“Zero Tolerance” for Silenced Histories: Neglecting Civil Rights Education in Schools

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters' Shoulders

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders

It’s been a busy few weeks for education policy in America. (Then again, when is it not?)  Just last week, the College Board announced changes in the SAT to make the test a better assessment of school curricula and predictor of college success.  Mayor Bill DeBlasio and charter school champion Eva Moskowitz continued to butt heads over the role of charter schools in New York City.  The Center for American Progress released a new report, Beyond Bullying, focusing on LGBTQ students and the school-to-prison pipeline. And with the snow beginning to thaw and spring right around the corner, teachers and students are gearing up for a new onslaught of high-stakes testing designed to ensure “accountability” and “achievement.”

Many leading advocates of school choice and education “reform” are actually well-established right-wing players whose other political priorities—including anti-unionization efforts, regressive tax policies, and cuts to welfare—demonstrate little interest in defending public institutions or promoting racial justice.  Yet by using people of color as the spokespeople for privatization campaigns, these reformers can claim to be strengthening public schools and combating inequality even as they advance a pro-privatization agenda that is fundamentally at odds with commitments to racial and economic justice.

For example, as Political Research Associates’ fellow Rachel Tabachnick and others have documented, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) has been a vocal advocate for vouchers and private school choice in Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  Its founder, Howard Fuller, previously played a pivotal role in establishing a voucher program in Milwaukee.  The resulting voucher and corporate tax credit programs have helped redirect millions of public dollars from public schools to private schools.

People for the American Way has described BAEO—which was established in 2010 and receives major funding from both the Walton (i.e. Walmart) and Bradley Foundations—as “better known for supporting education privatization and affirmative action rollbacks than empowerment of the African-American community or low-income families.”  Indeed, the promise of the education reform movement to “close the achievement gap” and “end educational inequality” is disingenuous at best and empty and pernicious at worst when considering the role of its primary funders in perpetuating racial, economic, and gender inequality.

A few other recent news stories, however, have suggested ways to engage with substantive questions of racial justice in public schools.  President Obama, for example, recently announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” a new initiative that, while far from perfect (particularly in its neglect of female and LGBTQ students), is designed to support young men of color and intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center just released an updated version of Teaching the Movement, which evaluates civil rights education across the United States. The report serves as a powerful reminder that improving public schools must go beyond debates over high-stakes testing, reading comprehension, and complex fractions.  Unfortunately, the report also makes clear that we still have a long way to go.

The authors note that some states have made important improvements to their curricula since the report was first released in 2011. Still, 20 states still scored a big red “F” according to the SPLC’s criteria, and an additional 14 states still earned a “D.”  As the report’s authors state bluntly, “We remain concerned that students are likely to remember only two names and four words about the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and ‘I have a dream.’”

While education reformers remain hyper-focused on test scores and “achievement,” SPLC’s criticism regarding a lack of civil rights literacy is about far more than just getting 11th graders to ace the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam.  In his introduction to the report, Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes, 

“All of us are aware of the pressures our teachers and children are under to keep pace with the world’s students in science and math, but without a steep grounding in our history, what will rising generations have to pivot from? What will inspire them to remake their world with the confidence that comes from knowing it has been done before?”

Too often, debates over public education sidestep discussions of how schools can teach students not only to master Common Core standards, but also to be active, thoughtful, justice-driven members of society. Quoting civil rights historian Taylor Branch, the report offers one response: “If you’re trying to teach people to be citizens, teach them about the civil rights movement.”  Notably, Branch does not mention suspensions, high-stakes testing, or Teach for America as citizenship-building.  In the conclusion to Teaching the Movement, the report emphasizes just how high the stakes are: “When students learn about the civil rights movement, they learn about the democratic responsibility of individuals to oppose oppression and to work for justice. We gloss over the civil rights movement at our own peril as a nation working to achieve equal opportunities for all citizens.”

Meanwhile, as reformers lament a (non-existent) decline in test scores and wax nostalgic about the 1960s when American students “were so much smarter,” they obscure critical gains in public education access for students of color since the end of Jim Crow-era segregation and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.  Even after Brown in the 1960s, Black students in the United States often still found themselves in segregated, woefully underfunded classrooms.  “At the same time,” the report notes, “the very school districts that Brown desegregated have now re-segregated”  While some charter schools have managed to raise test scores, they may contribute to the resegregation of public schools, while also pushing out ELLs, students with disabilities, and others.

Ultimately, our failure to prioritize civil rights education in American classrooms is not an isolated problem.  Rather, it reflects a much broader and arguably misguided discussion about what constitutes racial justice within public education.  We talk endlessly about the “achievement gap,” but we do far less to fight back against efforts to ban ethnic studies in Arizona and elsewhere.  Many charter schools—the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) being the most well-known—place a heavy emphasis on character development and strict discipline policies. But as we debate discipline and “zero tolerance,” we neglect the shoddy teaching of the Civil Rights Movement and other substantive discussions of curriculum.  In doing so, we fail to make schools critical sites of intervention against a history of oppression and injustice, prioritizing “grit” and “zero tolerance” over the too often hidden histories of people resisting, dreaming, and building toward a better future.

The Hammer of Justice

**This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine

Pete Seeger’s life as an activist lasted eight decades, beginning in the 1930s when he joined the Young Communist League and started roaming the nation with Woody Guthrie. He made one of his last appearances at the Farm Aid concert last September, apologizing that he didn’t have much of a voice left but leading the crowd in a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land,” just as he had countless times across the years.

