Our Body Politic

Anita Hill on Fighting Gender Violence for Thirty Years, How the Digital Economy Infringes on Our Civil Rights, and the Mask Debate in Schools

Episode Notes

Host Farai Chideya talks with Anita Hill thirty years after she first testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. She discusses what we can do to address sexual assault in her new book, “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence.” Nicol Turner-Lee of the Brookings Institution explains why private tech companies should not go unregulated. Polly Irungu shares why she founded Black Women Photographers to provide new pathways into  her industry. And on Sippin’ the Political Tea, Errin Haines of The 19th and legal analyst Tiffany Jeffers of Georgetown Law join Farai to discuss the week’s news.


0:35 Professor Anita Hill on ending gender violence in the U.S.

12:36  Nicol Turner-Lee on the real impact of an unregulated digital economy

25:20 Polly Irungu on investing in Black women and non-binary photographers

31:09 Sippin’ the Political Tea: legal analyst Tiffany Jeffers and political contributor Errin Haines discuss the future of the GOP, abortion laws, and mask mandates in schools

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. We are so grateful for your support. While you listen today, consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcast. It helps others find us, and we read your feedback as we continue to evolve the show. Thanks so much.

This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. 30 years ago on October 11th, 1991, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Then Senator Joe Biden was the chair of that committee.

Joe Biden: When an allegation of consequence comes forward I do not have the recourse to send it to the courts. I have the recourse only to send it to my colleagues. There is no other institutional way of doing it.

Chideya: That's a clip of Biden at the hearing in 1991. Biden voted against confirming Clarence Thomas who still made it to the Supreme Court. Anita Hill is now a professor at Brandeis University and author of the new book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence. In it, she talks about something Biden said in 2019 when he was running for president, that he did, "Everything in my power to do what I thought was within the rules." In this book, Professor Hill asks, "Are these rules fair and do they prevent all the facts from getting out like they did in 1991?" The book, "Believing," uses a structural analysis to lay out both the problem of, and solutions to gender violence. Anita, welcome.

Anita Hill: Thank you for having me on your program.

Chideya: So we're recording on October 12th. And yesterday, October the 11th was the 30 year anniversary of your testimony at Clarence Thomas's judiciary committee hearing. What do you remember the most about that day?

Hill: I remember the uncertainty of it. There seemed to be chaos. I wasn't quite sure what the process was going to be like. And then I do recall the hostility that was expressed openly and really without any opposition. But I also remember very vividly that I was surrounded by family that came into the hearing room, and when that happened, I knew that I would be okay.

Chideya: You also write about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. And quoting from you, you said, "I turned the TV off because watching the first few minutes had given me confidence that Ford was up to the task of convincing a majority of the committee that she had been sexually assaulted as a teenager and that Kavanaugh had been the assailant." Things didn't necessarily go that way. And now you have produced a podcast because of Anita with Dr. Ford. Why did you decide to do that? And what did you learn from her experience?

Hill: Well, I learned unfortunately that we still don't have the right processes in place. In particular her case involved a very limited investigation into the charges that you raised. When I say she was up to the task, I think she was up to the task, even though the system wasn't up to the task. What did I learn from her? I really got a sense in during the podcast of how sincerely she wanted to provide helpful information. And that was a real connection between the two of us, because when I went in to testify in 1991, I did so because it was a court. Because it's a lawyer, I know how important the court is to our day-to-day lives and my life as an African-American, as someone who is a beneficiary of Brown vs Board of Education. She wanted to provide information to help the court make the right decision about who was going to be sitting on the Supreme Court in a lifetime appointment just as I did. So there was that real connection, but I also realized and learned from her that she was still in a lot of pain from what I believe was caused by the process that really set both of us up for retaliation and abuse that followed.

Chideya: Yeah. You talk quite a bit about getting threats, death threats, all sorts of personal insults, but also picking up the phone and finding on the line an incest survivor, who was like, "You know what, you really opened up a whole can of worms here." And talking about what it meant to be someone who is a touchstone for other survivors, even ones whose stories were different than yours. What does it feel like to carry, not just your own story, but other people's stories?

