Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Historian Gerald Horne: No One should Stand for the National Anthem!

Historian Gerald Horne Explains Why No One Should Stand for the National Anthem


As Colin Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated for the US national anthem continues to highlight and provoke conversation about racism and oppression in the country, I asked attorney and Professor of African American studies at the University of Houston, Dr. Gerald Horne, for his reaction to some of the issues that have been brought to the fore.

The 35 year-old who wrote the US national anthem, Francis Scott Key, appears to have been a remorseless enslaver and abuser of black people, a tireless pro-slavery activist, a religious fundamentalist, and a proponent of genocide and land theft.  The full lyrics of his song contain a ghoulish and sadistic call for the mass murder of enslaved black people who might attempt to free themselves from US clutches, as well as evidence of the US intent to continue genocide and land theft campaigns against the Native nations.
It seems that asking a black or Native person to respect or honor this song would be like asking a Jewish person to honor a song written by a Nazi.  Even if the most blatantly offensive lyrics were removed, it is hard to imagine that anyone in the US, except maybe a neo-Nazi, would feel any anger towards a Jewish person who refused to honor a song written by, say, Joseph Goebbels.

That the dominant US culture chooses to use as its very national anthem a song written by a genocidal slave-driver, and becomes enraged when a black person chooses not to honor it, illustrates, Horne said, that the US was “founded on slavery and genocide”, but also, crucially, “in denial”.  Many scholars have pointed out that national denial is almost never broken unless a nation is militarily defeated and forced to fully acknowledge and atone for its crimes, and even then it is not guaranteed.

Asked if refusal to honor the US national anthem, given its background and surrounding history, should be the norm rather than the exception, Horne replied, categorically and emphatically, “Of course”.

The ruling state in the US invests large amounts of time and money in working to create an association between militant nationalism and sports, a link Horne says “has long been recognized.”  The reaction to Kaepernick’s protest has thus been all the more hostile, as he has, Horne points out, “disrupted the narrative” and the “chauvinist” atmosphere, further “inflaming sentiment” against him.
Since Kaepernick’s action began, a few articles, such as in The Intercept and New York Daily News, have noted the US anthem’s gleefully criminal and genocidal elements, though they seem to stop short of making the connection between the sentiments and goals expressed in the anthem and those that drove the US’s 1776 ‘revolution’ as a whole.  One of Horne’s areas of expertise, he details this connection in his book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America.  Horne asserted to me that, indeed, “like DNA [that is] hard to obscure, the anthem perfectly captures the national essence” of the United States.

One criticism we seem to hear again and again from white people in the US is that Kaepernick is propagating a “victim’s mindset” by attempting to highlight oppression of black people.  This seems to reflect a need to believe that either A) the oppression is not real and is in the minds of black people (and domestic and international monitors and observers) or B) that the oppression is indeed real, but it is counter-productive to point it out, implying perhaps there should be no human rights organizations, journalists, or activists anywhere in the world – rather than shedding light on oppression, they are merely encouraging a ‘victim’s mindset’ and should thus keep quiet.

Horne affirmed that A is a typical example, globally and historically, of an attitude displayed by oppressive majority groups, and B an attempt by nationalists – people who conflate their personal identity with the ruling state – to discourage people from exposing ugliness in the national psyche.

Another common response to Kaepernick’s action suggests that instead of sitting through Key’s song, he should give money to help black people.  (Kaepernick has hosted charity events and is also giving money.)  Asked what he thinks about this suggestion given that the US may owe more than half its total assets in unpaid reparations, Horne said: “I have learned in life that the higher on the pole of success under capitalism, the more profound the insecurity, perhaps because as Balzac said: behind every great fortune is a crime.”  Indeed, Horne continues, there is a “gnawing reality” that the US national fortune “is grounded in the massive misfortune of billions of ‘others’—who too know this and are primed for a reversal of misfortune.”

Kaepernick has cited a lack of “accountability” for murders of black people committed by US state forces as one reason for his protest, apparently drawing from the language recently employed by the UN, which noted “a high level of structural and institutional racism” in the US, maintained partially due to a “lack of accountability for perpetrators of [racial] killings despite overwhelming evidence against them, including video footage of the crime, being present.”

He has also said there are numerous other issues related to oppression of African Americans.

 Washington’s Blog has pointed, for example, to Amnesty International’s report on the US maintenance of slavery as a “legal” institution under which it continues to work black people and others as slaves on cotton fields and at other tasks, a continuation of the post-Reconstruction convict-leasing slave-system that today generates billions for the ruling state and private corporations.  However, many white people in the US (like members of oppressive groups worldwide) are angered by the mere notion and deny that oppression exists in their country.
Horne suggested that some of these people may want to look into issues of “economic inequality… war… sexism…environmental degradation”, but affirmed that “sadly”, it has always been a “hegemonic norm” for the dominant white culture in the US to claim that black people have it good and are complaining about nothing.  (This includes during chattel slavery and the Civil Rights era.)

This form of angry “denial” is seen from people who would consider themselves liberal intellectuals as well as from the right.  Both sides appear generally blinded to the reality that when a black person tries to highlight oppression and the dominant response is anger and criticism of the black person rather than the oppression, this may be one key insight into why the US remains, as the UN recently noted, “far from recognizing the same rights for all its citizens.”

Horne draws from his historical expertise to suggest that because of the overwhelming hostility they face, anti-oppression movements in the US, to be effective, must coordinate with international allies.  How should they go about doing so?  Horne said they can “sue the US for reparations and justice in courts abroad … taking advantage of the emerging idea of ‘universal jurisdiction’”, and should “ally–as our ancestors did–with the prime antagonists of US imperialism.”

