The Plan

This story first aired on the NPR Radio show This American Life on February 29, 2008 as Act Two of Human Resources:

American cities have gone through a massive wave of gentrification in the last few decades. To some people, it’s not a natural ebb and flow of the real estate market, but a plot, by rich, mainly white people, to take over the neighborhoods of poor, mainly black people. This American Life producer Jon Jeter reports on how, in neighborhoods all over the country, the plot has a name, “The Plan,” and most people you talk to know about it. (11 minutes)


Bloomberg’s Democratic opponents live in glass houses

Photo: MGN

This article first published 3/2/20 by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Had they been battle rappers rather than Democrats vying for their party’s presidential nomination, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would almost certainly have been booed off the stage in the Nevada debate, excoriated by his peers for among other things, his administration’s “stop-and-frisk” policy that terrorized Gotham’s Blacks and Latinos.

In his first debate, the billionaire publisher offered the most tepid and unconvincing responses to the withering assault, defending stop-and-frisk as a sound law-enforcement policy “but it got out of control.” I lived in New York for Bloomberg’s final two terms in office and witnessed Manhattan’s biblical transformation, from a hive of tribal energy and cultural expression into the world’s largest gated community that is hostile to the working class generally, and people of color specifically.

Yet while I am loath to give Mad Mike any useful advice, I do think that he should return fire next time by borrowing a page, perhaps, from Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the Republican nomination.

Here is how he might more effectively respond to criticisms on his law-enforcement policies leveled by his Democratic rivals:

“Was stop-and-frisk a racist policy that unfairly, and unconstitutionally brutalized Black and Brown men in New York City? Of course it was and we all know it. But who on this stage wants to cast the first stone from their glass encampment? Joe Biden, who got his start in national politics by railing against integrated schools, and who authored the draconian 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that has done more to swell the nation’s prison population than any single piece of legislation in American history?

Surely not Senator Klobuchar, who as the top prosecutor in Minneapolis sent a Black teenager to jail for life for the accidental killing of an 11-year-old girl. There was, according to the Associated Press, “no gun, fingerprints, or DNA. Alibis were never seriously pursued. Key evidence has gone missing or was never obtained, including a convenience store surveillance tape that . . . (some) say would have cleared him.”

And I am sure the Black residents of South Bend, Indiana would find Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s reproach of me for racial insensitivity curious, given his firing of a popular African American police chief and his support for a White sergeant in his police department who fatally shot an unarmed 54-year old Black man.

Call me a cynic, but I think it odd that I would be singled out for my brutalization of Blacks in a country that has routinely brutalized Blacks for 400 years, by a party that has doubled down on its “get-tough-on-crime” mantra since Bill Clinton won the White House 27 years ago in an effort to woo White voters enthralled with Ronald Reagan’s articulation of White supremacy.

And for anyone in our audience who thinks I am lying, ask yourself this: my last two terms as mayor coincided roughly with the Obama administration’s two terms in office; if everyone was so concerned with my mistreatment of African Americans, why didn’t Vice President Biden and his boss instruct their Justice Department to intervene?”

At issue here is not Bloomberg’s innocence, but White guilt that stretches back to chattel slavery, and a fear as old as the Republic of the fire next time. The historian John Hope Franklin wrote:

“Even before the war, White Southerners had frequently entertained a wild nightmarish fear that the slaves would rise up, slay them, and overthrow the institution of slavery. It had happened in Haiti. Perhaps it would happen here. In 1865, Southern Whites “knew” that there was nothing to hold back the tide. Wild rumors flashed through the South that the freedmen would strike in vengeance. Some Whites were even certain of the date. It would be New Year’s Day 1866, they said. How could they keep their minds on rebuilding when their former slaves were poised to complete the destruction?”

The custodian of White anxiety is the criminal justice system, which is designed and upgraded to mete out maximum punishment to Blacks while affording maximum protection to Whites. Consider the proliferation of so-called Stand Your Ground Laws that began to criss-cross the country at almost exactly the same time that Blomberg was ratcheting up “stop-and-frisk”

Since 2006, 33 states have passed “Stand Your Ground” laws, which are based on a 400-year old British common law requiring a claimant to demonstrate a defensive posture before using lethal force dating back to the early 1600s. The Castle Doctrine, however—a man’s home is his castle—provides an exemption in the case of an intruder or burglar.

“Stand Your Ground” laws nonsensically expand the legal justification for lethal self-defense and in giving prosecutors broad discretion, the law grants Whites a license to kill an unarmed Black or Brown man if they feel threatened. For all practical purposes, the consequence for killing an unarmed African American in Florida is often less than that for killing a beaver in Maine.

