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As the omicron semester starts, online or in person, colleges are tense

By Nick Anderson and Lauren Lumpkin
As the omicron semester starts, online or in person, colleges are tense
Eric Monday teaches a class at the University of Kentucky in Lexington this month. Administrators decided to remain in-person despite the omicron wave of the pandemic. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Luke Sharrett.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - By 9 a.m. on the first day of the spring term, 15 or so students in the University of Kentucky's honors college had settled into their seats here for a seminar on knowledge and society. Eric Welch, their instructor, mused about how to pronounce omicron - with a short or long "o" in the first syllable? - and lamented that he couldn't see more than half of their masked faces. He told them it would be an easy A if they show up and do the work.

"Your presence in this class matters," Welch said.

That same morning, Jason Mollica greeted roughly a dozen American University students in his communication course on digital analytics. They were not meeting on the D.C. campus. Students, scattered near and far, logged in through video links from bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms. Mollica spoke from his home in Rockville, Md.

"Sorry that we're seeing each other again on Zoom," Mollica said. "But this will, hopefully, be temporary."

College is resuming this month across America in a tense and bumpy sequence of openings - in person here, remote there - and shadowed everywhere by the threat of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. The upheaval began in December with a flurry of shifts to online final exams and canceled campus events.

What this surge will mean for campuses in coming weeks remains unclear. Students and professors worry about the public health risks of staying open and the educational risks of pausing.

Yet for all the unknowns, the initial data on this omicron semester suggests that most colleges and universities are sticking with face-to-face instruction. As of this week, about 10% to 15% of 500 prominent schools tracked by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College had announced plans to start the spring term remotely. A smaller share, perhaps 5 percent, delayed openings.

"A lot of campuses are thinking, 'Hey, we can weather this. It's going to be all right,'" said Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor of educational studies at Davidson, who leads the initiative. The success of vaccination and mask-wearing campaigns, and signs that the latest variant may not be not as lethal as earlier ones, are driving a new cost-benefit calculus for higher education leaders who earlier in the pandemic were forced to shutter or curtail operations.

The state flagship university here in Lexington enrolls more than 31,000 students. Many come from families of modest means, with parents who have little or no college education. University President Eli Capilouto contends that the health risk of pushing through the omicron surge - on a campus where nearly 90% of students are vaccinated against the coronavirus - is minimal compared to the downsides of educational disruption. He worries, too, about student mental health.

"We thought an in-person residential experience was something we could do safely," Capilouto said. "We had made a commitment to do so to these families and students. If I ever think there's a day that we can't do it safely, then we'll turn in another direction."

Kentucky has a Democratic governor but a Republican-led legislature. Donald Trump carried the state in the 2020 presidential election by a huge margin. There tends to be more pressure in Republican-dominated states to keep public universities fully open. But Capilouto said he would make any operational changes, if necessary, regardless of politics. "I have not had an elected official insert his or her self into our decision-making," he said.

Among schools starting remotely are several University of California campuses, as well as Duke, Emory, Georgetown, Northwestern and Stanford universities, all of which, unlike Kentucky, require students to be vaccinated. Officials at these and other schools planned to resume in-person teaching after a precautionary online period of several days or a couple weeks.

Policies can vary within states. At Michigan State University, the semester that started Jan. 10 will be online for at least the first three weeks. But the University of Michigan opened in person on Jan. 5 despite deep divisions in the campus community over the risks involved.

"We're adapting to the fact that the disease is going to be around for a while, and we're trying to give up as little as we can," Michigan President Mark Schlissel told the Michigan Daily student newspaper.

In the Washington D.C. region, George Washington University plans to resume in-person classes on Tuesday after teaching for a week online. Howard University pushed its start back to Tuesday but will hold classes in person. Georgetown will be virtual through Jan. 30. George Mason University in Northern Virginia and the University of Maryland at College Park will start in person, as planned, on Jan. 24.

At American University, with about 14,000 students, classes will be online until Jan. 31. Officials are concerned about strained hospital capacity and potential staff shortages. "One thing is just basic functionality," said AU President Sylvia M. Burwell. "Do we have shuttle drivers? Do we have the dining services? Can we clean rooms?"

Some AU students fear virtual learning may last longer. Keighly Butler, 20, a junior from Robbinsville, N.J., is having flashbacks to the remote pivots of 2020 because of the pandemic. At a university where tuition exceeds $50,000 a year, not counting room and board, Butler said it is frustrating to be forced online.

"It's really hard to pay attention, and mental health is something that we discuss quite often because Zoom fatigue is real," Butler said. She and her friends crave normalcy. "We've come to terms with our university experience being completely warped."

Despite the remote classes, the AU campus in Northwest Washington was not devoid of life when the semester opened on Monday. A trio of students who live off campus came to use the fitness center. A handful ate lunch in the student center. Two young women seeking coffee found a popular cafe closed.

Victor Vernick, 19, a freshman from Philadelphia, was one of about 1,900 students who returned to dorms this month as scheduled. Some of his friends have also decided to move back, making the relative emptiness of the campus more manageable. "I just didn't feel like being at home," he said. "I'd just like to continue feeling independent."

Laura Purkey, 26, a graduate student from Pittsburgh, was the sole student in a third-floor laboratory in a science building. She is researching squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. In the fall, the lab had as many as 18 people working on various projects, though not necessarily all at the same time.

Katie DeCicco-Skinner, an associate professor and chair of the biology department, said seven will be in the lab this month, assuming they test negative for the coronavirus. "They need to still collect data so they can graduate on time," DeCicco-Skinner said.

Back in Lexington, the campus was abuzz with students at a time of year when attention turns to their beloved Wildcats basketball.

On Jan. 8, two days before classes opened, the men's team had beaten Southeastern Conference rival Georgia 92-77 in front of a boisterous home crowd at Rupp Arena. Fans are supposed to wear masks at games, following the indoor mask rule on campus, but Capilouto acknowledged many do not. "It is not ideal," he said. "We have more work to do there."

In classrooms, though, compliance with mask-wearing rules appears to be the norm. The university has ordered 300,000 KN95 face masks and plans to distribute them to staff and students to increase protection from the airborne virus. It also plans to offer cash and other prizes in lottery-style drawings to encourage students to get vaccine booster shots. The "please do it" policy is a far cry from schools where boosters are required.

Jessica Lee, 20, a sophomore from Port St. Lucie, Fla., popped into a vaccine clinic in the student center to get a Pfizer booster on the day classes started. She didn't need any monetary incentive. Lee said the booster gave her and her mother peace of mind. And she wants to do everything possible to avoid classroom shutdowns. "I don't want to go back to online learning," she said.

Much is riding on the booster campaign. The university, in line with the conservative politics of the state, spurned faculty demands last year for a vaccine mandate. But it has managed through persuasion to get 88% of students and 91% of the total university community vaccinated with at least one dose. Unvaccinated students must submit to regular viral testing. Some have been suspended for not following the protocols.

The state as a whole is far less protected: Slightly less than 55% of Kentucky's population was fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to a Washington Post tracker, placing the state among the bottom 20 nationwide. The national average was just under 63%.

As of Monday, the university's coronavirus dashboard showed 363 active cases of infection among students and 83 among employees. Those numbers are likely to rise, officials say, as the virus spreads at the outset of the semester.

But the university said it had plenty of isolation quarters available. Officials were closely monitoring rising virus cases within their hospital system, which serves the region and the state, but they said beds were available if needed.

Faculty credit the university's public health record. More than 96% of them are vaccinated. But they worry about what will happen if a critical mass of teaching assistants fall sick. Or students, or staff, or family members. Or themselves.

Aaron Cramer, 40, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, who chairs the university Senate Council, barely made it to his first day of class. He caught a mild case of covid-19 during winter break and had to isolate at home until just before teaching duties started. His wife and two of their four children also tested positive, Cramer said. The illness could also disrupt their child care. Cramer wonders what will happen if such situations multiply around the campus in coming days. He is urging the university to be patient and flexible with individual professors.