Seeger, who was born in Manhattan in 1919 and died there in January, told Mother Earth News in a 1982 interview that “it’s impossible to have education without controversy.” He was often a radically divisive figure, charting a course that put him in conflict with the U.S. mainstream. Read More

Issue Brief: This Month in Economic Justice

Economic Justice

Every Friday, PRA brings you a monthly update on a different social justice issue. This week, we are recapping the last month in Economic Justice.

White House Backs Proposal to Increase the Minimum Wage
During his State of the Union address in February, President Obama called for an increase of the national minimum wage to 9 dollars per hour. On November 7th, the White House confirmed rumors that it would support an even higher minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, introduced in March by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), would be the first minimum wage increase since former President George W. Bush set the wage floor at $7.25 per hour in 2009. Over 30 million Americans stand to receive a wage increase if the bill is passed. The current minimum wage pays only $15,000 per year, well under the poverty line for a family of three. But the proposed raise would boost the annual wage to over $21,000, bringing millions of families to just over the poverty line. The proposed legislation also ties  the minimum wage to inflation.

Amnesty  Report Exposes Attempt by Shell Gasoline to Cover up Oil Spills in Nigeria
The human rights advocacy group Amnesty International published a report on November 7th that uncovered repeated attempts by the Shell corporation to manipulate and mislead oil spill investigations in Nigeria. The report highlights “specific cases in which Shell has wrongly reported the cause of oil spills, the volume of oil spilled, or the extent and adequacy of clean up measures.” Since Shell controls its own investigations, it has been able to create its own findings without fear of repercussion. While the company has told customers, investors, and the media the spills were a result of theft and sabotage, the findings in the report do not support their claims. The misleading findings have resulted in Nigerians “receiving little or no compensation” for the damage caused by the oil spills.

Los Angeles Police Arrest 54 Protesters Outside Walmart
On the night of November 6th, over 500 activists gathered in front of a Walmart in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Upon arriving at the scene, the LAPD declared the protest to be an unlawful assembly, and arrested 54 protesters for failure to disperse. The protest was organized by OUR Walmart, an employee-based group that calls for fair wages, health benefits, and the right to unionize. According to the 2010 census, Walmart employs 1 percent of the entire American workforce, but as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy notes, their employees make 20 percent less than the average retail employer. Walmart has recently resorted to hiring temporary workers and cutting employee hours down to avoid providing employee health benefits, which “has led to the company placing dead last among department and discount stores in the most recent  American Customer Satisfaction Index.”

NBA Coach Speaks Out on Behalf of Veterans
When asked by a reporter to comment on Veteran’s day, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich made headline news by claiming veterans “don’t really get honored the way they should be.” He noted that while the holiday is a joyous occasion, our country is failing to adequately provide our veterans with proper assistance. In particular, he spoke out against the recent cuts to food stamp benefits by asking “how many vets might have to do without food stamps because of what’s going on with the government right now? That program is huge to a lot of these families.” The most recent cuts to SNAP benefits went into effect on November 1st, which the Pentagon estimates will impact over 5000 veterans. With the pending house bill to cut an additional $40 billion from the program, families of veterans, in particular older veterans, might see their assistance cut even deeper. Popovich, a veteran of the Air-Force, is one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time, having won four NBA titles since 1998.

Sequester Cuts Already Hurting Essential Government Programs
On November 12th, NDD United released a 136-page report showing how the sequester cuts have already affected thousands of government programs. The cuts, which went into effect on March 1st, sliced “$80 billion from defense and non-defense programs this year, creating a drag on an economy still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.”  Government programs across the country have already felt the impact, such as Head Start, Reading Corps, job training for the unemployed, and meal programs for senior citizens. The impact is even being felt overseas, as “571,344 fewer malnourished children in developing countries received ‘nutritional interventions’ to prevent permanent damage caused by starvation” in 2013 alone. The report was released the day before congress begins preliminary talks begins over the 2014 budget. Lawmakers will decide if they wish to go ahead with an additional $110 billion in sequester cuts, set to begin in January.

Koch Brothers-Funded Group Throws Anti-Obamacare Tailgate Party
This past Saturday, the anti-Obamacare group Generation Opportunity threw a party at a Virginia Tech/University of Miami football game in Florida. As noted by communications director David Pasch, the group hired a DJ, brought pizza and booze, and students over 21 were able to drink. Along with all the fun, the group also “educated students about their healthcare options outside the expensive and creepy Obamacare exchanges”, which included a man dressed in a creepy Uncle Sam costume. The group, funded by the Conservative billionaires David Koch and Charles Koch, will be touring 20 more campuses this year in a “$750,000 effort to convince college students that they’re better off being uninsured than getting health coverage through Obamacare.” This is not the first time the Koch brothers have funded networks of “non-profits groups” to influence public opinion. A recent report by RH Reality Check highlights how Koch-funded organizations helped fuel the current debate over abortion in states across the country.

17 Million Americans Qualify for Tax Break Under Obamacare
While the media has been in frenzy over the technical problems facing the Obamacare website, reports are showing the Affordable Care Act is already impacting Americans across the country. According to a November 5th report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 17 million Americans “will qualify for tax credits aimed to reduce the cost of health insurance under Obamacare.“ The credits are aimed at Americans who either cannot afford health insurance, or buy insurance on their own because they do not receive coverage from their employers. Most likely to receive the cuts are the younger, working class, and the value of the subsidies will vary between states. Despite estimates that over 30 million Americans could benefit from this exchange, the Congressional Budget Office expects only “7 million people will use the exchanges to obtain private health insurance for 2014.”

