Cats are like potato chips, reads a sign in Bruce and Terry Jenkins’s home. You can’t just have one!
In fact, the Jenkinses have 30. They have devoted their retirement to caring for this plethora of elderly cats, transforming their home over the years into a makeshift feline senior center. “It’s kind of a big family,” says Terry Jenkins in Jonathan Napolitano’s short documentary, Cats Cradle. “It gives me the opportunity to be with more cats than I possibly could ever have imagined.”
The couple welcomes older cats that have been abandoned due to the death or sickness of a previous owner. “The cats come with different neuroses from where they were before… it’s very gratifying to see the transition from what they were when they came here to what they become,” says Bruce.
“It’s like they bloom,” adds Terry. “They get to be what they’re meant to be.”
Cats Cradle is by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking as it showcases the love that exists between the quirky couple and their horde of cats. “These cats are old, and we’re old,” says Terry. “We have a sense of those issues. We’re kind of bound together by it. Just like feeding them, petting them, and loving them, you have to help [the cats] at the end.”
Napolitano, who himself has three cats, told The Atlantic that Terry and Bruce’s devotion to each other and their cats is unparalleled. “You never know what’s going to happen when you turn the camera on,” Napolitano said. “I’ve met people full of life, and as soon I press record, they drop dead almost immediately. Bruce and Terry have something you can’t fake. There’s a lot of love in that house.”
Nearly six months before his death, the embattled 20-year-old rapper XXXTentacion shared an urgent manifesto via Instagram Live. Eerily prescient, his words belied a sense of macabre resignation. “If I’m gonna die or ever be a sacrifice, I wanna make sure that my life made at least 5 million kids happy or they found some sort of answers or resolve in my life,” said the rapper born Jahseh Onfroy. “Regardless of the negative around my name, regardless of the bad things people say to me, I don’t give a fuck.”
Having summarily addressed “the negative,” he moved toward buttressing his persona as a potent if counterintuitive source of inspiration. The rapper, who at the time of his death was facing serious charges that included assault of a pregnant woman and witness harassment, trailed off into nearly Oprah-esque affirmations, talkingabout how he wanted his young fans, especially those dealing with mental illnesses, to live life without fear:
I know my goal in the end, and I know what I want for everyone, and I know what my message is. So I just wanted to say I appreciate and love all of you, and I believe in you all. Do not let your depression make you. Do not let your body define your soul. Let your soul define your body. Your mind is limitless. You are worth more than you could believe.
In the hours after Onfroy was shot and killed on Monday in his native Broward County, Florida, the video has circulated heavily on Twitter and Facebook. It is chilling to watch now. Young and tempestuous, the rapper seemed to sense that his time among the living would be short.
XXXTentacion, perhaps the most infamous of an ad-hoc collective of young artists often referred to as “Soundcloud rappers,” had known for some time of the contention surrounding his work and persona. Dark and brooding, the late rapper spun the narrative of his misunderstood genius in his music, too. He introduced his massively successful album, ?, with “(instructions),” guiding listeners toward a putatively enlightened view of the record:
I’lloffer this warning and set of instructions: If you are not open-minded before you listen to this album, open your mind … It’s very comforting but discomforting at the same time, so with this project again you’re entering my mind, feeling my insanity, feeling my genius, my energy.
Both the album introduction and the Instagram Live message invite his audience into the interior of his mind, pointing to dark corners and encouraging listeners to accept their existence without interrogating what Onfroy has only partially hidden behind the shroud.
But the “negative” XXXTentacion referred towasn’t undue musical criticism or ad hominem personal attacks. Within the space of a short, meteoric career, Onfroy’s music was nearly inseparable from the myriad allegations of violence against the young man who made it. By the time he released ?, XXXTentacion had accumulated a stomach-churning laundry list of criminal charges: aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering.
The detailed list of abuses his ex-girlfriend, Geneva Ayala, has recounted is gruesome and unsettling: slapping her and breaking her phone because she complimented a male friend, threatening to penetrate her with a barbecue pitchfork, stomping on her, threatening to cut out her tongue, hitting her with plastic hangers, holding her under running water in the bathtub, and punching her until her left eye closed and leaked blood, among them. Ayala started a GoFundMe campaign to fund orbital surgery she said is necessary to preserve vision in her eye. (The site deactivated the campaign page, then brought it back online in recent months; according to the Miami New Times, Ayala has also been subjected to harassment from XXXTentacion’s fans.) For his part, Onfroy denied the charges, and had repeatedly spoken with vitriol about Ayala and all who support her claims.
In his own words, though, XXXTentacion admitted to beating a gay man for “staring” at him: “I was gonna kill him, because of what he did, because I was naked. He was staring at me,” Onfroy told the hip-hop podcast No Jumper in 2016, “I started strangling him … I’ve got his blood all over my hands, all of my chest, literally … I was going crazy. I smear his blood on my face, on my hands. I got it, like, in my nails. I got it all over me.” He seemingly referred to himself as “lil dylan [sic] roof,” after the Charleston shooter who entered a predominantly black church and killed nine of its congregants.
In his music, he threatened suicide should a partner ever leave (on the track “SAD!”), chastised a woman forkilling his vibes with her tears on the same record he dedicated to Parkland students (“Hope”), and enlisted PnB Rock to sing about a woman who “don’t feel no pain” and “might be insane” (“SMASH!”). The tracks are as playful as they are harrowing; the sing-songy production lulls listeners into nearly forgetting that the beats soundtrack disturbing thoughts. The music was hypnotic, and ithelpedshape the public persona of a man who seemed to see the people attempting to hold him accountable as an unintelligible group of haters rather than as concerned citizens or injured parties.
Throughout his short life, XXXTentaciononly weaklyexpressed remorse for his actions, alleged or admitted. He may very well have struggled with depression, but if he did, he turned his demons outward.And so the tenor of support for the rapper after his death was confirmed (from the coded references to his “troubles” and the potential for change, to the dismissal of his reported violence against women and queer people as matters of disagreement rather than an apparent pattern of abuse) is as disappointing as it is striking. It’s understandable that artists and fans alike would mourn the loss of a figure they cherished. And gun violence is inarguably tragic; that a young man was cut down in the prime of his life isimpossibleto rationalize, no matter his stature or past misdeeds. But dispensing with Onfroy’s history of violence as the sole domain of a personal failingglosses over the harm he wrought and the systems and individuals who supported him as he did.
It is perhaps easier to mourn the loss of a dazzling career than it is to interrogate what may have transpired should XXXTentacion have lived out the full course of a natural life. We cannot know if he would have attempted to make amends for his actions. People throughout history have had tremendous personal transformations, but all of those shifts have come about of choice. All indications—his repeated doubling down on the idea that he was the real target, his fans’ harassment of Ayala, the music industry’s continued capitulation to him—don’t suggest that Onfroy would have gotten there soon. And any slim chance for restorative justice, a process that some defenders have touted as a natural inevitability should Onfroy not have died, is now gone.
With XXXTentacion’s death, critics and consumers have been forced to reckon with how to remember a man whose life brought solaceto countless listeners and painto his alleged victims. Onfroy, in his music, reminded young fans in particular that their hurt was valid butthat it did not form the sum total of their lives. He gave voice to their insecurities, wrapped their unending dread in the cover of his lyricism and transformed those nervous bundles into an electrifying body of work. Many of XXXTentacion’s teenage fans have come of age in an era that confronts them with unimaginable terrors far more quickly than it offers guides to processing those horrors. Hearing an artist work through his own dances with darkness, perhaps, functioned as a distorted kind of beacon. To lose a hero, no matter how flawed, is understandably difficult for young fans to stomach.
But Onfroy, and the people who continued to support him even as the allegations piled up, also served to remind women (especially black women) and queer people that the pain they experience at the hands of men does not deserve the same attention as the workthose men may produce. There is no precise calculus for weighing these things against one another, no standard metric for distilling trauma into quantifiable units. XXXTentacion may have spent his career trying to convince his most ardent young fans that they’re worth more than they believe, but his legacy—of trauma endured and seemingly unrepentantly inflicted—reminds us that worth has never been distributed evenly.