Robert J. Barsocchini is an internationally published independent writer who focuses on global force dynamics and serves as a cross-cultural intermediary for the film and Television industry. His work has been cited, published, or followed by numerous professors, economists, lawyers, military and intelligence veterans, and journalists. Updates on Twitter.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thanks to Capitalism, South Florida Is Sinking

For the past 30 years, scientists have been sounding the alarm about how big developers, garbage and the ravages of unbridled tourism have helped accelerate what global warming was already doing to the ecological system of South Florida.

All the rightwing politicos who dominate Florida politics have made sure that no money or no extra monies have gone into the research and planning for saving Florida's fragile ecosystem.

Now "the gators are coming home to roost" as one can read in the essay below. A fightback is growing at the local level... uniting the scientific forces with the ordinary everyday folk of South Florida as well as the Seminoles who have been the Keepers of the Everglades.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Being A Black Woman In Brazil 2016

Black Life Matters In Brazil2016
The African Descendant population of Brazil (approx 100 million) is greater than the combined population of Ghana and Kenya. But, you would never know it when you look at the Rio Olympics and its coverage of "typical" Rio and Brazil.

For the past 50 years, there's been a powerful social, cultural and political movement of Black Brazilians to get some form of affirmative action, reparations, educational equity and be counted accurately in the census. Now, inspired by the US's BlackLivesMatter Movement, young Black Brazilians are pushing the government and society on the whole to recognize the centrality of AfroBrazilians to the development of Brazil's democracy.

The legacy of Portuguese slavery and colonialism has resulted in a very complex and, ofttimes, bizarre form of "racial" categorization in order to try to keep the "white" population the largest in the nation. Hence, at one point in Brazil's history, they actually had 127 racial categories based on skin color, height, hair texture, nose size, lip size, body build, eye color.... Today, it's down to about a dozen "racial" categories... with the results of the census indicating that 92 million (48%) Brazilians were white, 83 million (44%) were brown, 13 million (7%) were black, 1.1 million (0.50%) were yellow and 536,000 (0.25%) were indigenous. But, if we look at Brazilians thru the US "Race Lens", we find that that "brown" or pardo category looks like folk we call Black here in the US!

Racism runs deep in Brazil. And, with the use of the social media, the Black Brazilian antiracist fightback is gaining traction inside of Brazil. Below are some statement that Brazilian activist youth have been spreading around to help combat and eradicate Brazilian racism.

This Photo Series Shows What I Means To Be A Black Woman In Brazil

"Being a black woman is to strive three times harder than white people to achieve the same result. That's because of racism, sexism, and class oppression."
"Being a black woman is to be complete!"
“Being a black woman means to resist, in order to exist."
"Being a black woman is being a woman."
"My hair and my features are political acts. I carry in my skin and in my soul the pride of being black."
"Being a black woman is to be proud of what is natural!"
"Being a black woman is my essence!"
"Being a black woman is to be targeted with prejudice and to find out you are strong."
"Being a black woman means not talking about how we feel as black women."
"Being a black woman is being original, each black woman is unique."
"Being black is to have attitude."
"Black women: don't get used to offensive words."
"Being a black woman is to be powerful and beautiful."
"Being a black woman is to overcome standards."
"Being a black woman is to feel the sun every day."
"Being a black woman is to resist."
"Trying to live by 'white' standards in order to be accepted!"
"Being a black woman is love, resistance, strength. A fight against the system."
"It is not better to have straight hair and a slim nose."
"My own existence is a challenge."
"Being a black woman is to be the sister of everyone, except the racist."
"I exist to resist!"

Sunday, August 07, 2016

BlackLivesMatter Evolving to Fight Racism & Capitalism

Alicia Garza on Progressives and the Black Community 

Alicia Garza, a Founder of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement


  Aug 2, 2016
Alicia Garca, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, talks to OurFuture.org about strains in the relationship between the progressive movement and the African-American community, and how they can be repaired. Garza was a keynote speaker at the People's Action Delegates Assembly in Milwaukee.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Linda Burnham Analyzing Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas

Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas

Linda Burnham - July 11, 2016
A thick strand in the history of U.S. policing is rooted back in the slave patrols of the 19th century. 
Patty rollers were authorized to stop, question, search, harass and summarily punish any Black person they encountered. The five- and six-pointed badges many of them wore to symbolize their authority were predecessors to those of today’s sheriffs and patrolmen. They regularly entered the plantation living quarters of enslaved people, leaving terror and grief in their wake. Together with the hunters of runaways, these patrols had a crystal clear mandate: to constrain the enslaved population to its role as the embodiment and producer of massive wealth for whites and to forestall the possibility that labor subordinated to the lash might rebel at the cost of white lives. 
How far have we come, really? Having extricated ourselves from a system of bottomless and blatant cruelty we have evolved a system that depends on the patty rollers of today to constrain and contain a population that, while no longer enslaved, is ruthlessly exploited, criminally neglected and justifiably aggrieved. Ruthlessly exploited by the low-wage industries that depend on ample supplies of cheap labor, by the bottom feeders of capital – pay-day loan companies and slumlords come to mind –­ by the incarceration-for-profit industry, by the municipalities that meet their budgets by preying on poor people, generating revenue by way of broken taillights, lapsed vehicle registrations and failures to signal.
Criminally neglected by policy makers – 152 years’ worth and counting – at every level of government. And so our education policy appears to be: starve the public system until it collapses and to hell with the children whose parents have no alternative. Housing policy stubbornly stacked against the development and maintenance of low-income housing. Jobs policy that, against an ideological backdrop that touts personal fulfillment and prosperity through honest effort, reduces grown men to selling loosies and cd’s on street corners to provide for their families.
Justifiably aggrieved because we still must assert, against the relentless accumulation of evidence to the contrary, that Black lives matter.
And all this on top of the foundational failure to financially repair or compensate the formerly enslaved or their descendants.
So today’s patty rollers are expected to contain any overflow of bitterness and anger on the part of the exploited, neglected and aggrieved, maintaining order in a fundamentally – and racially – disordered system. Their mandate is as clear as that of their forefathers: to constrain a population whose designated role is to absorb absurdly high rates of unemployment and make itself available for low-wage, low-status work without complaint, much less rebellion. Those who fear a spiraling descent into disorder, know this: we are merely witnessing the periodic, explosive surfacing of entrenched disorders we have refused to face or fix.
Our narratives and debates about good cops and rogue cops, better training and community policing are important but entirely insufficient. No doubt the patty rollers of the 1850s could have been trained to reign in their brutality. Given the gloriously diverse dispositions of our human family, patrollers likely ranged from the breathtakingly cruel to the queasily reluctant enforcers of patent injustice. All that is, at bottom, beside the point. Whether cruel or kind, restrained or rogue, their job was to police – and by policing, maintain – a barbaric system.
Today’s police can be better trained to recognize implicit bias, to dial back on aggression and deescalate tense encounters. All to the good, as far as it goes. But none of it changes their core mandate in poor Black communities: to control and contain, by any means necessary, a population that has every reason to be restive and rebellious.
*                      *                      *
“Was he colored?” That’s what my grandmother would say whenever she heard news about a criminal act. She knew that if the alleged perpetrator were “colored” his criminality would be read not simply as the act of an individual, but as an expression of an ingrained racial tendency. Somehow being Black meant that the actions of every random thief, rapist or murderer who was also Black redounded to you and your people. I imagine most Black families had a version of “Was he colored?” And I wouldn’t be surprised if Muslim American families have an equivalent expression today. 
Untying the knot of individual culpability and the consequences of racial belonging is nowhere near as straightforward as it might seem.
I was on a dance floor on Thursday night, desperately trying to shake off the news from Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights. My phone was in my back pocket and, like an idiot, when it buzzed with an incoming text, I left the dance floor and stepped outside to the news from Dallas. Though the action was still unfolding, I immediately surmised that the shooter was “colored,” and that he had been trained by the U.S. military.
 It has fallen to President Obama, time and again, to make sense out of the incomprehensible and bind the wounds of a nation apparently bent on self-destruction. In the aftermath of Dallas, Obama quickly condemned the despicable violence of a demented, troubled individual. The president’s intent was clear and laudable. He sought to defuse tensions by definitively asserting that the shooter’s action was not associated with a political movement or a particular organization, that his murderous deeds should in no way be linked to African Americans in general. He struggled to shift the focus from “Was he colored?” to “Clearly he was crazy, right?”
But before boxing Micah Johnson up and setting him aside as deranged and demented it’s worth asking a few questions. Honestly, good people, did anybody in their right mind – that is, not troubled or demented – think that the police could continue to pick off Black people at will and on camera without producing a Micah Johnson? And is troubled and demented shorthand for “traumatized by repeated exposure to the graphic depiction of the murder of people who look just like me?” Or for “agonized by the fact that the officers of the law who placed a handcuffed man in the back of a van and snapped his spine in an intentionally “rough ride” were neither held criminally accountable nor labeled troubled and demented?” Or for “depressed beyond imagining and haunted by the ghosts of the men and women whose lives were snatched by the side of the road, down back alleyways, and in precinct stations from one end of the country to the other before the era of cell phone video?” Or for “pierced through the heart by the voice of four-year-old Dae’Anna, comforting her mama?” Because if demented and troubled is shorthand for any of that, then Micah Johnson may have been a lone gunman, but he is far from alone. 
That whoosh you heard on Friday morning was the sound of people rushing to condemn the Dallas shootings, or to extract condemnations from others. There is, of course, no moral justification for gunning down police officers. And, retaliatory violence aimed at the armed representatives of the state, beyond being a suicidal provocation, also shuts down all avenues for advancing the cause of racial justice.  But there is a lot of room for reflection between the cheap polarities of condemn or condone.
So here we are, once again, with calls from all quarters for dialogue across the racial divide. But if the long years before the emergence of the various movements for Black lives have taught us anything, it is this: our purported partners in dialogue simply turn their backs and leave the table as soon as the pressure is off. This moment calls for the vigorous defense of our right to continued protest and the intensification and elaboration of multiple movements for Black lives – for the sake of our ancestors and the generations to come. And for the sake of this country that is our home.
Linda Burnham is the Research Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She is the co-author of Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work. Burnham was a leader in the Third World Women’s Alliance, a national organization that was an early advocate for the rights of women of color. In 1990 she co-founded Women of Color Resource Center. She was its Executive Director for 18 years. Burnham led large delegations of women of color to the 1985 UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi, the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, and the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

ORIGINS OF CAPITALISM: Slavery As "Free" Trade

Slavery as free trade

The 18th-century thinkers behind laissez-faire economics saw slavery as a great example of global free trade

