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Guest Post - Dupont and C8
Posted by Heebie-Geebie on 08.31.15

Ydnew writes: This caught my eye yesterday. Sad story, but the little victories might be enough to stay optimistic. Or maybe we all will get cancer and not live to see the global warming apocalypse.

In which Dupont possibly comes off worse than even coal mining companies in terms of callous indifference to public health. Yes, it's longform. It's also very depressing. The short version? Dupont factory contaminates the drinking water of an entire town and surrounding areas. Employees have children with birth defects. Everybody gets cancer. Or ulcerative colitis. Dupont lies and obfuscates. The victims win legal battles through luck and smarts. They also alienate their neighbors, who worry that Dupont will move the site elsewhere and leave economic devastation behind. Dupont lies, obfuscates and continues to profit. Dupont (almost certainly) wins the war. Quotes:

"It was like God reached out from the sky and tapped into my brain," he recalls. The plaintiffs would use the $70 million health and education fund from the settlement to pay people $400 each to participate in the epidemiological study. Deitzler knew that Appalachian residents wouldn't take kindly to outsiders probing into their health. . . . The response was overwhelming. Tens of thousands of people piled into pickup trucks, church buses and minivans to make the pilgrimage to Brookmar's trailers. "We have families of five dragging their three kids kicking and screaming, and the parents are saying, 'Yes, you're going to get stuck in the arms--that's $2,000!'" one local said. . . . By the time the project wrapped up in the summer of 2006, roughly 80 percent of residents in affected water districts had participated. This made it far more likely that the panel of epidemiologists would be able to correlate C8 exposure with particular diseases. "I think it messed up a lot of people at DuPont's lives that we devised this wild system," Brooks told me. "These hillbillies threw a rock in DuPont's machine."
Despite everything he has been through, Wamsley does consider himself fortunate in one respect: He is the only designated C8 tester who is still alive. "It looks like DuPont might have known this chemical was dangerous and used some of us as guinea pigs," he says. "I believe God kept me alive to tell their stories."

Better living through chemistry.

Heebie's take: OMG I was already going to post this. I read it, absolutely slackjawed, over the weekend. It's horrifying.

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BTWAM, Part II, Section I
Posted by Heebie-Geebie on 08.31.15

Below is Minivet's response to the second section of TNC's book. I'll append Roberto Tigre's this afternoon. Enjoy!

Update: Now fortified with added Tigre Power! See below.

Minivet writes: The part on Prince George's County is especially interesting because it gets into the Dream as Black people buy into it. At the same time, it's also the part I feel least qualified to follow - like I'm butting into a private conversation between other people. PG is almost the jewel of the Black upper-middle class world, and TNC contrasts its Black leadership with its especially violent and investigated police force, and the suspicious death of his classmate Prince Jones. The threads drop off and pick up in a way that can be difficult to follow, but he seems to be indicting Black political and aspirational culture for buying into the same Dream with the same racial hierarchy implications as the rest of the U.S. does ("I knew that these were theories, even in the mouths of black people, that justified the jails springing up around me" - and a recent defense of Joe Biden I saw pointed out that the Congressional Black Caucus on balance supported war-on-crime bills like his 1994 one.) He connects it to the Black political narrative of stoic struggle, together with the insistent forgiveness, respectability, be-twice-as-good, and all that. Prince Jones is the final example against twice-as-good. (Not to be finger-pointing; obviously the logic of respectability is much more ferociously enforced on the white side.)

The other overwhelming impression I get is the powerlessness, the anger born of perpetual terror and insecurity, and how this environment with buffeting waves of unaccounted violence shades imperceptibly into the world as I experience it. My ability as a white man (MWTHW?) to walk confidently through almost any street and tune my surroundings out. The extensive support I got building an education and a life is founded on a history of racial predation - more directly for me than for others, as from some family stories I think the ancestor whose wealth came down to partially pay for my college may have been a blockbuster - but I still have the ability to take all my privilege and mentally thrust it aside and view myself as a featureless stick figure. TNC then is shocked when he visits Paris and finds his contextual chains lifted in a similar way. All this makes me dissatisfied at my default way of going through life.

Something else TNC of course elides in his quest for sight is proposals for concrete action. Some context from his Twitter feed a month ago.

I don't know where along the way I took in the bedrock notion that ideas were worthless if they did not generate immediate workable schemes, but that is definitely an impulse I have. Something to think about.

My biggest takeaway: we have reached the limits of change-through-conscience (or we did decades ago). Racial plunder at this point could be sustained with no animus by anyone, just the impartial processing of the economic machine which is itself venerated by apparently colorblind ideologies. What replaces conscience? I have no idea, but I'm watching @deray.