Donald Trump didn’t get much in the way of North Korean denuclearization in Singapore. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In the days since the summit with Kim Jong Un, critics—including me—have pointed out how little the U.S. president got from North Korea’s leader during their much-hyped meeting. And it’s true that Trump fell far short in that meeting of his stated goal to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, and then wildly overstated his achievement by declaring the North Korean nuclear threat over. (It’s not.) But the Trump administration racked up real accomplishments in Singapore that are perhaps best understood by setting aside the president’s grand (and at times groundless) pronouncements. The summit’s modest and provisional results are actually of considerable consequence.
Here’s a rundown of why Trump can reasonably make the case that the Singapore summit was successful and that the United States and the world are safer now than they were before he decided to become the first American president to meet with North Korea’s leader.
1) U.S. concessions to North Korea so far are largely reversible.
If North Korea hasn’t yet given up a lot in negotiations, neither has the United States. Trump can’t retract his decision to hold a summit with and even speak admiringly of the dictatorial rule of Kim Jong Un, just like Kim can’t walk back his decision to release American hostages ahead of the summit. But Trump is right to state that while he has suspended upcoming U.S.-South Korea military exercises that he considers “provocative,” he can always reinstate the drills if nuclear talks collapse. Likewise, the Trump administration has refrained from imposing new sanctions on North Korea as diplomacy proceeds and, in engaging North Korea, has potentially weakened the resolve of countries such as China and South Korea to enforce existing sanctions. But here again, there’s been no easing of U.S. sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s vague, noncommittal promise of denuclearization in Singapore.
This, of course, isn’t all that surprising: Goodwill gestures at the outset of negotiations, when there’s little trust among the parties, tend to be provisional. Experts suspect, for instance, that the North Koreans may still be able to reopen the nuclear-test site that they claimed to have destroyed with great fanfare in the lead-up to the summit.
2) The United States and North Korea are now talking to each other rather than threatening war.
It was just six months ago that Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator and Trump confidant, was telling me there was a 70-percent chance of the president launching an all-out war against the Kim regime if North Korea tested another nuclear device. A month later, Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic senator and military veteran, returned from South Korea and told me that U.S. forces appeared to be operating with the attitude that a conflict “will probably happen, and we better be ready to go.” A Russian academic came back from Pyongyang with a chilling report: The North Korean government “is not bluffing when it says that ‘only one question remains: When will war break out?’” With each test of a bomb or long-range missile, the North moved closer to the capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons—a development the Trump administration had vowed to prevent at all costs.
Whether or not hostilities were truly imminent, the military brinkmanship was real. And in this climate, people weren’t exactly holding their breath for a swift, negotiated end to the North Korean nuclear program. Around the time that Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” in August, the nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who has visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities several times, argued that the most immediate task for U.S. policymakers was not to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons but to avoid stumbling into nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. He urged Trump to send military and diplomatic officials to Pyongyang to simply talk with and learn more about their North Korean counterparts, and thereby reduce tensions and the risk of dangerous miscalculation. Graham, one of the leading North Korea hawks in Congress, surprisingly went further. When we spoke he wouldn’t rule out a Kim-Trump summit, then a fanciful idea. “I’m not taking anything off the table to avoid a war,” he said.
If these recommendations seemed prudent and urgent at the time, it’s hard to argue only half a year later that the Singapore summit and the flurry of direct, lower-level talks preceding it are meaningless or even reckless. Within months of Duckworth warning darkly that the U.S. military had “seen the writing on the wall,” Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un were signing a statement in which they pledged to jointly “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.” That’s astonishing.
3) Any North Korean denuclearization pledge is remarkable.
Critics of Trump’s North Korea summit have pointed out that Kim’s commitment to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” by some unspecified time—squishy wording that might entail the nuclear-armed United States ending its military alliance with South Korea and concluding a peace treaty with North Korea—is actually weaker than the North’s vow in a 2005 statement to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” at “an early date” and pursue the goal of “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
But this is comparing apples to oranges—or several bombs’ worth of plutonium to a bristling nuclear-weapons arsenal, as it were. While North Korea had declared itself a nuclear power in 2005, it hadn’t yet tested a nuclear bomb. Thirteen years later it has tested six, including most recently a suspected thermonuclear weapon 17 times as strong as the bomb that devastated Hiroshima—plus last year’s successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that may be able to carry nuclear warheads to the United States. The deficiencies in the language notwithstanding, it’s remarkable that a now nearly full-fledged nuclear power would agree in writing to anything involving the ceding of that status. (Granted, the parties to the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which include the United States and other nuclear states, sign on to similarly aspirational disarmament goals.) Also notable: North Korean state media has released a documentary on the Singapore summit that shows viewers the agreed-to language on denuclearization.
The 2005 statement, moreover, came after years of negotiations, not mere months as in the case of the 2018 statement. And the 2005 denuclearization pledge was accompanied by written assurances from the Bush administration to not attack North Korea and to offer it energy and economic assistance. The 2018 denuclearization pledge was made without any such written assurances from the Trump administration, though the president and other U.S. officials verbally echoed these promises before the summit.
4) For the moment, some conditions for a realistic, halfway-decent nuclear deal with North Korea are in place.
In March, just hours before Trump announced his intention to meet with Kim Jong Un, former U.S. Defense Secretary Bill Perry gave me a bleak assessment of what nuclear talks with North Korea could realistically achieve.
In the 1990s, Perry had spearheaded an effort by the Clinton administration to reach a comprehensive agreement for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and its work on long-range missiles in return for a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, the gradual normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations, and other concessions. Had the 2000 U.S. presidential election not gotten in the way, the deal may well have succeeded. But Perry argued that what might have bought North Korean denuclearization a couple decades ago had much less purchase today. He suggested offering these same incentives to North Korea if it instituted a ban on nuclear and missile tests, which would be much easier to verify than a more sweeping agreement on the country’s sprawling nuclear infrastructure. (We might not know if North Korea is disclosing all its nuclear weapons and facilities, but we do know when it explodes bombs underground or fires rockets into the Sea of Japan.)
“In 1999 we had a chance of getting denuclearization. I do not believe we will get that today,” Perry told me. A moratorium on tests, while far from a grand bargain, “would be worth having,” he argued, because it would keep Kim from refining the long-range nuclear capability that directly threatens the United States. The Trump administration, he added, could also try to get North Korea to limit the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, not build new and improved ones, and not transfer nuclear weapons and technology to other states or non-state actors, though all of these moves would be more difficult to verify. Perry’s proposal essentially aimed to keep a nuclear program that is already a fait accompli from growing more dangerous.
Diplomacy with North Korea hasn’t yet produced even this limited nuclear deal. But as talks proceed it has resulted in a de facto freeze of the North’s tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, which Kim announced in April. That means that for the time being, North Korea isn’t experimenting (publicly at least) with its new intercontinental ballistic missiles, detonating nuclear devices, or test-firing nuclear-tipped missiles over the Pacific Ocean as it threatened to do last fall—all of which would signal advances in the North Korean nuclear program and bring the United States and North Korean closer to military conflict.
Tentatively suspending U.S.-South Korea military exercises while North Korea tentatively suspends its nuclear and missile tests is very far off from the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program that the Trump administration has demanded. But it’s closer to what Perry has described as a workable outcome of negotiations.
5) Trump is experimenting with a promising politics-first approach to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
In jumpstarting talks with a head-of-state summit, Trump didn’t only reverse the bottom-up process that has shaped inconclusive nuclear negotiations with North Korea over the last 25 years. He also appeared to be prioritizing the transformation of relations between the United States and North Korea over the technical details of constraining the North’s nuclear capabilities. “President Trump places great faith in his own ability to relate to others on a personal basis, and so it does seem like he wants to bolster the political relationship [with Kim] and then trust that will lead to arms control,” James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College told me. “Politics leads, international law lags. We appear to be about to put this idea to the test.”
And while we don’t yet know the results of the test, this novel approach could potentially succeed in reducing the North Korean nuclear threat, if not eliminating it altogether. If the classic definition of a security threat is the combination of intent and capability to cause harm, U.S officials have tended to fixate on blunting North Korea’s capabilities rather than addressing intent. But intent matters too. As the German political scientist Alexander Wendt once noted, “500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than 5 North Korean nuclear weapons, because the British are friends of the United States and the North Koreans are not.”
