This Is the Wrong Way to Fight Inequality

Originally published in New Republic on August 3, 2017.
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So first, the good news: The notion that income inequality has caused harm in America has finally broken into the hubs of elite opinion. The sort of socio-political tastemaker who not so long ago denied the problem, has moved on to dissembling about it instead. That’s progress, of a sort.

Dream Hoarders, a book by Brookings senior fellow Richard Reeves, is the latest entry into the debate. Reeves accepts that the United States has become a land of vast economic divides. But having established some common ground with the Occupy Wall Street worldview, he steers the conversation in a direction any plutocrat would love—away from Wall Street, CEOs and the owners of capital. The real problem, Reeves tell us, lies with the upper-middle class.

Reeves’s argument is seductive because it starts with some understated truths. He’s right to say that the top fifth wields a disproportionate amount of political muscle, and benefits from a bevy of tax breaks, subsidies and privileges that undergird what he calls a “glass floor” beneath them. Tax shelters, such as the mortgage interest deduction, offer savings to the rich, while zoning restrictions bar poorer families from the neighborhoods where the upper-middle class clusters. This group is also embedded in social networks that open a backdoor to success, whether through legacy admissions to selective colleges or parental connections that lead to an internship. All of these mechanisms quietly and effectively transfer wealth and power from one generation to the next.

But Reeves is less worried that only a small portion of people enjoy such affluence. In fact, Reeves seems broadly untroubled by inequality, per se. His priority in Dream Hoarders isn’t combatting inequality but improving “relative mobility”: the process by which someone can move up in economic rank, even if that means bumping someone else down a notch. “Downward mobility is not a wildly popular idea, to say the least,” he writes. “But it is a stubborn mathematical fact that, at any given time, the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population.” That may be true, but it’s not a “stubborn mathematical fact” that only 20 percent of the income distribution should be able to afford comfortable, prosperous lives.

Reeves underlines his point by making clear that he’s uninterested in the kind of social democratic policies that foster greater equality in European countries like Sweden and Finland. “America’s problem is not that we are failing to live up to Danish egalitarian standards,” he writes. “It is that we are failing to live up to American egalitarian standards, based on fair market competition.” The main challenge, he stresses, is to “narrow gaps in human capital formation” so that the “contests” people compete in will be truly fair. “The problem is not that society is too competitive,” Reeves informs us. “It is that it is not competitive enough.” Society has grown unfair, he surmises, partly because the upper-middle class is engaging in “anticompetitive ‘opportunity hoarding.’”


Among the many problems with this strange view of inequality as something like an antitrust issue is figuring out when someone’s gone too far and broken the rules. Dream Hoarders clumsily attempts to demarcate which of the upper middle class’s advantages are legitimate, and which are “unfair” and “anticompetitive.” Reeves sees no problem with affluent parents showering their children with many different types of privileges that they can use to get ahead in our economic rat race. SAT tutors, cello practice, and Mandarin lessons are unproblematic in his view. On the contrary, he sees them as “great, indeed laudable” ways to support “human capital formation.” It’s only when the opportunities of the privileged start to hurt other children, he explains, that it becomes a problem.

A prime example of “opportunity hoarding” occurs when a parent makes a call or writes a check to their alma mater in order to help their kid get into college. (Reeves admits he doesn’t have good data on how common this practice actually is.) Another example is when parents use connections to help their kid score an internship. Amazingly enough, despite his professed interest in fair contests, Reeves does not support banning unpaid internships, concluding that to do so would be “too draconian, illiberal.” He suggests instead that the government fund low-income students who wish to take them, but acknowledges there’s little political support for the idea.

At first glance, it’s awfully hard to see a distinction between Reeves’s approved “human capital formation” and his disallowed “opportunity hoarding.” After all, in both cases, wealthy parents are leveraging their position to give their children a head start over their peers. Reeves has an answer for this—sort of. He concludes that “opportunity hoarding” only takes place when the opportunity in question is valuable and scarce, and the hoarding itself is “anticompetitive.” He discerns a difference between “parental behavior that merely helps your own children and the kind that is ‘detrimental’ to others.”

