S02 E07: Black Lives and COVID-19

Pod Squad

Charlene Carruthers Political Strategist, Community Leader, and Writer @CharleneCac
Baratunde Thurston Author, Activist, and Comedian @baratunde

Interview Guest

Dr. Kendi Dr. Ibram Kendi Professor at American University | Director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center | New York Times Bestselling Author @DrIbram

Our Host

Ashley Allison Executive Vice President of Campaigns and Programs | The Leadership Conference @ashleyrallison

Contact the Team

For all inquiries related to Pod For The Cause, please contact Brittany Johnson at [email protected] and Kenny Yi at [email protected].

Episode Transcript

Ashley:                        Welcome to Pod for the Cause, the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host, Ashley Allison, coming to you from Washington DC.


And like we start off every show, we have the Pod Squad where we talk pop culture and social justice. And today I have two great guests: Baratunde Thurston who is author, activist, and comedian – a whole renaissance man – as well as Charlene Carruthers, my sister girlfriend who is a political strategist, activist, community leader, writer, amazing cook, and gardener. Charlene, Baratunde welcome to the show.


We are dealing with COVID-19. It is taking a devastating toll on the African American community. Baratunde, you are coming to us from LA, which when COVID-19 hit the states it really started on the West Coast coming from Seattle and then the Bay and then to LA. What is it feeling like in LA? And how are you all handling it now that it’s almost a month and a half for you all?


Baratunde:                  We’ve seen a lot of governors step up in the absence of federal leadership, and Gavin Newsom out here has been on the front foot so to speak. Also, I think linguistically I kind of appreciate the way California’s talking about it. Things in California always go a little more “woo woo” than the rest of the nation, a lot more like vision quests and free weed on the street corner and essential services.


So, they called it “Safer at Home.” It was one of the early ones to not call it “Shelter in Place” or “lockdown.” And I think that language does matter. Calling it “face coverings” as opposed to “masks,” that kinda matters.


Our mayor is Garcetti. He and the governor, I think, have been setting a pretty good tone. The mayor uses the word “love” a lot, and we are in this together and looking out for each other.


That said, there are challenges with maintaining healthy conditions for those who don’t have homes. And I think the housing crisis in this state was already at a point where it was called a crisis before a crisis happened on top of that. So, that’s an extra challenge, but I think every state is challenged.


And so far, what I can tell is that we’re doing okay. And certainly that we moved – the first state to actually implement “Safer at Home.” So, that’s making a big difference with exponential growth. Every day is kind of a week, kind of a year. So, the sooner you move, the sooner it happens.


I think the housing is gonna be the tough one and what happens to renters, especially in terms of these protections. There’s been a lot of hubbub about various stimulus packages. But at the end of the day, they’re just delaying the ability to be evicted. And if somebody’s not covering those costs and no one’s able to work to generate money on their own, we are delaying a reckoning that’s gonna be pretty painful four months, six months, nine months, a year from now.


Ashley:                        The thing you just said that really has been weighing on me is the face coverings and the masks. And I will say walking in my neighborhood, which is a predominantly white neighborhood in Washington DC, the first day I had to put on – I was calling them masks, but I’m gonna start calling them face coverings. I could tell people were looking at me like what is she doing, even though we knew we were in a pandemic.


And I am afraid for people of color but particularly black people having to cover their face to save their lives but also the face coverings risking their lives.


Charlene, you’ve done a lot of work around police violence and keeping our community safe. Have you been hearing conversations about what police are doing or what your thoughts are about how to basically mask while black or face cover while black in the COVID era?


Charlene:                    It was actually heartbreaking for me before the official “Shelter in Place” – I think is what they’re calling it here in Illinois – was in effect. An organizer – his name is Richard Wallace on the west side of Chicago. He’s the executive director of an organization called Equity and Transformation or EAT for short.


And he gave me a call, and he said, “I just need somebody to listen to me right now. We were delivering our Life Kits, and we’re on a major thoroughfare. And the Chicago Police Department had a lineup of young black people saying that they were not supposed to be outside, that there was a curfew, and basically had them hammed up.” It was 12:00 in the afternoon. There has not been a curfew in Chicago. There was not a curfew in Chicago several weeks ago when this experience happened when I was told about it.