Hill: It's a real responsibility to carry other people's stories. It's one that I accepted, I have to say, reluctantly. I had not planned that this would be the course my life would take, but after hearing from so many people who needed answers to questions, they needed to have their situations explained to them, they needed some way of thinking and believing that what they had experienced wouldn't continue to happen to people over and over again. I became convinced by a number of people by the survivors and victims who I was in touch with, but also by a woman named Lillian Miles Lewis, who was the then wife of John Lewis. She preceded him in death. But she was really a force. After the hearing, we met and convinced me in a very genuine and human way, that it was important to have an African-American woman speaking out about these issues.

Chideya: You talk about the intersections of gender and race. And again, in your words, there will be no complete elimination of gender-based violence until racism in its many forms is identified and addressed, but the reverse is also true. How do you sit with your life being at the intersection of both race and gender?

Hill: It's something I have lived with all my life and these are the events that I describe in the book, the stories that I describe in the book, the questions that I've gotten from young black women who really want to step up and come forward, but the person they're accusing is a black person, or even the questions that I get from young black men who want to be a part of the anti-gender violence movement, but live with a legacy of being over criminalized and over-sexualized and overpoliced, and are concerned that the anti-gender violence movement will just end up imprisoning more African-American men. So there is that tension I live with. I've lived with it now in many ways at heightened ways over the last 30 years.

Chideya: So let's turn to solutions now. You have all sorts of evidence-based research throughout this book. Give me an example of something that you see as a solution specifically in the case of workplace harassment, which you talk about quite a lot.

Hill: One of the things that the standards that we applied to sexual harassment law is that it must be severe or pervasive. And that does not account for microaggressions as we call them now. Those daily utterances or activities that may not rise to the level of being severe. So I think we need to address that particularly for women of color, because the data shows that women of color experience more of these micro aggressions. So even no matter what system you have, if you're not calculating those comments as part of what is offensive behavior, then you are not going to get to the heart of ending harassment and bias in our workforce. The other problem is though that structurally more and more workers are not covered by Title VII laws.

Chideya: Title VII, being the sort of umbrella, civil rights prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, et cetera?

Hill: Exactly. Thank you. Yes. More and more workers are contract workers. So as non-employees, they're not covered by Title VII. The same is true of gig workers and more and more of our workforces include gig workers. There are all kinds of structures that seem built really to protect the employer and limit the ability of employees to step up and come forward.

Chideya: Your book has gotten incredible reviews, which it deserves of course, but it's usually pegged as a heavy read, and this is a heavy topic. I was struck by, in the book pictures of you with friends and supporters that keep you going like Freada Kapor Klein, who's done a lot of work on gender. What lifts you up? I know for me as a black woman, it's my friends, my family. I also go to nature as a place of rest and recovery. What keeps you as a black woman, deep in the trenches, able to do this work?

Hill: Well, I will admit that it is fatiguing and tiring and both body and spirit honestly this kind of work. And the book is heavy. But the book is also hopeful because I'm hopeful. What keeps me up is connecting with people like Fatima Gus Graves, who is doing great work at the National Women's Law Center. The Survivors Agenda, that work. Joanne Smith, the work that she's doing. But there are two things that fatigue us. One is addressing the issues within our community and there's a wonderful woman, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, who teaches at Spelman, who does really great work on dealing with intra-community issues of gender violence. Having conversations with her, but also having conversations with white women who want to, and really believe in racial equity as part of their mission. So you find those partnerships and those alliances, and then you try to build on them. Again, all of it seems huge like boiling the ocean, but it's all necessary. And once you understand that, then you get the energy to move forward,

Chideya: Anita Hill, so grateful to speak with you. Thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic.

Hill: Thank you so much for your great questions and the work that you're doing in this space.

Chideya: That was Professor Anita hill. Her book is "Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence." In just the latest revelation about the tech industry, a former Facebook employee named, Frances Haugen blew the lid off of what she says are the social media companies decisions to choose profits over doing what's best for its users. My next guest will help us examine the real impact of a lack of regulation in tech. Dr. Nicol Turner Lee is the director of the Center for Technology Innovation and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Dr. Turner Lee, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Nicol Turner Le...: Oh, thanks for having me.

Chideya: We're going to start by chopping it up about Facebook. So whistleblower Frances Haugen went on 60 minutes to talk about company documents that she took and has shared with the SEC and other members of government and the media. And it shows what she says is a pursuit of profit, regardless of toxic effects on teens and other users of different Facebook products. Then within days, the Facebook suite of sites and platforms went down twice. Now, is this a critical inflection point for the company?

