Our Body Politic

Centering the Experiences of Afghan Women, Why the U.N. Climate Report is a Gift, and #MeToo as a Social Justice Issue

Episode Notes

Farai Chideya talks with Nadia Hashimi, an Afghan-American pediatrician and novelist who advocates for Afghan women, about what she’s hearing from people on the ground there now. Tech contributor Mutale Nkonde explains how average social media users are being pulled into a network of disinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine. New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta makes the case that there’s still a lot we can do to mitigate climate disaster. On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Errin Haines of The 19th and Brittany Packnett Cunningham of the podcast Undistracted join Farai to discuss voting rights, New York’s new Governor, and why we need to reframe #MeToo as a social justice issue.


0:20 Afghan-American author Nadia Hashimi on the urgency to evacuate Afghan women

12:32 Tech contributor Mutale Nkonde on how disinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine is spreading

22:07 New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta on the latest climate science

31:21 Sippin’ the Political Tea: Errin Haines of The 19th and Brittany Packnett Cunningham of the podcast Undistracted join Farai to talk about the week’s news

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. Thanks to those of you who helped us shape the show with your input since the very beginning. We love hearing from new and loyal listeners, so after you listen today, please head over to Apple podcast on whatever device you're listening to right now and leave us a review. Your input makes a difference. Thank you.

Chideya: This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Time is running out for the U.S. and its allies to get people out of Afghanistan. On Thursday, multiple bombs set off outside the airport in Kabul killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 90 Afghan people, many of them trying to flee the country as the Taliban re-establishes control. ISIS-K, a regional ISIS affiliate, claimed responsibility for the attacks. President Joe Biden vowed retribution, saying: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.” The President also indicated the military would still complete its mission to leave Afghanistan by August 31st. And sticking to that timeline is something that troubles many people seeking safe passage for U.S. allies in Afghanistan. One of them is Nadia Hashimi, a pediatrician, writer and advocate for Afghan women. She's on the board of the Afghan-American Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that advocates for Afghan-Americans in the US. Last week, activist projected a video of her addressing remarks to President Biden on an outer wall of the State Department building in D.C.

Nadia Hashimi: I'm delivering this urgent message to you because of the catastrophe unfolding in my ancestral home of Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghan civilians who stood alongside our troops risk being hunted down by the Taliban if we abandon them.

Chideya: Hashimi has been calling for the administration to extend the August 31st deadline for complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Nadia, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Hashimi: Thanks so much. It's good to be here.

Chideya: I can only imagine just the level of intensity that this moment in history holds for you. And you wear a lot of hats, we're going to talk about a few different things you do, including your writing, but let's start with your work as part of the Afghan-American Foundation Board. I understand the foundation has met with the State Department and is seeking other meetings. What is being sought?

Hashimi: In this urgent moment, all eyes really are on the airport, and what's happening right now, these people who are asylum seekers, who are refugees who believed in America, and you can see how many people believe in America because they are clamoring and losing their lives to get on these planes and get out of there. Beyond that, there is a bigger picture, and that is, what is going to happen after August 31st or after whatever deadline? I'm still holding out hopes, although they're getting more dim by the minute. After that deadline, are we going to completely disengaged from what's happening in Afghanistan or are we going to keep an eye on the 30 plus million of people who still live in that country and are now forced to endure a Taliban regime that we know will be suffocating? We have commitments that we have made as a nation to honoring the women's role in government and in countries that are reconstructing from conflict, that was in the Women's Peace and Security Act. And if we completely disengage, we won't have any knowledge, there will be no accountability on the Taliban as to human rights, women's rights. And they've promised an inclusive government, they've made a lot of really pretty promises to the international community, but who is going to know? Is anyone going to check on them or is there going to be any accountability at all? And that's where humanitarian aid is important, some presence, some accountability is critical. There has been a big disconnect between, I think, what is wise, what is honorable, and then what this administration has been doing, I'm very sad to say.

Chideya: Have people been contacting you directly from Afghanistan?

Hashimi: Yes. Yes, we've been getting lots of messages. My inboxes are absolutely exploding with messages from people who are either in Afghanistan or people who are writing on behalf of people who are in Afghanistan, people who are across the world who are just trying to be supportive. I see a lot of distance between the people who are in charge and then the will of humanity, right. So the people in America, I see so much outpouring of sympathy, I've gotten so many messages from my neighbors, from my colleagues, from strangers, from book readers who are asking me, "How can I help?" And I just wish that the people at the top who are actually making decisions had that sentiment as well.

