Monday, September 29, 2014

Venture Capitalists and For-Profit Firms Poised for a Feeding Frenzy at Public Ed Trough

Venture Capitalists Are Poised to ‘Disrupt’ Everything About the Education Market

(Reuters/Tom Mihalek)

This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

In his book, Finding the Next Starbucks: How to Identify and Invest in the Hot Stocks of Tomorrow, Michael Moe, describes how carefully crafted business strategies have transformed markets to create huge profits in unlikely sectors. The title relates to how Starbucks became a global corporation of almost $15 billion in revenue by capturing and streamlining the café experience.

Moe, a former director at Merrill Lynch, wrote that at one point in the United States, even healthcare was an undesirable and difficult industry for investment, and that bankers once worried if profit-making in such a realm was worth their effort. In 1970, healthcare spending comprised 8 percent of GDP, yet market capitalization in healthcare stood at less than 3 percent.

That shifted quickly not only as the boomer generation aged, but as a wave of privatization hit hospitals, insurers, and other segments of the healthcare system. More than thirty years later, Moe wrote, healthcare companies are among the largest in the world, and represent more than 16 percent of US capital markets. “We see the education industry today as the healthcare industry of 30 years ago,” Moe predicted.

That book came out eight years ago, before the current wave of education investing, when the prospect for growth seemed dim. Unlike in healthcare, energy and other areas of the economy that have moved from public to private hands, K-through-12 education has stubbornly remained largely out of the control of investors.

Next year, the market size of K-12 education is projected to be $788.7 billion. And currently, much of that money is spent in the public sector. “It’s really the last honeypot for Wall Street,” says Donald Cohen, the executive director of In the Public Interest, a think tank that tracks the privatization of roads, prisons, schools and other parts of the economy.

That might be changing soon as barriers to investment are rapidly fading. As Eric Hippeau, a partner with Lerer Ventures, the venture capital firm behind viral entertainment company BuzzFeed and several education start-ups, has argued, despite the opposition of “unions, public school bureaucracies, and parents,” the “education market is ripe for disruption.”

Hippeau’s vision is the growing sentiment among investors. Education technology firms secured a record $1.25 billion in investments across 378 deals in 2013, while analysts predict that number will continue to surge this year. Since 2010, Moe has led what has been billed as the premiere education investment conference, which takes place annually in Scottsdale, Arizona. The first year attracted around 370 people and 55 presenting companies. This year, that number soared to over 2,000 with over 290 presenting companies and speeches by luminaries including former Governor Jeb Bush, Magic Johnson and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. One of the largest start-ups, a Herndon, Virginia–based company called K12 Inc., a for-profit largely online charter chain, posted nearly $1 billion in annual revenue for its last fiscal year in August.
Many are attempting to duplicate that success. “There’s a dramatic shift in how investors are thinking about this industry,” Fahad Hassan, an education entrepreneur with his own venture-backed start-up, told a meeting of entrepreneurs earlier this year.

The explosion of investor interest in education raises a number of questions, among them: What kind of influence will the for-profit education sector attempt to exert over education policy? And if school reform is crafted to maximize the potential for investor profit, will students benefit, as boosters claim—or will they suffer?

There’s also the question of the effect of privatization on costs. And there, the healthcare example gives reason for concern. The privatization of health services has corresponded closely with skyrocketing costs, leaving millions of Americans without access to care or deeply in debt for seeking treatment for their illnesses. While new laws, including the Affordable Care Act, have extended insurance coverage to some 10 million Americans, many remain without coverage. The United States still spends $8,745 per capita on healthcare, far above the average for all other industrialized countries.

The tantalizing prospect of tapping into the K-12 market has drummed up new level of zeal from education reformers.

A good barometer of this passion is a document distributed by Moe, who now leads a firm called GSV Capital, which invests heavily in education start-ups including Knewton Inc. and Avenues, a New York–based private school with plans to expand into a global chain. Like any sweeping manifesto, his education reform blueprint sets the stage by listing massive social upheavals—the Arab Spring, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Spanish Civil War—and asks, for the “Second American Revolution,” one fought to decide the fate of education policy, “Which side of history will we be on?”

An example of how privateers snatch our public dollars for their profit-maximization schemes/hustles.
The revolution GSV goes on to describe is a battle to control the fate of America’s K-12 education system. Noting that this money is still controlled by public entities, or what’s referred in the document as “the old model,” the GSV paper calls for reformers to join the “education battlefield.” (A colorful diagram depicts “unions” and “status quo” forces equipped with muskets across businesses and other “change agents” equipped with a fighter jet and a howitzer.) The GSV manifesto declares, “we believe the opportunity to build numerous multi-billion dollar education enterprises is finally real.”

This opportunity exists in part because of major policy changes under the Obama administration. States moving to adopt the federal government’s Common Core standards, which include new standardized testing requirements, have incentivized the private sector to provide solutions to schools. According to Paul Irby, a market analyst with Onvia, states striving to implement the new standards could spend upwards of $12 billion, with much of the money going to updating IT, professional development for teachers, and testing technology.

Moreover, the Obama administration’s signature “Race to the Top” program, which provides states with large cash grants in exchange for changing how students and teachers are evaluated, is being viewed as a potential cash cow for education start-ups. In a blog post, Alex Hernandez, a partner with the Charter School Growth Fund, writes that school districts are “raising more money than you can shake a stick at” and the money granted to local school systems from Race to the Top may be used on the latest tech innovations. The most recent round of Race to the Top Funding, he adds, means districts “should be unwrapping new toys for a while.”

The Department of Education under Obama has seen a flow of revolving door hires from the education investment community. In May of this year, the Senate confirmed Ted Mitchell, the chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund, as the Under Secretary for the US Department of Education. Prior to his government position, Mitchell, a personal investor in an array of education start-ups, forged a partnership last year with the creators of Facebook app FarmVille to create new education game products. James Shelton, the Deputy Secretary, is a longtime education investor and the former co-founder of LearnNow, a charter chain that was sold to Edison Learning, a for-profit charter management company.

In an interview with EdSurge, a trade outlet, Shelton explained that the Common Core standards will allow education companies to produce products that “can scale across many markets,” overcoming the “fragmented procurement market” that has plagued investors seeking to enter the K-12 sector. Moreover, Shelton and his team manage an education innovation budget, awarding grants to charter schools and research centers to advance the next breakthrough in education technology. Increased research and development in education innovation, Shelton wrote in testimony to Congress, will spark the next “equivalent of Google or Microsoft to lead the global learning technology market.” He added, “I want it to be a US company.”
The other transformative changes come from the state and local level as a new class of politicians, including scores of Democratic mayors and Republican legislators and state officials, have ushered in new laws in recent years to divert taxpayer funding to charter schools, which are often run as for-profit companies and are more willing to embrace tech-centric classroom solutions than their public sector counterparts. In many states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Ohio, parents may opt to apply the amount the state would normally spend on their child’s education (between roughly $5,000 to $10,000) to send their children to a charter.

The opening up of the K-12 money for privately run schools, through charter schools or through vouchers applied to private schools, with restrictions on launching charter schools increasingly relaxed in many states, has created a boom in charter businesses hoping to persuade parents to trust their children, along with their money, with them. At present, more than 4 percent of students are enrolled at the more than 6,000 charter schools in operation. Few figures exist on how many of these students are taught by for-profit operators (in most states, charter schools must be registered as nonprofits, though they may outsource their operations to proprietary companies.)

The breakneck speed at which these schools have taken off, often with little oversight, has led to scandals. Since 2013, the FBI has investigated more than five charter schools in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and beyond on suspicion that management has misplaced or stolen funds. In Florida, a state with famously lenient rules for operating charters and among the highest concentration for-profit K through 12 schools, the Miami Herald has reported on a continuing laundry list of poorly run charters: students going weeks without textbooks, class attendance sheets faked, and children charged illegal fees for standard courses. In a growing phenomenon, one Florida for-profit company, Academica, has earned over $19 million a year by charging leasing fees to public school land already owned by its charter schools.

Does free market competition ensure accountability in education by turning bad operators into economic losers? That’s what privatizers claim, but the record so far suggests otherwise.
K12 Inc., the for-profit charter behemoth that enrolls 123,259 students, went public in 2007 with the help of Moe’s previous investment firm, and has since been a darling of Wall Street. In January of this year, students from Newark Prep Charter School, which is K12 Inc.-operated, joined executives from the company to ring in the bell of the New York Stock Stock Exchange. In Moe’s revolutionary manifesto, K12 Inc. is listed as among the businesses he considers the “special forces” that will remake the education landscape.

