Category Archives: Employment

Released from prison by Obama, now on the dean’s list

Obama Sends Letter to Prisoner He Freed Who Turned Her Life Around

President Obama let Danielle Metz out of prison. Then she enrolled in college and made the dean's list. Obama heard about Metz's success and sent a letter telling her how proud he is of her for turning her life around and graduating college.

“I am so proud of you, and am confident that your example will have a positive impact for others who are looking for a second chance, Tell your children I say hello, and know that I’m rooting for all of you.”

Barack Obama's letter to Danielle Metz. (Photo: Danielle Metz)

Danielle Metz's full story about her journey from jail to college is below.

From prison to dean’s list: How Danielle Metz got an education after incarceration

by CASEY PARKS

NEW ORLEANS – The sun glowed gold, and a second line parade was tuning its horns just a few streets away. But Danielle Metz had missed half her life already, and she couldn’t spare the afternoon, even one as unseasonably warm as this mid-February Sunday.

She climbed the stairs to the shotgun house her mom had bought in uptown New Orleans more than half a century ago. Metz slipped through the screen door, then shut it tight enough to keep out the sun. Inside, she dug through a box next to her bed and pulled out the clothbound journal that a woman had given her in 1996, when they were both incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California. Metz hadn’t kept much from the 23 years she spent in prison, but the journal had been too special to leave behind. She opened it and read the dedication as a reminder of what she hoped to accomplish now that she was out.

“To Danielle — There’s so many things we can’t get in here, but knowledge and education can’t be kept out by walls.”

Growing up, Metz had believed that college was for white kids and for “Huxtables” — black people she named after the upper-middle-class family in “The Cosby Show.” She knew, as she looked at the laptop screen, how improbable people might think earning a degree would be for her now. She’d dropped out of high school her junior year. At 26, a judge had sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus another 20 years for her role in her husband’s cocaine distribution. She’d thought she’d never see New Orleans again, let alone visit a university.

Even after President Barack Obama granted her clemency in 2016, Metz believed she couldn’t go to college. Nationwide, less than 4 percent of formerly incarcerated people have a bachelor’s degree, according to a report released last year. The chances seemed especially low in Metz’s home state. Louisiana had long held twin records, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the country’s lowest rate of black college graduates. Put together, this meant tens of thousands of residents lacked a viable pathway to middle-class security.

But lawmakers had come to believe that a change was imperative for the state’s future. In 2017, Louisiana became the first state in the nation to “ban the box” on public college and university applications, prohibiting school officials from asking whether an applicant has a criminal record. Metz knew that people across the country were working to help people like her go to college after prison. Though Illinois and New York failed to pass “ban the box” measures for university applications, several other states are trying to follow Louisiana’s lead. And federal lawmakers from both parties are pushing to allow incarcerated people to access Pell Grants, financial aid that they’ve been barred from using since Metz first went to prison.

Metz was grateful for the legal shifts, but political momentum alone would not carry her through school. As the parade began its march through Uptown, she scrolled through the university’s website and hovered over the tab marked “current students.” She had no idea how long it would take or how much it might cost, but Metz didn’t care. She was going to college.

Metz grew up the youngest of nine children in a city barreling toward chaos. As a kid, she considered herself lucky. Both of her parents worked — her father as a cement finisher, her mother in a bakery — and together they earned enough to buy a home three miles away from the St. Thomas Projects, a public housing development where many other black families lived. St. Thomas was so poor and violent when Metz was young that Sister Helen Prejean described the neighborhood in the opening of her book “Dead Man Walking” as “not death row exactly, but close."

Even as a little girl, Metz knew people who’d gone to jail, but her neighborhood was quiet, and her parents were dreamers. For years, her father urged her to become a nurse. Metz knew the job required a college degree, but she didn’t know anyone who’d earned one. In 1980, the year Metz enrolled at Walter L. Cohen High School, more than half the city’s black adults didn’t have even a high school diploma, let alone a university credential.

Instead, Metz longed to become a hairstylist. She’d practiced since she was a little girl on her mom, whose locks grew in so straight that people speculated she must have white ancestors. But even that goal felt unreachable after Metz became pregnant in 1985, her junior year of high school. She dropped out and assumed she wouldn’t have a career. She’d be a mother instead.

Six months after Metz gave birth to her son, Carl, his father was murdered.

Metz became a single mother just as the state’s economy was collapsing. Louisiana had long been dependent on oil — profits from the natural resource accounted for nearly half of the state’s budget then. But the price per barrel began falling in 1981, and by the mid-1980s, one in eight Louisiana workers was unemployed, the highest rate in the nation. New Orleans lost nearly 10,000 jobs, leaving few openings for a teenage mother with no credentials or documentable skills.

Metz didn’t take time to grieve. Most black people in New Orleans knew someone who’d been killed, she said. Instead, she started looking for someone to help raise her child.

Glenn Metz had money. He’d grown up poor in the Calliope housing projects, one of the most violent neighborhoods in New Orleans, but he owned two tow-truck companies by the time Metz met him. At age 30, he possessed the kind of quiet maturity that Metz, then 18, thought would make him a good substitute father for Carl. Glenn Metz wore such nice clothes and jewelry the night Metz met him that she suspected he at least dabbled in drug-dealing, but she told herself his business had nothing to do with her.

Growing up, Metz believed that college was for white kids and for “Huxtables” — black families she named after the upper-middle-class family in “The Cosby Show.” Cheryl Gerber/The Hechinger Report

According to federal prosecutors, Glenn Metz formed a drug ring just before he met the girl who would become his wife. Between 1985 and 1992, Glenn Metz and his crew came to dominate St. Thomas and Calliope, prosecutors said, distributing more than 1,000 kilos of cocaine and killing 23 rivals. Glenn Metz sat atop an organization manned by more than half a dozen enforcers, two of whom, prosecutors said, drove through town in an armor-plated pickup with the word “homicide” spelled out on the hood in gold letters.

Metz spent most of those years at home. “The Cosby Show” debuted the year she should have graduated high school, and she watched it and its college-based spin-off “A Different World” every week, dreaming of the life she wished she had. She took a few beauty school classes and occasionally cut hair in someone’s home, but Glenn Metz didn’t like when she left the house, she said. They married in 1989, and Metz soon gave birth to their daughter, Gleneisha. Metz didn’t have a social security number or any way to make money on her own. When Glenn Metz told her to ride with her aunt to deliver a few packages to Houston, Metz said, she did it.

Crack cocaine was spreading through black neighborhoods across the country then, and lawmakers blamed the drug for an increase in inner-city violence. New Orleans was especially hard hit. In 1990, the city topped 300 murders for the first time. Nearly every edition of The Times-Picayune that year carried news of cocaine busts. Police arrested scores of black men, including Metz’s older brother, Perry Bernard, for possession. As the city’s murder rate rose to the nation’s highest, investigators worked to take down Glenn Metz. His was the biggest and most violent drug ring in the city, prosecutors said. They indicted him and eight others, including Metz, in the summer of 1992.

Metz, who’d been temporarily living in Las Vegas with her husband before the indictment, fled to Jackson, Mississippi. She rented an apartment near Jackson State University and planned to enroll after the investigation concluded. When police arrested her there in January 1993, Metz figured she’d just get probation. Most people she knew went to jail “seasonally.” Her older brother had drifted in and out before a 1989 arrest netted him 13 years in a state prison.

After crack cocaine became popular, Congress adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, establishing for the first time mandatory minimum sentences triggered by specific quantities of cocaine. The penalties were worse for defendants charged with possession or distribution of crack cocaine, favored by African-Americans, than for those accused of possessing or distributing the powder cocaine primarily used by white people.

But Metz, 25 then, had never had so much as a traffic ticket. She believed her involvement in her husband’s narcotics sales was minimal enough that prosecutors would let her go with a warning. Police did not find any drugs with her, and she was never implicated in any violence.

Instead, federal authorities charged Metz and her co-defendants under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Lawmakers created RICO in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon as a tool to combat the Mafia, but prosecutors increasingly used it in the 1980s to fight drug rings. The charges under RICO carried automatic sentences of life in prison without parole.

