Mother Jones Magazine

Child Protective Services Investigates Half of all Black Children in California

For decades, researchers have pointed out that the child welfare system is riddled with inequities. Black children are far more likely than their white counterparts to be investigated as victims of abuse and neglect, to be placed in foster care, and to be permanently separated from their biological parents.

“Spend a day at dependency court in any major city and you will see the unmistakable color of the child welfare system,” wrote Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, in her 2001 book, Shattered Bonds. “The disproportionate number of Black children in America’s child welfare system is staggering.”

“I just don’t believe for a second that this many children and families require what is ultimately the heavy hand of the child protection system in their lives.”

A new study in the American Journal of Public Health quantifies the scope of this disproportionality today, tracking the rates of child protective service involvement in the lives of the half a million children born in 1999 in California. The number of Black children in the system continues to be staggering: Half of Black children, as well as half of Native American children, experienced a CPS investigation at some point during the first 18 years of their lives, compared to nearly a quarter of white children. One in eight Black children spent time in foster care—a rate three times as high as white children. Three percent of Black children experienced termination of parental rights, compared with one percent of white children.

The AJPH numbers paint a portrait of a child welfare system that casts a broad net, surveilling far more families than will ultimately require services or placement in foster care, says Emily Putnam-Hornstein, lead author of the study and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work.

“When children are endangered, I do think child protection is the right response,” says Putnam-Hornstein. “I just don’t believe for a second that this many children and families require what is ultimately the heavy hand of the child protection system in their lives.”

While horror stories of child abuse dominate media coverage of child welfare, the vast majority of cases are triggered by “neglect,” a catch-all category of offenses often caused by poverty or addiction. “Most of the families that we deal with find themselves in a situation that’s been brought on by years of living in poverty and not having the basic things that they need,” Jerry Milner, former head of  the US Children’s Bureau, the federal agency overseeing child welfare, told me last year.

CPS investigators often need to make quick, high-stakes decisions about whether a home is safe and suitable for children, and the broad nature of neglect leaves such decisions rife with implicit bias. “Every single kind of social hierarchy and form of discrimination that you can think of plays into the child welfare system and identifies who are the families that are going to be split up,” said Roberts recently. “It’s racist. It’s sexist. It’s ableist. It’s classist.” 

Indeed, the disparities shown in the AJPH study went beyond race: Children born to adolescent moms and children receiving public insurance were among those far more likely to have CPS contact or experience family separation. 

A growing movement of reformers argue that instead of separating families, child welfare resources should be channeled towards housing, daycare, food, healthcare, and other services that would help prevent CPS from being called in the first place. Some municipalities are debating reforming the laws requiring doctors, teachers, and other adults to report suspected abuse and neglect to CPS.

Even when they’re ultimately dismissed, CPS investigations can themselves fuel trauma. Families with open cases are closely watched, with child welfare agencies tracking things from parental employment to the cleanliness of the home to the visitors coming and going. All the while, parents and children alike are forced to contend with the possibility of being separated, sometimes permanently. “I can’t think of anything more terrifying than having someone knock at your door because there are concerns that you’re not caring for your child,” says Putnam-Hornstein. “You know that the threat of losing your child looms large.” 

Putnam-Hornstein worries that by casting such a wide net, inundated child protection systems miss the serious cases that do warrant the involvement of CPS.  “I think it really comes at a cost to child safety, because kids get missed,” she says.

This Is Our Last Best Chance to Deal With the Global Climate Crisis

This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

The Earth’s climate has always been a work in progress. In the 4.5 billion years the planet has been spinning around the sun, ice ages have come and gone, interrupted by epochs of intense heat. The highest mountain range in Texas was once an underwater reef. Camels wandered in evergreen forests in the Arctic. Then a few million years later, 400 feet of ice formed over what is now New York City. But amid this geologic mayhem, humans have gotten lucky. For the past 10,000 years, virtually the entire stretch of human civilization, people have lived in what scientists call “a Goldilocks climate”—not too hot, not too cold, just right.

Now, our luck is running out. The industrialized nations of the world are dumping 34 billion tons or so of carbon into the atmosphere every year, which is roughly 10 times faster than Mother Nature ever did on her own, even during past mass extinction events. As a result, global temperatures have risen 1.2 C since we began burning coal, and the past seven years have been the warmest seven years on record. The Earth’s temperature is rising faster today than at any time since the end of the last ice age, 11,300 years ago. We are pushing ourselves out of a Goldilocks climate and into something entirely different—quite literally, a different world than humans have ever lived in before.

How hot will the summers get in India and Pakistan, and how will tens of thousands of deaths from extreme heat impact the stability of the region (both nations have nuclear weapons)? How close is the West Antarctic ice sheet to collapse, and what does the risk of five or six feet of sea-level rise mean for people living in mobile homes on the Gulf Coast? The truth is, no one knows for sure. We are in uncharted terrain. “We’re now in a world where the past is no longer a good guide to the future,” said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University. “We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”

By all indications, President Biden and his team understand all this. And it’s hard not to feel that after 30 years of dithering and denial and hypocrisy, the fight to save the climate has finally begun in earnest. In the 2020 election, nearly 70 percent of Biden’s voters said climate change was a top issue for them. Biden has staffed his administration with the climate A-team, from Gina McCarthy as domestic climate czar to John Kerry as international climate envoy. He has made racial and environmental justice a top priority. And perhaps most important of all, he sees the climate crisis as an opportunity to reinvent the U.S. economy and create millions of new jobs.

“I think in Obama’s mind, it was always about tackling the climate challenge, not making the climate challenge the central element of your economic policy,” says John Podesta, a Democratic power broker and special adviser to President Obama who played a key role in negotiating the Paris Agreement. “Biden’s team is different. It is really the core of their economic strategy to make transformation of the energy systems the driver of innovation, growth, and job creation, justice and equity.”

All the speeches, activism, and protest marches have done zero to stop the accumulation of CO2.

Of course, there have been hopeful moments before: the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, when the nations of the world first came together to limit CO2 emissions; the success of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006; the election of Obama in 2008 (“This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” Obama said in his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination that year); the Paris Agreement in 2015, when China finally engaged in climate talks. But all of these moments, in the end, led to nothing. If you look at the only metric that really matters—a graph of the percentage of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere—it has been on a long, steady upward climb. More CO2 equals more heat. To put it bluntly, all our scientific knowledge, all the political speeches, all the activism and protest marches have done zero to stop the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

But hope rises again. The economic winds are lifting Biden’s sails: The cost of wind and solar power has plummeted by 90 percent or so over the past decade, and in many parts of the world it’s the cheapest way to generate electricity. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel dinosaurs are tottering: Big Coal is collapsing in real time and may disappear from American life in the next decade or so. ExxonMobil lost $22 billion last year and in August was delisted from the S&P 500. GM, long the staunch fossil-fuel loyalist of the U.S. auto industry, has pledged to go all-electric by 2035.

Globally, the signs of change are equally inspiring. Eight of the 10 largest economies have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. China, by far the world’s largest carbon polluter in terms of raw tonnage (on a per capita basis, the U.S. and several other countries pollute far more), has promised to become carbon neutral by 2060. Some 400 companies, including Microsoft, Unilever, Facebook, Ford, Nestlé, and Pepsi, have committed to reduce carbon pollution consistent with the United Nations’ 1.5 C target, which scientists have determined is the threshold of dangerous climate change. Many of these same companies are now calling on the Biden administration to cut overall U.S. carbon pollution by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, a goal consistent with the 1.5 C target.

Big Money is also waking up to the risks and benefits of climate action. In his annual letter to investors, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, which manages $7.8 trillion in assets, challenged companies “to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net-zero economy.” In her confirmation hearing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called climate change “an existential threat” and promised to create a team to examine the risks and integrate them into financial policy-making.

Still, these are only baby steps in a very long journey. And the clock is ticking. “When it comes to the climate crisis,” says futurist Alex Steffen, “speed is everything.” Every molecule of carbon we dump into the atmosphere is another molecule of carbon that will warm the climate for centuries to come, and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, reshape the world we live in. The changes we are making are not reversible. If we magically stopped all carbon pollution tomorrow, the Earth’s temperature would level off, but warm seas would continue melting the ice sheets and seas would keep rising for decades, if not centuries (last time carbon levels were as high as they are today, sea levels were 70 feet higher). Ocean acidification, caused by high CO2 levels, is already dissolving coral reefs and is having a major impact on the ocean food chain. Even after emissions stop, it will take the ocean thousands of years to recover.

Despite newfound ambition, political leaders are not moving anywhere near fast enough.

Cutting carbon fast would slow these changes and reduce the risk of other climate catastrophes. But despite the world’s newfound ambition, political leaders are not moving anywhere near fast enough. Even the goal of holding future warming to 2 C, which is a centerpiece of the Paris Agreement and considered the outer limits of a Goldilocks climate for much of the planet, is nearly out of reach. As a recent paper in Nature pointed out: “On current trends, the probability of staying below 2 C of warming is only five percent.” If all countries meet the commitment they made in the 2015 Paris Agreement and continue to reduce emissions at the same rate after 2030, the paper argued, the probability of remaining below 2 C of warming rises to 26 percent (“As if a 26 percent chance was good,” Swedish climate wunderkind Greta Thunberg pointed out in a tweet).

The great danger is not climate denial. The great danger is climate delay. Instead of pushing for changes tomorrow, world leaders and CEOs like to make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2050. And then in 2050, they will make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2070. Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather calls this the “empty radicalism” of long-term goals.

What’s needed is action now. As climate envoy John Kerry put it at the World Sustainable Development Summit in February: “We have to now phase out coal five times faster than we have been. We have to increase tree cover five times faster than we have been. We have to ramp up renewable energy six times faster than we are. We have to transition to [electric vehicles] 22 times faster.”

As an example of the seriousness of Biden’s near-term ambition, he has proposed transitioning to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, which means goodbye natural-gas plants, goodbye coal plants, and hello electric cars and battery storage. It’s an astonishingly ambitious proposal, one that would require a remaking of the digital backbone of America at a breakneck speed. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but if Biden is serious about getting it done, it will require retooling permitting laws and the environmental-review process that often stalls big infrastructure projects.

Demanding action now will also require shutting down the international financing schemes that support fossil fuels. China, Japan, and South Korea all claim to be doing their part in making carbon reductions at home, while at the same time they are financing 70,000 megawatts of coal power in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In addition, state-run oil companies in places like China, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia are on course to spend more than $400 billion over the next decade to expand oil infrastructure and exploration.

The goal of net-zero emissions is also problematic. “Net zero” is not the same thing as zero. It means that carbon pollution is either eliminated or offset by other processes that remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as forests or machines that capture CO2. Some of these offsets and technologies are more legit than others, opening the door to scams that claim to eliminate more carbon than they do.

“The climate fight going forward is really about natural gas.”

In a way, the economic chaos caused by the pandemic has created a historic opportunity for the Biden administration. As one White House adviser tells me, “If you are going to pump billions of dollars into the economy, why not use those dollars to help us transition away from fossil fuels?” This is one of the central ideas behind Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill, which is now being negotiated in Congress. The bill includes a wide variety of climate-related initiatives, shaped around the twin pillars of Biden-era policy: clean-energy jobs and climate justice.

Already the pushback is fierce, especially in states that have benefited from the fracking boom. “The climate fight going forward is really about natural gas,” says Leah Stokes, author of Short Circuiting Policy, an analysis of how special interests have derailed clean-energy policy for 30 years. Shortly after Biden issued his first round of executive orders aimed at the climate crisis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference in the middle of the gas fields “to make clear that Texas is going to protect the oil-and-gas industry from any type of hostile attack launched from Washington, D.C.” In Florida, two bills were introduced that would preempt local governments from implementing plans to lower carbon pollution. In California and New York, residents are fighting transmission lines for offshore wind farms. Republicans, along with stalwart fossil-fuel allies like the Heritage Foundation, recently convened a private retreat in Utah to plot ways to “reclaim the narrative” on climate, while Republican Senators like Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn continue to recycle tired old rants about how the Paris Agreement is destroying American jobs.

None of this is surprising. And the fight will only get bigger and more ruthless as the clean-energy transition accelerates. Fossil fuels are emblematic of a culture, a way of life, a political hierarchy, and an empire of wealth that will not go quietly into the night.

