How the news covers activism matters profoundly to a democracy because the media can influence public support or rejection of policies that might solve social ills such as racism and police brutality. Following the dozens of uprisings that swept U.S. cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission, reported on the cause and possible future prevention of such unrest. The commission asserted that, in addition to generational poverty, housing and employment discrimination, and over-policing, the media was partially responsible for the neglect felt by black communities.
Deirdre Cooper Owens is the Linda and Charles Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and Director of the Humanities in Medicine program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is an Organization of American Historians’ (OAH) Distinguished Lecturer and has won a number of prestigious honors that range from the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies to serving as an American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology Fellow in Washington, D.C.
Cooper Owens earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in History and wrote an award-winning dissertation while there. A popular public speaker, she has published articles, essays, book chapters, and think pieces on a number of issues that concern African American experiences. Recently, Cooper Owens finished working with Teaching Tolerance and the Southern Poverty Law Center on a podcast series about how to teach U.S. slavery and Time Magazine listed her as an “acclaimed expert” on U.S. history in its annual “The 25 Moments From American History That Matter Right Now.”
Her first book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology (UGA Press, 2017) won the 2018 Darlene Clark Hine Book Award from the OAH as the best book written in African American women’s and gender history.
Professor Cooper Owens is also the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest cultural institution founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. She is working on a second book project that examines mental illness during the era of United States slavery and is writing a popular biography of Harriet Tubman that examines her through the lens of disability.
We will be talking with her about Black America in the pandemic, historical underbelly of health history and its impact on us today. How we find comfort, how we face our fears and our deaths.
One of the most common refrains when a democracy collapses into an autocracy is that no one could have seen it coming.
The motivation behind this myth is the absolution of the powerful. After all, what cannot be predicted cannot be prevented, and therefore the failure of officials to safeguard our freedoms should be forgiven. This is the story we hear as Donald Trump approaches a possible second term and the U.S. plunges into unprecedented turmoil.
The premise, of course, is a lie.
Freedom is about what it means to be human, and to be recognized and treated by others as such.
What “No one saw it coming” tells you is who the powerful consider to be “no one.” “No one” are the multitude of marginalized Americans who warned in 2016 that their rights had always been on the line and would be even more so now. “No one” are the people who knew that a future American autocracy was possible because their ancestors had been subject to past ones: slavery, Jim Crow, internment camps, and other forms of legal subjugation that were destroyed only through decades of defiant demands for their eradication.
Freedom was always a moving target. So are Americans under Donald Trump.
Trump is not the cause of the American crisis, but its culmination. The fragility of rights that members of marginalized groups have always experienced has been widened to encompass the country as a whole. In the 21st century, political, economic and technological freedom were all radically curtailed. Americans signed away their rights unwittingly and unwillingly – through the Patriot Act, which expanded government surveillance in the wake of 9/11, through social media companies turned surveillance monopolies, through the deference to corporations that is a survival mechanism in an economy structured on precarity.
The loss of legal rights over the past 20 years – voting rights chief among them – has been accompanied by a culture of fear that is as effective in derailing democracy as any decree. What does it mean to have freedom of speech when your words are data-mined and shot back at you as targeted propaganda? What is freedom of assembly when your every movement is recorded and reproduced online, when human lives are reduced to hashtags?
There are few worse feelings than being watched but never seen.
Trump exemplifies this era of exploitation. The reality TV president sees citizens not as human beings, but as disposable background players in a show starring himself. The U.S. media — an industry both exclusionary and desperate after decades of financial turmoil — has long proven an easy mark for the Trump team. Complex catastrophes are no match for the easy media lure of personality politics. The framework of spectacle to which Americans have always been drawn — soap operas and pro wrestling, talk shows and tabloids – is Trump’s native vernacular. To some degree, this was always our national political language, but there is a soullessness today that feels new. Whatever entertaining quality politics once possessed is gone, replaced by a culture of profound dehumanization that endangers the American experiment.
Protesters demonstrate in Freedom Plaza against family detentions and to demand the end of criminalizing efforts of asylum seekers on June 28, 2018.