The U.S. attorneys who prosecuted her case presented witnesses who were major narcotics suppliers or small-time drug dealers. They testified that Metz had driven packages to Houston for her husband and, on occasion, accepted cash payments and wired money to suppliers. The jury decided she was guilty.

Four months later, in mid-December, U.S. District Judge A.J. McNamara sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus another 20 years in federal prison.

Getting poorer while working harder: The ‘cliff effect’

By Susan R. Crandall, University of Massachusetts Boston

Forty percent of all working-age Americans sometimes struggle to pay their monthly bills.

There is no place in the country where a family supported by one minimum-wage worker with a full-time job can live and afford a 2-bedroom apartment at the average fair-market rent.

Average Walmart workers make twice the federal minimum wage but may still qualify for public benefits.

Given the pressure to earn enough to make ends meet, you would think that low-paid workers would be clamoring for raises. But this is not always the case.

Because so many American jobs don’t earn enough to pay for food, housing and other basic needs, many low-wage workers rely on public benefits that are only available to people in need, such as housing vouchers and Medicaid, to pay their bills.

Earning a little more money may not automatically increase their standard of living if it boosts their income to the point where they lose access to some or all of those benefits. That’s because the value of those lost benefits may outweigh their income gains.

I have researched this dynamic, which experts often call the “cliff effect,” for years to learn why workers weren’t succeeding at retaining their jobs following job training programs. Chief among the one step forward, two steps back problems the cliff effect causes: Low-paid workers can become reluctant to earn more money due to a fear that they will get worse off instead of better.

Trapped

“My supervisor wants to promote me,” a woman who gets housing assistance through the federal Section 8 housing voucher program, who I’ll call Josie, told me. “If my pay goes up, my rent will go up too. I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford my apartment,” Josie, a secretary at a Boston hospital, said.

These vouchers are available to Americans facing economic hardship, based on multiple criteria, including their income. Josie was worried that the bump up in pay that she’d get from the promotion would not make up for the loss of help she gets to pay her rent.

Given the possibility of a downside, many Americans in this situation decide it’s better to decline what on the surface looks like a good opportunity to escape poverty.

This uncertainty leads workers like Josie to forgo raises rather than take the risk of getting poorer while working harder. Having to stress out about potentially losing benefits that keep a roof over their heads and food on their table prolongs their own financial instability.

The pain isn’t just personal. Josie’s whole family misses out if she passes on an opportunity to earn more. The government loses a chance to stop using taxpayer dollars to cover benefits to someone who might not otherwise need them. The hospital can’t take full advantage of Josie’s proven talents.

Not always

Some low-paid workers do get farther behind when they should be getting ahead following a raise. But getting higher pay doesn’t always make anyone worse off. Whether it does or not depends on a lot of intersecting factors, like the local cost of living, the size of the raise, the size of the family and the benefits the worker receives.

The cliff effect is something social workers see their clients encounter all the time. And it’s maddeningly impossible to figure out for the people experiencing it and researchers like me alike.

Some benefits, notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s largest program designed to alleviate hunger, do include some incentives for recipients to earn more. SNAP, as today’s version of food stamps is known, tapers its phaseout for eligibility as incomes grow, rather than rendering people ineligible as soon as their pay crosses a single threshold.

But low-wage workers, such as those in food service, hospitality and retail have no way of knowing what to expect if they get SNAP benefits in combination with other government programs, such as housing vouchers and Medicaid.

At the heart of this problem is that the help millions Americans derive from the nation’s safety net comes from a fragmented system. Sorting out the repercussions of a higher income is nearly impossible because the safety net consists of a wide array of benefits programs administered by federal, state and local agencies. Each program and administrator has its own criteria, rules and restrictions.

Because that trepidation is sometimes unfounded, my colleagues at Project Hope Boston, a multi-service agency focused on moving the city’s families up and out of poverty, and I started to do something about it.

Fixing it

To help families assess risks tied to the cliff effect, we advised the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, which oversees state-administered safety net programs, to create a digital tool. Social workers are already using a preliminary version of it to show low-wage workers what they can probably expect to happen to their benefits if they earn more money.

You have to consider a lot of variables to see whether someone will experience the cliff effect. Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, CC BY-ND

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts plans to put this tool online for all to use by Summer of 2019.

After plugging information about variables like how many members are in the household, what benefits everyone receives, the costs of their regular expenses like rent, child care and medical bills, they become better able to make informed choices about their career opportunity based on their family’s personal financial situation.

But workers need more than just a tool, they need help getting over the cliff. We also help workforce development programs implement the state’s new Learn to Earn initiative, which gives low-income families the financial coaching they need to make educated decisions that could affect their bottom line.

This problem is becoming increasingly urgent because dozens of states, cities and counties are enforcing higher minimum wages, and employers are voluntarily raising pay as well, including Target and Amazon. Some places, including Massachusetts and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota, are even phasing in $15-an-hour minimums.

But the reality is that even after some of the biggest minimum wage increases enacted at the state level lately, many families are not earning enough to pay for housing and other basic needs without help – for which they may no longer qualify. Several states, including Colorado and Florida, are seeking solutions.This complicated and frustrating challenge is just one symptom of an overarching problem. In addition to boosting wages, it will take major policy changes, like making child care more universally available and affordable, to offset the skyrocketing costs of living for American workers.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

The future of work: Will robots take my job?

Back in the 1990s, when US banks started installing automated teller machines in a big way, the human tellers who worked in those banks seemed to be facing rapid obsolescence. If machines could hand out cash and accept deposits on their own, around the clock, who needed people?

The banks did, actually. It’s true that the ATMs made it possible to operate branch banks with many fewer employees: 13 on average, down from 20. But the cost savings just encouraged the parent banks to open so many new branches that the total employment of tellers actually went up.

The robots are coming: SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and the late physicist Stephen Hawking both publicly warned that machines will eventually start programming themselves, and trigger the collapse of human civilization.

You can find similar stories in fields like finance, health care, education and law, says James Bessen, the Boston University economist who called his colleagues’ attention to the ATM story in 2015. “The argument isn’t that automation always increases jobs,” he says, “but that it can and often does.”

That’s a lesson worth remembering when listening to the increasingly fraught predictions about the future of work in the age of robots and artificial intelligence. Think driverless cars, or convincingly human speech synthesis, or creepily lifelike robots that can run, jump and open doors on their own: Given the breakneck pace of progress in such applications, how long will there be anything left for people to do?

That question has been given its most apocalyptic formulation by figures such as Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk and the late physicist Stephen Hawking. Both have publicly warned that the machines will eventually exceed human capabilities, move beyond our control and perhaps even trigger the collapse of human civilization. But even less dramatic observers are worried. In 2014, when the Pew Research Center surveyed nearly 1,900 technology experts on the future of work, almost half were convinced that artificially intelligent machines would soon lead to accelerating job losses — nearly 50 percent by the early 2030s, according to one widely quoted analysis. The inevitable result, they feared, would be mass unemployment and a sharp upswing in today’s already worrisome levels of income inequality. And that could indeed lead to a breakdown in the social order.

Or maybe not. “It’s always easier to imagine the jobs that exist today and might be destroyed than it is to imagine the jobs that don’t exist today and might be created,” says Jed Kolko, chief economist at the online job-posting site Indeed. Many, if not most, experts in this field are cautiously optimistic about employment — if only because the ATM example and many others like it show how counterintuitive the impact of automation can be. Machine intelligence is still a very long way from matching the full range of human abilities, says Bessen. Even when you factor in the developments now coming through the pipeline, he says, “we have little reason in the next 10 or 20 years to worry about mass unemployment.”

So — which way will things go?

There’s no way to know for sure until the future gets here, says Kolko. But maybe, he adds, that’s not the right question: “The debate over the aggregate effect on job losses versus job gains blinds us to other issues that will matter regardless” — such as how jobs might change in the face of AI and robotics, and how society will manage that change. For example, will these new technologies be used as just another way to replace human workers and cut costs? Or will they be used to help workers, freeing them to exercise uniquely human abilities like problem-solving and creativity?