If there’s any chance of North Korea doing what only one country in history has done before—relinquishing nuclear weapons that it built and controls—it would probably be as a result of a massive shift in Kim Jong Un’s perception of security threats and personal and political calculations. (North Korea claims that the purpose of its nuclear program is to deter U.S. aggression.) F.W. de Klerk, the former South African president who made that unprecedented decision to give up his nation’s atomic bombs, told me that he did so in the early 1990s because he was personally opposed to nuclear weapons; because the Soviet Union, whose aggression South Africa was trying to deter, was disintegrating; and because South Africa was trying to end its international isolation as part of its political transition away from apartheid. (While some speculate that the country’s white leaders didn’t want the incoming black government to possess nuclear weapons, de Klerk denied that this informed his actions.)
George Perkovich, a nuclear-weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has identified a similar dynamic at play in U.S.-Russian nuclear-arms reduction agreements over the years. “When the political relationships changed and the types of war you were worried about being conducted changed … you could reduce nuclear weapons,” he told me last fall.
6) It’s possible this is the small start of something big.
Reflecting on the significance of the Singapore summit in an interview with the BBC, the former South Korean military officer I-B Chun quoted a Korean saying: “A long journey starts with the first step. And when that first step is taken, the journey is half-finished.” The journey to North Korea’s denuclearization may be a long way from half-finished, and may never finish or even end abruptly at any moment, but Trump’s meeting with Kim is certainly a first step in the right direction.And we simply don’t know at this point where the next steps, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterparts will now take, will lead.
“As risky and high-stakes as this entire process is, it makes sense because that’s the way the North operates. Their regime is top-down,” the Korea expert Duyeon Kim noted when we met in Seoul ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. She advised Trump and Kim to settle in Singapore “upon a very simple vision statement on end goals … and then have senior negotiators figure out the details, figure out timetables, figure out implementation.”
That, in fact, is exactly what the two leaders did.
Every year, Harvard’s admissions officers are charged with whittling a batch of 40,000 applicants down to a bare-bones selection to fill the institution’s roughly 1,600 freshman seats. Those officers can’t just set a high bar for test scores and GPAs to arrive at that selection; far too many candidates boast those qualifications. Plus, even if that arithmetic were possible, Harvard prides itself as an institution where students learn from each other in addition to their professors. Building each freshman class is, in turn, both an art and a science—one that effectively requires admissions officers to exercise a combination of number-crunching and intuition.
An organization representing Asian Americans who were at some point rejected from Harvard is suing the school for that art-and-science approach. The group, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), recently reignited tensions around that approach with a new legal filing that it says confirms suspicions that the university’s admissions practices discriminate on the basis of race. The documents, filed on Friday in federal court by SFFA, could influence admissions policies at universities across the country; the case is slated to go to trial in October.
One of the most striking revelations pertains to Harvard’s consideration of applicants’ soft skills—things like “likeability,” “helpfulness,” “integrity,” and “courage”—in determining their acceptance. Despite boasting higher test scores, better grades, and stronger extracurricular resumes than applicants of any other racial group, Asian American applicants consistently received lower rankings on those personality traits, according to a statistical analysis conducted on behalf of SFFA of more than 160,000 student records. This emphasis on personality, the analysis concludes, significantly undermined otherwise-qualified Asian Americans’ chances of getting in.
The news media have largely fixated on whether the evidence contained in the filing is the “smoking gun” needed in the longstanding crusade to crack down on admissions practices at the country’s premier institution of higher learning, practices that until now the school hadn’t disclosed to the public. Whether the evidence is incriminating isn’t clear, but it does reveal how tricky it is to assign value to personality traits in college admissions. In offering a glimpse into how the emphasis on those traits might favor some races over others, the filing points to a puzzle whose solution could be integral to the quest to get affirmative action right: Is it possible to define a characteristic as intangible and subjective as good personality in a way that protects students against people’s deep-seated, and often subconscious, biases?
“However you measure these things—whatever you do [in the admissions process]—is going to privilege one group and disadvantage another group,” said Natasha Warikoo, an associate professor of education at Harvard who wrote the book The Diversity Bargain, which explores the role of race at elite universities. “There’s no such thing as a perfect admissions system that leads to ‘a meritocracy.’” Warikoo wasn’t involved in this lawsuit.
SFFA’s filing includes a report by Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economist, that delves into the process by which Harvard rates applicants in five main categories: academic, extracurricular, athletic, personal, and overall. Arcidiacono shows that, after narrowing down applicants to those with the strongest objective academic qualifications, Asian Americans were far more likely than blacks or Hispanics to receive a low personality score from admissions officers. The analysis juxtaposes the Asian Americans’ personality scores from admissions officers with the relatively high personality ratings given by alumni interviewers, as well as with the relatively positive feedback provided to Harvard by applicants’ teachers and counselors, for those same students.
Arcidiacono concludes that this apparent personality-score phenomenon leads to what he describes “the Asian-American penalty”; if that so-called penalty were removed, he contends, Asian Americans’ admission rate would increase from 5.2 percent to 19.2 percent. Is it possible to justify the glaring discrepancies identified by Arcidiacono? Should Harvard admit one out of every five Asian American applicants to ensure its admissions practices are “fair”?
Arcidiacono’s data certainly indicate a correlation between an applicant’s race and her personality rating—among the four main racial groups, Asian Americans have the lowest share receiving a top personality score even though, for all racial groups, applicants with top academic qualifications are most likely to receive top personality ratings. But establishing a causal relationship between students’ race and their personality scores.
In its 2016 decision on Fisher v. University of Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that race can be used as one of many factors in admissions, reiterating the notion that a diverse student body is educationally beneficial. In assessing applicants based on a nebulous suite of academic and non-academic qualities, Harvard’s policy makes it all but impossible to draw a statistically—and legally—airtight conclusion about why one applicant was chosen over another. Further complicating matters is the ambiguity Harvard’s admissions office assigns to the “personal” category. While the other categories come with detailed and straightforward criteria, a vague rubric determines applicants’ personality rating; “outstanding” personal skills secure an applicant a top score, for example, and being “bland or somewhat negative or immature” gets her a middling one.
Harvard has long argued, as it does in its own expert analysis filed Friday, that diversity is inherent to its broader mission in justifying its “holistic” approach to admissions. In pursuit of this mission, admissions officers every year are charged with constructing a freshman class that features students who express an array of academic interests; who represent a range of cultural, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds; who bring a breadth of sought-after personality traits, like humor and sensitivity, that may be hard to define but often have intuitive appeal.
Against this backdrop, it’s easy to chalk up the correlation between Asian Americans’ racial identity and their relatively low personality scores to mere coincidence. And that’s essentially what Harvard has done in response to any critique of its admissions practices. The basis of SFFA’s filing was an internal investigation conducted by Harvard in 2013 that found that being Asian American puts applicants at a disadvantage. But as the school alludes in its latest court filing, such findings—the 2013 analysis for its part focused on the hypothetical impact of an academics-only policy—amount to little more than an unintended byproduct of what one official, according to Inside Higher Ed, described in an internal memo as “relative trade-offs.” Were the institution to judge students only on objective academic metrics—a very rare practice among selective U.S. colleges and universities—the share of Asian Americans in a given class would more than double, yet that of blacks and Latinos would be significantly reduced. An academics-only approach, the thinking goes, would undermine Harvard’s ability to be the institution it strives to be.
“The reality is that Asian Americans don’t do as well on” certain measures that Harvard prioritizes when building a class, said Warikoo, who’s of Indian descent. ”We tend to live on the coasts, are less likely to be recruited athletes or legacies, more likely to want to study medicine,” and so on. Determining whether that’s a fair outcome of Harvard’s emphasis on applicants’ non-academic qualities, she said, “depends on what we think is important for admission—how does the system of selection further the university’s goals?”