In fact, in fending off his rivals, perhaps Bloomberg should execute the first “mic drop” in presidential debate history, and walk off the stage after concluding with a line often attributed to Oscar Wilde: “All criticism is a form of autobiography.”

Tell A Story, Shame the Devil: How Pundits, Tweets, and Listicles Destroyed American Journalism

Jon Jeter - Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador - Efrojas

The cover story of the December 6th, 1993 issue of the New Yorker was akin to a thunderclap. Written by Mark Danner, the article entitled The Truth of El Mozote is a 22,000-word account of the My Lai-like massacre of nearly 1,000 villagers in the central American country of El Salvador. It begins:

“Heading up into the mountains of Morazán, in the bright, clear air near the Honduran border, you cross the Torola River, the wooden slats of the one-lane bridge clattering beneath your wheels, and enter what was the fiercest of El Salvador’s zonas rojas — or “red zones,” as the military officers knew them during a decade of civil war — and after climbing for some time you take leave of the worn blacktop to follow for several miles a bone-jarring dirt track that hugs a mountainside, and soon you will find, among ruined towns and long-abandoned villages that are coming slowly, painfully back to life, a tiny hamlet, by now little more than a scattering of ruins, that is being rapidly reclaimed by the earth, its broken adobe walls cracking and crumbling and giving way before an onslaught of weeds, which are fuelled by the rain that beats down each afternoon and by the fog that settles heavily at night in the valleys. Nearby, in the long-depopulated villages, you can see stirrings of life: even in Arambala, a mile or so away, with its broad grassy plaza bordered by collapsed buildings and dominated, where once a fine church stood, by a shell-pocked bell tower and a jagged adobe arch looming against the sky — even here, a boy leads a brown cow by a rope, a man in a billed cap and bluejeans trudges along bearing lengths of lumber on his shoulder, three little girls stand on tiptoe at a porch railing, waving and giggling at a passing car.”

But follow the stony dirt track, which turns and twists through the woodland, and in a few minutes you enter a large clearing, and here all is quiet. No one has returned to El Mozote. Empty as it is, shot through with sunlight, the place remains — as a young guerrilla who had patrolled here during the war told me with a shiver — espantoso: spooky, scary, dreadful. After a moment’s gaze, half a dozen battered structures — roofless, doorless, windowless, half engulfed by underbrush — resolve themselves into a semblance of pattern: four ruins off to the right must have marked the main street, and a fifth the beginning of a side lane, while an open area opposite looks to have been a common, though no church can be seen — only a ragged knoll, a sort of earthen platform nearly invisible beneath a great tangle of weeds and brush.

Relying principally on excavations by an Argentine forensic team sifting through the mass graves, and a Salvadoran woman, Rufina Amaya Marquez, who managed to escape the carnage, Danner tells the poignant story of what happened in a remote corner of the Americas over two days in December of 1981. In doing so, he rebuts the U.S. government’s steadfast characterization of the slaughter as a skirmish between CIA-backed Salvadoran troops and Marxist guerillas.

The New Yorker billed Danner’s Truth of El Mozote as a “parable of the Cold War” and, indeed, it shined a spotlight on the proxy wars that erupted across the global South, pitting the mostly Europeans who owned colonized settlements across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, against the black and brown workers who built them. Yet it also represents a triumph of nonfiction storytelling, and the intimate reportage that is its rebar, providing a showcase for a model of journalism, now defunct, that is transformative rather than transactional. 

Danner’s artful prose has all-but disappeared from today’s media, replaced by 16-character tweets, memes, and something called listicles. Gone are storytellers who trafficked in deep and close-up reporting and interviews with the people-on-the ground, and in their place have surfaced bloggers and podcasters and pundits who seem preoccupied with gazing at their own navels rather than storytelling. Much like the leftist dissidents from Argentina’s La Guerra Sucia, or Dirty War, Rufina Amaya  Marquez and her encounter with evil would be disappeared, airbrushed, as it were out of the picture, leaving the telling of her story to those who tried to kill her, and those who experienced it second-hand, if at all. 

What is lost, ultimately, is an understanding of both the world and each other. Whether we realize it or not, we need stories; the best educators, trial lawyers, and politicians can attest to the power of storytelling. Narrative strengthens our humanity, informs our democracy, fends off ignorance and ennui. Journalism in the U.S. has never been good overall —I can make a compelling argument that the news media’s raison d’etre has traditionally been to head off class war in America by fomenting a race war  — but at its best, as exemplified by Danner’s work in El Salvador, it can narrow the yawning divide that is the source of our discontent.

Today’s journalists have abandoned even the pretense of inquiry in an effort to reproduce inequality by asserting their authority, their singular expertise in addressing all that ails we, the people. This explains why they typically eschew narrative and reportage for access to the powerful and panels of pundits and politicians which continues to center the very same voices who are wholly responsible for the perfect storm of political, economic and environmental crises that are bearing down on us. Consider for a moment the architecture of storytelling like Danner’s, which centers not the journalist, but his or her subject.  