Unfortunately, this carefully-parsed dividing line is delicate to the point of collapse. What is, for instance, the most likely result of a cello lesson: artistic enrichment, or a bullet point on a resume? Unless those lessons turn into a lifelong passion or a performance career, their main effect is surely to grant children an edge over rival applicants in the race for academic recognition. The line blurs the other way too: Presumably most parents angling for a legacy admission to an Ivy believe their children stand to grow personally from the experience.

When you’re committed, as Reeves is, to a vision of society as a zero-sum battle for economic advancement, then self-betterment and bruising competition for resources look one and the same. Any new skills or experience—“human capital formation”—may also prove an advantage that can be brought to bear against others, while anything that helps someone beat out a competitor and move up the economic ladder could ultimately prove enriching.

If Dream Hoarders fails to locate all the pathologies of the monied professional class, maybe it’s because Reeves is on the inside, looking out. The book carries all the hallmarks of 90s-style Democratic Party thinking, both in its lust for market-style competition in private life and its attitude toward taxes as “a necessary evil.” And for a book supposedly meant to awaken class consciousness, it has awfully little interest in exploring the working class, or even the labor movement. The word “unions” makes just one appearance in Dream Hoarders: Reeves breezily mentions the decline in trade unions as one “competing explanation” for growing wage disparities, before urging his readers’ attention back to “education and skills” as core causes of mounting inequality.

Reeves seems untroubled by the Democratic Party’s transformation into the party of meritocracy and individualism. Though he criticizes the upper-middle class for its sense of entitlement, he remains largely approving of their values—evident from the solutions he proposes to “opportunity hoarding.” Rather than implore his Bethesda brethren to leverage their influence for national card check and single-payer healthcare—policies that explicitly place individuals on even footing with regards to critical economic questions—Reeves encourages his peers to consider expanding home visiting programs, and whether it might be beneficial to shuffle K-12 public school teachers around.

Despite the scale of the problems he supposedly wants to tackle, Reeves’s policy recommendations fall far short of addressing them. On one hand, he’s imploring Americans to build a relentlessly competitive society, and on the other, worrying that everyone might be competing a little too hard after all, and, if they don’t mind, may want to take it all down a notch. Thankfully there are better ways forward.

Pressuring the one percent is essential for any serious agenda to lessen inequality; this can’t be breezily dismissed, as Reeves too often attempts. He points out, smugly, that to tax only the absurdly wealthy would be insufficient to fund the entire progressive agenda. But who is making this point? It’s hard to find anyone on the American left who has proposed writing the top fifth out of the debate altogether.

Moreover, we don’t need the notion of “opportunity hoarding” to see why it’s bad that a privileged fifth of Americans retreat to quiet cul-de-sacs served by stellar suburban schools. You barely need to squint to identify an older, stronger, and further-reaching critique lying just beyond Reeves’s: In many cases, he’s just railing against segregation and its burdens. A twinned agenda of civil rights and aggressive redistribution would address most of the problems that Dream Hoarders claims to identify.

Though Reeves tries to suggest that anything outside of “fair market competition” would be antithetical to American values, Americans shouldn’t have to compete their way to economic security. Progressives concerned about inequality would do well to heed the advice of Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal, who recently urged Democrats to “redouble their commitment to labor, abandon the obsessive focus on the preferences of American professionals, rein in the most predatory parts of the economy, and throw their weight behind simple, universal programs that would improve citizens’ economic and social lives.” Hoarding dreams gets a lot harder when there are plenty of them to go around.

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Redlining map project provides new way for researchers to rethink struggling urban areas

Originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine
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After 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in 2015 while in the custody of Baltimore police, the city erupted with protests, riots, and much subsequent soul-searching. Attention focused on Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Gray was arrested—one of the most impoverished and blighted areas in Baltimore. Local community leaders set up meetings to discuss what it would take to support and revitalize poor neighborhoods like Sandtown, where more than a third of the houses are abandoned and roughly 20 percent of working-age residents are unemployed. The subtext of these well-meaning conversations was that there must have been a time when these neighborhoods were more desirable, and that at some point, somewhere along the way, things went downhill.