Even among climate activists and progressives, there is wide disagreement about the best path forward. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat who supports Biden’s climate goals, sees natural gas as indispensable. “You can’t turn off natural gas in our society, at least in the Northeast of the United States at this time,” Lamb tells me. “You just can’t do it.” Lamb advocates investments in expensive and unproven technology like carbon capture that could extend the life of fossil fuels. Then there are the eternal battles over nuclear power as a source of clean energy, which Lamb also supports. Others, like UC Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen, remain skeptical: “If low-cost, reliable, entirely safe nuclear can prove itself out, this is wonderful. . . . But there’s a lot of big ifs.”

More important, the fight for a stable climate is increasingly inseparable from a fight for justice and equity. Catherine Coleman Flowers, who was on a task force that helped shape Biden’s climate policy during his campaign, grew up and works in Lowndes County, Alabama. “I see a lot of poverty here,” Flowers says. “And I see a lot of people who suffer from the impacts of climate change—whether it is heat, or disease, or poor sanitation and polluted drinking water. You can’t separate one from the other. They put sewage lagoons next to the houses of poor people, not rich people. They put oil pipelines through poor neighborhoods, not rich ones.”

Internationally, rich nations of the world pledged to “mobilize” $100 billion by 2020 through the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But only about $10 billion materialized. The U.S. was among the worst actors: Of the $3 billion President Obama promised, he funded only $1 billion before Trump canceled further payments (Biden has promised to make good on the commitment, and then some).

“Adaptation is not sexy,” says a former adviser to the Obama administration. “But it is inevitable.”

Whatever happens with Biden’s climate and energy initiatives, we’re living in a new world now. The faster we cut carbon, the more manageable the changes will be. But change is coming. The biggest fights of the future are less likely to be about natural gas and nuclear power than about sea walls and migration policies. “Adaptation is not sexy,” says Alice Hill, who was an adviser to the Obama administration. “But it is inevitable.” As climate impacts escalate, dangerous techno-fixes, such as solar geoengineering, which involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the planet, will likely become more tempting and more divisive, perhaps further diluting the will to quickly cut carbon pollution.

For more than 30 years now, scientists and politicians have been aware that our hellbent consumption of fossil fuels could push us out of the Goldilocks zone and force humans to live in a world we have never inhabited before. As Biden’s push for climate action gets real, we will learn a lot about how serious human beings are about living on this planet, and how far the powerful and privileged are willing to go to reduce the suffering of the poor and vulnerable. If political leaders don’t take the climate crisis seriously now, with all they know, with all they have been through already, will they ever? “Climate advocates keep saying, ‘This is it, this is it, this is it,'” warns Podesta. “But this really is it. If we don’t amp up and accelerate the energy transformation in this decade, we’re goners—really goners.”

Seriously Go Get Your Second Shot!

I got my second shot of Pfizer yesterday, and although I did not get the jab at a particularly memorable, Only-In-New-York place—at the Javits Center, say, or Citi Field, or under the whale at the Museum of Natural History—it felt, nonetheless, quite momentous. I had a bacon, egg, and cheese on a scallion pancake to celebrate, went for a long walk, and promptly slept for 10 hours. I had been waiting for this day ever since I got my first shot, three week earlier, and I had been waiting for that day ever since I started working from home last March 15th. The side-effects, for me, were annoying in a pleasant sort of way, like I’d gone for a very long run without drinking enough water. I call that “pleasant,” because I know this means it’s working.

But according to the New York Times, an alarming number of Americans have missed out on their second doses of Pfizer or Moderna:

More than five million people, or nearly 8 percent of those who got a first shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, have missed their second doses, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is more than double the rate among people who got inoculated in the first several weeks of the nationwide vaccine campaign.

The piece offers a number of reasons for why this is. There is some apprehension about the side-effects or a false sense security about much protection one shot provides. Logistical hassles inevitably arise in people’s lives—car trouble, or an issue with work or childcare, can mean the difference between making and missing a date with Moderna. And according to the Times, there’s also been another factor outside of people’s control—some people who have signed up for their second doses have been let down by the places that were supposed to provide them. For instance, “Walgreens, one of the biggest vaccine providers, sent some people who got a first shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine to get their second doses at pharmacies that only had the other vaccine on hand.” Woof.

Earlier in the vaccination campaign, some experts were arguing for prioritizing first doses and delaying second doses in order to get more people some degree of resistance faster. But that was back when scheduling a vaccine appointment was still a bit like getting good seats on Ticketmaster. Right now, the United States has a ton of shots, and the benefits of two shots over one are clear. While the first shot of Pfizer and Moderna does provide some temporary protection against Covid, studies found that two shots gave a much fuller immunity, by helping the body produce a lot more antibodies and T-cells. It’s designed to be a two-part process; your body has to learn how to respond. Per The Ohio State University Medical Center:

It’s not unusual for vaccines to require back-to-back doses to be most effective. The first dose primes the immune system while the second dose induces a vigorous immune response and production of antibodies. The bottom line is that you want your immune system to produce a robust enough level of antibodies that if you’re exposed to a virus, your body can effectively fight it. Sometimes that means taking two vaccine doses.

The good news is that if you missed your second shot appointment for whatever reason, you might still have a window to fix it—although the CDC recommends getting the second shot as soon as it’s allowed, you can get it up to 42 days after the first shot, and it’s never been easier. So check with your doctor, and as always, check in on your loved ones. And if you got a shot from Johnson & Johnson, congratulations and ignore all of this—you’re good with just one.

Kevin McCarthy Is Still Whitewashing What Happened on January 6th

In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked again about a conversation he had with then-President Donald Trump during the Capitol insurrection on January 6th. In the aftermath of the riot, McCarthy said that Trump “bears responsibility” for it, and suggested the president should face censure. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump,” McCarthy said on the House floor the week after. (Of course, McCarthy himself voted to overturn the results of the presidential election in Arizona, legitimizing the theories of the rioters.)

He’s in a good position to know exactly what Trump thought about the insurrection as it unfolded. McCarthy spoke with Trump while the Capitol was under attack. And according to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a fellow Republican, Trump had said something pretty chilling: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” 

But when Wallace asked McCarthy about his conversation with Trump, McCarthy chose to whitewash what happened. He refused to answer yes or no as to whether Herrera Beutler’s account was accurate—you can interpret what that means for yourself—but insisted that Trump 1) did not know the riots were going on until McCarthy called him, and 2) promised to put a stop to it.

“And that’s what he did—he put a video out later.”

Kevin McCarthy refuses to answer Chris Wallace's question about whether it's true that Trump told him, "Well Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are" when McCarthy called and urged him to call off the insurrectionists on January 6

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 25, 2021

McCarthy is right in a very narrow way—Trump did put a video out later. A full two hours after a mob broke into the Capitol, he put out a video in which he told the people who had defaced the Capitol, shit in the floor, shouted racist slurs, and beaten cops, “We love you, you’re very special,” and that “we had an election that was stolen from us.”

For a brief period on January 6th, it perhaps seemed as though there might be some cracks in the Republican party’s wall of support for Trump—as evidenced by McCarthy’s contemporaneous statements. But in the months since, all but a handful of figures (Herrera Beutler being one of them) have committed themselves to a whitewashing of what happened that day. McCarthy would rather cover up what happened and throw his own Republican colleague under the bus than tell the truth about what we all watched with our own eyes, and what he had admitted to initially. It is crushingly cynical, and sort of clarifying; then, as now, Trump’s greatest source of power was the sheer cowardice of those who could have stopped him.

Republicans Still Don’t Really Know What to Say About Joe Biden

With the 100-day mark of Joe Biden’s presidency approaching, a number of national news organizations commissioned polls on how he’s doing, and they all found basically the same thing: The president is popular. Biden’s approval rating is at 58 percent according to CBS News, 53 percent according to NBC News, 52 percent according to ABC News, and 54 percent according to Fox News. This is a bit lower than where Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were at the same point in time, but given the circumstances in which he took office—a refusal by Biden’s predecessor to concede that culminated in an actual rebellion—it’s a pretty good number.

Republicans seem to have taken notice. Last weekend, the Hill interviewed a number of GOP senators who fretted about how Biden’s amiable personality had insulated him from political blowback—they were having a hard time defining him as the enemy.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune typified these laments, telling the paper, “His tone is moderate and he’s an affable person, he’s a likeable individual and a lot of us know him, have relationships with him and it’s probably harder to attack somebody who is relatable and likeable.”

Of course, Obama was also, to use Thune’s words, relatable and likeable, and that never stopped conservatives from finding grievances to latch onto. As Adam Serwer noted in the Atlantic last year, one of the defining themes of Biden’s 2020 race was how badly Republicans struggled to adapt their playbook for a campaign against an old white man, after years of deploying racist and sexist tropes to stir up opposition to Obama and Hillary Clinton. They could try to label Biden as “radical,” but “the notion of a Biden presidency simply does not provoke the visceral rage that Clinton and Obama did—not in Trump, and not in his supporters,” Serwer wrote. Case in point: While Republicans have tried to portray Biden as a big-spending liberal, the most common criticisms of Biden in NBC News’ poll were just that he was old.


— 1-in-5 Americans are resistant or hesitant about getting the vaccine

— a majority believe the U.S. is on the wrong track

— a whopping 80% still think the U.S. is mostly divided, despite Biden’s promise to be a more unifying president.

— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) April 25, 2021

It’s hard to say whether so much of conservatives’ anger and criticism has been focused on cultural politics like Dr. Seuss because they can’t get anything to stick to Biden, or if they can’t get any of their attacks on Biden to stick because they’re too focused on Dr. Seuss. But for now, with one $2 trillion stimulus already on the books and a major infrastructure bill currently in process, either scenario works out just fine for the president.

Why “Blue Carbon” Credits May Be Poised to Take Off

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Off the shores of Virginia, vast meadows of seagrass sway in the shallow waters. Over the past two decades, conservation scientists have spread more than 70 million seeds in the bays there, restoring 3,600 hectares (9,000 acres) of an ecosystem devastated by disease in the 1930s. The work has brought back eelgrass (Zostera marina)—a keystone species that supports crustaceans, fish, and scallops, and is now absorbing the equivalent of nearly half a metric ton of CO2 per hectare per year.

Now, the Virginia Nature Conservancy is aiming to turn those tons into carbon credits that it can sell for cash.

The collaborative project — with planting done by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and the Nature Conservancy, and long-term carbon data provided by the University of Virginia—is the first seagrass project in the world to apply for carbon credit certification with the Washington-based nonprofit Verra, the world’s largest overseer of carbon credit projects. “It’s proof of concept—that’s the important part here,” says Christopher Patrick, director of the VIMS seagrass restoration and monitoring program. “We’re not going to change global climate with this one project. But we can show it’s a viable approach.”

Corporations like Apple have been very vocal about their blue carbon purchases and products.

If successful, it will join a handful of other blue carbon credit projects around the world, the vast majority of which are mangrove restoration efforts—a trickle of blue that many anticipate will soon become a flood. So far, Verra has issued a grand total of just under 970,000 credits (representing 970,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalents) to blue carbon projects. But mangrove projects are now ramping up dramatically in scope, with one alone aiming to soak up millions of tons of CO2 equivalents a year. And scientists are working hard to account for the carbon in other ecosystem types—seagrasses, salt marshes, seaweeds, and seafloor sediments—so they, too, can enter the market.

The rules to allow these other ecosystems to claim credits are new. In 2015, Verra published its first methodology to give credits to tidal wetland and seagrass restoration, but only last September did Verra expand its rules to cover wetland conservation. That was “a very big deal,” says Jennifer Howard, marine climate change director for Conservation International. “I know of at least 20 different projects right now that are all trying to get developed and on the market in the next two years. I think we’re going to see a big explosion.”

“The market is small but growing exponentially,” agrees marine ecologist Oscar Serrano at Edith Cowan University in Perth, who has helped to catalog the capacity for Australia’s blue carbon reserves in mitigating climate change.

Amy Schmid, ecologist and manager of natural climate solutions development for Verra, says, “there’s a lot of demand for blue carbon credits.” Companies in shipping and tourism are keen to put money back into conserving the landscapes they have an impact on, she says, while offsetting their own emissions. And many of these projects offer win-win-win stories for people, biodiversity, and carbon, which boosts the price that organizations can get for their credits on the open market. Corporations, including Geneva-based MSC Cruises and Apple, have been very vocal about their blue carbon purchases and projects.

Carbon credits have been around since the late 1990s; it has long been possible to offset, say, the emissions from your wedding in California by buying carbon credits from planting trees in the Amazon. Along with Verra, other nonprofits that have sprung up to write the rule book and keep registries of carbon credit projects include the Geneva-based Gold Standard and Edinburgh-based Plan Vivo.

