Mother Jones Magazine

Are We Facing a Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor Retirees?

Susan Tompor writes in the Detroit Free Press (via the LA Times) today:

The rules of the retirement game just got a sizable overhaul in Congress, giving a nod to the reality that many Americans can’t afford to quit working. The changes aren’t massive enough to put to rest concerns about an upcoming retirement crisis, in which some forecast a growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

Tompor’s article is a nice summary of the new retirement rules, which are indeed mostly a good thing. But is there really an upcoming retirement crisis? And although “some” may forecast a growing gap between the haves and the have nots, what do actual projections say about that? Here are projections from the Urban Institute based on the MINT retirement model for average income of the middle-class and the affluent as a percentage of the income of the poor:

Surprisingly, not only is the gap between rich and poor retirees not skyrocketing, it’s not even growing. For retirees in 2005, the rich earned about 800 percent of the income of the poor. For retirees in 2062, MINT projects that it’s a little less than 700 percent.

In a different table (A8-12g for those who want to check), you’ll also learn that the income of retirees as a percent of the poverty rate is also projected to rise. And the number of seniors under the poverty line is projected to decline.

These are averages, and obviously the retirement income of the poor is nothing to write home about. We should increase Social Security payouts at the bottom of the income ladder to make up for that. However, although you can get different answers about the gap between rich and poor retirees by looking at different projections, the evidence suggests that it will grow by a small amount at most, and probably not all.

This Jaw-Dropping Interview Shows How the Media Still Struggles With Trump’s Lies

Every once in a while, a moment comes that crystallizes what is so wrong with the political-media universe in the era of Donald Trump. And one such moment occurred on Sunday morning. It was not flashy or headline-generating. This moment lasted only seconds. Its significance may not have even been noticed by the participants or those who witnessed it. But it deserves attention for showing how Trump and his crew have been able to get away with brazen lying and acts of treachery—and how Trumpian dishonesty has been normalized or, at least, tacitly accepted.

The system is not designed to weed out serial deceivers who hold positions of power and influence—or to consistently sound the alarm on disinformation.

The moment occurred where so many important Washington actions transpire: on one of the Sunday morning news shows. Midway into ABC News’ This Week, longtime host George Stephanopoulos welcomed Robert O’Brien, Trump’s low-profile national security adviser, to the broadcast. Not surprisingly, O’Brien defended Trump’s lethal military strike against Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general, and hailed Trump’s policy regarding Iran. When Stephanopoulos pressed him on Trump’s assertion that Soleimani was about to launch attacks against four US embassies before he was killed—which some commentators have argued was a false statement—O’Brien sidestepped the question: “Well, I think the American people are behind this president. He’s shown incredible restraint in the face of provocation after provocation from Iran…So he’s shown he’s—he’s modest in his—his dealings with other countries. But when you threaten to kill or to maim Americans, that’s something this president won’t put up with.” He then insisted, “We had very good intelligence.” O’Brien noted he would “love” to release it, but he maintained the administration could not make public the information without threatening the flow of similar intelligence.

All of this was the average Washington spin that commonly appears on such shows: The policy was great, we did the right thing, the critics are wrong, and so on. Next, Stephanopoulos turned to a recent Bloomberg article that reported US intelligence and law enforcement officials have been examining whether Russia has been mounting a disinformation campaign to undermine Joe Biden’s presidential bid. He asked O’Brien, “Has the president told Vladimir Putin to cut out this election interference in 2016, and will he continue to do that even if it appears the Russians are trying to hurt Joe Biden?”

Here’s where O’Brien moved from the zone of spin to pitching an Orwellian anti-reality. He replied, “He’s absolutely told Putin to make sure that that doesn’t happen. And the idea that the president of the United States would collude with the Russians—I mean, this is a partisan fantasy that’s been—the flames which have been fanned for three years now. There’s zero truth to it.”

Let’s break this down. There is no evidence that Trump has sent Putin a clear message: Don’t intervene in the next US election. His last call with Putin occurred in late December, and the White House readout of the call contained no reference to any such warning. Moreover, Trump has repeatedly expressed doubt about the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia attacked the 2016 election, most famously when he was standing next to Putin at a joint press conference in Helsinki in July 2018. In doing so, he has provided cover for Putin. Moreover, the Washington Post reported in September that Trump had told two senior Russian officials, during an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, that he was not concerned about the Russian assault on the 2016 election. (That hardly sounds like a warning.) And the New York Times reported last year that senior government officials could not bring up the issue of Moscow interference with Trump because he believed any discussion of the matter cast doubt on the legitimacy of his electoral victory.

O’Brien was portraying Trump as a normal president handling a national security threat as any president ought to do. But his meant-to-be-reassuring assertion that Trump has confronted Putin on this critical matter is contradicted by the public record. In fact, there have been no signs that Trump, who won’t fully acknowledge Putin’s 2016 attack, gives a damn about thwarting further Russian interference in US politics. Yet Stephanopoulos did not challenge O’Brien on this point. And you will note that O’Brien quickly tried to change the subject to the topic of collusion. Special counsel Robert Mueller did report that his investigation did not uncover evidence of a direct criminal conspiracy between Trump and the Russians in 2016. But the record is clear: Trump encouraged and exploited the attack, helped Putin cover it up, and, as president, has essentially ignored this assault on the United States. The image of Trump that O’Brien was presenting to millions of viewers was the precise opposite of the truth.

There is a baseline courtesy built into these interactions. And that favors someone who is willing to pervert the truth.

Stephanopoulos did not interrupt O’Brien, and Trump’s chief national security aide continued: “There are a bunch of countries that would like to interfere with our elections. There are the Chinese, the Iranians, the Russians. And trust me, most of them would like to see President Trump leave and have a more malleable leader coming after him, where they could go back to the—the status quo before the president came in.”

Wait a minute. The Russians attacked the US election in 2016 in part to help Trump. They wanted him—not Hillary Clinton—in the White House. Who says so? The US intelligence community, Mueller’s investigation, and the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee. O’Brien was not only conveniently ignoring this basic point. He was turning it upside down. Once again, he had moved from the boundaries of the usual spin to outright black-is-white falsification.

Without slowing down, O’Brien slid into this whopper: “Look, I don’t want Russians, or Chinese, or Iranians, or any others interfering with the Trump campaign, with the Biden campaign, with any campaign. And I think the president feels absolutely the same way.” Trump doesn’t want foreign powers influencing the election? Uh, no. That ain’t so. We know this because Trump has said so himself. In public. Three months ago, Trump called on China to investigate Joe Biden. And he said the same regarding Ukraine. (During a 2016 campaign press conference, Trump urged Russian hackers to target Clinton—and, according to Mueller, the Russians immediately tried to do what Trump requested.) Moreover, Trump last summer said that he would accept dirt on a political opponent from a foreign government—and he said that during an interview with Stephanopoulos.

So O’Brien was being extremely disingenuous. Trump has demonstrated he would indeed like to see China and Ukraine take steps to undermine a potential rival of his. He has made it clear to every foreign government in the world that he would be delighted to accept any negative information they might want to share on whoever runs against him. Yet the O’Brien interview did not come to a screeching halt. Instead, O’Brien used this platform to turn the question of Trump’s solicitation of foreign interference on its head: “And to suggest [Trump would welcome foreign involvement] is unfair and frankly a bit dangerous. That’s the sort of thing that I think the Russians try to foment, you know, and others, is divisions in America. We need to stand together and put—put that sort of language aside for sure.” That is, to note that Trump has asked other countries to meddle in the election would, in and of itself, be dangerous for American democracy and helpful to Moscow. This was crazy.