"Omicron's going to change things," he said. "The disruptions are going to be real." Cramer said many faculty members are skeptical of starting in person. "I think it's going to be rough waters," he said. "I don't know whether it's the right call or not."

Kimberly Parker, 49, an associate professor of integrated strategic communication, is nervous. She is fully vaccinated and boosted but also immunocompromised. She double-masks and tries to keep her distance. "I prefer to be in person," she said during a Tuesday afternoon seminar with graduate students. "I think I'm a better teacher. I think we have a better experience. I think I can teach them more. It's better for everyone. But I'm not going to deny that I think it's terrifying every day when I walk on the campus."

Her students were grateful to be with Parker. But Samantha Pfeiffer, 24, of Allen Park, Mich., said the university should have pivoted to virtual teaching for at least a little while. "I don't like being online, but I like having covid less," Pfeiffer said. "Honestly, I'm not like super scared of having covid myself. I have had it. It was miserable, but I got over it. But for me, what I'm most afraid of is sharing that with other people around me who are more vulnerable."

Nursing instructor Tricia Rogers, 49, said she caught the virus last year in between her first and second shots of vaccine. At the time, she also tended to her father as he was dying of covid. "I'm glad '21 is gone," Rogers said.

On Tuesday she was leading a laboratory class on measuring vital signs - pulse, blood pressure, breathing rate, temperature - although the pandemic prevented students from practicing with thermometers. "We are thankful to be live and in person the entire time," Rogers said. "We want to be here. This is really the foundation of the practice."

Camryn Deaton, 19, a sophomore from London, Ky., sat upright on an exam table as classmate Allyson Barcaskey placed a cuff around her upper left arm, inflated it, listened to blood flow sounds with a stethoscope and noted her blood pressure. Barcaskey, 20, is a sophomore from Pittsburgh. The two also belong to a sorority here, Alpha Delta Pi, and they were thrilled to be back in class. They can't imagine learning this through Zoom.

"It's one thing reading about it and watching a video," Barcaskey said. "It's another thing doing it with your own two hands. You can't be a nurse if you don't know how to work with people."

Even as they celebrated the return to class, students were mindful of the possibility of the dreaded pandemic pivot.

Marshall Royce, 21, a junior from Goshen, Ky., majoring in computer science, said many classmates feel a sense of gloom because the pandemic situation seems precarious. Remote learning could be around the corner. "There's always the threat of they can just drop it on you at any moment, like they did when it first broke out," Royce said. "And yeah, we know we'd be able to move online because we've done it before."

- - -

Lumpkin reported from Washington.

Still looking for a 'Black mecca,' the new Great Migration

By Emmanuel Felton, et al.
Still looking for a 'Black mecca,' the new Great Migration
Dallas-Fort Worth is seeing its Black population surpass 1 million people for the first time. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott.

DALLAS - In the late 1940s, Thomas Johnson had a choice to make. After a stint in the military, he could either pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, an impossible aspiration for a Black man in Texas at the time, or return to his beloved family in Crockett, a town dripping with history surrounded by the pecan and pine trees of deep East Texas, where thousands were once enslaved on cotton plantations.

While Crockett's Black residents largely escaped the worst of the Jim Crow era's reign of terror, Johnson was raised in a divided town. Black people lived west of Fourth Street, White people east, and what one could achieve in life was defined by that color line, even for a proud military veteran like Johnson.

He had been a bright student. In 1933, Johnson graduated from high school at 15. By 19, he had a degree from Wiley College, a private historically Black college in nearby Marshall, Texas. African Americans were barred from attending any of the state's medical schools, however, the doctrine of "separate, but equal" meant the state had to offer Black students something. So the state made Johnson a deal: It would pay for him to go to medical school as long as it wasn't in Texas. And with that offer in hand, Johnson joined millions of African Americans, who together formed the Great Migration, leaving the South looking for opportunities and hope not afforded to them under Jim Crow.

Johnson settled in the Twin Cities and attended the University of Minnesota. But while he would find success in Minnesota, nearly 70 years later his granddaughter D'Ivoire Johnson looked around her native Minneapolis and, like her grandfather, concluded that there were better opportunities for her elsewhere. In 2007, she made a journey that almost exactly mirrored the one he had made - moving with her two sons from Minneapolis to Dallas. She is part of what some are calling the new Great Migration, African Americans moving out of the cities that their parents and grandparents fled to during Jim Crow and into the South's booming metropolises.

The percentage of Black Americans who live in the South has been increasing since 1990, and the biggest gains have been in the region's large urban areas, according to census data. The Black population of metro Atlanta more than doubled between 1990 and 2020, surpassing 2 million in the most recent census, with the city overtaking Chicago as the second-largest concentration of African Americans in the country after metropolitan New York. The Black population also more than doubled in metro Charlotte while greater Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth both saw their Black populations surpass 1 million for the first time. Several smaller metro areas also saw sizable gains, including San Antonio; Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C.; Orlando and Little Rock.

Meanwhile, the Black population shrank in a number of Northern and Western cities. For the second census in a row, Chicago and its suburbs lost Black population, and has decreased by 130,000 since 1990. In Michigan, both the Detroit and Flint metropolitan areas lost Black population in absolute terms. The metropolitan areas of St. Louis, Cleveland and Milwaukee recorded their first declines in Black population since African Americans started arriving in large numbers during the Great Migration. This trend extended far beyond the Midwest. Metro New York recorded its second consecutive loss in Black population, losing about 110,000 Black residents since 2000. In California, metro Los Angeles has lost 160,000 Black residents since 1990, while metro San Francisco has lost 90,000.

To understand the reasons behind this new Great Migration, The Washington Post interviewed Black Americans across three Southern states - Georgia, North Carolina and Texas - who had moved to the South in recent decades. Like many of those who moved during the original Great Migration, the primary driver of their decisions to leave home was economic. They moved South either with a new job already in hand or with hope that they could find work in some of the nation's fastest-growing cities. Many also moved in search of affordable housing that could help their families build the kind of generational wealth their parents and grandparents in the North were locked out of because of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies. Some were hesitant about moving South, recalling the horror stories of racial terror told to them by their elders. They all found that racism existed in both the North and South, but for some, the larger concentrations of Black people in the South provided additional safety. In all cases, they moved in search of something better, but looking back, none felt like they'd found the promised land - at least not yet.

- - -

While Thomas Johnson was free to attend medical school in Minnesota, he quickly learned that the color line he knew so well as a child had not completely disappeared during his 1,000-mile journey North. After graduating from medical school in 1955, the only job he could get was at the nearby Stillwater State Prison. Two years later, he started his own clinic in South Minneapolis, eventually moving to North Minneapolis, which by the 1960s was home to most of the city's poor Black residents. He set up shop on the corner of Plymouth and Queen avenues North in 1966, opening a medical office and then expanded to take over the entire block, adding a dental office, pharmacy and beauty salon.

"That's where I grew up," said D'Ivoire Johnson, 47. "At 10 years old, I had a little punch card where I would clock in, and I would go around all the offices and pick up the files and put them in alphabetical order."

As one of just a few Black doctors, Johnson was able to tap an underserved market, eventually making enough money to buy a home in an affluent and virtually all-White neighborhood along the city's Lake of the Isles Park. He became a pillar of the city's Black community and an outspoken advocate for civil rights and Black advancement. D'Ivoire Johnson said that it was only at his funeral that she learned how many Black Minnesotans her grandfather helped pay college tuition.

But as fast as the money was coming in, it was going out. And when Minnesota moved toward HMOs and their complex rules and regulation, D'Ivoire Johnson says, her grandfather's days were numbered. After years of legal fights and audits, Johnson closed his clinic in 1988 and quickly lost his real estate, too. D'Ivoire Johnson thinks her grandfather's legal problems were part of a much larger issue facing the city's Black leaders.