The carbon market in general has a checkered past, with problems surrounding double-counting of carbon cuts, the failure to channel the money to local communities, or the creation of perverse collateral damage along the way, like razing one crop to plant another for credits. These are the issues that the methodologies published by entities like Verra attempt to avoid. The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, set up last September, is working hard to ensure future carbon credits—including blue ones—are sound. And experts agree that both companies and nations need to work hard to decarbonize first before turning to offsets for their remaining emissions.

A mangrove forest on the Leizhou Peninsula. Kyle Obermann/Yale E360

That’s especially important since the market for all forms of carbon credits is growing fast. More than 1,600 projects registered with Verra account for 620 million tons of CO2-equivalent, enough to counteract the emissions from about 150 coal-fired power plants, with trading staying strong despite the pandemic. When parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change meet this November in Glasgow, they will hash out the notoriously thorny Article 6, which governs how countries can use carbon markets to meet their government-mandated targets. That’s expected to help guide and boost the voluntary carbon credit market.

The Taskforce’s January 2021 report concluded that demand for carbon credits will likely increase by a factor of 15 by 2030, making the market worth $50 billion. Blue carbon project planners are hoping to get their slice of that pie. UNESCO, for example, noted in its blue carbon report last month that its 50 marine Heritage Sites, which together account for 15 percent of the planet’s blue carbon assets, could finance at least part of their conservation work by claiming and selling carbon credits.

So far, though, marine-based efforts have lagged behind land-based forestation projects that offer easier, cheaper, and larger-scale operation. But the ocean’s capacity for keeping global warming in check—while also providing food, boosting biodiversity, and protecting local coasts from storms and tides—is huge. “The ocean has long been seen as a victim of climate change, but it’s also a big part of the solution,” says National Geographic explorer-in-residence Enric Sala, who studies blue carbon.

About 20 percent of the world’s mangrove forests are ripe for blue carbon projects.

Three types of marine ecosystems have so far garnered the most attention—salt marshes, mangroves, and seagrasses. These make up only a thin blue line on global maps, but each sequesters more carbon per hectare per year than do tropical forests. Disturbing a hectare of mangroves, for example, has been estimated to produce as much emissions as plowing down 3 to 5 hectares of tropical forest. Preventing or reversing that destruction is not only good for the planet but provides a lot of “bang for bucks” in terms of investment, says Howard.

According to a 2019 High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy report, protecting and restoring these ecosystems globally, alongside seaweed farming, could reduce emissions by as much as 1.4 billion tons of CO2-equivalent emissions annually by 2050. That’s just a few percentage points of the total cuts the planet needs to make in order to hit net zero by 2050. But for some countries, it’s huge. “For Indonesia, up to 20 percent of their national emissions come from mangroves,” notes Howard, as mangroves are converted to aquaculture and their carbon sinks are lost.

Mangrove restoration is the best studied and most advanced kind of blue carbon credit project to date. A recent assessment concluded that about 20 percent of the world’s mangrove forests are ripe for such projects, and about half of that could be affordably protected with inexpensive carbon credit prices of $5 per ton or more.

So far, only a scattering of mangrove projects are underway or in development, including in Kenya, Senegal, Sumatra, India’s Sunderbans, and Colombia, as well as a couple of marine protected areas in Madagascar and Kenya. Most aim to reduce emissions by thousands to hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 equivalents per year. But such projects are just now hitting their stride.

“All of a sudden in the last year really we’ve gone from these very small, very few projects to a real scaling up,” says coastal geomorphologist Steve Crooks with the San Francisco-based consultancy Silvestrum Climate Associates. He points to one massive project he has been helping with to reforest more than 200,000 acres of mangroves in the Indus Delta in Pakistan. It aims to absorb 2 million tons of CO2-equivalent per year, selling 1 million credits in 2021, says Crooks—a scale that will “blow other blue carbon projects out of the water.”

Seagrasses may have more carbon mitigation potential than mangroves simply because there are so many of them, and they’re rapidly disappearing at about 2 to 7 percent per year. (According to the High Level Panel, seagrasses alone might account for half of the 1.4 billion tons of blue carbon greenhouse gas-mitigation potential.) The Virginia project has pioneered efforts to quantify the carbon soaked up by seagrasses, doing the hard work of monitoring both the CO2 absorbed by the plants as well as the emissions of other greenhouse gases like methane. In 2020, researchers published a paper showing that the carbon credits generated by one part of the meadow, 700 hectares in South Bay, should offset about 10 percent of that project’s restoration costs of $800,000.

The Virginia project is special, however, notes project leader Patrick, because that ecosystem hasn’t been degraded by climate change or pollution, making it easier to successfully restore the grasses. “A lot of seagrass restorations fail because you’re planting grass or putting in seed where the environmental drivers that caused the collapse haven’t been fixed in the first place,” he says. Although the VIMS project will hopefully pave the way for other seagrass programs to earn credits, many of those other projects will likely involve more work and be more expensive. For those reasons, says Howard, conservation might be an easier target for seagrass credit projects than restoration.

There is also ample scope for restoring and protecting salt marshes, especially in Australia, home to about a third of the planet’s tidal marshes. But the years of required data on carbon storage and release aren’t there yet, says Crooks. Intensive research into wetlands by the Pacific North West Coastal Blue Carbon Working Group has shown that although these landscapes hold a lot of carbon, some naturally release so much methane that carbon credits may not be a viable long-term financial option. Monitoring a wetland involves a lot of “walking through a lot of mud and muck,” says Schmid, and emissions of gases like methane can be highly variable from spot to spot and over time, making monitoring onerous.

A big shakeup to the blue carbon-credit movement could come if the doors are opened to one particular new carbon source: seaweed. Seaweeds—like the massive kelp forests in Australia—are a major stock of blue carbon under threat in many parts of the world. The High Level Panel highlighted seaweed farming as a viable emissions mitigator and a way of producing sustainable food. But there are still doubts about exactly where all the carbon from seaweed farms goes, says Howard.

If the science holds up, seaweed could be added to carbon credit methodologies.

“How much falls to the seafloor, how much is eaten by fish, and how much they poop, how much carbon is being moved—we just don’t know,” she says. Verra is actively watching this realm with interest, says Schmid; if the science behind the carbon accounting holds up, seaweed could be added to the nonprofit’s carbon credit methodologies within a couple of years. Crooks says he is helping to develop a credit-for-seaweed-farming project now in British Columbia.

Organic-rich sediments on the seafloor are also contenders for credits. Sala and colleagues estimate that fishing boats dragging nets along the seafloor are kicking up 1.47 billion tons of CO2 — about as much as released by the aviation industry today, and more than the 1.4 billion-ton mitigation potential of mangroves, salt marshes, seagrasses, and seaweed farming combined. The science on where this carbon goes is highly uncertain, says Howard. It’s not clear, for example, if the carbon kicked up from the seafloor makes it all the way up to the air, or stays dissolved in the water, making it more acidic.

Like land-based carbon credit projects, blue carbon projects face issues, says Serrano. Many of these projects are expensive, he notes, which makes it hard for carbon credits to make a dent in project costs. And ensuring permanence of the carbon stocks can be hard in the face of storms or marine heatwaves.

Carbon credits are just one way to finance these nature-based solutions for carbon sequestration; there are also philanthropic donations and government-funded grants or subsidies. However, says Howard, “the [carbon credit] market is good, because the private sector has all the money. We need long-term, sustainable finance to keep our projects going.”

PPP Lending Was Supposed to Help Small Businesses in Kansas City. That’s Not What Happened.

This story was co-published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and the Kansas City Star.

Darryl Answer knows a lot of entrepreneurs in the majority-Black East Side of Kansas City, Missouri, people running companies or side gigs. But the local pastor couldn’t think of even one who’s received help from the federal government’s pandemic lifeline for small businesses.

That’s because most hadn’t.

In Kansas City neighborhoods seared by decades of government-imposed racial discrimination, the Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans arrived last year at lower rates than in the rest of the city. East Side areas “redlined” in the 1930s because Black people lived there—a federal decision that effectively blocked investment—received 17% fewer PPP loans than if they’d gotten an amount proportionate to their share of the city’s small employers. Affluent, largely white ZIP codes given preferential treatment by redlining received 23% more.


“Sometimes we look at this as an isolated situation,” said Answer, who is active in community development in addition to his work with New Community Church. “But I think all of these things have to be experienced in light of history.”

This pattern keeps repeating—here and across the country. In Kansas City, your level of wealth and even the length of your life are often defined by whether you live east or west of Troost Avenue, a longstanding racial dividing line. It’s a similar story in many other once-redlined cities.

At the same time, most of the government incentives intended to combat blight and joblessness in Kansas City flow downtown rather than to the East Side. Variations on that theme keep happening around the nation, too, an eerie—and legal—echo of what the 1930s federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp. wrought with its red pen.

“You can’t call it anything but redlining: public sector reinforcing private-sector discrimination,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, which tracks and researches economic subsidies. “The net effect is reverse Robin Hood. You’re favoring places that need help the least.”

“The net effect is reverse Robin Hood. You’re favoring places that need help the least.

In Kansas City, people determined to put a stop to this may be making some headway. In 2017, Black community leaders convinced voters to earmark a slice of sales-tax revenue for economic development and stability efforts in a portion of the East Side. Some of that money has flowed as COVID-19 relief to small businesses that largely missed out on the federal help.

Darrian Davis at the Kansas City Urban Orchard. Darrian Davis, who has lived in 64128 for 15 years, is a serial entrepreneur who heard about the PPP, but “I remember thinking that I wasn’t going to be eligible,” he said. He is seen here at the Kansas City Urban Farm Co-Op orchard, located south of his community.

Rich Sugg / The Kansas City Star

And after a years-long pressure campaign by public school leaders, civic groups and others alarmed at the loss of tax revenue that would otherwise fund public services, the City Council imposed modest limits on tax incentives in February.

But what happened with the Paycheck Protection Program is just the latest reminder that equal opportunity remains miles off. Congress asked the Small Business Administration to prioritize small firms in “underserved” markets for PPP loans, which should have quickly boosted places like Kansas City’s East Side. And yet assumptions in the program design—about business owners’ access to banking or certain documents or even clear information about who qualifies—didn’t account for the reality that many firms in such markets face, according to interviews with several dozen experts and entrepreneurs.

Sixty-three percent of eligible applicants for the East Side coronavirus relief grants from Kansas City sales tax revenue did not get a PPP loan. A handful were turned down for PPP help, according to a survey by LISC Greater Kansas City, a field office of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., which administered the city’s grants. Ten percent applied and got no response. Many didn’t apply at all, in most cases because they hadn’t heard about it.

It’s a finding that LISC said befuddled some regional business leaders. Never heard of the much-discussed PPP?

But that’s west-of-Troost thinking. For people living and working east of Troost, the LISC survey results show what officials should have known from the start: A program that isn’t designed to counteract the effect of decades-long discrimination will probably replicate it.

“You can write it in the law that you’re supposed to [beneficially] target Black and brown businesses, but then it gets out into the system,” said Melissa Patterson Hazley, vice chair of the board overseeing the economic development sales tax. “And the system isn’t designed to do that.”

Darrian Davis co-founded a fledgling industrial hemp business and an urban farm cooperative. He also owns a construction contracting business, holds rental properties in a limited liability corporation and runs a side effort buying items from auctions to resell. 

He received a PPP loan for none of them.

“I remember thinking that I wasn’t going to be eligible,” he said. He kept hearing references to payroll, and he doesn’t have employees, so he didn’t apply.

It’s possible he could have gotten PPP money. One-person operations can qualify, and the SBA tweaked the program in January and again in February and March to try to make it more equitable. Even so, Davis might have fallen through the eligibility cracks — or ended up like a small dessert maker near him who jumped through the hoops last year and received just $416.

The East Side ZIP code where Davis lives, 64128, was one of the few places in Kansas City where Black people were permitted to live during the redlining era. Even today, there’s just one bank branch. Nearly a third of residents live below the poverty line. Home values are low, making it hard to build generational wealth. 

When the SBA handed out PPP loans last year, only 59 made it to 64128. Compared with its share of small employers, that’s one of the lowest levels in the city. 

This Arvest Bank branch on Prospect is the only bank in the 64128 area.

