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Fatal Invention – Dorothy Roberts


Fatal Invention

How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century

Dorothy Roberts

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $12.99

Publish Date: June 14, 2011

Publisher: The New Press

Seller: OpenRoad Integrated Media, LLC

An incisive, groundbreaking book that examines how a biological concept of race is a myth that promotes inequality in a supposedly “post-racial” era.   Though the Human Genome Project proved that human beings are not naturally divided by race, the emerging fields of personalized medicine, reproductive technologies, genetic genealogy, and DNA databanks are attempting to resuscitate race as a biological category written in our genes.   This groundbreaking book by legal scholar and social critic Dorothy Roberts examines how the myth of race as a biological concept—revived by purportedly cutting-edge science, race-specific drugs, genetic testing, and DNA databases—continues to undermine a just society and promote inequality in a supposedly “post-racial” era. Named one of the ten best black nonfiction books 2011 by AFRO.com, Fatal Invention offers a timely and “provocative analysis” ( Nature ) of race, science, and politics that “is consistently lucid . . . alarming but not alarmist, controversial but evidential, impassioned but rational” ( Publishers Weekly , starred review).   “Everyone concerned about social justice in America should read this powerful book.” —Anthony D. Romero, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union   “A terribly important book on how the ‘fatal invention’ has terrifying effects in the post-genomic, ‘post-racial’ era.” —Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, professor of sociology, Duke University, and author of Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States   “ Fatal Invention is a triumph! Race has always been an ill-defined amalgam of medical and cultural bias, thinly overlaid with the trappings of contemporary scientific thought. And no one has peeled back the layers of assumption and deception as lucidly as Dorothy Roberts.” —Harriet A. Washington, author of and Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself  

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Fatal Invention – Dorothy Roberts

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‘We’re not a dump’ — poor Alabama towns struggle under the stench of toxic landfills

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

West Jefferson, Alabama, a somnolent town of around 420 people northwest of Birmingham, was an unlikely venue to seize the national imagination. Now, it has the misfortune to be forever associated with the “poop train.”

David Brasfield, a retired coal miner who has lived in West Jefferson for 45 years, thought at first the foul stench came from the carcass of a shot pig. By the time he realized that human feces was being transported from 1,000 miles away to a nearby landfill site, a scene of biblical pestilence was unfolding upon West Jefferson.

“The odor was unbearable, as were the flies and stink bugs,” said Brasfield, who sports a graying handlebar mustache and describes himself as a conservative Republican. “The flies were so bad that you couldn’t walk outside without being inundated by them. You’d be covered in all sorts of insects. People started getting headaches, they couldn’t breathe. You wouldn’t even go outside to put meat on the barbecue.”

The landfill, called Big Sky Environmental, sits on the fringes of West Jefferson and is permitted to accept waste from 48 U.S. states. It used a nearby rail spur to import sewage from New York and New Jersey. This epic fecal odyssey was completed by trucks which took on the waste and rumbled through West Jefferson — sometimes spilling dark liquid on sharp turns — to the landfill.

Outrage at this arrangement reached a crescendo in April last year when Jefferson County, of which West Jefferson is part, barred the landfill operator from using the rail spur. Malodorous train carriages began backing up near several neighbouring towns.

“Oh my goodness, it’s just a nightmare here,” said Heather Hall, mayor of Parrish, where the unwanted cargo squatted for two months. “It smells like rotting corpses, or carcasses. It smells like death.”

America’s dumping ground

Residents started hounding the phone lines of elected officials and showed up at public meetings with bags of dead flies. One man described the smell as similar to “25,000 people taking a dump around your house.” The growing national media attention eventually stung New York and New Jersey, which halted convoys of human waste to the site.

But while the distress lifted from West Jefferson, other communities across Alabama struggle forlornly in a miasma of nearby landfills. Alabama has gained a reputation as the dumping ground of the U.S., with toxic waste from across the country typically heaped near poor, rural communities, many with large African American populations.

Alabama has a total of 173 operational landfills, more than three times as many as New York, a state with a population four times greater but with just 54 dumps. California — three times larger than Alabama and containing eight people for every Alabamian — has just a handful more landfills than the southern state.

“You take a poor rural area, take advantage of the people and turn their farming land into a dumping ground so a few people can make a profit,” said Nelson Brooke, head of the Black River Riverkeeper organization. “Parts of our state have been turned into a toilet bowl and there isn’t the political spine to stop it.”

Many of the largest landfills are clustered in a region known as the Black Belt, a stretch of counties around Alabama’s midriff named initially for its fertile topsoil but latterly known for the tenant farmers and sharecroppers that helped form the basis of its large black population today.

The low land values and extreme poverty of the region make it a magnet for landfills, with waste hauled in from across the country for as little as $1 a ton. Acceptance of landfills is delegated to counties, causing potential conflicts of interest with local officials involved in waste disposal. Residents are often blindsided by the appearance of new dumps.

“A continual refrain for decades in Alabama is that politicians are selling out the people,” said Conner Bailey, an academic at Auburn University. “It’s a long tradition.”

Environmental injustice

A crucible of the civil rights movement — from the Selma-to-Montgomery march to the Rosa Parks-inspired bus boycotts to the Birmingham church bombing — Alabama’s racial disparity in pollution exposure has become only more stark.

