For Black Families in Phoenix, Child Welfare Investigations Are a Constant Threat

by Eli Hager and Agnel Philip, ProPublica, and Hannah Rappleye, NBC News, photography by Stephanie Mei-Ling, special to ProPublica and NBC News

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: Overpolicing Parents

How America’s CPS dragnet ensnares poor families of color

PHOENIX — In 2015, Nydea Richards decided to move her family to the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area, in search of lower crime and better weather than in her hometown of Milwaukee. She was pregnant at the time.

Before arriving here, Richards, like most Americans, never thought of child protective services as having a major presence in people’s lives, unless they’ve committed some sort of clear-cut child abuse. As a Black mother, she was more concerned about her kids encountering the police someday.

But within months, she found herself being investigated by the Arizona Department of Child Safety — based on the initial result of a drug test administered to her newborn daughter at the hospital, according to DCS case records she shared with ProPublica and NBC News.

It is not hospital policy to test for drugs after all births, but staff told her that she and her child were being screened because she was from out of town, she said. Richards, who tested negative for substances herself, believes the reason was the color of her skin.

DCS then prohibited her from being alone with her baby for five days while a caseworker interrogated her about her marital status, whether she received food stamps and how she usually handles stress, the records show. The investigator also inspected her other six children’s bodies and questioned them for hours about their chores, their meals, their mom’s employment and more.

Then, the department learned that there had been a false positive on the test and deemed the case unfounded, according to the records.

“They never explained or apologized,” Richards said.

Just months later, Richards, a case manager for a behavioral health care company, was investigated again, when she sought medical care after her daughter fell off a couch. That allegation of child maltreatment, too, was unfounded, according to a DCS spokesperson.

The department declined to comment further on the two cases.

Richards now feels intense dread when any of her children have even a minor injury or come down sick, fearing that DCS will show up again if she takes them to the doctor.

And in the years since her own experiences with Arizona’s child welfare system, she said, two of her family members in Phoenix, as well as a neighbor and a client at her job, have also endured these investigations of their parenting. All of them are Black.

From 2015 to 2019, the last full year of federal child welfare statistics available before the pandemic, DCS investigated the family lives of 1 of every 3 Black children in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county and home to Phoenix, according to an analysis by ProPublica and NBC News of data obtained from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Last year, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences used similar data to project that by the time Black children in Maricopa County turn 18, there’s a 63% chance that they will see their parents investigated by child services, the highest rate of any of the 20 largest counties in the nation.

Put another way, more Black children in metro Phoenix will go through a child maltreatment investigation than won’t.

That’s significantly more likely than a Black teen being stopped by the police — an issue that has gained far more attention in recent years — according to multiple studies and interviews with criminal justice data experts.

Over the past year, ProPublica and NBC News have interviewed more than 30 Black parents across the Phoenix region who’ve faced a child welfare case, as well as several of their children and an additional nine teenagers who experienced DCS investigations.

Some of the parents were working single dads or moms, like Richards, many of them living in the historically Black neighborhood of South Phoenix. Some were middle-class couples in the cactus-lined gated communities that dot suburbs like Mesa and Glendale. Some were adoptive parents, or extended family members caring for a child.

Almost all described a system so omnipresent among Black families that it has created a kind of communitywide dread: of that next knock on the door, of that next warrantless search of their home. And many expressed disbelief that it was so easy for the state government to enter their family realm and potentially remove their kids from them.

Black families and their advocates said DCS’ ubiquity does not just take the form of unnecessary investigations in which racial bias may have played a role, as Richards believed happened in her case. It’s also a product, in some cases, of public policy choices in Arizona that take a punitive rather than preventative approach toward Black parents, many of whom are struggling under the legacy of racism, a lack of inherited wealth and a slashed social safety net.

The state — the last in the nation to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday, in 1992 — spends a majority of its welfare budget on DCS investigations rather than on direct assistance to families in need, as ProPublica reported last year.

These priorities are borne out in the data.

Only 2% of children in Maricopa County whose families were accused of child maltreatment from 2015 to 2019 were ultimately determined or suspected by caseworkers to be victims of any form of physical or sexual abuse following an investigation, one of the lowest rates among large counties in the U.S.

But 15% allegedly experienced neglect, a term encompassing parenting problems typically associated with poverty, including a lack of decent housing, child care, food, clothing, medical care or mental health treatment. The category also includes alcohol and drug use, which numerous studies have found are more policed but no more common among Black or low-income people than other groups.

Roughly 20% of Black people in Maricopa County are living below the poverty line, compared to about 13% of all county residents, though having money should not be thought of as a requirement for good parenting, family advocates said.

In an interview, the director of DCS, Mike Faust, said the data used for this article is based on a stretch of time, 2015 through 2019, that began with a caseload crisis for the department. Over that period, he said, the agency made sweeping changes, including improving its intake and risk assessment tools in order to reduce subjective decision-making and unnecessary investigations.

“We’ve gone from what I think most people would describe as the worst-performing child protection agency in the country to one that — I don’t know if you’ll ever have a high-performer child protection agency, given the nature of the work we do — but it’s drastically different,” said Faust, who is white and has led the agency since 2019.

Yet the most recent available federal data through September 2020 shows that while it is true that DCS has reduced the overall number of families it looks into statewide, the decline did not improve — and in fact worsened — the racial disparity.

Although 7,400 fewer white children were the subject of investigations completed from the 2016 to 2020 fiscal years, the number of Black kids whose parents were investigated dropped by less than 100. (Some children did not have a race identified.)

“It didn’t have an immediate impact on just African American children,” Faust acknowledged. “The commitment that I make is to continue to stay engaged as an organization. And trust me, these are some challenging conversations to be in. It’s been difficult. But you’ve got to keep coming back to the table regardless of, at times, that people share that raw emotion.”

Faust, a conservative Republican with a private-sector background, may be out of a job by next spring. The election last month of Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, as Arizona governor likely means that DCS will have a new leader and possibly a new approach to racial disproportionality in the coming years.

In a statement, Joe Wolf, a spokesperson for Hobbs’ transition, pointed out that her career has included stints working with homeless youth and helping to run one of the largest domestic violence shelters in the country, giving her perspective on what affects Arizona’s most vulnerable. Wolf also said that as the governor-elect prepares to take office, her team is developing plans to improve the way the state provides social services, including “addressing the racial disparities that have plagued the system for so long.”

Still, Black community leaders in Phoenix continue to have concerns, saying that it has been challenging to effectively advocate for reforms across both Republican and Democratic administrations.

For one thing, the metro area’s Black community — just 7% of its population — is sparse and spread out compared to that of similarly large U.S. cities. That makes it hard to organize around this common experience to make DCS a pressing political issue and hold its officials accountable.

What’s more, sharing that you were investigated by child services remains more stigmatizing in many families than saying you’ve been stopped by the police.

As a result, some local leaders said it took them a while to realize just how pervasive DCS’ presence is.

Janelle Wood, founder and president/CEO of Phoenix’s Black Mothers Forum, said that when she started her community organization in 2016, she thought its members would mainly be focused on police violence and the criminalization of Black youth, which they have been to an extent. “But what kept coming up at meetings was DCS,” she said, noting that the confidentiality of the gatherings allowed for these conversations. “The most heart-wrenching stories — so many mothers had them.”

Kenneth Smith, principal of a Phoenix alternative high school and a community organizer who works with the local chapter of the NAACP and a group of nonprofits in the city, said he doesn’t usually talk about this issue openly due to the stigma, even though he knows of several people who’ve had DCS cases.

The statistics identified by ProPublica and NBC News, he said, are “like turning on the lights, and all of us are now standing in the room together saying, ‘What? You too?’”

“It Becomes a Generational Curse”

This year, ProPublica and NBC News have been investigatingchild welfare in the U.S.

What reporters have found is that child protective services agencies investigate the home lives of roughly 3.5 million American children each year, opening refrigerators and closets and searching kids’ bodies in almost every case. Yet they determine there was physical or sexual abuse in only about 5% of these investigations.

And while Phoenix is an outlier, the racial disproportionality of this system is a national problem.

Matthew Stewart, the son of the longtime senior pastor of Phoenix’s most prominent Black church, First Institutional Baptist, joined DCS as a case manager in 2009. He did so in part because he had an interest in social justice and youth mentorship from his upbringing.

But in 2018, Stewart, by then a training supervisor, came across an internal agency spreadsheet showing a large racial disparity in Arizona’s foster care population, which mainly consists of children removed from their families following investigations. He hadn’t fully absorbed the problem until then.

He was flooded with shame.