Contrast that with the Intercept’s interview last year with Brazil’s ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was jailed at the time on trumped-up corruption charges pressed by conservative politicians who wanted to derail a reelection bid by the popular president, commonly known as “Lula.” In the wide-ranging interview, Glenn Greenwald covered a lot of ground and did not spare Lula the tough questions about the failures of both his administration or the policies of his center-left Workers Party. But what Greenwald failed to do is identify the narratives that, like Danner’s article 26 years earlier, might’ve deepened our understanding not just of Brazil, but of our own country, and the world.

Greenwald failed to explore in his follow-up questioning, or produce a follow-up documentary based on the interview, which could’ve contextualized Lula and his Workers’ Party as part of Latin America’s Pink Tide, an uprising of leftist governments that began to sweep America’s “backyard” bracketed by the 1998 election of Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chavez, and the 2007 election of Rafael Correa. First elected in 2002, Lula clearly distanced his government from the Pink Tide, choosing a moderate third way, akin to Bill Clinton, that produced some modest, liberal reforms, but did nothing to sever Brazil’s ties to Wall Street finance. For much of his presidency, and that of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil continued to pay interest rates on its public debt that was among the highest in the world, privileging investors while killing exports, and job creation. Given that the only Pink Tide state that survived the offensive from Washington is the nation that embraced socialism most ardently, Venezuela, will Lula embrace more radical, transformative policies that appeal to Brazil’s black majority in his political comeback?  That question would have particular resonance stateside. The Portuguese settlers imported more Africans to toil as slaves than any country in the world —the U.S. is a distant second —and today is home to more people of African descent than any country save Nigeria. Slavery in Brazil outlasted its American counterpart by 23 years. Consequently, Brazil is virtually a mirror image of the U.S. in terms of economic inequality, violence against blacks, and the voters’ choice of a vile, Donald Trump mini-me as president.  Said Lula:

“It’s because this isn’t just an economic question; it’s a cultural issue. One has to remember that it was only a little over a hundred years ago that slavery was legally abolished, and that it continues in the minds of many. That’s why the greatest victims of police violence are black, that’s why those who are black earn less than 50 percent less than those who are white, and that’s why black women earn less than white women. That’s why those who are black have a lower average level of schooling than those who are white. Why? Because slavery is still prevalent deep within people’s consciousness. It’s a harsh thing to say but it’s true. And this doesn’t change overnight. Really, I think deep down it’s not an economic question. It’s a set of cultural, political and sociological issues.”

Sound familiar?

Contextualizing Lula’s interview historically represents journalism that can heal by connecting the dots, and shining a light on our way forward. 

Part of the problem is simply a numbers game. Never especially diverse, the news media has undergone a stark transformation over the last generation, triggered by Bill Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated the industry and allowed giant corporations to buy up thousands of news outlets across the country, tightening their monopoly on the flow of information in the United States and around the world. Since the law was enacted, the number of black journalists in U.S. newsrooms has plummeted by nearly half, from 2,946 in 1998 to 1,560 in 2015, according to the American Society for Newspaper Editors, or ASNE. On a per-capita basis, that figure is slightly smaller than it was in 1890, when the U.S. Census counted 300 black journalists out of a total population of 62 million, compared with 330 million today.

According to ASNE, as a percentage of the workforce, blacks accounted for 5.4 percent of all editorial staff in 2015 — a proportion virtually identical to the 1968 Kerner Commission Report’s estimate that African-Americans represented only 5 percent of the nation’s journalism workforce then. Even fewer, about 1 percent, are supervising editors.

The Kerner Commission was charged with identifying the causes of the season of revolts that erupted in America’s big cities beginning with the Watts rebellion in August of 1965 and climaxed three years later following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The common thread in all of the riots, the report’s authors wrote, was racial discrimination in housing, education, job opportunities and, centrally, the news media, which was so disconnected from the black community writ large that it had almost nothing useful to say about its causes, or how to prevent such uprisings in the future.

Danner is white, but he worked in a journalistic milieu in which there was at least an effort in newsrooms across the country to rectify the issues identified by the Kerner Commission report, although it was eventually overwhelmed by the campaign to whitewash history and discourage whites from supporting the progressive social movements of people of color. Seldom does the media connect us to a world outside the Beltway, or beyond Harvard Square. The result is a media milieu which hits the mute button on Rufina Amaya Marquez, and where, to quote Ossie Davis’ character, Da Mayor, in Spike Lee’s iconic 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, “those who’ll say, don’t know, and those who know, can’t say!”