A landfill near Emelle in Sumter county, where the neighbouring community is about 90 percent black and a third of people live in poverty, at one point accepted 40 percent of all hazardous waste disposed in the U.S. Anniston, Alabama, where half the residents are black, won a high-profile settlement from Monsanto after the dumping of so much PCBs, chemicals linked to cancers and liver damage, that a local creek turned red.

“There are still major problems in Alabama resulting from environmental injustice and there does not appear to be will on part of its government to reverse these problems,” said Ryke Longest, a law professor at Duke University.

“Alabama’s history with Jim Crow and preservation of segregation as well as suppressing voting rights made these problems worse by segregating communities and disenfranchising black Americans in their communities.”

Many homes near the sprawling Stone’s Throw landfill, east of Montgomery, are now abandoned. The landfill, which can accept 1,500 tons of construction debris, ash, asbestos, sludge, and other material each day, is located in the Ashurst Bar/Smith community, which is around three-quarters African American.

“It’s almost unbearable to live there, even three miles away my eyes burn and I get nauseous,” said Phyllis Gosa, now retired and living in Selma but still visits family who have owned property in the community since the end of slavery. “It’s our heritage; we are losing who we are. When it comes to people of color, we are still three-fifths of a human being. The 14th amendment doesn’t apply to us. That’s who Alabama is, that’s its legacy.”

Ron Smith, a neighbor and pastor, said there is pressure on black families to sell devalued land to the expanding landfill. He grows blueberries in his back yard but is uncertain if he should eat them. “Our government picked an area where people couldn’t defend themselves,” he said. “This is the perfect area.”

Unlike the 1960s civil rights push, there has been no federal savior. In April 2017, a group of residents claimed that Alabama’s tolerance of the Stone’s Throw landfill had caused chronic illnesses such as asthma and cancer, pungent smells and water pollution, thereby breaching the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of race-based discrimination.

In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided there was “insufficient evidence” for the complaint despite finding that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) hadn’t properly enforced a requirement that six inches of covering soil be placed upon landfill waste every day. ADEM wrote to the landfill, also in December, scolding it for excessive discharges of copper, oil, grease and “suspended solids” between 2016 and 2018.

However, while the EPA found “a preponderance of the evidence that a lack of enforcement did result in adverse impacts,” other, white-majority, communities also live under this inadequate regime, meaning the blight couldn’t be defined as racist.

The finding follows a familiar pattern by the EPA: The agency’s civil rights office went 22 years without deciding that discrimination laws were broken, despite hundreds of complaints.


More than 40 black residents have now turned to the courts, suing Advanced Disposal Services, which operates Stone’s Throw, and two water utilities for allowing heavy metals, E. coli and a cocktail of harmful chemicals to leach into the water supply and, they claim, cause their abdominal cancers.

“Alabama seems to have an inordinate number of these big landfills that have created a variety of problems,” said Ted Mann, the attorney representing the residents. Mann, an Alabamian Democrat who has an abstract painting of Abraham Lincoln in his Birmingham office, said his clients feel “trapped.”

“ADEM doesn’t do much of anything,” he said. “Underfunded, understaffed and woefully and inadequately involved in the environmental issues in our state.”

The crossover between pollution and racism “is hard to not see,” Mann said. “If you see it and you ignore it, it’s because you just want to ignore it.”

Other communities aren’t able to muster legal recourse. Uniontown, half an hour west of the civil rights touchstone of Selma, is a place where 9 out of 10 residents are black and the median household income is $14,000 a year. Uniontown’s roads are derelict, the only grocery store closed last year and its elementary school can only afford to educate children up to grade three.

Uniontown is also home to the Arrowhead landfill, an artificial green mountain twice the size of New York’s Central Park that looms over the tumbledown town. It can accept up to 15,000 tons of waste a day, from 33 states. In 2012, ADEM allowed Arrowhead to expand in size by two-thirds.

A group of residents have spent the past decade complaining about a smell similar to rotten eggs coming from the landfill, as well as the site’s coal ash for causing an array of health problems, such as sore throats and nosebleeds (Arrowhead said that no coal ash has been delivered to the landfill since 2010).

The landfill is a “huge hill in the midst of the community,” said Esther Calhoun, who has lived in Uniontown most of her life. “That smell … it makes you want to vomit. The pecan trees, they don’t bear any more. Even the garden that I had, we don’t use it any more.”

But in March last year, a few months before its similar Civil Rights Act decision over Stone’s Throw, the EPA ruled that Uniontown has not been subjected to “a prima facie case of discrimination.”

This knockback has shrouded Uniontown in fatalistic hopelessness, according to local activists. “They are trying to break our spirit,” said Ben Eaton, a retired teacher who speaks in a rumbling baritone and moves around with the aid of a walker. Eaton, now a county commissioner, had just come from a meeting where Arrowhead was asked to pay some fees up front so the county could afford an ambulance service.

“It’s a sort of learned helplessness,” he said. “People are hanging on by a thread right now. Well, my folks have always taught me to go down fighting, even if you go down.”

Mike Smith, an attorney for Arrowhead, said neither ADEM nor the EPA have ever found excessive odor, air pollution, or water contamination. “The residents you may have spoken to have been offered multiple opportunities, both formal and informal, to present any evidence of pollution and have failed to do so,” he said.

Smith added that the Uniontown community and surrounding Perry County “benefit substantially” from jobs and “host fee” payments provided by Arrowhead, with the landfill also sponsoring school supplies for the past decade.