And since then, we’ve seen incident after incident, case after case here in Chicago and in other places like Kentucky. And even if it’s not the police, just a doctor – a doctor actually physically assaulted a young black woman.


We’re seeing case after case of black people being criminalized even within this state of crisis within a pandemic. They still can’t somehow think that black people are humans or just people out in the world like anyone else and will use it as an excuse to frisk us, physically assault us, to deny us care, and it’s wild. And we’re seeing this happen over and over and over again. So, it’s disheartening in more ways than one, and it’s a reminder of where we live.


Ashley:                        Baratunde, what’s your thoughts? I mean I’m ashamed to say it a little bit, but I at one point was like I don’t want to bring any potential harm to myself. So, let me like act right, so to speak.


Baratunde:                  Another way of putting it is we can’t do anything right. There’s a story out of a Walmart. A brother got kicked out of the shop for wearing a mask. There’s video out of Philly. A brother got dragged off the bus for not wearing a mask. So, it turns out the constant is being black. Right? And that proves the condition of exclusion regardless of – this is before the public health crisis even hit.


I have an assortment of face coverings. I broke out my most Wakanda-ish just now, but I’ve got the ninja look. I’ve got the cowboy bandana that used to belong to my brother. I’ve got the I’m going skiing, but not really, but sure, why not, kinda look.


And I’ve been training my neighbors. I live in the neighborhood of Highland Park here in Northeast LA. So, it is a historically Latinx neighborhood, increasingly white. But I’ve been training this neighborhood for a year to recognize me because I’ve been going on walks every day –


Ashley:                    I know that’s right.


Baratunde:                  – for like 300 days straight just Ned Flanders-ing it up. Yokily dokily, yo, how you doing? Right? And making myself very nonthreatening and delivering apples and just all kinds of other life-preserving activities because I knew a day like this would come, and now they know me as that brother who brings the apples and we’re okay.


Ashley:                        I know there’s some truth to that story too, but that’s also a shame.


Baratunde:                  Half joke, half truth.


Ashley:                        Half joke, half – yeah, but that’s the sad reality of being black in America. Let’s talk about something else black people love, church and Easter Sunday. So, there have been several pastors that decided that they wanted to hold Sunday service. And particularly – I think one in California – law enforcement actually changed the locks on the church to prevent the pastor from having service.


Why do you think people despite everything that’s going on still would not listen – and I know Easter is a high holiday for Christians – but would still go to church on that day?


Baratunde:                  There’s layers to reasons why people don’t believe what’s happening right before their eyes. Some of that is because they were told for a very long time by very authoritative departments and figures this wasn’t a big deal. This is just the flu. And we’re just a few weeks past that level of misinformation straight out of our president’s mouth. I’m not putting everything on this person. I’m just saying that can be a contributing factor.


I also know that there has been a lot of misinformation in parts of our own black communities in terms of – is it 5G? Does it not hurt black people? And that’s built on the backs of weaker access to information and who might have a legitimately historic distrust of authority and medical systems. So, all that comes to head in a really deadly fashion.


I’ll cast a wider net on the religious front and just say I’ve seen stories out of Ohio and the Republic of Georgia, as in Eastern Europe, same exact thing, just denial. The Ohio woman says, “I’m bathed in the blood of Jesus. I’m gonna be okay,” and she queues up to go into a huge congregation.


And then the official Orthodox Church, not just a random pastor, saying, “If you take the sacrament – if you come for communion, it’s all good.” They’re still sharing cups. They’re still drinking wine from the same cup because they believe that it will kill all of the germs and the bacteria and the viruses because it’s Jesus’ blood.


It’s not uniquely American. It may be particularly so because we have such a relationship with both church and faith but also with misinformation and conspiracy, and it all comes together at a time, unfortunately, that’s gonna cost people lives.