New York City Elects Bill de Blasio as Mayor, a Victory for Economic Justice
The City of New York elected Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio to replace outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg on November 5th. de Blasio ran his campaign on the platform of income inequality, speaking out against the “1 percent first” policies that thrived under Bloomberg’s tenure. Referring to it as the “tale of two cities”, he continually noted that nearly half of all New Yorkers, and 6 out of 10 people of color, were “were either poor or near poverty.” During his tenure as Mayor, Bloomberg actively recruited billionaires and large businesses to move into the city, arguing that while government services were important, the private sector needed to succeed to achieve economic success. As a result, New York has become the most billionaire-populated city in the world, while one out of six residents are currently unemployed. The high costs of living in New York has also led to increased homeless rates, with “one out of three of the city’s 50,000 homeless hold(ing) down at least one job, with some working two.”

Congress Votes to Cut Food Stamps, While Billionaires Receive Taxpayer-Funded Subsidies
According to a November 7th report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), at least 50 billionaires and farm business received over $11 million in farm subsidies between 1995 to 2012. The report was released in light of the proposed congressional farm bill, which will provide further farm subsidies while cutting over $40 billion from nutritional supplemental programs such as food stamps. Many of the Billionaires appeared on the 2013 Forbes 400 List, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Charles Schwab, and Chick-Fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy. Billionaires are not the only ones benefiting from farm subsidies. As the Huffington Post reported in June, “fifteen members of Congress received $237,921 in federal farm subsidy payments last year.” Two recipients of the subsidies, Reps. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) have become vocal supporters of cutting SNAP benefit, cited the bible to argue that “while Christians have a responsibility to feed the poor, the federal government does not.”

Seduction and Betrayal: The Perils of Arizona’s “Business Climate”

photo by James Brooks

By Elizabeth Tandy Shermer:

Radical journalist Andrew Kopkind once quipped that Arizona and its capital, Phoenix, were “at the mercy of [their] own myths.” That was as true in 1965 as it is today. Local promoters have long credited central air conditioning with making the Valley of the Sun livable. The Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, in particular, has promoted hot, arid Central Arizona as “the air-conditioning capital of the world.” But no matter what anyone tells you, industry did not come to Arizona—and Phoenix did not sprawl—because of air conditioning.

It’s true that coolers had been built in Central Arizona decades before Phoenix exploded in size following World War II, but hardly anyone had them. Window unit prices dropped in the 1940s, but these units were still costly and ineffective in 100-degree heat (no matter how dry). Central air was rarer still. The Federal Housing Authority did not cover the cost of this amenity in new homes until 1957. Even then, Phoenix builders tended to install systems in only the most affluent neighborhoods. As a result, just a third of all Arizona homes had central air by 1970.

In truth, no single consumer product or technology was responsible for Phoenix’s meteoric growth. Manufacturers came to Phoenix because of its “business climate,” a seemingly benign term coined at mid-century to describe an area’s ability to attract, sustain, and keep investment. What mattered most to executives on the move—much more than air conditioning—was the fact that wages were low, workplace rules were minimal, and tax rates were advantageous. Boosters were particularly proud that they had convinced voters to pass a right-to-work law (the first in the American West), to eliminate inventory taxes (both for raw goods used in manufacturing and for finished products ready to be shipped), and to reduce fees on equipment used in manufacturing.

By 1960, the Arizona capital—a farming community of about 11,000 people in 1910—was an electronics and aerospace oasis with a population of nearly 440,000. Phoenicians found work producing an astonishing array of goods for defense and consumer needs, including airplanes and aircraft parts, aluminum products, chemicals, gases, electronics components, gears, controls, scientific instruments, metal parts, missiles, rockets, plastics, tools, dies, sensors, small power sources, tracking devices, and (yes) environment control systems.

But for all these short-term successes, Phoenix’s carefully calibrated business climate was in fact malignant. Bankrolling corporate welfare left Phoenix and many other communities on the verge of bankruptcy, especially when employers decamped for cheaper pastures. Phoenix (like the rest of the country) is now much better cooled than it was before, but that fact has hardly helped it retain businesses or attract new investments. Arizona has lost much of the industry that boosters recruited, most of it finding its way across the border or overseas. Arizonans, moreover, hardly stand out for their business-first credo. Executives can find similar tax advantages, giveaways, and union restrictions across the country (even Michigan has a right-to-work law now).

And it is no coincidence that cities and states across the country now find themselves on the precipice of financial catastrophe, a fact that should be kept in mind as they face the same problems as Arizona and its capital: namely, what to do about municipal debt, persistent unemployment, and sluggish housing markets. Indeed, Phoenix now stands out, writer and social critic Andrew Ross maintains, as “a twenty-first century Detroit in the making.” It certainly looked that way in 2008, when the housing crisis struck the cash-strapped state and its capital particularly hard. Many states and municipalities had, of course, tied their finances to real estate and construction and found themselves offering improbable schemes to raise revenues in 2009.

Arizona’s plight made headlines when the government sold off a collection of state properties, including maximum-security prisons and key buildings in the state capitol complex. The $735 million deal left the legislature in the unique position of leasing its legislative chambers from a private real estate company. “What are our choices?” asked House Majority Leader John McComish (R-Phoenix). “We could cut more, or we could raise taxes more. Borrowing over the long term, we think, is better for the people, better for the economy.” This agreement will cost Arizona a lot in the end, but Republican Gov. Jan Brewer was still unable to convince representatives to buy the capitol back last year after a regressive sales-tax hike provided them with a budget surplus.