ADEM insists it has environmental justice top of mind in its regulatory activities, with a spokeswoman stating the agency went “above and beyond” its legal requirements when consulting with residents living in West Jefferson, Uniontown, and Ashurst Bar/Smith.

“The department is confident that it has the resources and statutory authorization to properly regulate and monitor landfills in Alabama to ensure the protection of human health and the environment,” the spokesperson added.

‘We’re not a dump’

But even in West Jefferson, where the “poop train” was defeated, there is little hope of a lasting resolution in the tensions between the desire to generate income and community concern over quality of life.

In July, ADEM handed the Big Sky Environmental landfill a five-year extension to its permit. ADEM has also proposed changing the rules so that permits last for 10 rather than five years and has rescinded its environmental discrimination procedures, claiming its existing complaints process is sufficient.

“Let every state take care of their own trash but don’t bring it to Alabama,” said David Brasfield, the retired miner. “We just don’t need it. We’re better than that. We’re not a dump.

“But it will happen again if we let it. We cannot forget it and put it out of our minds. This is my home and I plan on defending it.”

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‘We’re not a dump’ — poor Alabama towns struggle under the stench of toxic landfills

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Historically black community could face a toxic facility for Atlantic Coast Pipeline

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The saga continues for the embattled Atlantic Coast Pipeline. On Tuesday, a Virginia board approved a controversial plan to build a natural gas compressor station in Union Hill, a historically black community in Buckingham County. The decision was met with uproar from opponents, who vowed to keep fighting in protests and in court.

“It’s a real tragedy that the board that has been appointed to protect our air makes a decision that seals the fate and disregards the ongoing health and welfare of an entire community,” said Chad Oba, chair of the Friends of Buckingham, an organization of Buckingham citizens, and a local resident that will be impacted by the decision.

“This is just another example of institutionalized racial discrimination,” she told Grist.

The state Air Pollution Control Board voted 4-0 in favor of a station permit for the approximately 600-mile underground pipeline that would carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina. The development is a joint venture from several energy companies, but Richmond-based Dominion Energy is leading the pack in building the $7 billion pipeline.

AP Photo / Steve Helber

“Today’s unanimous approval is a significant step forward for this transformational project and the final state approval needed in Virginia,” wrote Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien in an email to the Washington Post. “We have a profound respect for this community and its history, and we will continue working together to build a better future.”

Here’s the rub: Pipeline opponents are concerned that exhaust from the compressor station will hurt the surrounding community, putting them at risk of a range of ailments including asthma. Rebecca Rubin, an air board member, was dismissed by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam less than a week after she raised concerns about the disproportionate impact of the pipeline compressor station on Union Hill (ahem, Dominion energy is the state’s biggest corporate political donor).

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Rubin writes that the compressor station’s designated location “would disproportionately affect a minority community, a classic environmental justice issue.”

Dominion Energy presented survey data based on broad Census Bureau information they say indicates the area surrounding the site is sparsely populated and made up of no more than 39 percent minority residents based on race. Company representatives argued that, based on those demographics, the neighborhood was“not an environmental justice community.

An anthropologist working with Friends of Buckingham, however, submitted the results of door-to-door research, finding that of the approximately 200 people who live within a one-mile radius of the site, 83 percent are racial minorities.

Supporters of the station say it will boost development in the rural area. In an effort to help build local support for the project, Dominion offered community improvement package valued at $5.1 million. The offer won over some residents but was not enough of an incentive for many residents of the Union Hill community, which was settled after the Civil War by free blacks and former slaves.

“The legacy of placing toxic facilities in places where they disproportionately affect poor communities of color is unjust and unacceptable and needs acute examination,” wrote stakeholders in an open letter calling for the permit’s denial. “It is not right to look the other way while this continues.”

One thing is clear: the battle is still a long ways from over. The project’s opponents will likely challenge the decision in state court, adding to the pipeline’s hodgepodge of setbacks. Notably, the plan was stalled after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the U.S. Forest Service did not have proper permissions for the pipeline to cut across the Appalachian Trail. (Dominion plans to appeal the decision.)

Despite the board’s approval of the natural gas compression station, members of the Friends of Buckingham County say they too plan to keep fighting. “We have not given up,” Oba added. “If anything, it’s given us more resolve.”

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Historically black community could face a toxic facility for Atlantic Coast Pipeline

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How Brazil’s presidential election could eff up the planet for everyone

As the vast Brazilian rainforest steadily dwindles, so do our chances of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And with the possible election of Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called “Trump of the Tropics” and far-right frontrunner in the Brazilian presidential election, a crucial part of the planet’s carbon emission-curbing toolkit might be in jeopardy.

Bolsonaro has indicated he may open Indigenous areas up to mining, even potentially introducing a paved highway through the Amazon. The environmental impact of those policies would be “the biggest threat to the Amazon since Brazil was under a dictatorship,” said Doug Boucher, Scientific Advisor for The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Tropical Forests and Climate Initiative. “It’s a threat to the climate of the entire planet.”

From 2005 to 2012, Brazil’s forests were doing alright. Deforestation decreased by about two thirds under the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration — from 20,000 kilometers per year before Lula was elected to about 6,000 square kilometers per year. Since then, deforestation has basically remained at the same comparatively low levels, reducing Brazil’s CO2 emissions by more than half, according to Boucher.