Turner Lee: So I think there's a couple of things to sort of dissect from this conversation that happened on Capitol Hill and what we're learning about Facebook as a platform in general. First and foremost, I think it's become quite clear that this is a private platform. This is not a publicly run channel. It is not necessarily supported by the corporation for public broadcasting. It's not a peg channel. It's a private company that has shareholder interests. So on one extent, just to sort of play good cop bad cop, we do see a private platform has that has been transformed into a public square. And that's challenging in and of itself, but it has enabled a lot of movements, a lot of conversations that we may not have otherwise had, right?

Turner Lee: Now, on the bad cop side, it's gone beyond pixels, and bytes, and bits. So this private company has actually become the arbiter of our public spaces. And I think that's what we actually experienced in this testimony. We've already known this. It's not like we haven't heard these things about Facebook before, right? But this is one of those cases where we have somebody who worked on the inside, who essentially gave us the intentional manipulation that's happening and gave us a view into something that I love to study, which is algorithmic bias, which I think at the end of the day is more interesting, because what we are now seeing is that it's about Facebook, but it's about this totally disruptive digital economy that is now affecting democratic processes. There's still private companies that are doing this. So they're sort of exploiting everything we know about society from this third-party view for the sake of profit. I think that's where for many of us watching this, it was really powerful to sort of see all of that revealed.

Chideya: I was really fascinated by the documents in this leak about Instagram and teen girls, including about eating disorders. I had an eating disorder as a teenager in young 20 something, and one of the leaked studies said that 17% of teen girls said their eating disorders got worst after using Instagram. That may or may not be the biggest top line issue. There have been conversations about political polarization of January 6th. All of this rolled up together, but I was really fascinated that there was tracking about the effects on teens. Is that in any way different than adults or is it just another use case? I mean, maybe it's just psychologically different to know that teenagers are struggling with their social media usage.

Turner Lee: I think there's two things. I mean, look, I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I remember after watching the hearing, I went in and did a parent check because obviously, I'm not doing my job if young people, like my own children are sucked into this new economy. I asked her about this and she said, "Yeah, ma. We do go to Instagram. You are measured by your likes and your popularity and the things you see." The difference between her generation and perhaps ours and others is that we had alternatives. We had other things to do. And young people congregate in these now online communities simply because they don't know what the alternative is. I mean, think about the pandemic. How many young people stay glued to these devices. Think about cyberbullying and how many people... I don't know about you. But in addition to young girls image of themselves, I get just distraught when I read stories of young people committing suicide at 11, 12 years old because of cyberbullying. These are problematic challenges and issues. And in my opinion, maybe if we start with young people and how these social media platforms actually impact young people that actually might be progress because maybe we could start with something that legislators can actually legislate, and we have historical precedent for how we have legislated communications around the vulnerabilities and the fragilities of our young people.

Chideya: Do you think that this might mark a point where the Democrats who want to regulate Facebook and the Republicans who want to regulate Facebook, who already wanted to regulate Facebook actually further regulate Facebook?

Turner Lee: Well see, I think that's interesting, right? Because this has been a conversation that has happened for a long time. So we have had piles of legislation that have come up. Congresswoman Yvette Clark, out of Brooklyn, right? She had the Algorithmic Accountability Act. We've seen lots of attempts to legislate this private company and the suite of other companies that sit alongside them at the dinner table, the big five. With that being the case, we've not moved forward on that. So there's probably an impetus to do something about it, but I would actually suggest that there should be an impetus to do something even further, which is to pass federal privacy legislation. Part of the reason why we see sort of these unfettered big companies taking all of our data is because they are no guardrails in place to actually tell them what to take and what not to take. We're not emboldened to say what I want to share, what I don't want to share. The algorithmic economy is one which without federal privacy legislation, it actually allows for an open playground for people or companies to take whatever they need to fulfill, whatever their question or promise is. So I think that's actually a bigger question that I would like to see this become an impetus to. And then I think we have to have a conversation around the antitrust, right? Deceptive practices, child safety online, civil rights online. All the things I love to write about, right? So that we can get to a point where we, as consumers are not necessarily exploited or manipulated in ways that we have no recourse or redress for these this malfeasance. But I know that there have been several attempts to regulate Facebook dating back to the Cambridge Analytica event, and we still have not seen them do it.