Efforts to arrive at a consensus on that issue have fallen flat. Yet, regardless of the merits of SFFA’s lawsuit (and of Harvard’s response), there’s compelling evidence that the emphasis on character traits disproportionately undermines Asian Americans’ admissions prospects. And given how subjective personality is, implicit biases against that racial group could explain the trends Arcidiacono identified; Asian Americans, for example, are consistently regarded as more “foreign” than other racial groups and are widely stereotyped as being reserved. Perhaps these hypothetical biases, and the “trade-offs” that hypothetically feed them, are worth scrutiny that could advance the affirmative-action debate past the standard ideological arguments. Few would argue that an individual’s worth stops at her success in school—that limiting an evaluation of her strengths and weaknesses to easily quantifiable metrics is a productive means at ensuring Harvard and other schools provide a “world-class education.” But SFFA’s latest filing brings into sharp relief the difficulty of relying on metrics that extend beyond the classroom and in turn necessitate some degree of gut instinct.
Warikoo in our conversation broached the idea of a lottery system into which Harvard would feed all applicants who meet certain criteria, establishing weights for particular categories. Not only could that system help reduce the consequences of the current approach to students’ personalities, it could also free up resources that could, say, instead be invested in financial aid; according to Harvard’s own Friday court filing, a team of roughly 40 officers votes on each final freshman admissions decision at the school.
But while they could spark discussions about alternatives to the use of race in achieving socioeconomic equity, neither SFFA’s case against Harvard nor a similar probe by the Justice Department is likely to result in a simple rethinking of resource-allocation. Nicole Ochi, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said she fears SFFA’s suit could have far-reaching negative consequencesby prompting other higher-education institutions across the country to roll back the extent to which they consider race in admissions or eliminate the practice altogether. Research has already shown that cases like this one have a chilling effect on affirmative action: One study, for example, found that the rate of “very competitive” schools, including private institutions, that factor race into admissions has plummeted in recent decades, dropping from 75 percent in 1994 to 47 percent in 2014. If the court rules that Harvard’s policy is unconstitutional, Ochi argued, “then that will be the death knell for affirmative action everywhere, throughout the country.”
That prospect makes Ochi and other supporters of affirmative action all the more frustrated with Harvard’s reliance on such a vague means of evaluating applicants’ personalities, and with the school’s failure until now to publicly disclose exactly how character traits factor into that evaluation. For advocates of affirmative action, these omissions allowed SFFA to conflate the consideration of race in admissions with discrimination against Asian Americans—even though there’s little hard proof that allowing colleges to consider race in itself disadvantages them.
“I’m willing to entertain the notion that there implicit bias is at work in the personal score that results in some discriminatory impacts against Asian Americans,” Ochi said, “but I do not think that that provides evidence that the consideration of race in the admissions process is causing that—especially since that score doesn’t consider race.” In other words, Ochi and others contend that if something is indeed amiss in Harvard’s admissions office, the source of the problem is implicit bias. It isn’t affirmative action.
In October 2008, the news outlet Valleywagpublished a letter from an employee at Tesla. The company, just five years old then, had called employees into a meeting and revealed some troubling news, the writer said. Tesla had only $9 million in the bank. Meanwhile, the letter writer claimed, the company had taken more than 1,200 preorders for its electric cars—thousands of dollars in deposits—but delivered fewer than 50 to customers.
“I cannot conscientiously be a bystander anymore and allow my company to deceive the public and defraud our dear customers,” the employee wrote. “Our customers and the general public are the reason Tesla is so loved. The fact that they are being lied to is just wrong.”
The employee’s name was not revealed. But Elon Musk found them anyway.
The way he did it is the stuff of Hardy Boys novels. According to the Ashlee Vance’s 2015 biography of the tech entrepreneur, Musk copied the text of the letter and pasted into a Word document, and checked the size of the file. He pored over the office’s printer activity logs, looking for a document that matched the one he had created. It’s not clear why this employee would print out the letter that appeared on Valleywag, but Musk’s hunch proved correct. He got a hit on the logs, and used that information to track down the person who carried out the printing job. The employee wrote a letter of apology and resigned.
It’s no surprise that Musk decided to play detective and pursue the suspect in this mystery. And they were indeed a suspect, from the moment their words became public. Like any business leader, Musk prizes loyalty among his employees. But for Musk, the actions of “rogue” employees aren’t evidence of workplace displeasure or disobedience (some of which are not unfounded—Musk later confirmed the Tesla employee’s claim that the company was running on $9 million). They are, regardless of their motive, not just fireable offenses, but treason. Sabotage.
This is clear in Musk’s recent reaction to another mutinous employee within Tesla’s ranks. On Sunday night, Musk sent an email, obtained and reported by CNBC, to employees about his recent discovery:
I was dismayed to learn this weekend about a Tesla employee who had conducted quite extensive and damaging sabotage to our operations. This included making direct code changes to the Tesla Manufacturing Operating System under false usernames and exporting large amounts of highly sensitive Tesla data to unknown third parties.
The full extent of his actions are not yet clear, but what he has admitted to so far is pretty bad. His stated motivation is that he wanted a promotion that he did not receive. In light of these actions, not promoting him was definitely the right move.
Then Musk zoomed out a bit, expanding his view of potential sabotage:
However, there may be considerably more to this situation than meets the eye, so the investigation will continue in depth this week. We need to figure out if he was acting alone or with others at Tesla and if he was working with any outside organizations.
As you know, there are a long list of organizations that want Tesla to die. These include Wall Street short-sellers, who have already lost billions of dollars and stand to lose a lot more. Then there are the oil & gas companies, the wealthiest industry in the world — they don’t love the idea of Tesla advancing the progress of solar power & electric cars. Don’t want to blow your mind, but rumor has it that those companies are sometimes not super nice. Then there are the multitude of big gas/diesel car company competitors. If they’re willing to cheat so much about emissions, maybe they’re willing to cheat in other ways?
It seems that as Tesla has expanded, so has Musk’s perception of sabotage. His email sounds like a warning that threats to Tesla’s public image can come in all kinds of packages, from rogue employees with access to sensitive materials to outsiders from the “long list of organizations that want Tesla to die.” Perhaps the threat of the latter feels more acute now because Musk’s businesses have shaken off the label of the ankle-biters that critics believed them to be. When you’re not an ankle-biter, you’re the top dog. And, according to Musk’s philosophy, when you’re the top dog, your competitors want—and will try—to knock you back down.
“The forces arrayed against us are many and incredibly powerful,” Musk wrote in a different email, sent to Tesla employees in February 2017 after a former production wrote in detail on Medium about the company’s working conditions—long hours, excessive mandatory overtime, a shortage of manpower, and frequent injuries. “This is David vs Goliath if David were six inches tall!” Musk said.
Musk considered “outside forces” in 2016, when a SpaceX rocket exploded on the launchpad as it fueled up for an engine test. The company examined seriously the possibility of sabotage in its investigation of the incident. “We literally thought someone had shot the rocket,” Musk said in an interview with Christian Davenport, a Washington Post reporter, published in Davenport’s 2018 book, The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.“We found things that looked like bullet holes, and we calculated that someone with a high-powered rifle, if they had shot the rocket in the right location, the exact same thing would have happened.”
SpaceX even got the U.S. government involved. “[W]e put pressure on the Air Force and the [Federal Aviation Administration] to go collect whatever forensic data was possible,” Gwynne Shotwell, the president and CEO of SpaceX, told Davenport. “The first thing you do is think it’s some outside force, right. Because we couldn’t figure out how in the world this could have happened.”
Eventually, SpaceX engineers determined the cause of the explosion was a problem with a pressure vessel in a liquid oxygen tank on the rocket’s upper stage. The feds ruled out sabotage, too.
In moments of perceived nefariousness, Musk usually asks his employees for their attentiveness for future threats. He did the same this week. “Please be extremely vigilant, particularly over the next few weeks as we ramp up the production rate to 5k/week,” he wrote in the email to his employees. “This is when outside forces have the strongest motivation to stop us.”
Worker safety at Tesla has been the subject of several investigations in last year, including by BuzzFeed, The Guardian, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Musk has emphasized that employees have several outlets for their vigilance besides the press, encouraging them to bring concerns to their managers, safety representatives at the company, or the human-resources department. If employees want to be anonymous, they can register their notes through something called the Integrity Hotline. Musk referred to it in his email to staff in 2017, saying the resource “applies broadly to any problems you notice at our company.”