Any shift in the country’s administration could endanger that progress — Presidential elections in Brazil tend to coincide with higher deforestation rates, regardless of the candidate. But Bolsonaro’s vision for handling environmental matters is uniquely jarring. Known for his homophobic, racist, and misogynistic views, the controversial politician also has a long track record of opposing an environmental agenda. He’s against taking action on climate change at all, pledging to follow President Trump’s lead by jettisoning the Paris Climate Agreement.

Bolsonaro has also made his views on race blatantly clear: He has criticized the Brazilian government’s commitment to preserving vast swaths of the Amazon for Indigenous people, promising that he will “not to give the Indians another inch of land.” Moreover, Bolsonaro has allied himself with the right-wing ruralista bloc, which represents the interests of agribusinesses and large landholders, and has been trying to strip away environmental protections against deforestation for many years.

Bolsonaro’s proposed environmental hit list goes on. He has promised to scrap the country’s Environment Ministry altogether, putting it under the scope of the Agriculture Ministry, which is led by agribusiness.

“Instead of spreading the message that he will fight deforestation and organized crime, he says he will attack the ministry of environment, Ibama and ICMBio [Brazil’s federal environment agencies],” said Brazil’s current environment minister, Edson Duarte. “It’s the same as saying that he will withdraw the police from the streets.”

In many ways, Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain, seems to want to revert to the Amazonian policies that Brazil employed during the years of the South American nation’s dictatorship. At that time, during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, the country promoted rapid development of the Amazon, paving roads and converting the forests into farmland and ranchland.

As the global fight against catastrophic climate change ramps up, forests are a necessary front of the action. According to a dire, new report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), halting deforestation could play a vital role in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as forests have a significant capacity to absorb and store carbon.

“We have to take carbon dioxide basically out of the atmosphere in order to prevent a very dangerous increase in temperature, and major increases in floods, severe storms, and heat waves,” Boucher said. “The best way we know to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is to preserve and rebuild forests.”And protecting the last remnants of Brazil’s forests would go a long way. The country contains 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest — by far the largest forest in the world — which uptakes CO2 year-round due to its perpetually wet and warm climate.

This past week, Bolsonaro won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election by a near majority, and yet his success is not yet certain. He will face left-wing second-place finisher Fernando Haddad in the second round later this month.

“Civil society should keep the pressure up — and they already are,” Boucher said. “We have to watch and see what happens.”


How Brazil’s presidential election could eff up the planet for everyone

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Tofurky is suing over Missouri’s definition of ‘meat’

On Tuesday, Missouri became the first state to ban “meat” from the product labels of plant-based and lab-grown alternatives. The new law, part of a larger agricultural bill, prohibits “misrepresenting a product as meat” if it doesn’t come directly from an animal. Violators are subject to a fine of $1,000 and — wait for it — a year in prison.

Harsh punishment for calling vegetarian sausage “sausage,” huh? Tofurky seems to think so. The vegan company filed a lawsuit against Missouri on Monday to block the law, joined by the Good Food Institute, Animal Legal Defense Fund, and American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. The suit seeks to defend the right to market meatless products with meaty words on First Amendment grounds.

The Missouri Cattlemen’s Association lobbied to pass the law. The beef industry has been working to protect what it calls “beef nomenclature” with stricter labeling rules, which could potentially leave environmentally friendlier plant-based or lab-grown options with some unappetizing names (anyone want some textured vegetable protein for dinner?). In April, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to raise the alarm over the “flagrantly deceptive food product labels proliferating the marketplace.”

To counter the claim that “vegan bacon” and the like are confusing shoppers, Tofurky’s lawsuit includes a surprising etymology lesson. The text points out that “the very oldest usages of the term ‘meat,’ and its analogues in the predecessor languages to Modern English … are to describe nourishment or food generally.”

We’ve used the word “meat” in this broader sense since the 9th century, Kory Stamper, lexicographer and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, told me last month during our conversation about similar tactics over the label “milk.”

Old English speakers used the word to refer specifically to animal flesh in the 1300s, Stamper said. But just a century later, people were also using it for the flesh of a fruit or a nut, like the meat of a walnut — another factoid cited by Tofurky’s lawsuit.

The suit notes that plant-based product labels have included words like “beef” and “sausage” for decades. It suggests that this practice has resulted in little confusion for shoppers: “[T]here have been no consumer protection lawsuits in Missouri — or any other state — challenging the accuracy of plant-based meat products’ marketing or packaging.”

If Missouri’s law stands, it could end up setting the standards for the whole country. As Quartz reports, it’s a big pain for food companies to tweak their packaging for just one state.

The U.S. has seen battles over vegan terminology before, like the vegan “mayo” controversy of 2015. And last month brought news that the FDA was officially reviewing the question of whether almond milk can be labeled as milk (after all, “an almond doesn’t lactate,” according to the FDA commissioner).

While Missouri is the first state to legislate a restricted definition of meat, there’s an international precedent: The language purists in charge of France approved a similar meat terminology ban in April.

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Tofurky is suing over Missouri’s definition of ‘meat’

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The Alabama Governor’s “Inappropriate Relationship” Wasn’t the Whole Scandal

Mother Jones

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican whose relationship with a former aide earned him the nickname “Love Gov,” is expected to resign this week under threat of impeachment. But Bentley’s departure won’t resolve every scandal plaguing his administration.

On Friday, the special counsel leading the impeachment investigation released a 130-page report, which found that Bentley had improperly used law enforcement officials to cover up his “inappropriate relationship” with the former aide, Rebekah Mason. “Bentley directed law enforcement to advance his personal interests and, in a process characterized by increasing obsession and paranoia, subjected career law enforcement officers to tasks intended to protect his reputation,” the report says. The findings come days after the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause to believe Bentley committed multiple felony violations of state ethics and campaign finance laws.