The rising revenues of K12 Inc. have been matched by poor performance. In the 2010-2011 school year, only 27.7 percent of K12 Inc.-operated schools met the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standard, far below the 52 percent average of brick and mortar public schools. An investigation in Colorado, where K12 Inc. has been ejected from several school districts, found that nearly half of online students left within a year, and when those students returned to brick and mortar schools, they were further behind academically than when they started. Similar investigations in Florida and Ohio found K12 Inc. teachers instructing classes without certification and instructing online classes of over 250 students.

In several states, K12 Inc.-operated virtual charter schools have faced a backlash because of poor performance and high drop-out rates. In July, Tennessee’s education commissioner announced the closure of the Tennessee Virtual Academy, K12 Inc.’s affiliate school, at the end of the 2014-2015 school year because of the charter’s failure to score above the state’s lowest level of academic achievement. Last month, Pennsylvania’s Agora Cyber Charter School, the largest school managed by K12 Inc., voted to consider ending its relationship with the company after revelations that the school allegedly manipulated attendance sheets and performance data in an attempt to conceal incredibly high rates of student turnover.

Still, despite wave after wave of negative press, K12 Inc. figures as a solid investment opportunity to many. Baird Equity Research, in a giddy note to investors this year about the potential growth of K12 Inc., noted, “capturing just two million (3.5%) of the addressable market yields a market opportunity of approximately $12 billion … Over the next three years, we believe that the company is capable of 7%+ organic revenue growth with modest margin expansion.” How will it achieve this growth? According to Baird, K12 Inc.’s “competency in lobbying in new states” is “another key point of differentiation.” The analyst note describes “K12’s success in working closely with state policymakers and school districts to enable the expansion of virtual schools into new states or districts” as a key asset. “The company has years of experience in successfully lobbying to get legislation passed to allow virtual schools to operate,” Baird concludes.

Indeed, K12 Inc.’s spectactular growth over the years stems largely from the extraordinary amount the company spends on lobbying, as well as on marketing and advertising, with promises in some areas that enrollment comes with a free computer. USA Today found that the company spent $21.5 million on advertising in the first eight months of 2012. The company sponsors billboards, radio advertisements, and spots on children’s cable television.

K12 Inc.’s lobbyists helped author model legislation to develop sweeping voucher laws through the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that provides state lawmakers with template legislation. Though state by state lobbying figures are difficult to come by, given the patchwork of varying laws, K12 Inc. has hired dozens of local officials to ensure that these voucher laws are quickly passed with few amendments. “We have incurred significant lobbying costs in several states,” K12 Inc. noted in a filing with the SEC.

“The stockholders benefit from those students’ enrollments, but the students get stuck with a lousy education that will follow them the rest of their lives,” says Jeff Bryant, the director of the Education Opportunity Network.

Nevertheless, Moe and his cohort have pledged to grow the industry by leaps and bounds in coming years. At the last two conference he organized, there was talk of organizing a bipartisan campaign to persuade 2016 presidential candidates to sign onto a statement of principles endorsing charters and other education innovations. The pledge also called for the federal government to create new tax incentives for spending on education companies akin to a health savings account.

At the last conference in April, Moe closed on an optimistic note. “How do you balance this whole idea between making a profit and helping kids?” he asked. “The way that we think we’re going to create the greatest returns for our investors is by investing in companies that have the greatest educational impact.”

Read more from our special education issue

Kenzo Shibata: “5 Books to Build a Movement for Education Justice
Dana Goldstein: “The Tough Lessons of the 1968 Teacher Strikes
Michelle Fine and Michael Fabricant: “What It Takes to Unite Teachers Unions and Communities of Color
Daniel Denvir: “How to Destroy a Public School System
Pedro Noguera: “Why Don’t We Have Real Data on Charter Schools?
Diane Ravitch: “The Secret to Eva Moskowitz’s ‘Success’
Gordon Lafer: “What Happens When Your Teacher Is a Robot?



BOOK REVIEW: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

<The Half Has Never Been Told
, soars because of the author's decision to root his analysis in the human dimension.>>

Charles R. Larson

September 26, 2014

During the 1930s, the WPA sent out workers to interview men and women who had been slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation. It was 72 years after slavery had been abolished and the interviewees were old but their memories were still vivid. When probed by an interviewee, Lorenzo Ivy responded, "Truly, son, the half has never been told." After the Civil War, black life during slavery was sanitized, deodorized and, above all, reported by Caucasians—not by the people who had toiled under the murderous system. To a certain extent, that one-sided view has persisted. Historians of the South—largely while men—continued the subterfuge. And even recent attempts to set the record straight have followed in the steps of their predecessors: a chapter on families, one on women, etc., looking at groups instead of individuals.

Hence, the need for Edward E. Baptist's monumental examination of slavery, presented in an entirely new way, extensively through the voices of the slaves themselves. Baptist has not simply read the WPA interviews but, apparently, every other account of what happened, particularly the many slave narratives published before and after the end of slavery. And, then—what is most original here—he has organized his own account by using parts of the body; for slavery was, above all, an affront to the basic dignity of the corporal body. These are the chapter titles: "Feet," "Heads," "Right Hand," "Left Hand," "Tongues," "Breath," "Seed," "Blood," "Backs," and "Arms"—largely parts of the body. The Introduction ("The Heart") and the Afterword ("The Corpse") complete the picture.

The first chapter ("Feet") begins,

"Not long after they heard the first clink of iron, the boys and girls in the cornfield would have been able to smell the grownups' bodies, perhaps even before they saw the double line coming around the bend. Hurrying in locked step, the thirty-old men came down the dirt road like a giant machine. Each hauled twenty pounds of iron, chains that draped from neck to neck and wrist-to-wrist, binding them all together. Ragged strips flapped stiffly from their clothes like dead-air pennants. On the men's heads, hair stood out in growing dreads or lay in dust-caked mats. As they moved, some looked down like catatonics. Others stared at something a thousand yards ahead. And now, behind the clanking men, followed a marching crowd of women loosely roped, the same vacancy in their expressions, endurance standing out in the rigid strings of muscle that had replaced their calves in the weeks since they left Maryland. Behind them all swayed a white man on a gray walking horse."

The men (often with a thousand pounds of iron connecting them) were part of a coffle, enslaved migrants walking seven or eight hundred miles, chattel property, being moved from the north to the south because the profits when they were sold to their new owners were one hundred percent. The slave trade in Africa no longer mattered because slaves in the more northern states (Virginia, especially, but also Maryland) were reproducing so quickly that they created an entire new source of labor. Baptist gives the year as 1805, and states that eventually a million slaves were herded this way to the South. Tobacco farming in the North was less profitable than cotton farming in the South. "The coffle chained the early American republic together." Slaves walked and walked for five or six weeks, performing their ablutions as they moved. There wasn't an iota of dignity for the men. Baptist refers to the entire procedure as a "pattern of political compromise" between the North and the South and notes that eight of the first twelve Presidents of the United States were slave owners.

The movement of such huge numbers of slaves to the part of the country that could more productively use them was a "forced migration" grounded on "forced separations, violence, and new kinds of labor." Equally disturbing—and this is the thesis of Baptist's magnificent book—"all northern whites had benefited from the deepened exploitation of enslaved people." Thus, there are no chapters on the African slave trade or the Middle Passage here, but a focus instead on what might be called the second stage of slavery in America. The movement to the deep South would continue for years because of increased productivity of the slaves themselves. In the North, one hand usually sufficed for their work (the dominant hand) but cotton picking required the complicated dexterity of both hands working together.

Moreover, as the country expanded, Southerners made certain that many of the new states further west became slave states where cotton production could continue. So Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia were soon augmented by Texas, Arkansas, and eventually Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, Union territories permitting slavery. It was a nasty balance but it permitted the growth of cotton plantations across the country as well as the steadily increasing cotton industry throughout the entire world ("massive profits from textile manufacturing"—not just in the United States.) Cotton became the "global economy's most important raw material."

The plantation owners developed something known as the "pushing system," forcing the cotton pickers to increase productivity. There were quotas and severe punishments for those who failed, and if a slave had a day when he (or she) picked more than any other day, that became his (or her) new daily quota. Torture for failed quotas was endemic. All white people in the country benefitted, even though some northerners insisted they were no part of it.