"My friend Stacey would joke there's something going on in Minnesota. The moment you make $149,999, there's some White person somewhere in some office that comes to find you," she said.

"Every Black person in Minnesota that I've seen try to have some independence and do very well, I've watched them get dismantled for minor technicalities," she added. "I've been working in financial institutions since the foreclosure crisis in audit and compliance positions, so I've actually seen the things that they do and Black folks just could never . . . I now sit in these institutions that are constantly under the consent order and they get to survive. We don't. If a Black business is audited, it's going to close."

When D'Ivoire Johnson decided to leave Minneapolis, it was in hopes of not having her two sons grow up in what's been called the "Minnesota paradox." The phrase was coined by labor economist Samuel L. Myers Jr. in reference to how while Minnesotans enjoy some of the highest living standards in the country, they also suffer from some of the widest racial gaps in employment and income.

"I wanted my kids to grow up and see Black people thriving," she said. "Minneapolis is great, but not for Black folks. If you ever really want to participate in the economy in a way that's going to create growth, you can't do that in Minneapolis.

"Minneapolis has a nonprofit mind-set, especially for Black people," Johnson said. "So if you want to be a nonprofit, meaning nonprofitable, live in Minneapolis."

In 2007, things were going well for Johnson. She owned her own mortgage processing company and was working for a wholesale mortgage company. She also was originating her own mortgages.

"I was in full hustle mode," Johnson said. "And just knew if I came here to Dallas, I could do even better."

Her mother and sister had already moved to Dallas for business opportunities, so Johnson was hopeful. But soon, the bottom fell out.

"I moved here because there was opportunity here and then there wasn't," she said. "But I was already here, and I had my children here. My sister and my mother lived here. So I decided to stay to try to make it work."

Even with her family's help, her first few years in Dallas were devastating.

"It was still really horrible," she said. "I worked tons of short-term jobs that I was way overqualified for."

Things only stabilized when her dad moved down to help keep a roof over her and her sons' heads. It wasn't until 2011 that she found a good job, she said.

"Here's the difference: Minneapolis has a wonderful social safety net. So if you fall on hard times you are not going to struggle like you struggle here," she said. "This struggle here is something I've never seen before. I don't understand it. It is demoralizing. It is dehumanizing. And it really does remind you of modernized slavery."

- - -

As far as Sherri Lucas-Hall, 57, knew, her family had been on Chicago's South Side forever. Her Granny Ida, her dad's grandmother, didn't like to talk about what happened to her in the South, but Lucas-Hall got curious after reading Isabel Wilkerson's tome, "The Warmth of Other Suns," about the Great Migration.

"She told everybody about a sister she had, but nobody else knew anything else," Lucas-Hall said. "But I got curious after I read Isabel Wilkerson's book, so I started doing my homework."

What Lucas-Hall was able to piece together is that Granny Ida was actually one of six children. There had been four boys and two girls. Granny Ida's parents were enslaved people, and as best Lucas-Hall can work out, her great-grandmother's parents were sold from Virginia to Tennessee. After emancipation, the family moved to Arkansas.

"What we know is my Granny Ida, she was pregnant with my grandfather when she got to Chicago, but we don't know where she conceived him," Lucas-Hall said. "What I also found out was that she lost a brother in Arkansas. . . . All I can figure is something traumatic happened to her."

When Granny Ida and her husband arrived in Chicago, they quickly got to work, cooking for White families. Ida's only child, Lucas-Hall's grandfather, worked as a porter on the railroads. Her grandfather was always working, and he died while working on the railroad in Kentucky. Her dad was raised in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood at the tail end of Chicago's Black Renaissance, which produced such greats as Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry and Katherine Dunham. Harold Lucas, her dad, spent decades working in the steel mills until they closed. He then tried his hand at running restaurants and clubs, but those didn't work out, she said. Since then he's become a self-taught historian and community organizer, fighting to get Bronzeville recognized for its importance and to make sure South Side children know the rich legacy of their community.

Lucas-Hall loved her childhood in Chicago. After her parents split up, she and her mom settled not far from Rainbow Beach, on 80th Street and Escanaba Avenue, where she and her friends would play baseball on the corner. She also frequently made trips to Bronzeville to soak up the history her dad was fighting to preserve. But despite coming from three generations of hard-working Chicagoans, Lucas-Hall's family, like much of the South Side, was still mostly fighting to survive, not thriving.

"On the South Side, everybody's still in survival mode trying to figure out how to get by," she said.

After graduating from Hyde Park High School in 1982 and watching the neighborhood's steady decline, she and her husband moved to the suburbs, but they struggled to afford to live in a neighborhood where they felt safe.

"I had a bachelor's degree. He hadn't finished college," she said. "And it was still a struggle for us financially, always trying to make ends meet."

In 1999, Lucas-Hall's then-husband wanted to move to Georgia, following his sister, but she took some convincing.

"I grew up with a historian as a father and . . . I read a lot, and so I knew about all of the happenings in the South," Lucas-Hall said. "So my first thought when we were moving here was, 'They kill Black people down there, I don't want to go down there.' "

Lucas-Hall had just had a baby and her sister-in-law was selling Atlanta - hard. Lucas-Hall said she was open to the idea because she needed a change.

"His sister was telling him there were a lot of opportunities," Lucas-Hall said. "She had her own business and she convinced him that he too could potentially start his own business. It was the Black mecca. That's what Georgia was. And so for us, we saw opportunity and the hope that things would improve if we came this way."

At first, life was indeed better. The couple initially lived with her husband's family. Eventually her husband's entire family moved to Georgia. Lucas-Hall went back to school, earning a master's degree and started a 14-year career teaching in the DeKalb County School District. In 2006, they were able to buy a house.

"My grandparents never owned a home," she said. "My mom never owned a home, so when I finally was able to buy one with the man I married, that meant a lot for me."

But things started to unravel for Lucas-Hall. First she and her husband divorced, and he got to keep the house. And in 2019, she lost her job.

Lucas-Hall was fired after what she says was an accident involving a first-grader trying to lock himself in a bathroom stall. Lucas-Hall said she was trying to keep the child from locking himself in, when the stall door hit him in the head. Later, she was contacted by an investigator from the district's department of public safety, and eventually placed on administrative leave. She was among a number of district teachers who say their constitutional rights were violated during hasty district investigations, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It took Lucas-Hall two years to clear her name to be able to return to a classroom. She worked as a Walmart cashier and as an Uber driver. After she was cleared to return to teaching, she worked as a substitute teacher in the local public schools. But she struggled to stay afloat financially. A strong believer in the power of education, she went back to school, this time to learn new and better ways to teach her Black students to read.

"I've spent the last four years studying the science of reading and now I have this small tutoring business," she said. "But I'm not surviving well. The people that need my help can't afford my services, and I can't grow my business because I don't have access to funds that will allow me to support myself while I'm trying to grow this business. That's the space I'm in now - where I have this small business and I have all this information and I know how to do education better, but I have no access and no finances to affect any change."

So far, 2022 has been a mixed bag for Lucas-Hall. She was offered a full-time job by the organization that trained her in the new reading techniques, but her landlord evicted her. She said the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office has refused to tell her when it plans to resume executing evictions amid the coronavirus's omicron variant surge, so every time she leaves home for a substitute teaching gig, she wonders if she'll return to find all of her and her youngest daughter's possessions out on the curb. Earlier this month, she drove around the suburb of Lawrenceville, job offer in hand, looking for a landlord who would rent to her.

But even though Georgia didn't turn out to be the Black mecca she was promised, more of her family are still taking that leap.

"My sister left and came down to Georgia about four years ago because she was trying to keep her boys from being murdered," Lucas-Hall said. "She had three boys, and she moved from Chicago to come down here because she said she didn't think her boys would survive if she didn't get them out of there."

As for whether moving to Georgia was the right decision for her, Lucas-Hall says there's at least one clear advantage to moving south.