“There are many different possible ways we could configure the state of the world,” says Derik Pridmore, CEO of Osaro, a San Francisco-based firm that makes AI software for industrial robots, “and there are a lot of choices we have to make.”

Automation and jobs: lessons from the past

In the United States, at least, today’s debate over artificially intelligent machines and jobs can’t help but be colored by memories of the past four decades, when the total number of workers employed by US automakers, steel mills and other manufacturers began a long, slow decline from a high of 19.5 million in 1979 to about 17.3 million in 2000 — followed by a precipitous drop to a low of 11.5 million in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007–2009. (The total has since recovered slightly, to about 12.7 million; broadly similar changes were seen in other heavily automated countries such as Germany and Japan.) Coming on top of a stagnation in wage growth since about 1973, the experience was traumatic.

True, says Bessen, automation can’t possibly be the whole reason for the decline. “If you go back to the previous hundred years,” he says, “industry was automating at as fast or faster rates, and employment was growing robustly.” That’s how we got to millions of factory workers in the first place. Instead, economists blame the employment drop on a confluence of factors, among them globalization,the decline of labor unions, and a 1980s-era corporate culture in the United States that emphasized down-sizing, cost-cutting and quarterly profits above all else.

But automation was certainly one of those factors. “In the push to reduce costs, we collectively took the path of least resistance,” says Prasad Akella, a roboticist who is founder and CEO of Drishti, a start-up firm in Palo Alto, California, that uses AI to help workers improve their performance on the assembly line. “And that was, ‘Let’s offshore it to the cheapest center, so labor costs are low. And if we can’t offshore it, let’s automate it.’”

AI and robots in the workplace

Automation has taken many forms, including computer-controlled steel mills that can be operated by just a handful of employees, and industrial robots, mechanical arms that can be programmed to move a tool such as a paint sprayer or a welding torch through a sequence of motions. Such robots have been employed in steadily increasing numbers since the 1970s. There are currently about 2 million industrial robots in use globally, mostly in automotive and electronics assembly lines, each taking the place of one or more human workers.

The distinctions among automation, robotics and AI are admittedly rather fuzzy — and getting fuzzier, now that driverless cars and other advanced robots are using artificially intelligent software in their digital brains. But a rough rule of thumb is that robots carry out physical tasks that once required human intelligence, while AI software tries to carry out human-level cognitive tasks such as understanding language and recognizing images. Automation is an umbrella term that not only encompasses both, but also includes ordinary computers and non-intelligent machines.

AI’s job is toughest. Before about 2010, applications were limited by a paradox famously pointed out by the philosopher Michael Polanyi in 1966: “We can know more than we can tell” — meaning that most of the skills that get us through the day are practiced, unconscious and almost impossible to articulate. Polanyi called these skills tacit knowledge, as opposed to the explicit knowledge found in textbooks.

Imagine trying to explain exactly how you know that a particular pattern of pixels is a photograph of a puppy, or how you can safely negotiate a left-hand turn against oncoming traffic. (It sounds easy enough to say “wait for an opening in traffic” — until you try to define an “opening” well enough for a computer to recognize it, or to define precisely how big the gap must be to be safe.) This kind of tacit knowledge contained so many subtleties, special cases and things measured by “feel” that there seemed no way for programmers to extract it, much less encode it in a precisely defined algorithm.

Today, of course, even a smartphone app can recognize puppy photos (usually), and autonomous vehicles are making those left-hand turns routinely (if not always perfectly). What’s changed just within the past decade is that AI developers can now throw massive computer power at massive datasets — a process known as “‘deep learning.” This basically amounts to showing the machine a zillion photographs of puppies and a zillion photographs of not-puppies, then having the AI software adjust a zillion internal variables until it can identify the photos correctly.

Although this deep learning process isn’t particularly efficient — a human child only has to see one or two puppies — it’s had a transformative effect on AI applications such as autonomous vehicles, machine translation and anything requiring voice or image recognition. And that’s what’s freaking people out, says Jim Guszcza, US chief data scientist at Deloitte Consulting in Los Angeles: “Wow — things that before required tacit knowledge can now be done by computers!” Thus the new anxiety about massive job losses in fields like law and journalism that never had to worry about automation before. And thus the many predictions of rapid obsolescence for store clerks, security guards and fast-food workers, as well as for truck, taxi, limousine and delivery van drivers.

Meet my colleague, the robot

But then, bank tellers were supposed to become obsolete, too. What happened instead, says Bessen, was that automation via ATMs not only expanded the market for tellers, but also changed the nature of the job: As tellers spent less time simply handling cash, they spent more time talking with customers about loans and other banking services. “And as the interpersonal skills have become more important,” says Bessen, “there has been a modest rise in the salaries of bank tellers,” as well as an increase in the number of full-time rather than part-time teller positions. “So it’s a much richer picture than people often imagine,” he says.

Similar stories can be found in many other industries. (Even in the era of online shopping and self-checkout, for example, the employment numbers for retail trade are going up smartly.) The fact is that, even now, it’s very hard to completely replace human workers.

Steel mills are an exception that proves the rule, says Bryan Jones, CEO of JR Automation, a firm in Holland, Michigan, that integrates various forms of hardware and software for industrial customers seeking to automate. “A steel mill is a really nasty, tough environment,” he says. But the process itself — smelting, casting, rolling, and so on — is essentially the same no matter what kind of steel you’re making. So the mills have been comparatively easy to automate, he says, which is why the steel industry has shed so many jobs.

When people are better

“Where it becomes more difficult to automate is when you have a lot of variability and customization,” says Jones. “That’s one of the things we’re seeing in the auto industry right now: Most people want something that’s tailored to them,” with a personalized choice of color, accessories or even front and rear grills. Every vehicle coming down the assembly line might be a bit different.

It’s not impossible to automate that sort of flexibility, says Jones. Pick a task, and there’s probably a laboratory robot somewhere that has mastered it. But that’s not the same as doing it cost-effectively, at scale. In the real world, as Akella points out, most industrial robots are still big, blind machines that go through their motions no matter who or what is in the way, and have to be caged off from people for safety’s sake. With machines like that, he says, “flexibility requires a ton of retooling and a ton of programming — and that doesn't happen overnight.”

Contrast that with human workers, says Akella. The reprogramming is easy: “You just walk onto the factory floor and say, ‘Guys, today we’re making this instead of that.’” And better still, people come equipped with abilities that few robot arms can match, including fine motor control, hand-eye coordination and a talent for dealing with the unexpected.

All of which is why most automakers today don’t try to automate everything on the assembly line. (A few of them did try it early on, says Bessen. But their facilities generally ended up like General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, which quickly became a debugging nightmare after it opened in 1985: Its robots were painting each other as often as they painted the Cadillacs.) Instead, companies like Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors restrict the big, dumb, fenced-off robots to tasks that are dirty, dangerous and repetitive, such as welding and spray-painting. And they post their human workers to places like the final assembly area, where they can put the last pieces together while checking for alignment, fit, finish and quality — and whether the final product agrees with the customer’s customization request.

To help those human workers, moreover, many manufacturers (and not just automakers) are investing heavily in collaborative robots, or “cobots” — one of the fastest-growing categories of industrial automation today.

Sawyer, a collaborative robot made by Rethink Robotics, is one of many such "cobots" designed to work safely alongside humans on the shop floor. Sawyer guides its movements with a computer vision system, uses force feedback to know how hard it is gripping (and to keep from crushing things), and can be trained to do a new task simply by guiding its 7-jointed arm through the required motion. The expression of the eyes on the display screen change to indicate Sawyer's status, from "working well" to "needs attention."

Collaborative robots: Machines work with people

Cobots are now available from at least half a dozen firms. But they are all based on concepts developed by a team working under Akella in the mid-1990s, when he was a staff engineer at General Motors. The goal was to build robots that are safe to be around, and that can help with stressful or repetitive tasks while still leaving control with the human workers.

