There’s been dozens of articles written about Chris Rufo, the man responsible (and who is quite proud to take credit for) turning “critical race theory” into the latest villain in the culture wars. (For examples see: here, here, and here.)
Rufo has been quite explicit about his strategy, saying “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’— into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” He also said, “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
But despite “critical race theory” being in the news so much, I felt very unclear of how, if at all, liberal and left groups were organizing to respond to these new attacks, given that they aimed to take down virtually all equity and anti-racism work along with it.
In my new story for The Intercept, I spent some time reviewing the plans of teacher unions, education advocacy groups, left-leaning think tanks and liberal legal organizations, to find out. I obtained four messaging guides circulating around the liberal universe with professional talking points on how to respond to the barrage of attacks, and I interviewed authors of those guides.
These organizations are trying to walk a tight, and sometimes awkward rope. Most progressive groups have opted to distance themselves from critical race theory — attempting to “reframe” and “redirect” the conversation — while still hoping to affirm that they want to teach about systemic racism, which Critical Race Theory is all about. They're also emphasizing the need to trust students to learn about racism, while insisting CRT is not 'age-appropriate’ and is a law-school level concept irrelevant to K-12.
I expect this story and associated strategies to continue to evolve in the coming months. There are some broad similarities embraced by the various liberal groups, but I also found some competing visions and disagreements over what would be the best way to fight back. There’s a lot of fear right now, because people are trying to figure out how to push back without actually amplifying and strengthening bad faith arguments on the right. It’s tough, and this is a common problem in liberal politics not unique to education. See: policing.
There’s a lot of emphasis right now on teaching “truth” and “honesty” in schools. And to the extent that means opposing censorship, and a willingness to confront dark parts of our past, that’s all good. But a lot of this debate really is about something else; it’s about what’s the right way to narrate and spin the same set of general facts. And the fact is even professional historians disagree on that. As education historian Jon Zimmerman says in the piece, “We should have the courage to let kids in on that little secret that we don’t all agree on what the correct historical narrative is.”
I apologize it’s been a minute since the last newsletter. While I have two stories to share today, I actually spent the last month doing research for a piece I’m hoping to apply for an investigative grant to. I’ll write the story either way — but my hope is that this research investment pays off so I can do a more comprehensive thing! Anyway, fingers crossed on that.
Today I have a story in The Intercept on a bill that recently earned supermajority support on the NYC city council, to enfranchise permanent residents and non-citizens with work authorizations like DACA recipients and those with Temporary Protected Status. In New York, this would amount to 900,000 people becoming eligible to vote in local elections. Eric Adams, who just won the Democratic primary there for mayor, is also a strong supporter of the bill.
Non-citizen voting has a long, and often-overlooked/ forgotten history in the U.S. Particularly for residents here legally and paying taxes, some communities are happy to say why shouldn’t they have a say in who governs them on the local level? And it actually was legal on the federal level until 1996. There is no constitutional ban on non-citizen voting, and more than 45 countries on almost every continent allow resident noncitizens to vote at the local, regional, or national level including the European Union, South Korea, and New Zealand. There’s also a pending bill in Washington D.C. to permit green-card holders to vote in local elections, and I hope my elected officials pass that. We are a city that talks a lot about taxation without representation! You can read the story here.
I also had an Intercept story the other week about a little-known amendment in the federal American Rescue Plan Act that strips 23 states of more than a quarter of recovery aid for small towns. It’s a wonky story but following how authorized money actually goes out, through distribution formulas and bureaucratic hurdles, is I’d argue more important than the flashy press releases senators put out at after a bill is signed. In practical terms, had the Senate not made its obscure five-word legislative change, Pennsylvania would have received almost $689 million more in aid, and New York and Ohio would have also received over $500 million more. Sixteen states in total would have gotten about 70 percent more federal aid for their small-town economic recoveries under the House’s version. When I started asking people about why they made this change, their answers generally conflicted with one another.
The amendment was flagged by analysts at a data consulting firm Civilytics who actually read this newsletter, so friendly reminder to pitch me if you have ideas or spot suspicious/curious things! There are two days left to submit public comment to the U.S Treasury on this funding distribution. You can read the story here.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’re having a nice summer. And I hope it’s less hot and humid where you are than here!
