Our Body Politic

Honoring the Emanuel Nine, What We Can Do about Information Disorder, and Critical Race Theory as a Political Football

Episode Notes

Host Farai Chideya talks about the power of forgiveness with Sharon Risher, whose relatives were among the Mother Emanuel shooting victims. Michael Arad, the architect behind the new memorial to the Emanuel Nine, discusses the collaborative process of designing an homage to the congregation. Civil rights leader Rashad Robinson talks about the final report from the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post and Khiara Bridges of UC Berkeley examine the way politicians use Critical Race Theory to win elections.


0:15 A family member of those slain at Emanuel AME Church in 2015 on the recent settlement by the Department of Justice

12:36 Architect Michael Arad on building a memorial honoring the “Emanuel Nine”

19:14 Civil rights leader Rashad Robinson on the Aspen Institute’s report on information disorder

31:30 Sippin’ the Political Tea: columnist Karen Attiah and law professor Khiara Bridges examine the impact of critical race theory on our politics right now

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. We're so excited to have you on this journey with us. After you listen today, please consider going to Apple Podcasts and leaving us a review. We read those because your ideas matter to us. Thanks so much. Welcome to Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host Farai Chideya. In today's show we continue our coverage of extremism in the U.S. Last month, the families of the nine people killed in the mass shooting in 2015 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina reached an 88 million settlement with the Department of Justice. Families and survivors said the federal background check system failed to prevent Dylann Roof from buying a gun used in the murders. Roof was convicted of federal hate crimes and sentenced to death in 2017. And his sentence was upheld this summer in an appeals court.

Chideya: Sharon Risher has been a vocal advocate for the families of the victims. Her mother, two cousins and a childhood friend were among those killed. She worked as a hospital chaplain, and a minister in Texas, and a spokesperson for gun reform, and for ending the federal death penalty. Reverend Risher, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Reverend Sharon Risher:

Thank you for having me. Thank you.

Chideya: First of all, I just want to say, I am so sorry for the loss of your mother and that other members of your extended family were involved as victims of this massacre. And, I've been lucky enough to visit Mother Emanuel, and seen the strength of the congregation, after the massacre, during the 2016 South Carolina primary. And I was so struck by this video you did with The New Yorker, in it you said, "My mother left a legacy in spite of the storms that she had endured in her life." So, why don't we start with you telling me what your mother was like, and how she served the church, and how she served you and your family?

Risher: Well, I tell you the story of Ethel is a complicated story, because first of all, my mother ended up being a young unwed teenage mother with me, in 1958, I was born. So, as far as Black people, things were really not good. Even through all of that. There was this thing in her that I guess we just get from our ancestors about being persistent, and especially having faith. Her thing always while you can have anything you want, if you are willing to work hard to get it. And so, that's what carried her through and what has come down to me.

Chideya: I just remember, not only hearing about the massacre, but then watching Dylann Roof, who since has been convicted of this massacre, be treated like a little boy. And now, I see it happening with Kyle Rittenhouse.

Risher: You connected that too? I saw that. I said, "You know what? This little Kyle Rittenhouse is trying to be another Dylann Roof, but he didn't do what Dylan Roof did." But Dylan Roof gave all these little boys the courage and the gumption to just wild out.

Chideya: I mean, how does it feel to see these young people being infantilized in some ways when Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, and so many other Black boys are viewed as threats, at even younger ages?

Risher: Well, our white brothers and sisters have always had a way of trying to keep their folks innocent as long as they can. It started off with the women, and men being lynched and killed for looking at them, or whistling, or whatever. So, they have this fantasy of their innocence. And so, with Kyle Rittenhouse and with Dylann Roof, they don't see what they have done wrong. They just see that, oh, they made a mistake. They didn't really want to do this. So you see what atmosphere or what culture they grew up in to produce these little boys like this.

Chideya: There was a whole discussion that came up about forgiveness. There was a family member of another victim who offered forgiveness to Dylann Roof. You weren't on the same bus from what I understand. So, tell us where you were and where you are now.