Baptist is not afraid to refer to the entire system as "stealing." "If you want to rule a person, steal the person. Steal him from his people and steal him from his own right hand, from everything he has grown up knowing. Take her to a place where you can steal everything else from her: her future, her creativity, her womb." In such a system there can be no good slave owners, only bad ones. "Stealing can never be an orderly system undergirded by property rights, cushioned by family-like relationships. There is no balance between contradictory elements. There is only chaos and violence."

Fortunately, by the 1820s, there were increasing pronouncements from white Americans that slavery had to end. And there were increasing narratives published by slaves who had escaped that showed their limited number of readers just how appalling the entire system was. As I said earlier, Baptist relies on these accounts extensively, plus the isolated reports of a number of attempted revolts such as Nat Turner's. Christianity was also added to the fray, both as a justification of slavery, by some, and hope for many slaves who had been converted.

In spite of the enormous profits from cotton, it was not an uninterrupted trajectory of economic stability. Banks often lent out more money than they should have, using slaves as collateral. There was often economic turmoil. By the late 1830s, "In response to these clear incentives, enslavers created still more ways to leverage slaves into still more leverage. They mortgaged the same collateral from multiple lenders. They used slaves bought with long-term mortgages to bluff lenders into granting unsecured commercial loans. Above all, they kept buying more slaves on credit. Even if they ran into problems, they figured they would still win, because they could sell their assets. For the slave prices were still rising."

Inevitably there were panics, collapses, including one that began in Texas, in 1837. Then things bounced back again. Half of the country's economic activity was related to slavery. By 1850, there were three million slaves in the country. There were years of bitter arguments in Congress about the viability of the entire system. The Compromise of 1850 (another further balancing of slave areas with non-slave areas) simply continued the precarious holding pattern. There were major compromises over runaway slaves, the famous Lincoln/Douglas Debates, John Brown's execution—dark days for the country. Then in 1860, Lincoln won the election and southern states began to secede. Baptist remarks, "The South did not believe that the North would fight."

Most of the rest of the story is familiar, as grim as what happened before the end of the Civil War. Black soldiers had pushed the balance. "Their service in battle had saved the nation," though not necessarily to the benefit they had anticipated. It wasn't long before the South began imposing major restrictions on black people, the insidious "Jim Crow" laws. Other than a brief period immediately after the war, almost all black people were "shut out of the political system." Baptist observes, "Slavery and its expansion had built enduring patterns of poverty and exploitation. This legacy was certainly crystal clear in [the] early twentieth-century South. African-American households had virtually no wealth, for instance, while a substantial portion of the wealth held by white households, even after emancipation, could be traced to revenue generated by enslaved labor and financing leveraged out of their bodies before 1861."

When you consider the long-term effects of slavery, reaching into our world today, it is possible to say that the lives of African-Americans are substantially better than they have ever been before, but when you examine the actual economics impacting black people's lives, you see a much different picture. Numerous articles in the press during the past few years provide a bleak picture of black people's living situations. The gap among races widened during the recent economic recession. According to an article in The New York Times in August of this year, "The net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to 2011 census data. The gap has worsened in the last decade, and the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid." That's as damning an indictment of the long-term results of slavery in America as possible and something to consider when reflecting on the half-assed analyses of the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

Edward E. Baptist's brilliant book, The Half Has Never Been Told, soars because of the author's decision to root his analysis in the human dimension. The book transcends anything that has previously been written about slavery. Dozens of individual slaves are named in the study and their lives successfully worked into the lengthy narration of the legacy of slavery in our country. In short, Baptist has humanized the lives of American slaves, liberated them from one of the most inhumane systems mankind ever devised. The entire country needs to do the same.

Edward E. Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Basic Books, 498 pp., $35.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

America's Politico-Culture: Coddle Bad Cops, Vilify Good Teachers

We coddle bad cops, vilify good teachers

We defer to cops even when they kill, and scapegoat schools for the ills America has given up on. This must change

We coddle bad cops, vilify good teachers Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan in "The Departed" (Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

The killing of Michael Brown brought a great many things into focus — so many that it can be hard to keep track of them all. One important point was the dramatic contrast between elite treatment of police — routinely deferred to, even when they kill — and the routine scapegoating of teachers, who are demonized for all the ills that America’s elites have given up on.  Of course, this has nothing to do with police officers and teachers themselves. It has everything to do with the roles they play — or can play — in either strengthening and defending the status quo, or in empowering possibilities of change.

Darren Wilson not only typifies how dangerous bad police can be in America, but also how heavily protected they are.  Shortly after he was publicly identified, the Washington Post revealed that his first police job had been in Jennings, Missouri, a rare example of a police department shut down because it was so broken (primarily with regards to race relations) that the city council thought it was impossible to fix.  But Wilson carried no stain of that with him.
Teachers, in contrast, have grown all too familiar with mass firings in recent years, as schools are routinely closed with little or no relationship to actual teacher competency or conduct.

Indeed, President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have been enthusiastic supporters of this trend. In Chicago, where Duncan ran the school system before his Cabinet appointment, successive rounds of “school reform” firings have reduced the percentage of black teachers from about 40 percent to just under 30 percent, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed in late 2012.

In New Orleans, more than 7,000 teachers were fired without due process after Hurricane Katrina, and won a civil lawsuit providing back pay earlier this year. Yet, in 2010, Duncan said, “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.” Both Duncan and President Obama strongly supported the Central Falls, Rhode Island, school board when it fired all its high school teachers without due process in February 2010.

These are but the most high-profile examples of how mass-firing purportedly “bad teachers” without cause has become a routine part of “school reform.”  In light of such examples, Chicago educator Paul Horton has argued that “The Attack on Teacher Tenure Is an Attack on the Black Middle Class,” despite the fact that the corporate-driven “education reform” movement has branded itself as “the civil rights struggle of our time.”

Further revealing the pattern of police abuse surrounding Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown, it was later reported that Ferguson police have been involved in four federal lawsuits and more than a half-dozen investigations over the past decade, for a reported 13 percent rate of misconduct. What’s more, in a New York Times Op-Ed, University of California Irvine Law School dean Erwin Chemerinsky warned that even an announced Justice Department investigation would have limited impact. “ [I]f the conclusion is that the officer, Darren Wilson, acted improperly, the ability to hold him or Ferguson, Mo., accountable will be severely restricted by none other than the United States Supreme Court,” Chemerinsky wrote. “In recent years, the court has made it very difficult, and often impossible, to hold police officers and the governments that employ them accountable for civil rights violations.” The title of Chemerinsky’s Op-Ed? “How the Supreme Court Protects Bad Cops.”

Chemerinsky focused on a set of recent decisions — 2011 and later. But even before those decisions took effect, police accountability was almost nonexistent, according to an New York University law review article, “Police Indemnification,” by UCLA law professor Joanna C. Schwartz. When plaintiffs do recover money for police misconduct, it’s taxpayers, not the police, who foot the bill. In her conclusion, Schwartz wrote:
Law enforcement officers employed by the forty-four largest jurisdictions in my study were personally responsible for just .02% of the over $730 million paid to plaintiffs in police misconduct suits between 2006 and 2011. Law enforcement officers employed by the thirty-seven small and mid-sized departments in my study paid nothing towards settlements and judgments entered against them during this period. Officers did not contribute to settlements and judgments even when they were disciplined, terminated, or criminally prosecuted for their misconduct. [Emphasis added.]
This nationwide coddling of police misconduct — one might almost call it “encouragement” — stands in stark contrast to the above-indicated nonstop vilification of “bad teachers,” who never seem to kill anyone, and yet have been the subject of a sustained multi-decade bipartisan attack.
Brown himself was an educational success story, despite the odds, a high school graduate just days away from his first day in college, even though Ferguson’s school system is arguably as troubled as its police department.  As Rebecca Klein noted at Huffington Post, Brown’s high school, Normandy High, “is emblematic of a system that’s failing low-income kids.” It combines low graduation rates, high rates of violence, and soaring suspension rates; the state has labeled Normandy a “failed district” based on standardized test scores, and it’s located in a state where poor schools tend to get the least funding — one of two worst states (along with North Carolina) in terms of low scores on all four equity measures.

“Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?” his mother told news station KMOV. “You know how many black men graduate? Not many.”