Stewart quit two years later, after deciding he couldn’t achieve meaningful change from within the department. He has since founded a community organization, Our Sister Our Brother, which advocates helping families rather than separating them.

Generational poverty and the resulting trauma within families have been “centuries in the making,” he said. Are parents supposed to believe that after DCS takes custody of their children, “these things will be solved?”

“I simply don’t think DCS is the agency to do this,” he said.

One of the parents whom Stewart has partnered with is Tyra Smith, of nearby Mesa, who now works for his growing group as a parent advocate.

In 2020, Smith left her four sons (triplets who were 7 as well as a 4-year-old) in her apartment for roughly 20 minutes, according to a case report. She said she was going for a walk to calm down after a heated argument by phone with her sister, who then called the police on her.

While she was away, a police officer arrived and called DCS because she wasn’t there. Responding to her alleged lack of supervision and her growing anger about the ensuing encounter, the department removed all of her boys that night, agency records show.

As often happens in the child protection system, this temporary removal led to a broader DCS inquiry into Smith’s mental health history, her troubled relationship with her ex, her marijuana use (which is legal in Arizona) and the tidiness of her home, records show. Based on these concerns, the department kept custody of the boys for a year and a half before returning them.

Smith said that when she was growing up, her own mother underwent such an investigation, and that several of her friends from school, all Black, have since endured one as new parents.

Now, she worries about her sons getting arrested or shot when they are older; when that happens to Black men, she pointed out, the news reports often say, “Oh, their childhood, they were ‘in the system.’”

“It becomes a generational curse,” Smith said.

ProPublica and NBC News presented DCS spokesperson Darren DaRonco with the names and anecdotes of the families described in this article, and he checked with agency leadership and case records and said that all of them were indeed investigated and that there was nothing inaccurate in their recounting of events. Arizona law, he noted, would allow him to clarify or correct anything that is factually wrong.

In interviews, Katherine Guffey, executive consultant to DCS’ director, pointed to additional steps that their team has taken to address the disproportionality issue, especially since the racial justice movement following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

The department, said Guffey, who is white, has been incorporating the feedback of Black employees who formed a disparity committee, including Stewart before he left, helping them to write a charter and create an action plan. Staff have also taken part in a workshop on the systemic causes of racial inequity, as well as an empathy training developed by Arizona State University professors.

Earlier this year, DCS helped convene a confidential two-hour focus group of a dozen Black people to hear how the department’s frequent involvement with families has affected them. The child welfare consulting firm Casey Family Programs has been brought in to hold continuing discussions.

And the agency plans to start a Cultural Brokers program to ensure that a trusted community member of the same race is present upon parents’ contact with caseworkers.

Critics say that while these are positive moves, no proposals have been made that would rein in the fundamental power of this agency, which has a billion-dollar budget, to remove children from their loved ones.

As Stewart put it, “We have a culture that says Black families need to be watched and if we don’t agree with the things that are going on with them, we are the saviors of these children and are charged with punishing their parents.”

Until that fundamental outlook of the child welfare system changes, he said, some of the well-intended steps being taken may amount to just restating or even perpetuating the problem.

Is This Just Arizona?

Arizona was a Confederate territory, whose early leaders had business ties to and a sense of common cause with the slave states of the Deep South. Its first major wave of Black residents were largely recruited to the Phoenix area from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma starting in the 1910s and ’20s, to work in cotton camps.

These families were soon forced to live in South Phoenix via redlining and racial covenants, which blocked them from renting or owning property anywhere else.

Yet despite the injustice of residential segregation, said Rod Grimes, a scholar of Arizona Black history, it did create a sense of Black density in a town that still had few Black people. Once families were able to move, many heading to the suburbs, he said, some of that strength in numbers fell away.

Today, Black residents of metro Phoenix are geographically and therefore politically diffuse. Without either the powerful voting blocs that exist in some parts of the South or the sense of protection of living in a majority-Black urban neighborhood elsewhere, they are more likely to be surrounded by white neighbors, teachers and health care workers whom they fear could call DCS on them, many said in interviews. They are also less likely to have the legislative representation that could conduct oversight of the department or fight for better social services to help prevent child welfare cases.

Even after the November election, Arizona has just two Black state legislators out of 90 — the same number as in 1950.

The result, said Clottee Hammons, an Arizona history expert and the creative director of Emancipation Arts, is a business-oriented white leadership class whom she and other Black Arizonans feel cannot relate to what it is like to raise a Black child, let alone on a low income.

Due to this experiential gap in the halls of power, critics say, the state Legislature rarely addresses concerns specific to Black families, instead focusing on topics of interest to many white voters, like school choice and border security.

Nor have lawmakers created a well-funded, easily accessible statewide system that parents living in poverty (as well as mandated reporters of child neglect, like teachers) can call to get help. Many other states have invested heavily in such services, but in Arizona the main option is to call DCS, which comes with the possibility of family separation attached.

In a statement, DaRonco, the department spokesperson, said of the parents and community members making this criticism, “We share their desire to reduce DCS presence in their homes by creating access to community-based supports that get them what they need without the stress of a DCS encounter.”

Once DCS is involved, the emphasis is on child safety and possibly child removal rather than addressing problems at their root, as reflected in the agency’s funding structure. In fiscal year 2022, the department spent roughly $90 million on group homes and other congregate facilities for foster youth, $99 million on foster care and $278 million on adoptions, compared to just $15 million on prevention efforts and $29 million on in-home services for families themselves.

DaRonco noted that top-line decisions about how DCS spends its funding are made by the Legislature, not the department. He added that the budget includes additional subsidies for parenting programs and substance use treatment, which can lead to family reunification.

Much of the foster care and adoption money comes from the federal government in the form of annual incentives.

“I’m just telling you, people in the community feel like their babies are being sold and trafficked — that’s how easy it feels, and how profitable,” said Roy Dawson, executive director of the nonprofit Arizona Center for African American Resources and a leading Phoenix advocate for racial equity in the child welfare system.

Dawson also said that all the well-meaning foster care nonprofits in Arizona, which exist in part because there is so much funding available for foster care in the state, help perpetuate the system’s vast size and reach.

It’s unclear whether the election of Hobbs as governor will translate into a realignment of budget priorities at DCS, let alone a shift in the anti-poverty agenda at the Legislature, where Republicans continue to hold a majority.

Many families and experts were also skeptical about the possibility of change because of the agency’s long history of claiming to address its problems with race without making much progress.

In 1995, the Arizona Republic published a story about child protective services with the sub-headline, “Blacks are overrepresented in Arizona’s system, study says.” The article went on to say, “Officials haven’t been able to find out why Arizona’s figures are 2.5 times the national average” and that “the state has formed a task force to examine why Blacks are having difficulty.”

In 2008, Arizona reported to the federal government that it was developing an “Eliminating Racial Disproportionality and Disparity” strategy for its child welfare system, which would include technical assistance to evaluate Maricopa County’s data on race as well as a focus group and a training video.

And in a 2014 DCS report, the agency said it was partnering with local churches as part of a racial “Gap Closing Collaborative.”

“I can say with certainty that many DCS and previous CPS administrations have seen this information and been aware of it,” Guffey acknowledged, referring to the former name of the department.

Dana Burns, a mom, musician and founder of the child welfare advocacy organization A Permanent Voice Foundation in South Phoenix, says that DCS’ pervasiveness in the community feels of a piece with a larger anti-Black attitude that she and other parents face in this state, from officials and neighbors alike.

“It’s Arizona,” she said. “It’s an attitude that we were never supposed to be here.”

A White Idea of Family

For many of the Black families who spoke with ProPublica and NBC News, their first interaction with DCS was when an unfamiliar caseworker arrived at their door.

Department data show that its frontline staff are most often white and disproportionately in their 20s, which reflects national trends. Many said in interviews that this was their first or second job out of college, and a large proportion do not have children themselves. Turnover at the agency has also been notoriously high, further lowering the average experience level.

As a result, the typical scenario is a white person with little or no parenting experience entering a Black home and having minimal time, by the nature of the job, to make a judgment as to whether what is going on there is dangerous for kids.

“It felt like we were on display, like they had a white glove on checking everything. And I had to smile and say good morning,” said Tressie King, who lives with her husband Jamel and their 13-year-old adoptive son in the suburb of Chandler. (King was accused of briefly leaving her child, who is autistic, unattended in her car while she ran in to a store, an allegation that case documents show was ruled unfounded but only after several inspections of their home.)

“It felt like they were checking me out, not my child,” she said. “I said if I am being made to feel ashamed, how is that good for the kid?”

Many Black parents also said that if they get combative, precisely because the most precious thing in their life may be about to be taken from them, their anger is too often interpreted as a potential threat.