Risher: Well, after hearing her say, "I forgive him." I just started to scream and holler, because I couldn't believe that this was what came out of my sister's mouth. I couldn't just believe it. And, other family members got up there and I was like, "They got something wrong with them. How are they talking about forgiveness 48 hours after this thing had happened, and nobody's had a chance to process that?" I was in a lot of rage and anger about that. And that rage and anger fueled me. It gave me something to blame and hold onto, because nothing made sense.

Chideya: And, do you still feel the same way or have you-

Risher: You know what? No, I don't. In October of 2017, I was preaching and the spirit of God fell upon me doing that service. And I know for some people that might sound crazy, but for me, this is the life I lead. And God said to me that day while preaching, "It's time for you to get this Dylann Roof thing over with. You've been carrying this thing. You've been screaming and hollering, praying, not praying. I know that you know, that you will have to forgive him." And so, the words just came out my mouth, "I forgive you Dylann Roof." And, I'm trying to look on my sermon and trying to figure out, "Wait a minute, this..." I'm trying to get my head together. Because I'm like, "Something just happened and I have no control over this."

Chideya: What does forgiveness even mean to you? I mean, I'll say for me, I've divided forgiveness into a transactional forgiveness, which is like forgiving a bad debt. And then, there's a separate forgiveness, that to me is a deeply spiritual forgiveness.

Risher: Right. Forgiveness is setting yourself free from carrying anything that has to do with whatever particular situation. Dylann Roof had overpowered my life. You hear me? Physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, all of that. He took over me. And in order to get back to some semblance of me, I had to let all of that stuff go and rely on God, knowing that God wants us to forgive, so we could be free. Not that I absolve him of what he did, but you have no more power over my life.

Chideya: And, this was not the first moment of racial terrorism at the church. Of course, Denmark Vesey had planned a rebellion of enslaved people and the church was burned down in 1822, I believe.

Risher: Right.

Chideya: How did you talk about that act of racial terrorism, when you were going to the church as a girl and woman? Did you discuss it?

Risher: We didn't talk about that.

Chideya: Interesting.

Risher: No. So, it wasn't until I got to be graduated from college and things like that to really delve into the history of Emanuel. But it just shows that that church has always been a symbol for the Black church in South Carolina, a place that was started because Black people could not worship in the white Methodist church.

Chideya: Yeah.

Risher: The pride that I have coming out of that church, I think, some of that has rubbed off on me in my willingness to be able to talk about the hard subjects and to be able to be proud of the fact that I come out of a church that stood for racial equality for Black people, all people.

Chideya: And how did you get into the ministry?

Risher: You know what? It is crazy. I had gone through a divorce, was looking for a job, and ended up being hired by the Presbytery of Charlotte. And that's the district office of the Presbyterian church in Charlotte, North Carolina. And, I started to participate in the church, teaching Sunday school, yada... Make a long story short. A guy was on a recruiting tour from Austin Seminary in Texas. And, we were talking, he said, "Anybody ever said that you probably have gifts for ministry." He said, "You certainly know how to talk." I went to this school and God was saying, "Get ready, because this is where you're getting ready to come, because I'm getting ready to turn your life upside down. And I'm going to use all of that (beep) you done been through, to be a messenger for me, to be able to reach the people on the street, all the people in The White House. I got something for you to do." So, here I am. With all I have been through, God sees fit to put me in situations and with people that actually have an opportunity to make change.

Chideya: We spoke with the designer of the memorial that's being built at Mother Emanuel for the Emanuel 9, for your mother. We're going to hear from him later in the show, but what's your hope for the memorial as a thing in itself? And, as a living Memorial of the lives of the parishioners as hopefully we move towards something better than what we have now?

Risher: I want people to be able to come on to that church campus and to be able to read the words and to feel the spirit of those nine people. They were good Christian people. God used them to bring about conversations that America seems to continue to turn the blind eye to. But with the death of the nine, we must remember to continue to talk about racism and white supremacy to let the greater American know that we are going to stand up for ourselves. Those nine people represented more than just being killed by white supremacists. They represented God.

Chideya: Well, Reverend, we're going to leave it there. And I just want to say again, I am so deeply sorry. And, thank you for sharing about your community.

