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‘I Was Fired for Setting Academic Standards’ Kendrick Morales



Grade inflation is now widespread at American universities. (Illustration by Alex Merto for The Free Press)

When I accepted a tenure-track position in the economics department of Spelman College in the spring of 2021, handing out bogus grades was the last thing on my mind. Spelman, after all, has a great reputation. Based in Atlanta, it’s a women-only historically black college, one of the oldest in the country; for the past 15 years, it’s been rated the number one HBCU by U.S. News & World Report

I arrived on campus in mid-August, a week before classes began, to attend an orientation session for new faculty. Sitting on the stage of a modestly sized auditorium, a panel of Spelman teachers and administrators pressed upon us the importance of maintaining high standards. I recall the head of the sociology department saying, “Absolutely don’t run a deficiency model!”—meaning we should never act as though our students were intellectually or educationally deficient. Another member of the panel said professors should work to instill the idea in students that they represent “black excellence.” As someone who has always lived in the white world (though I’m half Filipino), I found this deeply inspiring. I thought, this is the kind of place where I want to teach.

What I discovered, however, was that Spelman’s high-minded rhetoric didn’t match its reality. This was especially true when it came to awarding students grades they hadn’t earned. Grade inflation is a well-documented problem at universities across the country, of course. But what I found at Spelman was even more troubling: even after receiving the “normal” grade inflation, students demanded yet higher grades—and revolted when I wouldn’t go along. To my astonishment, the students went above me to Spelman’s administration, which capitulated without ever telling me. And because I refused to look the other way, I lost my job. 

So much for maintaining high standards.

I taught two courses during my first semester at Spelman, but the one that caused most of the trouble was Econ 303—an econometrics class that most Spelman economics majors take in their junior year. Econometrics is about applying high-level mathematics to economic issues. It is not an easy course. But it is an essential course, one that imparts one of the key building blocks of economic modeling. 

All economics majors have to be literate in probability theory, statistics, and math. They have to be comfortable developing the mathematical proofs that will clinch their arguments. I learned the importance of math when I was an economics student, and it’s something I communicated to students when I was a teaching assistant at the University of California–Irvine while getting my PhD. I felt it was important for my students to exit the course with an undergraduate-level proficiency.

At first, the class seemed to go well. The beginning of my time at Spelman coincided with the lifting of most of the university’s Covid-19 restrictions, so most students attended in person (though virtual attendance remained an option). Knowing that the material could take some time to understand, I made a point of writing detailed lecture notes and making them available. Econometrics isn’t the kind of course that lends itself to classroom discussions, but at least three-quarters of the 20 students in the class took advantage of my office hours. Most often, they were looking for help with mathematical proofs—and more than once I saw the light bulb go on after we’d talked. Those were immensely rewarding moments.

Then came the midterm. I wanted it to be challenging but not impossible. It lasted 75 minutes—the length of the class. The students were allowed to refer to the lecture notes I’d provided. But even with this open-book format, the results were disappointing. One student earned a 95, but the next highest grade was a 72. Most of the others were between the low 50s and mid-60s. Some of the grades, however, were extremely low, meaning that the average score was a failing grade. I’ll admit I was shaken up. This wasn’t what I expected. I asked my department chair for her advice, and she told me I should raise all the grades by 28 points. That way, the student with the 72 would get 100, and all the other grades would rise in lockstep.

Improving grades in this fashion is called scaling, and it’s very common, especially for difficult courses. And while it’s not something I’m crazy about doing, I’ve seen it done so often I no longer get worked up about the practice. Besides, I was new at Spelman, and I didn’t want to get into a spat with my department chair weeks after starting the job. So I did as she suggested.

I had assumed that the students would feel relieved—even grateful—to see the improvement in their grades. But I was wrong. When the students saw how low their original grades were—and that the raw average was a failing grade—they turned against me. In a class where students rarely spoke, they now peppered me with complaints. The test was too hard. They hadn’t had enough time to complete it. I hadn’t done a good enough job teaching them the material.

Their basic argument was that since virtually the entire class had performed poorly on the midterm, it had to be my fault, and therefore, I needed to make changes that aligned with their wishes and input. Boiled down, they had two demands: make the class easier, and promise that they would all get passing grades. One student even advised me to throw out the midterm and proceed as if it had never taken place. 