In the mid-1990s, in what was one of the most ambitious neighborhood revitalization projects in Baltimore’s history, public and private sources poured more than $130 million into Sandtown-Winchester in a massive effort to transform it. Yet despite the influx of new housing, health services, and school enhancements, the investments were not enough to attract new businesses and jobs, or to suppress the flourishing drug trade.

Mapping Inequality, a new project created by three teams drawn from four universities, including Johns Hopkins, offers leaders and researchers a new way to think about persistently struggling neighborhoods like Sandtown. Launched in October, the project features unprecedented online access to maps and materials produced between 1935 and 1940 by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency created as part of the New Deal. HOLC officials traveled to nearly 250 cities across America throughout the 1930s, developing color-coded maps to demonstrate each neighborhood’s risk and creditworthiness, factors that often reflected the community’s racial demographics. These influential documents helped standardize housing policy and real estate practices, and they were used by federal housing agencies until the late 1960s.

Sifting through Baltimore’s own HOLC map on the Mapping Inequality website, one can begin imagining how developers, bankers, real estate agents, and federal officials thought about each locality. Users can pore over the jigsaw puzzle–like breakdown of the city’s neighborhoods, clicking through to scans of each one’s “Area Description,” a document that includes information on the terrain, detrimental influences (“Obsolescence” and “Negro concentration,” for example), and racial makeup of residents. Each area was assigned a letter grade: A-rated neighborhoods, colored green, signified the best places to live; D-rated neighborhoods, colored red, were the worst.

“Part of what’s interesting about the project is just getting to think through what people’s popular narratives are today about segregation and redlining,” says Johns Hopkins historian N.D.B. Connolly, who worked on the Mapping Inequality project. “What do people know? And how can showing these HOLC maps add to that general understanding?” Connolly, an expert in the history of race and American cities, thinks the project can help people consider the longer historical trajectory of inequality.

“It also provides a way to think about racial inequality as far more of a problem of law and economics than of culture,” he says.

The HOLC maps and area descriptions are available for the public to download, so others can begin to pursue questions that even two or three years ago would have likely been too onerous to tackle. For example, what was the relationship between residential segregation and union membership? By collecting information from union membership rolls, you could now analyze union members’ living conditions. You could also determine what segregated neighborhoods looked like in terms of infrastructure quality, or how many homes had telephones, or the availability of grocery stores. “It gives you a way of taking a slice of American life and adding a whole host of new data points,” says Connolly.

On Baltimore’s HOLC map, Sandtown-Winchester was a redlined, D-rated area eight decades ago. Federal agents determined that it had “houses in very bad condition” and vandalized buildings in poor repair. They reported relatively equal numbers of white immigrants and black people living in the area, and when asked to assess the area’s “trend of desirability” over the next 10 to 15 years, HOLC agents predicted it going “downward.”

These maps challenge the narrative that healthy, thriving neighborhoods declined because of rioting in the 1960s or indolence. What they actually suggest, Connolly says, is that these Baltimore neighborhoods were always struggling, but more opportunities were given to white immigrants to get out. “These are not places that have ‘gone downhill,'” Connolly says. “Rather, they are places that were always full of environmental hazards, always considered poor and getting worse, and also the only option available to black families due to housing discrimination.”

When Public Schools Go Private

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 28, 2016.
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The Census Bureau released new data earlier this month that showed the median household income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2 percent over 2014. This marked the largest single-year increase since at least 1967, the federal agency reported. Moreover, this income growth was concentrated among the poor and the middle class, and 2.7 million fewer Americans were living in poverty in 2015 than a year prior.

Despite these encouraging trends, they come nowhere close to reversing the dramatic rise in inequality we’ve seen since the late 1970s. As the Economic Policy Institute reported in June, in 2013, the top 1 percent of American families gained 25 times as much income during that time as the bottom 99 percent. And as The New York Times recently noted, the median household still earns 1.6 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars now than it did prior to the housing market collapse.

