California’s Use of Force Law Is a Start, But Not What Communities Really Need

Several weeks ago, the NYPD pulled up on me and a friend while we were standing outside of my friend’s home. Four officers jumped out of an unmarked car. I guess they psychically knew that we were about to smoke a joint, though neither one of us actually had weed in our hands.

While searching us, one of the officers said, cynically, “It ain’t legal yet,” though the “it” was not found on us.

It was around 10 p.m. and I was too tired to assert my rights or to say that I was in a meeting with their commissioner earlier that week about NYPD’s plans to build community-police relations. We accepted the harassment, survived the interaction, and went to our respective homes to smoke our blunts in peace, like most white people who now claim Crown Heights as their home.

Police murders of unarmed people in America sprout from seemingly benign harassment like that which happened to me and my friend, a military veteran — like what happened to Eric Garner, who was strangled to death for bootlegging cigarettes.

In August, California passed a law making it less legal for law enforcement to kill Black and Brown people such as Eric Garner. California’s recently passed Assembly Bill No. 392, described by some as one of the toughest standards in the nation for when law enforcement officers can kill, is progress. Known as the “Act to Save Lives,” the law removes barriers to prosecuting officers who unlawfully use lethal force. The new law also redefines when a peace officer’s use of deadly force is deemed justifiable, based on the totality of the circumstance.

The LAPD alone killed 172 people in 2017. This new law would presumably decrease that number because police will be able to use deadly force only when, based on the perspective of the officer, it is necessary in defense of human life.

Advocates such as Cat Brooks at the Anti Police-Terror Project are the architects of this new law, potentially setting a legal precedent to be replicated across the country.

Acknowledging the success of the efforts of these advocates can occur while we also question whether substantive progress has been made. Five years ago, more than 500 journalists, lawyers, medics, organizers, pastors, students, tech experts and videographers participated in what would be called the “freedom rides,” which were response to the murder of unarmed Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

The group of freedom riders, along with the local residents of Ferguson, had a list of demands, including: “a decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing, and schools. This money should be redirected to those … departments charged with providing employment, housing, and educational services.”

California’s new law doesn’t address that concern.

Rightfully, the Act to Save Lives regulates policing with impunity. Police will no longer easily get away with the “I feared for my life” script; they will have to prove after the murder or assault that a “reasonable officer in the same situation would believe that a person has the ability…and intent to immediately cause death or serious bodily injury to the peace officer or another person.” All of this substantiation would be done after the hashtag for this person is created and goes viral.

What is still to be tackled is the oversaturated deployment of police into communities of color.

What is still to be tackled is the oversaturated deployment of police into communities of color.

Which brings me back to Brooklyn. This fall in the East New York section of Brooklyn, less than a mile from where I was harassed, the NYPD is opening its first stand-alone community center — a $10 million investment by the City of New York.

Now, positive police-community relations are a plus for any community, but it is not where we need to invest $10 million dollars in a community where in 2015, the rate of preterm births, a key driver of infant death, is the fourth highest in the city; the teen birth rate is higher than the city average; and the rate of elementary school absenteeism is eighth-highest in the city.

Social welfare is not a function of police training, nor is it a part of their corporate culture. More importantly, policing as a practice has a foundationally biased perspective of poor Black and Brown communities, and that is a truth we all should be honest enough to sit with.

The step after this acknowledgement is changed behavior. Listening followed by action.

Over the past year or so, I have been in roundtable conversations with a diverse array of actors in the criminal legal system. Organizers, directly impacted people, loved ones of the impacted, along with academics, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, elected officials, social workers, historians, cops, prison guards, and wardens — basically all the cogs in an irreformable and irreparable old steam engine.

The convenings are a part of a project that Bruce Western of the Columbia University Justice Lab called the “Square One Project.” The home page provokes the following scenarios:

Imagine neighborhoods soaring in education instead of arrests.

Imagine community groups leading the effort to end violence in our towns and cities.

Imagine a response to crime that brings communities together instead of breaking them apart.

The next Square One roundtable convening will take place in Detroit in October, and I also wonder, “can police imagine a community that does not rely on them as a dominant resource?”