Had I agreed to their demands, our little controversy would have ended, and we would have finished the semester in an uneasy détente. But it didn’t feel right. I recalled the statements made during orientation about how we shouldn’t run a deficiency model. To fold to these demands seemed like a dereliction of duty. My assumption—which turned out to be terribly naive—was that Spelman’s higher-ups would have my back. 

There were another two months left in the semester. Ignoring the demands of my students, I taught the class the same way I had before the midterm. The atmosphere was chilly. The students stopped coming in person; instead, they all took the class virtually. Visits to my office dried up. Most of them even refused to do the coursework—making it likely that their final exam would be even worse than the midterm. 

The Friday before the final exam, a large group of my students turned up at the department chair’s office to complain about me. Essentially, they wanted her to do what I wouldn’t—give them a better grade. Later that evening, the chair called me. She told me that my refusal to do what they demanded had caused the students to believe that I didn’t care about them. My response was that, in turning them down, I was showing that I did care. I wanted them to be the best versions of themselves; cutting corners in an important course was contrary to that goal. I also told her that this is what I thought Spelman wanted from me.

In response, the department chair offered several “solutions.” She thought I should offer some extra credit assignments. Another possibility was to give the final exam less weight than I had previously planned. I declined. She also told me that the students would be putting together a student-led survey to register their complaints against me. 

Was that a veiled threat? It seemed that way to me.

Sure enough, the results of the final were worse than the midterm. I struggled with what to do. I knew my department chair was going to insist that I scale up the grades, so I did it preemptively. This time, I brought the second highest grade to a 90, which required scaling the grades by 36 points: a 57 was now an A. I can’t say I was comfortable with that big a jump, but in all honesty, I did it in the hope it would mitigate the students’ complaints about me. 

It did not. Unbeknownst to me, the students had filed a grievance against me with Desiree Pedescleaux, Spelman’s dean of undergraduate studies. That grievance led to a conversation with several top administrators, including Pedescleaux and my department chair. The dean listed a series of complaints the students had lodged. For instance, I had merely recommended the textbook, but hadn’t required it. This was true: I made comprehensive notes for each class, and I thought the students could save some money by using my notes as their textbook. Some of the allegations were simply false, such as the charge that I didn’t post course assignments for students to review. Still, not once during the conversation did Pedescleaux ever mention changing my students’ grades.

It was nearly 10 months later, in November 2022, well into my second year at Spelman, when I discovered that that’s exactly what she had done: she had changed the students’ grades—and had never informed me. When my department chair told me this, I was stunned. 

Yes, I had “scaled” their exam scores. But at least I had taught the class, knew how well (or how poorly) the students had done, and was in a position to make a judgment on their final grades based on the students’ performance in my class. But for an administrator to then change those final grades—behind my back—simply to appease them? How could that possibly be justified?

The response from my department chair, who has been at the college for 17 years, floored me: “This has been occurring ever since I started at Spelman.”

“That’s corrupt,” I blurted out. [In a statement emailed to The Free Press, a Spelman spokesperson wrote that “The College, its administrators, and faculty, exercise appropriate judgment in the delivery of our exceptional learning and living activities in order to maintain consistency across Spelman’s campus.” Spelman declined to comment on any of the specifics in this story.]

It took another three months for Dean Pedescleaux to admit to me that she had indeed raised the students’ grades by giving them “bonus points,” as she called them—enough to bring a C to a C+ and a B− to a B. This, she said, was “fair and equitable” because, as she put it, the students’ complaints about my teaching meant that “some adjustments were warranted.” [The Free Press was shown the email that Pedescleaux wrote to the author in which she acknowledged raising the students’ scores. When asked about this during a brief phone call with The Free Press, Pedescleaux said, “I have no comment.”]

I went to Spelman’s Faculty Council president. “I brought your issue to Faculty Council,” she responded in an email, “and some of them experienced what you did. They all agreed that grades are at the discretion of the instructor only, no one else.” But the Faculty Council took no further action.