WIN MCNAMEEGETTY IMAGES
Freedom is never just about rights or laws. Freedom is about what it means to be human, and to be recognized and treated by others as such.
That yearning — to simply be and have that be enough, to not have to prove your innate worth time and time again to a dubious arbiter — is at the heart of every struggle for human rights.
At a time when the world seems to be closing in on us, whether through apocalyptic change disasters, like the wildfires in Australia, or surveillance apps that monitor our every move, the dehumanizing quality of the Trump era — like separating migrant families and housing them in unsanitary border camps — is particularly gutting. With dehumanization comes disposability — a cheapening of the cherished, a commodification of every casualty.
There is a litany of horrifying images from the Trump era, but the worst may be a grinning Donald and Melania Trump holding a baby orphaned in the El Paso mass shooting like it was a trophy, giving the world a thumbs up after the baby’s parents were gunned down. What future does that child face? What present, so devoid of empathy and teeming with violence, made that moment possible?
Along with “No one could have seen it coming” lies also the idea that “The Founders never predicted this” in the archive of excuses for democracy’s demise. But the Founders absolutely predicted this — if not the legal architecture, then the moral forfeiture, which they often framed in terms of suicide.
“Remember, democracy never lasts long,” John Adams wrote in 1814. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln expressed similar thoughts on what would ultimately destroy America: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Each warned that America was its own worst enemy. Many also believe we are our own best hope.
We are the wild cards we are waiting for.
The problems Americans face are so innumerable that they overwhelm. As a nation, we are indeed weary. Still, there are concrete actions people can take to slow the entrenchment of autocracy: voting, protesting, and creating or supporting independent organizations that combat corporate or state control are a few suggestions. But all of this requires maintaining presence of mind in a political environment designed to annihilate it. The greatest threat of the Trump era is the loss of what makes us human – our empathy, our individuality, our imagination.
The antithesis to freedom isn’t subjugation but surrender.
Oppressive governments can control what they take from you, but not your willingness to fight for it. They can never fully know you, and the unpredictability of human nature means no outcome is an inevitability, even in an aspiring autocracy. We are the wild cards we are waiting for.
Freedom of thought is a freedom that can never truly be taken, but you must guard it nonetheless. In an era of rampant dehumanization, it is more important than ever not to surrender in advance.
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HARTFORD, Conn. — On a sweltering Saturday afternoon last June, Crystal Carter took a deep breath as she walked toward the red “for rent” sign.
Shaded by tall oak trees, the three-story duplex looked cozy. The first floor siding was painted yellow, with white railings leading to the front door. The windows appeared new, the lawn freshly cut.
Although the property was in Barry Square, on the edge of a struggling area in southern Hartford, the family outside buoyed Carter’s spirits. Four children giggled in a recliner in the front yard, singing along to the radio while their father packed a moving truck. Across the street were Trinity College’s dignified brick pillars, the entry to the elite school’s 100-acre campus.
Carter tried to tamp down her excitement, but this looked like the kind of place the 48-year-old single mother so desperately wanted for her five kids: no mouse traps, no chipped paint trying to camouflage mold.
He put down a crate and offered her a tour of the first-floor, four-bedroom unit. Inside, she marveled at the modern kitchen, finished hardwood floors and large closets.
“This is a lot of space. When are you putting this on the market?” she asked.
“It’s ready, if you want to do the application,” he told her. Rent was $1,500 a month.
“I’ll be paying with a Section 8 voucher,” she said.
“Yeah,” the man shot back. “I don’t do Section 8.”
Officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 rent subsidies were supposed to help low-income people find decent housing outside poor communities. But, for the better part of a year, Carter had found the opposite. This was easily the 50th place she had toured since her landlord sold her last apartment and evicted her. Nearly all of them were in poor areas. They had holes in the wall, uncovered electrical outlets, even roaches and mice. When she hit upon something clean, she learned not to ask too many questions. She complimented the landlord, talked about her children and emphasized that she didn’t smoke. None of it seemed to matter, though, once she uttered two words: Section 8.
