S04 E01: This Is America
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Vanessa: Welcome to Season 4 of “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical, civil and human rights issues of our day.
I’m your host, Vanessa Gonzalez coming to you from beautiful Washington, DC. And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad, where we discuss pop culture, social justice and everything in between. I’ve got some amazing folks on the Pod Squad today. First up, we have my current boss and the former president and CEO and Interim President of the Leadership Conference, Mr. Wade Henderson. Hey, Wade.
Wade: Hey, Vanessa. How are you?
Vanessa: Good. And next up, we have Nelini Stamp, who has about seven or eight different titles. First off, she’s the national organizing director at the Working Families Party, campaign director for Election Defenders, organizer and performer with Joy to the Polls, and co-founder of the Resistance Revival Chorus. So what I’m hearing is that you can sing to us, you can sing us out.
Nelini: I can break it down. I got bars.
Vanessa: Nice, yes.
Nelini: Nice to be here.
Vanessa: In this episode, we are talking about where we’ve been as a country and where we want to be. All right. Let’s just jump right in. On January 6th, right-wing extremists launched a violent riot at the Capitol, one of the most hollowed buildings in our nation. People have argued that this is not who we are as a country, but I think we could argue that this is exactly who we are. We’ve been here before and we will continue to end up here if we don’t address the root cause of why these hate-fueled incidents keep occurring. So Wade, is this who we are?
Wade: Oh, Vanessa. It’s such a great question. Look, the argument that this is not who we are is simply wrong. Not only is it who we are, it’s who we’ve always been and it is who we will likely remain until we address it in very direct fashion. America is a country at war with itself – that war crystallized about 160 years ago with the advent of the Civil War – and it continues to this day and has ebbed and flowed over the last 160 years, not withstanding some of the best efforts to change it. I mean, think about it. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which brought African-Americans into the full rights of citizenship, did not ultimately defeat the effort to have America as a divided nation. This is 150 years since the adoption of the 15th amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote. And as we saw in the 2020 election, that guarantee is virtually meaningless because it’s not self-enforcing and it has to be, of course, reinforced on a regular basis by the powers that be.
So until this country comes to terms with the gap in truth that we have experienced over the past 150 years, we’ll never move beyond it. We need truth, racial healing, and transformation, and those concepts are on the table today in this, the 117th Congress.
Vanessa: Wade, to get into that a little bit, that is something that The Leadership Conference has been calling on since our founding, and that was 75 years ago since we were founded. So what is different this time around? How can we make it different?
Wade: Let me say this. I mean, my heart broke at the insurrection of January 6th and I know, like many Americans, we were frightened by the images that we saw. Look, what really struck me the hardest was seeing that unfurled Confederate flag dragged through the Senate of the United States, never been there in the 150 years since the war, and yet there it was, flying boldly and brazenly by a young man who had no real sense of what it represented in contemporary America. And my sense is that we have to address these issues in a very direct way. I mean, the violence that we saw, the hatred, the deep seated anger at what American citizens were doing by electing a new leader to replace the outgoing president, number 45, as he’s called, is something that for me, has to be addressed in a very direct way. That’s why I said I think the time has come for truth, racial healing, and transformation, and what is different is that the boldness of the insurrection of January 6th has produced an equally strong response and anger on the part of elected officials and ordinary Americans to what they saw. And we are now seeing accountability carried out in the form of an additional impeachment, but also a recognition that we need to do more, we need to enforce existing laws that address the issue of white supremacy in a very direct way, and we need to root out the problem, both in society generally, in civil society, and in the military and in our law enforcement agencies. That was something that I think shocked many people as well.
Vanessa: Absolutely. I love it. And I really wanna hone in on that point, that folks were surprised. And I think that for communities of color, none of us were surprised, right? It’s like, we have been telling you that this is how people grow up, this is real. And so, Nelini, when you’ve heard from folks that you work with coming to you and saying, “Oh my God. I’m so shocked by this. This is not who I thought we were.” What is your response?
Nelini: Here’s the thing. I think it’s really important to understand that this is still the symptom of the root cause of white supremacy, and part of this is that we never repaired the original sins of genocide and slavery of our country. So we never had accountability then.
