Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a former American Prospect writing fellow.

Recent Articles

Why the Dichotomy Between Racial and Economic Justice is A False One

Yesterday, Vox’s Dara Lind published a post analyzing what this past weekend’s protests at Netroots Nation tell us about splits within the progressive movement. I personally don’t think Bernie Sanders handled the Black Lives Matter demonstrators very well, and I imagine his advisers had several serious conversations with him following the conference about how to better approach these voters going forward. He’s a politician—I’m pretty confident he’ll figure out how to campaign more effectively.

It’s the media analysis I’m more worried about.

Lind writes:

There is a legitimate disconnect between the way Sanders (and many of the economic progressives who support him) see the world, and the way many racial justice progressives see the world. To Bernie Sanders, as I've written, racial inequality is a symptom—but economic inequality is the disease. That's why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem.

Many racial justice advocates don't see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms. They feel that it's important to acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on people of color, but that racial inequality isn't merely a symptom of economic inequality. And, most importantly, they feel that "pivoting" to economic issues can be a way for white progressives to present their agenda as the progressive agenda and shove black progressives, and the issues that matter most to them, to the sidelines.

We must push back against this false dichotomy of “racial justice progressives” and “economic progressives.” I think it’s a harmful way to frame what’s going on, and it suggests that we can have racial justice without economic justice, and that economic justice can come about without tackling racism. Neither is true, at all.

Racial justice amounts to far more than dismantling our racist criminal justice system and reining in police brutality. Affordable housing, public education, and quality health care are all issues that impact individuals directly based on class and race. Drawing imaginary lines between them just doesn’t work.

I’m not frustrated with the coverage because, as Lind suggests, I just want to defend Sanders. I am frustrated because attempts to separate economic issues—whether it’s jobs, or retirement savings, or health care, or prisons, or loans, or taxes—from racial justice, is a deeply troubling way to lead a national conversation about racism. 

More on Charters Going Union

For The Prospect’s summer issue I wrote a feature story about the growing number of charter school teachers looking to form unions at their schools. Elias Isquith, a staff writer at Salon was kind enough to interview me about my piece. We talked about some things I covered in the story, and a few other points that didn’t make it in. You can read it here!

Homejoy’s Closure May Signal A Turn for the On-Demand Economy

On Friday Adora Cheung, the co-founder and CEO of Homejoy, announced she will be closing down the app-based cleaning service by the end of July. Homejoy, which started in 2012, relies entirely on contract labor and is commonly referred to as the “Uber for house cleaning.”

Cheung told Re/code that the “deciding factor” to shut Homejoy down was the four lawsuits her company faces over whether Homejoy workers were misclassified as independent contractors. These controversial lawsuits have made it even harder for Homejoy to raise funds in Silicon Valley. As Re/code’s Carmel DeAmicis put it, “The on-demand space has become a riskier bet for investors in a short amount of time.”

Just days earlier, David Weil, the head of the Wage and Hour division at the Department of Labor, issued new guidelines for interpreting when an independent contractor should actually be considered an employee. Weil stressed that the scope of the employment relationship under the Fair Labor Standards Act is “very broad.”

The debate over worker misclassification is shaping up to be a contentious point in the 2016 election. Though Hillary Clinton’s campaign told TechCrunch that Clinton has not taken a stance on whether Uber drivers should be labeled contractors or employees, she did recently say that the “so-called gig economy” was “raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”

On the other hand there’s Jeb….

It looks like many employers aren’t waiting around to see where the next president will land on the on-demand economy and worker classification. More companies, like Homejoy, may close up shop in light of costly litigation they can’t afford. Others may follow the lead of Instacart—the “Uber for groceries”—which recently announced that its “personal shoppers” could become part-time employees if they so choose.

Buzzfeed labor reporter Caroline O'Donovan suggests that maybe what Homejoy’s closure signifies is that the on-demand model is simply unsustainable for smaller companies. “Homejoy’s closing isn’t necessarily an indication that the on-demand economy is doomed,” she writes. “It might instead be the beginning of an opportunity for bigger players like Amazon and Google, which have pockets deep enough to stay alive when the classification issues wends its ways through the courts.”