Now, as Carter showed herself out of the first-floor rental, she felt panic welling within. “There really are no doors open for people that have a voucher,” she said afterward. “It makes you feel ashamed to even have one.” Typically, vouchers come with a time limit to find housing, and Carter had already won three extensions. She wasn’t sure she’d get another.
She had just 40 days left to find a place to live.
As the federal government retreated from building new public housing in the 1970s, it envisioned Section 8 vouchers as a more efficient way of subsidizing housing for the poor in the private market. They now constitute the largest rental assistance program in the country, providing almost $23 billion in aid each year to 2.2 million households. Local housing authorities administer the program with an annual budget from Washington and are given wide latitude on how many vouchers they hand out and how much each is worth. The bulk of the vouchers are reserved for families who make 30% or less of an area’s median income. That is $30,300 or less for a family of four in Hartford.
For years, researchers and policymakers have lamented the program’s failure to achieve one of its key goals: giving families a chance at living in safer communities with better schools. Low-income people across the country struggle to use their vouchers outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.
In Connecticut, the problem is especially acute. An analysis of federal voucher data by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that 55% of the state’s nearly 35,000 voucher holders live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. That’s higher than the national average of 49% and the rates in 43 other states.
The segregation results, at least in part, from exclusionary zoning requirements that local officials have long used to block or limit affordable housing in prosperous areas. As the Mirror and ProPublica reported in November, state authorities have done little to challenge those practices, instead steering taxpayer money to build more subsidized developments in struggling communities.
Dozens of voucher holders in Connecticut say this concentration has left them with few housing options. Local housing authorities often provide a blue booklet of Section 8-friendly properties, but many of the ones listed are complexes that have a reputation for being rundown and are in struggling communities or have long waitlists. Many recipients call it the “Black Book” because “you are going to the dark side, for real. The apartments in that black book are nasty and disgusting,” said Janieka Lewis, a Hartford resident whose home is infested with mice.
Josh Serrano also lives in one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. After landing a voucher in 2018, he tried to find a place in the middle-class town of West Hartford, where his son lives part time with his mother. He also looked in nearby Manchester and Simsbury. At each stop, the rent was higher than his voucher’s value or the landlord wouldn’t take a voucher.
“There is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are poor and particularly have black or brown skin like myself,” he said. “No community wanted me and my son.”
Nearly 80% of the state’s voucher holders are black or Hispanic and half have children. Their average income is $17,200 a year and the average amount they pay in rent out of pocket is $413 a month.
The federal government has taken a mostly hands-off approach to ensuring the Section 8 program is working as it was originally intended. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development typically leaves it up to each housing authority to determine how much a voucher is worth, which essentially determines the type of neighborhood a voucher holder can afford. And when HUD assesses the work of housing authorities — to decide whether to increase federal oversight — only a tiny fraction is based on whether local officials are “expanding housing opportunities … outside areas of poverty or minority concentration.” (And even at that, nearly all housing authorities receive full credit.)
Moreover, federal law does not make it illegal for a landlord to turn down a prospective tenant if they plan to pay with a voucher, so HUD does not investigate complaints of landlords who won’t accept Section 8 vouchers.
Connecticut goes further. It is one of 14 states where it’s illegal to deny someone housing because they plan to use a Section 8 voucher. And the state allocated more than $820,000 in the last fiscal year to help pay for 10 investigators to look into complaints of all types of housing discrimination and provide legal assistance. “There has been an effort to try to change” housing segregation, said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing.
But those efforts have done little to prevent landlords from continuing to reject voucher holders. The groups charged with investigating housing complaints say they lack the resources to be proactive and believe they are only seeing a fraction of what’s really going on.
“Housing providers keep coming up with ways to rent to who they want to rent and find ways around housing discrimination laws,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, which investigates complaints. “There is a lot more discrimination going on than what we are investigating.”
In 2018, fewer than 75 complaints were made that accused the landlord or owner of refusing to accept a voucher or some other legal source of income, such as Social Security. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center said that figure isn’t low because discrimination is scarce but rather because prospective tenants are fearful that complaining could hurt them and know that it will do nothing to help them with their immediate needs; investigations can take longer than the time they have to find a house with their vouchers.