Stephanopoulos did not tell his audience that O’Brien was massacring the truth. But he served up a slice of push-back, referencing Trump’s nutty and unfounded claim that Ukraine (not Russia) was involved in the hacking of the Democratic Party’s computer servers in 2016. He asked O’Brien, “If the president is repeating conspiracy theories that are consistent with Russian propaganda, isn’t that helping the Russian effort?” O’Brien shot back: “I don’t see that. We’ve been very clear on our position with respect to the Russians and that’s to stay out of our elections. We’ve been very clear with the Chinese, and we’ve been very clear with the Iranians…But trying to use these things for some partisan—sort of partisan advantage is really disappointing.” (Once again, Trump directly asked China to become involved in the 2020 race.) And that was it. Stephanopoulos concluded the interview with, “Mr. O’Brien, thanks for your time this morning,”

My aim here is not to pick on Stephanopoulos. In June, he aired a devastating interview with Trump. He is not the bad-faith actor in this scene. The problem here is both the format of the exchange and its sociology. O’Brien was lying his head off—and he was doing so to cover for his boss’s own lies and misdeeds. It is undeniable that Trump has signal-boosted Moscow’s we-didn’t-do-it disinformation about the 2016 attack and has called on other foreign powers to mess with the 2020 election. These are actions that subvert American democracy—arguably profound acts of betrayal. They are Trump’s most consequential wrongdoing because they corrupt the most fundamental element of the US political system. Yet the political-media world—too often organized on the idea that there is a clash of competing narratives that deserve equal attention—has not elevated these Trump transgressions to a primary spot in the national conversation. Instead, they are frequently depicted as contentions that exist within a huge roiling ocean of other contentions. Stephanopoulos—faced with the demands of covering the week’s news and of keeping the interview to the allotted time slot—was not going to suddenly change all that Sunday morning.

Consequently, when O’Brien misleads the public on all this, it’s just another Sunday. Nothing special. Stephanopoulos doesn’t read him the riot act. And there are no subsequent, front-page headlines: “Trump’s National Security Adviser Misleads Public About President’s Role in Russia Scandal,” or “Top Trump Aide Falsely Claims Trump Hasn’t Asked Foreign Governments to Intervene in 2020.” This is not how the machine operates. There is a baseline courtesy built into these interactions. And that favors someone who is willing to pervert the truth. He or she can take advantage of a culture in which it is not possible or not polite to call out every single prevarication. So O’Brien can spout several highly significant lies or misstatements in a short spate of time, and there is no gong. No buzzer goes off. He comes across as a reasonable advocate for his side and the president, even if he is covering up profound misconduct. In other words, he gets away with it. Maybe a fact checker at a news outlet or website will later take a poke at him. But those darts don’t seem to sting too much these days.

There are instances when such a culprit does get hammered. In early December, Chuck Todd on Meet the Press took Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) to task for mouthing Trump’s nutty conspiracy theory about Ukrainian election interference in 2016. And soon after, Todd noted in a Rolling Stone interview that he had been “naive” to underestimate the extent to which Trump and his Republican defenders would resort to false statements and disinformation.

But the question is, what to do about this disinformation—especially when conventional media, reflecting the values of conventional Washington, has long advanced the notion that both sides (meaning the Ds and the Rs) deserve a hearing. And also especially when the notions of fairness, evenhandedness, and objectivity ingrained within major media organizations cause them to serve as an outlet for each of those sides. O’Brien, the guy in charge of coordinating national security policy for the most powerful man in world, was openly pushing serious disinformation about a most serious matter on This Week. What’s the appropriate reaction to that? Shut him down on live television? Refuse to have him back? Should think tanks not invite him to events and discussions? After he leaves office, should he be shunned?

This is a minor episode, but it does raise large questions. It illuminates how Trump and his posse have often been able to escape major consequences for their cynical use of disinformation. The system is not designed to weed out serial deceivers who hold positions of power and influence—or to consistently sound the alarm on disinformation. That is particularly so when it faces a pattern similar to what experts have called the Russian model of propaganda: “the firehose of falsehoods.” O’Brien was given the opportunity to spray fast and furiously on Sunday morning; the truth got washed away. And that’s the point. Mission accomplished.

Raw Data: Coal and Renewable Production in China

Here’s some more China data for you:

That’s likely a new record for 2019. China also produces about one-third of the world’s total of solar and wind power, but it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to coal. China’s coal production in 2019 was more than five times that of the next biggest country: the United States, at 0.36 billion tonnes of oil equivalent. Here is China’s total energy breakdown:

This is by far our planet’s biggest climate change challenge.

The US Trade Deficit With China Returned to Normal in 2019

The Wall Street Journal, based on data from China, reports that the US trade deficit with China declined substantially in 2019. And that’s true. But it’s worth noting the trendline during the eight years since the end of the Great Recession:

The thing to notice here is not that 2019 was way below trend, but that 2018 was way above trend. In 2019, all that happened is that our trade deficit with China returned to normal. I’m not sure why 2018 was so oddly high, but the data here suggests that Trump’s trade war has accomplished nothing in terms of lowering the trade deficit with China.

The Most Racist Thing I Saw Today Was This Campaign Ad Attacking the Squad and Kaepernick

Since announcing a bid for his old Senate seat, ex–Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a racist without portfolio, has been relatively quiet. Into the void has stepped Rep. Bradley Byrne, one of Sessions’ opponents in Alabama’s March primary. Last week, Byrne unveiled a campaign ad that managed to exploit the legacy of his dead Army veteran brother to attack Rep. Ilhan Omar, the “Squad,” and blackballed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, all in the name of patriotism. 

oh cool just a campaign ad showing Ilhan Omar burning in the fire & the only opponents shown are black and brown people. nothing to see here, folks.

— Sana Saeed (@SanaSaeed) January 12, 2020

In the ad, Byrne, staring into a flickering fire outside his family’s farmhouse, reports feeling a sense of pain when he hears Omar, a Muslim congresswoman, “cheapening 9/11” (she never did) and Kaepernick and other “entitled athletes dishonoring” the American flag (they didn’t) and the Squad “attacking America” (never happened). The message? In an interview last week with Fox & Friends after the ad came out, Byrne fell back on euphemism, saying the “country is at a crossroads” and adding that he wanted to “help the president take the country in the right direction.” But of course that’s not what the spot is really saying. It’s saying that Black and Brown people are terrifying; please elect this mournful white guy who wears plaid and hangs out on a log telling scary stories to himself by a campfire. He’s already out-Sessionsing Sessions. 

FEMA Spent a Ton Fighting California’s Fires. Now It Wants Victims to Pay It Back.

When disasters strike and overwhelm cities and states, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is supposed to step in and help emergency response and recovery efforts. Unfortunately, FEMA is best known for its failuresdangerously slow response times, public relations scams, languishing aid—and it seems now the agency has hit another new low. FEMA, which is also notorious for coming up short on pledged financial support, is now going as far as to say disaster victims may have to pay it back.  

To be clear, the federal agency is actually asking PG&E—the utility company currently in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings that is responsible for wildfires over the past several years—for a nearly $4 billion reimbursement for the cost of the federal government’s response to California fires in 2015, 2016, and 2018. The agency argues that it has a duty to hold third parties who cause a disaster accountable for the spent taxpayer dollars. Still, a former FEMA director was reportedly shocked by the agency’s request calling it “unusual” and “inappropriate.”

Under the utility’s current bankruptcy plan, the money would have to come out of the $13.5 billion reserved primarily to compensate  thousands of wildfire victims. That would effectively eat up almost a third of the relief money. Barring that, FEMA threatened to go after individual fire victims.

So, in either scenario, victims get shorted, and FEMA doesn’t seem to mind.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:  

FEMA told The Chronicle that it is compelled to seek compensation from PG&E. Otherwise, individual victims would be on the hook if they get settlement money that duplicates funds already paid by the federal government, according to Bob Fenton, the agency’s regional administrator.

Fenton said FEMA has “no interest” in reducing the amount of settlement funds available for fire victims.

“What we are interested in doing is holding PG&E responsible and accountable for the billions of dollars taxpayers provided to assist individuals and communities affected by the wildfires,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is have to go after these individuals that have received claims from the bankruptcy where certain parts of that claim may duplicate funding that we’ve already given them. … It’s much easier up front to go ahead and simply deal with PG&E directly.”

FEMA has asserted about $3.9 billion in bankruptcy claims against PG&E because of the 2015 Butte Fire, the 2017 wildfires in Wine Country and the 2018 Camp Fire. Court papers show that only about $282 million of the total relates to individual assistance FEMA gave to victims of the disasters — the rest is for aid provided to other government agencies and administrative costs.

The agency filed an initial claim against PG&E in October, at a point when the bankruptcy proceedings had been long underway and the utility and fire victims were already well into settlement negotiations. (A judge approved the agreement with victims in December.)