Chideya: What stories are you hearing from the ground?

Hashimi: They're really heartbreaking stories and some are actual stories that have been relayed to me verbally. And I have to protect people's identities, but someone who had been in an official position, she and a colleague were on their way somewhere and the Taliban stopped them, asked them where they were going, and then laughed at them when they gave their positions. They said, "Those are your former positions." And one told her not to talk so much about women's rights because he said, "You're young and you don't deserve to die." Someone else said that their brother was threatened because of the work that she had been doing. We've got members who are reporting that the Taliban are not able to look them in the eye, and so when they try to speak to one, the Taliban are looking away, and they say, "I can't look at your face", truly is so dehumanizing. And I heard about a 12 year old girl who is scared now to walk to a relative's house because she's worried that she might be taken by the Taliban. So there's a lot of fear. You've got journalists who have been murdered, we have people who are being turned away on their way to the airport by Taliban checkpoints. I've heard that the Taliban are searching people looking for documents. I've heard reports that people are hiding their phones because if the Taliban go through them and look at what communications they've had, they may be deemed traitors. And I've seen videos of a woman being flogged by the Taliban for various small trespasses. So these are really scary reports that we're hearing and this is only going to get worse. Imagine this is what's happening while the world is still paying attention.

Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). We had a conversation on our Roundtable last week and really got into the question of, are we projecting our desires in the West on what Afghan women should be? How do you feel about these questions of life, and liberty, and self determination, but also the gaze of the West falling upon Afghanistan?

Hashimi: Yes, I think that's a really good question. There's a fine line between trying to impose our views of how they should be empowered women, versus honoring what it is that they want for themselves. And so it takes the listeners here, right, we've got to do a lot of listening first. And that's what I hope that I'm doing when I'm talking to women who are in Afghanistan who are doing the work, I'm looking at, what are their priorities? Their priorities really have not been on their clothing, which I think is one very visible and outward way that we judge how advanced a society is, or how progressive it is, or how much it empowers its women. I had a group that I met with recently and one person told me, this was before the Taliban took over, but they asked me, "Do you think that Afghan women will be able to wear miniskirts again?" And I don't think that's what they're worried about.

Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Hashimi: That is not really their priority. Their priorities have been opportunities for education, opportunities to go to work, and to be able to provide for their families in a safe environment with a safe society. And I think our job, if we want to be their allies, is to lift up those priorities.

Chideya: I want to talk a little bit about your books, specifically, Sparks Like Stars, which came out this spring. To me, it really has the pacing of a thriller, but it gets into trauma, it gets into intergenerational connection, morality, it's really quite expansive. So I want to go into one part of your character's journey, Arianna, a doctor in New York on 911. And that's also part of your story, isn't it?

Hashimi: It is. And 911, of course, is a critical moment in all Americans' history. I think we have this pre-911 and post-911 divide in our minds and in our chronology. And for the Afghan-American population as well, it really separates us from a period of anonymity to a period of almost infamy initially, and then slowly people started to understand what was going on in Afghanistan, who we were, and just a bit more of the landscape. And so I just wanted to include that moment, not because I really wanted to talk about my experience, but rather, I wanted to talk about what the Afghan-American experience was. And the second half of the story is truly about this resurrection of this individual as an Afghan American and what it takes to carry that identity as someone who comes from a land that it has been so afflicted by trauma.

Chideya: What does your identity as an Afghan-American mean to you? It's clearly very dear to you in that you've consistently given service to the broader community. What does it mean?

Hashimi: It's my culture. And when we think of what our culture does for us, it's at the most critical moments that we lean into it, and it's how we celebrate, right? So like my wedding, for example, was full of Afghan culture, when my children were born, there were certain traditions that we performed because those were moments that we wanted to reef in the traditions and the things that our ancestors did. And to be able to pass that on to our children, to be able to share that with a community really is something that it has enriched my life. And that's why I feel it's really important to maintain those connections. And that's what makes it so heartbreaking when I'm looking at what's happening a world away with people that I probably haven't met in my entire life but I share a connection with them because I know that if we were in a room together, we would be eating the same foods, we would be speaking the same language, we would know the same holidays, we would have these same traditions, and that's what binds us. So that's why it's really important for me to hang on to it.