Finally, I reached out to the interim provost to request a meeting. In early July 2023, with my second year at Spelman behind me, she emailed her response: “I have spoken to Dean Pedescleaux about the matter that you referenced concerning grades. I am satisfied with her response.” She agreed to a virtual meeting, however.

Going into the meeting, I expected to finally get a chance to discuss the issue with a high-level administrator. I knew that my persistence was not welcome, but I felt it was important to have a discussion. What’s more, the provost had been instrumental in giving me the job in the first place, so I assumed that our meeting would be cordial.

And it was cordial. But the content of the conversation wasn’t at all what I expected. 

“Spelman has decided not to renew your contract for the upcoming school year,” she told me. “It would not be in the interest of you or the college to continue our professional relationship.” 

She then began to discuss the mechanics of my firing, and as she did, I found myself—and I’m not sure why—feeling oddly empathetic to her: it can’t be easy to fire someone for so little reason, I thought. As the conversation wound down, she thanked me for my service to Spelman. 

“Thank you,” I said.

“Take care,” she said, ending the meeting. 

 A few hours later, my email and other Spelman accounts were disabled. 

The fact that I lost a coveted tenure-track position after just four semesters is obviously painful to me. But it’s the larger issue that really matters. Universities are supposed to impart knowledge, but they are also supposed to give students a taste of adulthood, which means accepting responsibility—and consequences. Instead, too many schools cower before their student bodies, conscious of the need for their parents’ tuition checks, and a high ranking in U.S. News & World Report.

I’m not the only professor who’s been embroiled in grading controversies. At UCLA, a professor was suspended when, he says, he refused to give black students easier grades than white students. A Harvard professor acknowledged at a faculty meeting a decade ago that he gives out two grades: the one that he feels they truly deserve and another, higher grade, for their transcript. And last year, at NYU, Maitland Jones Jr., an organic chemistry professor, was fired after his students circulated a petition that his class was too difficult and their grades were too low. He later wrote:

Can a young assistant professor, almost all of whom are not protected by tenure, teach demanding material?. . . . [E]ntire careers are at the peril of complaining students and deans who seem willing to turn students into nothing more than tuition-paying clients. . . . Students need to develop the ability to take responsibility for failure. If they continue to deflect blame, they will never grow.

I had always wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college and make a difference in students’ lives. But I’m not so sure that I can remain a teacher. It seems to me that this incessant catering to student demands—not over whether the food in the cafeteria should be improved, but whether they should get grades they haven’t earned—is resulting in a degraded educational experience. If college grades are fraudulent, doesn’t that mean a college degree is fraudulent too? 

You bet it does.

Kendrick Morales is an economist and former assistant professor. Follow him on Substack here. And read this Free Press article by Dr. Stanley Goldfarb about declining standards at medical schools.

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May 24, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson




On Wednesday, May 22, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who had been the candidate for anti-Trump Republicans, said she will vote for Trump. Haley ran against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and maintained a steady stream of criticism of him, calling him “unstable,” “unhinged” and “a disaster…for our party.” Since she suspended her campaign in early March, she has continued to poll at around 20% of Republican primary voters. 

There are two ways to look at Haley’s capitulation. It might show that Trump is so strong that he has captured the entire party and is sweeping it before him. In contrast, it might show that Trump is weak, and Haley made this concession to his voters either in hopes of stepping into his place or in a desperate move to cobble the party, whose leaders are keenly aware they are an unpopular minority in the country, together. 

The Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war. The last of the establishment Republican leaders who controlled the party before 2016 are trying to wrest control of it back from Trump’s MAGA Republicans, who have taken control of the key official positions. At the same time, Trump’s MAGA voters, while a key part of the Republican base, have pushed the party so far right they have left the majority of Americans—including Republicans—far behind.

Abortion remains a major political problem for Republicans. Trump appointed the three Supreme Court justices who provided the votes to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized the constitutional right to abortion, and he has boasted repeatedly that he ended Roe. This pleases his white evangelical base but not the majority of the American people.