40 US House members, led by California Reps. Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, sent a letter to FEMA’s acting administrator Peter Gaynor last week to express their dismay:

This claim by FEMA in federal bankruptcy court puts at risk the possibility that the thousands of families still struggling to rebuild their lives will not receive the restitution they deserve…We are told by victims that they were reassured by FEMA that they would not face additional costs when accepting federal offers of debris removal. Not only does this reversal by FEMA betray these promises, it will serve to undermine any future effort to coordinate rebuilding and debris removal in response to future natural disasters as FEMA’s reputation as an honest and fair partner will be diminished.

“I think it’s just disgusting that FEMA is doing this. These victims have had their lives turned upside down,” California state Sen. Scott Wiener told Mother Jones Monday. Wiener has been a vocal PG&E critic and has said he plans to introduce legislation to take the utility under state ownership. “The idea that we’re going to try to nickel and dime these survivors by saying the FEMA money might be a little bit duplicative? Come on, it’s just absurd. This emergency support is there to help people in crisis. The last thing that FEMA should be doing is trying to go after these victims for reimbursement or try to debilitate the PG&E settlement funds so that victims aren’t being made whole. I really hope that FEMA backs off.” 

PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings are nearing the year mark. While there has been significant progress in the past couple months, the utility faces several more hurdles, including claims from FEMA and others, before it can emerge from bankruptcy, which it needs to do with the governor’s approval by June. Judge Dennis Montali will likely address FEMA’s claim at a hearing in February. 

Donald Trump Is (Yawn) Making Up Stuff Yet Again

Donald Trump tweeted today that he’s the guy who “saved Pre-Existing Conditions in your Healthcare.” Even conservatives can’t bring themselves to defend this. Here is NR’s Robert VerBruggen:

Trump didn’t “save” these protections; to the contrary, the GOP’s various failed replacement bills would have weakened them to a debatable extent, and the administration has (to its credit!) expanded the availability of plans that don’t comply with Obamacare’s regulations. Further, if the Trump-backed lawsuit aiming to eliminate Obamacare succeeds, the direct effect will be, uh, to eliminate Obamacare, including those popular preexisting-condition provisions Trump is trying to take credit for….It’s hard to say you support the current preexisting-condition protections when you’ve signed onto a lawsuit that will destroy them if it succeeds.

This goes into the same bucket as Iran supposedly targeting four American embassies for imminent attack: not only is it obviously something Trump just invented, but it’s so preposterous that even his own people aren’t willing to back him up. They aren’t quite willing to tell the truth about the embassies, either, but the lie is dumb enough and checkable enough that they’re all either playing mum or else saying they “didn’t see” the intel on the embassy attacks—but hey, maybe the boss saw something I didn’t.

As usual, none of this matters to Trump. The content of his tweets and his rallies is aimed solely at his base, which will simply take him at his word. The rest of us don’t matter. If we ignore him, that’s great. If we fact check him, that’s great too since it exposes more people to the lie.

But here’s the part I still wonder about: what about people who are on the fence over Trump? Do they think Trump’s lies are unfortunate, but not a dealbreaker? Do they think Trump’s lies aren’t much different from the lies every president sometimes tells? Do they not realize that Trump lies constantly? Or is Trump losing potential support because ambivalent voters do know he lies constantly and it turns them off? I would sure like to see some kind of survey focused on this question.

Lunchtime Photo

Here’s a supertanker at anchor off the coast of Hermosa Beach. I assume it’s waiting for some kind of lovely petroleum product from one of Southern California’s many fine oil refineries, bound for one of our friends across the Pacific. Then again, maybe not. I can’t say I really know anything about the most likely use of supertankers off the coast of California.

December 28, 2019 — Hermosa Beach, California

An Even More Deranged Monday Morning of Tweeting for President Trump

On Monday, President Donald Trump’s Twitter account kicked off an unusually active round of inflammatory and offensive activity that saw multiple falsehoods, typos, and cheap shots against his Democratic presidential rivals. 

In what could be considered the most appalling moment, the president retweeted a fake, poorly Photoshopped image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wearing traditional Muslim clothing while standing in front of the Iranian flag. “The corrupted Dems trying their best to come to the Ayatollah’s rescue,” the tweet read, echoing the false and incendiary accusation among the right that Democratic leaders looking to rein in Trump’s war powers are somehow un-American and puppets of the Iranian regime. 

Trump’s decision to further amplify the accusation came days after Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) on Friday was forced to apologize for claiming that Democrats critical of Trump’s foreign policy are “in love with terrorists.”

But this was only the beginning. Trump also lashed out at mounting evidence that Qassim Soleimani, the top Iranian military leader targeted by Trump’s military strike earlier this month, may not have posed the “imminent threat” on American lives the White House had initially claimed in the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s death. That original tweet misspelled “imminent” as “eminent.” 

The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was “imminent” or not, & was my team in agreement. The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2020

Elsewhere in Monday’s tweet frenzy, Trump went after the 2020 Democratic hopefuls, seizing on reports of tension between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren while conferring on Michael Bloomberg the disparaging nickname “Mini Mike.” Further attacks against the billionaire candidate also included the brazenly false claim that Trump has been the one to protect pre-existing conditions in health care reform. (That single tweet contained a such a thick layer of lies we broke them all down here.)

Bernie Sander’s volunteers are trashing Elizabeth “Pocahontus” Warren. Everybody knows her campaign is dead and want her potential voters. Mini Mike B is also trying, but getting tiny crowds which are all leaving fast. Elizabeth is very angry at Bernie. Do I see a feud brewing?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2020

The news that Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was dropping out of the presidential race inspired still more tweeting.  Just minutes after Booker’s announcement, Trump combined both sarcasm and sheer meanness when he announced that he can “rest easy tonight.”

Really Big Breaking News (Kidding): Booker, who was in zero polling territory, just dropped out of the Democrat Presidential Primary Race. Now I can rest easy tonight. I was sooo concerned that I would someday have to go head to head with him!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2020

Is This the Greatest Listicle of All Time?

Are you on Team Harry¹ or Team Royals? My household is split. However, the royal dustup has now produced one undeniable triumph: this listicle from BuzzFeed, which might be the greatest listicle of all time. Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I, as a Team H person?

¹By which we mean Team Harry/Meghan, of course.

Don’t Let Trump Fool You Into Thinking He’s Improving Health Care

President Donald Trump took to Twitter Monday morning with a brazenly false claim about his health care policy.

Mini Mike Bloomberg is spending a lot of money on False Advertising. I was the person who saved Pre-Existing Conditions in your Healthcare, you have it now, while at the same time winning the fight to rid you of the expensive, unfair and very unpopular Individual Mandate…..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2020

….and, if Republicans win in court and take back the House of Represenatives, your healthcare, that I have now brought to the best place in many years, will become the best ever, by far. I will always protect your Pre-Existing Conditions, the Dems will not!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2020

Let’s break this down. First, Trump was not “the person who saved Pre-Existing Conditions in your Healthcare.” All health plans on the Affordable Care Act marketplace are required by law, as enacted under Barack Obama, to cover treatment for preexisting conditions. A 2019 Kaiser Health News fact check found Trump’s repeated claims to protect patients with preexisting conditions false.

Instead, the Obamacare repeal bills Trump has supported, including 2017’s “skinny repeal” bill, would have gutted coverage for preexisting conditions to varying degrees. Trump has also extended the duration of short-term “junk insurance” plans that do not have to comply with the ACA’s protections for people with preexisting conditions.

And while Trump did have a hand in getting rid of the individual mandate, the end result was not to improve health care. In 2017, Congress used a tax cut law to set the financial penalty for going uninsured to $0. Because the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 on the grounds that the individual mandate counted as a tax, the $0 penalty is now at the center of a Trump-backed lawsuit that aims to strike down Obamacare in its entirety.

Last month, a federal appeals court sided with the Trump administration and ruled in Texas v. United States that the individual mandate was unconstitutional because it could no longer be considered a tax. The case was sent back down to a district court to determine whether this invalidates the rest of the ACA, but it may not be heard before the next election. Democrats are pushing for the Supreme Court to consider the case before November, which would ensure that health care becomes a central issue in the upcoming presidential election.

Thanks in large part to Trump, nationwide access to affordable health care is in jeopardy. So much for the “best ever” health care.

Making Sense of Biden-Warren Voters

I was thinking the other day about people whose top two choices in the Democratic primary are Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. How bizarre! I mean, are you a centrist or a progressive? How can those two be your top choices? Do people even know what the candidates stand for?