Header v1 essay final 2005.3.1
Plan of the French slave ship La Marie Seraphique c.1770. © Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes.
Blake Smith -aeon.co
is a PhD candidate in history at Northwestern University in Illinois and the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. His research, focusing on the French East India Company, has appeared in scholarly journals such as French Cultural Studies and the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, as well as popular media such as TheWire.in and The Appendix.
For nearly four centuries, the Atlantic slave trade brought millions of people into bondage. Scholars estimate that around 1.5 million people perished in the brutal middle passage across the Atlantic. The slave trade linked Africa, Europe and the Americas in a horrific enterprise of death and torture and profit. Yet, in the middle of the 18th century, as the slave trade boomed like never before, some notable European observers saw it as a model of free enterprise and indeed of ‘liberty’ itself. They were not slave traders or slave-ship captains but economic thinkers, and very influential ones. They were a pioneering group of economic thinkers committed to the principle of laissez-faire: a term they themselves coined. United around the French official Vincent de Gournay (1712-1759), they were among the first European intellectuals to argue for limitations on government intervention in the economy. They organised campaigns for the deregulation of domestic and international trade, and they made the slave trade a key piece of evidence in their arguments.
For a generation, the relationship between slavery and capitalism has preoccupied historians. The publication of several major pieces of scholarship on the matter has won attention from the media. Scholars demonstrate that the Industrial Revolution, centred on the mass production of cotton textiles in the factories of England and New England, depended on raw cotton grown by slaves on plantations in the American South. Capitalists often touted the superiority of the industrial economies and their supposedly ‘free labour’. ‘Free labour’ means the system in which workers are not enslaved but free to contract with any manufacturer they chose, free to sell their labour. It means that there is a labour market, not a slave market.
But because ‘free labour’ was working with and dependent on raw materials produced by slaves, the simple distinction between an industrial economy of free labour on the one hand and a slave-based plantation system on the other falls apart. So too does the boundary between the southern ‘slave states’ and northern ‘free states’ in America. While the South grew rich from plantation agriculture that depended on slave labour, New England also grew rich off the slave trade, investing in the shipping and maritime insurance that made the transport of slaves from Africa to the United States possible and profitable. The sale of enslaved Africans brought together agriculture and industry, north and south, forming a global commercial network from which the modern world emerged.
It is only in the past few decades that scholars have come to grips with how slavery and capitalism intertwined. But for the 18th-century French thinkers who laid the foundations of laissez-faire capitalism, it made perfect sense to associate the slave trade with free enterprise. Their writings, which inspired the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), aimed to convince the French monarchy to deregulate key businesses such as the sale of grain and trade with Asia. Only a few specialists read them today. Yet these pamphlets, letters and manuscripts clearly proclaim a powerful message: the birth of modern capitalism depended not only on the labour of enslaved people and the profits of the slave trade, but also on the example of slavery as a deregulated global enterprise.
For centuries after European colonisation of the Americas commenced, European governments regulated the Atlantic slave trade. They organised it in accordance with what was known as mercantilism. This was the authoritative economic thinking of the 16th, 17th and much of the 18th century. It favoured heavy government intervention, particularly in international trade. For mercantilist thinkers, trade was a kind of war in which nations could defeat their rivals by accumulating silver and gold, and by exporting manufactured goods while importing agricultural products. All aspects of trade were to be precisely organised in order to serve these goals, leaving little initiative to private traders. A few decades after Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, it became clear to the Spanish monarchy that enslaving indigenous peoples of the Americas was not enough to supply its growing colonies’ need for labour. The Spanish turned to the slave trade in West Africa. Europeans and Arabs had long engaged in the African slave trade. Well-meaning Spanish critics of the horrific mistreatment of indigenous peoples, such as Bartolomé de las Casas, supported this decision. They argued that Africans were better fit for hard labour than American Indians.
In a system known as the asiento (contract), the Spanish government began granting some European merchants special monopoly contracts. These allowed the traders to become the sole merchants permitted to sell slaves in a particular area. The Spanish government carefully controlled the whole economy of its American colonies, only allowing a select handful of foreigners to trade with its valuable possessions. Since the slave trade was one of the most lucrative sectors of colonial commerce, it was particularly restricted. In the 16th century, the Spanish government granted these asiento monopolies over the slave trade in its colonies to Italian, German and Portuguese investors who came from countries in the orbit of Spain’s global empire. By the end of the 17th century, however, Spain was declining as a military power. It was less and less able to grant the asiento to merchants of its own choosing. Other European empires coveted the riches of the asiento for themselves, and tried to seize it. In 1701, the Spanish king died with no heir. The French king, Louis XIV, invaded Spain and installed his own grandson on the throne. One of the newly crowned ruler’s first acts was to hand over control of the asiento to his grandfather. Now France would have the sole right to supply Spain’s colonies with enslaved Africans, ensuring huge profits for French slave traders.
The asiento was a rich prize, and France was not the only country to covet it. Louis XIV’s enemies quickly snatched it back from him. Great Britain, the Netherlands and a number of other countries formed an alliance against France, initiating the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). This ended in French defeat. As part of its share of the spoils of war, Britain took control of the asiento. In order to run this valuable new commerce, it created an innovative corporation called the South Sea Company. This was one of the first joint stock companies to attract thousands of investors, who imagined that the profits of the slave trade to the Spanish colonies made it a sure bet. The price of shares spiralled ever higher, until the frenzy of speculation triggered a nationwide financial crisis. Shocked by the sudden rise and disastrous fall of the value of their shares, bewildered investors discovered the stock-market ‘bubble’, the first of its kind.
More slaves in the colonies meant more consumption of sugar, coffee and chocolate in Europe: feeding on itself, the slave trade seemed to expand without limits