The hotline’s name fits nicely with Musk’s philosophy on employee loyalty, or lack thereof. Integrity: “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” The name reads like a warning. It automatically bestows any incoming concerns with the benefit of belief. Complaints made elsewhere—in the press, in lawsuits, in the handling of sensitive information, true or false—won’t get the same treatment.
MCALLEN, Tex.—There wasn’t a single empty seat among the six rows of wooden pews in Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker’s courtroom here on Monday afternoon.
The gallery was packed, its visitors jammed shoulder to shoulder, as if the public had crowded in to witness a momentous ruling or, perhaps, a celebrity trial. But the people who occupied these seats in the back of the courtroom were no mere observers—they were the defendants themselves. All 85 of them were immigrants charged with the same crime: illegal entry into the United States, a misdemeanor. Each of them, the government said, had waded, swam, or rafted across the Rio Grande and over the southern border in violation of the law.
White school buses transported the immigrants to the courthouse from a nearby detention facility and back after the hearing. They appeared to be wearing clothes they had on when they were detained two or three days before, though without belts or shoelaces. Many of them—though not all—were shackled with leg chains or handcuffs, or both. Azalea Aleman-Bendiks, the assistant public defender representing all 85 in Monday afternoon’s hearing, told Hacker that 20 of them—just shy of one-quarter—had entered the country with children whose ages ranged from 17 years to as young as 20 months.
“Your honor,” Aleman-Bendiks said, “these parents have not been provided any information on the whereabouts of their children.”
Hacker couldn’t tell them where their kids were, either.
An influx of border-crossers is nothing new for this growing city about an hour’s drive from Texas’s southeastern tip. The Rio Grande Valley was ground zero for the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America who arrived in 2014, and the river that separates the U.S. from Mexico is a regular, if illegal, point of entry for immigrants seeking asylum or looking for economic opportunity, as well as those smuggling drugs.
But mass criminal hearings along the lines of what took place on Monday are a recent feature in McAllen. They occur twice daily on the 8th floor of the Bentsen Tower, an imposing glass building near the center of the city that houses the federal district court. The hearings are a direct result of the “zero tolerance” policy that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April as part of the Trump administration’s stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws and its efforts to deter migrants fleeing violence in Central America from comingto the U.S.
Previously, people caught crossing over the border illegally would be subject to deportation back to their home country, but not necessarily criminal prosecution. Typically, those with prior records or multiple deportation orders were more likely to face prosecution, and adults who entered the country with children were rarely charged. But on April 6, Sessions issued a new directive urging prosecutors to charge anyone who enters the country illegally—even those with families in tow or with clean records who were crossing the border for the first time. “To those who wish to challenge the Trump administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you,” the attorney general said at the time, “illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice.”
It was that policy shift that led to the separation of children from their parents once the adults were taken into custody. The move has outraged Democrats, deeply concerned children’s-health officials, and alarmed some Republicans. Former First Lady Laura Bush wrote a rare op-ed condemning the practice, which also drew a rebuke from the U.N.’s high commissioner on human rights. And although President Trump has quizzically tried to place blame on Democrats and inaction by Congress, administration officials who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity late last week made clear that the family separations flowed directly from the new zero-tolerance enforcement policy—an explicit decision to expand prosecutions.
“We are no longer exempting an entire class of individuals who break the law,” one administration official said on a press conference call, referring to parents who might expect lenience by crossing the border with their children. The official likened the old policy of releasing families to giving parents “a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card if they commit a crime with a child.”
Yet in practice, families aren’t merely being swept up under the new policy, lawyers in McAllen say—instead, adults who cross the border with children now seem to be priorities for prosecution. In May, Sessions announced the deployment of 35 additional prosecutors to border districts, where administration officials have acknowledged they still aren’t able to charge 100 percent of the people caught crossing the river. On the conference call with reporters, they refused to discuss how they decide which people to prosecute and which are simply referred back to immigration courts for deportation proceedings.
But lawyers on the ground have noticed a pattern.“They are targeting people with children deliberately,” Efrén Olivares, theracial- and economic-justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, told me outside the courthouse on Monday. “So even though they are not prosecuting everybody for the misdemeanor, they are prosecuting everyone with a child and therefore separating them indefinitely.”
Olivares and other lawyers with the Civil Rights Project have been interviewing detained immigrants before their hearings as they try to build a case against the Trump administration’s family-separation policy at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They began in late May with five petitioners and now have more than 300, Olivares told me. In a six-week period between April 19 and May 31, 1,995 children had been separated from their detained family members, administration officials said. With dozens more separations occurring each day following new arrests at the border, that number is now well over 2,000.
Many of the immigrants Olivares has interviewed told him they initially tried to enter legally by seeking asylum through a point of entry on one of the bridges connecting the U.S. and Mexico over the Rio Grande. But when they were turned away, they crossed instead through the river and were caught.
He said that while many parents are separated from their children the day they are caught, some younger children are not taken away until just before their parents get on the bus to head to court. In those cases, whether they are reunited comes down to the chance of timing, Olivares said: If the Office of Refugee Resettlement has not come to pick up the children by the time the parent returns from the courthouse, they still may be processed together as a family unit. But if the child has already been taken to a shelter, the parents won’t soon know where they are.
“Some of them do [know],” Olivares said. “Many of them—the majority of them—don’t.”
What’s clear is that just as the flow of undocumented immigrants has overwhelmed the nation’s immigration courts in recent years, the new zero-tolerance policy is straining the federal criminal courts near the border as well. Inside the courtroom on Monday, the 85 defendants each wore translation devices so they could understand—and answer—the judge’s questions.
Hacker proceeded in rapid-fire fashion, going one by one down each row to confirm the identities of each individual immigrant. The questions were yes-or-no, but for the purposes of the court record, every time a defendant replied, “Si,” a translator for the court would call out, “Yes.” (The translation was unnecessary when the answer was “No.”)
First, Hacker asked each defendant to verify their “true and correct” name.
“Are you 18 years old?”
Are you from Nicaragua?
And so on, 85 times.
Not all of the defendants were in the U.S. for the first time. Some had crossed over the border multiple times before, and a few had lived in the country illegally for years before they were caught trying to return this past weekend.
But most in the courtroom on Monday were experiencing the American legal system for the first time, and Hackergave them an overview of their rights as defendants. He asked several questions to ensure they were able to understand the proceeding. Were they under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medicine? Had they been treated for mental-health issues or a brain injury? Did they understand the charge of illegal entry into the U.S.? Had anyone threatened them, or promised them benefits if they pleaded guilty? After each question, he dutifully went down the line, seeking a reply from each defendant. Time and again, all 85 answered the same way.
Hacker explained that they each had the right to a trial—“You do not have to plead guilty today”—and he warned them of the consequences of a guilty plea, not only now but for years to come. “If you are not a U.S. citizen, and it is my understanding that none of you are,” he told the assembled defendants, “you could be deported and removed and sent back to your home country. You could be denied citizenship and admission to the U.S. in the future.”
The immigrants, one by one, said they understood. This was not the first time they were hearing these warnings. The public defender’s office, itself overwhelmed by the new policy in recent weeks, had met both individually and collectively with the defendants in preparation for the hearing. “Nothing I’ve said to you this afternoon should have been a surprise to you,” Hacker told them.
The crime of illegal entry carries a maximum punishment of six months in jail, a $5,000 fine, and a $10 court fee. But federal judges along the Southern border have been giving out minimum sentences to a majority of undocumented immigrants, particularly those with no criminal histories who were caught crossing illegally for the first or second time. To avoid spending weeks more in jail awaiting trial, all 85 defendants on Monday pleaded guilty, and most left with a sentence of time served (the two or three days they had been in jail) and the $10 fee.
After the guilty pleas were entered, Hacker gave each of the defendants an opportunity to speak before he sentenced them. The courtroom was quiet except for the jangling of leg chains and handcuffs. As the judge went down the line, Aliman-Bendiks asked for leniency on their behalf. She noted that many of them were seeking asylum, and she asked that they be given what’s known as a “credible fear” hearing before being deported. And she told Hacker of every immigrant who had entered the country with children who were taken from them.
None of the defendants took the opportunity to personally ask the judge for leniency, or to explain their actions. But one woman rose to ask about her five-year-old daughter. If I am deported, she asked the judge, what will happen to her?