Charlene:                    I wanna follow up on where Baratunde took us around, like the historical distrust that particularly black people have here in the US and I would say globally when it comes to the westernized medical and healthcare system.


What is really a huge problem, particularly in faith communities, is a problem of leadership. Your congregation is looking to you to shepherd them in many areas of life. And if you as a leader are not saying, “Hey, y’all, the church is actually us. It’s not the building that we go in. The church is within every single person.” Honey, you can hold church anywhere at least based on what I know. And Lord knows, I’m a backsliding heathen and such and such, but you can hold church anywhere. And I think that everybody should question their leadership.


If we’re questioning our elected officials, people have every single right to question their faith leadership. And I imagine that it’s not just happening in Christian churches. I remember very early on folks saying, “Yes, we’re still going to hold prayer at mosques in different parts of the world.” It’s like okay y’all. Come on now.


Where’s the leadership in this particular moment from our reverends, our pastors, our priests, our imams, our rabbis. That’s what this moment is calling for people to do is to really show up with leadership and even expand where faith happens. It doesn’t just happen in those four walls.


Baratunde:                  Preach on Pastor Carruthers!


Ashley:                        I know! You ain’t slid back that much – you just gave us – pass the plate.


Baratunde:                  The church of Zoom is in.


Ashley:                        Before we close off the segment, I’m so happy to be with Baratunde Thurston and Charlene Carruthers on the Pod Squad. And we are talking COVID-19 and the impact it is having on the black community.


Most recently, we had an election in Wisconsin that was nothing short of a hot mess. Up until the night before the election, the Supreme Court of the United States was deciding whether the election was gonna move on. And then when you look at a place like Milwaukee that has been devastated by COVID-19 and is a predominantly black community, they had five polling locations in the whole county, whereas in some other predominantly white jurisdictions and counties, they had five times as many.


And people were requesting absentee ballots to vote and were not getting them. And we are gonna get the results pretty soon to determine where those disparities happen.


But when you look at something like COVID-19, and it’s killing more black people when you look at the proportions than it is white counterparts or really any other race – when it’s forcing kids to go home and be schooled at home, and we know there is school funding issues with no laptop and no broadband.


And then you look at an election in Wisconsin and Milwaukee where people stood in line while social distancing until midnight to cast a vote, not even in the general election where we know turnout is gonna be high. Make it make sense somebody! Charlene? Baratunde?


Baratunde:                  They’re afraid. They’re very, very afraid. The Republican Party has gone so far away from what small D democracy is supposed to mean. And they backed themselves into a corner in backing an authoritarian regimen in denying due process. The official party position is the less people vote, the better for us. The official party position is the more we deny access of the ballot to black people, the better for us.


They used to have a dog whistle. Now they yell it out loud. And it’s not just with black people. You see all kinds of sliding on issues of choice with regard to women, on issues of immigration. They’re unapologetically cruel. That’s the party platform.


And I think it’s gonna be on the rest of us to figure out how do you respond to such devastating, flagrant, and disgusting denial of your human rights and stop pretending that we’re just gonna have a conversation.


Now I wanna choose my words very carefully. I’m explicitly not advocating violence. That’s the whole point of democracy. But there are tools in the arsenal as far as funding, as far as direct actions, as far as drawing a line in the sand that says “enough.”


Because you just cannot keep taking this over and over again to the point where the whole system lacks legitimacy. And when the system loses legitimacy, people take it upon themselves to make their own way. And we are supposed to be a society where we do that together in a process, in courtrooms, in legislative bodies, in protest. And we are being denied all of that.


So, I don’t know what these Republicans are wanting to happen, but they are going to get some political response that they’re just not ready for because they’re demanding a strong response. And so far, they haven’t seen it.


Ashley:                        Charlene, I’m gonna give you the last word.


Charlene:                    Someone on Twitter the other day said that we’re in danger of losing our democracy. And the first thing that came to mind is you have the benefit to not remember the many times my people and other people’s people have seen democracy fail, crumble, be eroded over and over and over again. Many of us do remember. We don’t have the benefit of not remembering.