Risher: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Chideya: That was Reverend Sharon Risher. Her book is, For Such a Time As This: Hope and Forgiveness, after the Charleston Massacre. On June 17th, 2015, members of the historic Emanuel AME Church were gathered for an evening Bible study, then a 21 year old white man walked in and was welcomed by parishioners. That was Dylann Roof who already had become deeply engaged with white supremacist ideology. He pulled out a pistol, said that Blacks were, "Taking over the world." And shot and killed nine parishioners. Among those murdered were Pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state Senator. At his memorial, President Barack Obama delivered remarks and led the congregation in amazing grace.

President Obama:(Singing).

Chideya: Just two years after the massacre, the Emmanuel AME community selected architect, Michael Arad to design a memorial. Arad is Israeli-American, studied architecture in the U.S., and served in the Israeli army. He's best known for the September 11th Memorial in New York city.

Michael Arad: Unlike most architectural projects, the aim of a memorial is really almost to produce nothing more than an emotional response. It doesn't need to shelter art in the museum and make it accessible to visitors. It doesn't need to provide a place to sleep or a place to work. It's really just about an emotional connection between the past and the present.

Chideya: Arad told me he was approached to pitch a design with a question. And the question wasn't what should we design here? But rather, what is your understanding of what happened here?

Arad: I think, forgiveness, what's at the heart of the Christian doctrine behind the design effort here. And, I'm not Christian, and I'm not Black, and I'm not native born to this country. And so, it was really approaching this project from the outside and listening. I think, there are many things which are universal, and I think that architects and designers, we have a tendency to think about, how's it going to look? How's it going to be built? Rather than, what is it about first and foremost.

Chideya: Architectural Digest wrote that, "Unlike the bid for the 9/11 Memorial, which Arad won through what they called the force of his design concept, this Emanuel Nine Memorial project consulted with church members. Arad and parishioners came to a shared understanding of the themes of the memorial before even getting to the drawing board. Arad made sure to incorporate feedback from the community into his design process for the memorial." And he told me a little bit more about that collaboration and its challenges.

Arad: And it was difficult sitting across the table from strangers who've suffered terrible and violent loss, and asking them to talk about it to a complete stranger. But I think those conversations, some of which occurred around the conference room table and the library next door to the church, played such a critical role in helping me understand what this project should do before I even thought about what it might look like.

Chideya: Part of the back and forth Arad said was about whether to focus directly on the victims or broaden it to be about the whole congregation and its history of persecution.

Arad: It's fairly abstract in some ways and very direct in others. It delineates the actual footprints that lists the actual names. I thought it was important that anybody who comes here would immediately understand who the victims were and what their race was. And, I brought that to the group and some people embraced it and others felt that it actually shifted the focus of the memorial from the congregation and the victim's families, to denying themselves, and denying, as terrible as their death was, is part of a much longer history for this congregation of two centuries of persistence, and suffering, and overcoming.

Chideya: And it was important for Arad to take the time to get things right.

Arad: It was a difficult period of trying many different design directions. And what we ended up with, I think, very much reflects on the history of the church, and on the spirit of the church. It's a congregational space. A place that brings people together. The design, if the Memorial Courtyard is really centered on the names fountain, that lists the nine, the source of that water is across cut in a bowl. And the water flows up and over the names. But, flanking that fountain are two long fellowship benches that create a place where people can come together as a congregation. And I think it's the strength of this congregation and it's history, that we were trying to draw upon.

Chideya: Arad says, he hopes the Memorial can help connect people to that whole arc of history, not only of the Emanuel AME Church, but of the city and community in which it resides. He referred to another monument in Charleston that was taken down in 2020, during the summer of racial justice protest. It was a statue of John C. Calhoun, a former U.S. vice president, an adamant supporter of slavery.

Arad: When we began this process, we could not have imagined that the Calhoun statue would come down. It seemed permanent on the Charleston skyline. And yet, it has come down. And I think, we are trying to understand now where that line is. Which stories do we feel we should reconsider their impact on our public spaces, on our day to day life? And it's not easy because a lot of the past of this country is tied up in people who performed acts that were both good and evil. And, how do you parse that out? I would say that, our whole country was horrified by what happened, ashamed in some ways that such a thing could happen in our world. This memorial is an attempt to both remind us that it happened, but also to move us into a world where such attacks, such hatred doesn't exist. We're always in the middle of time, right? But, this feels like a particularly fraught moment. And I think, if we can create a place in Charleston that allows visitors to come to honor the nine, to honor the survivors, and to reflect on the history of this congregation, we will have succeeded.