To get a feel for the problem, says Akella, imagine picking up a battery from a conveyor belt, walking two steps, dropping it into the car and then going back for the next one — once per minute, eight hours per day. “I've done the job myself,” says Akella, “and I can assure you that I came home extremely sore.” Or imagine picking up a 150-pound “cockpit” — the car’s dashboard, with all the attached instruments, displays and air-conditioning equipment — and maneuvering it into place through the car’s doorway without breaking anything.

Devising a robot that could help with such tasks was quite a novel research challenge at the time, says Michael Peshkin, a mechanical engineer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and one of several outside investigators that Akella included in his team. “The field was all about increasing the robots’ autonomy, sensing and capacity to deal with variability,” he says. But until this project came along, no one had focused too much on the robots’ ability to work with people.

So for their first cobot, he and his Northwestern colleague Edward Colgate started with a very simple concept: a small cart equipped with set of lifters that would hoist, say, the cockpit, while the human worker guided it into place. But the cart wasn’t just passive, says Peshkin: It would sense its position and turn its wheels to stay inside a “virtual constraint surface” — in effect, an invisible midair funnel that would guide the cockpit through the door and into position without a scratch. The worker could then check the final fit and attachments without strain.

Cobots can be adapted to help human workers in a wide variety of manufacturing environments. At MS Schramberg, a mid-sized magnet manufacturer in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, multiple collaborative robots called Sawyers have been deployed to relieve workers from some of the most repetitive assembly tasks.

Another GM-sponsored prototype replaced the cart with a worker-guided robotic arm that could lift auto components while hanging from a movable suspension point on the ceiling. But it shared the same principle of machine assistance plus worker control — a principle that proved to be critically important when Peshkin and his colleagues tried out their prototypes on General Motors’ assembly line workers.

“We expected a lot of resistance,” says Peshkin. “But in fact, they were welcoming and helpful. They totally understood the idea of saving their backs from injury.” And just as important, the workers loved using the cobots. They liked being able to move a little faster or a little slower if they felt like it. “With a car coming along every 52 seconds,” says Peshkin, “that little bit of autonomy was really important.” And they liked being part of the process. “People want their skills to be on display,” he says. “They enjoy using their bodies, taking pleasure in their own motion.” And the cobots gave them that, he says: “You could swoop along the virtual surface, guide the cockpit in and enjoy the movement in a way that fixed machinery didn’t allow.”

AI and its limits

Akella’s current firm, Drishti, reports a similarly welcoming response to its AI-based software. Details are proprietary, says Akella. But the basic idea is to use advanced computer vision technology to function somewhat like a GPS for the assembly line, giving workers turn-by-turn instructions and warnings as they go. Say that a worker is putting together an iPhone, he explains, and the camera watching from overhead believes that only three out of four screws were secured: “We alert the worker and say, ‘Hey, just make sure to tighten that screw as well before it goes down the line.’”

This does have its Big Brother aspects, admits Drishti’s marketing director, David Prager. “But we’ve got a lot of examples of operators on the floor who become very engaged and ultimately very appreciative,” he says. “They know very well the specter of automation and robotics bearing down on them, and they see very quickly that this is a tool that helps them be more efficient, more precise and ultimately more valuable to the company. So the company is more willing to invest in its people, as opposed to getting them out of the equation.”

This theme — using technology to help people do their jobs rather than replacing people — is likely to be a characteristic of AI applications for a long time to come. Just as with robotics, there are still some important things that AI can’t do.

Robot arms can be equipped with “hands,” or grippers, that are specialized for the specific job. Here, Sawyer is using a gripper consisting of an array of suction cups to position a circuit board very precisely in a testing stand.

Take medicine, for example. Deep learning has already produced software that can interpret X rays as well as or better than human radiologists, says Darrell West, a political scientist who studies innovation at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “But we’re not going to want the software to tell somebody, ‘You just got a possible cancer diagnosis,’” he says. “You're still going to need a radiologist to check on the AI, to make sure that what it observed actually is the case” — and then, if the results are bad, a cancer specialist to break the news to the patient and start planning out a course of treatment.

Likewise in law, where AI can be a huge help in finding precedents that might be relevant to a case — but not in interpreting them, or using them to build a case in court. More generally, says Guszcza, deep-learning-based AI is very good at identifying features and focusing attention where it needs to be. But it falls short when it comes to things like dealing with surprises, integrating many diverse sources of knowledge and applying common sense — “all the things that humans are very good at.”

During the 2016 election campaign, to test Google’s Translate utility, he tried a classic experiment: Take a headline — “Hillary slams the door on Bernie” — then ask Google to translate it from English to Bengali and back again. Result: “Barney slam the door on Clinton.” A year later, after Google had done a massive upgrade of Translate using deep learning, Guszcza repeated the experiment with the result: “Hillary Barry opened the door.”

“I don’t see any evidence that we’re going to achieve full common-sense reasoning with current AI,” he says, echoing a point made by many AI researchers themselves. In September 2017, for example, deep learning pioneer Geoffrey Hinton, a computer scientist at the University of Toronto, told the news site Axios that the field needs some fundamentally new ideas if researchers ever hope to achieve human-level AI.

Job evolution

AI’s limitations are another reason why economists like Bessen don’t see it causing mass unemployment anytime soon. “Automation is almost always about automating a task, not the entire job,” he says, echoing a point made by many others. And while every job has at least a few routine tasks that could benefit from AI, there are very few jobs that are all routine. In fact, says Bessen, when he systematically looked at all the jobs listed in the 1950 census, “there was only one occupation that you could say was clearly automated out of existence — elevator operators.” There were 50,000 in 1950, and effectively none today.

On the other hand, you don’t need mass unemployment to have massive upheaval in the workplace, says Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC. “The experts are hardly close to a consensus on whether robotics and artificial intelligence will result in more jobs, or fewer jobs,” he says, “but they will certainly change jobs. Everybody expects that this great sorting out of skills and functions will continue for as far as the eye can see.”

Worse, says Rainie, “the most worried experts in our sample say that we’ve never in history faced this level of change this rapidly.” It’s not just information technology, or artificial intelligence, or robotics, he says. It’s also nanotechnology, biotechnology, 3-D printing, communication technologies — on and on. “The changes are happening on so many fronts that they threaten to overwhelm our capacity to adjust,” he says.

Preparing for the future of work

If so, the resulting era of constant job churn could force some radical changes in the wider society. Suggestions from Pew’s experts and others include an increased emphasis on continuing education and retraining for adults seeking new skills, and a social safety net that has been revamped to help people move from job to job and place to place. There is even emerging support in the tech sector for some kind of guaranteed annual income, on the theory that advances in AI and robotics will eventually transcend the current limitations and make massive workplace disruptions inevitable, meaning that people will need a cushion.

This is the kind of discussion that gets really political really fast. And at the moment, says Rainie, Pew’s opinion surveys show that it’s not really on the public’s radar: “There are a lot of average folks, average workers saying, ‘Yeah, everybody else is going to get messed up by this — but I’m not. My business is in good shape. I can’t imagine how a machine or a piece of software could replace me.’”

But it’s a discussion that urgently needs to happen, says West. Just looking at what’s already in the pipeline, he says, “the full force of the technology revolution is going to take place between 2020 and 2050. So if we make changes now and gradually phase things in over the next 20 years, it’s perfectly manageable. But if we wait until 2040, it will probably be impossible to handle.”


Republished with permission under license from Knowable Magazine.

Jessie Simmons: How a schoolteacher became an unsung hero of the civil rights movement

 By Valerie Hill-Jackson, Texas A&M University

Jessie Dean Gipson Simmons was full of optimism when she and her family moved from an apartment in a troubled area of Detroit to a new development in Inkster, Michigan in 1955.

With three children in tow, Jessie and her husband settled into a home on Colgate Street in a neighborhood known as “Brick City” – an idyllic enclave of single, working-class families with a shared community garden.