Yet, graduate he did.

Michael Brown’s success seemed due to his efforts, his family’s support, and the attitudes of those who taught him. At least that’s the strong impression you get from Brown’s kindergarten teacher, Deidre Sealey, who posted a moving commentary about him on Facebook, which has been tweeted as well. “Michael was one of the kindest kids that I have taught,” she wrote. “Michael was quiet, yet funny. He had an infectious smile. Some things I remember most was how Michael’s grandfather or dad picked him up from school every day. His mom, dad, and extended family were fiercely protective of Michael and at that time, his only sister, Deja. They were active in every aspect of his education, conferences, school performance, et al….  Each of my colleagues, who had the opportunity to teach Michael, have echoed my sentiments.” 

The picture Sealey paints is not just of a young man who did everything right, educationally, but of a whole extended family that did — and, implicitly, educators who valued their years of dedication.

So where is the Deidre Sealey of the Ferguson police force? If there were one, odds are very good that Michael Brown would still be alive. Yet, the officer who killed Brown had a spotless record, according to the department, while the school district was overrun with “bad teachers,” according to the logic of the system that labeled it as “failed.”
There is something very wrong with the diagnostic systems that send us such signals, and it’s not that hard to decode what they actually mean: The police are supposed to maintain social order, and they are judged accordingly by those who call the shots; they can do no wrong. Teachers, on the other hand, are an unreliable lot. They can fill kids’ heads up with all sorts of crazy ideas. Liberty, equality, democracy. Maybe even a hint of what a real civil rights movement looks like. So they’ve got to be policed, themselves!

This isn’t to imply that Ferguson’s schools are actually much better than they seem—they’re not.  But it’s not the fault of “bad teachers.” It’s the fault of multiple factors, most of the largest ones traceable back to race and class. A recently published working paper, based on nationwide data, found that a 20 percent increase in school funding, due to changes that began in the 1970s, produced dramatic results in the academic success of low-income students:
[A] 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school for children from poor families leads to about 0.9 more completed years of education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty; we find no effects for children from non-poor families. The magnitudes of these effects are sufficiently large to eliminate between two-thirds and all of the gaps in these adult outcomes between those raised in poor families and those raised in non-poor families.
The problem, quite simply, is that those school funding changes have not gone far enough, and have even been reversed in some cases.  In Missouri, specifically, as noted above, the state actually increases disparities between affluent and poor districts. Add to that the nationwide reversal of desegregation gains, as documented by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, and you’ve explained the vast majority of what ails Ferguson’s school system.

As education policy expert David Berliner (co-author of “The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools” and “50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education“) wrote in an email published at top education advocate Diane Ravitch’s blog: “[O]utside-of-school variables count for about 3 times the effect of the inside-of-school variables, and they count for about six times the effect of teachers on the aggregate scores of classes and schools.”

As Berliner notes, these figures hold both nationally and internationally. Similarly, the American Statistical Association, in a cautionary statement about the use of “Value Added Measurement” to evaluate teachers, added: “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” [Emphasis added.]

The strongest contrast with how well-protected even lethally bad policing is compared to teachers came three weeks after Brown was killed, when the final review was issued in Vergara vs. California, striking down California’s teacher tenure laws.  The ruling — which has already been appealed — actually strikes down five California education laws, including teacher tenure, which for K-12 teachers merely means due process protection against arbitrary firing. Bad teachers deprived them of their civil rights, the plaintiffs argued, and the judge agreed — even though there was no solid evidence that any of them actually had a “bad teacher” as Diane Ravitch explained in June. One plaintiff said she had a bad teacher, and pointed to Christine McLaughlin, a Pasadena “teacher of the year.” Other plaintiffs were in charter schools or a pilot program where the tenure protections for teachers didn’t even apply!

With “standards” like that for who qualifies as a “bad teacher,” it’s impossible to say if Michael Brown ever had one. We only know one thing for sure: He wasn’t killed by one.

What should be obvious from all the above is that cops are unfairly protected when they do something grievously wrong, and the teachers are unfairly blamed when they simply show up for work in a difficult educational environment.  But my purpose here is not a simple role switch, arguing that individual police should be presumed guilty and individual teachers presumed innocent.

Instead, I’m saying three things:
1)  The most important factors for both law enforcement and education are not individual performance, but the conditions in which people work, the larger systems in which their work is embedded.
2)  We need to understand those systems as systems in order to avoid pursuing counterproductive strategies, no matter how right or “common sense” they may seem.
3)  Both law enforcement and education are ultimately embedded in the same larger social system, and a significant portion of the problems they face must be tackled on a broader scale.

Bad Individuals Are a Relatively Small Problem
Let’s turn to each of these points in turn. I’ve already alluded to data showing that individual teacher performance has a relatively small impact compared to other factors.  I’d like to provide some more detail before considering how similar arguments apply to law enforcement.
First, regarding teachers, I’d like to quote further from David Berliner’s email mentioned above.  It was written specifically about results from the 2012 international educational assessment known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. At one point, Berliner refers to an analysis of earlier data by Doug Willms, published in 2006. He writes:
His analysis suggests that if children of average SES attended one of their own nations high performing schools, or instead attended one of their own nations’ low performing schools, the difference at age 15, the age of PISA testing, would be equivalent to about 4 grade levels. Thus a 10th grader of average SES who can attend a high performing school is likely to score at about the 12th grade level (a grade level approximation from PISA data). And if that same child were to attend a low performing school, he or she would score at about the 8th grade level. It’s the same hypothetical child we are talking about, but with two very different lives to be lead as a function of the makeup of the schools attended. It is not the quality of the teachers, the curriculum, the computers available, or any number of other variables that are often discussed when issues of school quality come up. Instead, the composition of the school seems to be the most powerful factor in changing the life course for this hypothetical, average child.
Note that this analysis applies internationally; it is not limited to the U.S.  The problem that the U.S. has, which other nations do not, is that we have such a large proportion of low-performing schools, and that they tend to be racially segregated to a high degree. This analysis does not say that you can simply pluck a child out of one environment, place them in another, and then miracles will happen. It is about the entire life course of their education.  The effects involved clearly dwarf what even the most talented teacher could hope to accomplish in a single year. Obviously, it is better to have a good teacher than a bad one, but it’s much more important to go to a high-quality school, which is why schools figure so prominently in housing decisions of parents who can afford to consider and act on them.

Turning our attention to police, we can find support for a similar conclusion — that individual performance is a relatively minor factor in overall effectiveness — by looking at a very different sort of data, which came to wide public attention in the wake of Ferguson: data about the use of body cams to record police/civilian interactions.  Most commonly cited was the example of Rialto, California, where the use of body cams reduced citizen complaints by 88 percent and use-of-force incidents by 60 percent.  This was just one of five studies examined in a report for the Department of Justice, “Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras Assessing the Evidence,” by Arizona State University criminologist Michael White. White’s report is filled with caution and nuance, particularly given how new the technology is, and how few studies have yet been done (some still ongoing), but the general pattern seems to be borne out. White noted: “Several of the empirical studies have documented substantial decreases in citizen complaints (Rialto, Mesa, Plymouth, and Renfrewshire/Aberdeen studies) as well as in use of force by police (Rialto) and assaults on officers (Aberdeen).”

This is not to claim that body cams are a magic bullet.  

As Carlos Miller highlighted at Photography Is Not a Crime, results were quite different in Albuquerque.  This does not negate the point I’m making here, however. Rather, it serves to underscore another, closely related point in my argument: that systemic causes and forces predominate. When the system aligns itself with the goals of reducing use of force and citizen complaints, body cams have proven effective in helping to bring that about, without the need to replace “bad cops.” Most bad policing is a situational product, not a product of individual bad character.

Second, as I reported here in February, there is significant evidence that professional training eliminates a crucial aspect of shooter bias — the tendency to shoot unarmed black suspects more readily than white ones: “A test of trained police officers – one group from the Denver Police Department, the second a national sample – found that although the reaction-time bias remained, the far more critical error-rate bias was eliminated among trained police.”

These were results using a simulation game, but they’re the best evidence we have, and they clearly indicate that one of the most troubling — and subconscious — sources of perceived police misconduct can be virtually eliminated with no change at all in personnel.