So, I think our job as people who are invested in any level of collective liberation no matter what you call it is to make room and space for different responses from all folks. From the hopeful responses to the responses that are angry on their face – so, that’s what they look like – to the ones that say, “I’m not okay with this anymore. I’m gonna actually start something completely new. I’m gonna do something different, and I’m gonna start on my block.” I’m gonna start in my neighborhood, whatever that looks like, and for us to make room for people who have solutions outside of DC, outside of the West Coast, and outside of the East Coast.


We have a whole rest of the country out here and that the solutions are gonna come from many different places. We’re gonna have to have millions of solutions to the problems that we have. It’s not just gonna be a few. We’re gonna have to have a lot of them. And unfortunately, many forces like to tell us that we can only have a few of them in philanthropy, in the big progressive establishment organizations, and of course in the government. But this is a moment for us to go outside and have many, many solutions to all these big problems that we have.


Ashley:                        Thank you, Baratunde. Thank you, Charlene –


Baratunde:                  Thank you, Ashley.


Ashley:                        – for joining us on the Pod Squad on Pod for the Cause. Earlier this week, I was able to sit down with the brilliant Dr. Ibram Kendi. Coming up, you’ll get to hear the conversation. Don’t go anywhere.


Welcome back for Pod for the Cause. Earlier this week, I had the honor of sitting down with the brilliant Dr. Ibram Kendi. Here’s our conversation.


We have a very special guest with us today, Dr. Ibram Kendi, professor at American University, Director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center, and the New York Times bestseller author, How to be an Antiracist, which I have right here, which is a great read for folks who haven’t read.


We have so much to talk about today. Thank you, Dr. Kendi, for joining us. I wanna jump in and talk about coronavirus and what’s happening in our country. First, we have seen over this past weekend – first, a month ago, there was this narrative on Twitter that black people could not even get coronavirus, which was troubling because we knew that was not true.


But now we have reports coming out of Louisiana and Illinois that the percentage of people who are not just getting the virus but dying from the virus are disproportionately black – I think 70% in the state of Louisiana. Why do you think in 2020 we still have such drastic racial disparities when it comes to this pandemic that is happening across the world?


Dr. Kendi:                   I think that if we sort of break down the outcomes of antiblack racism, there are two ways that we can do it, either in the physical health of people or even in the economic health. So, we live in a country where even outside of a pandemic, there’s a pandemic of black death. Their life expectancy is far below the life expectancy of let’s say white people, just as we have massive disparities in wealth.


And so, when you think about the totality of racist policies, the totality of racist ideas has historically led first and foremost to black death. So, I’m not in any way surprised that there are racial disparities within this pandemic.


Ashley:                        Your book, How to be an Antiracist, really attacks a conversation that our country has struggled with so much. I don’t wanna do a spoiler alert. People need to buy the book. People need to read the book. But could you tell us what it actually means to be an antiracist? People get so afraid by the word “racism” and being called a racist. But what does it look like for someone to fully live and be an antiracist?


Dr. Kendi:                   Currently, during this pandemic, just like in American society more broadly and America throughout its history, there’s racial disparity and inequity. And the question has always been why. Why are there racial disparities and infection and death rates within this pandemic? Why is it that black people are more likely to be in prison or unemployed?


And there’s largely been two positions to that very question of why inequality exists. There has historically been the racist position, which presents itself as not racist. And then there historically has been the antiracist position. And the racist position has historically said it’s because there’s something wrong with black people. They’re not socially distancing. There’s something wrong inherently with them. While the antiracist position says, “You know what; no, there’s something wrong with society, its racist policy.”


So, you have many different kinds of racist ideas. So, you have antiaging, you have anti-Latinx, and you have antiblack racist ideas, just like you have antiblack racist policies. And so, when you think of the combination of antiblack racist ideas and antiblack racist policies, that combination is antiblackness.


So, you cannot be antiblack and antiracist. To be antiblack is to be racist. To be antiracist is to be someone who recognizes the imperfect humanity of black people and is striving to allow them to excel in all their humanity just as they are every other racial group.