Chideya: So what are the big five?

Turner Lee: Well, the big five that we commonly refer to are Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet, which people also know as Google.

Chideya: Going to your podcast, your TechTank Podcast, the October 4th episode is about online behavioral advertising and whether... I mean, not whether it can be discriminatory, it has been used in discriminatory ways. Tell us a little bit more about what you were talking about and how it relates to the big picture?

Turner Lee: Listen, when we talk about online behavioral advertising, that is really the crux of where this is all at. If we, again, look at these private companies for what their intended purpose is, which is to become these optimized marketing platforms, then obviously it all starts with the behavioral advertising that we actually are subjected to as consumers. So what does that mean? In the podcast, we actually featured a gentleman who has a research paper coming out through Brookings on the discriminatory ads of Facebook. He essentially put out this argument that suggested that even when you blind the algorithmic models. So for people who don't know what we're talking about, the model that pretty much picks up on our repetitive actions and behaviors to give us either determinations that are pretty accurate or predictions.

Turner Lee: You still land up, even in the face of blinding those algorithms of race and sex with more discrimination. I argue even greater discrimination that we've actually seen dating back to Jim Crow laws. And why is that? The algorithm in and of itself doesn't necessarily have to know that you or I are black women, doesn't have to know where we live. It can mask itself in proxies. What is your zip code that you live in? And that zip code can point a person back to where you might live, whether it be in a predominantly black or urban or rural community. It may look at your purchasing behaviors. What types of things do you buy that may indicate the type of person you are? So essentially what the paper is saying is regardless of the attempts to actually mass discrimination, it actually enables more of it because those proxy effects, not necessarily proxies because many companies try to move away from saying they use proxies, but the effects of those proxies still factor in and then for advertisers and allows them to optimize the audiences that they want to.

Turner Lee: So there's a problem. When you give an advertiser the ability to say, "I want a person who doesn't read this, but somebody who reads that. I want a person who lives here, but doesn't live here." You and I know that that's a violation of certain acts that are on the books that protect civil rights when it comes to people in this country, the Fair Housing Act, the Fair Employment Act, the Fair Credit Act.

Chideya: Yeah. In 2019, HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development started suing Facebook for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act. You could target ads that could exclude people classified as non-American born, or even interested in Hispanic culture,. Not just Hispanic people, but are you interested? I mean, on the one hand, micro-targeting is kind of a huge part of commerce online and offline things like catalogs, also micro target. Why is this different?

Turner Lee: Well, you know why this is different is because it not only micro-targets, it micro surveils and it micro profiles. And that to me, I think is a telling point of this. Look, I'm a sociologist. I'm not a data scientist and I got into this because Dr. Latanya Sweeney, who's at Harvard, who used to be the chief technology officer over at the Federal Trade Commission, I was sitting five years ago in a demonstration that she did. She asked everybody in the audience to watch for just 30 seconds, the website for black fraternities, 100th anniversary. We all looked. Eyes are fixed to the screen. And then all of a sudden we saw ads pop up for, get your arrest record. Higher interest credit card offerings. Society knows who we are. And because algorithms are designed by people who carry the values, norms, and assumptions of society, they also know who we are and they tend to have baked in unconscious and explicit biases.

Turner Lee: I tell people all the time, computers do not discriminate, people do. And people, even when they're not aware of the interaction of the algorithm outside of the lab and the world, the context in which it's deployed, matter. So here have this tendency to think of computer modeling as efficient. I mean, look, I'm excited. I watched the Jetsons when I was brought up. All of the things that I saw are coming true. Autonomous vehicles, et cetera. But there's a problem when we don't sit back and see these sensitive use cases that have civil rights guardrails around them. And we allow models to sort of take on the behaviors of society and act those out in ways that people don't even know it's happening to them. And that was what happened with that demonstration. People who were watching that website, maybe one to find out whatever events were happening for Omega Psi Phi fraternity did not realize that they were being micro-targeted and micro-surveilled in ways that just permeate systemic inequality. And that's the problem, companies like Facebook and others, and I tell them all, you should not be allowed to regress my civil rights, particularly in an environment where I'm supposed to be, not the product of the technology, but enabled by the technology.

Chideya: Well, Dr. Turner Lee, thank you so much for joining us. And we hope that you'll do it again.