Despite what I’ve just said, both police and teachers can perform poorly, of course, and this is an important concern, even if it’s not the most important factor.  However, the most effective way to deal with poor performance, in general, is first through supportive corrective measures, which means making changes to the systems that cops and teachers are a part of. An excessive reliance on punitive measures, including termination, reflect a failure of the systems as much or more than a failure of the individuals involved. Very few people go to work in any field wanting to do a bad job.  Even fewer do so when offered the means to do better. By all means, we should get rid of the ones who do, but we need to credibly assure the vast majority of good employees that they will not be unfairly targeted.

Undertanding Police and Education Problems As Systemic Problems
Shifting focus from individual teachers and cops to the systems they work in can sometimes lead to surprising results. Other times, it simply reaffirms common sense. The value and effectiveness of community-based policing in improving police-community relations is an example of the latter. On the other hand, an example of a surprising result comes in the area of arguments about “bad teachers” and teacher tenure.  That result, quite simply,  is that focusing intently on trying to get rid of bad teachers misses much more important factors, and may only make the problem worse.

It’s one of the best-known facts in the education community that teacher turnover is a major problem. The “bad teacher”/“bad teacher tenure” narrative tries to heap enormous blame onto a small minority of bad teachers — which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  How can a tiny minority of teachers — 1-3 percent was the figure cited in the Vergara case — bring an entire system to its knees, without being so outrageously bad that it’s easy to fire them for cause?  It makes sense as a fairy tale, of course. There has to be a super-evil villain, but of course nobody’s anti-teacher!  So it’s only a very, very small number of them, right?  But we have to take all their rights away, just to be on the safe side!

Meanwhile, in the real world, virtually everyone in the education field knows that the real problem is the difficulty of hanging on to promising new teachers.  Richard Ingersoll is perhaps the nation’s leading expert on the subject of why schoolteachers leave.  He is also an example.

He taught high-school social studies and algebra for six years, before quitting and getting his Ph.D. in sociology. In 2012, Ingersoll wrote:
Teacher attrition—teachers leaving teaching—is especially high in the first years on the job. Several studies, including our own analyses (Ingersoll, 2003; Ingersoll & Perda, in press), have estimated that between 40% and 50% of new teachers leave within the first five years of entry into teaching. Moreover, we have found that the attrition rates of first-year teachers have increased by about one-third in the past two decades. So, not only are there far more beginners in the teaching force, but these beginners are less likely to stay in teaching.
So, contrary to the notion that America’s big education problem is a tiny minority of bad teachers who hang around forever and just won’t quit, the real problem is almost the exact opposite: a near majority of new teachers who won’t stay. The subject of Ingersoll’s article was  “employee entry, orientation, and support programs—widely known as induction,” which the data suggest can be highly effective in reducing turnover rates, if they are sufficiently robust. Ingersoll found that “The factors with the strongest effect were having a mentor teacher from one’s subject area and having common planning or collaboration time with other teachers in one’s subject area.” There’s a good prima facie reason to think that such support programs are also an effective way to deal with the “bad teacher” problem before it ever comes to that.
One study, “The Cost of Teacher Turnover in Five School Districts,” found that “turnover costs, although difficult to quantify, are significant at both the district and the school level. We also find that teachers left high-minority and low-performing schools at significantly higher rates,” thus confirming the point that this is the actual teacher problem specifically impacting students in low-quality schools, even more so than the nation as a whole.
One of the key recommendations of the study was:
2. Target comprehensive retention strategies to at-risk schools
•  Teachers leave at-risk (low-income, high-minority, low-performing) schools at high rates.
•  Retention initiatives in these schools have the greatest potential for a high return on investment, both in terms of resources and school performance.
But that’s just one piece of the puzzle.  The second piece is how the obsessive focus on firing “bad teachers” actually makes the existing real challenges even worse, as indicated by the following from a story about the state-level trend to repeal teacher tenure:
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said taking away due process rights ultimately hurts low-income schools because teachers won’t want to take a risk to teach in such schools without strong labor protections.
Due process allows good teachers to “take risks on behalf of their kids,” Weingarten said.
As just noted, these are already the most difficult schools to retain new teachers in. The more rapid turnover is, the less experienced teachers these schools will have. Given that these schools have lower test scores for reasons having nothing to do with teacher quality, why would any new teacher with long-term aspirations want to teach in such schools, if they could be fired for no other reason than that they failed to produce a sufficient number of miracles?

The Larger System Where Police and Education Problems Come From
Finally, if we want to understand how both systems — education and criminal justice — fit together into a larger whole, we need to look at society as a whole. To make things more manageable, taking Ferguson as an example, we need to consider the history and political geography of the St. Louis region over a period of decades, and how this impacts people’s everyday lives. This story has been masterfully woven together by Radley Balko (“Rise of the Warrior Cop“) in the Washington Post, “How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty.”

Balko combines street-level reporting and interviews with key local actors in a cultural/historical/geographic framework derived from the work of Colin Gordon, author of “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City,” which is supplemented by a website of historically progressive maps and related documents. Balko also interviews Gordon, and the local actors he interviews include members of Arch City Defenders, whose recently released white paper on St. Louis County municipal courts provides a detailed account of how the deeply dysfunctional system operates today.

Gordon’s publisher, University of Pennsylvania Press, describes his book as follows:
“Mapping Decline” examines the causes and consequences of St. Louis’s urban crisis. It traces the complicity of private real estate restrictions, local planning and zoning, and federal housing policies in the “white flight” of people and wealth from the central city. And it traces the inadequacy—and often sheer folly—of a generation of urban renewal, in which even programs and resources aimed at eradicating blight in the city ended up encouraging flight to the suburbs. The urban crisis, as this study of St. Louis makes clear, is not just a consequence of economic and demographic change; it is also the most profound political failure of our recent history.
As Balko describes the accompanying online maps: “Gordon illustrates how white people didn’t just flee St. Louis, they used whatever tools were at their disposal to prevent black people from joining them, including race-restrictive deeds and covenants until they were struck down in 1947, segregation until it was struck down in 1954, real estate pacts, and finally zoning laws.”

As the most blatant forms of discrimination were struck down, blacks first began settling in St. Louis County in significant numbers, and a new dynamic emerged, Balko explained:
[W]hites engaged in what you might call a pattern of zone and retreat. It’s during these two waves of black immigration that you really begin to see the proliferation of municipalities in St. Louis County.
“Until only relatively recently, the state of Missouri had almost no rules for municipal incorporation,” Gordon says. “In just about every other state, when a new subdivision would spring up in an unincorporated area, the state would say, ‘If you want public services, you need to be annexed by the nearest town.’ In Missouri, you didn’t have that.”
Instead, developers would create new subdivisions outside a city. White people would move in. As black families moved north and west of the city, these subdivisions would try to keep them out by zoning themselves as single-family housing only. That barred the construction of public and low-income housing…
As black families moved out from the city and slowly infiltrated white towns, new white developments would spring up further out still, incorporate, and zone to keep the black population at bay. Blacks would move in to those towns too, and the process would repeat itself.
This is the historical origins of the pattern of exploitative policing that Arch City Defenders uncovered in their report.  Driven by racism, the development pattern for the entire suburban county was even more lacking in organic, socioeconomic cohesiveness than suburbs typically are. The lack of an economic resource base has both undermined the quality of schools, and turned local law enforcement agencies and court systems into revenue-generating bounty-style operations, particularly in the poorer, blacker communities.  This is the specific, concrete manner in which underlying housing discrimination, spanning generations, has created a broader framework of racial and class inequities, in which both police systems and educational systems exist.

Rather than focusing on Ferguson, let’s consider an example on the other extreme, which Balko writes about. For reasons Balko explains, the town of Berkeley has high black political participation, a black mayor, black city manager, an all-black city council and a majority-black police department.  But it’s still constrained by its history and limited economic options. Balko explains:
If any town could overcome the legacy of structural racism that drew the map of St. Louis County, then, it would be Berkeley. And yet this town of 9,000 people still issued 10,452 traffic citations last year, and another 1,271 non-traffic ordinance violations. The town’s municipal court raised over $1 million in fines and fees, or about $111 per resident. The town issued 5,504 arrest warrants last year, and has another 13,436 arrest warrants outstanding. Those are modest numbers for St. Louis County, but they’re high for just about anywhere else.
“We’ve tried to rely on revenue from our municipal court as little as possible,” says Berkeley Mayor Theodore Hoskins. “We emphasize that traffic laws and ordinances are about public safety, not about revenue.” But there’s a cost to that. The town ran a $1.3 million deficit last year, and recently considered dissolving its police department to save money.   
One can only conclude that if one could solve all the problems Ferguson faces that have garnered the most attention in the last month, then Ferguson would look a lot like Berkeley — and it would still be a community living on the edge of disaster.  Getting rid of bad cops or defending them would make little or no difference at all, in the larger scheme of things. As for bad teachers?  You’ve got to be kidding!
The underlying problem is a fundamental lack of resources, which turns poor communities into self-cannibalizing entities. Both national and international statistics are clear: The two most important factors in predicting academic success are the wealth of one’s parents and the wealth of one’s community. The demonization of teachers does nothing to address this. It merely develops a preferred cuisine for the self-cannibalization menu.