In communities such as East New York and Ferguson, police-community relations are one problem of many: High unemployment, negative prenatal outcomes, bad water, dilapidated and unaffordable housing, and the list can go on. More of a police presence is not a solution to any of the above.

Emory University Sociologist Abigail Sewell asserts that “part of the solution may be to reduce police contact in the first place.” With that reduction can come abundant and sustainable investments in community-based organizations and individuals of expertise who reside in the projects and hang on the street corners — the community writ large.

Regulating the justifications for police use of deadly force is a commendable step in the right direction. The leap that communities like East New York need, however, is an investment in reducing the social determinants that give law enforcement the excuse to have a suffocating presence there.

Black and Brown neighborhoods do not need more overseers, or more state of the art smaller jails. We are capable of thriving without emphasis on our perceived criminality, and we are capable of taking care of ourselves, just like those in places like Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, or Carrol Gardens, once we are provided with the tools to deal with the tentacles of American racism, such as poverty, the distribution of money, and overpolicing. The “Seven Neighborhoods Study” produced by formerly incarcerated people in the 1990s found that there was a “direct connection between low income, racially isolated, underserved communities…and encounters with law enforcement that result in prison or death.”

Only time will tell whether the Act to Save Lives will have a measurable positive impact on police interactions with Black and Brown people. That new NYPD community center will come as a win for those focused on building a new paradigm for police-community relations.

But the academic and practitioner in me still thinks about Malcolm X, who famously said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” I know that police harassment is an underlying and extralegal blade that can be wielded at any time in the name of progress.

Yes, it is less legal to be killed by police, but I still feel the knife.



Low-Income Students Are Returning to Dangerously Hot Schools

This week marks the last of the first days of school. In some school districts, classes have already been in session for several weeks, and they’ve been hot ones. Teachers are bringing fans from home and schools are closing because temperature control is too challenging.

Alex, a teacher in the Bay Area, says conditions in her school have been particularly bad this year; many buildings in the region are not designed for high heat, thanks to the historically temperate climate. Her classroom doesn’t have openable windows, so she uses a fan to try to suck air in from the cooler hallway, but it’s not enough.

“Students will ask to go to the bathroom more often just to get into the hallway where it’s cooler,” she told TalkPoverty. She said the heat makes students feel sluggish and unfocused, a problem particularly acute for young women in her class who struggle with body image, and stay tightly wrapped up even in high temperatures. “I also notice that I tend to run out of energy a lot faster on hot days.”

Not ideal for a high school teacher trying to keep order in a classroom of 16-year-olds, even one who loves her job and is passionate about education.

This is a problem that’s only going to get worse due to the confluence of rising temperatures thanks to climate change — average temperatures in the U.S. could increase by as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 and have already risen several degrees since 1900 — and declining school funding. Schools that don’t overheat today are going to in the future.

Education budgets were cut deeply during the Great Recession and some states haven’t returned to their pre-Recession funding levels; capital spending across the country hasn’t recovered to pre-recession levels either. As a result, schools that urgently need temperature control updates along with other infrastructure improvements face an uphill struggle to increase their budgets.

Overheated classrooms aren’t just uncomfortable. They can actively inhibit health and learning. There’s a large body of evidence showing that air conditioning can improve student health and academic performance, and research as far back as 1984 on the effects of learning in a hot classroom.

A May 2018 paper found that a temperature increase of just one degree can reduce the amount learned over the course of the school year by 1 percent. The researchers estimate that around 30 percent of schools in the U.S. lack air conditioning, and that even within hot areas with widespread air conditioning penetration, kids in low-income schools are less likely to have access to have cooling at school.

They also argue systemic inequality can exacerbate this phenomenon among low-income students of color, who live in hotter regions and are more likely to attend schools without adequate temperature control.

Jisung Park, one of the researchers, said that, “What we’re finding is totally consistent with the last mile of the school desegregation movement not having been completed … the neighborhood-level disparities driven by residential wealth still very much hold true.”

Park, an environmental economist, is swift to note that simply installing air conditioning — itself a known contributor to climate change — is not the solution. Greening electric infrastructure, taxing carbon, and taking other measures to tackle climate change is key, he said.

