anger caused by the financial crisis and diverted it from Wall Street to minorities and government programs designed to fight racism and help the poor. Given the persistence of those smears, and the scope of economic suffering since 2008, we should not be surprised by the upsurge in racism nor by the emergence of heavily armed right-wing cadres, preaching insurrection. We should be surprised that it has not been worse.

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.

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.

Michael Brown Jr. Case Update

I want to mention a recent report by Shaun King of Daily Kos on a key contradiction between the facts and the official police account of Officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown Jr. King took measurements at the scene and proved that when Brown was killed, he was standing a far greater distance from Officer Wilson’s SUV (about 148 feet) than the St. Louis County Police reported (about 35 feet).

That fact severely undercuts Wilson’s reported defense that he feared for his life. Brown fled so far away that Wilson was obviously not in danger, especially since he had called his dispatcher for backup before any physical confrontation took place, and could expect reinforcement soon. (In fact, analysis of police audio by Robert Patrick of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch puts another officer on the scene just 73 seconds after Wilson asked for backup.)

This evidence also has implications for the St. Louis County Police and the press. King writes:

If the police will lie about this fact, what else have they openly lied about? Did they present this false distance to the grand jury? Why does the media continue to advance this lie?

You can King’s report, including video of him and a colleague conducting a measurement at the scene, here.