Even focusing too much on a single incident of the police killing an innocent black teen risks missing the forest for the trees. Which is why it’s so important to heed the examples of groups like the Dream Defenders, who approach individual outrages like the killing of Michael Brown in terms of a whole array of interlocking issues, as when they speak out against the school-to-prison pipeline. Or the rapidly-spreading Moral Mondays movement, which approaches a whole broad multi-issue spectrum of concerns from a unifying moral perspective. These — not Wall Street-funded charter school operators — are the true living inheritors of the mantle of the civil rights movement. And if the past is any guide for us, they have only just begun.
Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

Friday, September 05, 2014

A Self-Respecting Jew Says Palestine Will Win!

Solidarity From a Self-Respecting Jew

Palestine Will Win!


In the midst of an Israeli military slaughter of civilians in Gaza and now, its announcement it will commandeer 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank—the largest Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land in 30 years–to build homes for Jewish settlers the title “The Palestinian people will win” may seem delusional and hyperbolic. But it is not a rhetorical device; it is a moral argument rooted in a reading of anti-colonial history. Israel has browbeaten the world, manipulated anti-Arab sentiment, and attacked its critics to justify its escalating occupation.

It is possible that this recent escalation of barbarism may become a tipping point in world public opinion to oppose Israel ethnocide and support the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.

Discrediting and dismantling the Israeli ideological arsenal and getting our government to withdraw all military aid from Israel is a key battleground for the human rights movement in the United States.

When I first joined the civil rights movement in 1964 as a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality and first heard the militants from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee chant “Hell no, we won’t go” to fight in the war in Vietnam I understood that the Black and Vietnamese national liberation struggles were an ideological, strategic, and emotional common reality. From the beginning I believed the civil rights/Black liberation revolution would win “Freedom Now” and we would see that “Jim Crow Must Go.”  But my first years of anti-Vietnam war work were marked by an excruciating sense of outrage and despair. I watched in horror as my own government—that Dr. King would later call “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” —dropped napalm, cluster bombs, fragmentation bombs, and Agent Orange on a civilian population—eventually killing 4 million people.

I felt the people of Vietnam were heroic; but I had little hope that we could truly end the war with Vietnam intact and independent. Then someone gave me a copy of Vietnam Will Win by Wilfred Burchett, an Australian supporter of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. He explained in great detail the long-term military capacity of the Vietnamese people to withstand U.S. barbarism, but—as was later expressed to us directly by Vietnamese representatives to the U.S. peace movement—also explained that key to that victory was a powerful anti-war movement in the United States that could weaken, undermine, and eventually destroy public support for the war and force the U.S. government to withdraw all troops from Vietnam.

Applying these lessons today, we have to turn our focus to the United States government, which is Israel’s largest military and ideological ally. We should demand a complete cutting off of all U.S. aid to Israel, our government’s disassociation from Israel’s policies, and aggressive support for Palestinian self-determination and national liberation.
This tactical plan involves three components.
1)    Support for the Palestinian political project. This will support and end to Israeli interference in the internal affairs of the Palestinian people, an end to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and conditions under which Palestinian people have the right to travel and meet and receive humanitarian aid from all over the world.
2)    An international ideological counteroffensive against the Israeli government’s colonial master narrative. As one element of a far broader campaign I will address the Israeli government’s charges that Jews in Israel and throughout the world who oppose its occupation, partition, and oppression of the Palestinian people are “self-hating Jews.”
3)    Strengthening a broad, multi-racial united front in the United States rooted in Black and Latino communities with strong support from people of all races and classes, including Jews, to demand the complete and immediate cutting off of all U.S. military aid to Israel.
The Story of a Self-Respecting Jew

Eric Mann
The Israeli thought police have tried to silence or intimidate Jewish critics and opponents in Israel, in the U.S., and throughout the world by labeling them “self-hating Jews.”  Israel’s argument is that these Jews have responded to anti-Semitism by trying to disassociate themselves from their Jewish identity and history—and thus side with Israel’s “enemies.”  Israeli ideologues argue that since Israel is “the Jewish state” and thus speaks for all the Jews in the world those who disagree are by definition “anti-Semitic” and “self-hating Jews.”

But in fact, there are many Jews in the U.S.– especially those who have been part of the civil rights, anti-war, anti-apartheid, environmental justice, and international human rights movements–who have contempt for the Israeli ideologues who would rather foster anti-Semitism against their Jewish critics than engage in an honest debate—let alone look in the mirror.  I think we consider ourselves “self-respecting Jews” or some concept similar to that and out of that self-respect and an independent political perspective based on the principles of human rights and self-determination for oppressed peoples comes respect for the people of Palestine.

This self-respect includes an ongoing and militant opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish remarks, slurs, and actions—including statements by some who oppose Israeli policy by using anti-Semitic arguments. This is complicated by the fact that Israel itself tries to make a complete identity of itself and “worldwide Jewry” and attacks Jew who oppose both anti-Semitism and Israeli policy as “anti-Semites.” While this makes the job more difficult, those Jews who are militant opponents of anti-Semitism and Israeli policy can help provide some leadership in fighting on both fronts.

From this perspective, as my relatives often said, before telling a long narrative, “To make a long story short….” let me tell you about my own journey of consciousness and commitment.
My life has been shaped from birth by the Jewish, anti-fascist, working class, pro-union, pro “Negro” internationalist, and socialist traditions.  While I joined the civil rights, Black liberation, anti-Vietnam war movement in 1964 (when I was 21), my involvement in the struggle against anti-Semitism and fascism and “for the Negro” began in my family and my life experience prior to my next 50 years of a lifetime of organized resistance to the system.

I have always been a member of an organization.  As I say in my book, Playbook for Progressives:  16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer, in order to be effective you must “join an organization based on political agreement with its strategy and tactics and build a base and never walk alone.”  For me that meant the Congress of Racial Equality, Newark Community Union Project, Students for a Democratic Society, organizing prisoners as I spent 18 months in prison for militant anti-war demonstrations, Soledad Brothers and Attica Defense Committees, United Auto Workers New Directions Movement, Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition, Labor Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, Bus Riders Union, Community Rights Campaign, and our Fight for the Soul of the Cities.

In my case, it is not possible to separate my Jewish identity, history, and experience from the life choices I have—shaped by the revolutionary Two Decades of the Sixties in which hundreds of millions of people turned the world on its head.  So, when the apologists for Israel’s militarism accuse people like me of being “self-hating Jews” I see it as despicable and desperate. But I also know that those arguments are used to intimidate and silence many Jews of conscience including those in Israel who are standing up to these atrocities.  I also know that many non-Jews who are appalled by Israel’s policies fear accusations of anti-Semitism.

As such, I want to explain the deeply personal/political experiences that lead me to support the Palestinian people’s right to a homeland and self-determination and opposition to Israeli policy, politics, and persecution very early in my life.  I present my journey as a “self-respecting Jew” as one tactic in the larger ideological war.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1942. My father was in Europe as a member of the infantry during the Second World War against the German, Japanese, and Italian fascists.  My mother Libby and Aunt Marcia raised me.  I have a picture of me holding a picture of my father in an army uniform when I was 2—before I had ever met him.

Both sides of my family came from Jews who fled Russia and Poland during the anti-Semitic pogroms of the early 1900s.  Some became impoverished small shop owners—like my mother’s father whose “candy stores” always went out of business despite her efforts to help him–as he labored 16 hours a day only to work himself to death at an early age.  Others, like my grandmother Sarah Mandell, were teenage, immigrant, Jewish garment workers.  My grandmother worked in a sweatshop close to the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory in Manhattan—whose workers were among the most militant and politically conscious, leading strikes of the International Ladies Garment Workers of which she was a proud member. Management kept the factory doors locked so the workers could not escape. On March 25, 1911 the factory caught on fire killing 146 women.