The plan was simple. Like many African Americans who left the South as part of the Great Migration, Jessie’s husband, Obadiah Sr., would find a stable factory job just outside of Detroit. Then Jessie would put to use the bachelor’s degree she had earned in upper elementary education from Grambling State University in the township of Taylor – just a few blocks from their new home.

File 20190301 110110 1gxxe8e.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Jessie Dean Gipson Simmons, shown top center about age 37, c. 1961. [Clockwise: daughter Angela, sons Obadiah Jerone, Jr. and Carl, and husband Obadiah Jerone, Sr.; daughters Carolyn and Quendelyn are not pictured] Simmons family archives, Author provided

But the plan went awry. Jessie first applied for a teaching position with the Taylor school district in April 1958, but was denied. The same thing happened in March 1959. And a third time in May 1959. The repeated denials may have set back Jessie’s plans, but they also set her up to fight an important battle for justice for black educators at a time when many were being pushed out of the teaching profession.

I interviewed Jessie’s family as part of my ongoing research into the history of black women teachers from the Reconstruction Era to the 21st century.

Fighting back

The battle began when Jessie filed a grievance with the Michigan Fair Employment Practices Commission, or MFEPC, on Sept. 1, 1959. Jessie’s grievance detailed her conversation with the superintendent Orville Jones in March 1958, in which he told her “there would be vacancies in 1959.”

In August 1958, the Taylor Township Board of Education – the body overseeing the school district where Jessie wanted to teach – took up the matter of employing Negro teachers at a board meeting. The reason the item was placed on the agenda? The Superintendent at the time, Orville Jones, “felt that any handicap” – he deemed race as a handicap – “be pointed out to the board.”

The chair of the school board, Mr. Randall, stated applications were “considered in the order of the dates they were received.” Since the Taylor school board was now on record regarding its hiring practices for teachers, Jessie used that statement in her grievance.

Jessie’s decision to file a grievance would be a costly one for her family. The couple had planned on two steady incomes. In 1959, now a mother of five children, Jessie took a job as a waitress and a cook in a cafe to make ends meet. Her job drew scorn from family members in Louisiana who knew she was severely underemployed. And though her children didn’t know it at the time, Jessie and her husband “gave up meals so the children could eat,” according to Jessie’s oldest son, Obidiah Jr.

In 1960 the MFEPC held a public hearing for the grievance filed by Jessie and Mary Ruth Ross – a second black teacher who was also denied employment by the Taylor board of education. According to the Detroit Courier, Jessie and Mary “were passed over for employment in favor of white applicants who lacked degrees.” Records uncovered by the MFEPC found that 42 non-degreed teachers hired between 1957 through 1960 were all white and “had a maximum of 60 hours of college credits.” Jessie and Mary, on the other hand, were both degreed teachers with some credits toward a graduate degree.

How the Brown decision hurt black teachers

While the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision is often celebrated and considered a legal victory, many scholars believe it had a harmful effect on black teachers. In 1951, scholars writing in the Journal of Negro Education rightly warned that Brown “might conceivably” impact “Negro teachers”. Nationwide, school district leaders pushed back against Brown in two ways.

First, school leaders slow-walked the implementation of Brown – for many school districts as late as the mid-1980s. Second, black teachers across the country lost their once-secure teaching jobs by the tens of thousands after Brown when black schools closed and black children integrated into white schools. In the South, for example, the number of black teachers had soared to around 90,000 pre-Brown. But by 1965 nearly half had lost their jobs. A 1965 report from the National Education Association, a leading labor union for teachers, concluded school districts had “no place for Negroes” in the wake of Brown. School officials railed against Brown and refused to hire black teachers like Jessie, turning them into what sociologist Oliver Cox described as “martyrs to integration.”

My own research confirms that the forced exodus of black women from the teaching profession was ignited by Brown. Discrimination by school leaders fueled the demographic decline of black teachers and remains one of the leading factors for their under-representation in the profession today.

First ruling of its kind

At the eight-day public hearing, Jones admitted that “the hiring of Negro teachers would be something new and different and something we had not done before.” He stated he felt that the Negro teachers were “not up to par.” The hearing eventually revealed that applications for “Negroes” were kept in distinct folders – separated from the submissions of the white applicants.

After more than a year, the MFEPC issued a ruling in Jessie’s case. The decision got a brief mention from Jet Magazine on Dec. 1, 1960:

In the first ruling of its kind, the MFEPC ordered the Taylor Township School Board to hire Mrs. Mary Ruth Ross and Mrs. Jessie Simmons, two Negro teachers, and pay them back wages for the school years of 1959-60 and 1960-61. FEPC Commissioner Allan A. Zaun said the teachers were refused employment on the basis of race.

The attorney for the Taylor board of education, Harry F. Vellmure, threatened to challenge the ruling in court – all the way “to the Supreme Court if necessary,” according to the Detroit Courier. The board stuck to its position that Jessie and Mary were given full and fair consideration for teaching jobs and simply lost out to better qualified teachers.

As a result of noncompliance with the MFEPC’s order, Carl Levin, future U.S. senator and general counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Taylor school district on Jessie’s and Mary’s behalf. Even though the matter did not reach higher courts, Vellmure filed several appeals that effectively slowed down the commission’s order for seven years.

As the lawsuit dragged on, Jessie became an elementary school teacher with the Sumpter School District in 1961. By 1965, she left Sumpter for the Romulus Community School District. According to Jessie’s children, they would continue in the Taylor school district and were known as the kids “whose mother filed the lawsuit against the school district.”

In 1967, after seven years of fighting the Taylor school district in local court, Jessie and Mary prevailed. They were awarded two years back pay and teaching positions. Saddled by hurt feelings after a long fight with the Taylor school district, Jessie declined the offer and continued teaching in Romulus.

The Simmons moved into a larger, newly constructed home on Lehigh Avenue. Jessie gave birth to her sixth child, Kimberly, one month before moving in. Although the new home was only two blocks south of their old home on Colgate Avenue, Jessie’s four surviving children recall that their lifestyle improved and their childhood was now defined by two eras: “before lawsuit life and after lawsuit life.” And by 1968, Jessie earned a master’s degree in education from Eastern Michigan University.

Unsung civil rights hero

At her retirement in 1986, Jessie’s former students recalled that she was an effective teacher of 30 years who was known as a disciplinarian with a profound sense of commitment to the children of Romulus.

Jessie’s story is a reminder that the civil rights movement did not push society to a better version of itself with a singular, vast wave toward freedom. Rather, it was fashioned by little ripples of courage with one person, one schoolteacher, at a time.The Conversation


The Loss of Black Women Teachers.

Valerie Hill-Jackson, Clinical Professor of Educator Preparation and Director, Educator Preparation and School Partnerships, Texas A&M University


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

What is public service loan forgiveness? And how do I qualify to get it?

Robert Kelchen, Seton Hall University

The first group of borrowers who tried to get Public Service Loan Forgiveness – a George W. Bush-era program meant to provide relief to those who went into socially valuable but poorly paid public service jobs, such as teachers and social workers – mostly ran into a brick wall.

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Public Service Loan Forgiveness can be difficult to get if you don’t know the rules. Rawpixel.com/www.shutterstock.com

Of the 28,000 public servants who applied for Public Service Loan Forgiveness earlier this year, only 96 were approved. Many were denied in large part due to government contractors being less than helpful when it came to telling borrowers about Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Some of these borrowers will end up getting part of their loans forgiven, but will have to make more payments than they expected.

With Democrats having regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the November 2018 midterm elections, the Department of Education will likely face greater pressure for providing better information to borrowers, as it was told to do recently by the Government Accountability Office.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program forgives loans for students who made 10 years of loan payments while they worked in public service jobs. Without this loan forgiveness plan, many of these borrowers would have been paying off their student loans for 20 to 25 years.

Borrowers must follow a complex set of rules in order to be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. As a professor who studies federal financial aid policies, I explain these rules below so that up to 1 million borrowers who have expressed interest in the program can have a better shot at receiving forgiveness.

free money for college

What counts as public service?