With that in mind, a new report released today by In the Public Interest, a research and policy organization, makes the case that the increased privatization of public goods and services over the last few decades has contributed to, and exacerbated, the stark inequalities we see today. The report sifts through various sectors that have grown increasingly privatized—from foster care and transportation, to public schools and prisons—outlining commonalities between them, and recommending ways to undo some of the harms of private contracting.

One area the report focused on is charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed. While income inequality is a concern for these schools—charter teachers are generally non-union, work more hours, and earn less money on average than their traditional public school counterparts, In the Public Interest also delves into concerns of oversight and segregation, issues common among increasingly privatized sectors.

The heated debate over whether charters are “public” or “private” tends to grow quite muddied, particularly as most charter schools are structured as nonprofits. Charter supporters point out that these schools are open to all students, funded by taxpayers, and free to attend—ergo, public. Critics say that charters are happy to take advantage of public laws and benefits when it suits them, and claim private status otherwise. The dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Jim Ryan, remarked in an interview earlier this month that he “scratches his head” when he hears that charter schools are efforts to privatize public education, and that “it’s hard to see how [such claims] have a lot of merit.”

Donald Cohen, the executive director of In The Public Interest, hopes the group’s new report can help cut through some of this confusion, and provide progressives with a more useful way to conceptualize privatization in public education. “People tend to think privatization is about giving it to the private sector, or a private corporation,” he says. “But privatizing is more than that. It’s when there is less public control, fewer regulations, and more governance by market forces.”

And despite two recent National Labor Relations Board decisions that found charter school employees to be private-sector workers, Cohen says this shouldn’t deter progressives from viewing the teachers who work in charters as public employees.

“If you’re a subcontractor working as a janitor in City Hall, or a subcontractor picking up trash around a neighborhood, you’re still providing a public service,” he says. “There’s a falsehood that we can create through subcontracting that they’re not our employees, and our responsibility.” In The Public Interest’s report argues that when governments directly provide services, they generally offer living wages and decent benefits to workers. But when private companies take control, they tend to slash labor costs, hurting not only individual workers and their families, but also local economies and the stability of middle- and working-class communities.

For Cohen, the nonprofit/for-profit debates also tend to obfuscate some larger issues regarding regulation and public control. He notes that nonprofit charter schools still regularly contract out their operations to for-profit companies anyway. And while traditional public schools also engage in some level of subcontracting, the public’s ability to review the deals and financial contracts their school makes with private companies, paid for by tax dollars, is made far more difficult when those institutions are nonprofits and for-profits.

As a result, education advocates have started to push for laws that would require greater accountability and transparency in the charter sector—lifting up unacceptable instances of fraud, discrimination, and abuse. A report issued in 2014 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform laid out some concrete policy recommendations, many of which have been since promoted by teacher unions across the country.

Lastly, In The Public Interest’s new report also discusses the ways in which charter schools accelerate the racial and economic segregation of public schooling—something they say is common for sectors that grow increasingly privatized. They cite research from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA showing that charter schools are more racially isolated than neighborhood public schools in almost every state and large metropolitan area in the country. Rapid charter growth, coupled with increased segregation, In The Public Interest says, helps to destabilize school finances, resulting in fewer resources, particularly for students of color, disabled students, and poor students.

I asked Cohen what he hopes to see come out of this new study. “Look, this is a big, deep, and dense report,” he answered. “We deal with privatization and outsourcing in a million pieces—the charter schools here, the prisons there. We wanted to say no, there’s something bigger going on here that’s a significant contributor to growing inequality. And that’s the slow and steady transfer we see from public responsibility to private responsibility.”

Oprah Is Not Your Friend: A Q&A With Nicole Aschoff

Originally published in Dissent on August 18, 2015.
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Nicole Aschoff, the Managing Editor at Jacobin magazine, is author of The New Prophets of Capital, a book that examines the modern mythmaking central to twenty-first century capitalism. It’s a short and agitating book that aims to critically examine some of the rhetoric espoused by “new prophets” like Oprah Winfrey, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that capitalism has always needed, and will always need stories for people to grasp on to, to “get us out of bed in the morning and remind us where we are going.” Why is this? Does socialism have its own prophets?