Shelly Yang / The Kansas City Star

Public Integrity, which itself received PPP loans, sued the SBA last year to release the information about recipients that made this analysis possible. The newsroom melded that dataset with Census Bureau figures and redlining-map information from a team led by the University of Richmond. It’s not a perfect measure because the federal government doesn’t track the universe of potentially PPP-eligible businesses at a local level, but comparing loans to the share of small employers helps show which areas are getting more or less than expected.

For some very small businesses in 64128, both a lack of assistance and a process that seemed to be continually changing acted as barriers. As she attempted to keep renovations going on a transitional house for women leaving prison, Monecia Smith contacted the SBA for help. She said she didn’t get anywhere. Then she reached out to Bank of America, but at that point last year the PPP funding was gone.

“I don’t know anyone that applied for it,” said Answer, the pastor, who lives in that ZIP code. Some “have multiple hustles, whether it be lawn care, catering, different things to survive. No one’s making a ton of money.”

About two-and-a-half miles southwest, across the Troost Avenue divide, sits the 64113 ZIP code. Here, prohibitions on Black residents were written into deeds in a pre-redlining practice that Kansas City developer J.C. Nichols helped spread around the country. The Home Owners’ Loan Corp. graded these neighborhoods highly desirable in the 1930s, a stand-out green on a map pockmarked with red.

Today, 90 percent of residents in 64113 are white. The typical household makes $138,000, five times the figure in Davis’s community. And 64113’s access to PPP loans, 262 in all, was among the highest in Kansas City compared with its share of small employers — 92 loans more than would have been expected.

The Country Club Plaza shopping area in Kansas City, Missouri.

Shelly Yang / The Kansas City Star

Davis was not surprised to hear it. Just as the consequences of redlining still linger in his neighborhood, he said, marking some communities green has also compounded over time.

“Any disparity you can think of,” he said, “you’ll see the same pattern.”

In fact, only one Kansas City ZIP code that was predominantly redlined with Black residents in the 1930s did not have worse-than-average access to the PPP last year. A key secret to its success: It’s almost entirely west of Troost Avenue, benefiting from years of investments in and around downtown. 

The exterior of Shop Beautiful in Kansas City pictured on Tuesday. After more than 80 years in the same space in Brookside, the current owners of Shop Beautiful temporarily shut down for a remodeling in January and have now reopened.

The Kansas City Star

The stark differences between neighborhoods in Kansas City can be found throughout America. That’s why Bruce Katz, director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, said the federal government must stop assuming that programs like the PPP are enough. What’s often missing in communities is a robust small-business support system to make sure people without banking connections or much money get the help, too.

“Unless you’re thinking about delivery of this locally, it falls flat,” Katz said. “We’re trying to get it embedded in every part of Biden policy that we can.”

Michael L. Barrera, director of the SBA’s Kansas City district office, said that since he stepped into the job in February, he’s been on an outreach tear. A former president of both the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City and U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he’s been repeatedly talking to local business groups—including the Asian, Black and Hispanic chambers—about the PPP and other pandemic assistance programs.

“We can’t contact every business in our district, so we have to rely on our partners to do that,” he said. “And having relationships with these partners is going to be critical going forward.”

PPP data for January through March shows the once-redlined areas of Kansas City’s East Side still falling short, though the gap has narrowed. City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, whose district includes 64128, traces those better results to all-hands-on-deck efforts by people on the East Side. She said she pressed to get funding for the local Prospect Business Association so it could help more firms with PPP applications.

And the Heartland Black Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in Kansas City and covering four Midwestern states, pieced together government funding and donations to launch its own program in February. By the third day, about 100 businesses had applied for the help.

“The need is so great,” said Kim Randolph, chief executive of the organization.

There’s still time, though not a lot: The program’s application deadline is May 31. And the money might run out before then.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who grew up on the East Side, said the local experience with the PPP illustrates a broader national problem: The federal government keeps relying on local advocates to fix inequities that should have been anticipated from the start. “Rarely are there ever exceptions, particularly when you see the initial rollout of programs,” he said. “It is, as a Black man, incredibly frustrating.”

Mayor Quinton Lucas. Kansas City, Missouri.

The Kansas City Star

Not many of Randolph’s members obtained a PPP loan last year, when quick help was most needed. It was clear last spring that the pandemic was hitting U.S. communities of color particularly hard and fast — the number of Black small business owners dropped 41 percent nationally between February and April 2020, compared with 17 percent for white entrepreneurs. Randolph thinks the country should be ashamed of how the PPP rolled out.

“When the dust settles, we’re going to have a desert,” she said. “If we don’t do something about it now, we’re going to be in a worse situation than we ever thought we could be.”

For every dollar on which Kansas City collects sales tax, half a cent goes to parks. A quarter-cent flows to public-safety services. In two of the city’s counties, an eighth of a cent goes to the zoo.

Leaders of the local Urban Summit wondered: What if an eighth of a cent also went to economic development east of Troost?

Among the people posing that question was Karen E. Curls, president of a real estate services company. Her father, one of the city’s first African American real estate brokers, founded the firm in 1952—four years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared racist restrictions in deeds legally unenforceable and 16 years before Congress passed the federal Fair Housing Act

Those bans on real estate discrimination did not redress the damage already done. Areas like 64128 are caught in a vicious cycle, unable to get much investment because they were blocked from it for so long.

In theory, the city’s tax incentives for economic development could disrupt that cycle. But a 2018 report for Kansas City pointed out what East Side residents knew years earlier: Most incentives go to projects in already “high-value” parts of the city, particularly downtown.

If Kansas City voters agreed to charge themselves an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax for East Side efforts, that money couldn’t get diverted. It would be a step, Urban Summit leaders thought, toward banishing redlining’s ghosts.

It would be a step, Urban Summit leaders thought, toward banishing redlining’s ghosts. “Let’s say that: a step,” Curls said. “But this staircase is very long.”

“Let’s say that: a step,” Curls said. “But this staircase is very long.”

Supporters of the tax gathered signatures to put the measure on the ballot, then went door to door in 2017, urging people on both sides of the Troost divide to vote yes.

They did.

That’s generated more than $32 million over three-and-a-half years for an area that stretches from a street just east of Troost to the western quarter of 64128. Money is flowing to projects ranging from a shopping center renovation to a new childcare center, filling gaps in financing.

“The one-eighth-cent sales tax is really a godsend for us,” said Marquita Taylor, president of the Santa Fe Area Council, whose neighborhood is receiving $610,000 to help residents fix roofs and make other home repairs. What Santa Fe pieced together for the project isn’t enough, Taylor said, but still, “the impact is going to be so great.”

The sales tax is an idea people in other cities could try. But it’s no cure-all, as Curls warned. It runs out in 2027 unless voters reauthorize it for another decade. Work was painfully slow to get started. And the amount of money pales compared with development needs, frustrating residents as proposed projects lose out.

The city tax incentives that largely go elsewhere, meanwhile, are far larger.

Those incentives drained nearly $100 million in revenue from the city in 2019 alone, according to a calculation by Good Jobs First. That’s mostly through programs that let developers put money they would have paid in taxes toward project costs instead.

The Kansas City Public Schools district serves a portion of the city that includes both the heavily subsidized downtown and the 64128 ZIP code. Its officials calculated that the district lost $1,069 per student to tax abatements in the 2018-19 school year — far more than other, mostly whiter districts in the city.

“Enough is enough,” Superintendent Mark T. Bedell wrote in a 2020 letter after a firm that had its property tax wiped out for two decades asked for 13 years more. That “speaks loudly to the systemically racist real estate practices we have allowed to exist here.”

Amid growing outrage, the City Council denied the firm’s request and recently reduced the level of incentives developers can get. The council also tweaked rules to better target tax breaks to the distressed neighborhoods that keep missing out. But exceptions in the new law could undermine that goal. 

Robinson, the councilwoman, wants more reform because she sees no practical difference between redlining and modern-day decisions about where to funnel investment. “It’s just much more covert,” she said.

Ajia Morris, an East Side resident who rehabs houses locally, would like efforts that invest “directly in the people who live there.” Support for small businesses, for instance, or a mortgage pool to help renters buy. Her company, The Greenline Initiative, named in reaction to redlining, finds that East Side rents are just as high as — or higher than — a mortgage would be.

Morris, a lawyer and former school board member, said what gets classified as “investment” in the area often extracts money from the people there rather than going to them.

One program launched by the city’s health department and a local community development corporation last year does get funds into the hands of startups on the East Side, though the grants are small—$2,000 maximum. Kansas City and the Community Capital Fund see entrepreneurship as a way to increase well-being in an area where, in the case of 64128, people die nearly 18 years younger on average than in the greenlined 64113. (The reason for that disparity, the health department says in a blunt assessment: racism, including the “devastating & lasting impact” of redlining and later practices.)

Megan Crook, who led the Community Capital Fund when the program launched, said residents “know what’s going on in their neighborhood, they want to address it, they have the energy and ideas to address it. There’s just a lack of resources, a lack of a platform.”

Davis, whose industrial hemp startup received one of those microgrants, said lack of resources is exactly what makes the PPP harder to get in his community. Businesses without a lawyer or an accountant are at a disadvantage—and it’s no accident that his community has so many like that. 

He sees redlining at the root.

“Access to capital is the main thing,” he said. “Access to capital. That’s what we need.”

Jamie Smith Hopkins is a senior reporter and editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at Public Integrity data journalist Pratheek Rebala contributed to this article.


About the data analysis

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C., relied on multiple datasets for the analysis in this story.

The key comparison uses Paycheck Protection Program data from the Small Business Administration by ZIP code alongside small employer figures from the Census Bureau’s ZIP Codes Business Patterns. We calculated each area’s share of Kansas City small employers, firms with fewer than 500 employees. Then we determined how many more — or fewer — PPP loans each ZIP code received than it would have gotten had it received the same share of loans as its share of small employers.

There’s no way to determine what percentage of eligible businesses received a loan. That’s because entrepreneurs without employees can apply for help from the PPP, too, and the Census Bureau doesn’t track their numbers by ZIP code. But our comparison shows which areas got a lot of access to the program, or just a little, compared with their employer base.

Public Integrity also relied on census demographic figures and “redlining” maps from the University of Richmond, which led a team that digitized documents from the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp. These detail the U.S. government’s Depression-era redlining grades around the country.

This practice hardened patterns of real estate discrimination, with long-lasting effects. As the University of Richmond notes on its “Mapping Inequality” site, “HOLC assumed and insisted that the residency of African Americans and immigrants, as well as working-class whites, compromised the values of homes and the security of mortgages.”

As a result, the university said, the federal government “directed both public and private capital to native-born white families and away from African American and immigrant families.”

Areas colored green on HOLC maps, graded “A,” were deemed a good risk for bank investment. Areas given the lowest grade, “D,” were colored red and declared “hazardous” for investment. In Kansas City, not all redlined areas had Black residents. But all areas with more than a handful of Black residents were redlined. Black residents still make up many of the residents in these investment-starved neighborhoods today.

Public Integrity determined which ZIP code each graded area fell into, then identified each ZIP with a recorded number of Black residents at the point of redlining (that is, more than “few”) and more than half of the land area graded “D.” Four of the five are on the city’s East Side, the geographic focus of our story, and together these four received substantially less access to the PPP than if the loans had been equally distributed around the city. ZIP codes where more than half the land area was graded “A” or “B” —both west of Troost—received markedly more.

So, what about that single ZIP code, 64108, that sits against the city’s western boundary but was also largely graded D and had a recorded number of Black residents at the time? All but a small piece is west of Troost Avenue, which became the city’s de facto racial dividing line, and it’s had a different trajectory than the East Side—with far easier access to lending, including the PPP.

Victoria Orozco at Drexel University’s Nowak Metro Finance Lab, Robert Nelson at the University of Richmond, Brent Never at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s Bruce Mitchell, Jason Richardson and Jad Edlebi offered feedback and advice at various stages of the analysis.

He Defended Chauvin and Wouldn’t Call Floyd’s Death a Homicide. Now His Record Is Under Investigation.

The record of Dr. David Fowler, the former chief medical examiner of Maryland who drew widespread condemnation over his defense of Derek Chauvin, during which Fowler controversially declined to rule George Floyd’s death a homicide, is now under investigation. 

The Washington Post reports that top medical officials for the state are reviewing cases overseen by Fowler that involved in-custody deaths. During his tenure as chief medical examiner from 2002 to 2019, Fowler oversaw a number of high-profile cases involving the police, including that of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Black man who died after riding in a Baltimore police van.