According to a recent Pew poll, 63% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while only 36% think it should be illegal in most or all cases. But Republicans are continuing to push unpopular antiabortion legislation. On Thursday, Louisiana lawmakers approved a law classifying mifepristone and misoprostol, two drugs commonly used in abortions, as dangerous drugs—a category usually reserved for addictive medications—making it a crime to possess abortion pills without a prescription. 

Louisiana prohibits abortions except to save the life of the mother or in cases in which the fetus has a condition incompatible with life. The law requires doctors to get a special license to prescribe the drugs, one of which is used for routine reproductive care as well as abortions. The state would then keep a record of those prescriptions, effectively a database to monitor women’s pregnancies and the doctors who treat them. Louisiana governor Jeff Landry, a Republican, is expected to sign the measure into law. 

Trump has repeatedly promised to weigh in on the mifepristone question but, likely aware that he cannot please both his base and voters, has not done so. On Tuesday, May 21, though, he stepped into a related problem. Since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturned Roe v. Wade, antiabortion activists have begun to talk about contraception as abortion, with some warning that it is “unbiblical.” But in February, 80% of voters polled said that contraception was “deeply important” to them, including 72% of Republican voters. On Tuesday, Trump said he was open to regulating contraception and that his campaign would issue a policy statement on contraception “very shortly.” He later walked back his earlier comments, saying they had been misinterpreted.

On May 19 the same judge who tried to remove mifepristone from the market by rescinding the FDA approval of it, Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, blocked the Biden administration from implementing a new rule that requires sellers at gun shows and online to get licenses and conduct background checks. The rule closes what’s known as the “gun show loophole.” According to the Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy, 86% of Americans want mandatory background checks for all gun purchases. 

Trump himself is a problem for the party. His base is absolutely loyal, but he is a deeply problematic candidate for anyone else. As Susan Glasser outlined in the New Yorker yesterday, in the past week he chickened out of testifying in his ongoing criminal trial for paying hush money to an adult film actress to keep damaging information from voters in 2016 after insisting for weeks that he would. He talked about staying in office for a third term, ran a video promising that the United States will become a “unified Reich” when he wins reelection, and accused President Joe Biden of trying to have him assassinated. He will be 78 in a few weeks and is having trouble speaking.

In addition to his ongoing criminal trial, on Tuesday a filing unsealed in the case of Trump’s retention of classified documents showed that a federal judge, Beryl Howell, believed investigators had “strong evidence” that Trump “intended” to hide those documents from the federal government.

Also revealed were new photographs of Trump’s personal aide Walt Nauta moving document boxes before one of Trump’s lawyers arrived to review what Trump had, along with the information that once Trump realized that the men moving the boxes could be captured on Mar-a-Lago’s security cameras, he allegedly made sure they would avoid the cameras. The new details suggest that prosecutors have more evidence than has been made public. 

This might explain why, as Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley of Rolling Stone reported today, Trump is pressuring Republicans to pass a law shielding presidents from prosecution in state or local courts, moving prosecutions to federal courts where a president could stop them.

Yesterday, Marilyn W. Thompson of ProPublica reported on yet another potentially harmful legal story. There were a number of discrimination and harassment complaints made against the Trump campaign in 2016 and 2020 that Trump tried to keep quiet with nondisclosure agreements. A federal magistrate judge has ordered the Trump campaign to produce a list of the complaints by May 31. Those complaints include the charge that the 2016 campaign paid women less than men and that Trump kissed a woman without her consent. 

Trump’s current behavior is not likely to reassure voters. 

Yesterday he wrote on social media that “Evan Gershkovich, the Reporter from The Wall Street Journal, who is being held by Russia, will be released almost immediately after the Election, but definitely before I assume Office. He will be HOME, SAFE, AND WITH HIS FAMILY. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, will do that for me, but not for anyone else, and WE WILL BE PAYING NOTHING!”

There is no good interpretation of this post. If Trump does have that sort of leverage with Putin, why? And why not use it immediately? Is he openly signaling to Putin to ignore the Biden administration’s ongoing negotiations for Gershkovich’s release? Trevor Reed, who was arrested in Russia in 2019 when visiting his girlfriend in Moscow, noted: “As a former wrongful detainee in Russia, I would just like to remind everyone that President Trump had the ability to get myself and Paul Whelan out of Russia for years and chose not to. I would be skeptical of any claims about getting Evan Gershkovich back in a day.”  

