Thursday, October 21, 2021
Everybody’s excited’: Amazon workers in Staten Island to file for union vote Amazon Labor Union bids to create independent group – but workers say the company has openly opposed their effort
“Amazon workers plan to file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board next Monday, after months of organizing and collecting over 2,000 union authorization cards from employees at a warehouse in New York City.
The move will be the latest bid to organize a union at Amazon – which has opposed unionization of its huge workforce – by a labor movement seeking to flex its muscles as the US economy emerges from the pandemic.
The Amazon Labor Union is seeking to create an independent union of Amazon workers and has raised over $20,000 through GoFundMe to support the organizing efforts over the past six months. The election covers the sprawling Amazon JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island and surrounding facilities dubbed LDJ5, DYY6, and DYX2.
Through the group’s organizing efforts outside of JFK8, Amazon has reportedly distributed and posted anti-union flyers, installed a chain fence with barbed wire between the parking lot and the bus stop where organizers set up, and confiscated union literature.
Chris Smalls, a former worker at JFK8 in Staten Island and recently elected president of the Amazon Labor Union was fired from the warehouse in March last year after organizing a protest in response to Amazon’s treatment of workers when the pandemic first hit the US .
In a meeting shortly after the firing, attended by Jeff Bezos and other Amazon executives, Smalls was labeled by the company’s general counsel as “not smart or articulate”, according to a leaked memo. He worked at Amazon for about five years before he was terminated.
Smalls said that throughout the union campaign, Amazon has openly opposed the unionization effort, while organizers have had the police called on them several times. Recently, he alleged, Amazon started bringing in new hires to a nearby hotel rather than the JFK8 warehouse location as organizers were meeting and hoping to sign them up.
“We’ve been out there for six months, meeting workers and signing workers day and night. Sometimes I’ve been out for 36 hours straight, just trying to get to our goal,” said Smalls. “The workers that are organizing themselves within these facilities, because they’re the ones that are really inside the facility, to see that, to witness and to be a part of it, it’s just been a magical experience, something that I’ve never fathomed.
“The energy and culture we built over the last six months with these workers, it’s been very strong. Everybody’s excited.”
The warehouse opened in September 2018 and has been a site of contention between workers, labor groups, and the company since.
In February 2019, Amazon fired Justin Rashad Long over a minor safety violation, which he alleged was in retaliation for him speaking at a union rally over working conditions at the warehouse. Protests were organized by Long, other workers, and a coalition of labor unions and groups to demand Long’s reinstatement. Amazon denied the allegations.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration data on injuries at the warehouse revealed an injury rate of 15.19 in 2018 – a three-times higher rate than injuries at other warehouses nationwide. Workers at JFK8 have widely reported unsafe working conditions and pressure to meet quotas and rates, and have held protests and delivered petitions to management about their concerns. Amazon dismissed safety concerns at the time the data was publicly reported.
In February, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama voted in the first union election at an Amazon warehouse to join the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Though the union was voted down in the election, the National Labor Relations Board is currently reviewing overturning those election results and ordering a new election over Amazon’s conduct through the election. Allegations include installing a United States Postal Service mailbox and retaliating against workers involved in union activity.
As part of a recent settlement with two former Seattle-based employees who alleged they were fired in retaliation for activism, Amazon agreed to pay back wages to the fired employees and post a notice to all tech and warehouse workers affirming their rights.
Dozens of unfair labor practice charges were filed by workers against Amazon with the National Labor Relations Board during the pandemic, with several workers alleging they were fired in retaliation for organizing or advocating for improved safety conditions.
Amazon said in a statement: “Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes – quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle.”Everybody’s excited’: Amazon workers in Staten Island to file for union vote
“On Wednesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced a vaccine mandate for city workers. The news prompted a fresh — and predictable — round of hand-wringing about a potential mass exodus of public employees who would rather give up their jobs than get the jab.
“We’re going to lose half of our cops and half of our fire department if this goes through,” an elected official in Brooklyn fretted, “and then what?”
Spoiler alert: Gotham isn’t going to lose half its police officers and firefighters.
The experience of the nine months since vaccines became widely available is simple. Carrots — benefits such as gift cards and giveaways and lotteries — sound great. Bribing people to take the vaccine — or to put it more politely, incentivizing them — sounds better than forcing them. But it hasn’t worked — at least not nearly well enough — and the audience on whom it might work has now been vaccinated.
What has produced results, and has the promise of doing much more to reduce the population of the unvaccinated, are mandates. They inevitably invite a game of chicken. People complain; they threaten to quit. Then, for the most part, they cave. Corporate chieftains and elected officials need to call these bluffs, even if it requires taking on public employee unions and terminating a few hundred people here and there to drive home the point: Saying no has a price.
A peer-reviewed study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that the state-run lotteries that doled out millions in prizes failed to coax people into getting vaccinated. Nineteen states experimented with this approach, but researchers found “no statistically significant association” between the announcement of a lottery and the number of vaccinations.
In contrast, evidence shows mandates, well, move the needle. In New York, 77 percent of the state’s health-care workers were fully vaccinated in mid-August, when a mandate was imposed. Now that number is up to more than 90 percent. The state’s largest provider, Northwell Health, said it fired 1,400 anti-vaccine employees — which sounds like an enormous number but is less than 2 percent of its workforce.
Novant Health, a North Carolina-based hospital system, announced in September that 375 of its 35,000 employees had been suspended and would be fired if they didn’t get the vaccine within five days. Guess what happened next? The threat of termination prompted 200 of the 375 to get the jab. The results have been similar across the private sector, from airlines to food processors.
It made sense to try carrots first. But this pandemic has killed more than 728,000 Americans and the average daily death toll continues to exceed 1,500. Only 57.1 percent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated. It looks as though the worst of the delta variant might be behind us, thankfully, but the country remains vulnerable to a twindemic of covid-19 and flu spikes this winter.