“In order to make it a real priority and address the real effects of discrimination in society, the government should dedicate more resources to ferreting it out,” said Greg Kirschner, the group’s legal director.
A Hartford native, Carter reluctantly moved back to her hometown in 2011 to escape an abusive relationship. She had delayed relocating, she said, because she worried she’d be taking her children from a quiet neighborhood in Florida to a “war zone” in Connecticut.
“They not from the streets. Their heart is trying to be goofy-cool,” she said of her three sons, now 10, 17 and 18, and two daughters, ages 13 and 14. “They don’t have that fight in them. I do.” (Worried about her children’s privacy, Carter asked that they not be named in this story.)
In January 1973, George Romney, Nixon’s enigmatic Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, administered an open-ended moratorium on its 1968 initiatives to open up single-family homeownership to low-income borrowers by providing government-backed mortgages. The experiment to make homeownership accessible to everyone ended abruptly with massive foreclosures and abandoned houses, but the questions ignited by these policies persisted. Some analysts insisted that the failure of HUD’s homeownership programs was proof positive that poor people were ill equipped for the responsibilities of homeownership. African Americans experience homeownership in ways that rarely produce the financial benefits typically enjoyed by middle-class white Americans.And they insisted that it more specifically implicated low-income African Americans as “incapable” homeowners. Others pointed to HUD’s obvious mismanagement of these programs as the real culprit in their demise, and, importantly, how the programs gave an industry already known for its racial bias new opportunities to exploit low-income African-Americans. But the lessons from HUD’s experiment were muddled by other economic sensibilities, including the commitment to private property and the centrality of homeownership to the American economy.
Today, homeownership, even for low-income and poor people, is reflexively advised as a way to emerge from poverty, develop assets, and build wealth more generally. The historic levels of wealth inequality that continue to distinguish African Americans from whites are powerful reminders of how the exclusion of Blacks from this asset has generationally impaired Black families in comparison with their white peers. Owning a home as a way to build wealth is touted as an advantage over public or government-sponsored housing. It grounds the assumption that it is better to own than rent. And the greatest assumption of all is that homeownership is the superior way to live in the United States. This, of course, is tied to another indelible truth that homeownership is a central cog in the U.S. economy. Its pivotal role as an economic barometer and motor means that there are endless attempts to make it more accessible to ever-wider groups of people. While these are certainly statements of fact, they should not be confused as statements on the advisability of suturing economic well-being to a privately owned asset in a society where the value of that asset will be weighed by the race or ethnicity of whoever possesses it.
The assumption that a mere reversal of exclusion to inclusion would upend decades of institutional discrimination underestimated the investments in the economy organized around race and property. The concept of race and especially racial inferiority helped to establish the “economic floor” in the housing market. One’s proximity to African Americans individually, as well as to their communities, helped to determine the value of one’s property. This revealed another reality. Markets, as in the means by which the exchange of commodities is facilitated, do not exist in vacuums, nor do abstract notions of “supply and demand” dictate their function. Markets are conceived and constituted by desire, imagination, and social aspirations, among other malleable factors. This does not mean that markets are not real, but that they are not shaped by need alone. They are shaped by political, social, economic, and in the case of housing, racial concerns. And in the United States, these market conditions were shaped and stoked by economic actors that stood to gain by curtailing access to one portion of the market while then flooding another with credit, capital, and indiscriminate access to distressed and substandard homes.
HUD’s crisis in its homeownership programs in the 1970s reveal deeper and more systemic problems with the pursuit of homeownership as a way to improve the quality of one’s life. It is undeniable that homeownership in the United States has been “one of the important ways in which Americans have traditionally acquired financial capital” and that the “tax advantages, the accumulation of equity, and the increased value of real estate property enable homeowners to build economic assets. . . . These assets can be used to educate one’s children, to take advantage of business opportunities, to meet financial emergencies, and to provide for retirement.” Investment in homeownership, and its role in the process of the personal accumulation of capital, has been fundamental to the good life in the United States.