Reed was freed in 2022 as part of a prisoner swap arranged by the Biden administration. 

Last night, at a rally in New York, Trump accepted the endorsement of alleged gang members, rappers Michael Williams (Sheff G) and Tegan Chambers (Sleepy Hallow). In 2023 the two men were indicted with 30 other people on 140 counts, including murder, attempted murder, illegal possession of firearms, and at least a dozen shootings. Sheff G was released from jail in April after posting a $1.5 million bond. 

Then, Trump’s people claimed that 25,000 people turned out for the rally, but they requested a permit for only 3,500, and only 3,400 tickets were issued. Aerial shots suggest there were 800–1,500 people there. 

MAGA voters don’t care about any of this, apparently, but non-MAGA Republicans and Independents do. And this might be behind Haley’s promise to vote for Trump. The unpopularity of the MAGA faction might allow Haley to step in if Trump crashes and burns, so long as she kowtows to Trump and his base. Or it might be calculated to try to repair the rift in hopes that the party can cobble together some kind of unity by November. As The Shallow State noted on X, Haley’s announcement showed that “Trump is fragile.”

But Haley’s statement that she will vote for Trump does not necessarily mean her voters will follow her. Deputy political director for the Biden campaign Juan Peñalosa met with Haley supporters in a prescheduled zoom call hours after Haley’s announcement. On Thursday afternoon the campaign issued a press release titled: “To Haley Voters: There’s a Home For You on Team Biden-Harris.”

MAGA Republicans know their agenda is unpopular, and they are working to seize power through voter suppression, violence, gerrymandering, and packing the legal system. But there are signs a bipartisan defense of democracy may be gathering strength.  









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Could Trump Turn the Bronx Red? Olivia Reingold




Former president Donald Trump greets supporters at his rally in the Bronx’s Crotona Park on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Jabin Botsford via Getty Images)

In an overgrown field in the Bronx, a borough that has not voted red in a presidential election since 1924, Orthodox Jews, fraternity brothers, George Santos, Dominican immigrants, off-duty firefighters, and thousands of others are craning their necks for a view of Donald J. Trump. 

“Thank you, thank you,” Trump mouths to the crowd over the tune of “God Bless the USA.” 

He strides up to the podium, in a breeze that rattles the American flags behind him but is no match for his frozen blond quiff. Thousands of hands spring into the air, pumping rhythmically to chants of “U! S! A!”

“Hello, New York City, and hello to all the incredible tough, strong, hardworking American patriots right here in the Bronx,” roars the former president. “Who would think—who would think?”

Who would think, indeed. Not Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, who for the past five weeks has been trying to pin a felony conviction on Trump involving hush money he allegedly gave to a porn star. Two days earlier, Trump had shuffled out of the courtroom, quiet except for a quick interview where he told reporters, “Remember. . . I’m not allowed to say what I’d really like to say,” referring to the gag order barring him from publicly commenting on the case. 

“Hello, New York City, and hello to all the incredible tough, strong, hardworking American patriots right here in the Bronx,” roared the former president. “Who would think—who would think?” (Jim Watson via Getty Images)

But now, in front of a sea of at least 8,000 in Crotona Park, the prospect of becoming a convicted felon seems far from Trump’s mind. “We are going to turn New York City around, and we are going to turn it around very, very quickly!” he proclaims to cheers from the crowd.

Though New Yorkers are famously Democratic, more of them seem to be warming to Trump’s America First message. Perhaps it’s the rising crime, or the migrants who are increasingly begging in the streets, or the fact that it now takes a family of four at least $318,000 a year to live here. Whatever it is, according to a Siena College poll this month, Joe Biden has lost 20 points in New York City, compared to his 2020 victory when he won 76 percent of the vote in Trump’s hometown. Meanwhile, Trump is up seven points, with Biden’s lead cut to single digits in the 2024 race for president.

One New Yorker who needed no convincing is John Wang, a 44-year-old acupuncturist born in China who became a U.S. citizen in 2011 and has already voted for Trump twice. He says people like him—Trump voters—are the “silent majority.” He brought along his 7-year-old son, who played in the grass with a fake million-dollar bill bearing the face of the billionaire from Queens.