So is investing in school infrastructure, including new buildings; maintenance to bring schools up to new standards; and retrofitting to help schools adapt, inside and out, to climate change. That must include rich and poor districts alike, or the inequalities they observe will perpetuate themselves.

An Oklahoma educator who works in a school with a high percentage of low-income black students sees the consequences of being housed in outdated school buildings without adequate resources firsthand. Her classroom can get up to 80 degrees, and it takes a noticeable toll on her students. “I’m trying,” overheated students will tell her. “I’m tired, it’s too hot in here.”

Overheated classrooms aren’t just uncomfortable. They can actively inhibit health and learning.

Her school actually has a climate control system, complete with thermostats in every classroom. But it is not well-maintained. It can take hours for the district to respond when teachers put in a request for help.

For one of her colleagues across the hall, that means suffocating in heat as high as 90 degrees until her class is relocated to a comparatively cooler spot. But, she says, in the state with some of the worst education funding in the country, there are so many things going wrong that overheated classrooms aren’t at the top of her list.

This isn’t just a problem indoors. It’s also an issue in the schoolyard. Schools serving low-income students tend to have less greenery, and that’s not just an aesthetic problem. Trees, shrubs, and other plants can help to control temperatures, including indoors, when they’re planted strategically to provide shade to a building’s hot spots.

The lack of shade also increases exposure to harmful UV radiation on the playground, setting kids up for future health inequalities. From the moment they walk into school for the first time, some students are set up for failure, with Park noting that access to greenery can improve temperature control, but also offer mental and physical health benefits.

Oklahoma is not the only state struggling with school infrastructure, from campus trees to sound roofs. Across the United States, kids are attending classes in outdated, poorly-maintained, inadequate, and sometimes unsafe buildings. Schools across the country are struggling with lead contamination. Environmental Protection Agency regulations govern schools that maintain their own water supplies, but not those using municipal water that may get contaminated on its way to the tap. Kids are overheating, and they can’t even drink the school’s water.

It will cost $200 billion nationwide to bring America’s schools into good condition.  But schools, especially low-income ones, face a funding crisis. They rely on property tax revenues alongside some state funding to fund capital improvements, pay teachers and staff, and cover the numerous other expenses associated with running a school. Wealthy districts have a larger tax base and more access to loans and bond issues, and consequently spend more; their students are more likely to attend class in appropriately-cooled classrooms, to drink from lead-free taps, and to have access to well-maintained amenities.

“Targeting school facility upgrades should be part of a long-overdue federal infrastructure bill,” said Park, “or an education reform package.” Modernizing, and installing, HVAC systems is not a trivial task. Failure to make these investments, however, will keep low-income children in the U.S. at a permanent, sweaty, disadvantage.

Editors’ note: By request, the teachers in this article have been anonymized.



A Recession May Be Coming. Millennials Never Recovered from the Last One.

Rosamaria Cavalho graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and entered the workforce in 2007. Latina and a woman of color, she is the first in her family to attend a four-year university. She knew that if she wanted to transcend her economically depressed upbringing, she had to attend college and graduate.

A common pressure among first-generation college students, especially those from low-income families or immigrant families who came to the U.S. to give their children more opportunities, is the pressure of finishing. The weight of their family’s sacrifice and struggle is omnipresent.

With all that on her shoulders, graduating into a recession wasn’t even on Cavalho’s radar. But that’s exactly what happened.

“I thought I should be able to get a job with this degree because that’s what I was told. You get your college degree and then good stuff will come. I knew there was value in a college degree,” she said.

A generation lambasted for being the reason America can’t have nice things, while derided for the ways they choose to spend the little money they have, millennials have never fully benefited from our robust economy. Many are still trying to get right after the last recession, which was so bad it earned the moniker “great.”

Unfortunately, as news headlines keep telling us, a new recession may be on the way.

Like a lot of recent college graduates, Cavalho moved back in with her family. According to Pew Research, in 2014, people aged 18-34 were most likely to be living with their parents rather than by themselves or with a spouse. At first, she applied for office jobs. When she didn’t hear anything, she applied for customer service positions at Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, and Jack in the Box. But still, no call-backs.