Nicole Aschoff: Stories, as a vehicle for norms, ideas, and morals, are important to all societies, and capitalist societies are no exception. In capitalist societies there is a disjuncture between the things we value highly—family, community, fulfillment, education, culture—and the architecture of our economy, which prioritizes profit. Stories about “creative capitalism” and positive thinking told by people like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey matter because they smooth over this disjuncture. They help to convince people that capitalism is the best, or only possible, way to organize society.

Just as there have always been people whose stories bolster capitalism—from Ben Franklin to John Mackey—there have also always been voices that challenge capitalism and the existing hierarchy of power. In the United States we can think about the stories told by people like Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, and Rachel Carson, to name a few. However, if we look at the history of the labor, civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements, the importance of collective actions and voices, rather than a few powerful prophets or hierarchical leadership structures, is striking. Successful social movements are made up of empowered, critical, ordinary people, and I think this is something to strive for.

Cohen: You explore the popularity of Whole Foods and discuss the rise of “lifestyle politics” whereby people conflate consumer choices with politics and citizenship. You acknowledge that for so many individuals, given that social change often feels incredibly elusive, there’s an aspect of empowerment that comes with modifying one’s consumer choices—like buying organic produce or going vegan. What, in your view, is wrong with this idea and what might be a better way to think about consumer action and social change?

Aschoff: It depends on what you want to get out of lifestyle politics. If your goal is to eat healthier, or simplify your life by reducing your possessions, then buying better things—if you have the money—can be quite empowering. But if your goal is to impact bigger processes, like environmental degradation or global poverty, lifestyle politics is not the answer. Companies that produce nice things like organic food or sustainable furniture are like all other companies, and must constantly expand and produce more to generate profits.

This does not mean that making better choices is useless or that we shouldn’t challenge the way things are being produced. It is simply a call for different kinds of projects. The environmental crisis is ultimately a social and political crisis that can only be solved by collective action.

Cohen: One chapter looks at the rise of “philanthrocapitalists” like the Gateses, Waltons, Broads, and Buffetts. In an era of scarce resources and shrinking government budgets, why should we be concerned about the growing influence of philanthropists?

Aschoff: Periods of increasing activity by philanthropic foundations, or these days “philanthrocapitalists,” are historically a symptom of social crisis associated with rising inequality. On the surface this might seem positive. But we can’t expect big foundations to solve inequality, or poverty, or any number of other social ills.

Foundations distract from how wealth creation works, by making it appear that philanthropists are doing people a favor out of the goodness of their hearts. This hides the fact that the wealth they have amassed was not simply the result of their own cunning or ability—it was made possible by all the people who worked for them, not to mention the public infrastructure made possible by taxpayers. By presenting themselves as do-gooders or charitable institutions, foundations erase the last four decades of aggressive lobbying for financial deregulation and tax-cuts and the concerted attacks on working people and unions by businesses and elites.

Unlike taxes, when foundations make philanthropic donations, they are choosing which projects they want to fund. These projects often have some progressive effects—poor children get vaccines when they wouldn’t otherwise. But they also often contain conservative goals—for example, the Gateses favor commoditizing health care rather than supporting universal health care, and many foundations support privatizing public education and reducing the voice of parents and teachers in how schools are run.

Whether we like foundation projects or not makes little difference because people like Bill and Melinda Gates are incredibly powerful and essentially unaccountable. We have no say over how foundation money is used, even when it impacts people’s lives profoundly.

Cohen: You note that challenging these stories about capitalism “require a fundamental rethinking of our current way of life, a prospect that evokes fears of violence and disorder, and a deeper apprehension that in the process of transforming our society, we might lose ourselves and the essence of who we are.” How do we overcome these fears?