Chideya: Yes. As an Afghan-American, you have also run for Congress, you ran for congress in 2018. What does the American part of Afghan-American mean in the context of all the different levels at which you serve?

Hashimi: I love my American identity. I may not be proud of what this administration is doing in this moment, but I am proud to be an American. I cherish the ability to say that, I cherish the freedoms that I have. And I think that it's really important that we not waste those opportunities too, and that's why I have been involved locally. And when I ran for office, it was more because I wanted to speak up on healthcare issues that were affecting people in our community.

Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). How do we center the voices of Afghan people while we talk about this moment?

Hashimi: I think it's just focusing on the needs. What I've been really disappointed in, what's been really distracting and unproductive is all the partisan politics around this moment, right. And so, Afghans are basically losing their lives again in this proxy war, and this time it's a proxy war between Democrats and Republicans, where we've seen a lot of people on one side of the aisle saying, "It was your president that caused this situation", and the same thing vice versa on the other side of the aisle, and guess who that doesn't help at all? It's the Afghan people who at this moment are facing an absolute crisis in their land. So that's really where I think we've got to be adults, we've got to look at the actual situation and not look at what our polling numbers are or what we're going to need to get through the next election, we need these people to actually make decisions that benefit people.

Chideya: Well, Nadia, we are so grateful that you were able to join us. Thank you so much.

Hashimi: Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.

Chideya: That was author of Sparks Like Stars, an Afghan-American advocate, Nadia Hashimi. The Pentagon has ordered all active duty and reserve service members to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In this case, the Pfizer one, which was just granted full authorization from the FDA. According to the Defense Department, about 68% of active duty service members have already been fully vaccinated. In the general population, nearly 172 million people or about 52% of the US are fully vaccinated according to the CDC, but many are still falling prey to vaccine misinformation on social media.

Chideya: Earlier this month, Facebook said it had removed hundreds of accounts on Facebook and Instagram that were spreading false information about the vaccines. Those accounts were traced back to a marketing firm with ties to Russia. Here to dissect this topic with us is Mutale Nkonde, our tech and AI contributor. Mutale, welcome back to Our Body Politic.

Mutale Nkonde: Farai, it's so good to see you. I've missed you. How are you?

Chideya: I have been doing really well and wearing my masks in a lot of places that I was hoping not to have to wear masks anymore, just saying. But that leads us into the first topic, which is, vaccine hesitancy. And we know that you are an expert on dis- and misinformation that seems to be affecting the vaccine rollout and the continuing issues with some people not wanting it. And how does that break down by race?

Nkonde: When we look at who is actually getting sick, we know that it's more likely to be Black, Latinx and other folks of color who are not taking the vaccine, and a lot of it is to do with what I would argue is actually disinformation. So the difference is misinformation is just me telling you something and it's not true, but I don't have any sinister intent. I happen to tell you, Farai, I'm 120 pounds. Not true, but nothing is going to come from it. Disinformation is when I tell you something that's not true with the goal of pushing you towards taking a particular behavior, often against your own best interest. And we're seeing this with vaccines, we're seeing social media campaigns where good old blackface shows up digitally, these accounts that look and are supposed to feel black, but they're saying, "Don't get the vaccine", and really harking back to medical racism of the past, which is a true phenomenon, but what's not true is that this particular vaccine is going to harm you rather than protect you from COVID and the variants.

Chideya: Yes, I think that there's a lot to process there. And there was a report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center For Countering Digital Hate, and it found that the majority of disinformation being spread about COVID-19 came from only 12 online personalities. How does that resonate with you?

Nkonde: It's a phenomenon called networked disinformation. Once a disinformation narrative has been spun, for example, an election was not legitimate, once that's been spun, all you need are a group of ready and willing bad actors to not only use their own organic pages, so updating social media, spreading it through their networks, but they can then use automated means of getting this through, so this is where we get into troll farms, this is where we get into fake accounts, as well as, once it looks like you have momentum on social media, you're then picking up people who already are wondering and you're engaging in bias reinforcement. Now imagine going to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, Clubhouse, and you keep seeing that same message. You are then going to start to think, well, all of these other places are saying it, YouTube, they said it on the internet, it must be true. And then you become part of that networked disinformation, but you yourself are not a malicious actor, you have just seen something that reinforces a bias that you already had, and those 12 people that had mal intent, now have been able to network and spread their message across the information system.