Her parents were confused as to why she had gone through the trouble and expense to attend college. Didn’t her degree afford her the opportunity to get a good job and be living on her own?

After a few months at home, Cavalho returned to the Bay Area to find work. She eventually found a job working for a private investigator. She was living in her car and hiding her struggles from her friends. They had been so proud of her for graduating, and she had already felt like she had disappointed her parents. She eventually found a job as a labor organizer for AFSCME and relocated to Los Angeles.

This was the cruel reality for many graduates who went to college to lift themselves out of poverty. They earned their degrees at the same time 30 million individuals were losing their jobs. New graduates weren’t just competing with their peers for what few jobs there were, but with the millions of others who had just been brutally tossed into the job market.

The employment nadir came in March 2009 when 803,000 non-farm jobs were lost. Entry-level jobs became harder to get, as competition came from people with much longer resumes. A wealth of volunteer positions became available, as funding dried up essentially, everywhere. Those who had financial stability and extra time were able to leverage competitive unpaid internships and volunteerism, which could then be used as a way to make up for a lack of entry-level positions. Everyone else was out of luck.

This stunted millennials’ earnings potential for the rest of their lives. In fact, millennials had lower real incomes than previous generations. In the year 2014 (using 2016 dollars), the median earnings for millennial men and women were $40,600 and $31,200. Compare that to the earnings of Gen Xers in 1998 at $44,200 and $32,400 and Boomers in 1978 at $53,400 and $33,100 (still 2016 dollars and median earnings).

Once you start behind on earnings, you never really catch up. And it’s even worse for people of color and women, who get left behind even during good economic times. In March, a report entitled “Clipped Wings: Closing the Wealth Gap for Millennial Women” was released by Insight Center in collaboration with Asset Funders Network and Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap. The authors found that income inequality persists according to race and gender, in addition to generation.

“Young Black people earn 57 cents and Latinx earn 64 cents for every dollar earned by young White people,” the report says. Single millennial men currently have an average of 162 percent more wealth than single millennial women. College educated white women hold two-thirds more wealth ($52,406) than college educated Black ($3,316) and Latinx ($29,889) women combined.

But it’s not just income where those who graduated into the Great Recession have fallen behind. A study published last year entitled “Are Millennials Different?,” by a division of the Federal Reserve Board, found that in the year 2016, millennials were also less likely to own homes and have fewer financial assets than previous generations. They also carried debt loads larger than boomers did when they were young, thanks in part to the ballooning cost of education.

If a new recession comes before they’ve had a chance to get ahead, they likely face empty bank accounts and unknowable challenges.

Millennials without access to family wealth were less likely to benefit from opportunities that were available to their peers who had more family or inherited wealth.

Case in point, homeownership. KPCC in Los Angeles analyzed data for Federal Housing Administration loans made to Californians and found that in 2018, one in three borrowers received family contributions. This number was up from one in four in 2011.

Millennials trying to buy houses but lacking help from their family had a harder time buying a home — the very hallmark of middle-class wealth generation. Millennials of color would have been deeply affected if their parents had lost their homes and assets to the foreclosure crisis that followed the Great Recession, due to predatory subprime lending to communities of color.

This inability to build wealth was compounded by student loan debt. Young adults had accepted thousands of dollars in federal loans, in effect leveraging their potential earnings, based on the assumption that a job market would exist when they were ready for it.

Spoiler alert, it didn’t.

Ten years after the beginning of the recession, a third of millennials hold student loan debt, with black women holding the most and white men holding the least. The national student loans debt load outpaced auto loans back in the third quarter of 2009 and is now just over $1.6 trillion. Women hold two-thirds of that amount.

Recovering from a recession takes time. And things such as student debt, high costs of living, and asset and wealth depletion hold millennials, especially millennial women of color, back from choosing what they want to do over what they need. If a new recession comes before they’ve had a chance to get ahead, they likely face empty bank accounts and unknowable challenges.