As my colleague Nathalie Baptise wrote last week, while testifying for the defense at Chauvin’s murder trial, Fowler asserted that carbon monoxide from a police car may have contributed to Floyd’s death. Furthermore, he said that the cause of Floyd’s death was “undetermined.” That claim notably contradicted the ruling of Hennepin County’s medical examiner that after Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, Floyd’s death had been a homicide. In introducing the carbon monoxide theory, Fowler’s primary purpose simply may have been to confuse the jury:

We’ve heard about heart conditions and drugs before, but Dr. Fowler’s theory of poisoning by carbon monoxide from a police car’s exhaust when Floyd was handcuffed and laying on the ground brought a new level of creativity to the trial. Not that Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s lawyer, and Dr. Fowler were suggesting that the main cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning, but rather that it could have been a contributing factor. “Now, again, you’re not suggesting to the jury that Mr. Floyd died of carbon monoxide poisoning?” Nelson asked the doctor. “No, not exclusively,” he answered.

But here’s where something interesting happened: Dr. Fowler mentioned carbon monoxide so frequently that when he was being cross-examined by the prosecution, Jerry Blackwell, the state’s lawyer grilled Fowler about it. “Do you agree with me that there was no finding of carbon monoxide poisoning from Dr. Baker’s autopsy review?” Blackwell asked. Dr. Fowler agreed. Still, the whole idea of carbon monoxide as a remote and unlikely factor nonetheless somehow became normalized. Then, on Thursday morning, the state sought to include new evidence showing Floyd’s body had a normal range of carbon monoxide in it, but Judge Peter Cahill wouldn’t allow it. 

Fowler’s testimony set off a firestorm of protest, prompting a letter signed by hundreds of doctors calling for an independent review into his handling of in-police custody deaths.

Of course, in the end, Fowler’s testimony didn’t land with the jury. Chauvin was convicted on three counts for murdering Floyd, and now Fowler’s record is the one under scrutiny. 

Biden Formally Calls the Mass Slaughter of Armenians a Genocide

President Joe Biden on Saturday formally recognized the 1915 massacre and systematic removal of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as a “genocide,” a term that, for decades, the government of Turkey has rejected. Biden’s designation marks the first time a sitting US president has been willing to acknowledge the mass slaughter and deportation of nearly 1.5 million Armenians was ethnically motivated.

“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” the White House said in a statement marking the annual Armenian Remembrance Day. “Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination.”

The long held resistance by the US government to describe the killings a genocide largely stems from Turkey’s role as a key NATO ally, as well as the country’s persistent refusal to discuss the issue. Turkey swiftly hit back against the declaration on Twitter, writing: “We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.”

“Words cannot change or rewrite history.”

We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice.

We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.#1915Events

— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) April 24, 2021

Biden’s declaration is the culmination of years of campaigning by historians and human rights activists.  In a reportedly “tense” Friday phone call, Biden warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of his intention to label the massacre a genocide.

All This Cleanliness Is Bad for Our Health

We may have moved on from the time of obsessively disinfecting our groceries before we brought them inside, but hyper-vigilance over germs has been one of the major side-effects of the global pandemic. Even with the knowledge that the airborne coronavirus is less likely to be transmitted on what we touch, the many surfaces in our lives—from our hands to airplanes—have spent the last year being scrubbed like never before. 

But that may not necessarily be a good thing. In fact, as science journalist Markham Held writes in the New York Times today:

…We continue to annihilate every microbe in our midst, even though most are harmless. The New York City subway, for example, has been undergoing a 24-hour cleaning protocol that includes ultraviolet light and a variety of disinfecting solutions. Survey data shows most subway riders feel safer because of it.

But some health experts are watching this ongoing onslaught with a mounting sense of dread. They fear that many of the measures we’ve employed to stop the virus, even some that are helpful and necessary, may pose a threat to human health in the long run if they continue.

Their worries center on the human microbiome—the trillions of bacteria that live on and inside our bodies. They say that excessive hygiene practices, inappropriate antibiotic use and lifestyle changes such as distancing may weaken those communities going forward in ways that promote sickness and imperil our immune systems. By sterilizing our bodies and spaces, they argue, we may be doing more harm than good.

The microbiome exists in all parts of our bodies—famously our guts, but also our mouths, noses, skin, lungs, brains, and, among many people, vaginas. Our bodies’ interaction with them serves an essential purpose in keeping our systems sufficiently strong to keep dangerous external bacterial invaders at bay as well as helping to mitigate or prevent diabetes, asthma, obesity, and autoimmune diseases. But, as with most things, this system needs to be exercised to remain robust, and therein lies the problems with pandemic cleanliness. Held writes:

In January, a global consortium of health researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in which they raise the alarm about the microbial fallout that may follow in the pandemic’s wake. “We’re starting to realize that there’s collateral damage when we get rid of good microbes, and that has major consequences for our health,” says B. Brett Finlay, first author of the PNAS paper and a professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia.

So what is the alternative? Put simply, Held notes, “[W]e’re going to have to live with germs again.” But balancing the urgency of doing so, with the urgency of controlling a global pandemic is not so easy. Given what we’ve gone through over the last year, it may be worth starting to nurture our depleted microbiomes by indulging in some nice, unwashed, organic carrots. 

After Years of Lording Over an Uncontrolled Spigot of Bad Tweets, Trump Now Claims Twitter Is “Really Boring”

Remember the Twitter-obsessed former president Donald Trump? The one who, after years of tormenting the American public with his uncontrolled spigot of erratic, racist, lying tweets, was finally kicked off the platform following the January 6 Capitol insurrection? Well, he’s changed. Now he wants you to believe that he finds Twitter “very, very boring.” Speaking to his favorite media megaphone Sean Hannity Friday on Fox News, Trump instead lavished praise on the various press releases he’s been forced to issue as an alternative, referring to them as a “much more elegant” form of communication.

What’s more, the former president touted himself as some kind of a trailblazer, falsely claiming that droves have been fleeing the social media platform since his unceremonious exit. While it’s true that other sites, such as Parler, have gained popularity, there isn’t any evidence to support Trump’s assertion. From Mr. Sophistication himself:

“Every time I do a release, it’s all over the place. It’s better than Twitter, much more elegant than Twitter. And Twitter now is very boring. A lot of people are leaving Twitter. Twitter has become very, very boring. When I started with Twitter years ago, it was like a failed thing, concept, media platform, fail. It was failed. And it became exciting. And I think I had a lot to do with it, to be honest with you, it became exciting. And now it’s boring. It’s no good anymore. The people are telling me.”

The remarks come as Facebook is about to decide whether to lift its ban on Trump following his incitement of January’s insurrection. My colleague Pema Levy reported on the major decision earlier this month:

In the coming weeks, Facebook’s new Oversight Board will decide whether to restore Trump to the platform. But Facebook has also asked the board to advise it on a possibly thornier issue: What should it do about other political leaders? Should their posting privileges continue even if they lie, stoke violence, or push other harms? By tasking the board with this question, Trump has been set up as a test case that will establish a precedent the company could apply across the globe.

Whatever happens, you can expect more whining and extravagant self-justification from our former president.

Escorts, Medical Weed, and Corruption: Gaetz Probe Reportedly Scrutinizing 2018 Bahamas Trip

Several weeks after an explosive New York Times report into a Justice Department investigation examing whether Rep. Matt Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old that potentially broke sex trafficking laws, the scandals surrounding the Florida Republican congressman continue to mount. 

CNN reports that the federal probe is also looking into a 2018 trip to the Bahamas Gaetz took with medical marijuana entrepreneur Jason Pirozzolo, during which Gaetz may have accepted gifts, including paid escorts, in exchange for political support for the medical marijuana industry. If true, that would appear to be a pretty big violation of public corruption rules. This comes after Politico reported on the same trip last week, and the critical role it plays in the Justice Department’s probe:

Also among those on the trip: the former minor who is key to the investigation, whose presence on the trip was previously unreported. According to one of the women in the group who spoke on condition of anonymity, everyone on the trip was over the age of 18—including the woman in question, who had turned 18 years old months before the trip, she said…But questions surrounding the ages of some of the women surfaced immediately upon their return—three of them looked so young when they returned on Beshears’ private plane that US Customs briefly stopped and questioned him, according to sources familiar with the trip, including a woman on the flight.

In his two terms, Gaetz has been one of a few Republicans to express support for marijuana legalization, arguing that the GOP was in danger of “overwhelmingly losing with the American people” over its stubborn opposition to popular reform bills aimed at decriminalizing weed. During a career in which he has achieved very little legislative success for someone with such a high profile, Gaetz also sponsored a 2018 bill called the Medical Cannabis Research Act to create new registration processes for medical weed manufacturers.

Throughout the probes, Gaetz has repeatedly denied any criminal wrongdoing, including in his response to CNN’s report. He has also previously denied having sex with an underage girl—though while speaking to Tucker Carlson in a bizarre interview last month, Gaetz notably did refer to a 17-year-old as a “woman”—and ever paying for sex.

What the Hell Is Going on at the Columbus Police Department?

Just minutes before a Minneapolis jury convicted former officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, and less than a month after a Chicago police officer shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo while the boy raised both hands in the air, Officer Nicholas Reardon fired his gun at Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, outside her foster home in Columbus on Tuesday, fatally wounding her in the torso.

The odds of Reardon facing discipline seem exceedingly low. At a press conference on Wednesday, interim Police Chief Michael Woods said her death was tragic, and an investigation is ongoing. He declined to pass judgment on the specifics related to her killing, but said that police officers are legally allowed to use deadly force against someone who appears to be threatening someone else’s life. Several former police officers and policing experts echoed Woods: Reardon appeared to have followed the rules.

Black people in Columbus are five times more likely to be killed by the police than white people.

Most police officers in the Ohio city who use force on the job—even dozens and dozens and dozens of times—don’t get fired or even reprimanded, because the police department concludes they were justified in using violence. Which might help explain why we continue to see more shootings: Law enforcement officers in Columbus have taken the lives of four people in the past four months. On top of that, the city ranks third nationally for the number of children killed by police over the past several years, according to one analysis.

Officer Rearden had gone to the foster home after a 911 dispatcher reported a fight there. In body-cam footage, he fired four shots at Bryant after she appeared to lunge with a knife toward another person dressed in pink who was pinned against a car in the driveway; Bryant dropped to the ground as the bullets struck her.

“She had a knife. She just went at her,” Reardon could be heard saying to bystanders who expressed outrage at the shooting, according to the body-cam footage. “She’s a fucking kid, man!” someone standing nearby said.

In response to a question about why the officer used a gun instead of a Taser, interim Police Chief Woods said that generally speaking, police don’t use Tasers in situations where someone else’s life is threatened. He added that officers are trained to shoot “the largest part of the body available to them.” In this case, Reardon aimed for her torso. “From a training standpoint,” James Scanlan, a retired Columbus police officer, told the Washington Post, “it’s textbook.”

Even if investigators were to disagree and find that Officer Reardon violated his training when he shot Bryant, it could be hard to fire him. History tells us as much.

Samuel Sinyangwe, a New York-based data scientist who studies police brutality, crunched the numbers and found that Columbus police officers who repeatedly deploy violence are very, very rarely punished. From 2001 to 2018, a single cop in the city used force a whopping 154 times, and he only faced discipline once—not in the form of a firing, but in the form of a reprimand and counseling.

In the charts below, out of all the Columbus cops who used force at least 40 times during those years, only one of them received any kind of discipline more intense than that. That officer was Adam Coy, who was fired last year after he shot and killed Andre Hill, a 47-year-old Black man who did not have a weapon. Officers handcuffed Hill as he lay unresponsive on the ground, and nobody offered him first aid for 10 minutes after the bullets hit him. Coy now faces trial for murder.

Regardless of how much force they used, few officers were disciplined. 99% of incidents resulted in no discipline. Even for the officers with the worst records. Among officers who used the most force (40+ cases), only 1 officer was disciplined more than reprimand/counseling.(2/x)

— Samuel Sinyangwe (@samswey) April 22, 2021

“The Columbus Police Department uses deadly force at a rate higher than the national average, and it uses deadly force in ways that are racially disparate,” says Sinyangwe. Black people in the city are five times more likely to be killed by the police than white people.

Thousands of times, people in Columbus filed formal complaints about police officers using excessive force against them, but over and over their concerns were dismissed. In fact, just 3 percent of their complaints about force were sustained between 2001 and 2017, according to an analysis by the Appeal, a national news outlet that writes about policing.