Roberto Tigre writes: Here are my reactions to Between the World and Me. It's not a summary, because the book doesn't lend itself well to summaries. It's not a critique, because the book doesn't lend itself to critique. As anyone who has opened the book knows, it's not a developed argument. It's a personal essay, albeit a personal essay about the lived experience of historical forces. Claims about history are worked out in the specific context of personal narrative. This, in my opinion, lends the book its force. It makes it, in a sense, completely inarguable. It is fundamentally an honest book. You don't necessarily learn much about history, "race in America," or anything else. I wasn't exactly "persuaded" by anything. But you can feel a lot about how being a black man in America feels. That's important.

As an example, take his story of his experience in a NYC Upper West Side movie theater (if you haven't read the book, you can easily find it online). He's at a theater with his kid. A pushy, obnoxious white woman shoves his kid out of the way. He reacts. An officious white guy intervenes and says "I could have you arrested." This telling, simultaneously, is evocative of something that is deeply frustrating for anyone, regardless of race - if you have kids, you know how viscerally rage-making it is to have an obnoxious stranger in your face about your child - and at the same time wholly specific to the black experience. Yes, anyone would be fearful and rageful in that situation. I'd go so far as to say that the officious white guy's "I could have you arrested" could be said to someone of a different race. But only (I think) a black man has the combination of personal and historical experience in which that "I could have you arrested" sounds in 400 years of slavery and second-class citizenship. And, because of Coates' writing, you can feel that feeling, that lived experience, in the book. That's great.

With that said, let me talk about a few of his more directly political positions. These observations probably treat the book as having more of an argument than it does. They are critical, because despite him having written a beautiful and important book, I think my politics ultimately are different than Coates'. Maybe only slightly different, but importantly so.

1) Structural racism vs. structural economic exploitation. Coates sees race in structural terms. I agree with him. In order to define themselves as "white," white Americans need a subjugated other. That other is the black person. There's no white without black, and Americans who can be "white" will always want to be white. This means that black people will always be second-class and subjugated citizens. Part of the DNA of America is to have a class of "white" people, and maintaining a dream of "whiteness" requires a group of subjugated black people. Importantly, for Coates, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the intentions or personal good-feeling of white people. White people can be affirmatively not racist, or even anti-racist, but as long as they perceive themselves as being "white," and there are benefits to that self-perception, black people will never be fully American. Thus, as we've discussed here previously, Coates is extraordinarily pessimistic about the future of "race relations" in America. And he is pessimistic for reasons that are structural, not personal.

By comparison, he is not concerned at all with structures of economic exploitation. The racial border is about culture, history, and state oppression. It is not about money. His account of his career as a writer, where he starts out poor and then "makes it," is presented in entirely personal terms. It's not quite an up-by-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger tale. But it's not that far off, either. He may have had a hard time starting out--but that's on him, not the world. The same seems to be true more generally. Kids in inner-city Baltimore lash out and are fearful because they're black, not because they're poor; Prince Jones' mother (spoiler alert) was wealthy, but that did nothing to protect Prince Jones. As Minivet notes, wealthy Prince George's County with its rich black people isn't all that great. "Race" is structural oppression that is baked into America. The economy is a more contingent thing than the racial barrier, and it matters less.

There's a very tiresome online thing -- one person yells "race!" and another person yells "but what about class!?!!" Or vice-versa. I don't mean to do that. But I do think that Coates' failure to engage with structural economic exploitation leads him into some blind spots. In my view, the important thing for wealthy people is not so much that they stay (relatively) white, but that they stay (relatively) rich. Elites and their institutions have shown themselves willing, perhaps over-willing, to make attempts at racial inclusion. It's perhaps piling on to note that we have a President who is a wealthy Harvard Law and Columbia graduate and a black man. But it's both true and not wholly beside the point.

Meanwhile, the fundamental fact about the United States since at least 1970, and projecting into the future, has been the increasing exclusion of the poor and middle classes. And, ultimately, for me, the only conceivable way out of the cycle that dominates West Baltimore or other core sites of black oppression is to make its residents more wealthy--along with many other poor or middle-class Americans who are not black. As many other racially or socially excluded Americans have learned, it's a lot easier to break down walls of social exclusion once you have wealth. But Coates seems largely blind to both (a) an absence of wealth as the core problem for black Americans and (b) the provision of wealth as a solution to the problems of black America. It's just not on his radar as an important concern.

2) Over-policing vs. under-policing. A closely related issue is his treatment of the State. As many people have argued (one of my favorites is Jill Levoy's Ghettoside) poorer black communities suffer simultaneously from over and under-policing. That is, the facts of police brutality, cops as an invading army, the prison system, the fear of "I could have you arrested" are real, and all too real. But black communities are also horrifically under-policed. Go into, e..g, my local LAPD substation (the Southwest Community Police Station) and what you will see is not a well-oiled machine of racial oppression but a massively under-funded group of bureaucrats trying, but often failing, to provide basic services for the community, solve homicides, protect residents from shootings, prevent (almost exclusively Black and Hispanic) residents from suffering the consequences of gang crime, etc. Both realities are real- an actually useful police force for black Americans would not be an absent police force, but one that was both democratic and rights-respectful and effective. Both are necessary.