Turner Lee: Oh, always a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Chideya: That was Dr. Nicol Turner Lee of the Brookings Institution. Her podcast is called TechTank.

Chideya: Sometimes on the show, we get the opportunity to highlight people who identify a problem in a specific industry and set out to solve it in very specific ways. My next guest is one of them. Polly Irungu is the founder of Black Women Photographers, a global community and directory of black women and non-binary photographers. It started just over a year ago, when in the middle of COVID and a newly ignited racial reckoning, Polly tweeted out a link to a GoFundMe to raise relief funds for black women photographers. She distributed that cash to 70 people, and the group now has 700 members.

Polly Irungu: I think the biggest thing is like I'm trying to create those opportunities and resources that I wish I had when I first started, when I first dove into the world of photography. Unfortunately, it's still very white male dominated industry. So some of the resources within black women photographers includes grants, exhibitions, portfolio reviews, events, and workshops, and talks, and trainings all for free. I'm really just trying to close the gaps of just equity in the photo industry at large, but also just for me, when I first started as a photographer during my undergrad at the University of Oregon, I didn't know any other black photographers let alone black women photographers and trying to get my foot in the door within the world of journalism and photography was just way too hard. There are just so many barriers within this industry. And for me, I'm just trying to solve as many as I can.

Chideya: Polly was born in Kenya, grew up in Kansas and her family moved to Oregon when she was in high school. Struggling to adjust to a new state and school, she was encouraged to join the yearbook, which is where she fell in love with storytelling. She also worked at McDonald's to buy her own camera.

Irungu: Being in that traditional African household, I was expected to pursue something more traditional like nursing academia, doctor, lawyer. All of those jokes are true. There are some truth to that, but without growing up and just my traditional Kenyan upbringing and without then learning just about the different contributions of black photographers in American history, and then also African photographers, I mean, I wouldn't be where I am today without that. Unfortunately, those were the things that are not really taught in class. You have to seek that information. I just learned yesterday that the New York Times has only had two black women photographers in their history of the organization as a staff photographers. So there's so much work to be done. And when you go to a traditional photo class, they only teach the white photographers primarily, and then maybe sprinkling some Gordon Parks, but that's pretty much it. You really have to seek that information. So for me, I really just try to do right by the communities that I'm in and my subjects that I'm photographing, the people I'm photographing. Honestly, I just think about it like myself. If I was flipping the camera on myself, would I want to be seen this way?

Chideya: Polly makes it a point to say that she is self-taught in her bios. I asked why.

Irungu: For myself and for so many of the photographers in the community, I mean, we have to be. Affording art school is a privilege. A camera itself can cost over $1,200 USD. Lenses, several hundred of thousands. Portfolio reviews with photo editors are hundreds of dollars per year. It shouldn't be so hard to get your portfolio reviewed for free. It shouldn't be so hard to enter a contest or a grant. And if you can't afford the fee associated to that contest, then you can't apply it. It should not be so hard to find a mentor or just ask questions and receive those answers. For a lot of us, we just had to find the way ourselves.

Chideya: Many of us, myself included know that getting feedback from those that came before us is critical and connecting both new and established photographers is another way that Polly's work is making an impact.

Irungu: For example, one of the photographers in the community, she had a portfolio review with someone at Reuters. She was hired by Reuters to pursue her personal project and was published. That was her first time being published by a major publication. And now she has gone on to be on assignment for Bloomberg and Business Insider. That is why it's important.

Chideya: Black women photographers has held free workshops, set up grants like its latest grant partnership with Nikon that helps photographers pay for gear and funds personal projects up to $10,000. And most importantly, it's created a vital community.

Irungu: There's over 500 photographers in this slack community. And there's an advice channel where ask questions like, "Is this an okay rate to set? Should I charge more for this licensing fee?" I just think within the industry, there's so much gate-keeping. For us, that is not the case. We're happy to send over editors or whatever information you're looking for, because we know that we all start somewhere. We all are trying to go to that next level, whatever that looks like. For example, New York fashion week occurred a few weeks back. I know I wasn't able to attend, but I submitted some photographers for consideration. I made a pitch to NPR and then I was able to get five photographers hired and published for NPR. That's what it looks like when people are lifting as they climb, when they want to support each other. And that is what we do within this community.

Chideya: Polly Irungu is currently a photo editor fellow at The Intercept. And she's the founder of Black Women Photographers. You can find information about the collective and the grant applications open now at blackwomenphotographers.com.