Aschoff: Capitalism is a stressful system. People use up most of their energy just keeping their head above water, so telling them to imagine a different kind of society might seem silly or off-putting. But when we look back at U.S. history—at slavery, child labor, the oppression of women, Jim Crow, homophobia—these things didn’t get better by themselves. People fought and died to make them better, and they continue that struggle today. Capitalism is a historical development; there is nothing “natural” or inevitable about it. As renowned author Ursula Le Guin said recently: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings.” Reminding ourselves how change has happened in the past is important if we want to think seriously about creating a different kind of society.

Cohen: One chapter of your book explores Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s particular brand of feminism. Your argument, which I’ve also seen made by writers like Sarah JaffeElizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Sarah Leonard, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, suggests that Sandberg’s approach of encouraging women to “lean in” may help a small slice of elite women access power, but ultimately won’t help women at the bottom of the economic ladder. Why does it have to be an either/or discussion?

Aschoff: Nearly everyone is dependent upon wages to pay for all the things they need to survive, but those wages come directly out of the profits of the businesses they work for. The job of a head of a company—whether male or female—is to maximize profits, and one way they can do this is by paying as little as possible in wages and taxes. This means the goals of women leaders are often at odds with the needs of working-class women. Having women at the top may help in the fight against sexism and smooth the way for other women to step into leadership positions, but the idea that women leaders will implement better conditions for women more broadly has little historical precedent.

Sandberg’s manifesto aligns perfectly with the needs of capital by encouraging women to map their dreams onto the growth trajectories of corporate America. Sure, seeing women in leadership positions can be aspirational, but turning this into the mechanism for achieving feminism hides the structural barriers preventing most women from achieving security and success, while simultaneously burnishing the meritocratic façade of big business. Real feminism—the idea that everyone, regardless of gender, should get decent pay and a voice in their workplace, dignity, respect, quality healthcare and childcare, the right to higher education and housing, and a robust support network for old age, illness, or disability—is incompatible with scaling the corporate jungle gym.

Cohen: When we hear about an anti-union company announcing they will raise their minimum wage, or give more flexible commuting options, or expand their paid maternity leave, how should we be thinking about these employers and business models? In an era where everything can seem bad and getting worse, how should we be thinking about these bouts of “conscious capitalism” in the marketplace?

Aschoff: Capitalism’s overwhelming power often inspires a feeling of helplessness or despair, so it is understandable to feel hopeful when businesses make small decisions that improve people’s lives, like raising wages or improving working conditions. At the end of the day, the goal of any political movement should always be about making people’s lives better. But there is a difference between gains granted by “conscious” companies and gains that are won through struggle.

Take for example the Fight for 15. Winning $15 an hour won’t change the fact these companies exist to make a profit—they can absorb higher wage costs and continue going about their business essentially unchanged—but that certainly doesn’t mean that $15 isn’t worth fighting for. It would represent a huge change for people living in poverty. Victories like the recent one in NY are exciting, and show that not only can workers win when they fight together, but also the potential of their struggles to build solidarity and confidence that can be channeled into a much broader, democratic movement for change.

NEA Members Announce They Will Fight Institutional Racism. Do They Mean It?

Originally published on the American Prospect Tapped blog on July 9, 2015.
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At the National Education Association’s recently concluded annual meeting—a gathering where the country’s largest labor union sets its policy priorities for the coming year—delegates passed several historic measures that committed the union to fighting institutional racism.

Perhaps the most notable measure was New Business Item B, which passed unanimously. It opened with language stating that the NEA “acknowledge[s] the existence in our country of institutional racism—the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” Allocating $277,000 to the effort, the union pledged to, among other things, focus on providing support for programs that can “end the school to prison pipeline” and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.” While this funding will last for one year, the measure includes a clause that says some money should go toward “researching implications for NEA’s Strategic Plan and Budget for 2016-2018,” which suggests that the union would consider devoting more resources to anti-racist efforts in the future.

EduColor—a relatively new movement to elevate public school advocates of color on issues of equity and justice—released a statement following the NEA’s conference. While EduColor’s members applauded the steps taken by the union to confront institutional racism, they pointed out that “it should humble all of us to some degree that it took such a long time to do what seemed so obvious to NEA members of color.” With school segregation, inequitable school funding, and shortages of black and brown teachers, EduColor said, “Now, we must go beyond statements and into the substance of our actions.” Making anti-racist work compulsory for their union, they argue, must “sit side-by-side with collective bargaining rights.”