While the British public was trading shares in the slave trade, French slave traders faced an uncertain future. The end of the War of the Spanish Succession deprived them of access to what had been their best markets. They demanded action from the government. But the French government had financial problems of its own. The war left it burdened with massive debts and desperate for a way out. It turned to the professional gambler-turned-business guru John Law (1671-1729), who promised that a new twist on mercantilist polices would solve the problems of both the state and of slave traders. On his advice, the French monarchy created a new state-run corporation, the French East India Company. This behemoth had global ambitions. Headed by Law himself, it had a monopoly on all trade between France and Asia, and also the exclusive right to supply France’s sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean with African slaves. The initial excitement of Law’s scheme, like initial excitement in Britain over the South Sea Company, led to wild speculation by the public on shares of the new company. When the price of these shares rose far enough beyond their real value, it finally collapsed, bringing Law, his company and the French economy into ruin.
With yet another economic crisis on its hands, the French government took a desperate, unprecedented step. In defiance of mercantilist ideas, it deregulated the slave trade. For the first time, the monarchy allowed private firms to send slave ships to Africa and on to the Americas. There would be no new state monopoly company to control the French slave trade. From a business perspective, the result was a wild success. Private traders sent increasing numbers of slaves to France’s colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). At the beginning of the 18th century, a few thousand slaves were brought to the French Caribbean each year. By the end of the 18th century, more than a 100,000 slaves were taken there annually. The huge increase in the volume of slaves coming to France’s colonies transformed these islands into centres of global commerce. The more that traders sent slaves to the colonies, the more colonial plantation owners could expand their production of sugar. The cheaper sugar became, the more a growing number of Europeans could consume it, often paired with other colonial substances such as coffee and chocolate. These were also produced in tropical colonies by enslaved Africans. More slaves in the colonies meant more consumption of sugar, coffee and chocolate in Europe, and thus also meant even more demand for slaves. Feeding on itself, the slave trade seemed to expand without limits.
This economic boom was a human tragedy. Slavery was brutal everywhere in the Americas, but slavery in France’s sugar plantations might have been the most brutal of all. Many enslaved Africans died before reaching the Caribbean colonies and, once they arrived, their average life expectancy was less than five years. They were simply worked to death. It was no accident that Saint-Domingue, the largest French colony, would be the scene of the most important and most violent slave revolt in the history of the Americas. Breaking out in the midst of the French Revolution, this revolt forced the French government to abolish slavery in 1793. When France began to attempt to restore slavery 10 years later, a new revolt broke out. This time, the rebels won their independence from France, creating the Republic of Haiti in 1804.
While tensions brewed in Saint-Domingue, the enormity of the Atlantic slave trade slowly began to register on French consciences. In the 1780s, on the eve of the French Revolution, anti-slavery activists gathered in Paris to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade. But a generation before this, another group of activists known as the Gournay Circle were more concerned about the lessons that the growing slave trade had for the French economy. They were inspired by Gournay, the intellectual who coined the phrase laissez-faire, laissez-passer (‘let do, let go’) to sum up his innovative views.
Gournay and his entourage revolutionised economic thinking by calling for the systematic elimination of international and domestic trade barriers such as state monopolies, guilds and prohibitions on foreign imports. Never before had a group of thinkers so directly challenged mercantilist ideas. When the French monarchy had deregulated the slave trade in the 1720s, it had acted out of desperation in regard to a particular crisis, not out of a conviction that mercantilism itself had failed. It was only three decades later that members of the Gournay Circle observed the dramatic growth of the slave trade and slave-based colonial economies, and drew a more general conclusion. They argued that the slave trade’s success proved that deregulation should be pursued not just as a last-ditch tactic, but as a deliberate and comprehensive strategy. The slave trade showed that the top-down regulations of mercantilism were obsolete.
The Gournay Circle lobbied the French monarchy for sweeping changes. One of its most important targets was the French East India Company, the successor to Law’s ambitious super-corporation. Deprived of its monopoly over the French Atlantic slave trade in 1720, this state monopoly company was now responsible for all French trade with the Indian Ocean region. No private traders were allowed to sail east past the Cape of Good Hope. The Company managed to make a reasonable profit most years. However, it neither satisfied French demand for South Asian commodities nor exported more than a handful of French goods to South Asia. It ran a massive trade deficit and, by the middle of the 18th century, was sinking into debt.
Sensing an opportunity to advance their ideals of laissez-faire, Gournay and his circle attacked the Company. They compared the unsatisfactory state of France’s trade with the Indian Ocean to the flourishing and ever-expanding Atlantic slave trade. The first revealed the weaknesses of mercantilism, while the second showed the strengths of laissez-faire. Gournay first developed this argument in a series of unpublished Observations on the Company written in the mid-1750s. He wrote that ‘the largest branches of commerce that the nation [France] has acquired since 1720… have been obtained only by parting from the Company’s privilege’. In the Atlantic market, where Law’s Company had lost the right the monopolise trade, business boomed. In the Asian market, where the Company’s successor still had a monopoly, trade languished. Gournay pointed to the growth of France’s Caribbean colonies after the deregulation of the slave trade. He noted that ‘the islands of Saint Domingue and Martinique would still be almost entirely without Negroes and thus without agriculture’ if the monarchy had not deregulated the slave trade.
Gournay died not long after making these comments, but his protégé André Morellet (1727-1819) picked up where he left off. Morellet became the spokesman for a movement against the French East India Company. In 1769, he published the incendiary pamphlet On the Current Condition of the India Company, which included Gournay’s notes in his own text, and expanded on their themes. Morellet insisted that state enterprises in general should be abolished, and cited the success of French slave traders after 1720 as proof of the superiority of laissez-faire over mercantilism. To those who felt that the deregulation of France’s trade with Asia was too risky, he answered: ‘This pretext is always relied on in the creation of monopoly Companies, and notably in the trade in Negroes on the African coast … However since then it has been observed that this competition, far from destroying commerce, sustained it. The French colonies in America had remained, until then [1720], in a state of great weakness; liberty revived them.’ Liberty, of course, meant in this case the expansion of the slave trade. Colonial slavery was a force for economic freedom.
Morellet reasoned that the slave trade proved Africans were equal to Europeans.
Self-interest motivated both groups to sell or purchase enslaved people