Chideya: Now, it's time for Sipping the Political Tea. This week we have our regular contributor, Errin Haines, editor-at-large at The 19th back with us. Hey, Errin.

Errin Haines: And a pumpkin spice hello to you, Farai.

Chideya: I am feeling that fall feeling. And we've also got Our Body Politic legal analyst, Tiffany Jeffers. Welcome, Tiffany.

Tiffany Jeffers: Thanks, Farai. It's good to be here.

Chideya: So Errin, what are we talking about today?

Haines: A lot. I mean, look, let's just start with this new political poll showing that a majority of Republican voters support former president Donald Trump for president in 2024. Okay, Farai. What does this suggest to you about where voters stand today?

Chideya: It's really interesting. I mean, as someone who went out in 2016 and covered different demographics of Trump voters, including Southern white evangelicals, Eastern Ohio folks who were concerned about rebuilding jobs in the rust belt, but also immigration, et cetera, former president Donald Trump actually attracted a very intersectional group of interest within a overwhelmingly white electorate, which actually became more people of color in 2020 than in 2016. All of which is to say he has staying power. There are many different people inside the GOP who either want another Trumpist, not Trump, but someone with his values, but not him. And there are others like former governor Todd Whitman, who was like vote for Democrats in the midterms. That was just a big op-ed that she coauthored. The reality is right now, the party is still a Trumpist party. And Trump is still the number one Trumpist. That's essentially what this is saying, but none of the other people who have embraced his values have his support.

Haines: Yeah. I mean, very much so. Right. I think what we know almost a year out is that former president Trump may be out of office and he is off of Twitter, but he is not out of power. Right? I mean, it looks like he's running. I mean, he was just in Iowa earlier this month and he still is very much weaponizing the big lie to continue to hold control over the GOP and the folks who are still in it who want to also hold on to power. So Tiffany, what can we expect if former president Trump remains a major political figure?

Jeffers: Well, legally we can expect nothing essentially because the constitutional guidance on who can run for president is three things. You need to be 35 years old, you need to be born in the United States, and you need to be a legal resident of the United States for 14 years. All of which Donald Trump is. And I've had people ask me, "Well, what about the investigations? What about the fact that we he's a known criminal?" It doesn't matter, unfortunately, under the law. So if Donald Trump chooses to run for president again, as Farai has been saying, there's a viable chance he could win. And that's a really scary thing to think about because he has built a base that has lasting power. And now, Errin, as you've said, he's running again on the big lie, and that seems to be pretty powerful to his supporters. They actually believe in the veracity of it, not just in him, but that the last election was stolen from him. When people feel that they need to vindicate a wrong, they're powerful.

Chideya: And I just want to jump in. There's a lot going on with the January 6th investigation. There are subpoenas out for Steve Bannon and for other Trump staffers and advisors. Bannon is going to defy the subpoena and is facing a contempt charge. But this goes back to Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell had the chance to participate in impeachment and he chose to essentially block impeachment and yet excoriate the president. So trying to have the cake and eat it too. And it'll be interesting to see what Mitch McConnell wing of the GOP, which is I would describe it as not Trumpist, but happy to use Trumpism to retain power. I'm going to be watching Mitch and seeing how he operates in this slow run up to 2024.

Haines: Yeah. Maybe that wing is Trump adjacent, Farai. But look, I think we have to just keep an eye on these poll numbers. This latest morning consult poll shows two thirds of Republican voters saying they want former President Trump to run for president in 2024. 29% say that he shouldn't. So depending on how things play out over the course of the next couple of years as things turn back towards presidential politics, it'll be interesting to see how these poll numbers change.

Jeffers: The non-Trumper contingency of the Republican Party is still attracted to the absolute power that brings over his electorate. And so regardless of whether they agree with him as a person, ideologically, they're attracted to what he can do for the party and their agenda.

Haines: Yeah. So let's turn to Texas because the state is back in the news again. Let's listen to this clip from Peacock TV about the legal showdown on the abortion law.

TV clip: The push-pull over reproductive freedom in America is continuing to play out in courts all across the country. Attorney General Merrick Garland, and the Justice Department are pushing for the courts to halt the Texas abortion law.