At times, Coates seems to agree. There's a passage where he fantasizes about having an actually effective police force in West Baltimore. But it's presented as pure fantasy. And it seems like mostly he disagrees. The emphasis in the book, overwhelmingly, is not on State failure (which would imply that the state needs to be doing more) but on State oppression (which implies that the important thing is for the State to be doing less). This is true whether the subject is police shootings, or public schools (he seems to come close to attacking the very vision of the public schools as a road to opportunity, because he suggests that black children failing in school simply creates an "excuse" for the white majority to justify oppression of black people), or housing policy. In the world of education, only Howard University comes across well. But Howard is a private institution. There's a strain of black nationalism that ends up coming fairly close to libertarianism. Coates, who clearly owes a lot to black nationalist thinking, isn't there yet, by any means. But he's not that far off, either.

3) Atheism and nonviolence. Finally, it should be clear to any reader of the book how hostile Coates is to the idea of nonviolent resistance. No one in the book, aside from the officer who shot Prince Jones, comes in for more contempt than the (black) members of the civil rights movement who, e.g., willingly allowed themselves to be tear-gassed in the name of freedom. Coates links this directly to his atheism. A dominant theme of the book is how important it is to Coates that he is an atheist, and outside the tradition of the black church. (While he doesn't go after Martin Luther King Jr. directly, he is clearly a target.)

For Coates, both the black church and the doctrine of nonviolent resistance glorify, to an ludicrous extent, suffering. Preachers in the tradition of Dr. King claim that suffering has redemptive value; to Coates, this is, put bluntly, sky-fairy bullshit. Nothing can justify getting tear-gassed in the face. There is no dignity or ultimate value in having suffered the experience of slavery. The long arc of history doesn't bend towards justice; there is no long arc of history. There are only black bodies that have been hurt.

To me, this, while understandable, is a caricature. Dr. King and his branch of the civil rights movement were not passive doormats, cowardly accepting injustice as a good unto itself. Neither, for that matter, was the Jesus of the Gospels.

Rather, the power of nonviolent resistance is precisely that it works spectacularly well as resistance--it is a judo-like move that puts the oppressed in a morally, and socially, superior position to the oppressor. And does so without destructive violence. Suffering, in the MLK (and, I'd argue, the Christian) tradition is not valuable because it is a positive good. Rather, it can, when rightly channeled into resistance, lead to an understanding of our common humanity that both shames oppressors and points the way towards the end of oppression itself. Coates disagrees with this, which is fine, but he doesn't really seem to give the other side a fair voice. And the failure to reckon with not only the intuitive power, but the practical effectiveness, of the black church seems to me a major weakness.

I'll stop there, because this is already way too long. It is an excellent book, and everyone should read it.

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Jamycheal Mitchell
Posted by Heebie-Geebie on 08.30.15

Via E. Messily, another death in police custody. This one is more probably homicidal negligence than brutality - he went off his meds and starved to death. Especially horrifying though because he was being held on charges of shoplifting from a convenience store, though.

I'm kind of wondering what made this one stand out enough to publish - it's the type of thing that must happen all the time, right? Does this contribute to the Guardian's count of people killed by police so far this year? I assume not, because their tally stands at 775 and that can't possibly include people who die of untreated illnesses while in jail or prison. Or maybe "police custody" ends at sentencing? That would make sense.

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Good Job Vox Part II
Posted by Heebie-Geebie on 08.29.15

Nick S. writes: Second "The government just redefined what it means to be an employer." Which concludes

The NLRB has leaned toward labor recently
The Browning ruling is the latest in a spate of recent NLRB decisions that have fallen in favor of labor. In 2014, the board made the union election process much speedier (opponents call the new standards the "ambush election" rules) and in a separate case said that employees can organize on workplace email systems. In January 2013, the board ruled that speech on social media is protected speech -- in other words, your employer can't ban you from complaining about your working conditions on Twitter.
These actions have angered the business community, causing some to see the Obama-era NLRB as activist.
However, Fick sees a different kind of coherence to these decisions. It's not so much that they're pro-labor as that they're adapting old labor rules to a new world -- one in which employees have public conversations about their jobs on Twitter, and also one in which huge corporations increasingly rely on subcontracted or franchise workers. "As industrial relations change, we have to figure out how to apply the old rules to the new situation," she says.
The NLRB doesn't have the final word
The board's ruling won't necessarily hold. The case could still be challenged in appeals court, and the pro-business DC Circuit Court of Appeals especially has displayed a willingness to overturn NLRB judgments.

I hadn't followed any of those rulings, so I was glad to have that context.

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