It is a grotesque irony that this pioneering free-trader could equate ‘liberty’ and the slave trade, but Morellet was not finished yet. Defenders of the Company argued that South Asia was so different from Europe that private traders would be unable to carry out business there. Only a monopoly company, they claimed, could afford to hire experts familiar with the region’s languages, cultures and geography. They warned that private traders would be unable to hire such experts, and would arrive in South Asia unable even to communicate with their local counterparts. The example of the slave trade, Morellet countered, showed that such arguments were false. After 1720, private traders from French ports began to arrive in West Africa. They had no experience of local cultures, yet African merchants and political leaders soon brokered contracts.
In spite of vast linguistic and cultural differences, French traders were able to purchase slaves in exchange for textiles, guns, tools and other items. Business would find a way to overcome any difference between diverse peoples. Indeed, the slave trade proved that Africans and Europeans were, at least in economic terms, exactly alike, hardly different after all: ‘the truth is that, on the subject of trade, people… act in the same way, because they are all guided by the same principle, that is to say, by interest’. Morellet reasoned that the slave trade proved Africans were equal to Europeans. Self-interest motivated both groups to sell or purchase enslaved people.
Morellet and his fellow free-traders’ campaign against the French East India Company, based on the example of the successfully deregulated Atlantic slave trade, was a triumph. They celebrated the deregulation of France’s trade with Asia in 1769. This victory, in turn, inspired economic thinkers across Europe to consider how laissez-faire principles could be applied to other markets. Morellet’s call for freedom of trade particularly struck Adam Smith, who referred to Morellet extensively in The Wealth of Nations (1776), a landmark text that still informs many people’s belief in the ‘free market’.
Indeed, Smith became far more influential than his teacher. As his own version of laissez-faire ideas came to seem like common sense in the following century, the pioneering Gournay Circle was largely forgotten. Their sense that the slave trade was a prime example of free trade in action disappeared. Yet the writings of Gournay and Morellet reveal that modern capitalism is entangled with slavery in multiple, profound ways. Slave labour supplied the cotton, sugar and other vital commodities. The profits from the sale of slaves created fortunes on both sides of the Atlantic. And, in a disturbing paradox, the founding fathers of laissez-faire saw the slave trade as a showcase of liberty.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

How hedge funders spurred the pro-charter political network

Hedging Education:
How hedge funders spurred the pro-charter political network
May 6, 2016
This article ran in the Spring 2016 issue of The American Prospect

Not too long ago, school board races were quaint affairs. Even in big school districts, candidates usually only had to raise a few thousand dollars to compete.

But as the movement to marketize public education gained momentum, advocates broadened their focus from the federal level to state and local governments. There, where campaign costs were substantially lower than in federal elections, the well-funded movement could more effectively leverage its political money.

One of the starkest casualties of that strategic shift has been the American school board election. A network of education advocacy groups, heavily backed by hedge fund investors, has turned its political attention to the local level, with aspirations to stock school boards—from Indianapolis and Minneapolis to Denver and Los Angeles—with allies.

In recent years, this powerful upstart operation has had tremendous, albeit somewhat stealthy, success playing politics at the local level, by cultivating reform leaders in areas with disappointing schools and a baseline desire for change. They have looked to building a state philanthropic infrastructure that can sustain local efforts beyond one election.

The same big-money donors and organizational names pop up in news reports and campaign-finance filings, revealing the behind-the-scenes coordination across organizational, geographic, and industry lines. The origins arguably trace back to Democrats for Education Reform, a relatively obscure group founded by New York hedge funders in the mid-2000s.
Leila Hadd/Creative Commons
Students at a Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Academy charter school in the Bronx, New York. 

The Hedge Fund Connection

The hedge fund industry and the charter movement are almost inextricably entangled. Executives see charter-school expansion as vital to the future of public education, relying on a model of competition. They see testing as essential to accountability. And they often look at teacher unions with unvarnished distaste. Several hedge fund managers have launched their own charter-school chains. You’d be hard-pressed to find a hedge fund guy who doesn’t sit on a charter-school board.

Consider Whitney Tilson. Straight out of Harvard, Tilson deferred a consulting job in Boston to become one of Teach For America’s first employees in 1989. Ten years later, he started his own hedge fund in New York. Soon after that, Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp took him on a visit to a charter school in the South Bronx. It was an electrifying experience for him. “It was so clearly different and so impactful,” Tilson says. “Such a place of joy, but also rigor.”

The school was one of two original Knowledge Is Power Program schools—better known as KIPP—which has since grown into a prominent charter network with nearly 200 schools in 20 states plus the District of Columbia, serving almost 70,000 students, predominately low-income and of color.

But back then, charter schools were still a rather unfamiliar novelty to most people. Tilson, however, was convinced that they were the future of education. He started dragging all his friends, most of whom were hedge fund investors, from Wall Street up to the South Bronx to see the KIPP school. “KIPP was used as a converter for hedge fund guys,” Tilson says. “It went viral.”

Many critics of the corporate education-reform movement are quick to accuse proponents of seeking to cash in on the privatization of one of the United States’ last public goods. And while there certainly are those in ed-reform circles who stand to benefit from a windfall of new education technology, testing, and curriculum services, hedge funders by and large do not fit that stereotype. Theirs is more of an ideological and philanthropic crusade, rather than a crude profit-seeking venture.

“I personally never knew what the situation was like for families forced to attend their local school in the South Bronx, or Brooklyn,” Tilson says.
As Tilson explains it, hedge fund managers almost exclusively come from well-off backgrounds and got the best educations in the world. “I personally never knew what the situation was like for families forced to attend their local school in the South Bronx, or Brooklyn,” Tilson says. “I didn’t know of anyone who dropped out of high school or college—much less that there were high schools where half the students dropped off.”

In the mid-2000s, Tilson was on what he says was his 100th visit to KIPP. Dave Levin, KIPP’s co-founder, told him that Levin was trying to open up more schools but was running into political resistance. The fact that KIPP had been succeeding without unionized teachers was threatening to many in the Democratic Party, Tilson recalls Levin telling him.

Tilson was shocked that anyone would try to stymie the growth of KIPP, which had had some promising signs of success early on; he was even more shocked that it was mostly Democratic politicians opposed to charter expansion. Why, he wondered, would the party that’s supposed to be for the less well-off be standing in the way of educating disadvantaged children?
He directed his anger at what he says is the most powerful special-interest group in the Democratic Party: teachers unions. So in 2005, Tilson got together with a number of other highly educated, wealthy investors to build a political instrument to simultaneously advance pro-charter education reform and beat back what they saw as oppressive teachers unions.

“Our public school system—including charter schools—is a governmental system, and that means at the end of the day, it’s run by politicians,” Tilson says. “And politicians respond to votes and they respond to money. That means if you want to change a governmental system you’ve got to play the political game.”