Haines: Yeah. Tiffany, I'm getting whiplash trying to keep up with this thing, but there's a lot to unpack here. So the Texas abortion law went into effect, SB8. It was briefly blocked, now it's back. What should we know about the legal back and forth in Texas?

Jeffers: Yeah, Errin. The most important thing too to remember right now is that access to abortion for women in Texas is almost non-existent because this bill is good law. At this point until SCOTUS grant cert, there's nothing that can be done to provide access to those women and in Texas. In six weeks, many women don't know they're pregnant at that point. And so it's really dire circumstances for the residents of Texas at this point.

Haines: Okay. Wait, Tiffany. What do you mean by "good law?" Isn't this threatening like half a century of precedent? Explain to the folks listening what you mean by that?

Jeffers: When I say good law, I mean that it's the current law is the law of the land. It hasn't been overturned and no one has said, this is wrong. I don't mean good in that it's a good thing that this is the law. I mean, that it's the law right now. So this Texas bill has done something that no other abortion challenge has done. It attacks not by ability. So they're not saying that a fetus is a baby after six weeks. What this Texas bill does is it picks at the conscience of bystanders and residents of Texas and it deputizes them, giving them the ability to sue civilly clinics and women who would seek or anyone who's aiding and abetting a person who would seek an abortion. So that puts providers in a precarious position because they don't have the means to challenge all of these lawsuits from anyone who feels offended, that someone would dare seek an abortion. No other law has challenged abortion rights in this way. The other laws have challenged the viability of the fetus saying that a fetus could survive outside of the womb at these earlier weeks than what we have now as the law through Roe 26 weeks. This is the first law that deputizes and gives random citizens the right to challenge just based on their personal offense. Anyone who would seek or help a woman seek access to abortion. And so I don't even know where this Texas bill came from. I don't know who the brain child, what the strategy was behind it, but it's scary in the fact that the court did nothing when they had the opportunity under the shadow docket to stop this in its tracks. So now it's the "good law". As I said before, it's the law of the land in Texas.

Haines: So Tiffany, you mentioned the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court seemed inclined on Tuesday to let the Kentucky attorney general try to defend a state law that's currently blocked by the lower courts that would ban a commonly used abortion procedure. Now, the justices aren't going to take up Mississippi's direct challenge to Roe vs. Wade until December 1st, and decisions in both of those cases aren't likely to be issued by late June. Meanwhile, new abortion legislation is being introduced in states like Florida, Kentucky, and Mississippi. Where do you see this going?

Jeffers: Errin, it's difficult to tell because this conservative court could be working to dismantle Roe in a substantive way. Meaning they could be working to overturn precedent of 50 years, or this could all just be part of the Republican machine to keep abortion rights in the conversation for as long as possible with voters. It's really difficult to tell how these political masterminds with all the money operate. I want to believe that the court will follow precedent, but what I've seen in recent opinions is that the court is using shady analysis to craft opinions that they're saying is based in originalism, but it doesn't even follow the originalism components of legal analysis, and they're upending precedent in ways that logistically don't follow reason. It's really difficult to assess what's going to happen next.

Haines: And Farai, in terms of this kind of showdown that has been a long time coming over abortion rights, is this more or less what you expected?

Chideya: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that this is part of a multilayered culture war that has a lot of different streams going into the same direction, which is power. Here on the show, we created Our Body Politic to talk about the role of women of color in power and civil society for the good of all. All of this sort of franchising of different types of legislation, whether it is about critical race theory or sort of anti-trans legislation, it's all part of an us-them strategy to mobilize the base. So it's 0% surprising to me that this is kind of a franchise model.

Haines: Yeah. Well, speaking of power in the culture wars, let's weigh in on these new legal battles over masks in schools that are being fought across the country. Here's a clip about one Minnesota lawsuit from CBS.

TV clip: A group of Iron Range parents are suing their local school district over its COVID safety protocols. More than 200 parents in the Rock Ridge School District launched the suit in court yesterday.

Haines: Okay. So Tiffany, are you surprised that this issue is being taken to court?

Jeffers: No, I'm not surprised because we're just at that place as Farai said. We're in a season of culture wars and when Donald Trump politicized mask wearing at the beginning of the pandemic, it took a life of its own. So I'm not surprised that parents and school boards and governors are suing over mask mandates. I'm surprised at how it's gaining traction in the law, because this is not new. Having mandates in schools about healthcare components to keep people safe is sort of basic legal standards. You get your vaccinations. There are very few ways you can get an exemption from getting the regular immunizations that are required to go to public school. So I'm surprised that these challenges are gaining traction, but I'm not surprised that they're happening.