In general, working for a government agency – such as teaching in a public school or a nonprofit organization that is not partisan in nature – counts as public service for the purposes of the program. For some types of jobs, this means that borrowers need to choose their employers carefully. Teaching at a for-profit school, even if the job is similar to teaching at a public school, would not qualify someone for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Borrowers must also work at least 30 hours per week in order to qualify.

What types of loans and payment plans qualify?

Only Federal Direct Loans automatically qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Borrowers with other types of federal loans must consolidate their loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan before any payments count toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The failure to consolidate is perhaps the most common reason why borrowers who applied for forgiveness have been rejected, although Congress did provide US$350 million to help some borrowers who were in an ineligible loan program qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

In order to receive Public Service Loan Forgiveness, borrowers must also be enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan, which ties payments to a percentage of a borrower’s income. The default repayment option is not income-driven and consists of 10 years of fixed monthly payments, but these fixed payments are much higher than income-driven payments. The bottom line is it’s not enough to just make 10 years of payments. You have to make those payments through an income-driven repayment plan to get Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Parent PLUS Loans and Direct Consolidation Loans have fewer repayment plan options than Direct Loans made to students, so borrowers must enroll in an approved income-driven repayment plan for that type of loan. Borrowers must make 120 months of payments, which do not need to be consecutive, while enrolled in the correct payment plan to receive forgiveness.

How can borrowers track their progress?

First of all, keep every piece of information possible regarding your student loan. Pay stubs, correspondence with student loan servicers and contact information for prior employers can all help support a borrower’s case for qualifying for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Unfortunately, borrowers have had a hard time getting accurate information from loan servicers and the Department of Education about how to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office told the Department of Education earlier this year to improve its communication with servicers and borrowers, so this process should – at least in theory – get better going forward.

Borrowers should also fill out the Department of Education’s Employment Certification Form each year, as the Department of Education will respond with information on the number of payments made that will qualify toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness. This form should also be filed with the Department of Education each time a borrower starts a new job to make sure that position also qualifies for loan forgiveness.

Can new borrowers still access Public Service Loan Forgiveness?

Yes. Although congressional Republicans proposed eliminating Public Service Loan Forgiveness for new borrowers, the changes have not been approved by Congress. Current borrowers would not be affected under any of the current policy proposals. However, it would be a good idea for borrowers to fill out an Employment Certification Form as soon as possible just in case Congress changes its mind.

Are there other affordable payment options available?

Yes. The federal government offers a number of income-driven repayment options that limit monthly payments to between 10 and 20 percent of “discretionary income.” The federal government determines “discretionary income” as anything you earn that is above 150 percent of the poverty line, which would translate to an annual salary of about $18,000 for a single adult. So if you earn $25,000 a year, your monthly payments would be limited to somewhere between $700 and $1400 per year, or about $58 and $116 per month.

These plans are not as generous as Public Service Loan Forgiveness because payments must be made for between 20 and 25 years – instead of 10 years under Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Also, any forgiven balance under income-driven repayment options is subject to income taxes, whereas balances forgiven through Public Service Loan Forgiveness are not taxed.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Minority job applicants with ‘strong racial identities’ may encounter less pay and lower odds of getting hired

George B. Cunningham, Texas A&M University

Race-based discrimination is common in the hiring process.

For example, racial minorities are less likely than whites to receive a callback when they apply for a job. There are also wide earning gaps, with African-Americans and Latinos earning a fraction of what whites and Asians do.

File 20180910 123119 fejnia.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Research has shown African-Americans get fewer job callbacks than whites. astarot/Shutterstock.com\

Yet despite laws that aim to reduce employment discrimination and improve attitudes toward diversity, these patterns have not changed for decades.

When analyzing these problems, researchers and others tend to focus on how the experiences of racial minorities compare with those of whites. Often missing is whether there are differences among individuals of the same racial group in terms of how they experience bias.

That is where my new study, which focuses on perceptions of others’ racial identities, comes in.

Perceived identities

People have more than one identity, such as being a mom, a Muslim, an athlete, a scientist and so on.

Just as we commonly think about the importance of each of our identities to who we are – such as being a dad or very religious – we make the same assessments of other people. That is, we evaluate other people’s identities to understand which ones are most fundamental to who they are.

And it turns out, the conclusions we come to about each other’s “perceived identities” can have a big effect on how we interact with them.

As a researcher who has spent the last 19 years examining diversity and inclusion, I was interested in how perceptions of identity affected a racial minority’s prospects as a job applicant. More specifically, I wanted to know if the perception that an applicant has a strong racial identity affected her ability to get a job and how much she’d get paid.

Presumed identity

Past research has shown that our inferences about others’ personal identities can influence how we interact with them.

In some cases, people might talk about how their identity is important to them, or how it reflects a critical part of who they are as a person. In other cases, we make assessments based on cues. For example, we might think someone strongly identifies as Latino when they are members of a Latino student organization. Or, we might infer a weak identity among people who engage in actions that are seemingly contrary to the interests of their group.

For example, psychologists Cheryl Kaiser and Jennifer Pratt-Hyatt found found that whites interact more positively with racial minorities they believe weakly identify with their race – and more negatively with those with stronger racial identifies. Specifically, whites expressed more desire to be their friends and offer favorable ratings of their personality.

Studies show whites are more likely to become friends with racial minorities they perceive as weakly identifying with their race. MinDof/Shutterstock.com

Presumed identity and work

Drawing on their work, Astin Vick, a former student of mine, and I examined whether African-American women’s and Latinas’ presumed racial identity affect their job ratings.

Using an online data collection platform, we asked 238 white people who indicated that they currently or previously worked in the fitness industry to review the application of someone applying to be a club manager. They were told to review a job description, a hiring directive from the club owner, a summary of each applicant’s relevant background and a picture.

All applicants had the same experience, work history and education. The pictures were used to indicate an applicant’s race. Most importantly, we varied each applicant’s relevant affiliations and community service to suggest whether she had a strong identification to her racial group or a weak one.

For example, membership in the Latino Fitness Instructors Association or volunteering for former President Barack Obama’s campaign would signal a strong identification to an applicant’s Latina or black racial group. Belonging to the neutral-sounding Intercollegiate Athletics Coaches Association or volunteering for Obama’s opponent in the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney, would signal a weak one.

The participants then filled in a questionnaire to measure their perceptions of the applicant they reviewed, including work attributes such as “untested” or “expert,” hiring recommendation and suggested salary.

Our results showed that most people did in fact use cues from the application file to form views of the applicant’s racial identity, which in turn informed their hiring and salary recommendations. Essentially, as we expected, applicants perceived as identifying strongly with their racial group were less likely to be recommended for a job. And, when they were, received lower suggested salaries – on average US$2,000 less – than those signaling weak associations.

The story does not end there, though, since we also knew each participant’s gender. And we found that men showed a slightly different pattern than the one described above.

Men recommended roughly the same salaries for African-American women and Latinas who identified weakly with their racial groups. But for those with strong perceived identifies, they penalized Latinas far more than African-Americans. That is, they recommended the club pay Latinas with a strong racial identify about $5,000 less than African-Americans.

These small changes can add up over time. Over a 15-year tenure with a company, that difference results in $96,489 difference in inflation-adjusted earnings.

The impact

Our study illustrates several key points.

First, though racial minorities, as a collective, face bias in employment, there is considerable within group variability. An applicant’s specific race matters, as does her or his presumed racial identity.

Second, raters use cues on a resume to infer a job applicant’s racial identity. They then use this information in their decision-making. Aware of this pattern, some job seekers remove race-related activities on their resumes, what Sonia Kang, an associate professor of organizational behavior, refers to as racial whitening.

Finally, research has shown that diversity in the workplace leads to greater organizational performance and employee well-being. As such, employers would be wise to be on the lookout for biases like the one we found that are likely to lead to less diverse workforces and take steps to overcome them when hiring new workers.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

St. Louis Arch A Symbol of “Negro Removal”?