I recently had dinner with a friend and fellow woman of color who also graduated college in 2009. She says she feels like she’s just now making it; working as a city planner, feeling stable in her job, able to plan for her future, and about to start an MBA program. Cavalho just got into one of the top law schools in the country, accomplishing a goal she didn’t dare admit to herself because she felt it was so impossibly out of reach.

It took us 10 years just to get our feet under us. Let’s hope we’ve gotten far enough to weather whatever comes next.



Andrew Luck Gets to Walk Away. Not All Athletes Can.

Earlier this week, Andrew Luck, the 29-year-old starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, retired. The announcement surprised the entire sports world: Luck is a former number one overall draft pick, a four-time Pro Bowler who, in the context of quadragenarians like Tom Brady, could have played for at least another decade. Colts’ owner Jim Irsay estimated Luck was giving up not just the $60 million he was owed over the life of his current contract, but as much as $450 million in future salary.

But I’m not shocked. Luck has played more than a decade of high-level, year-round football both for the Colts and at Stanford University. He’s dealt with a litany of injuries more reminiscent of someone involved in a car crash than a professional athlete, including a concussion, a torn labrum, and a lacerated kidney. That’s likely why the players around him have, nearly unequivocally, understood his decision. At some point, career viability matters less than the freedom to live a normal life without pain. And so on a Saturday afternoon in the August preseason, at the snap of a finger, Luck short-circuited our fandom and was gone.

What’s truly unusual about Luck isn’t the choice he made — it’s the fact that he had the freedom to make it. Luck is the son of former Houston Oilers quarterback and current XFL commissioner Oliver Luck, which at least theoretically means his extended family is not reliant on his NFL income. He’s a Stanford graduate, with a second career available to him if he chooses. Football might have needed Andrew Luck, but Andrew Luck doesn’t need football.

Most NFL players aren’t so — ahem — lucky. The majority have spent a good portion of their adolescent and adult lives perfecting physical skills to make a career out of football, sacrificing other opportunities to do so. In a 2011 survey, NCAA Division I football players reported an average of close to 40 hours a week of athletic activity in-season, double the NCAA’s own restriction on time spent in athletic activity. That means there was no time in college for labs, study sessions, or other enrichment that a normal student gets — all of which are important parts of determining a career path. As a result, the handful of players who manage to secure a career in professional football are left adrift once they are forced into retirement.

Even worse is the physical damage to players’ bodies. Luck’s injury list is the norm, not the exception. In the NFL, as long as you have four accredited seasons to your name, you’ll receive the same health care as current players for up to five years. That care comes with two issues. First, the average NFL career is about 3.3 years, meaning many players won’t qualify for that health care at all. Second, medical issues of former players can, and will, show up beyond that five year limit, leaving players on the hook for their own care. That’s particularly troubling given the new research around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, which new studies estimate affects at least 10 percent of professional players. CTE is progressive and debilitating, but it often does not show symptoms until many years after the injuries that caused it.

The NFL may be great work if you can get it — the rookie minimum salary for the 53-man roster is $480,000 — but one has to reasonably ask: Is it worth it?

More than half of all NFL players come from a county with a poverty rate higher than the national average.

To answer that question, you also have to understand where the majority of NFL players come from, and what they look like. Today, more than half of all NFL players come from a county with a poverty rate higher than the national average. Nearly 70 percent of NFL players are African-American, and face a much higher likelihood of being in poverty than most demographic groups. The average household income for an African-American family hovers roughly around $40,000 a year, making NFL salaries particularly tempting. When a player is making the decision of whether an NFL career is worth the risk, it depends on who you ask and where they’re from.

In this context, it becomes pretty hard to fault Luck for stepping away from the game when he did. Hopefully, he will be able to heal his body and avoid the nagging injuries that plague many former players. Hopefully, he will find meaningful work that will allow him to take care of himself and his family. To step away from a career, a vocation, that you are passionate about is difficult no matter what it is, and for that Luck’s care and grace in the face of perplexity should be commended. But let’s not forget that Luck’s economic background and education allowed him to make a choice of passion, rather than a choice of need like so many others have to. And if we’re going to be shocked by anything in this whole saga, it should be that.