Apart from Bentley’s fate, the report shed some light on an episode that brought national scorn and a federal civil rights investigation to Alabama—an episode that also involves the state’s junior US senator, Luther Strange (R).

In 2015, the Bentley administration announced it would shutter 31 driver’s license offices. The closures—which were portrayed as a cost-saving measure—hit rural, minority counties the hardest, leaving 8 of the state’s 11 majority-African American counties without an office that issues driver’s licenses. The move was especially problematic given that Alabama requires voters to present photo identification to cast a ballot.

The closures drew widespread condemnation from civil rights activists. The NAACP filed a lawsuit, which led to an investigation by the US Department of Transportation. The department found that the closures violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In December 2016, the state of Alabama agreed to expand hours of operations for some offices—a partial reversal of the 2015 closures.

According to Friday’s report, former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Director Spencer Collier told investigators that it was Mason who asked him to shutter driver’s license offices. Collier alleged that at a budget meeting in 2015, Mason proposed closing offices and asked his agency to come up with a plan for doing so. Collier also said he contacted that state attorney general’s office because he thought the proposal might violate federal law; Strange was the attorney general at the time.

“It was Collier’s understanding that Mason intended the plan to be rolled out in a way that had limited impact on Governor Bentley’s political allies,” the report states. “Collier claims he reported this to the Attorney General’s office because he was concerned about a Voting Rights Act violation.”

Ultimately, Collier came up with a plan to close offices with the smallest workloads—which hit rural and minority communities the hardest. Bentley approved the plan but, according the report, took an office in the district of a Republican state senator off the closure list.

In an email, Bobby Segall, an attorney for Mason, declined to address Mason’s involvement in the closures but added, “I will say generally there is a good bit in the report with which we do not agree.”

In February, Bentley appointed Strange to the US Senate seat vacated when Jeff Sessions (R) became US attorney general.

Beyond Bentley’s strange saga, the report raises the question of whether Strange’s office green-lighted a plan that the federal government found discriminatory. Collier first noted in the fall of 2015—amid a public backlash over the closures—that he had discussed the plan with Strange’s office. Spokespeople for Strange and the Alabama attorney general’s office did not respond to requests for comment.


The Alabama Governor’s “Inappropriate Relationship” Wasn’t the Whole Scandal

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"The Most Dangerous Justice Department in Decades"

Mother Jones

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On a rainy Thursday morning, several members of Congress joined civil rights activists, policy experts, and former Obama administration officials for a forum on the future of civil rights in the Trump era. In the room typically occupied by the House Judiciary Committee, a common refrain quickly emerged. “The backstop that has been the civil rights enforcement of the federal government is no more,” said Catherine Lhamon, chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights.

In a wide-ranging discussion, panelists noted that the Trump administration is pulling back on the federal government’s interest in influencing a number of civil rights’ issues; transgender rights, immigration policy, voting rights, and fair housing were all discussed. But with a recent Justice Department memo calling for a review of all Obama-era police reform agreements or “consent decrees,” police reform received the most attention of any subject.

The memo, which was issued last week, but wasn’t made public until Monday, reveals a Justice Department highly skeptical of the importance of police oversight and reluctant to conduct further reviews of police departments. “The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement agencies perform in keeping American communities safe,” it states.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been a frequent critic of consent decrees in the past. In February, Sessions, admitting that he hadn’t read the full reports after reviews of police departments in Ferguson and Chicago revealed widespread abuses disproportionately targeted at black residents, described them as “pretty anecdotal.” Earlier this week, the Justice Department asked a US District court to delay its hearing of the proposed consent decree between the DOJ and the Baltimore Police Department. (The request was refused and the hearing was held on Thursday.)

Ron Davis, the former director of the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services during the Obama administration, noted that the Justice Department was “going back to the 1990s to fight a war that we have already lost.”

“We have advanced policing to a science; to go back to practices that we know are ineffective is outright ridiculous,” Davis added. Other panelists pointed out that the Justice Department could not unilaterally end reform agreements already in place, saying that the recent memo reflected a deep misunderstanding of how the process works.

Hassan Aden, a member of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration and former chief of the Greenville, North Carolina, Police Department, addressed the administration’s approach to immigration enforcement, recalling his personal experience with Trump’s controversial “Muslim Ban.” Last month, US Customs and Border Patrol detained Aden as he returned to the US from a trip to Paris to celebrate his mother’s birthday. “My detention was 90 minutes,” he said, adding he never had any issues with customs before this year. “But there are others where their detention is significantly longer.”

The panelists’ concerns about the DOJ extended beyond the role it plays in law enforcement. Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen who has become a prominent transgender rights advocate after suing his local school board for limiting his access to school restrooms, spoke of the DOJ’s recent decision to back away from an Obama-era guidance requiring schools to let children to use the facility that matched their gender identity. Grimm’s case was scheduled to go to the Supreme Court but was removed from the court’s calendar shortly after the DOJ changed its position on transgender student guidance. “The decision to withdraw the guidance sent a terrible message to some of the most vulnerable people,” Grimm said. Despite President Trump’s campaign trail promises to protect the LGBT community, his administration was doing the opposite. “Actions speak louder than words,” Grimm said.