Sarah Encarnacion, a DCS child safety specialist from 2019 to 2021, said her goal was always to keep families together and for them to feel she was a trusted presence. But she acknowledged that as “a small, petite white woman,” she was “responsible for preparing and educating myself on how to enter this home where I’m such a foreign entity.”

DaRonco, the spokesperson, said that DCS has several initiatives to “change the power dynamic” between its staff and the families they work with. These include holding “team decision making” meetings near the beginning of an investigation, so that parents — and any friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy or others they want with them in the room — can have more of a say in the process.

There are also differences in cultural attitudes toward corporal punishment, which is more common on average in Black families. Many Black parents and children interviewed for this article distinguished between what they called a whooping and abuse, with some parents saying they would rather spank a child, which is legal in Arizona, than risk the child getting out of line and experiencing something far worse at the hands of a police officer.

“Nine times out of 10, parents raise their kids how their parents raised them,” said Richards, the Phoenix mother accused at the hospital, who has since become an advocate around the child welfare issue. “If the state is not agreeing with that way of raising kids, the solution is just to take the children every time? Every generation?”

Richards and many others said DCS’ prevalence can eventually cause insidious damage to relationships between Black parents and their children, who sometimes threaten to call DCS on each other when they’re in normal family disputes.

“That’s messed up,” she said, but the agency has become “so much a part of our lives that it’s a real thing to say.”

In part because of her struggles with the child welfare system, Richards said that she and her family are planning to relocate again, likely leaving Arizona next year.

Stephan Muhammad, a chef who lives in a suburban development in South Phoenix, agrees that no matter what DCS is now doing to address racial disproportionality, its harms linger in Black families like his.

Muhammad had his children taken from him by the department twice; they were placed in foster care, including group homes where they say they experienced repeated violence, for about two years in each case. The first time was based on a neglect allegation that he left his four youngest at home while he picked up his oldest daughter at kindergarten just across a nearby park. The second was for spanking his son, who was nearly 9 at the time, for getting in trouble at school — which the agency said was child abuse, according to Muhammad, his family members and reporting by the Arizona Republic.

In both cases, a judge ultimately returned them home.

“I missed years of my childhood,” said one of his daughters, Sierra, 12, who was separated from her siblings while in state custody. “If I could talk to the head of DCS, I would say don’t take my father from me ever again.”

In an interview at Muhammad’s house, in front of a wall-sized calendar on which one of his children had written in the square of his birthday, “aka Big Head Day,” he said that he obviously has been overjoyed to have them all back. Still, he said he feels a trepidation that thousands of Black parents across Phoenix must be coping with every day: Is he in fact a bad parent?

“It’s impossible not to internalize,” he said. “It’s an attack on who you are as a parent in every way.”

The [Tech Bro CEO] Strikes Back

What Elon Musk is doing to Twitter right now is what happens when someone with the same ideology and worldview as James Damore has enough power and money to be in charge of a company instead of just a worker. When I first wrote about Damore a little over 5 years ago, I wrote about the ways in which the ideas in his muddled, poorly-written manifesto were easily disproven. Subsequent years have demonstrated that Damore’s worldview has plenty of representation not merely within the rank-and-file of tech companies, but at the very top as well. While Damore did not use this term in his manifesto, with today’s perspective it’s clearly recognizable as an a long accusation about the ways in which the Google in 2017 was too “woke”. His manifesto is still available online, along with much of the criticism of it, but for the purposes of this piece I will summarize the tech bro worldview this way:

  • The status quo composition of our companies, with its relative lack of women, black people, brown people, etc is the “natural order” of things
  • Diversity initiatives require a “lowering of standards” and are therefore not meritocratic 

The tech bro worldview bears enough similarities to the worldview of those who lead businesses outside of tech, hold political office, lead certain of our religious institutions, and those who populate newsrooms and shape popular opinion that Damore’s manifesto even found a defender on the opinion page of the New York Times. Despite Brooks’ call for Google CEO Sundar Pichai to resign, the National Labor Relations Board found the company acted lawfully in terminating Damore’s employment for violating the company’s code of conduct (an unsurprising outcome in my view, given the way at-will employment works).

There is plenty of evidence to debunk both the “natural order” and “lowering of standards” assertions (to say nothing of the idea of meritocracy itself). Nor can the timing of this particular conflict realistically be separated from what was happening in our politics at the time. But let us proceed to another example of how these false assertions nevertheless shape the thinking and actions not just of rank-and-file tech bros, but of those who typically lead them.

Fast-forward to April 2021, and I’ve been asked to be a co-panelist for a discussion on the intersection of race and technology. This discussion occurred just a day after Jane Yang (a now former employee of Basecamp) wrote an open letter to the founders while on medical leave. Yang was responding to the decision of the CEO (Jason Fried) to ban “societal and political discussions” from the company’s internal chat forums. Yang’s letter painted a picture of Basecamp’s leaders that looked very familiar to me from my own experience with similar people in the industry. The letter is well-worth reading in full, but here is paragraph that makes it clear Basecamp’s leaders were no different than those at other companies they’d criticized for years:


“But there were also some yellow flags. Whiffs of smoke that I was starting to pick up on. Your disproportionate, chilling response to a retrospective that you asked for. The whispers of how you had handled a prior company discussion when someone raised the able-ist language in the title of a recently published company book. The continued mourning years later of an executive who had centered the employees as her job, and then was summarily fired for not living up to the additional expectations of working miracles in marketing. The quiet departures of women and people of color, all of whom held their heads up high and left a better place behind than they found it.”

from Jane Yang’s open letter to Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Fried and Hansson also announced the end of committees (including a committee for diversity, equity, and inclusion) and the end of 360 reviews (among other changes). As it turned out, Fried and Hansson were dealing (quite poorly) with an internal reckoning over a long-standing company practice of maintaining a list of “funny” customer names. The founders knew about the existence of this list for years, and predictably, the names that Basecamp customer service reps found ripe for mockery included Asian and African names. Particularly because of how public and opinionated Fried and Hanson have been regarding workplace culture–to the extent of having written five books on the subject, including a New York Times bestseller–and held up their own company as an example of how to do things better, it was (and still is) quite difficult to ignore the rank hypocrisy of their choice to shut down internal discussion of a significant cultural failure that they allowed to persist for years. The company all-hands called by the co-founders to try and mitigate the blowback from their decisions instead resulted in the departure of one-third of the entire company.

Over time, marginalized groups (and some of their allies) have mastered online tools and social media and leveraged them to amplify their voices. We saw that mastery at work in the responses to Damore’s manifesto. At Basecamp, marginalized people used these tools to challenge the worldview of the company founders. Fried and Hansson’s attempt to squash the backlash by fiat failed miserably.

While Coinbase didn’t figure prominently in our panel discussion at the time, that’s one of a number of companies whose lead Basecamp was following in being “mission-focused”, and supposedly apolitical. So discovering that barely two years later, CEO Brian Armstrong has decided that politics is ok when it comes to tracking the “crypto-friendliness” of politicians prior to the recent midterm elections here in the U.S. was … interesting to say the least. People and companies advocating for cryptocurrency have been far from apolitical when it comes to targeting black and brown investors, so the same groups targeted by unscrupulous operators in the mortgage space prior to the crash of 2008 have piled into crypto in disproportionate numbers relative to other investors–and have taken disproportionate losses as cryptocurrencies have plunged in value and multiple crypto companies have gone bankrupt.

Now we’re just over a month into Twitter’s takeover by Elon Musk–a takeover entered only because he faced certain defeat in Delaware Chancery Court. Musk has fired half the staff in layoffs so haphazardly executed that he ended up trying to rehire those not correctly identified as critical. He undermined the company’s current verification scheme by pushing the launch of a feature enabling anyone to be verified by paying $8/month, only for numerous pranksters to pay the fee and impersonate numerous brands on Twitter like Eli Lilly. Musk’s ultimatum to remaining Twitter staff to be “hardcore” or be gone resulted in a wave of resignations much larger than anyone anticipated, not unlike Fried and Hansson’s attempt to mitigate the damage from their attempt to squash internal dissent. The same thin-skinned reaction to criticism displayed by Fried and Hansson has been even more on display from Elon Musk. He’s fired those who tried to correct his ill-informed assertions regarding the ways the tech behind Twitter actually works–and mocked the skills and intelligence of the people he fired after the fact. Musk blames “activists” for the precipitous drop in ad revenue instead of being accountable for his own poor decision-making.