Most of the responses I received were also jokes, practical life advice stuff, but I actually did get a few really helpful emails and private messages with ideas from people, some who I knew, some I didn’t but they just saw the tweet. It reminded me that for most people, the whole news gathering process is pretty opaque, and even if one has tips or ideas for pieces (sometimes called ‘leads’) they don’t necessarily know what to do with them or how to share information in a way they feel is secure. Or they don’t know if what they have is worth sharing.
So I just wanted to put out there that if you ever do come across some information and you wanted to pass it along or a topic that you think might have merit and isn’t getting attention, please do! I really welcome your ideas, and sometimes I can’t follow up on everything, but sometimes timing works out extremely well. And the idea might not turn into its own individual story but it also might help inform other ones. Or sometimes I might know another reporter who I think would be great to take that particular idea on. Journalism really does take a village and so just a standing invitation that:
You can always email me: email@example.com. Or you can text me on Signal, which is an encrypted text messaging service, at 1-202-681-6194 or you can leave me a voicemail at 202-681-6194.
Ok! Now on to stories:
Today at The Intercept I have report on a little-known project funded by the American Federation for Children, which is a leading national school choice lobbying group that Betsy DeVos funds and was chair of prior to becoming Trump’s Education Secretary. (Her family foundation actually continued to fund AFC while she was education secretary, and the group then turn around and lobbied her Department as she worked there.)
The project, called “Ed Newsfeed” employs former TV news reporters and producers to create and distribute weekly content for free to local news stations nationwide. And then the stations often air the segments, word-for-word, with no disclosure that they’re funded by AFC and narrated by an AFC “national correspondent.” Many subjects featured have political and financial ties to the group.
The piece looks at why this is happening, and the depressingly longer trend that’s been going on since at least the 1990s of corporations and government agencies producing so-called Video News Releases, or VNRs, for hamstrung broadcast stations eager for some inexpensive content. A journalist at TV Guide published a front page cover story in 1992 warning of the risks that this real fake news posed for media. I interviewed media scholars about the AFC’s project and got what information I could out of AFC about their effort. (I learned about Ed Newsfeed’s existence via a tip.)
Last week I had a story published in The Daily Beasttrying to make sense of what we know about crime in 2020 and what might be in store for the rest of this year. Overall crime, including violent crime, was down in 2020, but homicides and shootings were up significantly, so experts and the general public are rightfully concerned and thinking about what was driving it.
I reviewed what’s been previously published and interviewed some criminologists about what factors seem more plausible than others to them (it’s certainly a multi-factor situation.)
One of my takeaways from doing this story was that so much of our public narrative around crime, and which places are violent, are driven by the slow, terribly uneven and incomplete ways in which crime data is published. If you go back and look at news coverage from and about 2020, so many stories on the last year are about crime rises *in large U.S cities*. You know, those generally liberal, urban areas so many Americans already harbor racist fears about.
Here are some examples of what I mean (Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Forbes headlines respectively)
But in reality, shootings and homicides were up significantly across all jurisdictions. Including suburbs, rural areas, small towns, and mid-sized cities. The problem is, most of those places aren’t able, or choose not to publish regular crime stats in the ways large cities do, and so researchers can’t then study those trends as early, and reporters can’t then cover the researchers’ analyses on those places as early. The FBI will eventually publish final comprehensive crime stats for 2020 by fall 2021, but by that point, most people will have already moved on to discussing what’s happening in 2021.
If you recognize that our shooting and homicide problem is a nationwide one, then our debates about policing + protest + prosecutorial ideologies look different.
I looked at likely factors impacting crime such as the pandemic and the increase in guns. The role of policing is more nuanced; deteriorating relations/trust with police does probably affect the ability to solve crime — like journalists, police rely on tips and cooperation with the community during their investigations. But it’s more glib, and less convincing, to say those strained relations are causally driven by the racial justice protests or the “defund the police” movement. I also looked at less-cited factors that deserve more attention, like our ongoing opioid crisis. (Preliminary CDC data suggests drug overdoses were up 29 percent last year over 2019, disproportionately affecting Black Americans and driven largely by fentanyl.)
Ultimately it’s a lot easier to argue about police budget funding than to pass meaningful gun control reform and tackle our opioid crisis. This Vox article which came out after my story also lends more evidence to the theory that increased gun carrying had a role to play in what happened last year. I will say it’s not all bleak news. Community institutions re-opening and infusions of federal funds to those places like schools, pools, libraries and rec centers are promising developments, and experts think will help ultimately with crime.