The congressional forum was officially hosted by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee. But unofficially, it was an event led by the Congressional Black Caucus, with several members—including caucus chair Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.)—speaking. Since Trump assumed office, CBC members have become some of the president’s loudest critics, and, comprising nearly one quarter of Democrats in Congress, a powerful voice for the party, particularly regarding civil rights.

Last month, members of the CBC executive leadership met with the president, sharing a policy document that outlined its vision for black America. After the meeting, Richmond said that the caucus would continue to remain in contact with the president and planned to hold meetings with several members of the Cabinet, including with Attorney General Sessions.

If today’s forum is any indication, that meeting will not be a pleasant one. “We may be seeing the most dangerous Department of Justice that we have seen in decades,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). “We will continue to fight.”

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"The Most Dangerous Justice Department in Decades"

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Jeff Sessions Does Not Think Your Local Police Department Is His Problem

Mother Jones

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday ordered a review of all reform agreements between the Department of Justice and police departments nationwide, such as a recent consent decree entered to overhaul the troubled Baltimore Police Department. In a memo to DOJ staff, Sessions wrote that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” The review—which will be led by Sessions’ two top deputies—was ordered as part of a broader assessment of all DOJ activities.

The move alarmed civil rights and police reform advocates. “We have a very serious problem in this country with the relationship between police and the communities they serve,” Jonathan Smith, who oversaw nearly two dozen investigations into police departments as head of the Special Litigation Section of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, told Mother Jones in a phone interview. Sessions’ memo signals “a retreat from the federal government’s commitment” to ensuring police departments comply with the Constitution, Smith said, adding that widespread misconduct in police departments is “not about bad police officers. It’s about bad systems, lack of accountability, bad policies, and bad practices.”

Under Obama, the Department of Justice opened 25 civil rights investigations into police departments and enforced 14 consent decrees, or agreements with departments that mandate reforms. All of them are all still active. In mid-January, the DOJ announced that it had reached a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department and an agreement with the Chicago Police Department to pursue a decree just days before Trump’s inauguration. The investigation into CPD—and the negotiation process for BPD’s consent decree—were reportedly rushed to a close due to fear that both would stall under Trump. Sessions criticized the use of consent decrees during his confirmation hearings and has said the DOJ will “pull back” on police oversight efforts under his leadership.

A report released in February by Samuel Walker, a police reform expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, determined that most consent decrees enforced by the Department of Justice since 1994—when Congress passed legislation granting the DOJ oversight authority over local police agencies—have been successful in achieving long-term reforms. Consent decrees are binding legal agreements, and once signed, they are overseen by a federal judge and an appointed monitor. The DOJ’s ability to interfere with that process is limited, Smith said.

But there are things the DOJ can do to undermine it. It could ignore violations of decrees and stop taking police departments to court because of them. It could also seek to renegotiate the terms of a decree or to have it dropped altogether—though that would be difficult even with the cooperation of a police department, Smith said. “After all, these injunctions are entered to protect the public interest,” Smith said.

Sessions’ review calls into question whether the DOJ will follow through on enforcing a nascent consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department or enter into a decree with the Chicago Police Department at all. After Sessions sent out the memo calling for the review, DOJ attorneys asked a Maryland judge to delay a court hearing so that it could “review and assess” Baltimore’s consent decree. The city’s mayor and police chief said on Monday that they oppose any delay in the process. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s police chief also said in a joint statement yesterday they are committed to following through on the police reforms recommended by the DOJ’s report whether or not the federal government is involved. The DOJ launched investigations into the Baltimore Police Department and Chicago Police Department in 2015 amid outrage over the police-involved deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.

Sessions has already suggested that the DOJ will stop opening new civil rights investigations into police departments. And President Donald Trump’s March budget proposal would cut more than $1 billion from the department’s resources. Funding for the department’s Civil Rights Division—which handles police reform work—is not addressed explicitly in the budget outline, but a blueprint drafted by the Heritage Foundation, from which parts of Trump’s budget appear to be lifted, would cut $58 million from the Civil Rights Division, or 33 percent of its current budget.

Christy Lopez, who also helped to oversee police reform investigations at the DOJ under Obama, said such a drastic budget cut would be a “silent killer” of the Civil Rights Division, including its work on police reform. “At that point it’s not a matter of will. You just don’t have the people” or resources to open new cases or follow up on existing consent decrees, Lopez said. “There were dozens of cases we wanted to do but couldn’t because we didn’t have the staff,” Smith said of his police reform work at the DOJ.

Given the tone Sessions and Trump have set, Smith thinks state attorneys general will now be crucial to ensuring police accountability and should exercise more oversight over their local police departments. “If the federal government is not going to do it, the states in general and other local bodies are critical to this process,” Smith said. States could mimic legislation like that in California, for example, that gives the state attorney general the authority to conduct DOJ-style investigations into local police departments and pursue a consent decree, Smith said. “There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. The US Department of Justice is never going to get to those. But an attorney general can really make an enormous difference in their state.”

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Jeff Sessions Does Not Think Your Local Police Department Is His Problem

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Trump’s New Labor Nominee Oversaw Politicized Hiring at Justice Department

Mother Jones

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump announced Florida International University College of Law Dean R. Alexander Acosta as his next nominee to oversee the US Department of Labor. The decision comes after a slew of scandals and mounting pressure from Republicans derailed Trump’s previous pick, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his name from contention on Wednesday, a day before his confirmation hearing was scheduled.