Inside the “Most Incarcerated” Zip Code in the Country 53206, a heavily African American neighborhood north of downtown Milwaukee, suffers from all manner of ills—not least of which are the myths of criminality that continue to surround it.
Robinson’s family came to Milwaukee from Chicago in the 1980s because, as Robinson put it, “Chicago was getting out of pocket.” With crime rising and jobs disappearing in the Windy City, she told me, “my mom wanted a better place for us to live.” But Robinson’s mother could never have anticipated the crucibles awaiting her daughter in Wisconsin—the array of social and political deficits associated with the five numbers that came at the end of her listed address: 53206, now notoriously known as the most incarcerated zip code in the country.
The neighborhood’s rectangular outline sits like a brick just north of the Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in downtown Milwaukee, where the 2020 Democratic National Convention will be held next summer. In addition to its high incarceration rates, 53206, a heavily African American district, suffers from every manner of social ill, from socioeconomic stagnation to poor health. The Democratic primary field is teeming with proposals to address these ingrained injustices, and the party’s eventual candidate will also have a personal incentive to pay attention to what is happening in 53206: Its residents, among others in Milwaukee, may well prove to be the key to Democrats’ hopes of winning the battleground state of Wisconsin and unseating Donald Trump in the presidential election.
As long as those residents can gain access to the ballot, that is.African Americans represent nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population, but their political clout has been diminished by laws that suppress the black vote. There is also the problem of African Americans choosing not to vote: Black turnout in Wisconsin dropped nearly 19 percent between the 2012 to the 2016 elections—a clear sign that, despite their historic need to mobilize black voters, Democrats haven’t been meeting the challenge especially well of late.
In July 2007, Carrie Barrett went to the emergency room at Methodist University Hospital, complaining of shortness of breath and tightness in her chest. Her leg was swollen, she’d later recall, and her toes were turning black.Given her family history, high blood pressure and newly diagnosed congestive heart failure, doctors performed a heart catheterization, threading a long tube through her groin and into her heart.
Her share of the two-night stay: $12,019.Barrett, who has never made more than $12 an hour, doesn’t remember getting any notices to pay from the hospital. But in 2010, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare sued her for the unpaid medical bills, plus attorney’s fees and court costs.Since then, the nonprofit hospital system affiliated with the United Methodist Church has doggedly pursued her, adding interest to the debt seven times and garnishing money from her paycheck on 15 occasions.
“Specifically, women of color were 4% of 2018 candidates and 5% of winners; white women were 28% of candidates and 29% of winners; men of color were 6% of candidates and 7% of winners; and white men were 61% of candidates and 60% of winners. “There’s a common assumption that white men are the more electable candidates ― but our research found the opposite,” Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, said on a press call. “We found women of color, white women and men of color win at essentially the same rate. There’s only one group that loses slightly more ― and that’s white men.”
“The role of black public officials within the contexts of cities like Washington, D.C., Detroit, New Orleans, and elsewhere was anything but subordinate. Subordinate to whom? Moody misses the very powerful role that these black elites played, and continue to play in formal party politics and local economic growth regimes, in legitimating neoliberalization and, at times, insulating such forces from criticism even when they embark on policy decisions that will have negative social consequences for black constituencies. More troubling, Moody diminishes the role that various black constituencies, neighborhood groups, landlords, business owners, clergy, educators, and activists, not simply political elites, played in shaping the carceral expansion. The sense of different subject positions among blacks, which cannot be reduced simply to the “petty bourgeoisie” and the “long struggle for black freedom” as Moody does, is totally lost. Moody refers to the demands of working-class blacks for more police protection and tougher crime policy, but in a manner that returns quickly to the victim narrative, disconnecting their conscious actions as citizens from their unintended consequence, mass incarceration. ”
It’s a recurring theme: An African American female goes missing and there’s no radar too low that she won’t fly beneath.The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children– or NCMEC – said the number of reports of missing children made to law enforcement in the United States now totals more than 424,000.