On July 3, 2018, a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renovated St. Louis Gateway Arch grounds was held. The history of the Arch is rooted in exclusion and racist policy. Black businesses were evicted to make room for the Arch and blacks were denied employment opportunities during the Arch construction. 53 years later, blacks were not represented in the ribbon cutting ceremony although the City of St. Louis has a majority black population.

 Officials and National Parks Service staff cut the ribbon to the new Gateway Arch visitor center and museum Tuesday.

The photo above is symbolic of how black people are constantly being removed for the benefit of others. The City of St. Louis removed blacks from the riverfront, sections of downtown including the Mill Creek Valley to build Pruitt Igoe.

Mill Creek Valley looking northwest towards Grand, St. Louis, MO.

The Mill Creek area was supposedly blighted, however, my father, who will be 90 later this year, told me many of the residents of Mill Creek were homeowners who took pride in their homes and kept them up. When I saw pictures of Mill Creek Valley, it looked very similar to the Soulard and Lafayette square neighborhoods.  

Mill Creek Valley family on moving Day

In 1959, demolition of the neighborhood began, displacing over 20,000 residents, 95% of whom were black. Keep in mind, during this time the federal government was still actively redlining and withholding funds to improve black neighborhoods. Of the $120 billion worth of new housing subsidized by the government between 1934 and 1962, less than 2 percent went to nonwhite families.

Former Mayor Raymond Tucker (at right) and then-civic leader and bond issue chairman Sidney Maestre look out over an area of Mill Creek Valley slated for clearance in 1956.

The Interstate highways wiped out many predominantly black neighborhoods and turned them into surface parking and highways or isolated them contributing to their failure. Even the Cookie Thornton shooting was related to black removal. Most recently, the false promises of Paul McKee and the NGA project resulted in the further displacement of black families and neighborhoods all under the guise of urban renewal. James Baldwin pointed out in a 1963 interview that, "urban renewal..means negro removal". 

People of African descent have played a large role in St. Louis since the city’s founding in 1764. Downtown St. Louis was a center of black cultural, economic, political, and legal achievements that have shaped not only the city but the nation as well. Early census figures show blacks, both free and slave, lived in St. Louis from its earliest days under French and Spanish colonial rule. By the 1820 census, 10,000 slaves lived in Missouri, about one-fifth of the state’s population, however only 347 "free colored persons" lived in Missouri. That same year, the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state. Evidence of black life in downtown St. Louis has been erased from the City's landscape and memory. See: "African Americans in Downtown St. Louis". 

In 1935 St. Louis approved a bond issue for a project commemorating Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and to clear an area of empty, “blighted” warehouses. A study by the Post-Dispatch at the time of the 1935 vote found the riverfront wasn’t a derelict district that needed to be cleared. The paper found 290 active businesses and a 2% vacancy rate on 37 blocks that would become the Arch.

The St. Louis riverfront, looking northeast from the Old Courthouse in 1895. This area now contains the Gateway Arch. The buildings shown here were prized by many historic preservationists, who objected to the demolition of unique cast-iron structures

As Tony Messenger pointed out in his article, "Krewson's deputy mayor calls all-white Arch photo a 'symptom' of St. Louis' racial divide": In 1939, the city of St. Louis began clearing 486 buildings from the area near its riverfront. Most housed businesses owned and run by black St. Louisans. About 5,000 jobs were lost. 

Westward Expansion

Let's not forget the original motivation for the St. Louis Arch. It was built to honor St. Louis' role in westward expansion, a time when Manifest Destiny was used to push Native Americans and Mexicans out of their lands. It is estimated 10 million+ Native Americans were living on land that is now the United States when European explorers first arrived in the 15th century. It is estimated that over nine million Native Americans were killed after European settlers arrived.

"Illegal aliens have always been a problem in the United States. Ask any Indian."  

As the United States expanded westward, violent conflicts over territory multiplied. In 1784, one British traveler noted:

“White Americans have the most rancorous antipathy to the whole race of Indians; and nothing is more common than to hear them talk of extirpating them totally from the face of the earth, men, women, and children.”

After the American Revolution, many Native American lives were already lost to disease and displacement. In 1830, the federal Indian Removal Act called for the removal of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. 

Between 1830 and 1838, federal officials working on behalf of white cotton growers forced nearly 100,000 Indians out of their homeland. The dangerous journey from the southern states to “Indian Territory” in current Oklahoma is referred to as the Trail of Tears. By 1837, 46,000 Native Americans had been removed from their homelands, thereby opening 25 million acres for predominantly European settlement.

Ferguson should have acted as a wake-up call to the entire St. Louis region. This year will mark the fourth anniversary of Michael Brown's death, but the City of St. Louis and the greater St. Louis region are either in denial or indifferent about its exclusionary institutionalized racist and oppressive nature. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. aptly stated, “a riot is the language of the unheard".

Considering the history of what the St. Louis Arch commemorates and the history of its construction, the lack of diversity in the ribbon cutting symbolized St. Louis' culture of racism. It's time to start listening to the unheard!

Janus decision extends First Amendment ‘right of silence’

Robert A. Sedler, Wayne State University

Forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state could require nonmembers of a public employee union to pay an “agency fee,” otherwise known as costs of collective bargaining, for their representation by the union.

The union could not use any part of the agency fee to advance ideological purposes unrelated to the union’s primary function of collective bargaining.

At that time, the court took the view that this requirement did not violate the First Amendment’s “right of silence” of nonunion members who didn’t want to pay the fee. The “right of silence” is the guarantee that people cannot be forced to be associated with an idea they do not believe.

On Tuesday, June 26, in Janus v. American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees, the court overruled that decision.

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Plaintiff Mark Janus, right, leaves the the Supreme Court Wednesday. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The court held that when it came to public employee unions, all collective bargaining involved ideological and public policy considerations. For government workers, the court said, issues like salaries, pensions and benefits are inherently political. And some employees may not agree with the union’s position on those matters.

For example, if a teacher’s union sought higher wages and benefits for its members, this might result in higher taxes for residents of the school district. And if that position was shared by certain union members, the union would be, effectively, putting words they didn’t believe in in their mouth. So the court said that compelling objecting employees to pay an agency fee violated their First Amendment right of silence.

Labor unions fought bitterly against Janus. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Although the court is reluctant to overrule prior decisions, the court majority, consisting of the four conservative justices plus Justice Kennedy, found that requiring objecting public employees to pay an agency fee was inconsistent with standard First Amendment principles.

Associate Justice Elena Kagan blasted the decision in her dissent, writing that “The First Amendment was meant for better things. It was meant not to undermine but to protect democratic governance — including over the role of public-sector unions.”

The majority also decided that agency fees were not justified by the union’s claim that they were necessary to avoid “free riders,” who would get the benefit of the union’s collective bargaining services without paying for them.

Indeed, said the court, the alleged “free riders” would be employees who were compelled to take a ride that they did not want. And above all, public employee unions did not need agency fees in order to effectively perform their role of representing the members of the bargaining unit.

The court noted that today public-sector union membership has surpassed union membership in the private sector. They said that public-sector unions effectively represent both federal employees without any agency fees and public employees in “right to work” states, where agency fees are prohibited.

The result in Janus extends strong protection to the First Amendment right of silence. It continues a trend over the last decade by which the court, sometimes divided and sometimes not, has expanded First Amendment rights, often at the behest of ideological conservatives.

The ConversationIn the United States, we give more constitutional protection to First Amendment rights than is provided by other democratic nations and international human rights norms. Janus is another example of this protection.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation

Robert A. Sedler, Distinguished Professor of Law, Wayne State University

Black employees in the service industry pay an emotional tax at work

By Alicia Grandey

The arrests of two black men who were waiting for a friend at a Starbucks in Philadelphia have raised questions about how race determines how customers are treated.

But does race also affect how the employees are treated within the service industry?

Prior research shows that black workers in people-oriented occupations – health care, service and sales – are rated lower by customers and supervisors than are white workers, even when their performance is objectively the same. Because of this, black workers have a harder time obtaining competitive raises or promotions. But it is unclear why or what workers can do about it.