Murders tend to increase in the summer, so you might see some similar headlines about large U.S. cities over the next few months. There are serious concerns in these places, but I would say just keep in mind that what you’re reading is very likely distorted by what data is available to write reports about. You can read the Daily Beast piece here.
And lastly, I have a piece at The Appealabout the role of school police in an upcoming school board race in Syracuse, New York. Elected school boards wield tremendous power over the budgets that go towards school police (often called ‘School Resource Officers’ or SROs) and activists nationwide have been turning their sights to those representatives. School boards in place like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Denver, and Portland, Maine, voted to end their contracts with local law enforcement last year, and in Syracuse, activists pointed to Rochester, a city just 90 minutes away, where the city council also voted last June to remove school police.
Not everyone wants to remove school police, and as you can imagine, many point to the rise in shootings/homicides over the last year as one reason they should stay. Activists say the evidence that school police prevent crime though is thin, and that the ongoing cost to students is too high. I wrote a story about how this was playing out in Prince George’s County last fall, and this piece zeroes in on Syracuse. Rest assured these are questions being tackled in school districts nationwide. You can read that here.
Thanks as always for reading. Do consider sharing this newsletter with a friend, or signing up to be a financial supporter.
When I got a tip a few weeks ago about New York City unions negotiating a deal to shift 250,000 municipal retirees off Medicare to so-called Medicare Advantage, a privatized version of the public health insurance program, I hadn’t heard of it before. I started doing research to understand how Medicare Advantage works, how well it works, and what we generally know about it. The short of it is it started in the early 2000s as a way to both offer consumers more choice in their health insurance offerings and to cut Medicare costs.
The main draw for consumers is that unlike traditional Medicare, monthly premiums in Medicare Advantage plans are typically lower, and the private plans often include additional benefits like vision and dental that traditional Medicare plans don’t have. The convenience of “one-stop shopping” for benefits and lower premiums have been attractive incentives for seniors, many of whom live on fixed incomes.
Employers have found Medicare Advantage to be a great way for them to save costs on retiree healthcare, and private health insurance companies are finding it’s a great way for them to earn solid profits, since they actually still get paid by the government when seniors use fewer healthcareservices.
The groups for whom Medicare Advantage may be far less… advantageous… are taxpayers and retirees, especially those retirees with complex health needs. Because while Medicare Advantage may be a pretty good deal when you’re a relatively healthy 67-year-old, as you get older and need access to different kinds of doctors, and need certain kinds of tests and treatment, the barriers to care can be considerably higher and more expensive than under traditional Medicare.
I was pretty surprised as I was researching to learn that despite 24 million Americans currently enrolled in such Medicare Advantage plans, or 43 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries, the federal government basically knows nothing about how it’s working.
“Surprisingly little is known about how much Medicare Advantage enrollees pay out of pocket for the services they receive overall, across plans, according to health condition, or in comparison to beneficiaries in traditional Medicare (with or without supplemental coverage),” wrote Kaiser Family Foundation researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018.
This past spring, in an annual federally mandated analysis on Medicare, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission wrote that “the current state of quality reporting in [Medicare Advantage] is such that the Commission can no longer provide an accurate description of the quality of care.”
I have a story in The Intercept about the fear and outrage among NYC retirees, who quite understandably feel nervous that their unions and elected officials are looking to sell them out. I think it’s worth reading, but if you don’t believe me, take it from Jerry!
(If you’re ever wondering if journalists like hearing from readers, trust me we really do. So much of this work is pressing ‘publish’ and hoping it eventually gets in front of people who might find it useful/interesting, but we often have no great idea who it reaches.)
The second story I have to share was published in In These Times and looks at where things stand around a “just transition” for the climate crisis. A just transition refers to an ethically and economically secure transition for fossil fuel workers and communities that have depended on the fossil fuel industry as we decarbonize our nation in the fight against climate change. Resistance from energy workers (and their unions) and elected officials who represent communities worried about being decimated economically has been a major barrier over the years. Advocates see a just transition as not just morally necessary but politically essential.