Chideya: There's been a lot going on in terms of looking at how companies can or cannot consolidate into monopolies and the federal regulations around that. And so the Biden/Harris administration issued an executive order last month about curtailing monopolies, does that really apply to the technology industry?

Nkonde: Yes, I absolutely think it does. One of the things I really appreciate about how we're now thinking about antitrust, is that the Biden/Harris administration are inviting new thinking even on the topic of antitrust. So the appointment of Lina Khan into the FTC is really encouraging for people like me, because Khan's work on this idea that we need to start thinking about these tech companies as the Standard Oil of our time, the literal robber barons of our time, comes from this assertion that she published in a paper in legal scholarship where she points out that when we were looking at Standard Oil, we were thinking about companies that were not being competitive on price, so they were price gouging, they were really squeezing the consumer. But in this tech era, it's not price that's the issue. Many of these companies that she's targeting actually give their stuff away for free if we're thinking of Facebook and we're thinking of Twitter, but what they want is scale. So rather than charging the consumer with money, they're really charging us with data, they're charging us with attention, they're charging us with these other elements that because they sit outside of price, enable their lawyers to say, "Well, we're not a monopoly, our stuff we give away for free", and we haven't seen that previously. So I for one, I'm really satisfied with how I'm seeing antitrust being thought about.

Chideya: So Mutale, what other political events or news items are you seeing out there where we have to keep an eye on dis- and misinformation, including, I believe that you are thinking about this in the context of the UN Climate Change report?

Nkonde: The way we have allowed the climate change narrative to get away from us over the last 30-40 years means that, that's really the number one issue that I worry about in terms of disinformation. Also in my personal capacity, I'm an angel investor, and one of the things that I've been looking at in terms of building my own portfolio are, which companies out there are thinking about how to solve what I call caring and sharing problems? And one of the problems is the earth. And this is something that we're seeing across investment landscape. So already, we're not even into the fourth quarter, we have spent, as investors, $14.2 billion on climate change technologies, because AI, as it happens, has the opportunity to scale solutions that might help mitigate and slow this down, but the thing that we also have to remember when we're saying AI can solve the problem, let's just create an app to fix this, is that AI technology itself has a climatic impact. The reason being that in order to process the computational processes that it takes for the technology to work, we need to use processors, these processors have to use electricity, and they use so much electricity that the carbon emissions that they produce end up being more than fleets of cars in their lifetime. So I really encourage folks to not think of technology being in one corner and we never think about it, and climate being in another corner and we don't think about it, but think of the two together to think about, who are the people who are even allowing these companies to exist? And then think about the fact that women of color only get less than 1% of that investment. So the reason I went into that arena is that I am looking for women like me, who have dreams as big as I did, who are thinking about saving the earth and saving the climate, and putting my two pennies in to make sure that these solutions actually get made.

Chideya: Mutale, thank you so much for joining us.

Nkonde: Thank you, Farai. I love being here. And stay safe.

Chideya: That was Mutale Nkonde, CEO of AI For the People and Our Body Politic's tech contributor. The UN Climate Change report released this month gives a pretty dire diagnosis, the planet is going to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius or nearly three degrees Fahrenheit of warming in the next 20 years. It's up to humans whether the planet gets much hotter than that. Our next guest argues that there's still a lot we can do. Somini Sengupta is international climate reporter for The New York Times. Somini, welcome.

Somini Sengupta: Thanks for having me.

Chideya: How are you feeling? So many people I know who have read about the climate report are just profoundly depressed, what about you?

Sengupta: It's a remarkable gift that scientists are offering to ordinary people like me, and that is a set of binoculars to look at the road ahead and to look at the various paths that we might take on that road ahead. So we know that no matter what we do, temperatures are going to continue to rise, and that means more intense heat waves, more intense wildfires like we're seeing in the West, sea level rise that threaten coastal cities like New York City, and Los Angeles, and San Francisco and others. But we definitely have a chance to keep it from getting much, much worse. And we know how to do that, and that's also the value of this report. In order to limit temperatures from rising much higher, much faster, we know that there are really three things that we can do. One is to switch from burning coal, and oil, and gas to produce electricity and to heat our homes. The other is switching from gas and diesel for our cars and our trucks. And the third is to stop mowing down forests that absorb carbon, stop mowing down forests to grow chicken feed and beef. So we know the things that we can do, they're technologically possible, they're financially possible, they're politically, in many places, difficult.