Trump lauded Acosta’s credentials as a Harvard Law School graduate, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, and a member of the National Labor Relations Board, emphasizing that Acosta had previously been confirmed by the Senate three times. “I’ve wished him the best,” Trump told reporters. “I think he’ll be a tremendous secretary of labor.” If confirmed, Acosta would be the only Latino in Trump’s Cabinet.

But Trump didn’t mention one of Acosta’s less admirable roles. Acosta served as assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2003 to 2005 under President George W. Bush—the first Latino in that role—and was at the center of a scandal over hiring practices. During Acosta’s tenure, Brad Schlozman, a deputy assistant attorney general, “improperly considered political and ideological affiliations” when he hired attorneys to work at the Civil Rights Division, according to a Justice Department inspector general report written in 2008. “Attorneys hired by Schlozman were more than twice as likely to be Republican or conservative than those attorneys Scholzman was not involved in hiring,” the report found. That consideration, the report concluded, violated the Civil Service Reform Act and department policy that bars discrimination in hiring based on political and ideological affiliations.

The agency concluded that Acosta and other Civil Rights Division managers failed to “exercise sufficient oversight to ensure that Schlozman did not engage in inappropriate hiring and personnel practices.” Specifically, Acosta and Deputy Attorney General Wan Kim “failed to ensure that Schlozman’s hiring and personnel decisions were based on proper considerations,” the report noted.

When Acosta first took over as law school dean in 2009, H. T. Smith, director of FIU’s trial advocacy program, told the Miami New Times that Acosta’s stint at the Civil Rights Division “caused a rift with the black community,” adding that the former Miami prosecutor needed to meet with faculty members to heal that divide. The NAACP’s Miami-Dade branch expressed concern, telling the Miami Herald at the time of Acosta’s hire that his “lack of diversity in hiring and promotion while serving as U.S. attorney gives cause for concern for his consideration as dean of FIU’s College of Law.”

Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, condemned the “egregious conduct” that played out during Acosta’s time at the Justice Department. “It is hard to believe that Mr. Acosta would now be nominated to lead a federal agency tasked with promoting lawful hiring practices and safe workplaces,” Clarke said in a statement released after Trump’s announcement.

Read the full 2008 inspector general report:

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Justice Department Inspector General Report Acosta Hiring Practices (PDF)

Justice Department Inspector General Report Acosta Hiring Practices (Text)

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Trump’s New Labor Nominee Oversaw Politicized Hiring at Justice Department

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George Saunders Has Written a Weird and Brilliant Novel

Mother Jones

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Chloe Aftel

George Saunders used to be a short-fiction guy. A creative-writing instructor at Syracuse University, he was a 2013 National Book Award finalist for Tenth of December, his fourth story collection. But seeds for a novel were planted years earlier during a visit to Washington, when a relative pointed out Willie Lincoln’s crypt. The third child of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln died of typhoid in the winter of 1862, and the president was said to have sneaked out of the White House alone several times to visit his son’s corpse. “I imagined Lincoln with the body across his knees, like a mash-up of the Pietà and the Lincoln Memorial, and it just kind of stuck in my head,” Saunders says.

Much of the dialogue in his haunting debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, out February 14, is relayed by the bickering spirits of the cemetery in the days after Willie’s death—”bardo” is a Buddhist version of purgatory. Saunders spent much of 2016 in a purgatory of a different sort, attending campaign rallies for a deep-dive New Yorker piece on the psychology of Donald Trump’s supporters. I caught up with him a few weeks after the election to talk about ghosts, inspiring authors, and just what the heck is happening to America.

Mother Jones: Why write a novel after all these years?

George Saunders: I was trying like hell not to! This idea had been around for like 20 years, and about 5 years ago I gave myself permission just to fart around with it a little bit, and it kind of caught on.

MJ: Your book has no narrator. It’s really an extended dialogue among the characters—a few living, but most dead.

GS: Lincoln in the graveyard is pretty hard to dramatize because it’s just one guy. I thought, “Well, I need some witnesses.” And since it was at night, the idea of ghosts came up. I couldn’t figure out a way to tell that story in a more conventional format. In a lot of ways, these questions we refer to as structure or form or style are really just evasions. You’re trying to evade suckiness, and by maximally evading suckiness you might come up with something original.

MJ: Tell me about your research process.

GS: I’ve got hundreds of books on Lincoln from the Syracuse library and that I bought. When I wasn’t writing, I’d be just poring through. I got so addicted, it was almost like the contemporary world wasn’t so interesting and only 1862 was cool. But one of the focusing things about this is it’s just one night. I had to remind myself early and often that it’s not a biography of Lincoln. It’s not even about Lincoln!

The Lincoln family in 1861, from left: Mary, Willie, Robert, ‘Tad,’ and Abe. Library of Congress

MJ: Are you a Civil War buff?

GS: I never really was, but nothing will turn you into a Civil War buff like five years of reading. Some of the letters that people wrote from that time are so deep and so beautifully articulate. And you realize, especially with the stuff that’s going on now in the country, that it’s always been chaos—people were disagreeing at least as much as they are now and 20,000 people would die in a day. It’s the scale that’s amazing, and also the proximity to our own time. I remember at one point seeing a photograph of basically a slave store in Atlanta. It’s where you’d go if you needed a slave. And you think, “Wow! That was not a long time ago.”