The list of original funders is chock-full of Wall Street A-listers. There was Joel Greenblatt, head of Gotham Asset Management and author of the seminal high-finance book You Can Be a Stock Market Genius. There were Charles Ledley and James Mai of Cornwall Capital, perhaps most well known for betting big against the subprime-mortgage market, which was depicted in the book-turned-blockbuster The Big Short. There was David Einhorn, head of Greenlight Capital, who has drawn scrutiny on more than one occasion for financial wrongdoing.

Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in. Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.”

Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions. DFER was instrumental in convincing Obama to appoint charter-friendly Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan as secretary of education, and it spent a lot of time and money lobbying the administration to pursue reformist education policies like Race to the Top and Common Core. Tied to Obama’s coattails, DFER was now one of the most influential political players in the ascendant education-reform movement.
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels lifts the bill into the air as Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman applauds after he signed the bill creating the nation's broadest school voucher program and another that calls for an expansion of charter schools, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Thursday, May 5, 2011.

“All of a sudden, there were politicians all over the country who were willing to back education reform,” Tilson says. “We were able to raise more money, but there were also a lot more fields to play on.” As it found tremendous success at the federal level, DFER tried to maximize its newfound influence to leverage reform in local politics.

The Indianapolis Track

Beginning around 2010, charter advocates set their sights on Indianapolis. In 2011, the newly Republican state legislature passed a law that made it easier for new charter schools to open, quickly fueling their growth. Most new charters opened in Indianapolis, home to a struggling urban district that serves roughly 30,000 students. Many schools were failing to meet state standards, enrollment numbers were dwindling, and the clamor for a solution was growing.
At the epicenter of the city’s reform push was the Mind Trust, a local education-reform group that promotes more school choice, autonomy, and charter partnerships. To do those things, the district needed a friendly superintendent and a sympathetic school board. The Mind Trust helped bring in DFER, the advocacy group Stand For Children, and the network of political money that came with them.

Annie Roof was first elected to the Indianapolis Public Schools board in 2010, aspiring to bring a parent’s perspective and substantive change to the school district. She was fed up with poor communication from the district and what she says were unfair school spending patterns. She raised about $3,000 and won a seat. At first, Roof was the “reform” member on a board that featured a number of strong supporters of the superintendent, Eugene White, who resisted integrating charter schools into the district.

Then the 2012 school board elections brought in a new wave of reformers. One was Gayle Cosby. She and her kids had attended the city’s public schools, and she had taught in the district.
Sipa via AP Images
Greenlight Capital founder David Einhorn, one of many Wall Street A-listers to contribute money to Democrats for Education Reform.

Several months before the election, Cosby decided to run against a longtime incumbent for a seat on the district’s school board. “When I ran, I felt pretty strongly about the idea of autonomy in a broad sense and felt as a teacher, a lot of what I wanted to achieve with my students was limited by a top-down feeling of control,” she says.

She was independently running her campaign for several months, trying to build a rapport with local voters. Then, as the election neared, her openness to “reform” attracted the attention of DFER, which had recently launched an Indiana chapter to build off of the state’s recent changes to public-education law. It quickly zeroed in on building a pro-charter majority on the school board.

DFER pumped more than $40,000 into Cosby’s campaign, hiring her a campaign manager, orchestrating several direct-mail flyer blasts, and buying up radio spots. This was unheard-of in Indianapolis school board races.

“At that point, I felt a loss of control in certain respects,” Cosby recalls.

“The way they were able to win was through the money, through the messaging,” says Cosby, adding that about ten mailers were sent on her behalf. “That’s a huge sum of money; that’s pretty insurmountable when the public lacks understanding about these issues. The average voter saw the potential for something shiny and new.”

By the end, Cosby had raked in a total of nearly $80,000. Two other reform candidates were elected with more than $60,000 in support, including $10,000 checks from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Before she was even sworn in to her seat on the board, it became apparent that Cosby’s idea of reform was different than DFER’s. She and the other new board members were invited to what she describes as a secret meeting at Eli Lilly, an Indiana pharmaceutical company with major philanthropic initiatives. The meeting featured a presentation pitching a plan to expand and fully integrate charter schools into the Indianapolis Public Schools system.

“It hit me fully in the face that the expectation of my role was to support a much larger, clandestine agenda in the city,” Cosby says. 
“It hit me fully in the face that the expectation of my role was to support a much larger, clandestine agenda in the city,” Cosby says. “That’s when I realized that this role I was stepping into was going to be filled with problems.”

One of the new reformers was Caitlin Hannon, a Teach For America alum who had taught in IPS for two years before running. After she was elected to the board, she became the executive director of Teach Plus Indianapolis, a Bill Gates–backed organization that amplifies the voices of young reform-minded teachers, often at the expense of teachers unions. Hannon raised nearly $40,000, including contributions from Bloomberg, DFER funder Charles Ledley, and hedge funder Alan Fournier.

In 2013, the new school board bought out the superintendent’s contract and began looking for a turnaround expert who prioritized charter-school expansion, autonomy, and innovation. They unanimously chose Lewis Ferebee, who had previously worked in the Durham, North Carolina, public school district, overseeing a number of struggling schools.

Ferebee quickly unveiled a plan that would cut the size of the district administrative office and begin liquidating school buildings and renting out space to outside groups—including charters. Soon after, he was lobbying for a state bill that would allow IPS to form compacts with charter schools to operate autonomously within the district. Much to the dismay of many state Democrats and the state teachers union, the bill passed.

By 2014, the floodgates of outside money were wide open. 
By 2014, the floodgates of outside money were wide open. Though DFER’s Indiana operation had shuttered due to poor local leadership, its presence was still strong in the school board elections.

By this time, Annie Roof had ticked off the local education reform organizations like DFER, Stand For Children, and the Mind Trust by refusing to play ball. Her idea of “reform” did not mesh with the organized reformers’. “What money has made that word, I’m not a part of.”
So the network reached into its bench and recruited one of its own. Education consultant Mary Ann Sullivan was a former Democratic state legislator in Indiana who co-authored bills to expand the state charter-school law and revamp the teacher-evaluation and licensure process. She also sits on DFER’s national advisory board.