Chideya: Who really has the big decision making power, is it just big corporations and governments or does my composting make a difference? I don't know.

Sengupta: Well, this is a perennial question, right? Does what we do individually, does it matter or does it need structural change? In some ways it is a false dichotomy and a very American dilemma that we get into, right, the question of individual responsibility. To my mind, given what the scientists know about climate change, to my mind, there's no question that composting and going vegan will not reduce emissions at a scale or a pace necessary to avert catastrophic heat waves, or sea level rise, or any of the other big climate impacts. There's also no question that politicians, and bankers, and corporate chiefs will not shift away from a economy based on fossil fuels to a clean economy without pressure from citizens, especially in democratic countries. So the awareness of the problem, knowing what the solutions can be, talking about it with your friends and neighbors, finding out who is making these decisions, finding out, for example, does the infrastructure package that Congress has been debating, what does that have to do with climate change? Who are the members of Congress who are for and against? Where is your 401K invested? What is your bank investing in? And figuring out what you want to do about it. You in your community can exercise, particularly in democratic society, can exercise some influence over the big structural changes that need to be made?

Chideya: And what about the role of different governments.

Sengupta: If you look at the emissions that are already in the atmosphere that have already warmed up average global temperatures, who's responsible for that? By and large, the United States and Europe historically have contributed most of those emissions that don't just disappear, they stay in the atmosphere and they are responsible for the warming that we are seeing so far. And since the 1980s, so is China. China's emissions are by far the largest share of global greenhouse emissions today. So it's really a handful of countries that can make a really, really big difference, not least because they're responsible for the greatest share of historical emissions, but they're also the countries with the capacity, with the resources to make a difference.

Chideya: So there was an article that came out in the New York Times about three years ago, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, and among other things, it made me think so much about the climate denialism. There is a sign that with so much evidence, people who had previously been climate deniers, including those in politics and public policy, are starting to change. Do you think that's the case?

Sengupta: To some extent, yes. We've had for decades, really useful, really specific, precise projections from scientists, we've been offered these binoculars before. But the people who can really make a difference, policymakers, corporate bosses, bankers, finance years, have basically looked through those binoculars and shrugged. But the question I think before particularly the rich world right now is this, having seen close up the impacts in our own communities, having seen very close up the wildfires in the American West, the insane heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, the floods in Germany and Belgium, in China, what are these key countries and these key industries going to do, given the very precise projections that we've just seen from the scientific community?

Chideya: What's on your mind in terms of future coverage since this is your beat?

Sengupta: I think for the next few months, as we head into the international climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland in November, I'm going to look at what the major emitter countries are going to do. And I also really want to look at, what are cities, and communities, and countries doing already to make that big shift from a gray economy to a green economy? Who is improving public transit, for example? Who is developing the technology to heat homes without fossil fuels? And what are the forces that are standing in the way of that transition?

Chideya: Finally, this is, again, more of a emotional question, are you optimistic that humanity can act to save our species and our ecosystem? I mean, maybe that's a little too personal, but do you think we have it in us?

Sengupta: Here's the thing, I think that my most valuable contribution is to traffic in neither hope nor despair, but to put knowledge out there to really help the rest of us understand what we have done and how we can make our lives better. So yes, do I think it's possible? Absolutely. Do I think that it is eminently possible to avert some of the really worst effects of climate change? Yes. Is it possible to adapt? Yes. It does require enormous resources, enormous political will, and again, particularly in democratic countries, it requires citizens learning about it, talking about it, and putting pressure on the people who make the decisions.

Chideya: Somini, great having you on again.

Sengupta: Thank you. Thanks for your interest.

Chideya: That was Somini Sengupta of the New York Times. Each week on the show we bring you a Roundtable called, Sippin' the Political Tea. This week on the Roundtable I'm joined by Errin Haines, Our Body Politic's contributor extraordinaire and editor-at-large at The 19th. Hey, Errin.

Errin Haines: Contributor extraordinaire, my new bio.