The reaction in various quarters to Musk’s floundering incompetence as CEO of Twitter has been very telling. According to the reporting of Casey Newton and Zoe Schiffer, some tech CEOs are hoping Musk succeeds. The same Hansson who not long ago “encouraged employees to read Between the World and Me, a memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s exploration of the racist nature of mass incarceration”, is now writing tributes to Elon Musk cheering the likely end of affirmative action in higher eduction. Hansson even touts John McWhorter’s Woke Racism these days, and speaks favorably of the likes of Glenn Loury and Bill Maher. Loury and McWhorter are regularly quoted by white conservatives too cowardly to share the stereotypical views of black people they already believed anyway without a black conservative to hide behind. We’re already starting to see layoffs across tech, and as economic conditions change and COVID-19 (hopefully) recedes, these CEOs almost certainly see an opportunity to re-establish their worldview within their spheres of control without having to account for marginalized people. That desire is almost certainly behind the persistent belief in some quarters that what Elon Musk is doing is on purpose.

There is plenty of criticism that can and should be leveled at Mark Zuckerberg (particularly his continued pursuit of the failed metaverse strategy and cavalier approach to customer privacy). But when it comes to how to handle layoff news, he delivered a masterclass in how to handle layoffs professionally not long after Musk’s deliberately cruel and haphazard ones. Other tech CEOs rooting for the man who treats his employees the worst will definitely be a trend to keep an eye on as time progresses.

Tell Me About Yourself–Engineering Leader Edition

The following tweet starts an excellent thread of questions that I’m taking as a starting point for this post looking back over the past 5 years with my current company:

When was the last time you promoted someone on your team?  How did it happen? My organization works in a way that promotion decisions are actually approved (or rejected) at a much higher level than mine.  But I’ve advocated successfully for promotion for two of my direct reports, both during the pandemic.

The first was a recent college graduate who spent the 18 months of his professional career on my team.  While I wasn’t his manager for the entirety of that time, I encouraged him to work on communication across various channels (Slack, email, documentation, pull request comments, etc).  I did what I could to put opportunities in front of him to grow and showcase his skills.  What he did on his own (in addition to pursuing a master’s degree in computer science on the side) was earn AWS certifications.  He passed 4(!) in a single calendar year.  So when it came time to year-end reviews, there were a lot of accomplishments to point to as well as positive feedback from people outside our team from their experiences of working with him.  He was the first direct report I had who earned the highest possible year-end rating: exceptional, and the first promotion (to senior engineer).  He’s still with the company today, and received another promotion (to principal engineer) in the same cycle I received a promotion to senior manager.

The second promotion was for someone who had been with the company longer than I had.  From what I was told she had been submitted for promotion once or twice before but had not been selected for promotion.  She was (and is) one of those engineers who leads much more by example than by talking.  Having observed over the years that the review process tends to overindex on software engineers that present well, I became the person in meetings who consistently pushed people to consider written communication as well as presentations in judging the quality of an engineer’s communication.  I also recommended she take the technical writing courses offered by Google.  These steps, plus highlighting her numerous critical contributions to the team’s success during another year-end review cycle appear to have been enough to get her promoted to principal engineer.

Why did the last person in this role leave?  It’s been long enough that I don’t actually recall why the previous leader of the team moved on.  I presume they found an opportunity with another company.

How do you nurture psychological safety in your team?  Regular one-on-ones (I follow a weekly cadence for these) has been important to nurturing psychological safety.  Because I joined the team to lead it after work-from-home began, Zoom meetings were really the only avenue available to build the rapport necessary for my team to trust me.  I also started a technical book club with the team, with the intention of giving my team exposure to software design and implementation principles outside the scope of our current work, along with providing opportunities for each member of the team to lead discussions and explore ideas.  It seems to have had the additional benefit of building everyone’s comfort level with, and trust in, each other along with all the other things I’d intended it for (including ideas originating from book club showing up as production enhancements to our software).

When was the last time you supported a direct report’s growth, even if it meant leaving your team or company?  In my previous department, I had staffing responsibilities for two teams for awhile: one composed entirely of contractors in addition to my own team.  In helping a scrum master friend of mine diagnose the causes of the contractor team struggling to be productive, I concluded that the main issue wasn’t technical expertise but the lack of a leader to help remove impediments and connect them with others in the organization who could help their tasks move forward.  I proposed this as a leadership opportunity for one of my direct reports and got buy-in from higher-level management.  He was so successful in the stretch opportunity I created, he got promoted after leaving my team.  Not long after that, he left our organization to join Amazon as an engineering team lead in Seattle.  He’s currently a principal software engineering manager with Microsoft in Atlanta.

Can I speak to some women on the team to hear more about their experience?  Two of the engineers on my current team are women.  If all goes well, another one of them will be promoted to principal engineer by virtue of her performance over the past 18 months.  While it will likely mean losing her to another team, her getting promoted and gaining new opportunities that my team’s scope doesn’t provide is more important to me.  I see it as another opportunity to build up another engineer in her place.

2FA/MFA Revisited

Seven(!) years ago, I wrote a bit about security breaches and how two-factor authentication mitigates that risk. Today is as good a day as any to revisit the subject because of this:

The results of Elon Musk and friends turning off one of the microservices responsible for two-factor authentication for accessing your Twitter account.

In the years since I wrote that post, the availability of multi-factor authentication as an option for securing access to websites and other online systems has only grown. Face ID came out with the iPhone X and expanded to other parts of Apple’s hardware lineup, and YubiKeys have become far more prevalent in usage. The previous iteration of this blog didn’t have MFA protecting admin access, but the current one does. The websites that give me access to my brokerage account and various retirement accounts are now all protected by some form of MFA. The issue highlighted in the tweet above is specific to using SMS as the second factor for gaining access to your Twitter account. The service responsible for sending the code you type in to verify that you’re the legitimate accountholder was turned off. So for those users who only had Text message as their Two-factor authentication option, they might not have been able to get back into their account as a result.

In my case, I wasn’t impacted because I’d actually turned Text message off as a second factor in favor of two other options: Authentication app, and Security key. Authentication app options include Google Authenticator, Microsoft Authenticator, Authy, Symantec VIP, and many others. Once installed on your mobile phone, they all work in a similar way: they generate a random sequence of 6-8 numbers every 30 seconds. If you’ve set up an online account to require such a number for access, you must provide it (along with your username and password) before the 30 seconds expires to gain access. Security key eliminates the stand-alone app requirement in favor of plugging a physical key (like the Yubikey 5Ci which I use) into whatever laptop or mobile phone where you’re trying to access an account and touching it to generate a code that give you access.

MFA options in descending order of difficulty for hackers to breach:

  1. Security key
  2. Authentication app
  3. SMS

To be clear–SMS as a second factor is much better than nothing. But if you don’t also secure the account you have with your cellphone provider with MFA and/or a PIN, a determined attacker could take over your account and redirect the SMS message to a device they control. An authentication app is much more secure, but as I discovered to my chagrin when researching this post, not impenetrable. The security key option is the only one of the three that requires physical access to you (and/or your stuff) in order to steal the thing necessary to get access to your accounts. For that reason, I’ve been switching my online accounts to use the security key option wherever it’s available.

The advice from seven years ago to use a password manager still holds. 1Password remains my preferred option for this. They’ve added support for MFA to their product, which is an option worth considering for less-technical users who don’t want to use a stand-alone authentication app or a security key.

The most detailed piece on the potential consequences of not using MFA remains this Wired piece from a decade or so ago. This is the sort of thing that what I’ve shared in the previous paragraphs is intended to help more people avoid.

Your Mastodon Experience May Vary–And Not Always in a Good Way

While my own experience on Mastodon has been a positive one so far, my experience is by no means universal.  As more prominent accounts from Twitter have joined, particularly those of black folks (and especially black women) I’ve followed there for awhile, they’ve begun to share details of consistently negative experiences on Mastodon.

Her experience has been difficult enough that the Mastodon post sharing that she was taking a break from that platform linked to the tweet above.  It’s hard to imagine a more damning indictment of how a platform treats people from marginalized communities than posting that criticism on Twitter, a site that has done far less policing of slurs against black people in the wake of Elon Musk’s purchase.  Trying to summarize her thread wouldn’t do it justice, but if there is any common thread between her negative experience and that of other black people on Mastodon it is around the content warning feature (abbreviated CW as shown below).

Mastodon posting window with CW button circled in red

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s objection to the name of the feature is a function of being a rape survivor.  The other pushback I’ve seen most often is around the use of the feature for posts regarding racism.  Elon James White, who I first started following during his coverage of Ferguson in the wake of the protests of Michael Brown’s shooting death by police officer Darren Wilson, refuses to use it for discussions of racism.  Mekka Okereke, director of engineering for the Google Play online store, has a more nuanced viewpoint, which separates whether or not white people want to hear about racism from what is effectively a mislabeling of the feature.  He summarized his feelings on this as follows:

Feels very very much like “Ban teaching civil rights, so white kids don’t feel bad.”