“The Columbus Police Department uses deadly force at a rate higher than the national average, and it uses deadly force in ways that are racially disparate.”

The Columbus police officer who shot and killed 13-year-old Tyre King in 2016 after the boy pulled a BB gun from his waistband did not face criminal charges, and after returning to work his bosses placed him on the narcotics team, a job that is reportedly coveted. The high number of police who are exonerated after using force suggests “there’s something wrong,” Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and a national expert on police misconduct, told the Appeal. “That’s an organization that systematically tolerates abuse.”

When officers use excessive violence but aren’t disciplined afterward, they may be emboldened to continue the same behavior in the future. It’s often the same cops roughing people up: On average, just 6 percent of sworn police personnel in Columbus accounted for half of force cases annually from 2001 to 2014, according to the Appeal. (This analysis doesn’t reveal whether Officer Reardon had a history of force before shooting 16-year-old Bryant, since he didn’t join the city’s police department until 2019.)

And most of these officers keep their jobs—in part because of the protection they receive from their police unions, as I explained in a recent investigation. In Columbus and many other cities, these police unions have contracts that let officers appeal to independent arbitrators if they lose their jobs because of alleged misconduct.

More often than you might expect, arbitrators side with the cops: In Columbus, they overturned six out of nine of the police firings they looked at over the course of a decade, the Columbus Dispatch reported in 2018. One officer got his job back that year after stomping on a man who lay on the ground in handcuffs. “Even if you had a strong oversight process in Columbus, even if you had a police chief who really cared about accountability, they couldn’t discipline those officers because they would know their decisions would get overturned” by arbitrators, Sinyangwe says. “Almost no officers are disciplined for using excessive force.”

The president of the city’s police union, Keith Ferrell, expressed condolences to Bryant’s family this week. “It’s traumatic on everyone and we understand that,” he told CNN affiliate WSYX. But he added that officers must make split-second decisions to keep people safe. 

It’s little consolation for Bryant’s mother, Paula Bryant, who told reporters she’s so devastated at the loss of her daughter that she’s stopped eating. The 16-year-old girl was an aspiring cosmetologist, and videos posted on TikTok show her dancing and singing along to Beyoncé while pulling her hair into pigtails. She “had a sweet little voice,” her mom told CNN. “Oh my gosh, she was just so talented. She was…on the path to going many places, definitely.”

Bryant was at least the fifth child to die at the hands of police in Columbus since 2013, according to Sinyangwe. That compares with 12 kids killed by cops in Chicago, five kids in New York, and three kids in Los Angeles, all bigger cities. And she was the fourth person killed by law enforcement in Columbus over the last four months. If these deaths are an example of “textbook” training, as experts suggested of Officer Reardon’s decision to pull the trigger, it’s a pretty damning indictment of what police are trained to do.

Researchers Warn of “Devastating Effects” From Changing Currents

This story was originally published by The Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Swirling and meandering ocean currents that help shape the world’s climate have gone through a “global-scale reorganization” over the past three decades, according to new research.

The amount of energy in these ocean currents, which can be from six to 62 miles across and are known as eddies, has increased, having as yet unknown affects on the ocean’s ability to lock-away carbon dioxide and heat from fossil fuel burning.

One expert said the changes described in the research could affect the ability of the Southern Ocean, one of the world’s biggest natural carbon stores, to absorb CO2.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, analyzed the temperature and height of the ocean with the help of data from altimeters on satellites from 1993 until 2020.

The study revealed “a global-scale reorganization of the ocean’s energy.”

Like clouds and storms in the atmosphere, eddies are like weather events in the oceans happening from the surface down to a depth of several thousand feet. The research found that eddies were intensifying in places where they are known to be most active.

As well as detecting changes in the Southern Ocean, the researchers also found changes in the southern Atlantic and the East Australian Current. They found a significant increase in eddy strength over the Southern Ocean, as well as significant changes in their activity over the boundary currents—the intense flows of water along the boundaries of the major ocean basins, such as the Gulf Stream and the East Australian Current.

Lead researcher Josué Martínez Moreno, of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes and Australian National University, said the eddies were constantly merging and detaching from more permanent ocean currents.

The eddies play a “profound role” in moving heat, carbon and nutrients through the ocean and regulating the climate at regional and global scales, the research said. Martínez Moreno said the work had revealed “a global-scale reorganization of the ocean’s energy over the past three decades.”

The paper did not attempt to attribute the changes to human activity, but Martínez Moreno said they could have far-reaching effects on the world’s climate, and also on fisheries. Getting a better understanding of the changes in ocean eddies could also improve climate change projections, he said.

As well as absorbing about 90 percent of global heating since the 1970s, the ocean has pulled in about 40 percent of the extra carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, mainly from fossil fuel burning, since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

A co-author of the study, professor Matthew England, of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, said: “We know these eddies play an important role in the climate, but how this intensification might change a given weather pattern is hard to say.

“To see it changing at this scale to me is confronting,” he said. “To see these changes shows how much we are perturbing the system. There will be impacts on our climate and ecosystems that we will have to explore now.”

Solving the puzzle of how these ocean eddies were changing was “one of the last frontiers” in understanding how climate change could be affecting the ocean, he said.

Janet Sprintall, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, who was not involved in the research, said the findings were “a great step forward.” She added: “The world’s oceans soak up most of the carbon dioxide that humans dump into the atmosphere. The Southern Ocean in particular absorbs about 40 percent of the entire ocean uptake and much of that uptake is achieved by ocean eddies.”

Any change in the ocean eddies in the Southern Ocean, she said, can “potentially impact the carbon sink and the ability to uptake carbon that we might continue to emit in the future.”

“This could have devastating effects on global society.”

The research came after the United Nations released its second assessment on the world’s oceans on Wednesday, cataloguing a swathe of impacts on what UN secretary general António Guterres said was the planet’s “life support system.” Sea levels were rising, coasts were eroding, waters were heating and acidifying and the number of deoxygenated “dead zones” was rising. Marine litter was present in all marine habitats, the report said, and overfishing was costing societies billions. About 90 percent of mangrove, seagrass and marsh plant species were threatened with extinction, the report said.

The report also said there had been progress in protecting more marine areas, but there were still many scientific knowledge gaps to be filled.

Can a Post-MAGA Washington Create Sane Policy for Farm Workers?

During the pandemic, some five million undocumented immigrants counted as “essential” workers, toiling to keep the food system humming so that tens of millions of other people could safely carry on with their jobs while sheltering at home. These immigrants occupy a dual position in the United States: On one hand, under Democrats and Republicans alike, they have for decades faced a militarized, treacherous border and the constant threat of deportation. On the other, they’re relied on to carry out vital tasks like feeding the nation as 30 percent of the country’s farm workers and cleaning its messes as 20 percent of its house cleaners.

Former President Donald Trump—who sought to make life hell for undocumented people even as he relied on them for labor in his resorts—pushed this contradiction to an extreme. Can a post-MAGA Washington create just, sane policy for the nation’s undocumented workers? 

The bill is a “tough compromise,” Costa says. Perhaps not surprisingly, it has divided farm worker advocates. 

For the 358,000 undocumented farm workers, and their families, now in the United States, the answer is: maybe. For most of the other 10 million undocumented people here, the chances for relief from fear of deportation remain pretty low.

The hold-up is the Senate, split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote. Because of the filibuster, passing bills not directly related to budget issues effectively requires 60 votes—i.e., no fewer than 10 from Republicans. As the GOP morphs evermore into the Party of Trump, finding 10 Republican senators willing to grant decent treatment to the immigrants who feed them will be nearly impossible.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D.-Calif.), would change things for a large swath of undocumented farm workers. It would grant them five-year renewable visas, with an option for permanent legal status after eight years. The bill first emerged in 2019, when it passed the House 226-165—with 34 Republicans voting in favor—before dying without a vote in the then-GOP-led Senate.

Rep. Lofgren reintroduced it this year, and on March 18, FWMA won passage in the House by a vote of 247-174, with 30 yea votes from GOP members. So far, it has not been scheduled for debate in the Senate. Some advocates think it has a fighting chance to draw enough Republican support in the upper chamber to beat the filibuster and pass. 

That’s because it includes something near and dear to certain GOP lawmakers: It would expand the H-2A guest worker program, a favorite of farmers in regions with large-scale fruit and vegetable production, like the West Coast and the Southeast. Farm owners tend to favor the H-2A program because it supplies them with workers on temporary visas. Guest workers are beholden to the farmers who contract them, toiling in a kind of lump-it-or-leave-it arrangement—they can’t seek other employment, and have to return to their home country when their visa dictates. 

Guest workers are “routinely cheated out of wages, forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs, and held virtually captive by employers.”

This power imbalance leaves them open to abuse. In a 2013 report, the Southern Poverty Law Center concluded that guest workers are “routinely cheated out of wages, forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs, and held virtually captive by employers.” The report adds: “If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation.” In her 2018 dispatch from California wine country, Mother Jones’ Maddie Oatman found that guest workers there frequently live in isolation, often “prohibited from receiving visitors” at their farmer-supplied living quarters. My colleague Fernanda Echavarri has more on the fundamental injustice of the H2A program in this recent interview with Evy Peña, the communications and development director of the Mexico-based NGO Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.

Farms in the US have become increasingly reliant on H-2A workers; annual visas issued under the program rose from around 32,000 in 2005 to more than 134,368 in 2016. Under Trump—whose ag secretary, Sonny Perdue, loved the program—it swelled anew: In 2019, the government issued 204,000 H-2A visas, a 50 percent jump over three years. A July 2020 NBC News report documented continued grim conditions for many guest workers as the program expands.  

According to an analysis by Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research for the progressive Economic Policy Institute, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would tweak the complicated system for setting minimum pay rates for H-2A workers in ways that will likely lower wages for most of them—a major goal of the agribusiness lobby

On top of the wage change, the bill would open the H-2A program to more kinds of farms. Currently, the H-2A program only grants seasonal visas; it’s designed to draw in workers to, say, handle a region’s strawberry harvest. It leaves out operations that rely on steady year-round work, like plant nurseries and dairy farms, which now rely heavily on undocumented labor. These interests “have been clamoring for years for Congress to allow them to hire temporary H-2A workers for many of these 419,000 permanent, year-round jobs,” writes Costa.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would grant that wish, or at least start to. For the first three years, it would allow 20,000 H-2A visas for year-round jobs—meaning 60,000 after three years—and the cap can rise by 12.5 percent each of the several following years, and be eliminated altogether in year 10.

Such a gift to Big Dairy would put the workers it relies on in an unfair position, some immigrant advocates say. “Using a problematic temporary work visa program where workers are virtually indentured to their employers in order to fill permanent, year-round jobs…makes no sense, unless the goal is to keep workers employed in permanent jobs from having equal rights and fair pay,” Costa writes. The bill does open a path for a limited number of H-2A workers to gain green-card status, but they have to participate in the program for at least 100 days per year for a decade to qualify. “That’s far too long,” Costa adds. “Legislation that truly values the contributions of migrant farm workers should either allow them to begin their permanent agricultural jobs with green cards in hand, or to allow them to become eligible for green cards after one year in H-2A status.”

The bill would require farm enterprises to use the e-Verify system to confirm immigration status —which would make it extremely difficult for undocumented people to find farm work.

On top of its two major planks—paths to legal status for undocumented farm workers already in the US and grower-friendly changes to the H-2A program—the bill would require farm enterprises to use the e-Verify system to confirm workers’ immigration status going forward, which would make it extremely difficult for undocumented people to find farm work in the future. The result will likely be two-fold, Costa said. Some growers will simply hire and pay undocumented workers off the books, driving them further into the shadows of society and vulnerable to abuse. Others will rely ever more on the deeply problematic H-2A program for their labor needs, and it will emerge as the main mechanism for supplying immigrant labor to US farms. 

All in all, the bill is a “tough compromise,” Costa says. Perhaps not surprisingly, it has divided farm worker advocates. 

California-based United Farm Workers union and D.C.-based Farmworker Justice, both of which participated in negotiations to craft the bill, vigorously endorse it. The bill “honors the professionalism of those who feed the entire nation and much of the world. It is the result of thoughtful compromise among bipartisan lawmakers, agricultural employers, and farm workers,” UFW President Teresa Romero said in a statement.

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farm Worker Justice, acknowledges the concessions but stresses the urgency of improving conditions for undocumented workers. “To be able to come out of the margins of the society and be able to go with your kids to school for parent teacher conference, without being afraid that ICE agents are there at the school, watching for undocumented immigrants—that is just really important,” he said. 