Americans should keep this saga in mind this fall. Cooler temperatures will not bring fiscal relief or an end to the Great Recession. And the answer does not lie in one or two new product lines, such as the solar panels or trash-to-energy plants, that many consider a quick cure to what plagues metro Phoenix. Neither technology will make a dent in the city’s 7 percent unemployment rate, which is slightly below the national average but hardly stellar.

Small groundswells and large protests indicate that the free-enterprise myths that created Arizona’s unsustainable past may be losing their power. Many Americans now express support for making businesses pay their fair share of the tax burden. Citizens have likewise been eager to take advantage of Obamacare, whose Medicaid expansion provisions are making a real difference in the lives of low-income Arizonans. Trade unions and immigrant rights groups have also vigorously sought to empower workers, mount legal challenges to anti-union legislation, and enter into coalitions with environmental groups to make sure that new jobs will be good and green. That’s great news, because what Phoenix, Arizona, and the rest of the country need is not another gimmick or technology, but rather a new climate built on putting the public good above corporate welfare.

Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is an assistant professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, where she offers courses on business, labor, politics, and public policy. The University of Pennsylvania Press published her most recent book, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics. She is now writing The Business of Education, which explores how corporations shaped public universities to serve their workforce and R&D needs over the course of the twentieth century.

ISSUE BRIEF: This Month in Economic Justice

Economic Justice

Every Friday, PRA brings you a monthly update on a different social justice issue. This week, we are recapping the last month in Economic Justice.

Wisconsin Judge Rules In Favor of Unions, Holds WERC in Contempt of Court
A Madison judge found the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission in contempt of court for enforcing provisions of the collective bargaining restrictions signed into law by Governor Scott Walker in 2011 that had previously been ruled unconstitutional. The Judge also issued an injunction which barred any future attempts to enforce these restrictions on any union in the state. The WERC was in the process of preparing certificate elections for over 400 school district worker unions to take place in November. The commission had claimed the previous ruling had only applied to unions in Madison and Milwaukee, giving them the right to enforce the restrictions across the rest of the state. In his decision on Monday, Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas ruled that his previous decision in 2012 had already wiped the provisions from existence. School districts are free to once again negotiate wages, hours, vacation, and workplace conditions. Judge Calos  also scolded the WERC for “conduct [that] was nothing more than an attempt to elude the application of a judgment the commissioners knew full well applied.”

Income Gap Rises to Highest Levels in Over a Century
Over the past few decades, the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans has continuously increased. Now, the gap has reached its highest level in the past 100 years.The L.A Times reported in September that between 1993 and 2012, the real incomes of the wealthiest Americans grew 86.1 percent, while the bottom 99 percent of wage earners only grew 6.6 percent. These statistics come from an examination of IRS data by economists at UC Berkely, the Paris School of Economics, and Oxford University. The study attributes the cause of the increasing income gap not only to technological advancements and outsourcing, but to the reduced power of progressive tax policies, along with “changing social norms regarding pay inequality.”

Coalition of Immokalee Workers Honored for Protecting Rights of Laborers
On October 16th, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) were honored at the Four Freedoms Awards ceremony, an annual event hosted by the Roosevelt Institute. The award honors individuals and groups that “exemplify Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision of Democracy outlined in his famous January 14th, 1941 address”, remembered as the “Four Freedoms Speech”. The group joins past recipients such as Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama,  and Bill and Hillary Clinton. The CIW is a worker-based human rights organization which began in 1993. They are a non-hierarchical organization which uses grassroots organizing to advocate for economic justice and labor reforms. They are most known for their Campaign for Fair Food program, which sets to “educates consumers on the issue of farm labor exploitation and forges alliances between farm workers and consumers in an effort to enlist the market power of major corporate buyers to help end that exploitation”. Through the campaign, they have successfully negotiated fair food agreements with food retailers such as McDonald’s, Whole Foods, Sodexo, and Subway to establish more humane labor standards for farm workers.

Young Children of Color in the U.S Face “Crisis Levels of Poverty”
The most recent Census Bureau data shows 42 percent of African-American children and 37 percent of Latino children under the age of 5 live under the poverty line. Growing up in poverty adds extensive physical and mental stress on young children during their most cognitive years, and affects future educational and health outcomes. These numbers are further troubling, as conservatives in Congress just finished reducing federal spending on children, with  $4.2 billion in sequester cuts to children services in 2013. Adding more salt to the wound, the bipartisan organization Family First is reporting that “Congress is considering a budget plan that would lock in or deepen these cuts for next year.”

Job Market Slowly Improves
The jobs report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the month of September was released on October 22nd. Originally scheduled for October 4th, the report was delayed by the 16 day shutdown of the federal government. Though the economy added 148,000 jobs and unemployment hit a five-year low, the economy did not progress at a desired rate. The findings suggest that employers may have held back on hiring new workers in lieu of the potential government shutdown. Economists estimate the federal shutdown cut $25 billion from the U.S economy, which helped slow economic growth to about 2 percent for the current quarter.

Long-term Unemployment Reaches Highest Rate in Over 60 Years
Though there has been a steady (if sluggish) improvement in employment , the job reports do not factor in unemployed Americans who have given up searching for a job. The percentage of Americans looking for work remains at a 35-year low, as the recession continues to discourage people to look for jobs. Zach Mcdade and Austin Nicholls of the Urban Institute reported in September that “4.2 million Americans—37 percent of the unemployed—have been jobless for longer than six months, the highest rate by far in the last sixty years.” They note the relationship between long-term unemployment and poverty, where the long-term unemployed are more likely to be poor, and the longer a person is unemployed, the harder it becomes for them to find work.