"It's prettier," Lucas-Hall said with a deep laugh.

"I know that's crazy. But it's not cold. I don't have the snow to deal with, and I am five hours from the ocean, which I love," she said. "And when things are good for me, I hop in my car and I will drive to Savannah just to see the ocean. So my struggle didn't necessarily change, it's just prettier here, and sometimes I can not think about it. I can stand back and get perspective as I sit there and wonder, am I going to be okay? Will I ever own my own home? Will my business be successful? What can I hold on to?"

- - -

When Darren James moved to Dallas in 2002, he was already working as an architect at Kai Enterprises, a national design firm where he is now president. But Dallas was still a breath of fresh air for the St. Louis native.

"St. Louis was just a small, insular city," he said. "When I was growing up, you didn't go south of Forest Park," he said, referring to the city's grandest park located just south of Delmar Boulevard, which divides Black and White St. Louis.

"And what I noticed, even as a kid, was the disinvestment," he said. "When you drive down the hill to get some good Italian food, the houses look nice, the streets look good, but when you go back up to North St. Louis, where all my grandparents and relatives lived, you asked yourself, 'How come these neighborhoods don't look the same?' They were built at the same time, there was the same amount of middle-class income. . . . So that's how I got into architecture. There was a planned disinvestment. . . . My grandfather would take us on these family trips, I could see it was like this across the entire country."

James came from a successful St. Louis family. His family traces their roots to Arkansas and Tennessee, but has been in St. Louis for four generations. His mom was an educator; his dad was on the school board. But still it was hard to break out of the city's informal caste system, he said.

"The first question they ask in St. Louis is what high school did you go to," James said. "And the reason they ask that question is because it tells you everything. They can tell where your parents came from, they can tell everything about your socioeconomic background. And if you're from there, you just think it's kind of a colloquialism. You think it's very nice and easy, but it's not. It's a way to put you in place."

In Dallas, he found people who didn't care what high school he went to but instead what he knew.

"Here in Dallas, if people can make money, they'll work with you," he said. "St. Louis is a little bit different. They're not really willing to share in that pie, and they're going to do everything they can to hoard that pie. And so you start to see that there's no future opportunities there unless you happen to be one of the few people that broke through. There's just not a lot of upward mobility for the next generation, so people like me leave. . . . Don't get me wrong, Dallas's racial norms are very strong, but this city is economically driven. There's an entrepreneurial spirit to it."

It's that entrepreneurial spirit that makes Dallas a place of opportunity for Black people, said James, who has been running the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce since 2016. He has spent that time trying to provide information to Black businesses that want to learn how to take advantage of Dallas as a global city. The Black Chamber's membership shows what is possible for Black people to build in Dallas, James said.

"We've got lawyers, we've got spirit distillers, we've got supply chain firms. We've got architects, public relations people, you've got manufacturers. We've got IT professionals, we've got graphic designers, website managers, and even during the pandemic, our membership has grown over this last year," James said. "There's always been lawyers, there's always been educators, there's always been accountants. But here in Dallas, we're now in professions that were not traditionally Black."

While James is working to change the South economically, Leslie Mac, a Brooklyn-born Black Lives Matter activist and community organizer, is working to change it politically. Before moving to Charlotte last year, Mac lived all over the North. She went to college in Chicago and spent time in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. She lived in Philadelphia for nearly a decade.

Mac started her career working on criminal justice reform legislation, such as getting state legislatures to pass bail reform. She switched to grass-roots organizing after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. When she moved to North Carolina, she started working to support groups like Charlotte Uprising, a coalition of community members and organizers fighting for police accountability and racial equality.

Mac, who is Jamaican, grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where many of New York's Caribbean immigrants settled.

"Everybody was from a different island, and we were all kind of strangers in a strange land trying to find our way," Mac said. "It was a really close-knit community of people that cared about one another. I knew I couldn't do bad stuff because somebody's mom was going to see me, and my mother was going to find out about it. I knew that when the ice cream truck pulled up, somebody's mom was going to buy everybody ice cream. Some of my favorite memories are stupid little things like the ConEd man coming and us begging him for some rope to do double Dutch with."

Her sister is hanging on in Flatbush in the rent-stabilized apartment they grew up in, but they are watching what they loved disappear to gentrification.

"It's happening in a lot of cities in the North - they are just becoming less inviting for Black people, and less of a place where Black people can thrive and raise their families," Mac said. "And so they're looking for places where they can build community and have that same feeling that I had when I grew up in Flatbush. And it just isn't there anymore."

For Mac, Charlotte was like a homecoming.

"I love Charlotte as a city," Mac said. "It's been a really great place to live, and it's a place where I can be what I like to refer to as inconspicuously Black. That's been a revelation for me, and it's something that I haven't really felt since I was growing up in Flatbush, where everybody looked like me."

Mac says to be inconspicuously Black means that she can count on other Black people being wherever she goes. In a city as Black as Charlotte, she says every business has to cater to Black folks. "These are really fundamental things that I know I would never have had in Grand Rapids. I wouldn't have even really had it in Philadelphia."

"It just feels freeing. There's a thing where I feel like my shoulders relax more here," Mac said. "We go out to a fancy restaurant or like this little speakeasy that you have to have a membership to, and I think, that sounds like a place where there won't be a lot of Black people. Sure enough, we walk in, and it's like 70% Black people up in there having their fancy drinks. . . . I can feel comfortable wherever I go here in a way that I've never experienced before, even in New York City. There are so many places I would go and be like, I have to really watch myself here. I've got to shrink myself a little bit. I've got to make sure I'm not too angry or too loud or too whatever. Peeling those pieces away from myself has been really a freeing endeavor."

"So much of my mind was taken up by thinking about how I needed to interact around White people before I moved here," Mac said. "It's a thing you don't recognize until it's gone. I really hadn't realized how much of my psyche was taken up with that constant kind of drone in my head, and moving here really opened me up in a new way."

- - -

The Fivee Bistro & Bar, located on Dallas's Botham Jean Boulevard and named for the 26-year-old unarmed Black accountant who was shot and killed in his apartment by neighbor and former police officer Amber Guyger, is one of those places where one can be "inconspicuously Black."

On a warm late November afternoon, D'Ivoire Johnson took a friend visiting from Martha's Vineyard to the restaurant, where a private party had taken over the bar's patio. Partygoers were doing a line dance in the beautiful fall weather, and inside, a live band was covering R&B classics. Fivee is a special place for Johnson. It was founded by the sister of Omar Jahwar, a larger-than-life pastor and racial justice activist, who died in March after developing covid-19 while on a national tour with his organization, Heal America, which works to curb gang violence. A huge painting of Jahwar in a cowboy hat hangs on the wall next to the bar. Fivee was Jahwar's dream, a place where Black Dallas could come together. It's now a place where Black professionals and families rub shoulders, enjoying perfectly executed soul food like chicken and waffles.

Before he died, Jahwar and Johnson, who speaks with the confidence of a Black woman who has spent most of her career in a field dominated by White men, would spend hours discussing their visions for Black uplift, and she would advise him on potential business opportunities. The past year has been one of Johnson's hardest since she got her life back on track after the financial crisis. Jahwar was one of two close friends Johnson lost to covid-19. But Fivee helps her remain connected to her friend. During lunch, two of Jahwar's family members came up to greet Johnson while she ate.

That Sunday, Johnson was feeling reflective on her time in Texas. After years of struggling, she lives with her 14-year-old son in an upscale Dallas suburb called Las Colinas, where large homes encircle a golf course. She knows that she has achieved a lot in Texas, but she still worries what will come next for her family.

"This progress is illusive. It's not real," she said. "Now, does that mean that I'm not doing well? No, I'm fine. My family's fine. I live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. But I still get anxiety attacks when my son walks out the door to walk our dog. So really, I'm not fine, because I'm not safe. If January 6 didn't tell you nothing, it told you, you were not safe. Because the most unstable element, the most uninformed and misinformed - and they don't know the difference between the two - are armed and dangerous. That is a national security issue, and it's not being treated as such. Joe Biden is going to do nothing. That's the reality."