But it turns out there’s a pretty easy way to get there. First off, suppose that you don’t think any of the candidates is likely to get their proposals enacted thanks to a Republican Senate. And then suppose further that you don’t think a 37-year-old mayor of a small town is qualified to be president. And you think Bernie is unelectable.

Those are all reasonable beliefs. And among the leading candidates, they leave you with Biden and Warren. And since you figure that both of them will be hamstrung by Mitch McConnell, you just shrug and figure that both are OK.

But then what? Who’s your top choice? Biden or Warren? Jonathan Capehart reminds us that poll after poll shows Biden as the favorite of black voters:

No candidate will win the Democratic presidential nomination without significant support from African Americans. They are the foundation of the party, and black women are its backbone. And the Post-Ipsos poll, like many national polls before it, makes it clear that they want Trump defeated and they think former vice president Joe Biden is the person to do it.

I’ve been a little surprised that white progressives have ignored this so consistently. I get why they don’t like Biden ideologically, but at the same time it seems like the views of African Americans should make a difference. It’s true that their views are split by age, just like the rest of the lefty vote, but Biden still has pretty massive black support overall. Does that deserve more consideration than it gets?

If it does, then you end up supporting Biden with Elizabeth Warren as your #2 choice, and it all makes perfectly good sense. You just have to see things from a different perspective than you might be used to.

Are Manufacturing Workers in High Demand?

The Wall Street Journal reports that American manufacturers are having a hard time finding workers:

Half a million U.S. factory jobs are unfilled, the most in nearly two decades, and the unemployment rate is hovering at a 50-year low, the Labor Department said Friday. At the same time, Americans are moving around the country at the lowest rate in at least 70 years.

To entice workers to move, manufacturers are raising wages, offering signing bonuses and covering relocation costs, including for some hourly positions….“We’ve had to get very aggressive with talent acquisition,” said Michael Winn, chief executive of Columbus Hydraulics Co., which makes parts for Doosan Bobcat Inc. and The Toro Co. “We are having to draw people in from distant places.”

….“The war on talent: It’s there. It’s real,” said Brad Kendall, a human-resources executive at Allegion.

Well, offering higher wages ought to do the trick. But is that really happening? It sure doesn’t look like it:

I get that the bonuses and moving expenses aren’t available to everyone. Ditto for the higher wages. But generally speaking, blue-collar manufacturing wages have been lagging behind overall blue-collar wages for the past two years. It’s hard to believe that the manufacturing sector is truly “getting aggressive” or waging a “war on talent” if they aren’t even keeping up with overall economy, let alone beating it.

A basic look at wages is something you should always see in articles about employers having difficulty recruiting workers. The Journal article includes a chart that shows manufacturing wage growth, but it very deliberately doesn’t adjust for inflation and doesn’t compare manufacturing to overall wage growth. Why? Probably because it would ruin the story, or at the very least, add some work to demonstrate that there’s been strong wage growth in some specific subsector of skilled manufacturing jobs. Or maybe only in certain cities. Or maybe only for managers and IT professionals. Or something. Either way, the lack of such a chart is a tipoff that something doesn’t add up.

I Would Like to Amend My Recent Remarks Calling for the Imminent Death of the Wing

I never thought I would get to go to the Wing, the women-only co-working space and “diverse community open to all” whose demise I gleefully cheered for just a few weeks ago. I resented the place, frequented by the likes of Lena Dunham and Tavi Gevinson, because I considered its $2,350 yearly New York price tag antithetical to its stated egalitarian mission. When I visited last week to see Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), the first cisgender man to speak at the venue, I realized my objections were more complicated than I had thought.

As the Wing’s communications manager led me on a tour of the two-story, 10,000-square-foot SoHo location before Booker arrived, I realized that my pseudo-Marxist objections to the $215 monthly membership fees were unreasonable; the amenities are worth the price. At the SoHo Wing—one of 10 locations around the world—there are comfortable places to read or write, drenched in sunlight that filters in from floor-to-ceiling windows on the eastern wall. There are showers and complimentary hair-and-beauty products and a workout room with Peloton bikes. There are phone booths and conference rooms, a breast pump and a children’s daycare area, a convenient cafe, book clubs and private events—and all the luxuries of a space without men. A hot desk at a nearby WeWork starts at $520 per month, but the Wing seems to offer so much more.

But as much as I love the idea of a space where women can breastfeed without shame, or work in the absence of leering men, I found the millennial-pink-dredged aesthetics overwhelming and impractical, like femininity itself. The phone booths, painted with the names of fictional female characters like Hermione Granger and Ramona Quimby, seem somehow infantilizing, creating Instagram-ready expressions of feminist solidarity out of little glass rooms that would suffice to be purely functional. I thumbed a succulent plant by the window. It felt like plastic, but I couldn’t be sure. Most strikingly, the books that cover the beautiful ceiling-high shelves are arranged not by author or genre, but by color—which, the communications rep conceded, makes it hard to locate a title. Sacrificing functionality for style sounds to me a lot like trying to walk in high heels.

Wing co-founder Audrey Gelman and Jennifer Lawrence speak at the SoHo location in 2018, surrounded by those color-coordinated bookshelves.

Monica Schipper/Getty

And many of the members wore high heels. The women waiting for Booker in folding chairs all exuded an effortless, Glossier-inspired beauty. Women sported snow-white Reeboks, somehow undefiled by the city’s grime. One applied a skillful stroke of lip gloss as Booker spoke. Marguerite Ward, writing for CNBC, noted the near-oppressive stylishness of the Wing’s clientele: “I get it: If I don’t want to dress like the stylish women around me, then that’s my prerogative…But surrounded by successful women dressed to a T, I might want to keep up.” And considering how central female beauty standards—and the rejection or acceptance thereof—are to feminist discourse, aesthetics matter.

“If the atmosphere of the whole place were a little less pink, and by that I mean a little less traditionally feminine, maybe I’d feel more comfortable,” Ward concludes, and I agree. Audrey Gelman, co-founder of the Wing and the inspiration for Marnie’s character on Girls, refers to members as “winglets.” At high points in Booker’s remarks, the audience erupted not into applause, but into a quiet chorus of snapping fingers. If only the vibe were a little less twee and the amenities a little less luxurious, and the membership price a little lower, the Wing would be a wonderland. It is, in short, like communism: a good idea, poorly executed.

But I was genuinely curious about the titles that lined the color-coded shelves—would I find a copy of The Beauty Myth?—and I hoped to browse the library before I headed out. I also thought I’d ask some of the members about their preferences for the Democratic presidential nomination and how they felt about Booker. But as soon as the New Jersey senator left the room, I was ushered to the door. I may be a woman, but Wing member I am not. 

“Boys Will Be Boys” Lets Men Like Kavanaugh and Trump Off the Hook. Let’s Let It Die.

Donald Trump, still the president, has been credibly accused of extortion. He has also been credibly accused of rape. He was impeached for one of these. Just let that fact detonate again in the narrative of who this escape artist is, and who the congressional cowards are who waited for an extortion attempt rather than a rape report to inquire about impeachment. Why weren’t multiple allegations of sexual assault worth an inquiry? This question has been asked endlessly, and answered rarely, never more brilliantly than by the Atlantic’s Megan Garber in a recent essay naming as the culprit a “culture that insists, still, that boys will be boys, and that, as a corollary, Trump will be Trump, and that it is useless to question the inevitable.”

“Boys will be boys,” that tiresome trope so widely assumed to be axiomatic that it’s earned an entry in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “not surprising or unusual when men or boys behave in energetic, rough, or improper ways.” Bad male behavior is inevitable, the idiom insists, as if it were explanatory, the permission slip many men use to grab with impunity, grope with entitlement, or boast about brawling (in bars, at work, online). It’s in the water; a fact of nature, the saying supposes.

It’s been supposing this for a long time. “Boys will be boys” first appeared in recorded English in the 1500s, a stubborn successor to a Latin expression translated as “[boys] are [boys] and do childish things.” Five-hundred years later, this crap is codified as implicit truth, humming at the ambient level of culture, and crossing languages: In French, it’s “ça, c’est bien les hommes” (“that’s men for you”). In Portuguese, “como um rapaz” (“just like a boy”). In Spanish, “así son los hombres” (“the way men are”). In Russian the idea is so pervasive there are two variants: “malchishki yest malchishki, мальчишки есть мальчишки” (“boys are boys”) and “parni yest parni, парни есть парни” (“guys are guys,” or “dudes are dudes”). There’s a related Chinese saying, “gou gaibuliao chi shi, 狗改不了吃屎” (“you can’t stop a dog from eating shit,” or “bad habits are hard to change,” often used to mean boys will act like boys). Icelandic has a recent addition to its language: “strakar verða strakar” (“boys will be boys”). Squinting back at Latin, the tautology is right there too: “sunt pueri pueri, pueri puerilia tractant” (“boys are boys, and boys will act like boys”).