These fights are playing out across the United States. In Los Angeles, faced with the threat of losing their jobs, 99 percent of classroom teachers got vaccinatedby the deadline or received an exemption. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) is in a standoff with the police union over a mandate. The head football coach at Washington State University was laid off this week for refusing to comply with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccination requirement for public employees. So were some police officers. But headlines and viral videos obscure the degree to which almost everyone did as directed.
Six weeks ago, President Biden announced that the federal government will order businesses with more than 100 employees to require that workers be immunized or face weekly testing. Along with an executive order for federal contractors, this would cover about two-thirds of the country’s workforce. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” Biden said on Sept. 9.
But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not yet issued the regulations that would put this into effect. A White House spokesman declined to comment Thursday on when the rule will be released but said there’s no reason businesses need to wait to impose their own requirements. This is dangerously circular: Many businesses are waiting for the cover of a federal mandate to order their employees to get vaccinated.
Make no mistake, administering such strong medicine takes courage. That’s why so many politicians have hesitated, obstructed and banned mandates. It’s easy for elected officials to dangle free stuff in front of constituents. That’s never going to cost them politically. But don’t call it leadership. Using carrots is politically expedient, but wielding sticks is what’s needed to finally put this pandemic behind us.“
FDA authorizes Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters and says people can get a shot different from their original dose
FDA authorizes Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters and says people can get a shot different from their original dose
“Millions more people in the United States will soon be able to receive an extra dose of any coronavirus vaccine, regardless of their initial vaccination — a flexibility that comes along with the authorization Wednesday of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots by federal regulators.
The decision by the Food and Drug Administration paves the way for boosters of all three authorized shots to be available to a wide swath of the U.S. population and promises to ease the logistics of the booster campaign for pharmacies and clinics offering vaccines.
The action, arriving as the U.S. death toll from the pandemic exceeds 729,000 and tens of millions of Americans have yet to get their first shot against the virus, largely fulfills the Biden administration’s controversial pledge this summer that booster shots would be widely available. That move drew criticism because it leaped ahead of decisions by scientific agencies and triggered a fierce debateabout whether those extra shots were warranted now, and for whom.
The Johnson & Johnson booster Wednesday was authorized for anyone 18 and over — a broad eligibility criteria reflecting the lower protection of the initial single-shot regimen when compared with other coronavirus vaccines. The booster may be administered at least two months after the first shot.
The Moderna booster, a half-dose of the original shot, was cleared for people 65 and older, or adults at risk of severe illness or complications because of underlying medical conditions or exposure on the job. It can be used at least six months after the second shot of the two-dose Moderna regimen.
The authorizations mean people initially vaccinated with those shots can get a booster of the same — but may also switch. That means someone who received the Johnson & Johnson product can get a booster dose with Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech, as long as the person is 18 or older, meeting the criteria to get a booster. And someone who has been fully vaccinated with Moderna can get a booster with Johnson & Johnson or Pfizer, if they are 65 or older, or at high risk.
The FDA did not recommend any particular combination of vaccines and boosters — or even whether it would be better to stick with the original vaccine or switch to a different one. In a call with reporters, top agency officials said they did not have the data to make those specific judgments.
Acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock said she “would expect many will continue to get the same series they have already received.” But Peter Marks, director of the agency’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, added that some people or their doctors may choose a different booster, either because a product is easier to get or because of potential side effects or reactions.
Both said a discussion Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will probably provide more detailed information. The CDC’s immunization advisers are likely to recommend that people try to get a booster of the same vaccine as their initial series, but allow for mixing and matching, according to federal health officials.
Only 15 million Americans were initially vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson shots, which arrived later and were further delayed by an investigation of a rare adverse event and manufacturing problems. About 70 million Americans are fully vaccinated with Moderna, according to the CDC.
The booster shots could start to be given by the end of the week, pending a meeting of CDC advisers and a decision by the agency’s director, Rochelle Walensky. Last month, a third shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine became available for the same at-risk population included in Moderna’s authorization.
Nearly 11 million people have received a booster or an additional dose of a vaccine because they are immunocompromised.
The companies have presented data in support of their boosters, including at an expert advisory committee meeting last week. Results from a National Institutes of Health study that tested all the possible combinations of primary vaccinations and boosters informed the decision on mixing different types of vaccine.
The NIH study showed that all combinations of authorized vaccines triggered a rise in virus-fighting antibodies. But the NIH data was limited, tracking doses in just 50 people per combination and following them only for a short time and measuring just one component of their immune response. It used a full dose of the Moderna vaccine, not the half-dose that will be offered as a booster.
Several scientists who worked on the NIH “mix-and-match” study said it should not be used to recommend one combination over another because of limitations of the research. But it may be used that way, particularly for people who received the initial single-shot Johnson & Johnson regimen. The study found that people who initially received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine had the lowest boost to their antibodies from getting a second shot of the same vaccine — and had much higher antibody levels with either messenger RNA vaccine as a booster.
“It’s really hard to say we have to look at the bigger picture” when the preliminary antibody data appear so persuasive, said John Beigel, associate director for clinical research in the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. But he cautioned that a number of other variables could emerge. Antibodies after the Johnson & Johnson vaccination could take longer to peak, for example. The available data compared antibody levels only two weeks after vaccination.
“Our study is designed to say: If [booster doses] mix, do you get a good immune response? And I think regardless of the mix you get a good response,” Beigel said.
Nirav Shah, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said the ability to use boosters regardless of what shot a person initially received would aid in the outreach effort for boosters.
“If the FDA were to authorize mixing and matching, the ability to provide boosters on the ground at the state and local level would be greatly enhanced,” Shah, who is also director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said ahead of the FDA decision. “We have advocated for such a policy, and we would uniformly support a policy move by the FDA.”