Her message for her two sons: The promised land might still be out there even if not here in America.

"Many of us are still looking for a U.S.-based Black mecca, but I tell my sons, 'Go find your place in the world.' Don't limit yourself to America. There is a place in the world that's good for you. You might have a smaller home. It may not be as easy to get to this place or that place, but there is a place in the world that's going to be less stressful than this one for you. And you need to travel and figure out where it is."

Deep in the Australian bush, a scientific quest to uncover a hidden koala enclave

By Michael E. Miller
Deep in the Australian bush, a scientific quest to uncover a hidden koala enclave
A koala clings to a eucalyptus tree near Yengo National Park, a few hours north of Sydney. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael E. Miller.

KOSCIUSZKO NATIONAL PARK, Australia - They had been stalking the remote, fire-scorched stretch of forest for an hour in the sizzling midday sun when Karen Marsh spotted something on the trunk of a tall mountain gum.

"Do you see all the claw marks?" the ecologist asked a student research assistant, pointing to scratches in the wood above a blackened base. "Something definitely likes going up this tree."

Marsh peered up at the canopy of eucalyptus leaves, hoping to catch a glimpse of the animal she and a small team had spent weeks searching for - a koala.

But one of Australia's most iconic animals is getting harder to find.

Two years ago, when bush fires supercharged by climate change killed or displaced an estimated 3 billion animals, thousands of koalas were among the dead. Between the blazes, drought, disease and deforestation, almost a third of the country's koalas have disappeared since 2018, according to one conservation group. The federal government is weighing whether to label half the country's koalas as endangered.

The collapse is especially severe in New South Wales, where the bush fires destroyed 70% of some koala populations and a state inquiry warned that the species will probably go extinct before 2050 without urgent government intervention.

Marsh and her colleagues had come to Kosciuszko National Park on a mission. For decades there had been speculation that koalas roamed its 1.7 million mountainous acres. Now, with the 2019-2020 bush fires boosting funding and urgency, the scientists aimed to determine whether koalas were hiding in one of the country's best-known wilderness areas.

The discovery would do more than just increase the known number of koalas. It would also add to growing evidence that koalas can live at higher elevations, raising hopes that the marsupials might survive global warming better than feared.

So far, however, several weeks of searching had produced only enigmatic scratches on trees like the ones Marsh now examined, some teeth marks that might - or might not - belong to koalas, and some potential koala scat.

Marsh turned her eyes from the trees to the ground.

"Let's see if there's any poo," she said, as she searched for the cylindrical, eucalyptus-scented dung of a koala. Instead, there were only wombat droppings. But years of studying koalas had taught her that the animals are adept at blending into gray gum trees. She sighed as she headed back to her pickup truck to survey another section of forest.

"I'd love to know how many koalas we just walked past," she said.

- - -

Koalas have survived this long because of their elusiveness. Their small brains and slow movements make them easy to capture or kill. But when British colonists arrived in 1788, it was a decade before they recorded seeing one of the 10 million koalas estimated to have inhabited Australia at the time. The first specimens were dismembered paws obtained from Aboriginal guides, leaving the British baffled as to what the creature looked like until 1803, when three koalas were captured and given to the governor of New South Wales.

"An animal whose species was never before found in the Colony is in His Excellency's possession," reported the Sydney Gazette in 1803, likening the koala to a wombat with soft gray fur, teeth like a rabbit and sharp talons for climbing trees. "Its food consists solely of gum leaves, in the choice of which it is excessively nice."

Australia's koala population plummeted over the next century as the animals were hunted for their fur, a practice that culminated in a 1927 Queensland cull that killed at least 600,000 in a month.

Koala killing was outlawed, but the animals continued to suffer from a chlamydia epidemic and a habitat shortage as eucalyptus forests were paved for subdivisions. Although adapted to Australia's frequent dry spells, the animals couldn't cope with a climate-change-fueled drought in 2018 and 2019 that saw dehydrated koalas literally dropping from trees.

Then came the Black Summer bush fires, which burned more than 20% of Australia's forests.

Marsh, a research fellow at Australian National University in Canberra, watched as the blaze roared to within a few hundred yards of her house. She and her colleagues began receiving calls from people who had rescued koalas, some badly singed but others simply emaciated.

"They were in awful condition," Marsh said of the roughly 30 koalas that ended up at the lab. As nocturnal animals, even a small rise in temperature can make koalas less hungry. But heat can also play havoc with a koala's ability to break down the toxins in eucalyptus.

While Marsh and her colleagues nursed the koalas back to health, they were pleased to see the notoriously picky eaters were able to consume some types of epicormic growth, the green shoots that sprout from burned eucalyptus trees and can be especially toxic. That enabled the researchers to release the animals into the scorched landscape a few months later. When they did, they were surprised to find that koalas that had survived in the bush were doing just as well.

"Essentially, they recovered by themselves in the wild," Marsh said, adding that the findings, though still provisional, suggest koalas that survive bush fires are less susceptible to starvation than feared.

It's hard to say how many koalas perished in the Black Summer fires. WWF Australia estimates that 60,000 were killed or injured. The Australian Koala Foundation says the species shrank by 30% in the past three years to about 50,000, though government estimates are several times as high.

What is clear is that the fires rekindled popular concerns over an animal that many Australians identify with, even if most have never seen one outside a zoo. Conservationists renewed calls for the government to declare koalas endangered - a decision on their status in New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory is three months overdue - and additional funds suddenly became available to study the popular but poorly understood animals.

That was how Marsh ended up at a campground just outside Kosciuszko National Park last month, perched over a picnic table, studying a map studded with blue stars.

Scientists have long speculated that the stunning wilderness surrounding Australia's highest peak could harbor koalas, but a 1940 sighting was followed by decades of silence. Then, in 2016, a motorist spotted a male koala crossing a highway running through the park and snapped a picture. The incident sparked renewed interest, and in the past three years, National Parks cameras set up to detect invasive species such as foxes and deer in Kosciuszko have captured images of koalas on four occasions.

With a grant to go searching for the mysterious marsupial population, Marsh used a koala habitat suitability model to select about 80 spots for small, battery-powered audio recorders she hoped would catch male koalas bellowing to potential mates during the night. The thousands of hours of audio would be sent to a lab in Sydney, where they would be run through special koala-call recognition software. Researchers would then listen to any hits to confirm that they were koalas and not a park ranger driving past in a pickup truck.

"I've heard many, many koalas, so I feel confident," Marsh said when asked about her ability to identify the mating calls.

After examining the map, she and an ANU student research assistant went to survey the trees at several sites while James Skewes took another student to set up audio recorders.

Skewes, an ecologist accustomed to the bush, powered his pickup truck over fallen logs and streams until his GPS device pinged. Then he and the student, Ryan Lindenmayer, searched for a dead tree on which to put the recorder. Skewes checked the audio settings using an app on his phone. They'd have to return in a few weeks to swap the memory card and batteries, like spies tapping a foreign embassy.

Skewes was encouraged by the green tufts that sprouted from scorched eucalyptus trees at most of the sites. While it was once thought koalas didn't live above 1,000 meters (about 3,300 feet) - the elevation at which eucalyptus leaves lose some of their nutritional content - several years ago scientists discovered a population of koalas that compensate by chewing bark.

"This would be a good refuge for them as we lose other habitats to climate change and development," Skewes said as he drove to the next site, stirring a pair of outrageously colored king parrots. And finding a "flagship" species like koalas could also lead to the protection of lesser-known but more endangered species in the park.

"I'd love to just look out and see a koala," he said as he set up another recorder. "We would say, all right, we know they're here."