Annual World Food Day Brings Awareness to Global Hunger
On October 16th, activist groups around the world participated in World Food Day. Held on the anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the campaign aims to mobilize advocates to raise awareness, educate, and call for action to end global hunger. The day is observed to “create solidarity among groups working to end hunger and to educate thousands of people, young and old, about the roots of global hunger and the multi-faceted approaches to end it.” Over 450 organizations have taken part in World Food Day, highlighting effective methods of food security and the challenges facing world hunger. One of the central features of World Food Day is their annual teleconference, featuring world leaders and experts in economics, human rights, nutrition, and agriculture.

Study Finds Majority of U.S Fast-Food Workers Require Public Assistance
At the end of August, fast-food workers across the country went on strike, claiming their current median wage of $8.94 dollars per hours was unlivable and simultaneously demanding a wage increase to $15 dollars per hour. An October 15th report by Reuters, using data by the U.S Census Bureau, shows 52 percent of fast-food cooks, cashiers, and other front line staff had relied on at least one form of public assistance from 2007 to 2011. These public assistance programs include Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP), and the Earned Income Tax Credit. In a concurrent report using the same data, the National Employment Law Project found  “the 10 largest fast-food companies in the United States cost taxpayers more than $3.8 billion each year in public assistance.” These companies are placing the burden of providing for their employees on the taxpayers, rather than paying them a livable wage for their service.

State Legislators In Ohio Sue to Prevent Medicaid Expansion
This past Monday, the state legislative board of Ohio approved a request by Governor John Kasich to fund the Medicaid Expansion program under the Affordable Care Act. By Tuesday morning, six Republican state legislators had filed a lawsuit to halt the expansion. The lawsuit calls for the state to reject the proposal, and prohibits the state department from receiving funds from the expansion. The expansion provides Medicaid coverage to uninsured residents in the states who choose to participate, whose earnings are at or lower than 138 percent over the federal poverty level. Set to begin in January 2014, the expansion is 100 percent federally funded for the first three years (free to the states), after which federal funding slowly decreases down to 90 percent in 2020. Despite the extremely low costs to states and the opportunity to provide their most vulnerable citizens with health coverage, 22 states have declined to participate in the expansion, leaving 5.2 million Americans without insurance who would have qualified under the expansion.

Bleak Findings on “Poverty Day”
On September 17th, the U.S Census Bureau released their annual data report on poverty, or as thenation.com contributor Greg Kaufmann refers to it, “poverty day”. Kaufmann argues the biggest takeaway is not in the data itself. Rather, the overlying issue surrounding poverty in America is that “we’ve long known what to do to take the next steps in the fight against poverty, and we still know what to do to take the next steps in the fight against poverty. But we’re not doing it.” Previous reports by the Census Bureau have highlighted the potential methods of combating poverty in the United States. But the findings show they have been continuously neglected. The percentage of Americans living in poverty remains at 15 percent (over 45 million Americans living on less than $18,000 for a family of three annually). This includes 22 percent of all children, 27 percent of African-Americans, 25 percent of Latinos, and 28 percent of Americans living with disabilities. The issue goes beyond missed opportunities to create effective policy, as “we now face a Congress poised to make matters worse for those who are faring the worst in our economy.” The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cuts set by the sequester will cost over 900,000 American jobs by the third quarter of 2014. Beginning in November, there will be cuts to food stamp (SNAP) benefits which will effect 22 million children. And then there is the recent House vote to cut an additional $40 billion to nutritional supplement benefits in September.

Taking the Voting-Rights Battle to the States and the Streets

Protesting outside the NC General Assembly building. Photo courtesy of Grant Baldwin.

Protesting outside the NC General Assembly building. Photo courtesy of Grant Baldwin.

On June 25, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, which established a formula for determining whether states and jurisdictions need permission from the federal government to change their voting procedures. As a result, there is no mechanism to enforce Section 5 of the VRA, which allows the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to freeze and review changes in voting procedures in locales with a history of voter suppression.

The majority of the justices in the case, Shelby County v. Holder, reasoned that the pre-clearance formula was outdated, since Jim Crow-era voting restrictions like the poll tax and literacy test have been abolished. But voting restrictions are far from a relic of the past. Between January 2011 and October 2012, 25 restrictive voter ID laws and two executive actions passed in 19 states, according to a 2012 “Voting Laws Roundup” by the Brennan Center for Justice. Many were struck down by federal courts, including some by the DOJ under the provisions of Section 4(b). Within two days of Section 4(b) being overturned, six states that were at least partly covered under Section 5 moved forward with voter restrictions.

In light of what is at stake, it would be foolish to rely on the dysfunctional U.S. Congress to address this injustice. Nor is it sufficient to rely on legal challenges brought by organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Though absolutely crucial, they cannot serve all jurisdictions, and the seriousness of this challenge requires a broad-based, popular response.

It’s time to demonstrate our commitment to free and fair elections by building large-scale, broad-based coalitions at the state level—and taking them to the streets. This is precisely what the North Carolina Moral Monday movement, guided by the NC-NAACP, has been doing since April. All told, tens of thousands have flocked to the General Assembly building in Raleigh on Monday afternoons, protesting the extreme policies of the Republican-dominated General Assembly. Because of gerrymandering, nine of North Carolina’s 13 U.S. Representatives are Republicans, though the state’s voters are split almost evenly between the two parties.

The weekly protests top 3,000 participants. About 1,000 peaceful demonstrators have been arrested (as of late July). To make this possible, the NC-NAACP spearheaded a coalition of 150 progressive and/or non-partisan organizations that have come together to defend equal protection for all. In addition to traditional civil-rights organizations, the coalition includes groups with concerns as varied as reproductive justice, economic inequality, education, labor rights, immigration reform, criminal-justice reform, and faith-based social justice.