I learned of that story from my grandmother long before I read it in labor history books.  She worked in the industry as a pattern cutter until she was 50. She was among the last Jewish workers as the workforce became Black, Puerto Rican and Dominican. I was honored to speak for my family at her 100th birthday party and thanked her for being one of my role models.  She said, “The best thing about this party is that I know who all of you are and still have all my marbles.”  She read the Jewish Daily Forward (Fovitz), a secular, socialist, Yiddish newspaper all her life.

My parents were militantly anti-Nazi.  My father, Howard, spent his teenage years as an organizer for the Textile Workers Union—having gone to the South to organize Black and white workers in the 1930s.  He was also a member of the Young People’s Socialist League.

My mother hated the fascists more than anyone I knew.  “The fascist bastards” was one of the first expressions I learned.  I understood the Germans had done something terrible to us but was surprised, at 5 years old in 1947, to experience anti-Semitism by some of the kids on Argyle Road across from Prospect Park in Brooklyn where I lived.  They called me “a Jew bastard” and said, “You killed Christ”—who I did not know at the time.  My mom got very angry and said, Scratch a goy and you’ll find an anti-Semite.”  She went storming out to confront the mothers whose sons had said it, telling them “they learned that hatred from you.”

When I was six, I came up into our apartment repeating a rhyme I had heard the older kids say:  “Eenie Meenie Miney Moe, Catch a N—-r By the Toe.”  My mother was livid, “What did you say?  Don’t you ever use that word!  Do you know how cruel that word is?  The word is ‘Negro.’ 

 It describes people who are Black-skinned.  After what Hitler did to our people, how could you talk badly about the Negroes?  The Jews and the Negroes are in the same boat.”  I felt terrible.  I had grown up with such adoration from my mom that I was shocked at her anger at me and felt truly terrible about what I had done.  I was proud of my mother and wanted to apologize to the Negroes I had not yet met.  I went back down to my friends in Prospect Park—Jews, Italians, and Irish—and told them the terrible mistake we had made and how we hadn’t known what the word meant.  They smiled at me as if I was really stupid; they had known exactly what they were saying.

So at an early age my worldview was set.  We were Jews who were for socialism and the labor movement and we fought for the Negro and against the fascist bastards inside and outside the United States.  That worldview continues to shape my life today.

In 1950, we moved to Valley Stream, Long Island, a working class, white suburb just outside of Queens.  I loved going to Saturday morning services at Temple Gates of Zion—for the camaraderie, the mystery of a Torah I would touch with the tallis as the Rabbi brought it through the aisle for all of us to embrace.  I loved the Hebrew and Yiddish languages I did not speak—the songs, Adon Alum, Ein Keloheinu, that I knew by heart, the Kaddish, the mourners prayer with its alliterative and evoking Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba to which we responded Amein–and the chalah and pickled herring.

Each week we would be asked to donate so that the Jewish people in Israel could plant trees in a desert.  Our Rabbi explained the miracle that Palestine was “a land without a people” and we Jews were “a people without a land.”  Then the Rabbi continued, “We have to plant the trees because they had it for 1,000 years and did nothing with it.”  I asked, “Who were they?”  He simply said, “The Arabs”—with the clear implication it was “us” against “them.”  He continued, “After the Holocaust, we desperately needed a land.  So we got Israel, and the Arabs have so many countries why can’t they take “them.”  (I later understood he was talking about the nakba in which 700,000 or more Palestinians were forcibly driven out of Palestine and have still demanded “the right of return.”)  

I still remember the contempt in his voice.  One of the ways a movement loses support is when it can’t make sense to its own members and its “logic” is morally questionable.  If there was one thing I came away from that conversation with, at 13, was that in fact Palestine was not “a land without a people.”

In high school I played JV basketball and was in the theater group and student government.  Traveling in those circles I knew about the high school fraternities and assumed me and my friends would all be “fraternity brothers” in one of the two fraternities—Black and Gold or Green and Red.  I was not asked to join either one.  My liberal Christian friends explained that Red and Green did not accept Jews—but assured me that when they got in they would change all that.  My friends who got into Black and Gold told me more firmly that it was a Christian fraternity and I was not welcome.

I was then approached by two very impressive guys, Howie Sandler and Bob Pelcyger. They were members of a Jewish fraternity, Mu Sigma. When I asked them why I had never seen anyone with their sweaters they explained that it was sort of underground.  “Since our sweaters are all gold with black trim and their sweaters are all black with gold trim, Black and Gold says they do not want to be confused with Jews—so anyone caught wearing the Mu Sigma sweater will be beat up.”

Besides how intellectually ludicrous the racist argument was, this was my first “identity crisis.”  I was an internationalist; I did not believe in racial segregation.  I did not want to be in a Jewish only fraternity.  But the choice was not of my making—I would join an all Jewish fraternity or no fraternity at all.  This whole rejection by my former friends was unsettling. What about us was less than them?  Were we outcasts?  What about us didn’t they like?  If I joined Mu Sigma, would I once again be stigmatized as “the Jew” which I hadn’t experienced since I left Brooklyn? But for reasons I can only trace to my parents and, by then, my own character, personality, and politics I responded to the high-school anti-Semitism with anger, contempt, and resistance. 

 While it had not been my first choice to be in an all Jewish fraternity, if that was going to be forced on me, then I would embrace it and make it into a cause.

Again, years later, when I read the world-shaping Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon I understood my own situation in a far broader historical and racial context.  I was deeply moved by his discussion of the terrible self-image many Algerians had to confront because of it was imposed on them by the brutal French occupiers–who enthusiastically murdered unarmed and poorly armed Algerians but folded in front of Hitler’s army like a house of cards and turned over French Jews and resistance fighters to the Nazi occupiers. Fanon argued that no amount of individual psychotherapy could undo the degradation of a people who were systematically vilified by an oppressor.

Only rebellion, armed force, aggression towards the oppressor, and an ideological understanding that your movement reflected civilization in the face of the barbarism of the oppressor could offer any chance of personal and collective liberation.  Only national liberation could heal the wounds of national oppression.

I read W.E.B. DuBois and listened to Malcolm X.  They were “race men” and Pan Africanists who understood that the healing of the profound wounds inflicted upon Black people by a white supremacist system based on slavery required a war to the death with “the white man”—not every white person–but as the personification of racist, white supremacist, capitalist system that had to be overthrown.

In thinking back on this, I am again thankful beyond words for my mother Libby.  When she witnessed anti-Semitism she never tried to give me “arguments” about how to pacify the savages, like “Well actually, we didn’t kill Christ” or “not all of us have big noses or are dishonest businesspeople.”  She understood that whoever won the battle of ideas would win the war.  As such, she went on the warpath against “the dirty anti-Semites” and “the fascist bastards.”  I saw her tell an anti-Semitic man on a bus he was an “ignoramus,” which I thought was one of the greatest curse words I had ever heard.  Like Fanon, my mom taught me that the only way to address racial degradation is to stand up and fight back.

I also came to understand that agreeing to join Mu Sigma was not just an act of defiance.  As I got to meet many of its members, I really liked them a lot.  They were smart, intellectual, had a great sense of humor—Jewish humor—ironic, sarcastic, philosophical, with long stories that people had to perform not just tell.  They were also cool guys.  In realizing I liked those “Jews,” I realized I also liked myself.

After my 3 month “pledging period,” I was finally “initiated” and got my Mu Sigma sweater.  I told my fraternity brothers that we should all wear our sweaters to high school and stand up to those Black and Gold idiots.  They all refused.  Some accused me of “picking a fight” to which I replied, “Of course, that’s exactly what I want to do and what we need to do.”  I also thought they must be exaggerating the consequences.

Again, to my shock, many of my former buddies from the baseball league where I had been an “all-star” physically attacked me, beat me up, spat on me, called me a fucking Jew bastard, and once again a Christ killer.  These were guys who I had grown up with since 7th grade, had gone to their homes, and yes, who came to my fucking bar mitzvah before they learned from their fraternities and families that they hated me. The idea of being attacked by people who knew you personally showed me the depth of racial hatred—once the ideology took root you became the “other” and your former friends could beat you with not an ounce of moral ambivalence.