In the U.S. workforce, blacks are disproportionately represented in low-paying service jobs like cashiers, call center employees and food service workers compared to higher-status jobs. So this issue has serious implications for the financial and professional lives of a large segment of black workers.

Race impacts perception of performance

Friendliness is key to performing well in the service industry. My colleagues Lawrence Houston III, Derek R. Avery and I found that negative stereotypes about blacks – that they are unfriendly, hostile or rude – explain lower performance evaluations of black service providers compared to white service providers.

We found that in order for the performance of black service providers to be rated equivalent to whites, blacks had to amplify and fake positive emotions to override those negative racial stereotypes. In other words, to be seen as good as white employees, black employees need to perform more “emotional labor,” a concept introduced by sociologist Arlie Hochschild.

Perhaps just like the two men at Starbucks, black service employees are assumed to have hostile intentions unless they put in extra effort to put forth a smile and show they are not a threat.

Across three studies

We drew these conclusions from a series of studies we conducted over several years.

In our first study, we asked a representative sample of people for their impressions of an employee described as holding an emotional labor job, a hotel desk clerk. They saw a photo of either a black or white person with a neutral expression, but otherwise the same job qualifications. Regardless of the respondents’ own race, education or income, they saw the black employee as less friendly and more hostile than the white employee.

In the second study, people watched a video of either a black or a white sales clerk ringing up sales in a home goods shop. They saw the clerk acting either warm and friendly or just polite. In all videos the sales clerk was efficient and knowledgeable.

When viewers saw the employee performing less emotional labor – just being polite and efficient – the black employee was rated as less friendly and a worse performer than the white employee. In contrast, after watching the friendly condition, the viewers rated the black and white employees similarly.

In short, just being polite was not enough for the black employee; putting on a big smile was necessary to get the same performance ratings as the white employee.

Both of the above studies were experiments. In a third study, we surveyed actual service employees and their supervisors.

Again, we found that supervisors rated black grocery store clerks as worse performers than white clerks, which could not be explained by job experience or motivation. Yet, black clerks who reported amplifying and faking their positive emotions when interacting with customers – more emotional labor – saw the racial disparity in the performance evaluations disappear.

Notably, white clerks were rated highly regardless of the frequency of their emotional labor. For black clerks to be rated as highly as the white clerks, they had to more consistently exaggerate their smile in customer interactions.

High cost of ‘service with a smile’

All service employees must sometimes put on a fake smile when having an off day, and sometimes they might let the mask slip. Our research shows that white employees who do less emotional labor can still be viewed positively, but black employees are not given the benefit of the doubt. Black employees constantly “fake it to make it” in service jobs.

Being a black service provider requires routinely putting forth more emotional effort – a bigger smile, a more enthusiastic tone of voice, maintained across time and customers – to be evaluated similarly to a white co-worker. If a black employee gets tired of faking that smile, there is a resulting decline in performance evaluation. This also means fewer opportunities for promotions, raises and career advancement.

The ConversationThough putting on a smile might seem like a small price to pay to get ahead at work, research shows that keeping up a friendly façade is a path to job burnout, a state of complete exhaustion linked to a desire to quit and health issues. Recognizing this situation is a first step to improving conditions for black employees and customers alike.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation.

Alicia Grandey, Professor of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University

Future of unions in balance as Trump prepares to reshape national labor board

By Nicole Hallett – Assistant Clinical Professor of Law, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Last October, employees of the Elderwood Nursing Home in Grand Island, New York, voted to unionize after years of dealing with short staffing, stagnant wages and problems with management. Six months later, the company has yet to come to the bargaining table, claiming that there are unresolved legal questions about whether licensed practical nurses can be part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Yale University graduate students have sought to form a union for more than a decade. AP Photo/Bob Child

Yale University has recently come under criticism for making a similar decision. Despite a February vote to unionize by graduate students in eight departments, Yale has so far resisted calls to begin the bargaining process. Instead, it has appealed the decision to certify the election and is refusing to bargain until the appeal is decided.

Elderwood and Yale could hardly be more different. Yale is a world-class Ivy League bastion of higher education. Elderwood is a medium-sized elder care company that operates nursing home facilities in New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Yet both have made the strategic decision to not recognize the right of their employees to unionize. Why?

My research on the decline of the labor movement suggests a reason: Employers are counting on a changing of the guard at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The NLRB is about to go under new management. AP Photo/Jon Elswick

Republicans take control

The NLRB is the administrative agency that is tasked with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act, the federal statute that gives employees the right to unionize and collectively bargain. The NLRB consists of five members who are appointed to five-year terms by the president upon the advice and consent of the Senate.

Right now, there are two vacancies on the board that President Donald Trump will fill. Once the Senate confirms President Trump’s nominees, Republicans will control the board for the first time since 2007.

The background of the three candidates reportedly under consideration suggests that the board will in fact be much friendlier to business interests under the Trump administration. One of the potential nominees, Doug Seaton, has made a career of being a “union-buster,” the term used to describe a consultant brought in by employers to beat a unionization campaign. Another, William Emanuel, is a partner at Littler Mendelson, one of the largest and most successful anti-labor law firms in the country. Less is known about the third potential candidate, Marvin Kaplan, but his history as a Republican staffer suggests he may also represent employers’ interests.

Many observers assume that this new board will overturn many Obama-era precedents that favored unions. These precedents include questions such as how to define bargaining units, at issue at both Yale and Elderwood.

But the new board could go even further and roll back pro-union decisions dating back decades. This could be devastating to already weakened unions. With private sector union membership hovering at a dismal 6.4 percent – down from about 17 percent in 1983 – nothing short of the end of the labor movement could be at stake.

How politics intruded on the NLRB

The composition of the NLRB is important because most claims regarding the right to organize and collectively bargain are decided by the agency.

Unlike other employment statutes, such as Title VII and the Fair Labor Standards Act, individuals and unions cannot file claims in federal court and instead must participate in the administrative process set up by the National Labor Relations Act. While aggrieved parties can appeal board rulings to federal appeals courts, judges grant a high degree of deference to NLRB decisions.

In other words, three board members – a bare majority of the board – have an enormous ability to influence and shape American labor policy.

Given the amount of power these three individuals can wield, it is no wonder that the NLRB has become highly politicized in the decades since its creation in the 1930s. Ironically, the board was originally established as a way to try to insulate labor policy from political influences.

The drafters of the labor act believed that the federal courts were hostile to labor rights and would chip away at the protections in a way that would be bad for unions. Instead, the board has become a political battlefield for the two parties who hold very different views about labor policy.

This politicization came to a head during the Obama administration, when it became impossible to confirm anyone to serve on the NLRB. In response, Obama appointed several members using his recess appointment power, which allows the president to avoid Senate confirmation of nominees when Congress is in recess.

Employers challenged the move, and the Supreme Court eventually invalidated the recess appointments as executive overreach in NLRB v. Noel Canning. After the decision, Obama and the Senate finally agreed on five members that were confirmed. This new board, with a Democratic majority, then decided many of the precedents that employers hope the new members will overturn.

Flaws in the National Labor Relations Act

So what will happen if Elderwood and Yale bet wrong and lose their appeals in front of the new Republican-controlled board?

In all likelihood, not much. The board process is long and cumbersome. It often takes years from the filing of a charge for failure to bargain to the board’s decision. In the meantime, employers hope that unions will have turnover in their membership, become disorganized and lose support.

Moreover, the penalties available under the National Labor Relations Act are weak. If an employer is found to have violated the act, the board can issue a “cease-and-desist” letter and require the employer to post a notice promising not to engage in further violations. These penalties hardly encourage employers to comply with their obligations, especially when they have so much to gain from obstructing attempts to unionize and collectively bargain.

If the labor movement is to survive, the National Labor Relations Act needs to be reformed to fix these problems. Instead, a few years of a Republican-controlled NLRB could be organized labor’s death knell.


Republished with permission under license by The Conversation.

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