- - -

As dusk fell on the campsite, kangaroos grazed on the banks of a bubbling creek. A few weeks into their two-month project, the researchers had seen snakes, possums, wombats, wallabies, blue-tongued lizards and the droppings of wild horses - but no koalas. Now they were preparing to go spotlighting, the process of methodically shining flashlights into trees at night in the hope of seeing the reflection of an animal's eyes.

"Can someone please spot a koala," Marsh said in half-serious desperation as she and Skewes divided up the flashlights. "That's all I'm asking."

If the audio recorders were a broad net, then these nighttime forays were stabs in the dark.

"Spotlighting is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack," Marsh said. "You have to be in the right place at the right time, looking in the right direction."

A half-hour later, Marsh and a student research assistant, Ashley Davies, climbed out of the pickup truck onto a desolate trail where owls hooted and frogs croaked. A half-moon provided the only illumination until Marsh switched on her headlamp.

But before the two could start spotlighting, Marsh heard an odd gurgling from the trees. She turned her light toward the sound and suddenly two small eyes beamed back from a branch.

"That's a yellow-bellied glider!" Marsh said, trying not to shout.

The rare find wasn't a koala, but it was another threatened species of marsupial, one that Marsh and her colleagues were also tasked with surveying. She made notes about the type and location of the tree before starting the spotlighting.

The glider had raised hopes that they would also see koalas here. But as Marsh and Davies walked separately through the forest, their flashlights found only empty gum trees.

Back at camp, they shared excitement over the glider, tempered by the frustration of another day without seeing a koala.

With the koala mating season ending this month, the researchers have only a few more weeks to search for the animals in Kosciuszko. But they are only now recording some of the most promising sites, and the first batch of audio files have already come back with lots of potential hits.

As the researchers begin to go through them, Marsh remains optimistic. You can't protect koalas if you don't know where they are, she said, yet Australians haven't looked very hard.

"There are probably more out there," she said. "But they are really hard to see."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Dr. King was bold. Don't make him bland.

By e.j. dionne jr.
Dr. King was bold. Don't make him bland.

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

Advance for release Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, and thereafter

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- This holiday weekend, Americans will celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of their choosing. That's not surprising. But it is a problem.

If the devil can quote scripture for his purposes, it's not shocking that all of us are inclined to cite the pronouncements of historical figures that ratify our own views. Liberals love to remind people of Ronald Reagan's warm words about immigrants. Conservatives are fond of citing certain John F. Kennedy quotations about tax cuts and national security.

King's role in our history was not that of a politician but of a prodder of our national conscience and a critic of our failures. In his all-too-brief lifetime, he was often condemned as a radical by defenders of the status quo.

The holiday in his honor is thus quite different from, say, Presidents' Day or the Fourth of July. They are unambiguous celebrations of our country. In principle, at least, MLK Day is a time to reflect on the urgency of social change and the racial and economic injustices that required, as King insisted, repentance and reform.

In practice, precisely because King has become in retrospect a consensual hero, we have turned him into a consensual figure. My Post colleague Robin Givhan said it well in a fine essay this past week: "As the memory of King has aged, it's taken on a smooth-edged, golden hue."

King has become a man for all viewpoints partly because he was many things at once.

He was a militant civil rights leader and a preacher of the Christian Gospel. He was a believer in racial concord and an agitator -- in the best sense of that word -- against the racism that permeated our institutions. He believed in the conversion of adversaries, but getting there often required confrontation and discomfort. King was far more a "both/and" figure than an either/or, yet the capaciousness of his worldview did not stop him from drawing clear moral lines.

Among his many addresses and sermons, a March 1968 speech at Grosse Pointe High School in Michigan offers one of the best illustrations of why it is so easy -- and so misleading -- to quote King out of context.

Conservatives love to note that King believed in individual achievement and responsibility, which is true. "It's very important for people to engage in self-help programs and do all they can to lift themselves by their own bootstraps," he said that day. "I think there is a great deal that the Black people of this country must do for themselves and that nobody else can do for them."

But that comment came in the course of a critique of an "over-reliance on the bootstrap philosophy" as it applied to Black Americans, given that "no other ethnic group has been enslaved on American soil" and "that America made the Black man's color a stigma." He noted that a Mississippi arch-segregationist, Sen. James O. Eastland, was among those receiving a share of the "millions of dollars a year in federal subsidies not to farm and these are so often the very people saying to the Black man that he must lift himself by his own bootstraps."

"Well," King concluded, "that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged hard individualistic capitalism for the poor."

Similarly, King believed profoundly in moral uplift and the need for individual redemption. "Naturally, I believe in changing the heart," he said. "I happen to be a Baptist preacher and that puts me in the heart-changing business and Sunday after Sunday I'm preaching about conversion and the need for the new birth and regeneration. . . . I'm honest enough to see the gone-wrongness of human nature."

Here again, however, King was making a case against "the notion that legislation can't solve the problem, that you've got to change the heart." On the contrary, King argued, only legislation could guarantee racial justice.

"It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated," he said. "It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can't make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."

King was so reasonable and balanced that we forget how angry he could get at injustice, and how impatient he was in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail with "the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice." They are words worth remembering in our current struggles over voting rights.

King earned this holiday not by being bland but by being bold. He was killed because he dared to challenge us to change. He challenges us still.

- - -

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

Boris Johnson in reverse: The Supreme Court gives itself what it bans for the rest of us

By ruth marcus
Boris Johnson in reverse: The Supreme Court gives itself what it bans for the rest of us

RUTH MARCUS COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, and thereafter

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By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- How nice for the Supreme Court. It can take the precautions it deems necessary to keep its workplace safe.

The court has been effectively closed to outside visitors since the start of the pandemic. Now that the justices have begun hearing oral arguments in person, the lawyers appearing before it, and the reporters in the chamber, must test negative and be masked, except when speaking. Justices who aren't comfortable with those protocols -- or with the maskless behavior of their colleagues -- have the flexibility to work remotely.

If only the court were willing to extend similar protections to the rest of us, in our workplaces. Or to be more precise, not to interfere with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's effort to provide such protections.

The factory workers standing cheek by jowl on assembly lines, the office workers crammed side by side at their cubicles, the cashiers and salesclerks at retail establishments -- none of them enjoy the guaranteed safety protocols that the court has awarded to itself.

If their job requires that they show up in person, they are, in many states, at the mercy of their employers if their co-workers choose not to be vaccinated or to wear masks. In states with laws that prohibit vaccine and mask mandates, employers who want to adopt such policies are prohibited from doing so.

The court's 6-to-3 ruling Thursday blocking the Biden administration's vaccine-or-test mandate is yet another example of the elite playing by one set of rules while applying a different standard to the masses -- Boris Johnson-ism, but worse. In that case, the British prime minister partied away in defiance of rules imposed on lesser mortals. In this one, the justices declined to extend the same protections to others that they grant themselves.

This let-them-breathe-covid attitude would be more understandable if the pandemic were not so serious -- or the law that the administration relied on in issuing the mandate were less sweeping.

Of course, people can contract covid anywhere. But as OSHA explained in issuing the mandate, "during the workday, while under the control of their employer, workers may have little ability to limit contact with coworkers, clients, members of the public, patients, and others, any one of whom could represent a source of exposure. . . . OSHA has a mandate to protect employees from hazards they are exposed to at work, even if they may be exposed to similar hazards outside of work."

OSHA estimates that its mandate, had it been allowed to continue, would have saved more than 6,500 lives and prevented more than 250,000 hospitalizations over six months.

In substituting its judgment for OSHA's, the conservative majority noted the unprecedented nature of the mandate, which would have covered 84 million workers. "This is no 'everyday exercise of federal power,' " it said, quoting an appeals court judge who voted to block the rule. "It is instead a significant encroachment into the lives -- and health -- of a vast number of employees. "

But the pandemic is no everyday disease. It is, you might even say, "a significant encroachment into the lives -- and health -- of a vast number of employees" -- one that has killed nearly 850,000 Americans.