MJ: You dedicate this book to your kids. What was it like, as a parent, to spend so much time thinking about the death of a child?

GS: It was touchy. I honestly couldn’t have done it when they were Willie’s age, little kids. It sounds kind of corny, but we seem programmed to love each other and to have our special attachments to people, and certainly our kids. And those are so raw and so powerful, you can’t even turn your mind in a direction of that kind of a loss. When you’re talking about Abe Lincoln, you’re like, “Okay, now he’s got to dust himself off and go win the war.” That’s not how that works. The historical accounts indicate that he never recovered. And he didn’t live that much longer.

Willie Lincoln died in 1862. He was 12. Wikipedia Commons

MJ: Do you believe in ghosts?

GS: Do you?

MJ: From time to time.

GS: I definitely believe in them dramatically. For example, I’m standing here in front of this 1920s bungalow in LA. If you just describe the physicality of the place, you’re only getting a fraction of the truth, which is that if you went back to 1946 there was some dude standing here in a fedora who’s now dead. That’s as true as the fact that there’s a lawn chair sitting here in front of me. To give a story broader shoulders, you have to sometimes push off into the supernatural or the sci-fi, not as a way of avoiding reality, but of accommodating it correctly. I actually do believe in life after death. In the book, I tried to make it funny and weird enough that it didn’t resemble an afterlife that we had seen somewhere else. When you die you don‘t go, “Oh, it’s just like I read about.” It’s more like, “Oh shit, what is this?”

MJ: Your New Yorker piece nicely captures our cultural divide—is it surmountable?

GS: I got so many letters from Trump supporters on that piece, and they start off really rough. I try to engage each person somewhat deeply, and I can point to the moment in the exchanges when it goes from that mode to a personal mode. Suddenly all their decency comes out. But in the public sphere: At a rally it’s bad; on the internet it’s 10 times worse. We’ve got a real problem with social media that we didn’t know we were going to have. It’s almost like the demons have gotten out of the box. I’m thinking I’m going to stay off the internet as much as possible and try to change my data mix so that more of it is coming from firsthand experience and interactions.

MJ: Your data mix?

GS: I’m repledging myself to human-scale values. As a fiction writer, the best data comes through the senses and is then processed through many revisions. We have to learn to be intelligent assessors of the data coming in to us and what it’s doing to our mental process. It’s one thing if the two of us are sitting at a table talking about something charged, and I know you and you’re a friend and we have a history, but a great deal is coming into our heads that’s agenda-laced and written quickly from someone you have no connection with. Human beings are not necessarily designed for a high level of that kind of data.

One of the things I noticed about the Trump supporters was a lot of projected fear. I can’t tell you how many times a conversation went like this: “We’ve got to stop these immigrants, because it’s terrible.” I’d say, “Okay, what personally have you observed about this?” And there would be basically nothing in that box. And I’d say, “Where’d you get your information?” thinking they were going to say Fox. But they would always say, “Well, I get my information from all kinds of sources.” Fox is kind of center-left to a lot of people now.

MJ: What do you read to take your mind off the world?

GS: I read more to put my mind back on it. I have a pretty active work and travel life, and several days will go by when I haven’t had a deep feeling—I’ve just been kind of checking off the boxes. So I read to make myself feel awake. Zadie Smith has a new book called call Swing Time and I just had a beautiful experience with that where, suddenly, you know that feeling where you read something and then you walk out on the street and suddenly everything is three- or four-dimensional again? Everything smells more. The light is brighter.

MJ: So what’s your next dream project?

GS: That’s exactly what I’m asking myself. I’m turning 58, and you get that kind of weird, old-guy feeling of you don’t have an infinite number of years left and if there’s anything you want to say or represent, it’s time to try it. I’m a big lover of America. I love the people, but also the weird berms, the strange little high schools tucked away in different places, and just the whole geography and the psycho­logical apparatus of Americans. Up until now, my work has always been kind of empowered by constraint. You say, “Okay, I’m writing a six-page story. It’s set in a theme park.” I’ve been almost like a piranha—I’ll dart off and take a little bite of a little side and come out. I’d like to try to take on the whole thing.

MJ: Who inspires you to write?

GS: Hemingway was a big influence early—In Our Time and those books. And Tobias Wolff is a huge hero of mine. Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Stuart Dybek. I’m a big fan of the Russians: Isaac Babel is just an exquisite line-to-line stylist.

MJ: That’s an ironic name for a wordsmith.

GS: He was a cool dude, a Jew who traveled with the Cossacks. He was killed by Stalin. Babel was like, “I’m going to talk to everybody, honor everybody’s viewpoints, and then I’m going to present it in this really complicated stew that feels almost insanely true.” It’s violent and it’s contradictory and people are beautiful and savage in the same paragraph. It might have a particular relevance for right now. We’ve been very fortunate the last X number of years to have our political fights in roped-off spheres, very safe. Now we’re starting to see how nasty it can get. I just got a text from a friend in Missouri. He’s driving in his BMW and this guy pulls up alongside him, pulls a .350 Magnum, and says, “Why don’t you buy a fucking American car, motherfucker?”

MJ: Oh wow.

GS: So Babel is a good writer for now because he was the darling of the Soviets and then one day he wasn’t. They beat all these confessions out of him, and then he recovered enough to ask them to please retract those—and they shot him.

The DC crypt where Willie Lincoln’s body rested prior to his funeral. Flickr/Tim Evanson


George Saunders Has Written a Weird and Brilliant Novel

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