Chideya: Michael Arad is the architect behind the planned Emmanuel Nine Memorial. Just this past week, the Aspen Institute put out a report from its commission on information disorder. For six months, members of the commission, including our next guest, heard from researchers, community leaders, tech industry representatives, and lawmakers about the impact of disinformation, and what we can do about it. Civil rights leader, Rashad Robinson was co-chair of the commission, along with journalist, Katie Couric, and cyber expert, Chris Krebs. Robinson is president of Color Of Change, a racial justice organization of more than 7 million members. Its mission is to build power for Black communities. For years, Color Of Change has pushed for accountability in the media. Robinson was instrumental in forcing Bill O'Reilly off the air, for example. The organization pushes for better representation of race in Hollywood, defends net neutrality, and also has set its sites on equity issues in social media and tech platforms. Welcome Rashad.

Rashad Robinson: Thanks for having me.

Chideya: In this commission's report. You talk about what happens online as connected to entrenched and historic inequity. What else do you think is really notable in the report?

Robinson: Information disorder is a crisis that exacerbates all of the crisis. When bad information becomes as prevalent, pervasive, and persistent as good information, it creates a change reaction of harm. And one of the biggest challenges we've had in this country in dealing with it is the lack of leadership, the lack of leadership from the public sector, the lack of leadership from the private sector. And I think this report really provides a roadmap, and some clear direction, and some clear recommendations for dealing with this problem. And, does that with the support from a wide range of folks that were both on the commission, but the wide range of experts who actually came in and advised.

Chideya: Let's go to what your 15 recommendations are. We're not going to go through all of them, but give us a couple.

Robinson: Now, I instantly thought of the super spreader recommendation, that really focused on the platforms and dealing with the, relatively at times, small number of people who have outsides impact on how information gets spread. Creating more transparency at the platform level, just not only for researchers, but for us to understand and for government to understand how ads are being funded and by who. The same way that TV ads have to be transparent. And then, from my perspective, some of the most important are the ones that really get at the product design and the business model. The platforms have relied on something called section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to be able to oftentimes shield themselves from accountability. All the recommendations really need to be taken together. Asking folks to be more resilient or to get more literate in media doesn't deal with the fact that these platforms are constantly changing their algorithms, and constantly changing how they move content. All of these taken together though, I think are going to be very, very important. And, now the work continues to push those in power to recognize that they've got to move, and they've got to move quickly.

Chideya: In this report from the commission, there is a lot of talk about media, including local media investment, and also a lot of talk about diversity of workforces. So, diversity of social media platform companies. It strikes me too that what we've seen from the migration of the online advertising model is that, Facebook is the local newspaper for so many people now. And, when you think about diversity in the context of both the platforms and media, what case can you make that hasn't been made before? How do you actually operationalize these changes?

Robinson: I say often, and we say often in Color Of Change that, "We will always lose in the back rooms unless we have the people lined up at the front door." And to be perfectly clear, this is why reports like this are only as important as the people who get behind and continue to push. So we need more people engaged in this work, of making demands, of pushing policymaker. The Public Restoration Fund, is one of the recommendations that really was born out of looking at the truth campaign and thinking about, "How do we have a place where resources can be aligned to actually make real investments in solving some of these problems. And so, what we wanted to do is put just some love and some support behind these initiatives, but also, I think some focus on the need to continue to scale.

Chideya: Let's circle back to something you mentioned earlier, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Among the recommendations you have, withdraw platform immunity for content that is promoted through paid advertising and post promotion. And I just recently was seeing that political campaigns are using social media influencers as a back door for, basically, unregulated ad spending. The commission's report also says, "Remove immunity as it relates to the implementation of product features, recommendation engines, and design." Break that down in simple language. What does that really mean?