“The phrase ‘boys will be boys’ makes two false and harmful assumptions,” says Cleo Stiller, the Peabody-nominated reporter whose new book, Modern Manhood: Conversations About the Complicated World of Being a Good Man Today, is a candid collection of interviews with men about what manhood can mean in the #MeToo era. “One assumption is that boys all act the same and are ‘hardwired’ to do so. We know from research that this is not true. The second is that because the behavior in question is so prevalent, it’s not harmful and there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s a double whammy used to effectively absolve us as a society and individuals of doing better.”

Stiller’s exploration of men’s questions, confessions, and insight is one of several similar projects in recent months. In his new book Are Men Animals?, Brown University anthropologist Matthew Gutmann debunks the myth that biological determinism drives and explains human male violence. He calls for a clearer separating of “maleness from manliness,” the former biological, the latter sociocultural, and his project is as urgent as Trump’s removal from office: “Expand the definition of what masculine can include.”

But if “boys will be boys” is so flawed and menacing a scientific claim, why is it still spouted by women and men? It’s peddled as fact by the first lady (“I would just say, men will be men,” Melania Trump allowed in shrugging acceptance of Chris Matthews’ hot-mic drooling on live TV). It’s the sort of rhetoric rallied around by pseudo-intellectual Jordan Peterson and his morally panicked choir of aggrieved men, who seem to believe that men stand to be diminished by women’s rights. And it’s reinforced by albums and artists and songs titled “Boys Will Be Boys,” at least 129 of which adorn’s archives.

The reason this idiom survives is that it’s self-shielded: It’s constructed as a tautology. Expressions like it don’t decay because they can’t. No tautology can. It’s immune to erosion. X equals X. It is what it is. This is how a tautology reinforces an ideology: Set up a definitional meme, and your work is done. To really debunk “boys will be boys” will take more than dropping the idiom. It will take reporting and ridicule, humor and scholarship, offline chats and online conversations; not sweeping statements about men categorically in the same absolutist, intrinsic strokes that gave us “boys will be boys” in the first place, but indictments of the culture and conditions that support it.

“I don’t give credence to the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ because that’s an excuse to give men—particularly white men—carte blanche to do whatever the fuck they want. And we already have words for that shit,” Genetta Adams, The Root’s managing editor, who guides the site’s cultural and political coverage, tells me.

More writers and readers are speaking out to multiply masculinity’s possibilities. “Boys will be boys so long as this is the expectation we set for them. Boys will be better when we give them more choices,” tweeted Liz Plank, author of For the Love of Men, in response to new sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

And men themselves have everything to gain by debunking harmful myths of masculinity. Some of the men Stiller interviewed are cataloguing their own behavior to look for patterns of productive and destructive actions, examining tendencies they’d “never thought about and prefer to never think about,” Stiller writes.

Another reason “boys will be boys” persists is that attacking the concept is heard as an attack on boys themselves. But the opposite is true: To dismantle “boys will be boys” is to release boys from its grips, to defend men and women from its presumptions. A replacement meme, if we need one: Assholes will be assholes (which crosses genders).

“Trump was elected not despite his repeated remarks championing sexual assaults on women, but because of them,” Gutmann writes. “He was chosen to lead because tens of millions of people in the United States believed that boys will be boys and that those who disagree should get with the program.”

Australia’s Wallabies, Recovering From Fires, Fed by Carrots Falling From the Sky

Thousands of pounds of carrots and sweet potatoes are falling from the sky in Australia, air-dropped to help feed the Brush-tailed Rock wallabies whose habitats have been devastated by massive brushfires.

The wallabies, agile marsupials that use their furred tails for balance while climbing trees and vertical rocks, tend to survive fires. But their vegetation is often destroyed, according to the New South Wales government, which on Sunday announced it was coordinating helicopter drops in the state as part of recovery efforts. New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean shared photos of the hungry marsupials on Twitter:

One happy customer #operationrockwallaby #AustralianFires

— Matt Kean MP (@Matt_KeanMP) January 11, 2020

Operation Rock Wallaby - #NPWS staff today dropped thousands of kgs of food (Mostly sweet potato and carrots) for our Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby colonies across NSW #bushfires

— Matt Kean MP (@Matt_KeanMP) January 11, 2020

From @Matt_KeanMP Supplementary food drop rock wallabies, 1000 kg of sweet potato and carrot to 6 different colonies in Capertee and Wolgan valleys; 1000 kg across Yengo National Park; almost 100 kg of food and water in the #KangarooValley #NSWbushfires

— kelly fuller (@kelfuller) January 12, 2020

Brushfires happen every year in Australia but are particularly horrible this year, following record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought that experts believe are exacerbated by climate change. The blazes have ripped through brushland, wooded areas, and national parks, and have destroyed entire towns. New South Wales has been the hardest hit state, with more than 1,500 homes burned down.

In Operation Rock Wallaby, more than 4,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and carrots are being delivered to colonies in several valleys and national parks. Here’s hoping it helps the little marsupials recover.

Thousands of kilograms of carrots and sweet potato are being delivered to endangered Brush-tailed Rock-wallabies in fire affected areas as the NSW Government steps in to help. #9News

— Nine News Sydney (@9NewsSyd) January 12, 2020

Thousands of Iranians Have Bravely Protested the Government’s Role in Ukrainian Plane Crash

Thousands of people took to the streets across Iran this weekend to condemn their government for shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane—killing all 176 people on board—and then lying for days to hide its role in what happened.

In Tehran, people flooded main squares on Saturday afternoon demanding repercussions for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that officials responsible for the plane crash be punished. Protests also rocked other cities, including Shiraz, Esfahan, Hamedan, and Orumiyeh. In videos posted on social media, the New York Times reports, protesters yelled, “Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” In Tehran, anti-riot police unleashed tear gas and fired water cannons at demonstrators.

The bluntness of these protesters, captured in videos below, is particularly striking following a brutal crackdown by the regime late last year on demonstrations that were initially sparked by an increase in gas prices. According to CNN, the UN Human Rights Office had information to show that some 200 people were killed and thousands were arrested during the crackdown. 

The public's anger has a clear target: Khamenei.
Crowds chant "Khaemnei is a murderer, his regime is obsolete."#IranPlaneCrash

— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) January 11, 2020

The Ukrainian plane was struck by surface-to-air missiles minutes after taking off from an airport near Tehran on Wednesday. It carried passengers from Iran, Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan, Germany, and United Kingdom, and was en route to Ukraine. Hours earlier Iran had launched an attack on US targets in Iraq, in response to the US killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani earlier this month, and Iranian officials said they had been on alert for a potential counterattack.

Iranian officials admitted their role in the crash late Friday, after days of denials. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described the incident as a “disastrous mistake,” and Khamenei called for an investigation. On Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered his “profound regrets, apologies and condolences,” but also criticized the United States for ratcheting up tensions by killing Soleimani. “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster,” he wrote.

On Saturday, some of the Iranian demonstrators ripped up photos of Suleimani, according to reports from Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency. In a commentary, the news agency condemned Iran’s leaders for trying to cover up their role in the downing of the plane. “It is pivotal that those who were hiding the truth from the public for the past 72 hours be held accountable, we cannot let this go,” it read, according to the Times.

A woman attending a candlelight vigil for victims of Ukraine Flight 737 talks to a police officer at Amirkabir University in Tehran on Saturday.

Mona Hoobehfekr/ISNA/AFP/Getty

Iranian students chant slogans as they demonstrate after the vigil at Amirkabir University.  Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

Protesters called for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down and for officials responsible for the plane crash to be prosecuted.

Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

AFP correspondents said hundreds of students gathered at Amir Kabir University.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

Hundreds of people continued demonstrating at universities in Tehran into the night Saturday. The UK ambassador to Iran, Robert Macaire, was detained briefly after leaving a protest at Amirkabir University of Technology following a candlelight vigil. He was detained for allegedly “inciting” demonstrators and released after a few hours; he denied participating in the protests and said he was at the university to honor the victims of the crash. Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, said, “The arrest of our ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law.”