How telling that the majority sees this supposed encroachment as a one-way street, an incursion on the autonomy of unvaccinated workers rather than a threat to the majority who have chosen the more responsible course yet remain, especially with the emergence of the omicron variant, at risk of breakthrough infection. In the majority's worldview, the interests of those workers are nowhere to be found.

And why? Because of this master class in statutory sophistry: "Although covid-19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most. Covid-19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather. . . . Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life -- simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock -- would significantly expand OSHA's regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization."

Simply because? Most Americans don't have a choice about whether to work or not. They deserve to be able to work in the safest possible environment. My own employer requires proof of vaccination and boosters; it has instructed us, for the moment, not to come to work unless necessary, and to mask up if we do. Why are other workers, in less flexible jobs, not entitled to similar protections when the federal agency in charge of regulating workplace safety has concluded they are warranted?

As to "clear congressional authorization," the conservative justices like to talk about elephants hiding in mouse holes and the need for legislative clarity when agencies presume to regulate "major questions." How about the stated purpose of the workplace safety law: to "assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions"? How about the statutory command to "protect employees" from "grave danger"?

"The majority . . . substitutes judicial diktat for reasoned policymaking," wrote the liberal justices, dissenting. Judicial activism in the service of anti-regulatory fervor is still judicial activism -- all the more outrageous when the privileged act at the expense of those with far less power.

- - -

Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

A flailing Biden sold his 'whole soul' in political desperation

By marc a. thiessen
A flailing Biden sold his 'whole soul' in political desperation

MARC A. THIESSEN COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, and thereafter

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By Marc A. Thiessen

WASHINGTON -- During his venomous speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, President Joe Biden attacked his fellow Americans who oppose blowing up the Senate filibuster to pass his partisan election law by comparing them to racists and traitors, accusing them of standing with George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis. Not only that, he explicitly called them "enemies" of America, thundering, "I will defend the right to vote, our democracy against all enemies -- foreign and, yes, domestic."

But here's the thing: Biden wasn't just talking about Republicans. The Democrats' federal election takeover has zero chance of passing not because of GOP opposition, but because, thankfully, it does not have enough support among Democrats to get rid of the filibuster to pass it. It isn't Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is killing the bill. He doesn't have enough votes. It's Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who will deliver the death blow.

Does this make them racists, traitors and "enemies" of our democracy? According to Biden, apparently it does. But for Biden, here is the bigger question: Does insulting Manchin and Sinema make them any more likely to support his election bill or bring them any closer to a deal to salvage some elements of his Build Back Better agenda?

Of course not. So why would Biden say these things? These weren't off-the-cuff remarks. They were part of a prepared address. I used to run a White House speechwriting shop. Before words get into a presidential speech for delivery, first they have to go through the "staffing process" -- a review by members of the White House senior staff and relevant Cabinet secretaries.

That means only two things are possible regarding Biden's speech: Either every senior official in the administration signed off on it, which means those words represent what the Democratic establishment believes and considers acceptable. Or someone objected -- perhaps pointing out that it would be inappropriate for the president of the United States to compare his opponents to a racist police chief who used police dogs and fire hoses against Black civil rights protesters -- and those objections were overruled.

This was a violation of every principle on which Biden campaigned for the presidency. During his victory speech following his 2020 election, Biden declared that it was "time to put away the harsh rhetoric" and "stop treating our opponents as our enemy." In his inaugural address, he promised to "end this uncivil war" and put "my whole soul" into "bringing America together." Calling Americans who disagree with his partisan election bill bigots and enemies is a strange way of doing so.

Biden's speech was a pitiful outburst by a flailing president. His approval rating in the new Quinnipiac poll has plummeted to 33% -- down from 49% in the same poll seven months ago. Americans see that he promised unity and normality, and is delivering the opposite. They also believe that he's focused on the wrong things. A new Politico-Morning Consult poll asked voters what should be "the top priority" for Congress: reforming the electoral college; expanding voting access in federal elections; or expanding oversight of states' changes to voting practices. "None of the above" beat all three.

Americans are struggling with real problems: Inflation is at a 40-year high, and we have a massive labor shortage, with more than 10 million unfilled jobs. There aren't sufficient coronavirus tests and therapeutics. Schools are closing again. Drug overdose deaths reached a record high. But instead of focusing on fixing these problems, Biden has focused on political theater -- spending a full week pushing an election law that has no chance of passing, and doing so with offensive and hyperbolic rhetoric.

Why would Biden spend so much political capital on a lost cause? The reason is simple: Because the GOP made significant gains with non-White voters in 2020 -- particularly among African American men and younger Black voters. Barack Obama won 95% of Black male voters in 2008. In 2020, according to Edison Research, Biden's support among Black men dropped to just 80%, while Trump won 18%. And pre-election polls found that 21% of Black voters ages 18 to 44 supported Trump.

Since Democrats need to win supermajorities of Black voters to prevail, even modest GOP inroads present a potentially mortal threat. If Republicans nominate a candidate who does not repel moderate suburban voters the way Trump did, while building on these gains with non-White voters, it could tip the scales in the next election.

So, Biden is hyping a fake threat of "Jim Crow 2.0" and using racial dog whistles in an attempt to drive these voters away from the GOP. This would be a cynical ploy by any president. But coming from one who promised to put his "whole soul" into uniting the country, it is shameful and pathetic.

- - -

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

Some proposed fixes for the Commission on Presidential Debates

By alexandra petri
Some proposed fixes for the Commission on Presidential Debates

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, Jan.15, 2022, and thereafter

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By Alexandra Petri

WASHINGTON - The Republican National Committee is now trying to get all the party's nominees to pledge not to take part in debates run by the Commission on Presidential Debates. They seem to think that the debates as currently held have not been fair. Fairness is important! I can't believe these perfectly reasonable GOP-requested conditions were rejected.

-- Moderator may interrupt the Democratic candidate to interject with contradictory facts but must maintain respectful silence while the Republican speaks. Exceptions can be made for deep, low whistles of approval, silently mouthing, "That's true," "Yes sir," or, if especially moved, those finger-snaps some people do instead of applause.

-- While the Democratic candidate speaks, there should be some weird, windy, scratchy sound coming from their microphone at all times, making it difficult if not impossible to hear what they are saying. All attempts to fix the microphone should just make it worse. At one point the only thing audible while the Democrat speaks should be a clearly broadcast feed of people making dismissive remarks in the control room.

-- The Democrat should be made to stand in a ditch a minimum of six inches deep and filled with cold, stagnant water. The Republican gets a stool, to be used at their discretion.

-- Before each answer, the Democrat must insert a pebble into their mouth, like Demosthenes. The Republican doesn't have to.

-- The Republican gets to see the questions in advance and can reject any of them that he dislikes.

-- The Republican is given an assortment of snacks and a cup full of water. The Democrat is given an assortment of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and a cup full of vodka.

-- For at least one response, the Democrat will speak in front of a green screen on which something funny that they cannot see is being projected.

-- One disruption is permitted for each candidate: The Republican can be interrupted by a retired or current serviceman who wants to thank him for being a personal hero and showing him what it meant to be a true American; the Democrat can be interrupted by a live raccoon emerging from beneath their podium. If this happens, the Republican must be issued protective gear.

-- If the Democrat says a trigger word at any point, it will release a swarm of bees.

-- Republican is allowed to review all answers after delivering them and edit in post-production to best effect. Democrat must debate live.

-- The Republican is permitted to bring covid-19 to the debate.

- - -

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

IRS delays triggered some premature collection notices

By michelle singletary
IRS delays triggered some premature collection notices

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, and thereafter

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By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON - Let's say you filed your tax return on time but the IRS says you didn't. You mail in proof, but your letter is stuck in a pile in an IRS office waiting to be opened. The computer system only knows it didn't get a response, so collection notices go out and penalties and interest begin to accrue.