He said the data from NIH supports the immunological benefit of mixing and matching, and at the very least, showed no perceptible harm or drawback. He said the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were given widely in remote or rural areas where the ultracold storage required for the Pfizer-BioNTech shot proved difficult.
Because Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters had yet to be authorized, there are “clusters where vaccine immunity has waned over time,” he said. Shah said officials are hearing from residents of those rural areas who want to know more about boosters for Johnson & Johnson and Moderna “because there has been less public discussion of those vaccines than Pfizer.”
The ability to mix and match boosters means that “when our teams are going into a community or a nursing facility to provide boosters, being able to carry one vaccine and give it to all who are eligible speeds up the process,” Shah said.
But opening the door to any combination makes some public health leaders nervous — particularly if people at low risk for severe illness from the coronavirus start taking different doses without clear guidance on what is recommended. One reason FDA advisers have pushed back against broadly authorizing boosters for anyone who received an initial immunization is that the benefits and risks of booster shots vary by age and demographics.
How someone views a booster could be influenced by the specter of rare adverse events. For example, the FDA has said that analyses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine suggest an increased risk of a rare type of blood clot, especially for women 18 to 49 years old. For Moderna, data has indicated an increased risk, though rare, for inflammatory heart conditions such as myocarditis for men under 40 and particularly for those 18 through 24, the FDA said. Rare cases of myocarditis have also been reported in people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The FDA officials Wednesday stressed that the government will take steps to educate the public and providers to minimize confusion about the boosters. And they acknowledged that boosters will essentially be provided on an honor system — if people say they are eligible for a booster, they are likely to get one.
“Many Americans are taking matters into their own hands. … People are getting boosters or mixing different products through their primary-care providers or by not revealing what they got before,” Ofer Levy, director of the precision vaccines program at Boston Children’s Hospital, said at last week’s FDA advisory committee meeting. “So I think it’s a matter of some urgency for FDA to help sort out what is admittedly a complicated and challenging scenario. But we can’t hide from it. And I do think we need to give guidance to the public.”
The outsize attention to boosters could also distract from the more urgent need to emphasize delivering first doses to unvaccinated people, some health experts worry.
“We are worried that boosters will distract from the primary vaccination push,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “That is really more important in terms of controlling the pandemic.”
During the news briefing call, the FDA officials were asked why the agency authorized a half-dose of the Moderna booster for use with another initial vaccination, considering the NIH “mix-and-match” study involved a full dose. Marks responded that the agency was confident the half-dose would provide an adequate response.
Action on vaccines will continue to be intense in coming weeks. The FDA is scheduled to meet with its outside advisers Tuesday to discuss the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 5 to 11, with an emergency authorization expected by early next month.
And federal regulators are seriously considering authorizing booster shots for people as young as 40, according to two federal officials familiar with the plans. That action would not occur until after the pediatric vaccine is authorized, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue.
Senior federal health officials have been eager to lower the eligibility age for booster shots because of concerns that some middle-aged people are becoming ill with covid-19 despite being fully vaccinated. Israeli data suggests that extra shots can help prevent serious illness among that population.
Asked about reducing the eligibility age during the news briefing, Woodcock said officials are monitoring breakthrough infections in vaccinated people of various age groups. She said the agency would take “appropriate action to protect the public should it be necessary.”
Wednesday, October 20, 2021
Is Biden Doing Enough to Protect Democracy? (Hell No! He Never Has)
"Even the president’s closest allies are alarmed that he’s not making voting rights a front-and-center issue.
As a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the early 2000s, I once received a call from a couple of Republican campaign operatives who said they had something to show me. We met at their office in Washington, D.C., a few days later. They presented printouts of recent election records and pointed to a few cases of what they suspected were people voting illegally. One after another, their examples of voter fraud turned out to be nothing. They had flagged, for instance, a voter named John Smith who might have cast ballots on the same day in two different precincts—discounting the possibility that more than one person named John Smith might be living in the region. Their motivation was obvious enough: They were attempting to plant stories that would delegitimize elections that the GOP risked losing. It didn’t work.
With the rising bloc of younger, more diverse voters who skew left, Republican efforts like this in recent years have mushroomed into a full-blown campaign, undercutting the bedrock notion that American voters are the ones who decide elections. Whether GOP-controlled states are drawing new district lines that would disenfranchise Hispanic and Black voters for the next 10 years or “auditing” 2020 election results that have already shown that Donald Trump lost, the goal is the same: By any means necessary, win.
Fiona Hill worked on Trump’s National Security Council and later provided compelling testimony in his first impeachment trial. I asked her if she feared for democracy's future should Trump win again. “We’re already there,” she told me. “I’m worried about it now. Millions of people are showing they don’t want any criticism of Trump. Democracy is becoming a dirty word, something that’s anti-Trump.”
“These are direct assaults on the basic underpinnings of the democratic system,” Wendy Weiser, who directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program, told me. This year, 19 states have passed 33 laws creating obstacles to the most fundamental American right, part of a “multipronged effort to sabotage elections,” she added. As the 2022 midterm elections approach, and with the 2024 presidential election not far behind, Democrats believe that President Joe Biden needs to fiercely combat the illiberal forces at work this very second in the country. And those fearing the loss of a two-century tradition of self-government in America are asking, with a hint of desperation, Where is he?
Certainly, Biden has been busy. He’s struggling to pass a historic multitrillion-dollar economic plan that he seems determined to make the centerpiece of his presidency. “I think the Biden administration’s more immediate priority is these infrastructure bills,” Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who serves on the select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, told me. “And I really think that [voting rights] need to be pursued with equal vigor. Efforts to interfere with election officials at the state level are foundational to a democracy. And if the foundation becomes infirm, the whole edifice comes crashing down.” What good is expanded broadband, after all, if it only helps an autocratic government spread democracy-destroying disinformation?