When I did a bit of searching to try and learn more about content warnings and trigger warnings in their original context, it seems that the original scope of such terminology was limited to things that could cause someone to recall a traumatic experience they had.  My primary takeaways from one piece in particular was that broader, more casual use of the term “triggered” ended up both being conflated with people being “too sensitive” and conflating trauma with mere discomfort.  “Conflating trauma with mere discomfort” ends up being a great summation of the way far too many white people still respond to black people merely describing the racism they’ve survived.

Mastodon (and the Fediverse)’s turn in the spotlight, and the negative experiences of at least a few black people on it I follow make it a microcosm of both the best and the worst aspects of tech more broadly.  A few of the best aspects: software a young man named Eugen Rochko first started writing in 2016, has held up rather well all things considered against a significant increase in usage and attention.  It’s open source, so not only can you see how it works, you can suggest changes, or even make a copy of it and make changes yourself if you have the time and expertise.  It uses a decentralized social networking protocol that doesn’t just interoperate with other Mastodon servers, but with other social networking applications that use the same protocol.  Despite the good–which is significant–Mastodon is just as susceptible to some of the negative aspects of the for-profit tech industry it intends to be an alternative to.  The most obvious negative aspect is the gatekeeping.  Despite beginning my professional career just a few years after the founder of Mastodon was born, it would take over 15 years of that career before I would find an employer where there was more than one other person who looked like me writing software for a living.  Software engineers who are Hispanic or Latino aren’t that much less rare than black software engineers.  Today, the percentage of women in technical roles is projected to be around 25% by the end of this year.  But the history of computing predates the machines that do it today, and a much higher percentage of those literal human computers were women.  Those women who do persevere through the gatekeeping that would prevent them from entering the industry ultimately end up leaving at unfortunately high rates because of the hostility to women that still persists in too many work environments.

Tim Bray (co-author of the XML spec and contributor to numerous web standards), shared this piece as one of his first posts on Mastodon.  I have no doubt that he meant well, and that the author of the piece meant well, but when you title a piece “Home invasion” when talking about new users of a platform you’re used to, that comes across as incredibly hostile.  The same author that talks about trans and queer feminists building the tools, protocols, and culture of the fediverse makes not a single mention of people of color in his piece–not unlike the commercial tech companies in general, and Twitter in particular that are among the targets of his critique.  The entire piece is worth reading in full to understand the author’s perspective, but I will pull quote and highlight one paragraph that seems most emblematic of the blind spot that some veteran Mastodon users appear to have:

This attitude has moved with the new influx. Loudly proclaiming that content warnings are censorship, that functionality that has been deliberately unimplemented due to community safety concerns are “missing” or “broken”, and that volunteer-run servers maintaining control over who they allow and under what conditions are “exclusionary”. No consideration is given to why the norms and affordances of Mastodon and the broader fediverse exist, and whether the actor they are designed to protect against might be you. The Twitter people believe in the same fantasy of a “public square” as the person they are allegedly fleeing. Like fourteenth century Europeans, they bring the contagion with them as they flee.

To see yourself (as a new user of Mastodon and a long-time user of Twitter) be described as someone bringing contagion hits a lot differently when you’ve endured racism in real life as well as online, and when you’ve had to overcome–and are still overcoming–so many barriers in both places merely to be included, much less respected.  And were the author to be called on this huge blindspot publicly, I have no doubt that he would respond with the same sort of defensiveness that Dr. Prescod-Weinstein described, and that Timnit Gebru, another recent joiner of Mastodon has also described.

As I said at the start of this piece, my own experience with Mastodon has been a positive one so far.  Some of it is a function of having participated in online communities for decades (as far back as the Usenet newsgroups days), and even becoming a private beta tester one of the newer ones (StackOverflow.com) before it went public.  But those communities too had their gatekeepers, mansplainers, and jerks.  Certain open source projects are unfortunately no different in that regard either.  There’s something to be said for understanding the pre-existing culture of a place–even if it is virtual.  That said, the idea that culture is static–and should remain so–is a perspective that it seems some Mastodon veterans would do well to change.  Otherwise, they risk perpetuating the same harms as commercial social media–just without the financial rewards.

Exploring Mastodon Continued: Timelines and Federation

While checking out the Mastonaut desktop client for Mastodon, I came across the following diagram explaining the visibility of a toot:

The Visibility of a Toot

Still reading? I appreciate your patience. I don’t blame any of the folks who noped out of this post after seeing that diagram. It’s a consequence of the servers thing I mentioned in my previous post on exploring Mastodon. It’s one of many features that highlight who the target audience for Mastodon really is (people like me who used to write software for a living, or still do).

Even for me, the Home timeline is the only relevant one because it will display toots from people I follow–regardless of what server they’re on–toots those people boost, and your replies. The Local timeline shows toots from people on the same server where you registered whether you follow them or not. The Public or Federated timeline appears to show toots from people across all the Mastodon servers (again, whether you follow them or not). We’ll see if more time on Mastodon confirms or changes my understanding of the timelines.

Exploring Mastodon Continued: Verification

As I mentioned at the end of my first post on Mastodon, I’ve been following Martin Fowler’s notes on his own journey.  His November 1 memo on verification interested me, especially in light of Twitter’s recent update to charge $8 for the blue check mark.

As Fowler explained it, Mastodon being decentralized (unlike Twitter) means verification is up to each server.  Whoever runs it can verify members however they wish–or not at all.  The approach to verification he describes and implements is what he calls cross-association.  By adding a <link> element to the <head> of his personal website with an href attribute for his corporate Mastodon profile, Mastodon “sees” the link and marks it as verified.

I followed Fowler’s example to do the same thing with my Mastodon profile.  I updated the header.php of the WordPress theme I’m using this way:

<head>
<meta charset=”<?php bloginfo( ‘charset’ ); ?>”>
<meta name=”viewport” content=”width=device-width, initial-scale=1″>
<link rel=”profile” href=”//gmpg.org/xfn/11″>
<link rel=”me” href=”https://mastodon.cloud/@genxjamerican”>
<?php wp_head(); ?>
</head>

With that change made, my Mastodon profile now looks like this:
Mastodon profile with verified metadata for a website

This way, people who follow me on Mastodon know that I control this website as well.

Navigating the Latest Social Media Shakeup: Exploring Mastodon

In the wake of Elon Musk closing a deal to buy Twitter (after trying and failing to back out due to buyer’s remorse), the scramble to explore alternatives reminds a little bit of the very early days of social media.  I’m old enough to remember social networking sites like Friendster and Orkut, and there were plenty of others I’ve forgotten who never gained critical mass and flamed out.  I joined Twitter in 2009, and over the past 13 years it has grown to become the social media platform I find the most valuable.  Having heard people mention Mastodon in the past as an open source Twitter alternative (Trump Social even tried to use the codebase without attribution), I created an account—@genxjamerican@mastodon.cloud—to see how Mastodon compared for myself.

TL;DR

I’ve only been on Mastodon a week, but if I were to try and distill my advice of getting started into just a few points they would be:

  1. Follow @joinmastodon on Twitter first to start learning more
  2. Use a mobile app to smooth out (some) of the rough edges of the experience (including account creation)
  3. See if people you already follow on Twitter are cross-posting on Mastodon and follow them first

Signing Up

I don’t recall why I chose mastodon.cloud as the server to sign up with, but creating an account was straightforward enough.  It appears to be one of the largest Mastodon servers, along with mastodon.social, the original one operated by the German non-profit of the same name.  Using the official Mastodon mobile app, or one of the third-party apps makes the process a little slicker.  Stick with one of the largest servers unless you come across a particular server/community that really interests you.

Following People

I started by following people I know from Twitter who signed up for Mastodon and still post on Twitter.  The Fedi.Directory is where to look for interesting accounts to follow.  Their account (@FediFollows@mastodon.online) has been a good one to follow for someone like me just starting out.

Unfollowing, muting, blocking, and reporting all appear to work similarly to the way they do on Twitter (though I’ve had no need to do any of those things after so short a period of time).

Enough Lurking, Time To Post

A post (or a reply to a post) in Mastodon is called a toot, and they can be up to 500 characters long.  Sharing the post of someone you follow is called a boost.  You can favourite posts as well, though that only puts the toot in a list of your favourites (instead of sharing that fact with whoever follows you).  You can add content warnings (CWs) to your posts, so someone has to click through to see the content.

Posts can include pictures, but it doesn’t look like you can post videos. I follow @AmiW@mastdon.online and she posts pictures of street art from all over the world.

