Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

January 20, 2016

Obama and Race

By David K. Shipler

             On Monday’s holiday, Barack and Michelle Obama visited an elementary school in Washington, DC, filled backpacks with books for kids, helped make planters for the school’s vegetable garden, and celebrated the service of AmeriCorps mentors. But Martin Luther King Jr. Day passed with no speech by the first African-American president about race in America. Nor, in his final State of the Union address last week, did Obama include a discussion of the state of race relations, despite the strains and fault lines that have grown more visible in recent years.
            On matters of race, he has not used his bully pulpit very well. Not that he’s ignored the topic: Very occasionally over his two terms, he’s offered some of the most eloquent and insightful commentary heard from any president, usually at a ceremonial or tragic moment. He has initiated a series of concrete policies aimed at improving the lot of minorities, including a task force on policing that might help counter bias in uniform.
But what he has not done, for whatever reasons, is spark and guide the kind of ongoing, searching introspection that the country needs. This is a loss for all of us.
            Bill Clinton, a president whose acute sensibilities were shaped by his upbringing as a white kid in Arkansas during the Civil Rights Movement, organized a national conversation on race during his second term.

January 12, 2016

Labor: A Free Market or a Rigged Market?

By David K. Shipler

Imagine working hard for a big company, say, Walmart, and feeling that your paycheck should be higher. Imagine going to the store manager and asking for a raise. Imagine him saying no—well, you don’t have to imagine that, because that’s the way it will surely be if you’re all alone. But now imagine that all your colleagues, all the cashiers and stockroom workers and salespeople go together to the manager and ask for a raise. Will he take notice? You bet. And if he doesn’t, watch what happens if you and your co-workers threaten to strike.
That’s the simplified sketch of what collective bargaining is about. It is what labor unions do—unions that have become an endangered species in the private American economy, where only 6.6 percent of workers are members, according to the Labor Department’s latest figures, from 2014.
That means that the vast majority of employees, with the exception of highly skilled professionals who are valued enough to negotiate their terms, cannot influence their wages, vacations, pensions, health insurance, or job security. A larger minority of government employees are unionized—35.7 percent at last count, mostly police officers, firefighters, and teachers—but that figure is dropping too, and will probably get another downward kick by the Supreme Court, if the conservative justices rule as they indicated during a hearing this week.
The United States, then, is likely to become an economy with virtually no labor unions if the trends of recent decades persist. About one-third of American workers were union members fifty years ago, and just over one-tenth are today. What are the implications?

January 8, 2016

Books, Parents, Schools, and Hidden Defeats

By David K. Shipler

            About a year ago, a mother in a wealthy suburb of Dallas filed a formal complaint against the use of my book The Working Poor: Invisible in America in advanced placement English classes at Highland Park High School. A review committee was formed, but she thought its membership was stacked against her and so withdrew her challenge. That was the end of the story.
            Or was it? Not quite. Six of Highland Park’s eighteen English teachers resigned at the end of the year, mostly because of the controversy, which involved seven books altogether and had brought “panic attacks, meltdowns, or outbursts of volcanic anger,” one told me. Going forward, teachers were required to write long rationales justifying the readings they wished to assign, which were then submitted to panels of community residents. Only the principled, daring, and resolute could resist the temptation of “soft censorship” as a way of avoiding controversial works by not choosing them in the first place. This must happen invisibly all across the country.
So even victories over those who try to have books removed have unseen costs. The classroom can be invaded by stress, bureaucracy, politicization, and a sense of danger. Education has “become very unsafe,” said Brian Read, an English teacher in Plymouth-Canton, Michigan, whose selections for AP English—Beloved by Toni Morrison and Waterland by Graham Swift—had survived an angry challenge by a small group of conservative parents who hadn’t read them.