Impossible Burgers Aren’t Going to Change the Industry Until Everyone Can Afford Them

I got interested in plant-based meat alternatives when my 9-year-old son declared himself a vegetarian after New Year’s Day 2019. I thought finding options for a kid who loves hot dogs and hamburgers would be difficult.

Turns out, the market for meatless options is well developed. Not only was I able to find Beyond Meat products such as sausages and hamburger patties at the local grocery store, but there are restaurants like Bareburger, which my son and I frequent, that have a vegan menu consisting solely of plant-based meals. Plus, Burger King now sells the Impossible Whopper, a plant-based version of its popular Whopper hamburger.

The Impossible Whopper doesn’t come as cheap as Burger King’s more traditional meat offerings: It’s $5.19, a dollar more than the regular Whopper’s $4.19.

That dollar might not seem like a lot, but it is an important issue, since many choose a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle for health or moral reasons. (While the health benefits of a plant-based diet are unclear, it is true that it lowers your carbon footprint.) Making this choice shouldn’t be limited to those with higher levels of income and wealth, as pointed out by economist Dr. Rhonda Sharpe:

Economics tells us the prices of goods are determined by the supply and demand for that given product.  Demand for meat alternatives will not be decreasing anytime soon, so for costs to fall we need to see an increase in supply.

There’s reason to believe that will happen. While Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are the two pre-eminent firms in the industry, other well-established firms such as Nestle, Tyson, and Perdue are now looking to compete. Having large firms with extensive distribution networks should help lower the price as economies of scale already exist.

The higher prices of meatless options are due to the supply chains for the inputs, like proteins derived from peas, being less well established than the inputs for traditional meat options. Essentially, because the process of creating meat alternatives is so new, firms have not found efficient ways to produce it. As these manufacturers continue to expand and existing firms create more efficient supply chains, input prices should fall — leading to lower prices across the board.

However, we must be cautious about mergers and acquisitions in this industry. Established firms may acquire the new upstarts and not only keep prices high, but also chill research and development towards making improvements. There are tools in place to combat anti-competitive behavior, but they need strengthening.

And to be clear, meat alternatives aren’t only more expensive because they’re newer. Beef and other meats are cheaper because of government subsidies.

The other factor that may lower the costs of meatless options is the availability of the meals at restaurants, including fast food chains. Having several establishments compete should drive prices down. Several other fast food chains offer (in a limited capacity) meatless versions of their meals, such as White Castle’s Impossible Slider or Del Taco’s Beyond Taco.

Food deserts did not occur randomly, and in many cities are the outcome of systemic racism.

Even with the expected decrease in the price of meatless options, though, there is the concerning problem on the availability of meatless options for communities that lack grocery store options. Meat alternatives are offered at traditional supermarkets, with Beyond Meat products such as burgers, sausages, and crumbles already available and Impossible Foods getting approval by the Food and Drug Administration to have its products in stores.

But this is not helpful for communities in food deserts, where there is limited access to supermarkets or grocery stores.

Food deserts are a problem in many communities, both urban and rural. For many low-income individuals, the only option for groceries are places like Dollar General or Dollar Tree.

Food deserts did not occur randomly, and in many cities are the outcome of systemic racism. The process of redlining, creating race-based maps to exclude African Americans from receiving federal housing loans, not only prevented African Americans from obtaining mortgages in certain neighborhoods, but redlining also diminished the incentive for firms like grocery stores to locate in predominantly African American neighborhoods.

The problem is not just availability but also accessibility, as many individuals in food deserts have transportation issues. There are programs to address these problems and meat alternatives should be a part of the solution. Whole Foods has started to locate their stores in neighborhoods like the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Further policies to combat the structural issues must address the underlying inequality that plagues low-income communities.

As I have discovered from a summer living as a (pseudo) vegetarian/vegan with my kid, there are so many flavorful and delicious options with a plant-based diet. This is available to me because I live in a neighborhood where I have many transit options to Bareburger and where my local grocery store carries Beyond Meat sausages. But the choice to eat a plant-based diet should not be determined by your location.