You can also send direct messages to people–if their accounts allow it.

There does not appear to be any such thing as quote-“tooting”.

What’s Next?

For me, spending more time on Mastodon exploring the features and looking for bigger and better guides to and explorations of Mastodon by others.

Martin Fowler is writing a whole series of posts on his exploration of Mastodon that I’ll be following with great interest.

Churches Are Breaking the Law by Endorsing in Elections, Experts Say. The IRS Looks the Other Way.

by Jeremy Schwartz and Jessica Priest

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Six days before a local runoff election last year in Frisco, a prosperous and growing suburb of Dallas, Brandon Burden paced the stage of KingdomLife Church. The pastor told congregants that demonic spirits were operating through members of the City Council.

Grasping his Bible with both hands, Burden said God was working through his North Texas congregation to take the country back to its Christian roots. He lamented that he lacked jurisdiction over the state Capitol, where he had gone during the 2021 Texas legislative session to lobby for conservative priorities like expanded gun rights and a ban on abortion.

“But you know what I got jurisdiction over this morning is an election coming up on Saturday,” Burden told parishioners. “I got a candidate that God wants to win. I got a mayor that God wants to unseat. God wants to undo. God wants to shift the balance of power in our city. And I have jurisdiction over that this morning.”

What Burden said that day in May 2021 was a violation of a long-standing federal law barring churches and nonprofits from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns, tax law experts told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. Although the provision was mostly uncontroversial for decades after it passed in 1954, it has become a target for both evangelical churches and former President Donald Trump, who vowed to eliminate it.

Burden’s sermon is among those at 18 churches identified by the news organizations over the past two years that appeared to violate the Johnson Amendment, a measure named after its author, former President Lyndon B. Johnson. Some pastors have gone so far as to paint candidates they oppose as demonic.

At one point, churches fretted over losing their tax-exempt status for even unintentional missteps. But the IRS has largely abdicated its enforcement responsibilities as churches have become more brazen. In fact, the number of apparent violations found by ProPublica and the Tribune, and confirmed by three nonprofit tax law experts, are greater than the total number of churches the federal agency has investigated for intervening in political campaigns over the past decade, according to records obtained by the news organizations.

In response to questions, an IRS spokesperson said that the agency “cannot comment on, neither confirm nor deny, investigations in progress, completed in the past nor contemplated.” Asked about enforcement efforts over the past decade, the IRS pointed the news organizations to annual reports that do not contain such information.

Neither Burden nor KingdomLife responded to multiple interview requests or to emailed questions.

Trump’s opposition to the law banning political activity by nonprofits “has given some politically-minded evangelical leaders a sense that the Johnson Amendment just isn’t really an issue anymore, and that they can go ahead and campaign for or against candidates or positions from the pulpit,” said David Brockman, a scholar in religion and public policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Among the violations the newsrooms identified: In January, an Alaska pastor told his congregation that he was voting for a GOP candidate who is aiming to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, saying the challenger was the “only candidate for Senate that can flat-out preach.” During a May 15 sermon, a pastor in Rocklin, California, asked voters to get behind “a Christian conservative candidate” challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom. And in July, a New Mexico pastor called Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham “beyond evil” and “demonic” for supporting abortion access. He urged congregants to “vote her behind right out of office” and challenged the media to call him out for violating the Johnson Amendment.

Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at the University of Indiana-Purdue, who studies Christian nationalism, said the ramping up of political activity by churches could further polarize the country. “It creates hurdles for a healthy, functioning, pluralistic democratic society,” he said. “It’s really hard to overcome.”

The Johnson Amendment does not prohibit churches from inviting political speakers or discussing positions that may seem partisan nor does it restrict voters from making faith-based decisions on who should represent them. But because donations to churches are tax-deductible and because churches don’t have to file financial disclosures with the IRS, without such a rule donors seeking to influence elections could go undetected, said Andrew Seidel, vice president of strategic communications for the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“If you pair the ability to wade into partisan politics with a total absence of financial oversight and transparency, you’re essentially creating super PACs that are black holes,” Seidel said.

Churches have long balanced the tightrope of political involvement, and blatant violations have previously been rare. In the 1960s, the IRS investigated complaints that some churches abused their tax-exempt status by distributing literature that was hostile to the election of John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic president. And in 2004, the federal agency audited All Saints Episcopal Church in California after a pastor gave an anti-war speech that imagined Jesus talking to presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. The pastor did not endorse a candidate but criticized the Iraq war.

Some conservative groups have argued that Black churches are more politically active than their white evangelical counterparts but are not as heavily scrutinized. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was accused of turning Sunday sermons into campaign rallies and using Black churches to raise funds. In response to allegations of illegal campaigning, Jackson said at the time that strict guidelines were followed and denied violating the law.

While some Black churches have crossed the line into political endorsements, the long legacy of political activism in these churches stands in sharp contrast to white evangelical churches, where some pastors argue devout Christians must take control of government positions, said Robert Wuthnow, the former director of the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion.

Wuthnow said long-standing voter outreach efforts inside Black churches, such as Souls to the Polls, which encourages voting on Sundays after church services, largely stay within the boundaries of the law.

“The Black church has been so keenly aware of its marginalized position,” Wuthnow said. “The Black church, historically, was the one place where Black people could mobilize, could organize, could feel that they had some power at the local level. The white evangelical church has power. It’s in office. It’s always had power.”

At the end of his two-hour sermon that May, Burden asserted that his church had a God-given power to choose lawmakers, and he asked others to join him onstage to “secure the gate over the city.”

Burden and a handful of church members crouched down and held on to a rod, at times speaking in tongues. The pastor said intruders such as the mayor, who was not up for reelection last year but who supported one of the candidates in the race for City Council, would be denied access to the gates of the city.

“Now this is bold, but I’m going to say it because I felt it from the Lord. I felt the Lord say, ‘Revoke the mayor’s keys to this gate,’” Burden said. “No more do you have the key to the city. We revoke your key this morning, Mr. Mayor.

“We shut you out of the place of power,” Burden added. “The place of authority and influence.”

Johnson Amendment’s Cold War Roots

Questions about the political involvement of tax-exempt organizations were swirling when Congress ordered an investigation in April 1952 to determine if some foundations were using their money “for un-American and subversive activities.”

Leading the probe was Rep. Gene Cox, a Georgia Democrat who had accused the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, among others, of helping alleged Communists or Communist fronts. Cox died during the investigation, and the final report cleared the foundations of wrongdoing.

But a Republican member of the committee argued for additional scrutiny, and in July 1953, Congress established the House Committee to Investigate Tax-Exempt Foundations. The committee focused heavily on liberal organizations, but it also investigated nonprofits such as the Facts Forum foundation, which was headed by Texas oilman H.L. Hunt, an ardent supporter of then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, a Republican who was best known for holding hearings to investigate suspected Communists.

In July 1954, Johnson, who was then a senator, proposed an amendment to the U.S. tax code that would strip nonprofits of their tax-exempt status for “intervening” in political campaigns. The amendment sailed through Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Johnson never explained his intent. Opponents of the amendment, as well as some academics, say Johnson was motivated by a desire to undercut conservative foundations such as the National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government, founded by newspaper magnate Frank Gannett, which painted the Democrat as soft on communism and supported his opponent in the primary election. Others have hypothesized that Johnson was hoping to head off a wider crackdown on nonprofit foundations.

Over the next 40 years, the IRS stripped a handful of religious nonprofits of their tax-exempt status. None were churches.

Then, just four days before the 1992 presidential election, Branch Ministries in New York ran two full-page ads in USA Today and The Washington Times urging voters to reject then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in his challenge to Republican President George H.W. Bush.

The ads proclaimed: “Christian Beware. Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments.” They asserted that Clinton violated scripture by supporting “abortion on demand,” homosexuality and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in public schools. Clinton, the ads said, was “openly promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws.”

The IRS revoked the church’s tax-exempt status, leading to a long legal battle that ended with a U.S. appeals court siding with the federal agency.

The case remains the only publicly known example of the IRS revoking the tax-exempt status of a church because of its political activity in nearly 70 years. The Congressional Research Service said in 2012 that a second church had lost its tax-exempt status, but that its identity “is not clear.”

Citing an increase in allegations of church political activity leading up to the 2004 presidential election between incumbent Bush and Kerry, IRS officials created the Political Activities Compliance Initiative to fast-track investigations.

Over the next four years, the committee investigated scores of churches, including 80 for endorsing candidates from the pulpit, according to IRS reports. But it did not revoke the tax-exempt status of any. Instead, the IRS mostly sent warning letters that agency officials said were effective in dissuading churches from continuing their political activity, asserting that there were no repeat offenders in that period.