My attackers called our fraternity “Jew Sigma.”  Groups of 3 and 4 guys threw me up against the lockers, and punched me until they knocked the wind out of me.  As the week went on, every day my sweater was covered with more and more dried spit.  I would not wash it off.  I treated it like a badge of honor.  But I was also very frightened.  I realized I was physically afraid, not physically tough enough to stand up to my attackers.  I was practicing passive resistance out of necessity not philosophy.

The next Sunday I went back to my fraternity and, in retrospect, organized my first civil rights action.  I challenged my fraternity brothers, “Look, either we all wear these sweaters or I quit.  We should not let those anti-Semites push us around.  But if we are afraid of being beat up then let’s disband the fraternity.”  In the movie, all of the guys would have charged out of the meeting and taken on the bullies.  But in the real world the campaign turned on the decision of one person to stand with me the next morning. Marvin Weinstein was a wrestler and a body builder. 

 When he put on his Mu Sigma t-shirt his muscles rippled out of the sleeves.  He was the perfect person for the job.

I went to school the next Monday.  The Black and Gold guys came towards me again, but then they saw Marvin right next to me as my bodyguard.  Marvin confronted Pat Zarcone, one of the leaders of the pack, in front of 100 people in the hall:  “Hey Pat, do you have any problems with us wearing these sweaters?”  Pat, also a jock and as big as Marvin, assessed the situation and said, “Not at all Marvin, I don’t know where you got that idea.”  

The war was over; the other side had backed down.  I had not been the strongest.  But I was the best tactician, I had a strong class stand, and was able to rally forces to my side—and win the battle.  The next day more fraternity brothers, hearing of the truce, came to school with their sweaters on.  Many of the girls said, “Oh, there is a new fraternity at school.”  It was a rite of passage for me—the first time I had fought for a principle involving a lot of personal risk.  I was really surprised that I was willing to fight so hard—and of course it was great to win.

Throughout this time, I did not think the oppression of Jews was the central problem in the world or even my life—but it informed my emotional make-up and worldview.  By 13 I was reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and learned of the death of Emmett Till—tortured and murdered by white racists for looking at a white woman in Mississippi.  I understood the experiences of the anti-Semitism I experienced with some sense of proportion and priority.  Out of the interaction of personal experience and political perspective I understood that we all had to make choices and mine would be to consciously disassociate myself with the oppression of the dominant culture and to side with the oppressed.

By the time I got to Cornell University in 1960, I worked with the 10 Black students in the entire university—including Angel Flemings and Sam Carradine—to challenge Cornell’s racist admission policies.  Every summer I worked in the South Bronx as a social worker with Black and Puerto Rican kids.  When I graduated I joined the civil rights movement as a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Harlem and the Northeast.
My experience reflects the choices of many other Jews as well. I just came back from the 50th Anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer, hosted by Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a transformative experience to see Robert Moses, Dave Dennis, Hollis Watkins, Courtland Cox, Dottie Zellner, Frankye Adams Johnson, Charlie Cobb, the SNCC Freedom Singers, and many hundreds more who made history 50 years ago still working full time for social justice and social revolution.  It was heartwarming that several Black speakers at the event, thanked the organizers of Jewish origins for the historic role they playednot in comparison to others but in terms of their overwhelming over-representation.

To make this concrete, it was estimated that about 1,000 volunteers went to Mississippi and the South in the summer of 1964.  Of the white kids who went, more than 50 percent were Jewish, while Jews in 1964 were 2% of the U.S. population and 3% of the whites.  What is the mathematical probability of that happening as a random act?  Virtually none.  But as a political probability it is very high and even predictable because of the long history of Jewish suffering, discrimination, and the trauma of the Holocaust–but also because of the long social justice traditions and proven leadership in social revolutions all over the world.  As Nelson Mandela observed, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

And yet in Mississippi in 2014 there was not one supporter of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  How was that possible?  Because the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, anti-apartheid, and Palestinian liberation movements have been allies since at least the 1960s.Today, the vast majority of liberal, radical, progressive, revolutionary Jews work in inner city, urban communities as teachers, social workers, and live and work in a multi-racial reality in which their identity as Jews is an important but not primary point of reference.  The Israeli state and its ideological warriors have no buttons to push with them.  They have no ambivalences about Israeli brutality and nothing to prove to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the Israeli government.

These Jews, as part of a far larger social justice movement can play a critical role in opposing U.S. military aid to Israel and opposing Israel’s attacks on Gaza and the Palestinians.

Exposing Israeli Human Rights Abuses and Demanding the End of all U.S. military aid to Israel
There are moments in history that are tipping points—often not fully understood at the time but in retrospect—when the tide turns and seemingly impossible revolutionary objectives become shockingly possible.  Often, they are when a system exposes itself in ways that even its closest supporters find disgraceful and are unable to defend to themselves let alone others.

The occupation of Gaza has gone on seemingly forever, but today the United Nations Human Rights Council is investigating war crimes charges against the state of Israel because “more than 1,900 Palestinians were killed in the recent fighting, a majority of them believed to be civilians while on the Israeli side 64 soldiers and 3 civilians were killed.”  Human rights lawyers are documenting that the Israeli army attacked homes, schools, hospitals, Gaza’s only power plant, and U.N. premises in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replied, “Hamas has carried out ‘a double war crime’ for targeting civilians with its rockets and ‘using civilians as human shield for its activities.’”  Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a full-page ad, called on President Obama to condemn Hamas for “using children as human shields:” Wiesel argues, “I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire.  And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults…

What we are suffering through today is not a battle of Jew versus Arab or Israeli versus Palestinian.

Rather, it is a battle between those who celebrate life and those who champion death. It is a battle of civilization versus barbarism.” By posing the battle of a barely armed, occupied, blockaded, starving people with rockets trying to stop ethnocide by a nuclear power with one of the best financed armies in the world as one of barbarism versus civilization, Wiesel is correct but needs to look in the mirror—for in his aggressive defense of the murder of children it is he who has become the barbarian.  In my many conversations and readings over the past weeks I have found that many of those who have strained to find some rationale for Israel brutality have reached the breaking point—and agree that this is a shanda, a great sin that must be stopped.

For those of us in the United States, the focus of our work should be in demanding the end of U.S. military aid to Israel. The numbers are staggering. Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid since World War II, $121 billion to date. The 2014 federal budget includes $3.1 billion in direct military aid and an additional $504 million for research, development and production of anti-rocket and missile defense systems, most of which are US-Israeli joint projects. Annual Foreign Military Assistance grants to Israel represent 23 to 25% of the overall Israeli defense budget. Defense Department contracts since 1999 show that at least 50 companies have profited from contracts totaling more than $6.5 billion benefiting Israel, either for the Israeli military or for work performed in Israel.[1]

In the present attacks on Gaza, Israel has hit houses, offices and farmland with airstrikes by F-16s (manufactured by Lockheed Martin), missiles fired from Apache helicopters (manufactured by Boeing) and shelling from naval gunboats. The US government has continued to fuel for fighter jets and military vehicles, to Israel’s armed forces despite a soaring civilian death toll from aerial and other military attacks. On July 14, the same day President Obama vowed that “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 ceasefire,” the State Department approved a $544 million sale of AIM-9x sidewinder missiles and associated support services to Israel. These missiles can be used by F-16s to hit ground targets.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said “[The US] has not only provided the heavy weaponry, which is now being used by Israel in Gaza, but they’ve also provided almost $1 billion in providing the Iron Domes to protect Israelis from the rocket attacks, but no such protection has been provided to Gazans against the shelling.” Glen Greenwald’s recent release of new Snowden documents indicates that “Israeli aggression would be impossible without the consent, lavish support, and protection of the U.S. government…the relationship between the NSA…and the Israeli spying agency…is at the center of that enabling.”

To continue this lethal partnership, many U.S. police are being trained by Israeli defense forces in suppression of Black and Latino colonial subjects in the U.S.  As one example, in the recent armed police suppression of demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, both the St. Louis County Police and St. Louis police department have received training by Israeli security forces.

As such, it is President Obama even more than Prime Minister Netanyahu who should be the primary focus of our demands and our organizing.  In that context, Jews in the U.S., just as they were in Freedom Summer 50 years ago, can be a critical component of a multi-racial united front for social justice and human rights.

Eric Mann, a veteran of Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers is the author of Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer.  He is the host of KPFK Pacifica’s Voices from the Frontlines:  Your National Movement-Building Show  He can be reached at