Chideya: That's right. And we've also got Brittany Packnett Cunningham, lifelong activist, vice president of social impact at BET, and NBC News and MSNBC contributor and host of her own podcast, Undistracted. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Brittany.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham:

That's a lot of jobs. But I'm glad to be here. I'm always glad to be with y'all.

Chideya: Errin, handing the host mic to you. What tea are we sipping this week?

Haines: Oh, well, Farai, I think we've got our sip on the voting rights blend, because we've been following the progress of these federal voting rights bills, this week H.R.4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed in the House. And like its predecessor, H.R.1, the For the People Act, we know this legislation has an uphill battle in a deeply partisan Senate. But Farai, realistically speaking, I just want to ask you, what is the significance of what happened this week? Is this going to be enough to protect voting rights at the local level where Republican state legislators continue to put up barriers to voters?

Chideya: I think that this is a really interesting moment in history. It was an overwhelmingly partisan vote, 219 Democrats in favor and all 212 Republicans opposed, and the battle in the Senate is going to be extremely tight with a 50/50 Senate. I do think that still it's a fitting moment for John Lewis, he went out fighting. The pictures of him at Black Lives Matter Plaza were ones that were happening while he was dying of cancer, and he knew he was dying and his associates knew he was dying. Even as history is being written, I have to think about how we evolve from purely valuing democracy which says, the majority always rules, to also valuing pluralism and participation, those are values that were not included when the Constitution was written. It was written to empower the Civic rights of white land owning men. And I know a lot of people are sick of hearing that, but every woman who has ever been a constitutional originalist is basically saying that, "Okay, I'm willing to be disenfranchised", because if you're really an originalist, it means you don't have the right to vote. So things always evolve and things remain in evolution on the potential passage of this bill in the Senate. It doesn't look good but we've learned that history is full of curve balls.

Haines: Yes. Yes. Look, Congressman Lewis, who we lost last July, was certainly somebody that I consider a framer of this democracy. And so to your point, this union is still being perfected by folks who would want to see that plurality that you spoke of. And I think for folks, for whom they see voting rights as a privilege and not a right, right, there will never be language that is perfect enough for them to get on board. But if you believe in democracy, you should believe in as many people as possible having access to that democracy without barrier or obstacle. Brittany, we also learn that recently in my home state of Georgia, 95% of citizens over 18 are signed up to vote, which is exciting. What does this tell you about the fight for voting rights and what should we be prepared for ahead of the next election?

Packnett Cunningham:

I mean, what it tells me, what it reminds me of rather, is that the power always belongs to the people. And I know that that sounds trite, but I hold on to that ideal as a basis for hope and optimism that we actually can do the things that we set out to do, right. So when we talk about automatic voter registration in Georgia, that's something that we should be seeing across the entire country. When we talk about the immense grassroots organizing that happened in Georgia and all across the country, that is an example for us to learn from, but it's not the thing that democracy should depend on. When you talk about this franchise, to your point, Errin, about it being a right and not a privilege, that's a fundamentally different mindset than a lot of people would like for us to have about the ballot box. And I think that for folks like Black Voters Matter, the New Georgia Project, voting rights groups all across the country, they are clear that if we can prove what's possible in the south, then that means that no one should lack the political imagination anywhere. They're giving us a blueprint, they continue to give us a blueprint, and I really believe that it's on us to follow that.

Haines: Yes. Getting folks on the rolls is certainly commendable, but the fight now is around turning those voters out and making sure that not only are they able to cast a ballot, but that their votes are actually counted. I mean, that is a new challenge, certainly in places like Georgia, but increasingly as these laws are being passed in other states across the country. So I want to get an update too on New York, because post Cuomo, we have Kathy Hochul becoming the first woman to hold that position. And she has just updated the state's COVID-19 death toll, meaning that she added to the tally that had been made public previously by former Governor Cuomo. Here is Governor Hochul talking to NPR.

Gov. Kathy Hochul:

The public deserves a clear, honest picture of what's happening, and that's whether it's good or bad, they need to know the truth. And that's how we restore confidence, when they know that I will always be truthful and very transparent in my approach to government. That's been what I've done for 27 years in elective office, it's not a new concept to me.

Haines: So you have Governor Hochul announcing an additional 12,000 deaths in New York that contradicts the previously reported publicized COVID-19 tally. Brittany, how do you interpret Governor Hochul's move to update the COVID death toll? And do you think that this will help people on the ground who are still suffering from the pandemic?