When it comes to GOP attempts to subvert elections, Biden has at times been eloquent, and at other moments conspicuously silent. In July, he gave an impassioned speech in Philadelphia in which he shamed Republicans for not working to uphold “the sacred right to vote.” As my colleague Ronald Brownsteinnoted at the time, Biden didn’t mention the one step that’s absolutely necessary to protect voting rights: doing away with the Senate filibuster rule that is blocking passage of electoral reforms. In a recent speech, Biden found time to talk about renewable energy, tax credits, early-childhood education, climate change, the debt limit, and the growing number of Americans getting vaccinated. He touched on everything, it seemed, except voting rights. If the nation faces “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history,” as Biden warned in Philadelphia, isn’t that as worthy of a mention as plug-in charging stations?
Ask the White House what it’s doing to defend voting rights and the stock reply is “Plenty.” One aide sent me a spreadsheet illustrating Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s attention to the issue. (The breakdown showed nearly three dozen speeches, meetings, and events for Harris, and six for Biden.) Attorney General Merrick Garland has set up a criminal task force to crack down on intimidation of election employees, a growing problem. (In Georgia, a state that Biden narrowly won, an election worker was emptying trash from a warehouse one day when hecklers surrounded him and told he would be going to jail, Gabriel Sterling, an official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office, told me.) Even Biden’s allies worry that the progress is too slow. Is the president doing enough to spotlight the perilous state of American democracy? I asked Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat. “No, of course not,” he said.
Gina Hinojosa was one of dozens of Democratic Texas legislators who left the state over the summer to deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass legislation restricting voting rights. Hinojosa and her colleagues flew to Washington, where they met twice with Harris to discuss the urgency of the issue. “The last time we passed historic voting-rights legislation, in 1965, we had a president from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who used his skills and the power of the presidency to make voting-rights legislation happen,” she told me. “And we need that same kind of assertiveness from our current president.”
A new bill that Democrats have rallied behind, the Freedom to Vote Act, would beat back Republican attempts to manipulate elections for partisan purposes. It would set national voting standards that create a two-week early-voting period, make Election Day a public holiday, allow no-excuse voting by mail, and prevent the firing of election officials for political reasons. It also aims to prevent partisan gerrymandering, which some red states use to dilute the influence of minority voters. Biden has come out in favor of the bill, which is languishing in the Senate because of the filibuster rule.
An important thing to note about the Freedom to Vote Act is that it carries the support of the two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have balked at the cost of Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure package.
That would give Senate Democrats a good shot at passing the measure—if it needed only a simple majority vote. But the filibuster rule calls for a 60-vote supermajority, and both Manchin and Sinema have so far refused to do away with it. Democrats have worked out an arrangement that gives Manchin time to find 10 Republican senators willing to support the bill and meet the filibuster’s high threshold for passage. “It’s never going to happen,” Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, told me. “He won’t get half of that. He won’t get half of half of that. If we find ourselves in an authoritarian state where there is no more freedom of speech, press, or worship, I don’t think people are going to say, ‘Well, at least we still have the filibuster.’” (Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
Democrats are understandably antsy. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is planning for members to vote on the bill as early as Wednesday. A delay would be costly: Republican-controlled legislatures are already coming out with redistricting maps that would lock in their majority status for the next decade. “I wish Senator Manchin the best in his effort to round up some Republican votes, but we cannot have infinite patience,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told me. “The clock is ticking here. We’ve got to get these protections in place right away.” Practically, that looks unrealistic unless Manchin and Simena relent and agree either to nuke the filibuster or carve out a specific exception for voting rights. Biden could pressure the duo to do just that. But with his party holding a one-vote majority in the Senate, he would risk antagonizing two people he can’t afford to lose. When I asked a White House official if Biden supports lifting the filibuster to pass voting-rights protections, I got a tepid reply: “I don’t think we can rule out anything,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Activists are growing more frustrated by the day. In July, Sister Quincy Howard and other faith leaders took part in a Zoom meeting on voting rights that included the senior White House adviser Cedric Richmond. She left feeling disheartened by the White House’s message, summarizing it as “‘We need all of you to help us get the word out that there’s a problem with voting rights.’ And I’m like, ‘What? We’re so far beyond that.’ It was jaw-dropping. The word is out!” Then, in August, Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP and now the head of the liberal group People for the American Way, sent a letter along with the League of Women Voters to Richmond warning that voting-rights legislation wouldn’t pass unless the filibuster rule is scrapped. They asked for a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and his deputy Bruce Reed, but got no reply. Feeling stymied, activists began holding demonstrations outside the White House.
Earlier this month, both Howard and Jealous were arrested on Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest. A Secret Service agent took off Howard’s veil while detaining her for crossing a police line. I called the agency and asked why this step was necessary—did they believe there was a concealed weapon beneath the nun’s garments? A spokesperson told me that Howard and four others had refused to “disperse,” and that “during the course of any arrest, the Secret Service employs consistent, standardized arrest protocols for the safety and security of all involved.” Jealous said he was handcuffed for hours and spent the night in a jail cell with “the most aggressive roaches you’ve ever seen.”
When I mentioned the alarm coming from activists, the White House official told me that the Biden administration is “pushing full force” to pass voting protections. “It’s fair for activists to continue to push,” the official said. “Every constituency has their issue. If you ask immigration folks, they’ll tell you their issue is a life-or-death issue too.” (Democracy’s preservation would seem more than a pet issue.) In one crucial respect, Biden has been holding back: He has yet to give a full-throated statement that Senate Democrats need to end the filibuster.