Ashley:                        I’m wondering your thoughts on how policies that move the ball may be a small bit play into how lawmakers and policy makers who might only be moving the ball a little bit but doing the best they can – how that plays in with the backdrop of trying to be an antiracist leader.


Dr. Kendi:                   One of the ways for us to understand it is the idealogical difference between notions of gradual equality and immediate equality. So, historically, you had people on the left who have been advocating for gradual equality and then others who have been advocating for immediate equality.


Really, the origin of this was during the enslavement era. You had certain people advocating for gradual emancipation and thought that those advocating for immediate emancipation were literally crazy, that it would never happen. It was impractical, or somehow black people needed a period in which they’re civilized and ready for freedom just as you had people who were saying, “No, slavery is evil right now. It needs to end right now.”


And I think that sort of plays itself out today in which you have some saying that you know what? These massive radical programs that cause immediacy and universalism, they’re too impractical. They’re too big. We need a more gradual approach.


Ashley:                        How do we get more people to move away from the gradual and come to the immediate reform? Why are we still fighting for voting rights? Why are people waiting in line until midnight in Wisconsin to vote last night? How do we get people to wake up, Democrat and Republican, and say, “We could actually fix this?”


Dr. Kendi:                   First and foremost, we have to teach history differently. Americans commonly are taught that gradual policies have essentially been able to push the country forward and that immediate forms of abolition or even equality did not. And so, if you’re sort of led to believe that you want progress and you’re led to believe that the way progress has come has been gradually, then you’re gonna advocate for that.


But actually, when we look at the historical record, those who were fighting during the Civil War that essentially led to the downfall of slavery, that wasn’t a gradual process. Those who were involved in the Civil Rights movement they wanted freedom now – literally was one of their major signs. And that, of course, led to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. So, I think that we need change our history. I also think people need to develop more courage.


Ashley:                        So, we recently learned that Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential run. And I’m curious to get your thinking – in 2020, it now looks like Donald Trump and Joe Biden will be the two on the ballot for voters to go vote for President of the United States. What do you think about that?


Dr. Kendi:                   I think that Biden, now that Sanders has dropped out – he should go on a mission to attract who I call the other swing voters. These are voters who swing between voting Democrat and not voting at all or even voting third party. And I’m distinguishing them from people who never vote, and I’m also distinguishing them from white swing voters who typically swing from voting Republican to Democrat. These other swing voters helped swing the election in 2016 along with those white swing voters who swung from Obama to Trump.


So, he is known for being able to attract white centrist swing voters, which is why people considered him to be electable. Now it is on him to attract those voters who swing between voting Democrat and not voting. And when we look at that group, they’re typically younger, progressive, young voters of color.


The question is obviously Sanders did much better with young voters of color than Biden. And so, is he going to go about attracting these voters in the same way he goes about attracting white swing voters, which is – I’m going to change my policies. I’m going to change my campaign to make it attractive to you.


Or will Biden do what other Democrats have done historically and try to shame these people into voting, put on a very condescending posture, make it seem as if Trump is the president because they did not vote in 2016, which will then alienate those voters. If Biden alienates those voters and they don’t vote, we should not be blaming those voters. We should be blaming the Biden campaign.


Ashley:                        The other conversation that has come up a lot in 2020 is the way we talk about race versus class. And I’m wondering how you see that evolving over the next year or so and how that plays into the period where we’re all confined to our homes to keep people safe but also how that relates to being antiracist when you wanna look on class versus race or race versus class, or can you look at both? And how should people be doing that?


Dr. Kendi:                   When I sort of encourage people to be antiracist and I encourage people to view the racial groups on the same level, I’m recognizing that there are many race/class groups. In other words, when you look at black America, you have black elites. Black elites stand at the intersection of a race and a class. You have black working people who stand at the intersection of a race and a class. You have black impoverished people who stand at the intersection of a race and a class and the same thing for white America and Latinx America and Asian and Native America.


And I think what we have to recognize is that you have black elites who view black poor people in an inferior manner just as you have white elites who classify white poor people as white trash. And there’s no way you can be an antiracist if you view other race/class groups as inferior, as if you imagine that the reason why they’re poor is because there’s something behaviorally wrong with them.