Hacker has heard this question many times before. One of his colleagues, Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby, said last week that he was considering an order against CBP’s process of family separation, which could come as soon as this week.
But Hacker had no assurances to provide the defendants he was about to sentence. “Unfortunately, I’m not an immigration attorney,” he said. “Hopefully, they have procedures in place that will marry you up with your daughter.”
When another defendant soon asked about her children, Hacker let out a deep sigh. “Well,” he said, “I have no authority in the immigration realm in this country.”
A few minutes later, the hearing was over, and the last of these newly sentenced immigrants shuffled out of the courtroom and down to the waiting buses below.
MATAMOROS, Mexico—When drug traffickers shot Wayner Berduo seven times last year, they didn’t stop there. The men nearly beat him to death with their pistol grips, police reports say. One bullet pierced Berduo’s eye socket, so after the attack, surgeons removed his left eye and stitched back together his face and his right arm, which now hangs limply by his side.
For days, Berduo has waited hours at a time in the long line of day-trippers, shoppers, and commuters headed for Brownsville, Texas. When I met him, he was clutching a plastic bag of medications he hoped to bring with him—if the agents at the front of the line ever allowed him to legally enter the U.S. to apply for asylum protection. So far, they have not.
Like hundreds of others stuck at the border in recent weeks, Berduo stands in a kind of purgatory spanning the Rio Grande. Agents have repeatedly turned him around, telling him to “wait in Mexico” and check back every few hours. I watched as they turned him back for the 20th time in four days, the agents explaining that they didn’t have enough room in the port of entry to process Berduo.
The United States government has separated more than 2,300 children from their parents at the border since May, a tactic that top officials in the Trump administration have described as a form of deterrence. Delaying asylum seekers on the bridge appears to be part of this larger effort. Fleeing dangerous conditions to seek refuge in America is getting more difficult for people like Wayner. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned more than a decade of jurisprudence to rule that asylum claims based on gang violence or domestic abuse generally will not qualify.
The Trump administration encourages migrants to seek asylum at bridges—“You are not breaking the law by seeking asylum at a port of entry,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted Sunday—even as it has made it more difficult for them to do so.
I grew up here in the Rio Grande Valley, and on this trip back home, I noticed a new feature of cross-border pedestrian travel. Border agents used to check documents once travelers reached an air-conditioned office on the Texas bank of the river. Now, agents stand in the precise middle of the bridge, careful to hold the imaginary line that bisects the Rio Grande. A small plaque marks the international boundary there, and the concrete underfoot changes from the textured Mexican variety to smooth American. Under U.S. law, asylum seekers have the right to ask for protection once they’re on U.S. soil, so if they cross the line, border guards are obligated to process them. Last week, journalist Debbie Nathan documented a father and son being admitted after repeated denials when the pair took a small but important step into the United States—but only after border guards became “flustered” by her presence filming the encounter and stepped backward into the U.S.
Back in Matamoros, Wayner and his family—his 11-year-old brother, Elian, and his mother, Estefania—have been sleeping on the ground at the foot of the bridge for several nights. “It’s dangerous where we are in Mexico,” Elian says, “we can’t go far” from the bridge. He is glum and antsy, so Estefania walks him to a nearby corner store to buy a coke. They live off donations from people stuck in sweltering cars waiting to get through customs. “They sell meat here, but we can’t afford it,” Elian says. “We barely eat anymore.”
Another brother sent Elian a voice message, trying to sound encouraging. “Don’t be scared, and don’t leave Mom’s side,” he said. “Don’t get separated from her.”
If Elian and Estefania lose patience and attempt a river crossing, they risk being separated under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. If they stick to the bridge, they should have a better chance of staying together, although there are reports of asylum seekers who entered legally still being separated from their children.
I stood with Wayner as agents checked IDs up ahead, and he inched forward on the bridge. He’d followed instructions agents gave him that morning almost to the minute: Return at 4 p.m. and try again, they had said. Still, the officers turned him down. When I asked why, they brought out a supervisor who referred me to a spokesperson who declined to comment. An email the spokesman forwarded said the wait times are a product of balancing different responsibilities.
That day, Wayner stood next to an asylum-seeking woman from a cartel-riven area of southern Mexico. Agents denied her too, and her child’s face crumpled.
The following day, border guards did allow the Berduo family into the U.S. to make their asylum claim, relatives told me. But because of the Sessions ruling on June 11—the day the Berduos arrived at the Matamoros bridge—their asylum claim may ultimately fail.
Twenty miles outside of El Paso, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border, sits the Tornillo Port of Entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility which was selected by the Trump administration to be the first site for temporary housing for the overflow of unaccompanied minors and the children of detained migrant parents, under the new “zero-tolerance” policy. A quickly erected tent city inside the facility is currently set up with 450 beds, according to NBC reporting, but is built for expansion. At the moment, it is unclear how many children are being held in Tornillo, but Reuters photographer Mike Blake was able to photograph several dozen teenage boys moving between tents yesterday as he flew over. Via NPR, the reporter John Sepulvado attempted to have a look inside the new tent city, but officials asked him to leave. He spoke with Texas State Representative Mary Gonzalez, who had toured the facility, saying that the tents were air-conditioned and she “felt the kids were at least safe.” The extended weather forecast for Tornillo predicts high temperatures up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. For further coverage in the Atlantic, see also “Audio: Hear the Voices of Children Detained at the Border” and “The Outrage Over Family Separation Is Exactly What Stephen Miller Wants.”
Children as young as 2 have been pulled from their parents and moved to facilities that are, as Laura Bush put it, “eerily reminiscent” of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II. Families are being separated. Kids are sleeping under foil blankets inside cages.
But in today’s splintered and strange media environment, the more difficult question to answer is how so many people did end up seeing these images and hearing these stories. After all, this may now be the most notorious injustice at the American border, but it’s not the first.
“Americans are discovering how our immigration system works, and that is generally a good thing,” tweeted the Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff. “But some of the things that are drawing outrage, like the dog-kennel detention pens at Ursula (McAllen) [the largest Customs and Border Patrol detention center] are not new.”
Americans like to believe in transparency, that, as Justice Louis Brandeis once put it, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But sunlight no longer shines out solely from newspaper front pages or television broadcast towers. It is Facebook videos and memes, tweet-storms and viral images. That’s not to say that this story bubbled up solely from the corners of the internet, though. Immigration and investigative reporters were on it for more than a year. Senator Kamala Harris first spoke about it in December. But it wasn’t until late May that it became the biggest news in the country. How?
Both Ainsley’s and CNN’s reports were widely read and shared. Ainsley’s caught the attention of George Takei, who maintains one of Facebook’s most popular pages, as well as Congressman Joaquin Castro and the ACLU. CNN’s got a response from the head of UNICEF.
But that week last March was abrutally heavyone in Trump administration news. The story submerged into all the other news until major reports in the Washington Post and New York Times in December, 2017. The Post report got the attention of Senator Kamala Harris, who posted it to her Facebook and Twitter accounts. “It’s moments like these that we have to look in the mirror and ask, who are we as a country?” Harris wrote.
This framing—that the program endangered the America’s moral identity—became a major part of the coverage at the time, and more recently. “Splitting families and spreading fear—Trump’s inhumane immigration initiative is a shameful new low for this administration,” Senator Richard Blumenthal tweeted, linking to the Post story. “Not in America.”
But there was no reporting from the border yet to indicate what was happening. There were ominous reports, but not stories of real people’s ordeals.
And then came a bombshell April 20 story in the New York Times. “More than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October, including more than 100 children under the age of 4,” wrote Caitlin Dickerson. Now, there was Mirian.
“On Feb. 20, a young woman named Mirian arrived at the Texas border carrying her 18-month-old son. They had fled their home in Honduras through a cloud of tear gas, she told border agents, and needed protection from the political violence there,” Dickerson wrote. “She had hoped she and her son would find refuge together. Instead, the agents ordered her to place her son in the back seat of a government vehicle, she said later in a sworn declaration to a federal court. They both cried as the boy was driven away.”
A week later, in a Congressional hearing, a Department of Health and Human Services official admitted that the government had lost track of about 1,500 children who had been placed with sponsors across the country.