Manchin may never find the 10 Republican votes needed to break a filibuster, but the exercise gives him political cover to tell West Virginians that at least he tried. Having shown that Republican resistance was unwavering, Manchin could then join the dozens of Democratic senators who see the filibuster as a tool for minority obstruction and perhaps persuade Sinema to do the same. “I don’t believe arcane Senate rules should be allowed to turn back the clock on something as fundamental as voting in America,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, told me."
The Secret Toll of Racial Ambiguity
"Rebecca Hall’s new film adaptation of the 1929 novel “Passing” has cracked open a public conversation about colorism and privilege.
Rebecca HallCarly Zavala for The New York Times
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When Rebecca Hall read Nella Larsen’s groundbreaking 1929 novel, “Passing,”over a decade ago, she felt an intense, immediate attachment to it. The story seemed to clarify so much that was mysterious about her own identity — the unnameable gaps in her family history that shaped her life in their very absence, the way a sinkhole in the road distorts the path of traffic blocks away.
The novel follows Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two light-skinned Black women who grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood and shared a friendship complicated by differences in class and social status. When Clare’s father died, she was sent off to live with white relatives, while Irene went on to become firmly ensconced in the vibrant Black artistic and cultural community of 1920s Harlem, wife to a Black doctor and mother to two dark-skinned young boys. One day, while passing for convenience on the rooftop restaurant of a whites-only hotel, Irene is recognized by a beautiful blond woman, who turns out to be Clare — who now not only lives her life as a white woman but is also mother to a white-passing daughter and married to a bigoted man who has no clue about her mixed-race heritage. The friends’ reunion crackles with tension, charged with curiosity, envy and longing.
When Clare asks Irene if she has ever thought about passing in a more permanent way herself, Irene responds disdainfully: “No. Why should I?” She adds, “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want.” And maybe it’s true that the respectable, high-status life Irene has built in Harlem encompasses everything a serious woman, committed to lifting up her race, should want. But Clare’s sudden presence begins to raise a sense of dangerous possibility within Irene — one of unacknowledged desires and dissatisfactions. When she sees the ease with which Clare re-enters and ingratiates herself within Black society, it threatens Irene’s feeling of real, authentic belonging.
Raised in England within the elite circles of classical theater, Hall, who is 39, had her first introduction to the concept of racial “passing” in the pages of Larsen’s novel. “I was spending time in America, and I knew that there had been vague, but I mean really vague, talk about my mother’s ethnicity,” Hall explained over the phone this spring. Her voice is calm and poised, with a warm polish to it, and she tends to speak in composed paragraphs. Over the year that we had corresponded, Hall hadn’t been acting much and had instead spent time writing screenplays from the Hudson Valley home that she shares with her daughter and her husband, the actor Morgan Spector. “Sometimes she would intimate that maybe there was African American ancestry, or sometimes she would intimate that there was Indigenous ancestry. But she didn’t really know; it wasn’t available to her.”
Hall grew up steeped in performance: Her father, Sir Peter Hall, was known for founding the Royal Shakespeare Company and serving as the director of the Royal National Theater for many years, and possessed what she describes as a preternatural ability to know when and how an actor could be gently pushed into an even better performance. Her mother, Maria Ewing, an American raised in Detroit, is one of opera’s most celebrated sopranos, famous for her daring portrayal of Salome in Richard Strauss’s production, in which she followed the Oscar Wilde-penned stage directions to the letter and went nude onstage.
After her parents divorced in 1990, Hall lived for many years with her mother in a manor in the English countryside, where she remembers rooms filled with the sound of jazz on vinyl, her mother making herself at home in the relative isolation and remoteness of an adopted country. “I was sort of brought up to believe that I was this — all of which is true, by the way — privileged, upper-middle-class, sort of bohemian well-educated white girl from a very prestigious family background,” Hall said. “And that was sort of where it stopped. And when I asked questions to my mother about her background in Detroit and her family,” Hall said, her voice low and firm, “she left it with an ‘I don’t want to dwell on the past.’”
Until a friend pointed her to Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” Hall had no way of naming her intuition that these gaps in her family history were narratively charged — but reading it was a “gut punch.” “I felt deeply challenged and confused,” Hall recalled. “And the only way I could actually process it, for me, was to sit down and adapt it. I didn’t, at the time, think, I’m going to adapt it, because I know it’s going to make a killer film and I’m going to direct it. I really didn’t. It was sort of personal and quiet, and I did it in 10 days.” Then she stowed it away in a drawer for the better part of a decade.
Margot Hand, a friend and a producer of “Passing,” the film that was eventually made from that screenplay and that opens theatrically in the United States on Oct. 27 and streams on Netflix beginning on Nov. 10, remembers watching Hall on the set of “Permission,” a film they were both involved in, and noticing how knowledgeable she was about the setup and composition of the shots. When she asked Hall whether she had ever considered directing, she replied that there was only one movie she could imagine herself making as her first film: an adaptation of a novel from the 1920s, based on a screenplay she wrote years earlier. Hand told me that the version of the screenplay that was used in filming is essentially identical to the one Hall showed her years ago — one of those rare artistic impulses that emerges whole and intact, like an egg.
As Hall began to consider turning the script into her first directed feature, she knew that much of her vision for the film was nonnegotiable: It had to be shot in black and white, an unpopular choice from the perspective of studios, because black and white can be a harder sell in foreign markets. It had to be shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio that was the default for celluloid film in the 1920s and ’30s but that has since been replaced by wider proportions. And it had to have Black women cast in the lead roles of Irene and Clare — another sticking point in a moment when white actors still command the most star power and box-office revenue. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga signed on early and stayed attached through the years it took to gather the financing for the film, an unusual vote of confidence that Hall credits with the film’s eventually being made.
“It’s a big undertaking to have this be your debut, and it’s still so hard as a female filmmaker to get something made,” Thompson explained to me over the phone. “To know that she would trust me with that, because so much would hinge on my performance, really was such a gift to me.”