Haines: Yeah. So not surprised, but I mean, what are the legal precedents for what really amounts to a public health issue?

Jeffers: Yeah. The precedent is based more in the religious freedom sect of not religiously or having some type of religious, civil liberties exemption to getting immunized. I don't know that there's precedent in a mask. Of course, there's no precedent of mask wearing because we've never been in this specific situation before. But even when it comes to school uniforms, there's no precedent about what schools and localities can do municipalities because they just have the authority to govern what happens in their building for the safety and protection of all. So this is new. There's no precedent that tells us schools can or can't control behavior in that particular type of way because it's just been a given.

Haines: Yeah. I mean, well, you've got legal battles over mass in schools being fought across the country right now. Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Nevada, Texas. And on the opposite side of that debate, you've got about 12 states in the district of Columbia that are requiring students to wear masks indoors. This is something that we've been covering at the 19th quite a bit, because we've got so many parents that are interested in what this means for them where they live. Farai, I want to bring you in on this. I mean, mass mandates in schools continue to be this political debate, but from a mental health perspective, I mean the fatigue of this, how can parents and children and school officials really move forward here?

Chideya: I'm going to go to a personal story, which is that I spoke recently with a former college classmate who is in an East Coast metropolitan area and reached out because there has been a massive weaponization of masks. She described people showing up with protest signs, anti-masking protest signs about schools that said, "I can't breathe." As a white woman, she was understandably offended and understood that there was a specific context to using the words of Eric Garner to protest against masks. It's kind of like a one-two punch. It's like in case you didn't know who I am, here I am. And apparently also there were comparisons to the Holocaust masking and she was like, "Yeah, no. As a Jewish person, this has nothing to do with the Holocaust. So this is all been put in a blender and to get to your question about mental health, I think the stress of dealing with the combined xenophobia, sometimes antisemitism, racism that also gets embedded in these fights is wearing people out. And yet they're still people who are parents and civic leaders are still trying to figure out how to have civil dialogues with their neighbors and their kids, friends, parents. But it's getting really painful, I think. In this case, this person wished that the Biden administration had been more firm about federal guidance on school masking and not left it as much to states and municipalities.

Haines: Yeah. I mean, so moving to the enforcement piece of this, Tiffany, there's a discussion about basically what comes down to parental rights and personal liberties versus public health. Schools, like you said, wanting to provide the safe environment for school children, too young to be vaccinated or with disabilities, can schools lawfully enforce mask rules on students? And what is the legal position on that?

Jeffers: Schools can lawfully enforce mask mandates. It's systematic through school boards who most are elected officials and then through local entities, the mayors, city council, and then up through the state in that way. The governance of what happens in a local school shouldn't come down from the state governor. This comes up similar to a grassroots organization doing that type of work. It starts in the local school. And that's the first layer of who has the right to govern what students can wear, what's required for safety purposes in that specific building, and then the district level. So this is legal. Schools can tell students that they have to wear a mask in their building. This is not an illegal act that the school is engaging in.

Haines: So at The 19th, we definitely been covering this issue of school mass mandates because we have a lot of parents trying to understand what this is going to mean in their district where they live. We've got coverage up for example, the states that are really facing kind of the biggest fights and risks over school mask mandates and have the threat of COVID to kids during the back-to-school season can vary literally depending on where you live. So please check that out. When you have a chance, that's also a story that we will be updating as this debate continues. Well, we got to wrap it up there and we're out of T. Thank you so much for joining me, Tiffany and Farai.

Jeffers: Thanks, Errin.

Chideya: And thank you for leading this, Errin. And thank you, Tiffany, both of you for your brilliance. Appreciate you both. That was Errin Haines, editor-at-large at The 19th, and OBP legal analyst, Tiffany Jeffers, professor at Georgetown law.

Chideya: Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior editor is Veralyn Williams. Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure are our senior producers. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mix this episode. Our political booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt and Natyna Bean. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BME community, Katie McGrath and JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Anita Hill on Fighting Gender Violence for Thirty Years, How the Digital Economy Infringes on Our Civil Rights, and the Mask Debate in Schools.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. October 15, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/