Packnett Cunningham:

I'm very glad that she's doing her best to undo some of the immense harm that has been done. I find it extremely disheartening that it seems more and more that Cuomo's COVID hero story was concocted to distract from these brewing conversations about his behavior and his habits of sexual harassment. I mean, 12 people is a clerical error, 1,200 people may even be something that goes at the bottom of the wastepaper basket, but 12,000 deaths, 12,000 human beings that were simply not accounted for on top of the nursing home scandal and other things that we've seen out of the previous administration, those things are damning, right, and not just to Cuomo his legacy, which people will continue to talk about, but it's damning to New Yorkers, it's damning to the country. If you hold New York up as some success story but the numbers have been alive the entire time, that is demoralizing to the people who continue to be on the front lines of this thing, and it's frightening to think because it makes people question, just how transparent the numbers are all over the country. So what is really going on in Florida? What's really going on in Texas? What's really going on in my home state of Missouri? These put valid, legitimate questions in people's minds in a patently frightening time. I mean, I think people are thinking that this is not as bad as the first wave, and then you look at Florida tracking the most cases that they've seen in the entirety of this thing since 2020. And I'm glad to see the governor engage in this transparency, I pray that it is the move going forward, and frankly, that she can be a good influence on other governors who are probably not out here telling the whole truth.

Haines: Yes. Farai, what about you, so you think that Governor Hochul has set off on the right foot here?

Chideya: It's definitely putting this governor in a lane where she is saying that not only is she a new administration, but she's not going to apologize for the past administration. And of course, she is a member of the same party as former Governor Cuomo and there are a lot of different levels where loyalty lie, but I think in this case, it's important to have a loyalty to the truth because it just wasn't told in full during Governor Cuomo's era, and that will go down in history. He used his supposed ace handling of COVID to secure a multimillion dollar book deal which the book itself has faltered because the truth has come out, but he was very actively burnishing his halo.

Haines: So Brittany, I'm going to come back to you because as you mentioned, former Governor Cuomo ended up resigning because a report found evidence confirming that he had sexually harassed women and tried to retaliate against one of his accusers. It's one of the more prominent high profile me too cases. You spoke on your podcast with Tarana Burke, the activist, organizer and founder of the hashtag, me too. Here is a clip of Burke on Undistracted.

Tarana Burke: It's still not widely thought of as a social justice issue, right? If you look at the response to me too and the response to Black Lives Matter for instance, it's a classic case of black women getting lost, right, because black woman are at the head of both of these movements, seen as the leaders of both of these respective movements.

Haines: So Brittany, help us unpack this. Tell us about what Tarana was saying here and how did it resonate with you?

Packnett Cunningham:

I mean, Tarana is just a hero, and a friend, and a sister to so many of us because her work and her voice has been so critical to shifting a landscape. And what I so deeply appreciate about Tarana is that she stands for who she stands for without apology and in a way that is deeply unrelenting. So every single time society wants to change the conversation around sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape, to being solely about white women, white actresses, wealthy, attractive white women, she is always there to remind us that this is about the safety of all people in society, especially the black women who created the container for this conversation to happen. And so what really resonated with me about what she was saying is two things. One, this idea that sexual assault is often not thought about as a social justice issue is something we all need to sit with and interrogate. And when you ask people what social justice issues they care about, they're going to say the climate, they're going to say the care economy, they're going to say racial justice. And all of those things are correct, but rarely do people list sexual assault, because we see it as this interpersonal act. And when we confine it to that, then we overwhelmingly put the burden on victims and survivors to do all of the work of fixing what happened to them. We think that, that's for you and your therapist, or for you and your pastor to discuss, or for you to cry about late night in your pillow, not for us to actually look at systems that have created, perpetuated, and that continue to shield the people and places that allow for this to happen.

Haines: Absolutely. And to your point, framing this as a systemic issue, right, is not simply an interpersonal issue and not just a women's issue is also the way that we get people to understand that this is an issue that everyone should care about, and that everyone should be alarmed by, and that everyone should be interested in changing. So Farai, what do you think that this says about how feminist institutions so often leave out the experiences and work of women of color?