To be antiracist is to recognize both the racial and economic policies that are essentially impacting poor people of color. To be antiracist is to recognize those intersections, just as you have black women and you have Latinx women and you have native women, and you can’t really be an antiracist man of color thinking that there’s something wrong or even white man thinking that there’s something wrong with these women of color. You have to recognize the intersection of racist and sexist ideas.


Ashley:                        One of the things that we have been doing is letting our listeners ask the last question of a segment. So, this one comes from Braveheart09, and it’s one of our newer listeners from Canada. Now, Braveheart, you had a long question, so we had to synthesize. But the question is – Native Americans are often left out of the conversation around race, and Canada has done a good job to make amends for that. What does the United States need to do to try and improve relationships with the Native American community?


Dr. Kendi:                   Well, I think the United States has a lot of work to do in terms of making amends for native and indigenous peoples. You talk to native and indigenous historians, they’ll tell you about the dozens and dozens of treaties, for instance, that the United States government has broken.


And that’s aside from all of the warfare and violence that native people have suffered. That’s aside from the fact that you have so many mascots who in a way are trolling native people on a regular sort of basis, and people see that as normal. That’s aside from the fact that even right now during this pandemic, it’s imagined that there are not coronavirus cases on some native reservations and even in some native communities when, in fact, they may not just be testing people in those communities.


Ashley:                        That’s right.


Dr. Kendi:                   And I think it’s absolutely critical for the United States government to make amends to native people, and obviously, native people have to be at the center of those discussions, certainly not someone like me.


Ashley:                        Well, we have been joined by Dr. Ibram Kendi. Thank you so much for joining. Folks should check out all his writings. He has lots of articles, his latest book on How to be an Antiracist – amazing read. It will really help you shift the way you think about the way this country is operating, the way you show up as an activist as a listener for Pod for the Cause. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Kendi.


Dr. Kendi:                   You’re welcome. Thank you so much for having me on.


Ashley:                        Thank you for that incredible conversation, Dr. Kendi. Coming up, I’ll hit you with some real talk during our Hot Take segment where I get a few things off my chest in three minutes or less.


Welcome back to Pod for the Cause. And between the Pod Squad and the great conversation with Dr. Ibram Kendi, I have a few things that I wanna say. We’ve been talking about COVID-19 and the impact it has had on communities of color this whole show. And I think in order to really think about what the problem is that this country is facing is we have to look at our past. We have to look at how our country started, removing indigenous people from their land. We have to remember slavery and the systemic racism that still exists today.


We’re seeing that magnified with COVID-19 where the percentage of black people that are dying from this disease is higher than their white counterparts and other communities of color. Where we’re seeing young people who don’t have access to broadband and are having to learn from home or might even not have a computer to connect.


We’re seeing people who are on the front lines, our service providers, people who have to clean facilities, domestic workers, and folks who are working at our grocery be on the front lines of defense to make sure we can live a normal life while they put themselves at risk.


You know the saying goes that, “When America catches a cold, black people get pneumonia.” And we’re seeing that. When we’re see the numbers of deaths, when we’re seeing the people who have access to affordable healthcare, when we know the ACA is literally hanging on by a thread waiting for a decision in a Supreme Court case, we have to do better.


When we talk to our legislators, if we are a legislator – when you’re looking for a solution, go to the source. Go to the people who are directly impacted. Go to the communities of color, the black communities where the death toll is disproportionate to everyone else. Figure out what is needed there. Solve for that problem, and then other people will have collateral benefits from that.


It’s time that we must do better. We must root our solutions in our past so that we can find the truth in the present and really solve the problem at hand. And then, ultimately, that will help us build a future that is better tomorrow.


Thank you for listening to Pod for the Cause, the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, visit civilrights.org. And to connect with me, hit me up on Instagram and Twitter at Pod for the Cause. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast appropriate, and leave a five-star review. Until then, for Pod for the Cause, I’m Ashley Allison; and remember, a cause is nothing without the people.