On Sunday, riot police gathered at public squares and the University of Tehran, the Guardian reports

Iranians light candles for the victims of Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 during a gathering in front of the Amirkabir University on Saturday. AFP/Getty

An Iranian carries a phone bearing the portraits of the victims of the plane crash. AFP/Getty

President Donald Trump showed his support for the Iranian protesters Saturday. “We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage,” he tweeted, urging Iran’s government to “allow human rights groups to monitor” the protests. “There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching.” 

International leaders have also condemned Iran for its role in the crash. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “outraged and furious” and called on Iran to “take full responsibility.” Ukrainian officials said they were investigating the case as a potential instance of “willful killing and aircraft destruction.”

Pro-regime protesters also went to the UK embassy in Tehran over the weekend, burning representations of British and Israeli flags.

At a protest Sunday outside the UK Embassy in Tehran, pro-regime demonstrators chant slogans and hold up posters of Gen. Qassem Soleimani while burning representations of British and Israeli flags Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Defense Secretary Says He “Didn’t See” Intel to Back Up Trump’s Latest Iran Claim

President Donald Trump’s evolving rationale for the killing of a senior Iranian general continues to raise eyebrows, and now the Pentagon’s chief says he did not see evidence Trump cited on Friday about threat from Iran.

On Friday during an interview on Fox News, Trump said the United States killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani earlier this month to avert an imminent attack on four US embassies, the first time the administration had made that specific claim. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended that assertion later in the day, saying “we had specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats included attacks on US embassies period, full stop.”

But that talking point seemed to unravel on Sunday, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that while he shared that view that four embassies were in danger, he had not seen any specific intelligence to back that up. “What the president said was he believed there probably and could’ve been attacks against additional embassies,” Esper said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“I shared that view; I know other members of the national security team shared that view. That’s why I deployed thousands of American paratroopers to the Middle East to reinforce our embassy in Baghdad and other sites throughout the region,” Esper said.

But the president, he crucially added, did not cite a “specific piece of evidence.”

“Are you saying there wasn’t one?” host Margaret Brennan asked.

The defense secretary didn’t answer directly. “I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” he said. “What I’m saying is I share the presidents’ view.” Esper made similarly oblique comments in a Sunday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, saying he would not discuss intelligence matters on the show.

NEWS: @EsperDod tells @margbrennan he "didn't see" specific evidence showing Iran planned to strike 4 U.S. embassies, despite @realDonaldTrump saying an attack at multiple embassies was “imminent." Watch more of Esper's interview on @FacetheNation today.

— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) January 12, 2020

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper: "I'm not going to discuss intelligence matters here on the show -"

Jake Tapper: "The President did, though"

Esper: "It's the President's preogative"

— Jason Campbell (@JasonSCampbell) January 12, 2020

The Trump administration has come under pressure to reveal more details about its decision to launch the drone attack against Soleimani, which prompted Iran to respond last week with missile strikes on Iraqi bases hosting American troops. During a classified briefing on Wednesday with national security officials, members of Congress say they did not hear anything about four US embassies. 

“I feel like I would have remembered if they would have presented that kind of intel at the briefing,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told the Washington Post. “It sounds to me like the administration is panicking a little bit about the soundness of their rationale and deciding to share information with Fox News that they aren’t willing to share with Congress.” Referring to Trump, Murphy added, “I don’t trust what he said.”

National security adviser Robert O’Brien, in an interview Sunday on Fox News, said he wasn’t sure why the embassies did not come up in the briefing, which he did not attend. “I don’t know how the Q&A went back and forth. Sometimes it depends on how the questions are asked and how they were phrased,” he said.

He, too, was vague about any specific evidence pointing to four embassies at risk. “It’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are but it’s certainly consistent with the intelligence to assume that they would have hit embassies in at least four countries,” O’Brien added.

Members of Congress say the Iranian threat to blow up multiple U.S. embassies was not mentioned in the intel briefing. But the President says there were threats to four embassies. Plus, is the Trump administration's strategy working? Robert O'Brien reacts. #FNS

— FoxNewsSunday (@FoxNewsSunday) January 12, 2020

White Flight Never Happened in Texas

Today in the New York Times, Dana Goldstein compares the California and Texas versions of the same high school history text and mostly concludes that the California versions like to emphasize LGBTQ issues while the Texas versions like to downplay the effects of racism. Here’s my favorite excerpt:

Even the California textbook can’t quite bring itself to talk plainly about white flight, saying only that it was driven by families that wanted to escape “culturally diverse” neighborhoods. I wonder where that wording came from?

I also wonder why California and Texas apparently demand different fonts for their history texts?

Completely aside from all this, I hate both of these textbooks. I hate all textbooks these days. Cut them all in half! Get rid of the endless boxed inserts and stupid “discussion points.” But add more charts! If I had been forced to learn American history from one of these overstuffed, chopped-up monstrosities, I’d probably hate history too.

Memo by Secret Memo, the University of Texas Kept Segregation Alive into the 1960s

Sixty-six years ago, Marion Ford, an ambitious Houston teenager who had been set to become one of the first African American undergraduates at the University of Texas, received a terse letter returning his $20 deposit to room in an all-Black dormitory because his admission had been rescinded.

The transgression committed by Marion Ford, a saxophonist, writer, academic standout, star athlete, and all-around striver? He told a reporter he wanted to try out for the all-white Texas Longhorns football team.

The Ford episode in 1954 unspools over a series of documents, many of them marked confidential, resting deep within the University of Texas archives. I came across these documents while working on a book about football and race in Texas. Among other things they illuminate how far the university’s regents were willing to go to keep their beloved football team free of Black players. That previous May, the US Supreme Court had handed down its Brown v. Board decision, and the regents, each appointed by a segregationist governor, were determined to interpret the ruling in the narrowest way possible. The Ford crisis—it was nothing less than that to the men controlling the university—was one of the first tests following the Brown decision of how a state university would fold in newly admitted Black students. Within weeks the state’s most powerful figures had convened to thwart the mere prospect of a Black teenager setting foot on the field.  

There’s a larger story to be found in these and other confidential documents. More than a half-century later, they offer a glimpse of how American apartheid was maintained even after parts of it had been formally struck down—how, in particular, state and university bureaucracies were marshaled to serve segregationists’ ends. Methodically, insidiously, memo by banal memo, administrators constructed a two-tiered system at their university. To see the evidence of this up close, to hold these flimsy pieces of onionskin paper in your hands—carbon copies, filed away in folders marked “Negroes”—is to understand something essential about segregation. Jim Crow was office work, too.

Mother Jones illustration; Getty; Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas

Ford had been a top student at his all-Black high school when, in June 1954, he applied to the state’s flagship university. The Brown decision had been handed down in May and he was determined to capitalize on its promise. He was a go-getter: In his young life he had already worked as a newspaper carrier, a truck driver, a lifeguard, and a columnist for the school newspaper; known by the nickname Big Drip, he was a talented kid, well-liked and gregarious, keen to dance, a member of the engineering honor society.

In his application he said he wanted to major in chemistry. At first, UT officials put him off, suggesting he instead attend Texas Southern, a historically Black university. Ford thought he was getting the runaround, and he said as much—“Southern Discrimination” was the phrase he used in a letter back to UT’s dean of admissions, H.Y. McCown. “I am not interested in living in your dormitories or becoming socially prominent with the Caucasians,” Ford wrote, “but I do want a chance to get the best formal training in my state.” In a condescending letter of admittance in late July, McCown wrote back to Ford, “I hope that you will do well in the University and that you will get over your inferiority complex and the idea that you are being discriminated against.”

Finally, all appeared set for Ford and a half-dozen other young African American men to become the first class of Black undergraduates at the university. On August 16, the university sent him a room contract for San Jacinto Dormitory D, and Ford mailed in a $20 deposit. Around that time, he also submitted a rushee information card to UT’s Interfraternity Council, still on file in a warehouse of university records. He wrote that he planned to join the ROTC program, and in a sign of his eagerness, he asked that a copy of the fraternity handbook be sent to him.

But there was a problem: Ford, a brawny 5-foot-10-and-a-half, 209-pounder who had been a varsity swimmer and all-state lineman in high school, told a Houston reporter a week later that he hoped to play on UT’s football team.