At some point, this was bound to happen and it’s happened in many points of the history since the founding of this republic. But what we saw, I think, was that bubbling over.
And the other thing I think is really important, in Staten Island in December, there was this big, massive uprising where a man actually ran over an officer because he wanted to keep his bar open. And it was, because one of the things that I think the movement has to recognize, anybody who has to recognize is that this is so deeply connected to the economic injustices of our time. It is not just enough to root out white supremacy. We also need to root out one of the evils that Dr. King spoke about- poverty. We need to address this. Part of the reason why thousands of people showed up in Staten Island and created a police autonomous zone is because, yeah, there were white supremacists in that crowd. No doubt about it. There are also people who are hurting economically and they have been massively targeted with massive disinformation, and they believe that immigrants, that black people, that people of color, they believe that folks are taking their jobs. I think that that’s really important as well. We have to actually both address and root out white supremacy and address the many, many evils like finally eradicating poverty, making economic justice a forefront of our movement.
Vanessa:It feels like we know the folks a bit better, for good or for worse, they showed themselves a bit better. And just last week, we said goodbye to one of the most dangerous and harmful presidents in the history of our country. And we welcomed a new president in Joe Biden, who called for unity in his inaugural address. So do you find it hypocritical that we have to call for unity and cooperation when conservatives showed absolutely no attempt to work together for the past four years? In fact, more than 74 million Americans voted for four more years of division, separation, and oppression. So how do we work in unity without losing sight of why people showed up and voted for a president like Joe Biden in the first place?
Wade: Unity without accountability doesn’t really unify a country as deeply divided as our own. I mean, I agree with Nelini that economic insecurity is a large part of this conversation, but it is not poverty. The people who attacked the Capitol on January 6th did not represent the poorest people in our country. These are individuals who had jobs, these are individuals who perhaps have lost some of their status in economic position, who are concerned about their lack of higher education and their inability to compete in an ever more challenging environment in the country. All of that is true, but it wasn’t poverty in the purest sense. These are individuals who are used to a certain status based on their whiteness, who could not accept not being able to look down on someone because of the changed circumstances and the diversity that the country has embraced. Their unwillingness to concede that their status has changed vis a vis the diversity of the country, has forced them into a period of deep resistance and a way that highlights the danger of the time in which we are living.
Now I thought Biden’s speech was wonderful. I embraced it both because of the high values that he espoused, the direct language that he used, but his willingness to address and call out white supremacy in a very direct way was something I had never heard in an inauguration address and I thought it was especially meaningful here. As you pointed out, Vanessa, he is not someone who appeared to be naive. I think he was offering an olive branch because it was necessary to show, that in the divisions that we have seen in the past four years most especially, the time for healing requires us to reach out to one another and to try to address those concerns. But I also saw in that move a recognition that in the event that that didn’t happen, he was prepared to lay a stronger foundation for more intense action. And I think he is exhausting the expectation of the public that he will be a ruler who tries to bring us together, but recognizes that in the event that doesn’t happen, we need more decisive change. And so, I was very pleased in looking at the identification of his cabinet, and I so appreciated the fact that he has made racial reckoning and adjustment to the deep seated racial hostility in our country. One of his top priorities, the fact that he has a Democratic policy committee, meaning a White House group that will help shape policy, that includes someone specifically identified to address these issues is an important change.
Vanessa: One of the points that you talked about is the sense that white people feel that they are losing their sense in society, right, they’re losing their status. And some of the language that I found really interesting and eye opening in this conversation, right, because we’re all on social media is saying, you know, you can’t talk down to these groups of people who supported the insurrectionists because you can no longer look at them as they have less education, or they are lesser than, right? Because the truth is, these people were dentists, they were attorneys, they worked in real estate – that women had a private jet!
Wade: -laughter- A private jet.
Vanessa: And so, I think you’re really getting into something there about it’s not just that maybe they’ve lost some income. It’s about the sense of being knocked off. Nelini, Working Families Party. You all have just, you have crushed it in the way that you bring people together, the way you get folks out and marching and mobilizing, and you focus on economic issues. So what are you hearing from folks when they tell you, “I can’t find a job. I’ve been out of a job.” What has been that response and how has your life changed in that work?