Then, during a May 15 hearing, Senator Harris pressed DHS head Kirstjen Nielsen for answers on parental separation, which generated another flurry of news coverage in politicalpublications. Eventually, their exchange would get packaged by NowThisPolitics into a viral video that was shared more than 77 thousand times on Facebook, but that wouldn’t come until May 28.
The opinion piece started percolating through Reddit’s r/politics, then took off through the liberal world when Wisconsin Congressional candidate Cathy Meyers posted it to her Facebook. On Twitter, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara tweeted, “What is more shameful than forcibly separating, in America, parents from infant children at the border? And then, losing track of those children?” It got 80,000 likes and more than 26,000 retweets.
Over the course of the day, the topic gathered attention. The original report his was often misinterpreted as the government actually losing 1,500 children, which was not entirely accurate. Nonetheless, the combination of cruelty and incompetence drove the outrage to new levels, and sprung it from investigative report into hashtag prominence. #WhereAreTheChildren and #WhereAreOurChildren continue to be tweeted massive numbers of times.
As Friday stretched into Saturday, all kinds of liberal Facebook pages—Millennials for Revolution, Justice Democrats, No Racism No War—posted the editorial. On Saturday morning, Being Liberal’s Facebook post took off, and in the afternoon, the actor Misha Collins made two wildly popular posts to Facebook and Twitter, which sent the story into the next level of notoriety. Meyers, Being Liberal, and Collins alone drove more than 56 percent of the interactions with (and by proxy, attention to) the column.
On Saturday, a tweetstorm—a series of connected tweets—by @nycsouthpaw put the whole story in context. It got thousands of likes and retweets, even with the Memorial Day Weekend.
Still, despite the reporting that children were being separated from their parents and kept in detention centers, no one had seen any photographs of what was happening. The world was desperate for some images to make sense of the story: What did this look really look like? NowThisPolitics rolled out the old Kamala Harris footage and it took off.
In fact, the controversy became even more prominent because of that desire for visual evidence. A variety of prominent liberals including Congressman Joaquin Castro, actress Mia Farrow, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau tweeted photographs of a now-defunct detection center from 2014.
Then something really important happened. President Trump stepped in to fire back at the Democrats. “Democrats mistakenly tweet 2014 pictures from Obama’s term showing children from the Border in steel cages,” Trump tweeted. “They thought it was recent pictures in order to make us look bad, but backfires. Dems must agree to Wall and new Border Protection for good of country … Bipartisan Bill!” It got 30,000 retweets and 100,000 likes, planting the topic at the very top of the week’s news cycle.
Strangely, but also very 2010sishly, it was the bad information—these old photographs tweeted as new—that touched the crisis to the Trump third rail. News organizations began to throw everything they had the story.
The reporting about what was happening at the border, which had been sparse, flowed in. ABC News had a heartbreaking story about a mother’s separation from her son for months. The Boston Globedelivered a powerful story that led with Wil, a six-year old who, every night before bed, “says his prayers and then kisses two printed-out photos of his mom and dad that are taped on the wall by his bed goodnight,” as Liz Goodwin wrote.
Senator Jeff Merkley visited a detention center and was able to describe that the conditions were very rough, as bad as the 2014 photographs. Trump had implicitly criticized the content of the photographs: The “steel cages” “make us look bad.” But then, there were, in fact, steel cages.
The border crisis became a story both about the daily churn of Washington fighting and about the fundamental nature of the country. Yet the day-to-day tactics continued. Conservatives began to argue about the definition of the word “cage” to describe the fences kenneling in children.
While Trump and his surrogates tried to pin the problem on the Democrats, the UN Human Rights office pleaded with his administration to stop separating families. NBC News posted it to its Facebook page and it drew almost 50,000 shares.
At the end of last week, reporters were finally able to get inside the detention facilities. MSNBC reporter Jacob Soboroff’s account provided striking and you’re-right-here details. The kids were being held in a converted Walmart. There was a Trump mural on the wall.
Photojournalist John Moore delivered a photograph of a two-year-old girl screaming right before she’s taken from her mother.
Then came the Sarah Huckabee Sanders press conference in which a clearly angry White House press corps pressed her for answers on why the administration was claiming it had to separate these children from their parents, when they actually do not. That generated, by far, the widest-traveling pieces of media of the whole crisis. Different clips of the presser posted by Ezra Klein, Vox, and ABC were viewed millions of times.
Even refugee fundraising has gone viral. The organization RAICES has had dozens of people set up fundraisers for them on Facebook. Among all the $500 and $1000 efforts, Charlotte and Dave Willner, a California couple, have now raised $4.5 million. (At first glance, they seem like any other parents of a young child. As it turns out, both are highly connected members of the Bay Area tech world. Charlotte is a safety manager at Pinterest; Dave is head of community policy at Airbnb. Both previously worked at Facebook.)
Sometimes the way something becomes truly huge news is mysterious and strange, but that’s not the case with this fundraiser, nor with the family-separation story generally. Reporters spent months digging into this story, and legislators spent months talking about it. Their work eventually translated into a burst of sustained attention that created highly shareable media objects. Those were distributed by media organizations, celebrities, and large left-leaning Facebook pages.
What is remarkable, however, is that as the news cycle has fed through the many-chambered heart of the internet, it has not driven the country apart. In fact, a large consensus has emerged: Two-thirds of Americans don’t want the family separations to continue, including majorities of every group of gender, race, age, and education level. The cumulative force of all the stories, tweets, videos, and photos was centripetal, spinning the country closer together.
It is basically the dream of the technoutopians, finally finding reality in the nightmares of the children at the border.
In the year 2000 at Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, Abercrombie and Fitch opened the first location of its new shop, Hollister, and set Midwestern high schoolers like myself California dreaming. Designed with a “Dude” or a “Betty” in mind, Hollister had a West Coast–meets–That ’70s Show vibe. There was a dimly lit “lounge” where you could sink into vintage velvet chairs with funky rope fringe and flip through the latest surfer or skateboard magazine. Or you could select the store soundtrack through a special touch screen, which offered a curated list of rad music. My favorite feature was a giant, wall-size screen that streamed a live feed of sunny Huntington Beach, California, into the mall on dreary Ohio afternoons. Even if I never purchased Hollister’s clothing, I always stopped in the store to watch surfers in real time and transport myself into a new lifestyle. Sometimes—a decade before Instagram selfies—my friends and I would sneak photos of ourselves in front of the screen, as if we were on the beach.
Years later, I found myself working as a store designer for Abercrombie and Fitch. I once helped facilitate the municipal approval of upgrades to the cameras on the Huntington Beach pier for Hollister’s live-feed system, which now streamed California to suburbs all across the country. I knew then what I hadn’t as a teenager in Ohio: Retail stores have become a host for experiences first, and buying things second—if at all.
In retail spaces, consumer attention has shifted away from goods on racks and shelves, and toward smartphones and apps instead. In response, retailers face a growing need for elevated in-store experiences that seamlessly mesh with online platforms and web stores. The resulting retail model looks a lot less like previous notions of conspicuous consumption and a lot more like visual culture. Customers no longer kick the tires or shop till they drop. Instead they cultivate virtual feeds and inspiration boards.
Thanks to smartphones, apps, and social-media platforms like Instagram, a broader public has developed a visual vocabulary and aesthetic sensibility. Retailers, particularly in fashion, have overhauled marketing and branding strategies to promote their individual labels among broader audiences. But they also face a new challenge: how to adapt retail design to sell pictures on social-media profiles as much as, or more than, they sell garments for real bodies.
To bridge the gap between virtual and physical retail operations, behind-the-scenes organizational shifts have occurred. The professionals who actually select the merchandise for sale in retail stores once had stiff, corporate job titles like global procurement manager or internal buyer. They have since transformed into tech-savvy art directors and independent-minded brand ambassadors. These individuals focus on marketing more than goods, telling customers which brands and products are worthy of hashtags, geotags and reposts. Likewise, the antiquated roles of store clerk and retail customer have also evolved: Shopworkers now have titles like brand specialist, and buyers have given way to “influencers” who remix shopping into a new kind of job.