Hall was insistent: To film in black and white was a way of honoring the films that she was raised on, which starred strong female leads like Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Myrna Loy. And casting Black actors allowed her to conjure the fantasy of a “lost noir film” that might have had a Black actress in a leading role, while nodding to a lineage of films like “Imitation of Life” (1934). Starring the Black actress Fredi Washington, the film is the story of a daughter who breaks her mother’s heart by deciding to pass as white. Some Southern audiences were scandalized by it because Washington’s light skin, combined with the ambiguity of the black-and-white cinematography, made it impossible for them to discern whether the actress was truly Black or truly white.
But each of these compositional choices also functions to amplify the internal tension of the narrative, to pressurize the pull of Irene and Clare’s relationship. In black and white, the viewer becomes hyperattuned to the shades of gray that form the bulk of the visual image, an anxious gatekeeper perceiving similarity and difference at the same time. In the unconventionally narrowed screen, the two women’s bodies are continually in relation, one occluding, the other hidden, the distance between them always palpable. As Hall says, the framing “forces the face literally into the center of the frame, constantly. And so it constantly says, loud and clear, that this is a movie about faces and how we see them and watch them being seen.” In this aspect ratio, she adds, “there’s no room for escape.” For her, the project has been one of self-discovery and self-reckoning: “I’d say that the whole journey from that day when I sat down to write this to now has been a way of me processing and understanding my family better,” Hall says. “It was a bit of an exploration and also something I felt compelled to do for reasons I had no language for.”
For the first half of my own life, I had no language for the sensation of precarious contingency that went along with my multiracial face, a product of a Taiwanese mother who immigrated in the 1980s and an American father with German ancestry. My childhood spanned the 1990s, when multicultural was an aesthetic, a party free of bad vibes. On TV, in the video for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” faces of different races morphed into one another, smiling hugely as they lip-synced the words. In elementary school in central New Jersey, I was asked once a year to bring in a “favorite recipe that shows your heritage” to add to a gradewide cookbook — I turned in the same recipe every time, for pork-and-cabbage dumplings — and on Veterans Day to wear some traditional Taiwanese apparel while sitting on a float that rolled through the park behind my house. Culture was to be celebrated, and as with a good buffet, you could have as much as you wanted, all piled together.
If culture was additive, race was a place for optimism, insofar as its projected irrelevance would free the nation of the problems it had caused. Multiracial people were one mechanism through which that liberation would be accomplished: Their existence, and their acceptance and success in America, would be evidence that the country had left behind the violence and inequity of its past. If the nation couldn’t achieve racial equality through the political process, then citizens could do it themselves by creating a new kind of person.
Being a symbol of racial and cultural optimism is a strange sign to live under. Your beauty signifies the rightness of the coming transition, its aesthetic balance; your flexibility, empathy and intermingled whiteness comfort those who fear the loss of place or privilege in the coming demographic shift. You are a bridge between the genes of your mother and the genes of your father, a bridge between their cultures — a bridge being a structure that others can use to cross something hazardous. You are a link between past and present that somehow carries forward none of the old grudges.
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But in the classroom and on the playground, my racial ambiguity didn’t feel like something to celebrate. At some times, I felt illegible and unseen; at others, I felt that my inharmonious features — the unusual shape of my eyes, my odd accent and the gaps in my knowledge of either culture — were bizarrely visible. Other children and some adults asked about me, speculated about me, tried to puzzle through my racial and cultural identity. And in the estrangement I felt in the towns we moved to, surrounded mostly by white people and sensing my mother’s own melancholia at being stranded far from her home country and the languages she was most comfortable living in, I found little in my racial identity that I could use as an anchor.
One day when I was 16, alone in the school library during lunch hour, I came upon “Passing” and, like Hall, found it strangely, alarmingly moving. It gave shape and language to the racial ambivalence I experienced that was difficult to place within the optimistic rhetoric that surrounded me. The precarity that Clare and Irene live with, one walking a tightrope between two worlds designated as incommensurable and the other clutching at the apparent safety of a singular, grounded identity, spoke to my own fear of a catastrophic mobility, the feeling that if I didn’t find some way to root myself firmly to one world or the other, I might never find a way to belong anywhere. Texts are always haunted by the unseen — in basic terms, they work to conjure in the mind what they can only point at in words — but this entire book was fueled by invisible, scarcely apprehended drives that seemed to come from society, that spectral presence that moves us all in difficult-to-identify ways.
As I read George Hutchinson’s “In Search of Nella Larsen,” the most comprehensive biography of the writer, I found a life that encompassed, at different times, the public-facing dutifulness of Irene Redfield and the lonesome, destructive freedom of Clare Kendry. A mysterious and remote figure who left inconsistent traces in the public record, Larsen struggled all her life to find her place among the categories available to her. The daughter of a white Danish seamstress and a Black cook from the Danish West Indies, Larsen spent her early years in an interracial sliver of Chicago where all kinds of people commingled in saloons and brothels, far from the buttoned-up neighborhoods of elite white and elite Black society. When her mother married another white immigrant from Denmark and gave birth to her second daughter, Larsen’s skin tone prevented the family from establishing themselves in one of the newer, less precarious neighborhoods dominated by working-class white immigrants. After years of tension navigating an increasingly segregated city, her mother sent her to study at an elite, all-Black teacher-training program in Tennessee, where she was expelled after a year, probably for violating the dress code. She returned to Denmark, where she lived for a time as a child.
With her Scandinavian roots and little direct connection to the legacy of slavery that defined much of the African American experience, and because she came from a poor background, Larsen never felt fully at home in elite all-Black social circles. After she went to nursing school and became the first Black librarian to attend the New York Public Library’s prestigious library school, her first publications were selections of Danish children’s games and songs. The novelist Walter White, part of the literary community she had begun to associate with, encouraged her to write a novel, and eventually, she wrote two: the quasi-autobiographical “Quicksand” and her second and last published novel, “Passing.” She became one of the most celebrated — and maligned — writers of the Harlem Renaissance, insisting on a social circle that included the controversial white author Carl Van Vechten, whose writings had been deemed exploitative by many Black critics.