Protesters have made strong gains in reaching out to residents. The Republican-led legislative body no longer enjoys majority support, even within its own party, and the General Assembly’s approval rate has fallen to just 20 percent, according to a mid-July poll by Public Policy Polling.

The next goal is to provide avenues for citizens throughout the state to take part in the ongoing uprising. It will be nearly a decade before the next federally-mandated congressional redistricting (the process of redrawing legislative boundaries, which happens after every U.S. Census). In the meantime, the decline in popular support for Republican leadership means that the GOP has more incentive than ever to rig elections to favor Republican candidates. In late July, the North Carolina General Assembly began pursuing that goal by passing legislation that requires voters to show government-issued photo IDs at the polls and ends same-day voter registration. The legislation also weakens campaign donation disclosure laws.

North Carolinians face a long-term battle. The Supreme Court’s ruling means the DOJ will not come to the aid of jurisdictions previously covered under Section 4(b). With so much authority ceded to states, people who value free and fair elections must localize efforts, cast voting rights as foundational, and embrace broad inclusivity.

In North Carolina, this is creating intersectional solidarity rather than diluting the message. Weekly protesters include everyone from disaffected Republicans to members of the Occupy movement. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the people. As the president of the NC-NAACP, Rev. Dr. William Barber, noted at the July 22 protests, “Our parents already won this fight with less than we have now.” And from here, the path is clear: “Forward together! Not one step back!”

This profile also appears in the Summer 2013 issue of the of PRA’s Public Eye magazine.

Dan Peltier, a Summer 2013 Research and Editorial Intern at PRA, recently interviewed Leigh Bordley about her participation in the “Moral Monday” protests. A lifelong resident of North Carolina, Bordley has been a member of the Durham, NC, school board since 2008. She served as executive director of Partners for Youth from 1998-2011. She has also been a consultant for Literacy South and the director of development for NC Equity. Bordley became active in the protests because she believes that legislation recently passed by the General Assembly doesn’t represent North Carolina’s true values. She attended five protests in Raleigh and was arrested during one of them. 

A lot of the media attention has focused on the protests as being heavily based in Christian prayer and teaching, including an article in which you say you “went as a Christian.”  What is your take on the Christian connection?

I went as a Christian because I am a liberal. Jesus taught that we should all help people living in poverty. Much of the legislation getting passed by Republicans is harming the poor and not helping to grow our state’s economy. It just made perfect sense to me to go to these protests and pray that the representatives hear our complaints and realize that they don’t speak for the majority of North Carolinians. I was arrested at one of the protests for speaking out against this legislature and was put in jail with the other arrestees. It was fun but not ideal. It was like a big party with no food. There were elderly people and teachers, and we all supported each other. We went to jail for what we believe in and for expressing our opinions.

Leigh Bordley

Leigh Bordley

Even though the General Assembly is now in summer recess, the protests don’t seem to be losing momentum.  Would you say that this is a sign of their success?

A: Success is hard to gauge.  We didn’t seem to get through to the Republicans. But I think we definitely made some voters second guess why they chose to elect some of the people who are behind some of the horrible legislation getting passed. That’s why myself and other Forward Together Movement members are continuing the protests and taking them on the road to all of the major cities across the state–so that voters are aware of how they are being represented, and to show that we have endurance and won’t back down.

Q: The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the NC-NAACP (which organized the protests), has said that “our parents already won this fight with less than we have now.” What are your thoughts on that? 

A: I grew up in the 1960s, watching the civil rights movement unfold, and a lot of it took place in nearby cities such as Greensboro. The African-American civil rights movement was driven by desperation and excitement, and people thought that real change was coming. While some things have changed, so many others have stayed the same.  Today, our fight is not as exciting. It can be very discouraging and even disheartening.  It certainly doesn’t feel like we’re any further along, and I’m not sure if we’ve made a net gain or that we ever “won” anything.

Q: This is the first time in more than a century that Republicans have controlled the General Assembly. Do you see North Carolina as a new battleground for the Right, and what do you see as potential future challenges?

A: This will not be an easy fight. Democrats have suffered from gerrymandering, and this is a backlash against progressives. I feel hopeful about our chances, but we really need to convince voters in these gerrymandered districts that the Republicans are not acting in their best interests. This is our biggest challenge. I have experience in working on the Obama campaign, and I know that this will not be easy–but that with enough help, we can try to make a difference. These protests have been and continue to be extremely well organized, so we have that on our side. I am a lifelong resident of North Carolina and have seen that, historically, the state has been fairly moderate. All of a sudden, it is so far right that I don’t even recognize my own state anymore. I had to get involved and do something, because what is going on inside the General Assembly Building is not the real North Carolina.

ALEC: The Right-Wing Group Behind “Stand Your Ground”

Since the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010, there has been a chorus of debate over the clout of corporate America in politics and the appropriate role these entities should play in campaign finance. But while groups on the Right spent over $700 million during the 2012 election cycle in a failed attempt to elect Mitt Romney as president, conservative policies have been successfully propagated through opaque and less publicized strategies.

The American Legislative Executive Council, or ALEC, has been at the forefront of advancing some of the most odious items on the Right’s agenda. ALEC is a nationwide network that brings together elected state representatives and powerful organizations and individuals in the corporate community, in order to pass legislation benefiting big business interests–almost always at the expense of the public good.