In her campaign to oust Roof, who had been elected board president, from Roof’s at-large seat, Sullivan raised more than $70,000, inundating the city with mailers, phone-banking, and paid media. She trounced Roof by more than 25 percentage points.

As Roof puts it, they took out parents and replaced them with politicians.

“I was incredibly disappointed with the city of Indianapolis to buy into such tactics of cheap mailers and phone calls,” Roof says. “School board races used to be run by those around the kitchen table. It’s no longer a local election.”

Elected along with Sullivan was LaNier Echols, an Indianapolis charter-school dean (who was promoted to principal after getting elected) who raised $65,000, and Kelly Kennedy Bentley, a former IPS board member who had also served as DFER Indiana’s treasurer.

With a near-unanimous reform majority now sitting on the board, Ferebee continued expanding charter-school partnerships—including handing control of one struggling elementary school over to a charter school favored by local charter advocates.

Cosby has since taken up the role as the board’s main dissenter. She believes that charter special interests have completely co-opted the desire for change in the schools and have promoted an agenda that sees charter schools and privatization as the only way to fix Indianapolis Public Schools. Four seats will be up in 2016, including Cosby’s, who has decided not to seek re-election as she focuses on a doctoral program.

A National Crusade

The same scenario playing out in Indianapolis has become increasingly common in school districts around the country, as national organizations—mirroring DFER’s strategy—have expanded into more and more states.

DFER currently has active operations in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Students First, a group launched by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, is operating in ten states. Stand For Children has 11 state chapters. The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN) works in seven states so far. All of the groups have put school board races in their crosshairs.

Just weeks before the Minneapolis school board elections in 2014, which were expected to largely influence who the next superintendent would be, reports surfaced that detailed a massive influx of outside money in the race for two board seats. Both 50CAN’s Minnesota operation and Students for Education Reform (SFER) were campaigning for former Minneapolis City Council member and charter booster Don Samuels. The reports showed that the 50CAN Action Fund had raised $15,000 and SFER had raised $36,000. SFER board member Adam Cioth, who manages the Rolling Hills Capital hedge fund, provided the majority of SFER’s money—about $23,000.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Early on, Democrats for Education Reform identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions.

Charter advocates also set up a PAC that raised more than $200,000 from three donors—Michael Bloomberg, Teach For America board member and venture capitalist Arthur Rock, and financier Jon Sackler, who sits on 50CAN’s and SFER’s boards. Samuels won his race.
Last year in Denver, DFER contributed a quarter-million dollars to launch the Raising Colorado super PAC, which went on to spend $90,000 running ads and mailing flyers in support of Happy Haynes, the incumbent at-large member, and Lisa Flores, a former Gates Foundation program officer who was running for an open seat. Both won.

The flood of outside money that’s become a new normal in many school board elections is troubling for several reasons. And the stakes of 2016 couldn’t be higher. This year alone, 640 of the country’s largest school districts by enrollment are holding elections, with nearly 2,000 seats up for grabs, according to Ballotpedia. All together, these districts educate around 17 million students—about 34 percent of all the K–12 students in the nation.

Compared with other political races where a campaign will stretch over the better part of a year (or more), school board races are unique. Filing deadlines are much closer to Election Day, meaning that the field of candidates doesn’t fully materialize until quite late and the actual races don’t heat up until about two months out.

That makes it more difficult to vet candidates and learn about connections. Campaign-finance reports exposing big money often pop up late—that’s if the locality even includes school board candidates in its database.

The coordinated and tangled web of charter-advocacy groups’ political activity makes their financing hard to track. National groups and big individual donors will often funnel money to local PACs, which in turn spend money independently from a candidate’s campaign.
Many of these organizations operate as 501(c)(4)s and thus don’t have to disclose donors or, depending on state law, even fully disclose independent expenditures. For instance, Stand For Children, which was the main funder in the 2014 Indianapolis school board races, still won’t disclose how much they independently spent, though local watchdogs have gathered that it was a huge sum.

“There’s significant spending happening below the surface,” says Ballotpedia’s Daniel Anderson. “It’s hard to gauge whether that spending balances the scales between unions and ed-reform groups or if the scales are still tilted significantly [toward unions].”

Behemoth groups sponsored by mega-billionaires like Eli Broad, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, and the Walton family have spent hundreds of millions to launch charter schools, sponsor think tanks, and more broadly steer the ideological DNA of reform. In recent years, newer organizations have positioned themselves adjacently to that machine while focusing more explicitly on politics. Critics, though, say there’s little difference between groups like DFER and those on the right. DFER has taken heat for teaming up with the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in backing California referendums that attacked public education and unions, and in opposing a ballot measure to impose a tax on millionaires. They’ve also given money to a right-wing group that was a booster of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union agenda, and took out an ad in 2012 blasting the Chicago Teachers Union in the lead-up to a strike.

For his part, Whitney Tilson insists, “We’re writing the checks, but we’re not dictating everything that’s going on.” In a written statement to the Prospect, DFER National President Shavar Jeffries added: “Our state chapters are not run by people flying in from Washington. They are staffed by local political organizers and education experts that are overwhelmingly from the communities they work in.” But the financial influence of the outside charter-boosters is an ill-kept secret. The pushback against outside pro-charter money in local races has been steadily growing as more and more cities are impacted. That anger likely becomes more visceral when it becomes clear to voters that out-of-state billionaires are trying to tip the scales in their own backyard.

“Now that we’ve seen two election cycles with huge sums of outside money, I’m hopeful that voters in Indianapolis have become enlightened to what’s really happening,” says Indianapolis Public Schools board member Gayle Cosby. “It could affect some change in 2016.”