Indeed, the day Cheung announced Homejoy would be closing down, Google quickly scooped up 20 members of the Homejoy product and engineering team to help the Internet search giant enter into the home services market.

Fusion’s Kevin Roose made a similar argument back in June, predicting that, “in the next six to 12 months, we will see a significant consolidation in the on-demand industry.” While companies like Uber aren’t going away, he thinks “lots of small and mid-sized companies will be washed out of the market.”

Looks like some Silicon Valley entrepreneur will need to innovate the “Uber for saving smaller Ubers”—stat. 

Why Don't Settlements Over Brutality Come Out of Police Budgets?

New York City's recent $5.9 million settlement with the family of Eric Garner leaves the NYPD's budget unscathed. 

(Photo: AP/Craig Ruttle)
(Photo: AP/Craig Ruttle) NYPD Staten Island Borough Commander Edward Delatorre stands with Gwen Carr and Esaw Snipes, the mother and wife of Eric Garner, during a memorial service for Eric Garner on July 14. A $5.9 million settlement was reached with the city this week. O n July 17, 2014, New York City police officers choked Eric Garner, a black man in Staten Island, to death. This week, nearly one year later, the city announced that it would pay the Garner family $5.9 million to settle their wrongful-death claim . “Financial compensation is certainly not everything, and it can’t bring Mr. Garner back. But it is our way of creating balance and giving a family a certain closure,” said the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer to The New York Times. Families of police brutality victims deserve to be compensated, no doubt. A different question, however, is should police departments be required to pay for their misconduct too? As I’ve written previously , these steep police brutality payments...

How Will Campbell Brown's '74' Cover Education?

Today marked the launch of The 74, an education-focused news organization created by former CNN host Campbell Brown. (The title refers to the 74 million school-age children in the U.S.)

The education community is cautiously waiting to determine how the site’s content should be judged. Funded solely by philanthropies—Bloomberg and the Walton Family Foundation among others—many are ambivalent about the site’s stated mission to produce independent, judicious journalism; The 74 has many close connections with education reform organizations, and Campbell Brown, a major proponent of charter schools, said in her opening letter that she plans to put forth advocacy, too.

It’s too soon to say what the coverage and content will be like, but I think they’ve published some pretty encouraging material on their first day. I especially like how they’re monitoring the 2016 presidential candidates on education issues. As Alexander Russo pointed out at his blog, The Grade, not many education-focused sites have used videos very effectively, and The 74 plans to create some video-based coverage. This is welcome, especially since it can be hard for readers to get a sense of what things actually look like in the classroom.

However, one area I know that I will be paying close attention to here on Tapped is The 74’s seemingly innocuous agenda of putting “children first.” (You’ll recognize this as similar to title of the ed-reform organization, StudentsFirst, founded by former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee.)

This popular mantra of putting kids first sounds perfectly harmless on its face. No one would disagree that kids should have high-quality opportunities so they can grow and learn and thrive. However, what does this mean for everyone else who works in a school? Teachers come second? School nurses third? By painting this false picture where the needs of kids can so simply be extricated from the needs of adults—we’re setting our conversations and policy prescriptions up for failure. Education advocates on all sides of the spectrum understand that there’s a strong need to attract a more diverse teaching workforce, to provide greater professional supports for teachers and to keep high-quality educators in the classroom. We’re not going to help build up the prestige and professionalization of teachers by proclaiming their needs and working conditions are less important.

Moreover, what may be good for one student in one classroom might in fact hurt other students in other classrooms. This is certainly the case in cash-strapped districts where spending money to open new schools often has the adverse effect of hurting existing institutions. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a decision to fire thousands of teachers was justified in part by doing what was best for children—but now New Orleans has lost significant numbers of black educators and 5 percent of its middle class. Whether or not this was worth it is a matter of debate, and one that hasn’t really occurred to the degree that it should. These policy decisions are interconnected and have reinforcing consequences; they deserve thoughtful consideration, and reconsideration, every time.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing what else the journalists at The 74 are working on. These are greatly important issues and too many areas of education lack sufficient oversight, resources, and attention. I hope, though, that the writers will interrogate the idea of “kids first” and welcome a more holistic view of what a school can be for all members of its community.

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