The reporter, in turn, contacted UT regent Leroy Jeffers, a Houston attorney, to ask for comment. Jeffers said the regents hadn’t considered the prospect but that it would be weighed “from all angles for the best interest of the university.” Privately, Jeffers was alarmed. The following day, he sent a copy of the article—headlined “Houston Negro Seeks Grid Tryout at Texas”—to the members of the board of regents and the chancellor. It was one thing to admit African Americans, another to allow them to play on the football team—or really to let them represent the university in any capacity. On the very day, August 25, 1954, that Jeffers sent the article to the regents, Arno Nowotny, the widely beloved dean of student life at the university, wrote to UT President Logan Wilson about the problem of Black students who wanted to study at the university and also participate in the school band. “An undergraduate Negro student, J. L. Jewett, has inquired about playing in our Longhorn Band in the fall,” Nowotny wrote. “I hope we continue to admit Negro students only when we have to do so. I could wish that young Jewett had chosen the symphonic band or some other less spectacular student activity; but I plan to have a real conference with him, and stress the importance of his showing real humility in his band participation.”

Five days later, the regents chair, Tom Sealy, a Midland oil exec, went to the state attorney general with a question. This was John Ben Shepperd, who the following year would sue the NAACP in an attempt to disband it. Sealy wanted to know if the university was required “to permit such negro students upon admission to participate in such extracurricular activities as band and football or other intercollegiate activities.” That same day, the university’s dean of admissions wrote to the UT president that African Americans were taking “a more calculated approach” in their applications. There was some truth to this: The applicants, in league with civil rights activists, were quite reasonably trying to force the issue of their admittance—after all, the university, in defiance of the Brown decision, was still trying to push them to historically Black schools. After McCown told Ford that chemistry was offered at Texas Southern, for instance, Ford told him that he in fact wanted to study chemical engineering, a major not offered at Texas Southern. “They are now carefully advised and are constantly probing for programs of work not offered at one of the Negro institutions,” he wrote.

In a memo marked “personal and confidential,” Sealy informed the other regents that after a “full investigation,” the university had determined that Black students could take at least their first-year classes at Black institutions. In other words, even if Texas Southern did not have a chemical engineering major, it had first-year offerings that mirrored UT’s. The plan was essentially a delay tactic, meant to buy the University of Texas at least another year in which to figure out how to prevent Black students from enrolling.

And so, less than two weeks after Marion Ford had told the Houston Chronicle he wanted to try out for the football team, letters were sent to him and the other incoming African Americans, explaining that their admission had been rescinded. The university president, the regents, the university lawyers, and the state attorney general had huddled up and decided to bring down the full weight of the Texas government and its flagship university on this teenager and a half-dozen other African American admits for the crime of wanting to represent the school on the football field.

On September 3, Ford was refunded the $20 deposit for his room at a dormitory for Black students only, and he was informed by the university’s director for auxiliary and service activities that the rooming contract was “now voided.” “The Dean of Admissions at The University of Texas”—McCown—“has notified this office that your application for admission to the University as a student has been canceled,” said the letter, a copy of which was sent to the university president, confirming again that the university’s highest ranks were involved.

The sacrosanct football program remained unsullied, and some Texans who learned about the university administration’s about-face were pleased. J. L. Shanklin, a dentist in the Hill Country town of Kerrville, wrote McCown “to congratulate you on your very sane stand in re–the case of Marion G. Ford Jr.”: “The problem is not one of racial, religious, social, or political, but is one of our Constitutional rights…If Democracy is the best form of government and is to survive, we will have to fully subscribe to the theory that the majority must supersede the wants and claims of the minority. Surely the majority of Texans does not want to accept racial equality, nor do they want to foster a situation that will surely lead to social and sexual homogeneity.”

Judging by the clippings stored in the UT archives, there was little mention in the press of UT’s backtracking, apart from a one-sentence item in the Informer, a Houston Black newspaper. The story noted that Ford had been “rejected then accepted and rejected again,” a line that in its weariness suggests something of the condition of being Black in America.

 “One can visualize (with a shudder) the disturbance arising because a Negro attempted to sit next to or near a white person who had definite adverse feelings in such matters,” wrote Lanier Cox, the assistant to the UT president.

Athletics, and football in particular, presented UT with a logistical conundrum: Even as it was resisting the integration of its student body, would the university ban other schools from bringing their Black athletes to UT’s fields and tracks? In 1956, the University of Southern California football team and its star running back, Cornelius Roberts, a Black man, were scheduled to play in Austin. UT officials deliberated over how to handle the prospect of Black fans showing up to the game. “One can visualize (with a shudder) the disturbance arising because a Negro attempted to sit next to or near a white person who had definite adverse feelings in such matters,” Lanier Cox, the assistant to the UT president, wrote to Sealy, still the regents chair, two and a half months before the game. Cox warned: “Since the University of Southern California has a star Negro fullback, it is entirely possible that his parents or friends from California may make the trip to Austin. It would be difficult to control the sale of tickets by visiting schools. Therefore, it would appear that little could be done other than to admit Negroes holding tickets in the visiting team section.” As for other Black people seeking to buy tickets, he said, “It is recommended that the Negro section in the stadium be continued and that all Negroes who ask for tickets be sold a seat only in this section. This should reduce substantially the possibility of Negroes sitting among the white spectators in the west stands and thereby creating a situation of possible ill feeling or even violence.”

In the end, Roberts, nicknamed the Chocolate Rocket, ran roughshod over the Longhorns, racking up 251 yards and three touchdowns. UT lost 44–20 en route to a 1–9 season. Among the spectators at that game was Marion Ford. He had played for Illinois before coming back to Austin as a transfer student, among the first Black undergrads admitted in 1956. Not long after the game, Ford approached UT head coach Ed Price to again float the idea of walking on as the university’s first Black football player. “Ed,” Ford said, according to Richard Pennington’s Breaking the Ice: The Racial Integration of Southwest Conference Football, “you need me. I can help you.” (“I was a cocky son of a bitch,” Ford later told Dwonna Goldstone for her excellent book Integrating the 40 Acres.) Price, who had not had a winning season in several years and who must have known he was likely to be fired at the end of the season, shrugged off Ford’s suggestion. “He was very amiable,” Ford, who eventually built a successful dental practice and remained a frequent face at Houston-area UT alumni events until his death in 2001, later told a reporter. “He knew he needed help. But he said, ‘It’s out of my hands.’ … It would have been a good stroke for Texas, a beautiful opportunity for a premier university to forge ahead and a hell of a rallying point.”

Mother Jones illustration; Getty; Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas

Maintaining segregation after Brown was hard bureaucratic work. It required technical clarifications, legal rationalizations, stalling tactics, even a new standardized testing regime to keep people like Marion Ford off campus. “The Brown decision was hardly self-executing at the University of Texas,” the legal historian Thomas D. Russell, who has written about how racial considerations shaped UT in the 20th century, has dryly noted. The logistics of apartheid led to occasional confusion. “For the second or third time now since 1955 my own department has had a bona fide and quite unsolicited application for a teaching assistantship from a Negro graduate student,” Leo Hughes, chair of the English department, wrote the university president on May 22, 1961. “On at least one previous occasion we rejected the application, in spite of a most impressive record.”  The letter concluded: “What is the current administrative policy on the hiring of Negro teaching assistants?” Four days later came an answer: The university’s policy “is not to employ a Negro as an assistant teaching in the classroom but as an assistant assigned to a research project,” wrote president Joseph Smiley, a soft-spoken scholar of French from Dallas. “I think all of us concerned realized that this is an extremely delicate and complex problem.” Seven years after the Brown decision, the UT president deemed it okay for Black people to do lab work, behind closed doors, but not okay for Black people to oversee white undergrads.

The following March, Smiley got a note from the dean of students, who wanted him to weigh in on another evidently tricky issue: The Longhorn band had gotten inquiries from a Black high school in Dallas about its membership rules. One asked, simply: “Are Negroes eligible for membership in the Longhorn Band?” “It is my understanding that Negroes have previously been auditioned but have not been able to demonstrate the quality necessary for membership in the band,” the dean wrote to Smiley.

The machinery of segregation ran on patrician smarm, too. On July 20, 1961, Mo Olian, the undergraduate president of the Texas students association, told a Daily Texan reporter that the latest decision by the regents to resist integration was “narrow-minded, backward and hypocritical.”