Many other advocacy groups reject it. The Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker-based organizations, decries the eight-year waiting period for green status and the “huge concessions to the grower lobby by linking the H-2A program to immigration reform.” Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent farm worker union representing of Indigenous families in berry fields of Washington State, opposes it too

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which organizes workers in Florida’s winter tomato fields, wrote that the bill “in its current form threatens to put US agriculture on an inexorable path to an all-H-2A workforce, institutionalizing as government policy an exploitative system of labor recruitment that no worker should be asked to endure.”

The tragedy is that even in Biden’s gentler Washington, D.C., prospects for anything better look dim. “If the farm worker groups that are opposing the bill had the votes to pass a better one, we’d be working with them to pass it,” Farmworker Justice’s Goldstein said. “The votes aren’t there.” The irony is that the Farm Workforce Modernization Act itself, despite its concessions to GOP interests, might not have the 10 Republican votes it needs to pass, either. 

CDC Panel Gives Johnson & Johnson Vaccine the Green Light

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel recommended Friday that distribution of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine resume.

The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration recommended halting J&J inoculations on April 13 following reports of rare, serious blood clots in people who had received the vaccine. Out of nearly 8 million vaccines administered, there have been 15 confirmed cases of blood clots, all in women. Three have died, and seven remain hospitalized.

As my colleague Kiera Butler reported last week, although the J&J pause came as a blow to vaccination efforts, it was ultimately the right decision:

My reporting on vaccine hesitancy and public health messaging has taught me that trying to hide bad news from the public not only doesn’t work but is seriously counterproductive. As infectious disease expert Monica Gandhi told me last week, we learned during the HIV/AIDS epidemic that people thrive when they have access to nuanced and accurate information. We learned from other vaccine rollouts that downplaying side effects has a way of coming to back to bite you. For example, in 2002, when the George W. Bush administration rolled out a smallpox vaccine, it sought to downplay rare but serious side effects, which included potentially fatal inflammation of the heart. Naturally, the news got out anyway. The result was that the administration ended up vaccinating just 10 percent of its goal.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices determined that vaccination should resume and that the vaccine should carry a warning about the risk of blood clots. CDC director Rochelle Walensky will need to give final approval before vaccinations can begin again.

Hey, Have You Seen This Clip of Bill de Blasio Talking to a Compost Bin?

Hey, happy Friday. Many of you probably do not live in New York City. So, I assume you were not watching Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Earth Day press conference. And, even for my de Blasio heads out there, I doubt you stayed on for more than about 14 minutes.

So, I wanted to check: Did you see when Bill de Blasio did a joke where he pretended to talk to a compost bin?

Here it is:

Here’s @NYCMayor Bill de Blasio talking to a compost bin as part of his press conference yesterday.

That's all. Happy Friday.

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) April 23, 2021

I just wanted to double-check you saw that.


From Our Archives, a Parody Piece About “Downsizing”

Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archives to propel you into the weekend.

The word “downsizing” seems to have been downsized.

Looking back in the newspaper archives, there is a steep climb from 1990 to 1996 in the use of the word “downsizing” in stories. Then, it levels off—much higher than before, but well below its peak—and it plods along from there. Personally, I haven’t heard it in a few years. (Except for that Alexander Payne movie, which I reviewed long ago.) We have other terms for the horror of losing your job: laid off, fired, let go. Downsizing now might even refer more often to empty nesters scaling down to a smaller house as the nuclear family cools its reactors with kids off to college. (My personal formative experience with downsizing was Office Space.)

Downsizing refers to slashing jobs in a more permanent sense. It means restructuring and cutting the assumed fat; it would lead to some slim, slick world of only real jobs. These marks of efficiency seem to fit a certain era we’ve passed. (Sorry…that I hope we’ve passed.) It certainly makes sense it would congeal with Democrats saying the era of big government is “over.” And as the free trade consensus under President Bill Clinton implemented neoliberal reforms that fundamentally changed the market—and welcomed globalization with too little discussions of labor—perhaps downsizing fit the moment: a bit of fancy speak for the idea that it was a good thing to be losing jobs. It’s funny to think it became about the empty nesters. The irony of a generation throwing away what was necessary even if the kids were still in the house.

In 1996, at the peak, Mother Jones wrote about “The Wages of Downsizing.” A small piece, it begins with a scene of the author bemoaning those calling the middle of the 1990s a boom time for jobs (including a dig at economist Joseph Stiglitz, who would later win a Nobel Prize). And then it turns, unexpectedly, into a small parody piece. It gives you a list of questions to ask if you’re worried about being downsized. And I think we can just end with reprinting them:

Is a corporate layoff lurking in your future? Ask yourself these 10 questions:

1. When you get up the guts to say “promote me or lose me,” does your boss show concern, or a sudden fondness for counting ceiling dots?

2. Does your paycheck remind you of that old Led Zeppelin album The Song Remains the Same?

3. Has your boss asked, “What kind of future do you see for yourself here?”

4. Do you feel your company’s product is an eight-track cassette in a CD world?

5. Are you merging with another company whose CEO is nicknamed “The Guillotine”?

6. Did you get a memo saying your performance review has been “canceled until further notice”?

7. Does your Christmas bonus give you visions of Bob Cratchit?

8. Are you the highest-paid person in a department where business isn’t exactly booming?

9. Have your job responsibilities been trimmed back to the point where you’ve got time to rearrange your desk accessories—daily?

10. Do executives repeatedly cancel meetings you’ve scheduled because of “time constraints”? Do you then see them outside, playing lawn volleyball instead?

If you answered yes to several of these questions, your job may be headed for the chopping block.

The Power of the Myths Many White People Believe About Policing—and America

This week in Minneapolis, white police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three counts for the murder last May of George Floyd. Repeatedly, the jury saw the recording of the 19-year veteran of the force kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine-and-a-half minutes, following his arrival on the scene after Floyd had been arrested for allegedly passing a $20 bill. The fact that there was such compelling video evidence was rare. The fact that Chauvin stood trial was rare. The fact that other police officers testified against one of their own was rare. And the guilty verdict was rarer still. Between 2006 and 2017, Minneapolis-area police shot and killed four people. The only police officer to stand trial and get convicted was Mohamed Noor, a Somalian cop who had killed Justine Damond, a white woman.

I watched the livestream of the three-week trial from the moment when Judge Peter Cahill gaveled the court into session on March 29, to the moment Chauvin, now a convicted murderer, was led out in handcuffs on April 20. Like other viewers, I couldn’t see jurors or any of the child witnesses, but I became familiar with Chauvin’s lawyer Eric Nelson, a slate of Minnesota state prosecutors, Judge Cahill, and dozens of witnesses that included police officers, medical experts, and the bystanders from the day of the incident. For some, this trial represented a momentous moment for policing reform and massive forward momentum in the fight for racial justice. “I would not call today’s verdict ‘justice’, however, because justice implies true restoration,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in public remarks after the verdict was announced. “But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice.” 

Yes, what took place was important, but not because it signaled a new era of policing. After all, two high-profile police shootings took place as the trial was going on. Nor would what happened in Minneapolis transform police departments across the country. Instead, what was so striking about the Chauvin trial and what followed was how it underscored so many cherished white American myths: about the police, about the superpowers of Black people (both well-intentioned and not), and about the fundamental benevolence of the white power structure that perseveres in this country. No matter how extraordinary some aspects of what transpired in the courtroom were, many of the essential values that keep the system in place were only propped up during the trial and in the aftermath of the verdict.

The Minneapolis police department was not on trial, we were repeatedly told, only Officer Derek Chauvin was. But still, it was impossible to divorce the trial of a police officer from policing itself. Each video of a police officer shooting, beating, or choking a Black man to death, is first followed by requisite expressions of concern and then the same old refrain: Who will you call when you need help? You may complain about the police, but what will you do when you’re being robbed or assaulted?

There’s the same old refrain: Who will you call when you need help? You may complain about the police, but what will you do when you’re being robbed or assaulted?

Black people don’t have to die to feel the weight of the police on their backs. There are always traffic stops, being ambushed because you “fit the description,” and getting followed in a convenience store. Black neighborhoods are underfunded and overpoliced, our very existence deemed a threat. There is no amount of fancy jobs, or degrees, or “good” families that can change that. A police officer once followed me from a grocery store parking lot to my apartment. It was broad daylight in a North Carolina college town. I didn’t speed. I didn’t swerve. I came to a complete stop at each stop sign and was very generous with my turn signal. From the moment that I noticed him, until I arrived at home I could feel my anxiety mounting. Once I parked, he was forced to keep driving. My experience was not one of being protected or served.

But least I’m still alive.

There is no official record keeping of how many people the police kill, but outside groups like Mapping Police Violence and the Washington Post maintain a database and have found that since 2005, the police have killed about 15,000 people. Several of the names of the dead are widely known: Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, and Breonna Taylor. New to the list is Ma’Khia Bryant, the 16-year-old girl who was killed by police in Columbus, Ohio, at the same time that the Chauvin verdict was being read. But the vast majority of the victims will remain unknown to anyone but their grieving family and friends. Any acknowledgement of their deaths appear as statistics in a brutal system, examples of how too frequently armed agents of the state are trained to treat Black people as a threat.

In reality, police spend a small fraction of their time solving crimes, most of their work is responding to non-emergency calls and traffic enforcement. The rhetorical question about who to call in an emergency—the perfect mix of condescension and ignorance—is usually delivered by someone ensconced in privilege, unquestioning in their commitment to the myth that the police are here to protect and serve. What gets lost in that particular narrative is that from its inception, policing has also been about protecting, maintaining, and elevating whiteness.

Policing in the United States had its genesis with Southern slave patrols which varied from state to state. Sometimes they were appointed by local governments and were generally comprised of white men of any class keeping watch over enslaved people to ensure they weren’t trying to escape—anyone caught off of the plantation without permission was subjected to terror and violence by these authority figures. After the Civil War, those slave patrols became embedded in the criminal legal system as judges, prosecutors, and police officers.

During Reconstruction, which saw horrifying racial violence, white police officers would riot at even the slightest hint of Black progress, which is what occurred in the Memphis Riot of 1866. After the Civil War, Black veterans and their families settled in Memphis, Tennessee. White police officers, many of them new Irish immigrants, were displeased with their presence. The massacre began when Black soldiers and their families started an impromptu street party. City officials told police to break up the crowd, but the Black families refused. Soon, a full-scale brawl between Black soldiers and white police officers broke out. After a few hours, the soldiers returned home and peace was seemingly restored. But white vigilantes had caught wind of the incident and descended upon the Black community. By the end of the white rampage, 46 Black people were dead and dozens more were injured. More than 100 had been robbed, five Black women had been raped, and churches, homes, and schools were left in ruins. 

In the Jim Crow era police enforced the Black Codes, discriminatory laws targeting Black people that kept a whole group of American citizens threatened and segregated. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, prominent leaders were attacked and jailed by police, or just attacked by vigilante groups. When the use of racial slurs became less acceptable and de jure segregation ended, powerful whites invented dogwhistles about crime and urban neighborhoods to put a palatable face on Black subjugation. Police officers aren’t perpetuating the racial caste system, they’re just protecting suburban women from those scary criminals—as former president Donald Trump frequently reminded his fans at rallies

“The [B]lack brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal.” 

Today, police forces are more diverse, and dozens of them have been subject to federal government oversight. Many have enacted new use of force policies, undergone training for racial bias, and launched endless programs intended to improve community relations. There’s just one problem: Some police officers cannot stop killing Black people.

From the opening statement to the start of jury deliberations, Nelson’s case rested on a depiction of the terrifyingly powerful Black man—the supernegro. The supernegro has been a reliable fixture in American mythology for hundreds of years. When Black people were enslaved, white owners believed that the subjugated people were impervious to pain and unafraid of death and the consequences of physical violence. After slavery officially ended, writers took great pains to describe Black men as near monsters, capable of untold horrors. “The [B]lack brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust,” North Carolina university administrator George T. Winston wrote about Black men. “His ferocity is almost demoniacal.”

Nelson wasted no time with euphemisms. In his opening statement, he told the jury about the differences in height and weight between the man who was on trial and the victim: Chauvin is 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds. Floyd was 6-foot-3 and weighed 223 pounds. Even though Floyd was handcuffed, pinned to the ground, pulse growing fainter, he was still capable of overpowering his assailant. Nelson told the jury that just because Floyd wasn’t actively resisting arrest, that didn’t mean he couldn’t go from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye. A supernegro is always a split second away from violence and aggression. It just might resonate in a country that has recategorized Black anger, fear, and vulnerability into aggression. Nelson attempted to frame Floyd’s death not only into an attack on Chauvin, but to exploit any unconscious but deeply experienced racist fears of white people generally. 