But like a lot of things, it’s easier said than done. Some advocates also say hey, why are we just focusing on just transitions for energy workers, when there are all kinds of job dislocations happening with automation and globalization? Why not consider universal just transition policies, instead of targeted ones to specific industries like coal? Others will say sure that’s a good idea in theory but way too hard and we don’t have the time.
I took an overview of what the Biden administration has done so far around a just transition, what related conversations are happening in Congress, and where exactly some advocates hope lawmakers will think bigger and more boldly. You can read that here.
A friend of mine, who goes professionally by Ramona Li, published an op-ed last Friday, June 4, about why a deeper understanding of the legacy of June 4, 1989 — when the Chinese government violently cracked down on democracy protests in Beijing — has a lot to teach us about current labor conditions in both the U.S. and China. I found it very enlightening, especially given the recent anti-Asian violence in the U.S. and seemingly endless debate over who is “winning” the U.S.-China competition.
Thanks for reading + supporting this work. I have two more stories coming this week so will likely send a rare second newsletter in the next few days!
Wanted to share some new reporting before you all head off for your MDWs.
1. The first story, published today in The Intercept, looks at a new effort in Connecticut to raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents. (Connecticut is also the nation’s wealthiest state.) It comes on the heels of similar successful campaigns over the last year in New Jersey and New York, and I looked at the way advocates and some lawmakers are approaching revenue campaigns with new courage, emboldened to fight back on long powerful arguments that the wealthy will just pick up and leave. That certainly sounds true at first blush, because we know the rich jump through all sorts of hoops to evade paying taxes to the IRS. But in practice it’s just not what happens. People don’t actually move all that often, especially in response to state tax policy. And it’s actually the poor who move the most. This was a neat story to research, and you can read it here.
2. Three years ago, ~20,000 West Virginia teachers went on strike, shutting down public schools across the state for nine days. Their unexpected effort galvanized educators nationwide, leading to more strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, among others. The teacher uprising became known as “Red for Ed” in reference to the red clothing educators and their allies wore each time they took to the streets for public schools.
For Capital and Main, I took at look at education politics now in three of the key ‘Red for Ed’ states — West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona. After the 2020 election, Republicans in red states strengthened their grip on state legislatures and the pandemic also made it particularly difficult to protest what legislators were doing. One result is that Kentucky and West Virginia have passed this year some of the most expansive school choice policies in the country and Arizona is close behind. I talked with teachers, union leaders, and education reform proponents about what’s going on and what’s changed since the teacher uprising. You can read the story here.
3. And lastly I have a story in The Appeal about executive clemency — which refers to commutations (i.e. shortening prisons sentences) and pardons. Governors and presidents have the power to grant clemency, and while laws vary somewhat from state to state, the reality is that governors hold immense sway over the fate of the 1.3 million incarcerated people currently held in state prisons.
One thing to understand about clemency is that for many people locked up, it’s actually their only hope for release. Thousands of people incarcerated over the last several decades were not even given the chance for parole. And even among states that have eased their sentencing rules over the last few years, many have not made those reforms retroactive.
Criminal justice advocates have been urging governors to be more aggressive with the number of commutations they grant each year. This grew even more pronounced during the pandemic, where it was particularly hard to socially distance in prison. Something that struck me as I was reporting was learning that clemency used to be much more regularly utilized,but as it grew more politicized, governors have grown more fearful of using their powers.
Consider this: Throughout his first two terms in office between 1972 and 1980, Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards signed 945 commutations, and another 335 during his non-consecutive third term. By contrast, Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal granted just three commutations over his eight years in office between 2008-2016, and Louisiana’s current Democratic Governor, John Bel Edwards, granted just 36 commutations in 2020.
To put that ‘36’ figure in context, just 5 percent of the roughly 4,600 people sentenced to life in Louisiana are eligible for parole, meaning commutations or pardons are the only hope of release for the remaining 95 percent.
Earlier this year, the ACLU launched a national campaign to encourage governors and the president to exercise their clemency powers more aggressively. This so-called Redemption Campaign is focused on issuing clemency to groups of prisoners, like releasing senior citizens, or those who would be serving a lesser sentence if convicted today.
Polling commissioned by the ACLU also found that 86 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of independents, and 73 percent of Republicans support reducing prison populations and offering incarcerated people a path toward redemption with clemency. As one legal advocate put it to me, “If people want to end mass incarceration, I can’t think of a better tool than governors granting commutations.” You can read that story here.
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