“I’m from communism, I know how bad it is,” says John Wang, a 44-year-old acupuncturist born in China who became a U.S. citizen in 2011. “Now I feel like here is getting like China.” (Photo by Olivia Reingold for The Free Press)

“He was born in Manhattan,” says Wang of his son, who can name every single American president throughout history, in order. “Then we moved to Queens, and by the time I had my third child, we moved to Long Island ’cause you can’t live in the city anymore—it’s too dangerous.”

Wang says he was sick of worrying about getting pushed onto the subway tracks, which is exactly how one New Yorker died in March, allegedly shoved by a perpetrator with a violent past who was out on bail. Wang, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in order to become a citizen, tells me he was drawn to the U.S. because it would allow him to openly practice his Christian faith. Now, he’s troubled by the media, which “tells people Donald Trump is a dictator,” and by the anti-Israel mobs who cover their faces and “don’t know what they’re screaming for.”

“I’m from communism, I know how bad it is,” says Wang, wearing a bright red MAGA hat and work boots stamped with the Stars and Stripes. “Now I feel like here is getting like China.”

Top Democrats thought this wouldn’t happen on their turf. The morning of the rally, Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents the portion of the South Bronx that includes Crotona Park, told an MSNBC panel that he’s “confident that the people of the Bronx are not going to buy the snake oil he’s selling.” U.S. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also told a local affiliate that Trump could not “trick” Bronx residents into supporting him. “It is truly an embarrassment to him, and I am looking forward to the response of everyday Bronxites talking about how they feel about him coming to their backyard,” said the congresswoman, whose district is east of the park.

But the people of the Bronx—and New Jersey, and Queens, and Long Island, and upstate New York, many of whom traveled miles to come see the former president whip the crowd into a frenzy—told me otherwise. 

Adam Solis, a 33-year-old who’s half-Dominican and half–Puerto Rican, says AOC does not represent even “one percent” of the values of the Bronx, where he’s lived his entire life. 

“A lot of the morals and the traditions that come out of the Bronx have always been right-leaning and conservative,” he says, his two diamond earrings glistening in the sun. “We all believe in God here in the Bronx, we believe in tradition, we believe in family values, the nuclear family—these are all pillars of our existence.”

Trump supporters in the Bronx chant “U! S! A!” (Spencer Platt via Getty Images)

I hear members of the crowd murmuring in multiple languages—Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, and possibly Portuguese. “Ay, dios mío,” gasps one middle-aged woman, her enormous false eyelashes peeking from beneath the brim of a MAGA hat. Deeper into the crowd, a twentysomething woman perches on a man’s shoulders as if at a music festival, calling out in ecstasy: “Weeee love yooooou, Trump.” When Trump mentions New York, a redheaded boy cups his hands around his red cheeks to scream, “Yeah Trump, turn it red!”

While most other rallygoers are screaming at the top of their lungs, Samuel Heath-Quashie is less starstruck. Still, come November, the black 19-year-old student at Bergen Community College in New Jersey tells me he plans to cast his first-ever vote for Trump.

“It’s not like I look up to him like he’s my god,” the teen shrugs. “He’s a man—he does things I don’t agree with. But so does Biden, and at the end of the day, I want someone who’s going to help the American people.” 

One day, he says, he hopes to move out of his parents’ home in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, but inflation has tanked those dreams. When I ask him if he’s found any apartments he’d be able to afford, he says, “Yeah—they’re not good. They have mold and they have bugs.” He pauses, grimacing. “And I don’t like mold or bugs.” 

“A lot of the morals and the traditions that come out of the Bronx have always been right-leaning and conservative,” said Adam Solis, 33. (Selcuk Acar via Getty Images)

Across the lawn, I find Mika Kol wandering around, asking if anyone has a lighter she can borrow. She’s wearing micro jeans shorts and a hat bearing the legend “I <3 Jesus,” and I assume she’s a Fashion Institute of Technology student. Close: she tells me she’s an online seller of vintage designer clothes under the alias “trustfundgoth.”