Though ALEC has been around for 40 years, the group was largely unknown to the public until the death of Trayvon Martin in February of 2012. The incident called attention to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which was passed in 2005 and promoted by the National Rifle Association through its ties to ALEC. The ensuing bad publicity caused companies such as Dell, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, and Amazon to withdraw from the controversial organization. Still, powerful companies such as ExxonMobil remain members, as do prominent individuals, such as the omnipresent Koch brothers. Read More

The Attack on Working People & Organized Labor

It became clear in 2011 that there was a broad attack on working people, especially those in unions.

Anti-labor campaigns by corporate interests are nothing new, and are frequently masked by rhetoric about freedom of choice for employees. The main framing of these anti-labor campaigns is built around the idea of a “Right to Work.” Corporate CEOs and wealthy “free market” economists portray themselves as friends of the working man and woman. Like most Big Lie campaigns, the truth emerges when history and outcome are compared to current rhetoric and promises.

In 2008 corporate and conservative strategists were developing a series of fake grassroots groups under the banner of the new “Tea Party” rebellion. To the surprise of many, this astroturfing idea developed into an actual series of grassroots movements. Legitimate anger at unfair government policies and gridlock in Washington, DC was shifted toward calls to cut the budget, reduce taxes, and shred the social safety net. Many in the Tea Party Movement, according to polling and academic studies, also oppose racial and gender justice and stigmatize new immigrants of color.

Starting in the 1890s, and gaining speed in the 1930s, anti-union groups have used hysterical red-baiting rhetoric and fear of “totalitarian” collective action to tar unions as anti-American and anti-free enterprise. Today, some of these same players are trying to undermine government laws and regulations that protect a worker’s right to organize a union without harassment or termination.

Over the past 20 years, corporate conservatives and economic libertarians have spent more that $170 million trying to convince us that labor unions are bad for America. During the same period over $1 billion was spent on shifting public debates on social, political, and economic issues to favor narrow right-wing agendas that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

The Tea Parties and allied political and social movements are skillful at framing debates and developing storylines (narratives) that favor their point of view and policy agendas. Specifically, they are using the historic frame of right-wing populist movements, which includes denouncing opponents as incompetent or evil; spreading lurid conspiracy theories about subversive plots, and scapegoating named targets as on the verge of collapsing the society.


What is Behind These Attacks?

What About the Tea Party Movement?

CHART: The Well-Funded Anti-Labor Arsenal

Public attention has been galvanized by the attack on working people in Wisconsin
by an ultraconservative governor. Appropriate attention has been paid to funders such as the Koch brothers and right-wing institutions such as the American Legislative Exchange Council. But there is a far larger process at work.

Over the past 20 years, right-wing corporate conservatives and economic libertarians have spent more that $170 million trying to convince us that labor unions are bad for America, and that government laws and regulations should not protect a worker’s right to organize a union without harassment and termination.

And this is just part of the $1 Billion spent by right-wing funders to shift wealth upwards and stomp on the basic human rights of most of us.

($1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s)

The coalition of foundations that fund conservative and right-wing think tanks and other institutions that attack organized labor give money to an array of allied and interconnected think tanks that numerous reports and issue an endless stream of press releases. This creates the impression that there is a groundswell of support for reigning in labor unions and government “interference” in corporate affairs.

These foundations often give long-term grants that provide stability and ensure the survival of conservative and right-wing think tanks.

Until a similar progressive movement infrastructure is created and sustained, the
Democratic Party will continue to move to the right and the right-wing attacks on working people
and a living wage will increase.

The chart below illustrates the strategic way in which the Anti-Labor Arsenal is funded.

Follow the Right-Wing Money Funding the Attacks
on Working People and a Living Wage

Click to enlarge the chart

Click to enlarge the chart

Resources For Organized Labor and Working People

Right-wing attacks on organized labor and working people are nothing new. This page is a starting point for connecting to resources and conducting research into this problem.

Recognize that the Right is a complex movement.

No one organization “controls” the Right. No single funder is “behind” the Right. Some large organizations are important, but many others appear to be more influential than they really are. Recognize that there are multiple networks of organizations and funders with differing and sometimes competing agendas. Find out as much as you can about the groups you see. Incorporate this information in your educational work.  It is helpful in organizing to know a great deal about your opponents.  Be alert to evidence of the Right’s “new racism.” The Right has replaced simple racist rhetoric with a more complex, “colorblind” political agenda which actually attacks the rights of people of color.

This advice is from the PRA flyer “Ground Rules & Tips for Challenging the Right.

Fast Starters:

The Right Wing Attack on the American Labor Movement
by Joanne Ricca, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO

Harvard Trade Union Program (HTUP)
The HTUP collection of links pages for labor

ZNET Labor Watch by Elaine Bernard, Dan Swinney, & Carl Davidson
(See especially the archive of articles)

General Web Links

Guide to Labor Oriented Internet Resources Institute of Industrial Relations Library, University of California, Berkeley


Labor Net’s Extensive List of Links:  Union Directory; Labor, Employment & Government; Statistics & Resources; Labor News Publications; Labor – Relevant Legislation & Legal Information; Labor Cartoons, Art, Video, Radio, Culture, History; Mainstream But Useful News Sources; International Labor Information; Other Excellent Labor Resource Sites; General References

Labor Research Association


Researching Labor and Corporation Links Page: UMASS Labor Relations and Research Center



Privatization: The Public Pays

Union Network International

Anti-Union / Anti-Labor / Anti-Regulation

National Right to Work Committee Anti-union propaganda with a nasty tone.
Heritage Foundation Conservative pro-business.
Cato Institute Libertarian, anti-regulation, darwinian economic analysis
American Enterprise Institute Big business, anti-regulation, darwinian economic analysis.