In her work, Larsen complicated traditional notions of morality or race loyalty. She sometimes wrote about white people, as in the unpublished domestic thriller set in Boston that she wrote and rewrote in her last years as a working writer, as if trying to prove that colored people could enter the minds and lives of white people. After years of disappointments — her physicist husband was having an affair with a white co-worker, and one after another the manuscripts she submitted were rejected by publishers — Larsen retreated. Without telling the remnants of her literary circle, she moved to a different apartment down the block and became unreachable to her friends and colleagues. She quietly returned to nursing and died in the company of colleagues who had little idea that she had been a writer at all.
The unusual shape of Larsen’s story, riddled with holes and obscurities, has led many to misread her. When her work was rediscovered in the 1980s and 1990s and began to appear on syllabuses, biographers claimed she had embellished her Danish heritage in order to distance herself from African American culture and present herself as European, and therefore more sophisticated. Other critics suggested that she left her literary life in order to begin passing as white. In reality, the proof of her connection to Denmark only required more care and effort to unearth, and though she once boasted in a letter to friends of having managed to have lunch in an upscale whites-only Southern restaurant, Hutchinson argues that she never tried to pass in any deeper, more deliberate way. But the misinterpretations of Larsen and her work point to her predicament: Even as she attained significant success as a writer, she left too few traces on paper to ensure that she would be read accurately. She remained enigmatic, illegible to most.
In early August, I took a ride share, a ferry and a public bus to a quiet corner of Martha’s Vineyard to meet Hall at the first in-person festival event she had attended in over a year and a half. Though “Passing” had found distribution and been featured at the Sundance Film Festival, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival would be the first place where an audience gathered to watch and discuss it together. It was the weekend of Barack Obama’s much-publicized 60th-birthday party, a celebration that would have brought hundreds of guests to the Vineyard, before it was scaled down amid right-wing criticism and Covid concerns. I walked past rows of newly painted and neatly hedged houses that looked out onto a still, grassy bay where over 400 years earlier an English explorer from Bristol anchored, traded with the native Wampanoag people and “enjoyed terrifying them with the sound of his cannon,” according to a 1923 book on the history of the island.
Hall appeared on the wraparound porch of her bayside hotel in a dark button-up shirt and slim pants — casual, but in a different way from the bright whites and pale colors that covered much of the island. Hall had recently taken part in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series, “Finding Your Roots” (the episode will air next year), and filled in some of the lacunas in her family history that had made elements of her own life feel incomplete or difficult to comprehend. She had shown a version of her film to her mother, sparking conversations that they weren’t able to have in the decades preceding. And “Passing” had been sold to Netflix for almost $17 million, a deal that would guarantee the film the sort of broad audience and promotional support rarely given to intricate, demanding art foregrounding Black women.
The process of funding the film had been long and difficult — multiple studios offered Hall funding if she agreed to film in color, but she turned those offers down. Many months ago, Hall felt resigned to the idea that the film would always be a niche artifact, telling herself: “If I have to make it for nothing and it sells for nothing and nobody ever sees it, then so be it. This is the film that I want to make.” She now felt “a bit smug,” and a bit shocked, at the idea that art had won out.
Hall’s adaptation cuts to the quick of the novel and transfers the shifting, unsettling quality of Larsen’s text back onto the viewer’s shoulders. The film delves into the gray zone of seeing, priming the viewer to become aware of the way his or her own perception is positioned and constructed. Under the intensive, focused gaze of the film’s long shots, Thompson and Negga deliver performances dense with desire and repulsion. Thompson plays Irene with turbulent restraint, her silences heavy and her speech shaped and structured by unseen constraints, while Negga’s Clare is dazzling and appetitive — her mobility, and the zest with which she transgresses boundaries of race and class, expose the falseness of the racial categories upheld by white and Black alike.
The film feels timeless, closer kin to the moody, claustrophobic psychological landscape of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” or the taut, covert romance of Todd Haynes’s “Carol” than to other films that depict the same period. In this way, though set with care and historical fidelity in the 1920s, it’s not a film about the past or even about the social conditions of Larsen’s America, but about the way choices made during Larsen’s time reverberate through succeeding generations. It highlights the psychic afterlife of racial trauma — the quiet holes pressed into the psyche by self-denial.
Like some long-limbed people, Hall has a tendency to fold herself up on the furniture in a disarming way, tucking her feet beneath her on the wicker sofa as she held a cup of green tea that I never saw her drink from. The researchers on “Finding Your Roots,” she told me, traced her mother’s side of the family tree as far back as her great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. She learned that her great-grandfather, whose name was John William Ewing, was born into slavery but found government work post-abolition in Washington, and even gave the toast for Frederick Douglass at a banquet in his honor. Her great-grandmother was a free woman of color, descended from one of only 5,000 Black men who fought on the side of the rebels during the Revolutionary War. But against the background of so much lineage lost and recovered was the discovery of the exact point at which the narrative had broken. “The revelation,” she said, “was that it was just my grandfather who passed — just that one act that erased a huge amount of history, including some stuff that’s really extraordinary.” She spoke carefully, pausing often. “The irony is his father was a race man. His father was someone who wanted to uplift.”