Nelini: It’s something that I think people have still backs against the wall, and you know, I also do international work where I work with different international parties in different parts of the world, and I see this thing is that Europe and the United States are similar, is that we have a better conversation, even though it’s really bad, around race and gender. On the class stuff, it’s still hard to talk about. And that is so many factors, right? And it’s the opposite in Europe, where they have the class line, but when it comes to race and migration, it’s why they’re dealing with all of this uptick in white supremacy there too, and nationalism. And so, you know, our people are kinda like, “Why can’t we actually start talking about both? Why [must I] choose between putting food on my plate or getting killed outside?” That’s what our people talk about. One of the biggest examples is that there is a Teamster strike in Hunts Point right now. They want a dollar a raise an hour.
Vanessa: Yes, I read about this.
Nelini: Yep. They want a dollar a raise an hour and what happened the other day? The police were dragged out to them. Most of these folks have probably never…I mean, they are in fear as individuals, but not as an organized labor unit, attacked by police. And the police came at them like they came at us during the uprisings and throughout the summer, and I was shook. I was like, you came after Teamsters? -laughter- It was something like, 1920s, you know, use the police as union busting. And I think that we’re gonna see more of this, and so we have to have this great reckoning.
For us, I was really excited about what Biden proposed as relief, $15 an hour, abolishing the tip wage, abolishing the sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities. That is something that folks have fought for a really long time. There is some amazing stuff in there and we still need to go further. Our infrastructure is crumbling and I’m glad that the first thing that is coming out the gate is pretty comprehensive, and I wanna see more. Our focus is that over the next two years, we’re gonna be like, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Vanessa: Yes, yes, yes and yes. I think for me, and I think for, you know hopefully millions of people out there, the contrast in having so many billionaires in this country who also profited from this time in COVID, and then you have people striking for a dollar, a dollar. Like, you need to take a step back and really look at the playing field and how uneven that is. And the playing field is uneven because the mud it was built on is uneven, right? And it’s bad soil.
Nelini: We created a trillionaire this year. There is a trillionaire in the United States of Jeff Bezos and it’s because of the pandemic.
Vanessa: It’s because of the pandemic, right? So we’re talking a little about these structure barriers. I wanna bring it back down a little, because we talk about democracy. People see it as it’s an idea, it’s a theory, it’s a nice to have, I think for some folks – but they don’t know what it means. I think that is changing – I hope that is changing. I think when we were seeing people push back against voter suppression, I think Georgia, if there is ever a bright light to show what democracy is, Georgia.
Wade: I simply wanted to thank the voters of Georgia for saving American democracy and saving the country from what could have been a disastrous outcome, both in the presidential election, but also in the Senate election. And that’s not a partisan statement. That is an observation of political fact.
Let’s start with the fact that we have a president who has consciously gone about the business of constructing a new vision for the country. A president who introduces on his first day in office, a comprehensive immigration bill, intended to address the 11 million undocumented persons who live in the shadows of our country. We have a president who introduced an equal rights executive order that guarantees the LGBTQ community some of the meaningful rights that many of us simply take for granted.
And you have to ask yourself, how are some of the voters who rioted and who were part of the insurrection of January 6th, looking at the huge tax bill that was passed by the previous president that had absolutely no benefit for them?
You know, The Leadership Conference is a non-partisan organization and I’m very careful about protecting our status as a non-partisan group. But I look at states like Kentucky, who have a population that is dependent on federal largess in lots of different ways, one if the most dependent on federal benefit payments of any state in the country, and yet repeatedly they elect officials, both at the state and federal level, who seem to be indifferent to the economic considerations that they are facing. They don’t expand Medicaid, for example. They don’t address the needs of their own citizens and their citizens seem to validate that approach by electing them again and again to office. One has to ask oneself, why do voters seemingly vote against their economic interest? It’s because their vote feeds a more subtle, but equally powerful desire to hold status over some other population or sub population that they can look down upon because if their whiteness. Ultimately, that issue is going to fall by the wayside because the economic challenges exposed by the pandemic and the related circumstances are bringing these issues to the fore.
Nelini: The one thing about that though is actually quite challenging is that in some areas, like, Trump doubled his vote to 13%, 14% in the Bronx, which is the most working class and diverse borough in the city of New York. I think it really is something that we need to start examining because if that continues to rise, that will shift to a different realignment as well as we’re looking at where people’s values and interests are, and those are not about, “Hey, I was at this upper class.” I think there’s a lot of examine there, but I’m really curious around how we actually talk about that as well.