Research Studies

The Real Story Behind ‘Paycheck Protection’
The Hidden Link Between Anti-Worker and Anti-Public Education Initiatives:  An Anatomy of the Far Right.  Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1998.

    Well-researched and extremely useful, this report is a welcome contribution from the labor movement—a sector long targeted and vilified by the Right. The sections “The State-based Assault” and “State Battlegrounds” are good companion pieces to understand, through the use of case studies, how the State Policy Network operates. Also valuable is the guide to State Policy Network Members which gives profiles of each organizational member in a state-by-state format. The precision of the report, however, is somewhat marred by the author’s tendency to use inflammatory rhetoric to describe the conservative movement. To obtain copies, contact:  NEA Communication, 1201 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036

The Assault on Working Families
by the Public Policy Department of AFSCME. Washington, DC: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, 1998.

      In addition to the standard, albeit important, descriptions of  conservative policy organizations, this report has some practical appendices. Included are an analysis of state-based and regional research and policy analysis groups and samples of model state legislation that move the anti-labor, anti-working family, anti-government agenda of the American Legislative Exchange Council. Order driectly from AFSCME.

From 03/23/98  AFSCME Leader:



The same groups that have tried to kill minimum wage increases, gut workplace safety laws, promote privatization, create management-run “unions” and pass “right-to-work” laws — undermining unions and all workers — are spending $149 million to pass phony “paycheck protection” measures across the country. We call them “Paycheck Deception” laws.

These laws would force unions to get advance approval from individual union members to use dues for “political purposes” — in other words, to stand up for working people in the American political system. But corporations would remain free to give millions of dollars to their friends in government, without the permission of their stockholders. Big Business already outspends unions 11-to-1.

Big Business doesn’t want working Americans to have a voice in politics. Big Business wants to buy laws that give them profit protection — and knock out anyone who tries to get in their way.

America’s working families have to act now to save
their right to speak out through their union.

Online overviews

        March/April 1998

AFSCME Public Employee, Don’t Let Them Fool You! Big Business takes its biggest step to silence working families.

Overview 1
Overview 2

Privatization: The Public Pays, by AFSCME

“All across America AFSCME members are up against the threat of privatization of the services they provide.”

“From public works and public assistance to environmental protection and correctional facilities, corporations are trying to seize control of public services of all kinds. They’re winning the support of elected officials eager to score political points by cutting government payrolls and to raise campaign funds by befriending wealthy contributors. And they’re supported by a new breed of right-wing ideologues who are working overtime to convince the country that private companies can do everything better than the public sector.”

“This coordinated campaign to privatize government at every level far exceeds anything we’ve seen in the past — including the efforts at “contracting-out” which AFSCME has observed and opposed for decades. And, while contracting-out used to be promoted by home-grown, “mom and pop” operations, today’s privatizers are more likely to be huge multinational corporations.:

About the Right-Wing Policy Network

Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics, (Washington, DC: People for the American Way, 1996).

Sally Covington, Moving A Public Policy Agenda:  The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, July 1997.
Online excerpts at Media Transparency.

    Extensively researched and sharply analytical, this report documents the important role conservative foundations have played in building the infrastructure of the Right and influencing public policy at the national, state and local level. Covington analyzes 12 key foundation’s grant-making programs and the missions, activities, staff and boards of grantees. The report includes sections on types of institutions supported; strategic funding; how philanthropic resources have been mobilized; and the institutional, ideological and public policy impact of this conservative philanthropy.

David Callahan, $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s, Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, March 1999.

    This report focuses on the top twenty conservative policy institutes of the 1990s. In addition to the well-known Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, Callahan examines seventeen less-known think tanks. The report includes sections on: how conservative think tanks have expanded their influence in the 1990s; how they operate both in terms of policy research, marketing and change at the state and local levels; how they are supported; and how they are structured internally. Of particular interest is Callahan’s analysis of the Right’s victories in 5 policy areas: welfare; Social Security and Medicare; deregulation and the environment; taxes; and education.


Useful Groups:

Political Research Associates
1310 Broadway, Suite 201, Somerville, MA 02144.
Extensive eighteen-year file and publication archive on right-wing movements ranging from New Right to white supremacist groups. Publishes a newsletter, The Public Eye. Extensive publications list.

Institute for Democracy Studies
177 East 87th Street, Suite 501, New York, NY 10128. 212/423-9237. fax: 212/423-9352
E-Mail: info@institutefordemocracy.org
Website: http://www.institutefordemocracy.org/index.html
Timely topical reports.

National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy
2001 S St., NW, Suite 620, Washington, DC 20009. 202-387-9177
E-Mail: info@ncrp.org
Website: http://www.ncrp.org/
The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has been at the forefront in tracking and analyzing the growth and influence of conservative public policy-making.  They have published three important reports.

1904 Franklin Street, Suite 900, Oakland, CA 94612, 510/835-4692, fax: 510/835-3017
Email: datacenter@datacenter.org
Website: http://www.igc.org/datacenter/
Research by contract into a variety of topics with special expertise in corporations and current political issues. Large collection of clippings and specialized computer skills for searching electronic databases. Write for complete resource list.

People for the American Way
2000 M Street, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036, 202/467-4999, fax: 202/293-2672
Email: pfaw@pfaw.org
Website: http://www.pfaw.org
Has several reports and press releases on the rise of the Religious Right and homophobic campaigns. Resources include a newsletter, Right-Wing Watch and a videotape, The Religious Right, Then and Now. Extensive publications list.