In some cases, the IRS initiated audits of churches that could have led to financial penalties. It’s unclear how many did.

In January 2009, a federal court dismissed an auditinto alleged financial improprieties at a Minnesota church whose pastor had supported the congressional campaign of former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota.

The court found that the IRS had not been following its own rules for a decade because it was tasked with notifying churches of their legal rights before any pending audits and was required to have an appropriately high-level official sign off on them. But a 1998 agency reorganization had eliminated the position, leaving lower IRS employees to initiate church investigations.

Following the ruling, the IRS suspended its investigations into church political activity for five years, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report.

During the hiatus, a conservative Christian initiative called Pulpit Freedom Sunday flourished. Pastors recorded themselves endorsing candidates or giving political sermons that they believed violated the Johnson Amendment and sent them to the IRS. The goal, according to participants, was to trigger a lawsuit that would lead to the prohibition being ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The IRS never challenged participating churches, and the effort wound down without achieving its aim.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from ProPublica and the Tribune last year, the IRS produced a severely redacted spreadsheet indicating the agency had launched inquiries into 16 churches since 2011. IRS officials shielded the results of the probes, and they have declined to answer specific questions.

Despite the agency’s limited enforcement, Trump promised shortly after he took office that he would “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

As president, Trump tried unsuccessfully to remove the restrictions on church politicking through a 2017 executive order. The move was largely symbolic because it simply ordered the government not to punish churches differently than it would any other nonprofit, according to a legal filing by the Justice Department.

Eliminating the Johnson Amendment would require congressional or judicial action.

Although the IRS has not discussed its plans, it has taken procedural steps that would enable it to ramp up audits again if it chooses to.

In 2019, more than two decades after eliminating the high-level position needed to sign off on action against churches, the IRS designated the commissioner of the agency’s tax-exempt and government entities division as the “appropriate high-level Treasury official” with the power to initiate a church audit.

But Philip Hackney, a former IRS attorney and University of Pittsburgh tax law professor, said he doesn’t read too much into that. “I don’t see any reason to believe that the operation of the IRS has changed significantly.”

The Pulpit and Politics

There is no uniform way to monitor church sermons across the country. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches now post their services online, and ProPublica and the Tribune reviewed dozens of them. Many readers shared sermons with us. (You can do so here.)

Texas’ large evangelical population and history of activism in Black churches makes the state a focal point for debates over political activity, said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Combine all of that with the increasing competitiveness of Texas elections, and it’s no surprise that more and more Texas churches are taking on a political role,” he said. “Texas is a perfect arena for widespread, religiously motivated political activism.”

The state also has a long history of politically minded pastors, Wuthnow said. Texas evangelical church leaders joined the fight in support of alcohol prohibition a century ago and spearheaded efforts to defeat Democrat Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party, in 1928. In the 1940s, evangelical fundamentalism began to grow in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Today, North Texas remains home to influential pastors such as Robert Jeffress, who leads the First Baptist megachurch in Dallas. Jeffress was one of Trump’s most fervent supporters, appearing at campaign events, defending him on television news shows and stating that he “absolutely” did not regret supporting the former president after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.

Burden went a step further, urging followers to stock up on food and keep their guns loaded ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. He told parishioners that “prophetic voices” had told him in 2016 that Trump would have eight consecutive years in office.

The Frisco Conservative Coalition board voted to suspend Burden as chair for 30 days after criticism about his remarks.

Burden called his comments “inartful” but claimed he was unfairly targeted for his views. “The establishment media is coming after me,” he saidat the time. “But it is not just about me. People of faith are under attack in this country.”

Since then, Burden has repeatedly preached that the church has been designated by the Lord to decide who should serve in public office and “take dominion” over Frisco.

As the runoff for the Frisco City Council approached last year, Burden supported Jennifer White, a local veterinarian. White had positioned herself as the conservative candidate in the nonpartisan race against Angelia Pelham, a Black human resources executive who had the backing of the Frisco mayor.

White said she wasn’t in attendance during the May 2021 sermon in which Burden called her the “candidate that God wants to win.” She said she does not believe pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit, but she welcomed churches becoming more politically active.

“I think that the churches over the years have been a big pretty big disappointment to the candidates in that they won’t take a political stance,” White said in an interview. “So I would love it if churches would go ahead and come out and actually discuss things like morality. Not a specific party, but at least make sure people know where the candidates stand on those issues. And how to vote based on that.”

Pelham’s husband, local pastor Dono Pelham, also made a statement that violated the Johnson Amendment by “indirectly intervening” in the campaign, said Ellen Aprill, an emerita tax law professor at Loyola Marymount Law School in Los Angeles

In May 2021, Pelham told his church that the race for a seat on the City Council had resulted in a runoff. He acknowledged that his church’s tax-exempt status prevented him from supporting candidates from the pulpit. Then, he added, “but you’ll get the message.”

“It’s been declared for the two candidates who received the most votes, one of which is my wife,” Pelham said. “That’s just facts. That’s just facts. That’s just facts. And so a runoff is coming and every vote counts. Be sure to vote.”

Pelham then asked the congregation: “How did I do? I did all right, didn’t I? You know I wanted to go a little further, but I didn’t do it.”

Angelia Pelham, who co-founded Life-Changing Faith Christian Fellowship in 2008 with her husband, said the couple tried to avoid violating the Johnson Amendment. Both disagreed that her husband’s mention of her candidacy was a violation.

“I think church and state should remain separate,” Angelia Pelham said in an interview, adding: “But I think there’s a lot of folks in the religious setting that just completely didn’t even consider the line. They erased it completely and lost sight of the Johnson Amendment.”

She declined to discuss Burden’s endorsement of her opponent.

In his sermon the morning after Pelham defeated his chosen candidate, Burden told parishioners that the church’s political involvement would continue.

“So you’re like, but you lost last night? No, we set the stage for the future,” he said, adding “God is uncovering the demonic structure that is in this region.”

“Demonic” Candidate

Most Americans don’t want pastors making endorsements from the pulpit, according to a 2017 survey by the Program for Public Consultation, which is part of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

Of the nearly 2,500 registered voters who were surveyed, 79% opposed getting rid of the Johnson Amendment. Only among Republican evangelical voters did a slight majority — 52% — favor loosening restrictions on church political activity.

But such endorsements are taking place across the country, with some pastors calling for a debate about the Johnson Amendment.

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, New Mexico became an island of abortion access for women in Texas and other neighboring states.

The issue raised the stakes in the upcoming Nov. 8 New Mexico governor’s race between incumbent Lujan Grisham, a supporter of abortion rights, and Republican challenger Mark Ronchetti, who advocates limiting access.

“We’re going to fast become the No. 1 abortion place in all of America,” a pastor, Steve Smothermon, said during a July 10 sermon at Legacy Church in Albuquerque, which has an average weekly attendance of more than 10,000 people. Smotherman said the governor was “wicked and evil” and called her “a narcissist.”

“And people think, ‘Why do you say that?’ Because I truly believe it. In fact, she’s beyond evil. It’s demonic,” Smothermon said.

He later added: “Folks, when are we going to get appalled? When are we going to say, ‘Enough is enough’? When are we going to stop saying, ‘Well, you know, it’s a woman’s right to choose’? That’s such a lie.”

Church attendees had a stark choice in the upcoming election, Smothermon said. “We have the Wicked Witch of the North. Or you have Mark Ronchetti.”

The governor’s campaign declined to comment. Neither Legacy Church, Smothermon nor Ronchetti responded to requests for comment.

The sermon was a “clear violation” of the Johnson Amendment, said Sam Brunson, a Loyola University Chicago law professor. But Smothermon showed no fear of IRS enforcement.

Those who thought he crossed the line were “so stupid,” Smothermon said during the sermon. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

In another example, pastors at a Fort Worth church named Mercy Culture have repeatedly endorsed candidates for local and statewide offices since its founding in 2019.

“Now, obviously, churches don’t endorse candidates, but my name is Landon and I’m a person before I’m a pastor. And as an individual, I endorse Nate Schatzline,” the lead pastor, Landon Schott, said in a February sermon about a church member who was running to fill an open state representative seat.

Johnson Amendment rules allow pastors to endorse in their individual capacity, as long as they are not at an official church function, which Schott was.

In other services, Schott challenged critics to complain to the IRS about the church’s support of political candidates and said he wasn’t worried about losing the church’s tax-exempt status.

“If you want it that bad, come and take it. And if you think that we will stop preaching the gospel, speaking truth over taxes, you got another thing coming for you,” Schott said in May.