Help isn't necessarily a phone call away. There are dedicated collection call lines, but in the 2021 filing season, just 38% of calls were answered.

Delays in processing returns are triggering premature collection notices -- and that in turn can negatively affect low-income taxpayers, warned National Taxpayer Advocate Erin M. Collins.

In a report to Congress, Collins called out the IRS for starting collection actions before the agency had processed a taxpayer's response to an issue raised by the agency.

While acknowledging the herculean efforts of IRS staff working through a pandemic, labor shortages and budget cuts, Collins was highly critical of backlogs that trouble taxpayers who can least afford a financial fight with the IRS.

The processing times for some categories of correspondence have been running six months or longer, Collins reported. That's far in excess of the "normal" processing time for taxpayer correspondence of 45 days, she said.

To prevent enforcement actions from moving forward before the IRS processes taxpayer responses, the agency reprogrammed its computer systems to allow additional time. But gaps remain, Collins said.

As of late December, the IRS had a backlog of about 5 million pieces of taxpayer correspondence, the report indicated -- with some of these submissions dating at least to April.

If the IRS is wrong, of course, no taxes will be due or penalties and interest assessed. But for those who do owe, a lengthy resolution process can become stressful and costly. Generally, interest accrues on the amount owed from the due date until the date of payment.

More than half -- 53% -- of individual audits were conducted on taxpayers with total incomes below $50,000 in fiscal 2019, according to IRS data. And the vast majority of those -- 82% -- were of taxpayers claiming the anti-poverty earned-income tax credit.

Automated audits have a high non-response rate and the highest volume of cases assessed by default. Forty percent or more of taxpayers with incomes below $50,000 don't respond to the IRS.

Collins said taxpayers in this income range are less likely to be represented by tax professionals and more likely to have difficulty contacting the IRS for audit assistance.

"The IRS makes little effort to reach these taxpayers if they are unresponsive or if their IRS correspondence is returned as undeliverable," Collins said in her report.

The IRS responded that the agency "closely reviews these reports and factors these comments into our ongoing work plans."

"Covid hit us all, and we are still working through the impacts," IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said in a statement. "This has been a challenging period on many levels for taxpayers, tax professionals and the IRS."

Although the past two years have been horrendous for the agency, some issues raised by Collins predate the pandemic.

"For the most part, the pandemic did not create new challenges for the IRS as much as it highlighted longstanding challenges and areas that require attention," she said in her report.

Collins said the question the IRS should have tried to answer long ago is: Why do a higher percentage of low-income taxpayers fail to respond to its notices?

Are they too frightened to respond? Probably.

A letter from the IRS, even when you know you are right, can be terrifying.

Many IRS letters may come back undeliverable because, when you're struggling, your housing situation can be unstable as you move around trying to settle into more-affordable housing. If there were more data on how to reach these folks, they might get the help they need to correct errors on their returns, figure out options to settle for less than they owe or set up a payment plan.

Then there's the wonky way the IRS communicates. IRS letters are peppered with overly technical language, Collins said.

The IRS sent tens of millions of notices to taxpayers during 2021, including letters indicating that a tax return might have a math error or that an amount reported on a return did not match the corresponding amount reported to the IRS on Form 1099. In many cases, taxpayer responses were required. Yet a massive backlog means the IRS isn't processing the responses fast enough, sometimes resulting in adverse collection actions, penalties and fees, or a refund that may not be released.

"Paper is the IRS's Kryptonite, and the agency is still buried in it," Collins said.

What can taxpayers do?

"It's kind of silly to say, but call the IRS," she said. "You can request a freeze on collections while the IRS is considering your matter."

Yes, do call, repeatedly if needed.

But unless the IRS gets more money to deal with millions of pieces of mail, the most economically vulnerable Americans will continue to be adversely affected by an outdated, overwhelmed system.

It's really unfair to put so much responsibility on taxpayers to slog through the IRS's byzantine collection process. Make it easier and most people will pay what they owe, or at least they won't be afraid to call for help if they can't.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Get ready for a tax season from hell

By catherine rampell
Get ready for a tax season from hell

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, Jan. 14, 2021, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Catherine Rampell

While tax season is never exactly a barrel of laughs, for many taxpayers this year could shape up to be the filing season from hell.

Don't take it from me. These are warnings from U.S. Treasury officials, who are trying to brace the public for refund delays, service disruptions, interminable telephone-hold purgatories and other unpleasantries that taxpayers will face over the next few months.

This (second consecutive) difficult tax season might not only leave today's taxpayers seething. It could also well scar the government's continued ability to fund itself for decades to come.

Problems at the IRS began long ago. The agency's funding has been gutted, down nearly 20 percent on net in inflation-adjusted terms since 2010. During that time, the U.S. population has grown. The tax code has also become increasingly complex. (To be clear: That's Congress's fault, not the IRS's.)

What's more, Congress has dumped additional burdens upon this threadbare agency, including responsibilities related to Obamacare and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

Then came covid-19.

The agency's mail centers were shut down for months in 2020. Illness knocked much of its customer service workforce out of commission. Employees working remotely scrambled to figure out how to handle paper-based caseloads.

Amid all this, Congress had the IRS set up entirely new safety-net programs -- working from scratch, often remotely, using 1960s IT and with little prep time. First, the agency issued several rounds of stimulus payments to most American households; then a monthly child allowance to the parents or guardians of nearly every child in the United States.

Under the circumstances, the agency executed these new emergency responsibilities admirably. Heroically, even. But customer service -- always abysmal -- worsened.

In fiscal 2021, 282 million taxpayers tried calling the IRS for assistance, but only about 11 percent of them (32 million) reached an IRS employee, according to the national taxpayer advocate's recent report to Congress. (The previous year, 24 percent of callers got through.)

Many were desperate to reach someone, anyone, because they had questions about how to abide by the law, given pandemic-era changes to the tax code. Others were desperate to figure out what was holding up their refunds.

In 2021, for instance, the IRS sent more than 14 million notices to taxpayers saying the agency had identified a "math error" on their return. Most of these "errors" were flagged as related to claims for (legitimately confusing) unpaid stimulus payments. That left refunds in limbo, sometimes for many months, until the matter could be resolved.

Backlogs swelled, setting the agency up for a terrible start to the upcoming filing season. Normally the IRS starts the season with about 1 million pieces of backlogged documents; this year, Treasury officials say, they have "several times" that amount.

Recent changes to the child tax credit are also likely to complicate things, both because the credit was partly paid out in advance last year and because a lot of people who never had to file taxes before will probably do so this year because they've become newly eligible for the credit.

Between these policy changes and tax-filing novices, there will be plenty of opportunity for additional "math" and clerical errors. And, presumably, even more delays in processing. And even more aggravation for honest taxpayers.

The Biden administration has made a lot of noise about its requests for more auditing and enforcement funds, which the IRS absolutely needs. But the run of snafus suggest it needs a lot more money for customer service, too. The IRS received $2 billion from last year's stimulus package, which it has used in part to expand customer service, a Treasury official said.

There is a long-term risk to these frustrating filing seasons. Historically law-abiding, compliant taxpayers might grow less law-abiding and more noncompliant. When people can't get answers to basic questions -- can't even get anyone on the phone! -- they might give up on trying to find the right answer. They might cut corners.

They might even deliberately shortchange Uncle Sam, particularly if they believe their richer neighbors are already shirking.

"If you don't start paying attention to the needs of the bulk of the taxpayers, you're going to have more enforcement problems down the line," says Nina E. Olson, the former national taxpayer advocate who now runs the Center for Taxpayer Rights. She notes that paying for more customer service employees up front could reduce the need for more expensive, specialized auditing officials in the future.

Simplifying the tax code would go a long way too, of course. Not that that's ever been on Congress's bingo card.

By all means: Let's invest in helping the IRS identify tax shelters, offshore havens and deliberate cheats. But let's also invest in making the experience of filing taxes a little less hellish for Americans who want to follow the law.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

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