Jose Vilson, the founder of EduColor, writing on his blog, said he hopes the NEA is committed to fighting racism because its members truly believe in social justice, and not because its members are afraid of being labeled as racists if they don’t. Vilson noted that the NEA introduced and passed bills that he “wouldn’t have thought possible even a few months ago”—a testament to the hard and difficult conversations taking place in their union and across the country—but that still, “we have to recognize that many of our colleagues aren’t ready to hear that they may be part of the problem, too.”

The questions that have come to the forefront of education policy debates over the past year are not about to disappear, or be resolved, anytime soon. The NEA joins the American Federation of Teachers, a union with a much longer history of tackling racial justice issues, in reckoning with how to fight politically for greater equity and opportunity both within and outside of the school building. While the two unions seem to recognize that education is greatly impacted by economic inequality, incarceration, and racism, it will no doubt take activist educators to keep their organizations’ priorities focused on results.

Why Civic Tech Can’t Be Neutral

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 10th, 2015.
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Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Technology in the service of democracy—“civic tech”—has become the cause of a growing number of coders, hackers, political strategists, non-profit executives, activists and others who come together at an annual conference called the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF). The most recent meeting in New York City on June 4 and 5 attracted about 850 participants. But as that meeting showed, the civic-tech world is divided on a fundamental question. Some strive to avoid anything that could appear partisan or ideological, while others believe that civic tech’s shared vision cannot come to fruition without challenging power.

PDF’s co-founders, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej took a clear position: “Civic tech cannot be neutral,” they said.

“When a few have more than ever before, and many are asking for equal rights and dignity, civic tech cannot be simply about improving basic government services, like making it easier to know when the next bus is coming or helping you file your benefits more quickly,” Sifry and Rasiej wrote in a packet given to each conference attendee. While these innovations are helpful and represent the present focus of civic tech, PDF’s co-founders insist that those innocuous steps cannot define its future—not when the barriers to political participation are so divided by class, race, and geography.

Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University also argued that impartiality is unacceptable and called for the civic tech community to focus its efforts on giving real meaning to the concept of equal citizenship. Liu urged the participants to ask themselves, “Am I developing work, tools, power, and ideas that actually help those who do not have access get access, those who do not have voice, get voice?”

Other speakers offered a vision of social change through collaboration. “Imagine how we can reshape the future of work together in humane and kind ways,” said Palak Shah, the Social Innovations Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), who aims to improve labor conditions through market-based solutions. Shah tries to bring about “creative collisions” between “nannies and coders, activists and hackers” to build a mutually beneficial future for businesses and social movements.

One afternoon I attended a PDF breakout session called “Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Participation”—a panel of researchers and experts exploring how to engage more people in civic life. Jon Sotsky, the director of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation, discussed some of his organization’s new research findings on millennials and voting. According to this research, while young people overwhelmingly believe they can have a greater impact locally, they are far more likely to vote in national elections. Sotsky attributed the lower rate of voting to a lack of good voting information at the local level—a problem, he said, the Knight Foundation will be addressing through new projects aimed at creating more comprehensive repositories of civic information.

No doubt we should conduct more research and improve local civic information. Whether that will actually make a difference in voter turnout is another matter.

“Technology cannot solve the big stuff, even if sometimes we’d like to believe it can,” Sotsky said, in one of the conference’s more humble moments. Technology’s role in these situations, he suggested, could be to help foster attachment between residents and communities, deepen social networks, and support the value of voting.

But we’ve already seen what can happen when the tech world turns to politics, as it did in the conflicts over SOPA, PIPA, and net neutrality. What if the same energy was directed towards removing voting restrictions?

There’s a lot about civic inequality that we already know. Some barriers to participation may be reduced through better-targeted education programs and redesigned civic forums. But political inequality is not something that will be solved by an app. There’s no Uber for voting. For the marginalized to have more power, others will have to relinquish some control, and we can’t escape or obfuscate that discussion.