Two categories of retailers have emerged from this shift. The first consists of existing companies that have overhauled their retail stores to incorporate physical and technological experiences. Nordstrom is one such example, with their Pop-In series by Olivia Kim, the company’s vice president of creative projects. The second includes web-based start-ups that are nimble with apps and social-media platforms, such as Glossier, a “people-powered beauty ecosystem” founded by Emily Weiss. Both types of retailers focus on building strong marketing narratives and immersive online experiences. Among those are “pop-up” stores, displays, or events—nomadic retail spaces that arrive and depart again within weeks or days.
You might have experienced one of these pop-ups yourself, perhaps at a smaller scale while cutting through a department store to enter a mall. Comprised of only a few racks, the display is like a store within a store. Inside, a pulsing soundtrack might drown out the surrounding Muzak, while customized lighting illuminates the specialty mannequins and displays. At a larger scale, pop-ups can become huge undertakings. The Nike+ Run Club pop-up events allow you to test-run a 5K in their newest, knit shoes—while sipping pressed juice during a live DJ set before customizing your own pair on an iPad, next to an irresistibly Instagrammable neon-light Nike swoosh. In cases like this, retailers foreground experiences worthy of capturing on a smartphone, pressing customers to share them on social media. That sharing produces both immaterial value for the individual and brand exposure for the retailer.
But the best technological integrations into the retail environment are those that cannot be seen. To assist in the development of both physical and virtual retail spaces, retailers commission designers and architects.
The Office for Metropolitan Architecture, a firm helmed by Rem Koolhaas and commonly referred to as OMA, did precisely this for their series of Prada epicenter stores nearly 20 years ago. In the Prada SoHo epicenter, OMA inserted plasma screens seamlessly into fitting-room mirrors so that customers trying on clothes were recorded from all angles for a visual playback. The glass containers of the fitting rooms were made from Priva-Lite, an electronically activated material that can be controlled by the customer to appear transparent or opaque, challenging notions of public and private space. OMA also programmed the store for various non-retail activities, like the hidden DJ booth in a large sloping ramp or stadium seating that captured the familiar feeling of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The whole affair was meant to connect the in-store retail experience to a global market in real and virtual time and space.
Now that the smartphone is over a decade old, retail has moved beyond OMA’s 2001 vision. More importantly, consumer priorities have changed drastically in regards to material purchases. Buying things has become less important than pursuing experiences. That poses a problem for retailers, who are in the business of selling consumer goods. Brands like Warby Parker, a web-based eyewear retailer with stores in major U.S. cities, have redefined retail partly by changing the purpose of stores. By keeping only samples on their sales floor, Warby Parker reduced their back-of-house stockroom square footage while simultaneously grooming customers to prefer an online retail experience. Customers can bring a prescription to the store and play with the various glasses on display, or they can upload a headshot and try on glasses virtually. Browsing in person and ordering online later is nothing new, but Warby Parker deliberately decoupled the retail experience from purchase completely. That turns the retail showroom into a place to experience the products’ style without guilt or pressure from salespeople.
Shifting consumer preferences may account for part of this shift from material possessions to bespoke experiences. But other forces are also at work, including the critical mass of unlimited data plans and upgrade cycles of cellular devices by mobile carriers, which permit everyone to partake in snapping, posting, liking, and sharing physical experiences in virtual space. The result is a much more nuanced consumer, who expects more from brands and products, whether they actually purchase anything or simply (re)post it instead.
The fusion of commerce and exhibition should come as no surprise, given the history of the art museum and the department store as sites of public display. In the mid-18th century, the private collections of art patrons populated public exhibitions of classical art and antiquities in newly minted civic buildings. Early department stores emerged soon after, and retail and exhibition displays blended together. Both groups saw shoppers and museumgoers as bodies to be regulated by protocols of decorum when occupying these spaces. The department store and the museum gallery flattened social hierarchies, as those present in each respective space participated in one singular activity: consumption. Despite the contemporary distaste for it, a certain democracy transpired in the act of commerce that obscured the social pecking-order in favor of shared cultural and aesthetic values.
The collaboration between Murakami and Louis Vuitton generated value from scarcity. The product of this partnership was a limited-edition handbag, but the by-product was a desire for it—an intangible quality. That same ethereal desire has driven lower-end retail partnerships, too. In 1999, Target launched a Michael Graves line of home goods and appliances, an economically viable alternative to the high-end ones to which Graves had lent his name for the Italian housewares company Alessi. The floodgates opened, and Target would go on to collaborate with well-known, high-end designers, from Missoni to Judith Leiber to Proenza Schouler, making them household names.
What started as modest capsule collections from corporate retailers, supported by designer names or celebrity endorsements, now proliferates as casual collaborations of everyday objects among independent brands. A hunger for the most recent design collab has also produced a new type of consumer: the hypebeast (or hypebae). Known for their hyper-selective and discriminative taste, hypebeasts search for the freshest trends—especially limited-release lifestyle products. Well-known among hypebeasts are the sneakerheads, or avid collectors of athletic footwear. One of the most identifiable and coveted brands of the hypebeast is Supreme, a streetwear retailer with a large following among skaters and artists known for their exclusive cross-brand collaborations. In Los Angeles, a line of teenage boys perpetually queues up outside the Supreme store on Fairfax Avenue, outfitted in legit streetwear. They are in line to skate the bowl inside, another move to cementing a brand following in the post-product retail environment.
Hypebeast or not, many consumers wait for a limited-release collaboration, or “drop,” days in advance. Often, the purchases they make at these exclusive pop-ups flood a secondary resale market online. Standing in line takes time, so sometimes a little side hustle is necessary to gain access to exclusive products. While the young generation certainly drives consumer market trends, they are equally responsible for how retailers control their online and in-store inventory thanks to their resourcefulness.
And thanks to bots. In the summer of 2017, media outlets covered a unique phenomenon occurring among enterprising high schoolers in the suburbs. These students lived nowhere near a major city for the launch of a coveted shoe or bag, but with the help of bots, proxy servers, and programming know-how, they had a major competitive advantage over any human attempting to check out online. Many retail website servers have crashed due to the influx of high traffic at peak launch times, and corporations have issued statements that they, too, are developing technology to distinguish bots from humans during checkout.
One by-product of this aggressive, digital tactic is a surge of specialized apps for purchasing retail wares. Today, there are a plethora of subscription-based services that offer to procure the freshest release of a given shoe or design (refer to the hashtag #cookszn). Whether it’s a subscription-based site or the independent operation of 15-year-old teenager, retailers attempt to compete by streamlining their own mobile strategies with similar features. Twitter or Instagram are most often used for product-release announcements and requests, then Venmo for point of sale, forging an entire movement of “social merchants” out of the infinite scroll of immaterial content. It’s almost like a virtual pushcart rolled up to the social-media services where buyers’ eyeballs spend most of their time anyway.
There is something sincerely poetic about commerce’s new power returning to the suburbs, the birthplace of malls and their distinctive culture. It may have been assumed that the suburbs are where the American Dream dies, especially as city centers continue to grow. But people like the suburbs, and large populations of people, who also buy things, still live there.
In some cases, that sensibility is getting exported to high fashion, as in the normcore styles of Virgil Abloh’s Off-White. But in other cases, pop-ups unironically embrace the ordinary materials of suburbia—plywood and cinderblock, for example—which invoke the comforting feel of Home Depot DIY or home-built half-pipe ramps. In others still, suburbia has become a new host for the cultural avant-garde; Kanye West recently built the new Yeezy headquarters in Calabasas, California, just west of the San Fernando Valley.
It might just be a nostalgic nod to another time, but perhaps it’s more than that. Suburbanites have always longed for experiences beyond their ticky-tacky cul-de-sacs; instead of shopping malls, now technology provides the direct line. And now customers (as “followers”) have assumed the free labor of brand editors, driving market trends via social media. Thanks to their numbers, and their buying power, the suburbs may now have a major impact on everyone—particularly in how they influence the way retail environments further dissolve into everyday experience.
It’s hard to know if that shift is for the better or worse, in the long run. When I first yearned for inspirational fashion in the malls of central Ohio, it was a dream of escape to the coast, where culture happens first. But now that smartphones allow trends to travel everywhere immediately, there’s no need for escape. All the experiences you could ever imagine are right there, in the palm of your hand.