I pointed out how rare it was for a person to have the chance to make a decision that so rapidly shifts the path of his descendants, a complex, psychological decision that erased anyone’s ability to find out why he made it. Hall nodded. “And if you know that it happened, it passes on a legacy that’s” — she trailed off, searching for the right term — “so confused, you know? Because if you’re the child of the parent, and you believe them to be doing the right thing, or hiding something by living in secret, then your obligation to the parent is to do what they do.” When I asked if her mother ever told stories about her own father that might shed light on why he chose to pass, or what his experience was like afterward, she told me that her grandfather was an artist and a musician, and this is part of what made them close — her mother learned to sing from imitating records in the basement of the family house. She left home soon after he died when she was 16, Hall said, gaining admission to the Cleveland Institute of Music against the odds and later moving to the Barbizon Hotel in New York, and eventually to Europe, where she sang in Salzburg, in Milan, in London.
Hall didn’t know if her grandfather was a sort of anchor for her mother, whether his death caused her to leave home. But her mother did talk, Hall said, about an event that was very disturbing for her. “Her father was driving her home from somewhere. And they got out of the car, and there was a neighbor who my mom described as having a long yellow braid on one side. She was a white lady who had always been very nice to them. But as they were getting out of the car, this woman just turned around and said, ‘Why don’t you die?’” The woman added a toxic racial epithet. “And worse, that was not long before he died.” Her mother was very confused. She would tell this story, Hall said, but mostly avoided speaking about that time. I find myself haunted by it. I include it here even though I’m not sure what exactly the story signifies. What had happened to transform the neighbor’s view of her grandfather? Had her grandfather’s history of passing come to the surface, however carefully he hid it? In the end, it’s a narrative with a deep hole at its center, one that mirrors others in Hall’s family, a break in the telling that can’t be filled in through any amount of genealogical research or archival work.
At the start of the golden hour, I made my way across the island to a reception on the deck of a waterfront restaurant, a celebration of the screening that would happen in a couple of short hours. Guests were already there, piling plates with beet salad and seafood. The atmosphere was warm and easy. When Hall and Spector appeared, a line formed in front of them, and I listened from nearby as they traded thanks with producers and attendees. A woman with straightened black hair, who appeared to be in her 50s or 60s, approached. She thanked them for coming and then added that the film was meaningful to her because her aunts lived their lives passing as white. “Because they passed and we didn’t, they didn’t want to be seen with us,” she explained.
Hall’s film has cracked open a public conversation about colorism, privilege and secrets. On Twitter, people are sharing stories and black-and-white photographs of a grandmother’s cousins who moved out of state, great-aunts who sneaked back to see their family in secret, relatives who lost their jobs when co-workers informed management about their identities: a public airing of what in Hall’s family was once closely held. Recently one of her mother’s sisters reached out: She said that they never really had language to understand the hidden context that shaped their family, and she thanked her for giving it to them.
Other responses pointed to the ways that racial categories continue to shape our collective thinking. When the trailer for the film debuted on social media, it prompted a deluge of tweets. Some shared memes featuring the movie title alongside photos of multiracial celebrities like Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph and Thandiwe Newton — the implication being that these lighter-skinned actresses would be a better fit for the roles or that they were continuing to benefit from the ability to pass as white in Hollywood and beyond. That so much of the discussion circulated around Thompson’s and Negga’s ability to successfully pass as white felt surreal, a return to a type of racial scrutiny that seems antithetical to the project of both the book and its adaptation. One Twitter user explained that in Larsen’s day, passing did not necessarily mean persuading others that you were white, only persuading them that you were “not-Black.” Another suggested that the director was trying to heighten tensions with the casting, reminding the viewers at all times of the possibility that the characters would be found out.
“There’s a real irony in this, in that the people who can really pass like me are challenged sometimes about whether they’re really, truly Black,” Mat Johnson, an African American novelist of mixed descent, told me over the phone. “So we have this paradox where some of the same people who would be like ‘Well, he’s not really Black,’ or ‘She’s not really Black,’ also feel real ownership about the idea of passing being a part of the African American experience. It’s interesting because even that discussion is about who owns the story of passing.”
“Passing” is re-entering the culture at a moment when being multiracial is viewed in a more sober, realistic light than it was when I was growing up. In recent works like Johnson’s graphic novel “Incognegro,” Danzy Senna’s “New People” and Brit Bennett’s best-selling “The Vanishing Half,” authors have rewritten the literary tropes of Black passing to probe its blind spots and challenge the notion that the color line has been erased within American society. If earlier notions of a cohesive “mixed race” identity failed to materialize, who could be surprised? No grand unifying theory of multiraciality can account for the multiple, highly specific ways in which individuals reconcile their own hybrid backgrounds, or for the particular way in which Blackness resists assimilation into both whiteness and the middle ground of the mixed.
“I’ve seen Black people around me getting interested in their family history start to do their research and realize that to be Black in America necessarily means having some non-Black ancestry,” Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of the novel “Libertie,” told me in a recent conversation. “Genetically, many of us have about 25 percent white DNA within us. To be Black, this thing that we say is readable and defined as necessarily separate from whiteness, literally usually means for most of us that we are, in fact, intertwined with it,” she said. “Hopefully what that will do is force people to have more complicated discussions about what it means to share all of this DNA when we still have this system set up to reward those who are closest or closer to whiteness.”
Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve noticed more people bypassing the conundrum of what it means to be racially mixed in order to define themselves in terms of who they feel themselves to be, how they lay claim to their cultures, how they themselves conceptualize racial boundaries. Many choose to identify as wholly Asian, or wholly Black, or to identify as multiple full identities rather than fractions of a diminishing whole. You could say that there are potentially as many racial identities as there are racial stories, and the more fulfilling work is to dwell in these stories rather than in their categorization. In the end, narrative may the best tool we have for binding together the disparate elements that make up the self.
Alexandra Kleeman is a professor at the New School and the author of two novels, “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” and “Something New Under the Sun.” Carly Zavala is a photographer who was born in Venezuela and is based in Brooklyn. She was a nurse for 15 years and is known for her play with light and shadow to create emotive and moody images."