Studies have shown that people of all races perceive Black people as being stronger and more aggressive than the reality. It’s what white police officer Darren Wilson insinuated when he shot 18-year-old Michael Brown to death in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015. He was charged for the killing too, but was cleared by a grand jury. Even Black children, like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, are frequently mistaken for adults. Ma’Khia Bryant, who was just a girl, was holding a knife when police arrived. The combination of the knife and her Blackness probably rendered her childhood invisible to the police who responded.

Not only did George Floyd need to be restrained because of his alleged aggression and allegedly overwhelming physical strength, so did the crowd of bystanders, who constituted a sort of collective supernegro. The bystanders who filmed Chauvin, while begging for him to remove his knee, became another example of Black aggression—no matter how appropriately upset they were. Nelson  repeatedly emphasized how their swear words and screams were threats to the cops on the scene. Nelson wanted the jury to believe that the crowd that had gathered, forever traumatized from witnessing a murder, essentially forced Chauvin to press his knee into Floyd’s neck until his body went limp. Look what you made me do! The majority Black group of people, which included children, became an unruly mob, in much the same the way as conservative media had framed the racial justice protesters who came out in droves in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. 

Earlier in the trial, while the jury was listening to witness testimony, just ten miles away in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, white police officer Kim Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a routine traffic stop. Wright was initially pulled over for expired license plates. The proximity of their deaths left the community reeling and demonstrators took to the streets. They were met with more tear gas, more arrests, more police violence. While a demonstration was taking place, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) became a different kind of supernegro. She told the protesters to keep fighting. “We’ve got to stay on the street. And we’ve got to get more active,” she said. “We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”

In a world where every Black emotion is considered dangerous, her words were a call to action. After the jury went into deliberations, Nelson told the judge her comments constituted a “threat” against the sanctity of the jury and urged him to declare a mistrial. The judge denied the request, further inflaming white conservatives who have targeted Waters for years, but he conceded that perhaps the representative’s words could provide fodder for a successful appeal.

Even well-intentioned people deploy their own version of the supernegro myth. No sooner had the jury convicted Chauvin in all three counts, did Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi seize the the opportunity to comment on the legacy of Floyd’s death and the subsequent guilty verdict. No, this wasn’t simply a repudiation of one man’s actions. Instead, she offered a redemption story, imbued with quasi-religious imagery. “Thank you George Floyd for sacrificing your life for justice,” she said at a press event. “Because of you and because of thousands, millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous for justice.” 

Excuse me? Now, with the guilty verdict pinned to his murderer, George Floyd has become a sainted martyr for the larger cause? Let’s be clear: George Floyd did not “sacrifice his life.” He was not some holy figure who died so that Good White Liberals can declare that justice is done. Carry this flawed logic to its natural conclusion: If something so righteous can come out of a Black man being murdered, why stop killing at all? Floyd’s life, and all Black lives, are worth more than making white people feel good about themselves. It’s the same way America reveres Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; his legacy and death have become proof of the progress in the fight for racial equality, even though King was murdered at just age 39. 

If the trial itself was the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect in the American justice system when it comes to holding police accountable, for the conservative base the guilty verdict might as well have been the white apocalypse. Newsmax TV host Rob Schmitt said the jury sacrificed Chauvin to the mob, implying that if the jurors had acquitted him, not only their lives but many white lives would be in danger. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also suggested that the jury was afraid of “the mob,” suggesting that a guilty verdict could lead to similar protests for racial justice that Floyd’s murder catalyzed last summer. There’s more: According to white supremacist TV host Tucker Carlson on Fox News, this verdict so shook the faith of white people in the justice system generally, no one (meaning no white person) would have faith in it ever again. His guest, author and commentator J.D. Vance echoed those sentiments. “And whatever you think of the Derek Chauvin verdict,” he intoned, “the outcome, like you said, casts a pall over the entire justice system.” 

Of course, “justice system” was simply shorthand for much of what many white people unquestionably believe about their beloved country. Cops fear for their lives; Kyle Rittenhouse was just protecting small businesses; there were good people on both sides of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville; and the Capitol insurrectionists were legitimately upset over an election (unless, of course, they were Antifa in disguise). To that they might want to add: Derek Chauvin was just doing his job. But a jury decided that he wasn’t, and that verdict challenged the most dangerous and pervasive myth in America: White violence can usually be justified, especially when the perpetrator happens to be wearing a uniform.

Lawmakers Love Hate Crime Laws, But Do They Really Protect Anyone?

In the wake of the white supremacist massacre of nine Black parishioners at Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Anti-Defamation League pushed to expand the country’s hate crime laws, which enhance criminal penalties for identity-based violence. “Now is the time to bring strong hate crime laws to all 50 states—including South Carolina and Georgia, which lack them entirely,” ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt said at the time.

The ADL was partly successful. Of the five states without hate crime legislation on the books, two added them; others expanded existing laws. But for some, this was anything but progress. Advocates for marginalized groups have sounded the alarm on hate crime laws for decades, saying they not only fail to prevent bigoted violence but harm some groups they’re supposed to protect.

That debate stretches beyond the question of whether hate crime laws are “effective,” said Senthorun Raj, a scholar of gender, sexuality, and law at England’s Keele University. The institutions that mete out punishment, Raj said, are the same ones that “marginalize LGBT people, or racial minorities, Black folks, Indigenous folks—do we trust these authorities to actually remedy the violence that they’ve been complicit in perpetrating?”

The question became newly urgent in March, when a gunman killed eight people, including six Asian women, in a string of shootings at Atlanta-area spas. Investigators typically rely on proof that a person’s violence was motivated by bias when filing hate crime charges, and some, including Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), say the evidence is already there. Chu cited the distance between the spas to suggest that the shooter targeted people based on their race and gender. While investigators have yet to bring hate crime charges, Georgia officials told the AP last month that they haven’t ruled it out. The Atlanta killings could be the first test of Georgia’s new hate crime law, passed after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot by two white men while he was out jogging. 

Georgia’s law wasn’t passed without controversy. At one point, Republicans attached an amendment that would have extended its protections to law enforcement and first responders. (The ADL’s 2015 campaign also included a goal of advancing police–community relations.)

High-profile cases often drive hate crime laws. On Thursday, the Senate approved the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in response to violence targeting Asian Americans during the pandemic. The law would expedite the federal government’s review of hate crimes related to the pandemic. It would also give state and local law enforcement more guidance on tracking hate crimes. One amendment would boost resources to train law enforcement on responding to hate crimes. The bill is likely to pass in the House and will then head to Biden’s desk. 

The most recent hate crimes bill passed at the federal level is the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which followed homophobic and racist attacks in the late 1990s that drew major media attention. Less than a decade after that bill was enacted, the Justice Department boasted that it had charged more than 300 people with hate crime offenses—even as the hate crime rate didn’t see any significant change from 2004 to 2015.

Compared with the structural violence many of these communities face, hitting a few hundred people with hate crime charges barely seems to scratch the surface. “For most people, the hate crime legislation will never be relevant to their lives,” Raj said. “It might affect a handful of cases or a handful of people. But most people’s experience of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and so on, is going to be far more layered, far more complicated, and actually often happens as a result of state action.”

Raj cited the criminalization of gender-affirming healthcare as an example. Azadeh Shahshahani, an attorney with abolitionist group Project South, offered anti-terror laws as another example of state-sanctioned, identity-based violence.

“We definitely have seen for many years how these laws have been used to target Black, brown, and Muslim people in terms of pre-emptive prosecution and opening the door to state surveillance,” she said.

And, of course, there’s policing. The record of hate-fueled acts committed by police has limited support among LGBTQ people and people of color for any measures that might enhance the powers of the criminal legal system. Many marginalized people haven’t or wouldn’t turn to law enforcement in the wake of identity-based attacks. 

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that in 2015, 41 percent of LGBTQ survivors of hate violence reported the incidents to the police. In the majority of those cases, survivors said officers were hostile or indifferent by using slurs, physical violence, and other forms of abuse. A 2014 report also noted that transgender survivors were six times more likely to experience physical violence from police than other survivors when reporting.

In 2020, hate crimes reached their highest levels in more than a decade. But not counted in that figure was police brutality often aimed at Black Americans. Between 2015 and 2020, Black people in the U.S. were shot dead by police at a rate three times higher than white people were, according to a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. As the trial of George Floyd’s killer, former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, unfolded nearby, a police officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. 

In a conversation with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, sociologist Tamara Nopper pointed out the benefits that flow to the police when they’re tasked with responding to hate-fueled incidents.

“Some of these police organizations find dealing with hate crimes is useful for police-community relations, in terms of PR and less opposition to the police,” Nopper said. “Any time you’re talking about hate crime law, you’re talking about more legitimacy for the police, and you’re also talking about, frankly, more funding for the police.”

The current hate crime framework rests on two premises. The first is that the prospect of additional punishment might serve as a deterrent. This is a dubious proposition. “Nobody says, ‘I’m not going to do this, because I know if I get charged with a Class B whatever, it’s going to get escalated,’” said Leo Ferguson of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a nonprofit that’s part of the NYC Against Hate coalition. “That is not in the mindset of the people who are committing those kinds of crimes.”  

The other premise is that by extending protections to more identities and ramping up police training on hate crimes, legislators and advocates send a signal to marginalized communities that they’re valued in society. Brendan Lantz, director of the Hate Crime Research and Policy Institute at Florida State, said hate crime laws are important “not just because of some idea of justice,” but for their symbolic value. “Quite honestly, they’re very rarely used,” he said. “But one of the functions of hate crime laws is that they send a message of societal condemnation towards the victimization of marginalized communities.”

But the symbolic function of hate crime laws is rooted in a view of state-sanctioned violence as a—or the—legitimate answer to bigotry. Ferguson recalled an incident in which a 14-year-old boy chalked a swastika on a playground in Queens. New York cops “arrested him and posted this triumphant post about zero-tolerance policies on Twitter,” Ferguson said. “And I just remember looking at that tweet. That was this moment where I was like, this does not make any sense…this is not what a solution to this problem looks like.”

Groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the Audre Lorde Project argue that solutions lie within communities, not in prisons, through projects like mutual aid and racial and ethnic education. This type of organizing also emphasizes education about intervention and supporting survivors of violence. The ALP’s anti-violence program, known as “Safe OUTside the System,” meets via Zoom every few weeks and offers educational resources on de-escalation techniques and documenting police violence.   

Many larger and better-funded advocacy groups, like the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Education Fund, have favored hate crime laws. But perhaps most critical was the Anti-Defamation League, according to Jeannine Bell, a professor at Indiana University’s law school who studies policing. She noted that the ADL wrote model hate crime legislation that wound up being adopted in several jurisdictions.

In her research, Bell has looked into small groups that work on addressing hate in their communities and often oppose hate crime laws—and she’s found that mediation is often burdensome.

“Imagine working with someone and having them around your small, community-based office, [someone who] hates people who are like you in some fundamental way, to teach them a lesson for hours on end,” Bell said. “Victim-offender programs, mediations in hate crime cases—you know what? It’s a fundamental tenet of mediation that you need to have equality among mediating partners. So you have a bigot and their target. Where is the equality there?”

Still, much of the work of small community groups is aimed at preventing bigoted attacks—exactly what hate crime laws haven’t been shown to do. Drawing lessons from the NYC Against Hate coalition, the Asian American Federation has launched a campaign to establish safe zones, provide training in de-escalation strategies, and offer reporting tools on apps used by Asian communities, like WeChat and WhatsApp. 

Jo-Ann Yoo, the group’s director, said they’re working around the clock to create resources to help themselves and others.

“We live in a country where someone else is going to be targeted next,” she said. 

But legislators remain hungry for hate crime laws. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act enjoyed near unanimous support in the Senate, with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) the lone dissenter. In South Carolina, one of the only states without a hate crime law, lawmakers are considering a comprehensive hate crime bill that includes protections for LGBTQ people. And in Massachusetts, two state legislators worked with the attorney general to revise the current hate crime law, writing in the Boston Globe that “criminal prosecution is only one tool in the fight against hate.” For many in the groups these legislators mean to protect, the efforts are only giving tools to all the wrong people.