“I voted for Biden last time because I thought it would make my mom happy, and she pays my bills,” shrugs Kol, 25, who tells me she is a Jew of Iraqi heritage born in Texas. 

She said she started having second thoughts during the summer of 2020, when other fashion sellers pressured her to give ten percent of her profits to Black Lives Matter, which she calls “Fraud, Inc.” “All that social pressure made me feel like, you know what, I can’t stand woke people. They’re just holding the left hostage.”

And then she realized: “I could say whatever I want around conservative people, and they’ll just be happy that I’m there.”

When I exit the park, I happen upon dozens of police officers in riot gear. Young men and women—draped in keffiyehs and many in N95 masks—are standing behind them on a giant rock, shaking a sign that says, “Fuck Trump / Fuck Biden / The people of the Bronx / We run this shit.”

Anti-Trump protesters gather outside the rally. “It’s just wasteful energy,” said Youssef Naim, 24, of the demonstrators. “Trump is going to win, for sure.” (Stephanie Keith via Getty Images)

“They don’t give a fuck about you,” the protesters chant at the Trump crowd, clapping between words. 

I ask a young man, standing next to me, dressed all in black, what he thinks of the scene. 

“It’s just wasteful energy,” says the man, who introduced himself as Youssef Naim, 24. He said no matter how loud the protesters chant, “Trump is going to win, for sure.”

“And that’s not me saying that’s because he’s a better person—that’s because of a multitude of things,” says Naim, an art teacher who adds that he’s nonetheless leaning toward voting for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

But he has no trouble explaining Trump’s appeal: “A lot of people had this experience that they did better when Trump was in office, paired with Biden shitting himself and having dementia.” 

I ask him if the protesters, who are now marching toward the subway, see what he sees, that the former president could actually become the sitting president once again. 

“Half of them probably don’t. The other half are here because their friends are here, and then a select few just don’t want to admit it.”

Olivia Reingold is a field reporter at The Free Press. Follow her on X @Olivia_Reingold and read her piece “They’re Black Democrats. And They’re Suing Chicago Over Migrants.” 

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What If Raising Awareness Doesn’t Help? Suzy Weiss




“I was walking up the terminal in Newark airport early in the morning recently when I walked past a gate that had been festooned with mylar balloons spelling out ‘Autism Awareness.’” (Image via X, illustration by The Free Press)

Mark your calendars, because July is Fibroid Awareness Month. Maybe you already celebrated National Fibroid Awareness Week—yes, there is both a month and a week—which starts in mid-April and, little-known fact, overlaps with National Infertility Awareness Week. In April, we’re also meant to have awareness for foot health, stress, irritable bowel syndrome, congenital diaphragmatic hernias, STIs, Parkinson’s, limb loss, and frogs

It’s easy to dismiss these holidays as marketing ploys, or the purview of bloated HR departments in search of new excuses to send emails. But look closely and you’ll notice that the mission of Raising Awareness, along with its cousin, Ending Stigma—we often Raise Awareness to End Stigma—has carved into our popular culture a huge place for itself. 

Still, there are a lot of emails. 

A search of my inbox surfaces calls to raise awareness for mental health (which gets its own month, May), veterans’ experiences, guns, epilepsy, and antisemitism.

To raise awareness for domestic violence, a building in downtown Pittsburgh was lit with purple lights. A bakery I like encouraged me to buy pink macarons for breast cancer awareness. I was walking up the terminal in Newark airport early in the morning recently when I walked past a gate that had been festooned with Mylar balloons spelling out “Autism Awareness.” It was 6 a.m. The gate was empty. Travelers, autistic and not, had presumably shoved off to their destination. 

“Tourette awareness” is something I’ve learned about thanks to Baylen Dupree, a TikToker I follow along with 9 million other people, who posts videos of her involuntary tics. I’m not picking on Dupree: she’s just one voice in a massive chorus of chronic illness sufferers who display their symptoms—this part is often referred to as a “journey”—to the world on social media. The goal—say it with me now—is to raise awareness for their conditions. 