Chideya: Yes, I mean, this has definitely been a long standing, from first wave feminist, through second wave, to now issue of how women of different types relate to each other. And after the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris, I talked a bit about how black women and all women of color often exercise power directly within systems. And in some cases, white women, whether it's systems of government or systems of employment, work through proxy power. And that does not mean that white women aren't doing their own work, but it means that very often white women have powerful white male allies. And in some cases, there have definitely been cases where white women, who had more power in workplaces, were not responsive on me too grounds to not just women of color, but other white women. So first of all, we have to realize that the race and gender intersection is an intersection of power. It is about who gets power, who gets it on their own, who has a mentor or a sponsor? And one of the things today, as we look at the consistent issues in public and private life, but I'm thinking here in some ways more of private businesses and private enterprises, we have to begin to really understand the ways in which people gain power, which in some cases means that they choose to protect people. There were a number of, Yes women on Governor Cuomo's team, for example. And this is not limited by race, but it comes down harder on women of color who consistently have more of a struggle to find people who really support them in whatever they're doing in this world. And so, in the end, it's a power game, and race and gender always affect the allocation of power.

Haines: Yes. Well, one more note on this. In her inaugural address, Governor Hochul vowed to address the culture that really created the climate in which former Governor Cuomo operated in Albany. Governor Hochul has named women and people of color as among her top lieutenants. And so really signaling that this is an early priority of her administration, I think could go a long way to ensuring that her leadership is going to be more than symbolic because it's not enough that she is the first woman but it is what she does in that role with her lived experience that could really be the catalyst for changing an environment that has persisted for far too long, not only in that part of the country, but really in our society writ large. Farai, I want to come to you because the trial of R Kelly is back in the news, that started in New York this month, and it also coincides with the 20th anniversary of the death of Aaliyah, widely understood now to be one of R Kelly's first victims. So how does this relate to the conversation that we were just having about the ratio of black women's experiences?

Chideya: As we look at the whole R Kelly saga, I had been mentioning, Yes women operating in politics and private industry and other spheres of power, and we have to remember that there were Yes women in the R Kelly world. I also think of the journey of Dream Hampton to produce the series, Surviving R Kelly, which she did at great risk to herself. It's all a lot to process, but I think that the theme in many ways of this roundtable today is really on being realistic about how women's lives and women of color's lives are impacted by power dynamics, whether it's the lack of power that a teen girl may feel over her own sexual agency or the lack of power that adult women of many different races end up feeling in the workplace.

Haines: Yes. Brittany, I want to come to you. Thinking about the same question around the ratio of black women's experiences and really just where you think we are in terms of reckoning with what happened to Aaliyah then, how we talked about that then versus how we understand her experience today.

Packnett Cunningham:

It's so deeply complicated. I am such a massive Aaliyah fan. I mean, I remember being on a school bus and somebody saying, "Oh, I heard Aaliyah and R Kelly are married", as if it was gossip, as if it was tabloid fodder, as if it was just something for the celebrity tabloid front pages. And nobody really saying to me as a young woman, that's not right, that shouldn't be happening.

Haines: It's illegal.

Packnett Cunningham:

It is both illegal and immoral. And so I'm grateful that the conversation has changed, but it took a lot of doing for it to change, it took a lot of hard hitting journalism, it took a lot of very brave black women, it took other survivors of R Kelly's coming forward in order for people to transition. I mean, I remember even a few years ago, when there was a made for TV movie about Aaliyah, and a lot of people very publicly pushed back on the portrayal of the relationship between R Kelly and Aaliyah, as if it could possibly be consensual given that power dynamic that Farai was talking about. And so I'm glad that we've moved from a conversation of forbidden love to abuse. And I am hopeful for society moving forward that instead of having to learn these things 10 and 20 years later, that we can actually rightfully pick up on the signs when it's happening, and ultimately prevent these kinds of things from happening in the first place.

Haines: Absolutely. That was a lot of ground covered for this week. But unfortunately, we have to put up the tea for now. Thank you so much for Farai and thank you so much Brittany.

Packnett Cunningham:

Thank you.

Chideya: Thanks, Errin. That was Errin Haines, editor-at-large at The 19th, and Brittany Packnett Cunningham, activist, writer and host of the podcast Undistracted.

Thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcast. 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 producers are Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed 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 Veda Chand. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Katie McGrath and J. J. Abrams Family Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Centering the Experiences of Afghan Women, Why the U.N. Climate Report is a Gift, and #MeToo as a Social Justice Issue.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. August 27, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/