Schatzline, a member of Mercy Culture, received 65% of the vote in a May 24 runoff against the former mayor of the Dallas suburb of Southlake. He works for a separate nonprofit founded by Heather Schott, a pastor at Mercy Culture and the wife of Landon Schott.

Schatzline said in an interview with ProPublica and the Tribune that Landon Schott, not the church, endorsed him. He added that the church sought legal advice on how to ensure that it was complying with the Johnson Amendment.

“I think prayers can manifest into anything that God wants them to, but I would say that the community rallying behind me as individuals definitely manifested into votes,” Schatzline said.

Mercy Culture also supported Tim O’Hare, a Republican running for Tarrant County judge, this year after he came out against the shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. His opponent in the primary had ordered churches and businesses to temporarily close when she was mayor of Fort Worth.

O’Hare came to prominence as the mayor of suburban Farmers Branch, where he championed a city ordinance to prohibit landlords from renting to immigrants without legal status. A federal court declared the ordinance unconstitutional in 2010 after a legal battle that cost the city $6.6 million.

O’Hare has pledged to hire an election integrity officer to oversee voting and “uncover election fraud.”

“The Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Begin to pray for righteous judges in our city,’” Heather Schott said during a Feb. 13 service. “I am believing that Mr. Tim O’Hare is an answered prayer of what we have been petitioning heaven for for the last year and a half.”

Neither Mercy Culture, Landon Schott nor Heather Schott responded to requests for comment. O’Hare also did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.

Schott’s comments were a prohibited endorsement, said Aprill, the emerita tax law professor at Loyola Marymount Law School in Los Angeles.

“It doesn’t say ‘vote for him’ but is still an endorsement,” she said. “There’s no other way to understand the statement that O’Hare has answered prayers for righteous judges.”

Two weeks later, O’Hare won his primary. He faces Deborah Peoples, a Democrat, on Nov. 8.

A New Tactic

On April 18, 2021, a day before early voting began for city council and school board elections across Texas, pastors at churches just miles apart flashed the names of candidates on overhead screens. They told their congregations that local church leaders had gathered to discuss upcoming city and school elections and realized that their members were among those seeking office.

“We’re not endorsing a candidate. We’re not doing that. But we just thought because they’re a member of the family of God, that you might want to know if someone in the family and this family of churches is running,” said Robert Morris, who leads the Gateway megachurch in Southlake and served as a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board.

On the same day, Doug Page gave a similar message less than 5 miles away at First Baptist Grapevine.

“And so what we decided to do is look within our church families and say, ‘Who do we know that’s running for office?’ Now, let me clarify with you. This is not an endorsement by us. We are not endorsing anyone. However, if you’re part of a family, you’d like to know if Uncle Bill is running for office, right? And so that’s all we’re going to do is simply inform you.”

Saying that you are not endorsing a candidate “isn’t like a magic silver bullet that makes it so that you’re not endorsing them,” Brunson said.

The churches’ coordination on messaging across the area is notable, according to University of Notre Dame tax law professor Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, who said he hadn’t before seen churches organizing to share lists of candidates.

“I do think this strategy is new,” said Mayer, who has studied the Johnson Amendment for more than a decade. “I hadn’t heard of that before. It’s quite a sophisticated tactic.”

Eight of the nine candidates mentioned by the pastors won their races.

Mindy McClure, who ran for reelection to the Grapevine-Colleyville school board, said she thought church involvement contributed to her defeat in a June 5, 2021, runoff by about 4 percentage points. Her opponent campaigned on removing critical race theory from district curriculum, while McClure said students “weren’t being indoctrinated in any way, shape or form.” Critical race theory is a college-level academic theory that racism is embedded in legal systems.

McClure said pastors endorsing from the pulpit creates “divisiveness” in the community.

“Just because you attend a different church doesn’t mean that you’re more connected with God,” she said.

Lawrence Swicegood, executive director of Gateway Media, said this month that the church doesn’t endorse candidates but “inform(s) our church family of other church family members who are seeking office to serve our community.” Page told ProPublica and the Tribune that “these candidates were named for information only.”

Eleven days after responding to ProPublica and the Tribune in October, Morris once again told his church that he was not endorsing any candidates during the last Sunday sermon before early voting. Then, he again displayed the names of specific candidates on a screen and told parishioners to take screenshots with their cellphones.

“We must vote,” he said. “I think we have figured that out in America, that the Christians sat on the sidelines for too long. And then all of a sudden they started teaching our children some pretty mixed up things in the schools. And we had no one to blame but ourselves. So let’s not let that happen. Especially at midterms.”

African-American Evangelicals and their November Dilemma

Pastor Dwight McKissic, founder and senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, sees the dilemma of African-American evangelicals this November (and perhaps future ones) this way:

To give credit where it is due, Pastor McKissic is a doer, not just a talker. He pulled his church out of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention because of the convention’s stance on Critical Race Theory. He has pushed his denomination to repudiate the Confederate flag and condemn white supremacy. For a denomination founded in defense of slave-holding missionaries, these are not small steps.

That said, I would ask a different, more fundamental question were I in his position. Does the term evangelical retain any religious connections to the teaching of the gospel and Christianity today?  Or has it been transformed into a primarily political identity retaining only some of the form and ritual but none of the salvific intent (or power)?

Looking back at the entire aftermath of 9/11 (not just the Trump era, as professional commentators tend to), it seems clear that in practice the word evangelical now functions primarily as a political identity—often in opposition not just to the values of the gospel to which it refers, but to the values of evangelicals who aren’t white. In 2009, a majority of white evangelical Protestants surveyed said torture against terrorism suspects could sometimes or often be justified. In 2018, 75% of white evangelical Christians surveyed rated “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” as positive, compared with 46 percent of U.S. adults overall, and 25 percent of nonwhite Christians.

McKissic characterizes voting for Democrats as “anti-family values”. But it is quite difficult to ignore the hypocrisy of talking about “family values” when government policy under the GOP deliberately separated children from their parents and gave those children to foster families, as this country has done in decades past with Native American children (and may soon do again, depending on how the Supreme Court rules in this term).  To bring the question of family values to the present, does it reinforce them or undermine them to support a candidate like Herschel Walker?  He has not only engaged in intimate partner violence against his now-former wife on multiple occasions, but infidelity resulting in children on multiple occasions, paid for one of his girlfriends to have an abortion, and pressured her to have a second abortion (which she refused).  It is very telling that one of Walker’s earliest defenders after these latest revelations was Newt Gingrich, a man whose own infidelities cost him the speakership of the House. The language Dana Loesch chose to degrade the woman Walker paid to have an abortion (and with whom Walker would later had a child) is very telling, as is her complete lack of actual concern re: abortion in favor of prioritizing the power the GOP would have if Walker’s election gave them control of the Senate. Even today, the deliberate cruelty to asylum seekers by Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas appears to find significant support among white evangelicals, not at all consistent with the words of Exodus 23:9, or Leviticus 19:33-34, or Deuteronomy 24:14, or any other verses regarding the proper treatment of strangers.

Karen Attiah has written quite powerfully about the politics of toxic black men like Herschel Walker (and Kanye West). The contrast between how white evangelicals regard Walker and their treatment of Barack Obama (and his wife) couldn’t be starker. They celebrate the former and denigrate the latter. It is necessary and important to question the “pro-family” bonafides of those who promote and elevate people who embody some of the worst stereotypes of black men–especially when it comes to how they treat the women in their lives. During his presidency, I heard more than one white congregant in my own church denomination suggest Obama might be the Antichrist. To hear any Christian to say such things about any political leader (Obama or otherwise) while making excuses for the likes of Trump–who made deliberate cruelty to asylum seekers official government policy (to say nothing of his consistent and flagrant disregard for numerous tenets of Christian belief) saddens me.

A single tweet doesn’t allow room for either nuance or more expansive thought, but the most consequential divide between the GOP and the Democrats right now is the insurrection on January 6, 2021 and their responses to it. It is difficult to imagine actions more contrary to the words of 1 Timothy 2:1-4 re: prayer for our leaders than the participation of white evangelicals in violent opposition to the peaceful transfer of power to Biden from Trump. There is plenty of room to disagree with the policy choices of the Democratic Party. But rather than win the arguments at the ballot box, many Republicans are on record not only pushing falsehoods about the results of the 2020 presidential election, but continuing to strive for the power to overturn whatever popular will voters express in November 2022 and in elections to come. Having succeeded in using the courts to diminish the power of black voters, the GOP now seeks to invalidate any and all elections that don’t go their way. True religious freedom–not just for Christians, but for those of other faiths (or no faith)–will not survive in a country where a party that doesn’t win at the ballot box can simply ignore the result and stay in power.