Awareness is a big tent. Under awareness goes anything wacky, intimate, perverse, or otherwise eye-catching that allows you to accrue followers who you can then sell things to. A running influencer who spreads awareness about chronic illness, specifically Epstein-Barr, swears by Better Nature Tempeh. Brittney Mahomes hawks Auvi-Q, an EpiPen approved for toddlers, while raising awareness about food allergies. “Disabled Eliza” uses a duster made by Flash

It’s not a coincidence that the most shocking conditions get the most eyeballs. Perhaps we tell ourselves it’s “consciousness-raising” or “bringing visibility to an issue” or “using our influence,” but let’s be real: it’s voyeurism with a built-in pardon. Being authentic, finding community, and ending stigmas are, on the surface, good things. The internet is for everyone—no one should be judged, much less punished for, things they can’t control, whether it’s a rare blood disorder or a deformity or a disability. People can and do share whatever they want online, but it’s worth noting when authenticity demands intimate details for twisted incentives.

I am not proud to report that I was recently served up a video on Instagram Reels of a cute girl named Hannah. Hannah is an 8-year-old who suffers from a new-ish eating disorder—it was introduced to the DSM in 2013—called AFRID, or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. She is a clinically picky eater whose “safe foods” include Goldfish crackers and string cheese and whose “fear foods” include guacamole, spaghetti, applesauce, and cucumbers. The video showed Hannah trying mashed potatoes for the first time. She said the bowl of food made her “uneasy” before spooning three incredibly tiny bites into her mouth, which made her gag and nearly cry. 

A YouTube video explaining Hannah’s journey to a diagnosis—which includes her mother sharing her height and weight—is festooned with hashtags including #arfidawareness, #eatingdisorderawareness, #autismawareness, #mentalhealthawareness, and, at the end, simply #awareness. 

I watched a few more short videos—she tried a plum, orange Jell-O—before I stopped myself: Why in the world am I watching a child that I don’t know struggle through eating a honeydew? Why is anyone watching this? 

The comments included notes from cheering teens, nosy moms, judgy nutritionists, and perverted men. There are hundreds of comments. Hannah isn’t a niche internet oddity. She has 1.4 million followers. She went on Good Morning America, where she told the host, “Whenever I try food I think about all the people that I’m helping.” She added, “It motivates me.” But becoming well should be its own reward, something judged by parents and doctors and therapists.

ARFID is not well known, so until the proper research can be done and more resources cultivated, the segment laments, “Hannah is doing what she can: raising awareness.”

Awareness hasn’t always been an excuse to gawk, or an eternally open-ended project. 

Growing up, I remember running 5Ks on Sundays for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. There were pale pink wreaths of balloons and pink bagels and many, many ribbons. There was always a woman flanked by other women on a platform announcing that some massive amount of money had been raised to put toward breast cancer research, resources, and earlier detection. They gave out pamphlets for how to self-screen for lumps. I still do examinations in the shower because of it.

But somewhere along the way, that kind of real-world awareness got surreal. 

Awareness these days doesn’t ask for much. It also doesn’t offer much. It invites you to be on your phone and just let the awareness wash over you. There used to be an ask, usually money, tied to awareness, but lately we’ve let things get loose and let awareness drift away from any end. Finding a cure for autism, diagnoses for which are booming, has become passé. The new drugs to combat obesity weren’t the result of awareness, but discovery. It’s unclear how being aware of endometriosis or limb loss or Tourette is going to help any of those people, or ourselves. We’ve let people run roughshod over our consciousness in the name of awareness. 

It’s worth asking: What are we not raising awareness for? Maybe it’s the influence of Big Pharma on our increasingly sick lives and of Big Tech on our increasingly corrupted ways of dealing with it. 

I hope fibroids and frogs and IBS get proper research funding. I hope Hannah—the little girl searching for more foods to add to her safe list—gets better. But I wonder if she is destined to join the fight for children’s internet privacy, or if one day she’ll be declared cured and allowed to retire the Instagram page and fade away into normalcy, or if she’ll keep on trying to find new safe foods, in front of her followers, forever.

Suzy Weiss is a reporter at The Free Press. Read her piece, “Hurkle-Durkle Is the New Way to Self-Care Ourselves to Death,” and follow her on X @SnoozyWeiss.

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