Thornton Hardie, a West Texas attorney who was the bespectacled chair of the regents, was affronted. On August 2, he sent the undergraduate a page-long letter defending the regents as “gentlemen of the highest type” who had “given unselfishly of their time and talents toward the progress and well-being of the University.”

“I trust you have now recovered from your unfortunate loss of temper and that you regret your choice of language, which was highly insulting to these fine gentlemen,” Hardie wrote. “I hope you will now agree that an appropriate written apology to the members of the Board of Regents is in order, and that I am the one to whom such an apology should be address.” Olian declined to apologize. Athletics and dormitories remained segregated through the early 1960s.

In a note to other regents, Hardie suggested that as part of UT’s publicity campaign, it “should at least be mentioned” that Olian and David Lopez, the managing editor of the campus newspaper, “are certainly living examples of the lack of religious and social prejudice at The University.” Lopez is Hispanic; Olian, Jewish. (Olian would go on to have a successful real estate investment career in Austin. When I tracked him down and showed him the documents, he told me, “I’m still amazed how at that young age they tried to impugn my integrity.”)

One mid-October evening in 1961, three Black undergraduate women gathered in the lobby of Kinsolving, a white-only dormitory, despite warnings from the dorm matron, and went upstairs for half an hour to the rooms of some of their white friends before being forced to leave. The Black dorms were rickety, old, wood-frame buildings; Kinsolving was brick and stone.

The regents were furious. In a letter to his fellow board members, a regent named W.W. Heath said the university should commission a survey of the parents of white girls whose dorms might be integrated. “They are paying the bills, have a more mature viewpoint [than students], and know best what is good for their own children. An appropriate poll question would be: ‘Do you favor complete integration of our girls dormitories, realizing this may require you (or your daughter) to room with colored girls, have your meals with them, and receive your dates in the same dormitory parlors with their dates, further realizing that any partial integration of such dormitories would merely be a step toward complete integration?’”

The tone came unhinged. Hardie now recommended that the university tell the parents of two white women who were involved in the sit-in “that if their daughters will promptly give the President of the University and the Manager in charge of Kinsolving a letter of apology, with a promise not to repeat the offense, they would be forgiven. Of course, it should be understood that the letters of apology would be subject to publication.” If they won’t apologize, he wrote, they should be made to leave the dorm within two weeks. “At the end of that time, if they had not left we should remove their belongings from their room and lock the door, and we should see that they were not allowed to reenter. It is quite true that they might file suit for damages, but we would have to take that risk.”

 “I have had negroes around me all my life and still employ them in my office and in my home…If you treat them as your equal they will want to date the white girls and etc. and I mean etc.,” wrote Waldo Pauls, scion of a Houston cotton merchant.

Many alumni were horrified at integration efforts. “I have had negroes around me all my life and still employ them in my office and in my home,” Waldo Pauls, scion of a Houston cotton merchant and a UT alumnus, wrote to the UT president shortly after the sit-in. “They are like children and if given an inch they will take a mile. If you treat them as your equal they will want to date the white girls and etc. and I mean etc.” Perhaps mindful of offending powerful donors, the university correspondence to racist alumni ranged from meek to obsequious. The UT president, Smiley, wrote Pauls that “all of us concerned feel that this is an extremely critical situation, and I assure you that we are doing our utmost to make the right decision.” In November 1961, an East Texas attorney and UT law graduate, Billy Hunt, also wrote Smiley about a complaint he had received from a wealthy, elderly client whom he had encouraged to leave at least $10,000 of his estate to the University of Texas. The client had learned that a University of Texas law professor had circulated a petition calling for the end of segregated facilities on campus:

Today, I was called upon by this gentleman to prepare another will which omitted this bequest. This was all brought about by the idiotic action of the faculty in general, and one of the professors of the law school, in particular, in pushing through some sort of resolution calling for the removal of segregation practices in regard to the restrooms in the dormitories. When the story appeared in the press, this client, who has rather strong feelings on the matter, came to my office and stated that he would leave no money to any institution which would harbor such people on its faculty. Frankly, I could not work up too much enthusiasm in trying to get him to change his mind.

Smiley, the UT president, wrote to Hunt to say his letter “obviously distresses me.” “It is clear, of course, that we cannot afford to sustain the loss of any potential private support, for, as you know, this kind of support is indispensable our goal of achieving high academic excellence,” Smiley said, explaining that the administration and board of regents “are doing our utmost to define and attain the wisest possible solution of these problems.”

Instead of backing down as the regents had demanded, the young women who’d participated in the sit-in chose to file suit. A UT law professor who served as their counselor was deemed a traitor by the regents. The sit-in became a cause: When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the campus in March 1962 to give a talk on segregation—before an audience of 1,200 people on a campus that was less than 1 percent Black—he announced that “Old Man Segregation is on his deathbed. The only question is how expensive the South is going to make the funeral.” And in May a national chemical engineering conference to be hosted by UT was suddenly put in jeopardy because one of the member associations had complained. “Unfortunately there appears to be real danger that we will lose the conference if we do not act soon to correct a minor technicality in our dormitory regulations,” an engineering dean wrote to Smiley, the university president. The “minor technicality” was that the dorms were segregated by race—and one of the participating engineering societies from elsewhere in the country had raised an objection.

The segregation of the dorms had practical, nearly farcical consequences. A small note to the university president in the summer of 1962, at a time when white and Black housing remained segregated, reports that a pair of Black kids in Austin for a high school band conference at UT had found that their rooms lacked air conditioning. In mid-June, at the time of this conference, Austin broils. “Literature about the conference mentioned air-conditioned quarters,” says the index card note. “Presumably Nelson Patrick, who is in charge, had checked and all the students attending were supposed to be white.”

Facing pressure from the dorm integration lawsuit, UT Chancellor Harry Ransom told the student-plaintiffs to withdraw the suit in the spring of 1964, a few months before President Lyndon Johnson was due to give the university commencement address. Keen to end a legal showdown they were likely to lose and concerned about their relationship with Washington, university officials pledged to “voluntarily” integrate the dorms on their own.

“That was part of the reason why the University wanted to integrate as fast as possible,” one of the plaintiffs, Sherryl Griffin, told the Daily Texan in 2016. “So that when the President of the United States came, the University would not still be involved in the punitive legacy of our lawsuit.”

UT also faced the real possibility, with the impending passage of the Civil Rights Act that year, that it would have to forfeit federal funding if it remained, on paper, segregated. Heath, an East Texas attorney who was an old friend of Johnson’s and now chaired the board of regents, admitted that he “came on the board with a lot of prejudices” and did not realize that “on federal research grants, you get cut off a lot of places if you’re not integrated.” The president, in other words, forced his hand. At its meeting on May 16, 1964, the board of regents ordered the full integration of the university.  According to the self-congratulatory official minutes of the meeting, “the Board completed its task of ‘integration with all deliberate speed’ as promised, and without troops, marshals, violence or bloodshed.”

Mother Jones illustration; Hy Peskin Archive/Getty; Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas

Today the University of Texas has sought to repair the historic wrongs. It has an Office for Inclusion and Equity, hosts an annual conference focused on issues facing Black student-athletes, and welcomes pioneering African American admits back for an annual reunion, and even finds itself under attack in the courts for its affirmative action policies. “For half of UT’s 135 years, the university did not admit African American students,” university president Gregory Fenves said in a 2018 speech. “Our history of exclusion and segregation gives us a responsibility to stand as champions of the educational benefits of diversity.”

The history of segregation at UT, as at other Southern universities, is not so ancient. On a beautiful mid-October evening in Austin, at halftime of a game against Kansas, members of the 1969 national championship football team gathered at midfield and held aloft their Hook ‘Em Horns hand signs. Marking the 50th anniversary of that Longhorn campaign, the band struck up “The Eyes of Texas,” and the crowd of more than 97,000 fans took to their feet in burnt-orange salute. It was a poignant moment: Here were aging athletes being regaled once more for their boyhood feats. But there was little or no official reckoning with a singular fact: that this group was the last all-white team to win the national championship. The first Black player didn’t make the varsity team until 1970—at least a half-dozen years after the regents had decided, on paper, to fully integrate the university and 16 years after Marion Ford had announced his desire to play ball.

Asher Price is a staff reporter at the Austin American-Statesman. His new book is Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact, from which part of this article is adapted.