Vanessa: As I was starting to say a bit, taking it from this big structure and here’s democracy and here’s this idea and this theory, young people, specifically youth of color showed up and showed out for the 2020 election. And now that we’re out out it, I think we know, and history has shown, that when you give young people the space to lead, it works. So how are we gonna encourage young leaders to continue to move on issues that matter to them?
Wade: Young people are the tip of the sphere. They are the energy that forces change and every social movement of the 20th century has been fed by the power of younger people taking the stage and demanding of their elders and other leaders that change cometh. They also have a pure view about what that means. Now when I stepped down a few years ago as President of The Leadership Conference, I had been here for 20 years. I stepped down not because I was tired or didn’t feel I was capable of carrying out my responsibilities. In fact, I left at the top of my game. I left because I felt it was time for a younger cohort to take the stage, and I was blessed that we found Vanita Gupta the new nominee to be the Associate of Attorney General.
Wade: And we love her, first civil rights leader to hold that position, because I felt that she could bring about change. I’m stepping in as the interim president, not because I intend to be here indefinitely, but because this is an opportunity for transformative change, and if you are a change agent, then you can’t be a conscientious objector at a time when possibilities like those that exist today are on the table.
I think what we saw in the 2020 election was the tapping into a youth movement, tapping into a sense of commitment from the African-American community, the Latino community and others to have their voices heard and their presence felt, and we need to cultivate that interest in bringing about change. It’s going to be very important for us, to show that electoral change can bring about change in the circumstances of people’s lives. If we fail to do that, we will lose the edge that we developed in the 2020 race, and I think fortunately, the new administration, President Biden seems to recognize that by some of the proposals that he has introduced and is ready to move on. So I think that’s really a big part of it.
Nelini: One of the things I will never forget is the story that when Lula became president of Brazil, he said, “Now make me do it.” He basically gave the green light to kinda turn up. You know? And I think that that’s really important.
This younger generation is just like, it always is going to push the needle. It pushed the needle in the civil rights movement. It pushed the needle in the women’s rights movement. There was the spectrum and it’s not easy to talk to the different parts of the spectrum internally, but I think that people need to take a position of “I’m not gonna yuck your yum.” If you are in this fight for justice, if you think that there should be more and maybe I’m happy about it, I’m not gonna tell you stop. You know, and I think that that’s really important to understand the movement ecosystem, to understand the organizing ecosystem. You need the spectrum.
So I think that what I’m really hopeful for is that there are groups who have really ambitious plans, that this administration probably won’t take on. But I know that they’re gonna continue to push and I think that we will win parts of that program, and that is progress.
Wade: Nelini, you are so, so right. I would just remind you colleagues though that our democracy survived by a thread. What we saw on January 6th could easily have gone the wrong way. And we survived both by luck and by persistence. There is no guarantee that that will happen again. We are struggling for the hearts and minds of the American voter and we’ve got to demonstrate that we can deliver through the electoral system. We’ve got to demonstrate that capitalism as we know it doesn’t have to equate with rapacious greed. We’ve got to recognize that addressing the needs of the least of us is part of a solution for all of us. And that becomes one of the great challenges of this incoming administration.
Vanessa: So, we are coming to our close. I wanted to give Nelini the opportunity to sing us out.
Nelini: Oh, nice. I’m down.
Nelini: So this is “This Joy” by the Resistance Revival Chorus.
this joy that I have
the world didn’t give to me oh oh oh
this joy that I have
ooh the world didn’t give it to me
don’t you know that
this joy I have
the world didn’t give to me oh oh oh
the world didn’t give it
the world can’t take it away
Vanessa: Wow, Nelini, that was amazing.
Vanessa: I couldn’t think of a better way to bring our conversation to a close. Thank you so much. I needed that this week. So thanks again to the incredible Wade Henderson and Nelini for joining us on Pod for the Cause.
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, please visit civilrights.org and to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter @podforthecause. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app, and leave a 5-star review. Until then, for Pod for the Cause, I’m Vanessa Gonzalez.