Robinson: It means that, right now on TV... TV stations are responsible, to an extent, for the type of advertising that they run. And that there are standards behind that. There are no standards behind paid advertising on social media platforms. And, social media platforms have argued that they have immunity around paid advertising, and that has to stop. It's even more important on social media platforms, because of the level of microtargeting, where many in the public won't even ever see most of the ads, right, that are running because they're being sent to a small number of people. And the precision nature of it means that there's even more opportunity to fuel mis- and disinformation. For instance, if you go and you follow a doctor sprouting off mis- and disinformation about COVID, you will be on many of the platforms, served up with a whole set of recommendations for other folks. If you follow a white nationalist, or you get inside of a white nationalists closed group, you might be recommended a whole set of other groups, right? The platforms business models, right, are incentivized to keep you on the platform. Growth and profit can always be the highest calling of these platforms, regardless of how much it impacts safety, integrity, and security. Now, if growth and profit is actually going to be harmed, because they lose some of their immunity, perhaps safety, integrity, and security will become a greater priority.

Chideya: Now, I want you to put on a few of your hats at once. As a commissioner, as the head of Color Of Change, and as a Black man in America, with extremism on the rise, and with the midterms coming up, how can people of color, and communities of color, and Black people in particular, protect themselves?

Robinson: Yeah, I mean, this is one of the things that keeps me up at night, to be perfectly honest. As I even watch the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. And I think about all of the messages that constantly get sent to us about our value, and our worth, and the value of our lives. It keeps me up. It keeps me thinking about my niece, and my nephew, and my family, and myself, and all the members of Color Of Change. And, the people that I have to wake up every day, thinking about how to advance rules forward. Part of this accountability work, part of this rule change work, thinking about this work at scale is how I try to make sense of this. And so, that is one thing. I think the second thing for all of us and our families is that we've got to be looking out for one another. And to recognize that we're only going to so much policy change. And policy change will only take us so far in the immediate 2022 will be deeply challenging. And right now, as a result of all sorts of things that haven't been done, we will be facing threats that will be unprecedented in some ways, even though mis- and disinformation, and vigilante attacks on Black communities are nothing new. The level of which folks are able to access technology and the speed that they're able to move at, has actually made for a different type of hostile climate. We've got to monitor what we're clicking on, and what we're sharing, and what we're sending. We've got to get involved in efforts that hold these institutions accountable. We've got to raise our voices to our elected officials. You mentioned 2022, and the quick thing I want to add, is that 2024 will be an election where more people are voting in democratic elections than ever before in the history of the world. You'll have the United States, EU, UK, Mexico, India, Ukraine. I think there's a couple of other places. Many of these places have never aligned around the same time and some of them haven't always been democracies. And so, to the extent that right now, the way things are set up with these unregulated companies is that they get to decide how much infrastructure, and what the rules are, and how they're going to be able to deal with mis- and disinformation on their platforms. We know from 2016 that the Russians seemed to know more about Black people than the people working at Facebook did. And so, what we've got to all recognize is heading into 2024, and of course, heading into 2022, we've got these challenges with these platforms being responsible for dealing with and disrupting the attempts and attacks on our information ecosystem. And, right now they are not incentivized to do it, nor are they held accountable fully when they don't do it. And so, part of the urgency is related to being able to protect the ability to have democracies. And particularly, as a civil rights and racial justice leader in the United States. I think about what does it mean to have multiracial democracies. And, multiracial democracies are an experiment. And right now, this experiment is being challenged.

Chideya: Last question, and you can just keep this short. What keeps you going? You mentioned your younger family members, what keeps you engaged? What keeps you hopeful?

Robinson: The summer of 2020 racial justice became a majoritarian issue. Many people thought the best we could do in terms of activism was clap outside of our windows, or uplift investigative journalism, and people of all races took to the streets. Now, just because it's a majoritarian issue, doesn't mean it's a governing majority. But what keeps me going is not just the activism of everyday people, but it's the opportunity I have every day to see the challenges that we are facing and know that I can be part of doing something about it.

Chideya: Rashad, it's really great to hear you talk with such passion about an issue that is so important. Thanks for joining us.

Robinson: Thank you for having me.

Chideya: That was Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change and co-chair of the Aspen Institute Commission on Information Disorder. This week on Sippin' the Political Tea, I'm joined by Professor Khiara Bridges. She's a professor at UC Berkeley School of Law and a scholar on critical race theory. She also wrote a book about it, Critical Race Theory: A Primer. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Professor Bridges.

Khiara Bridges: Thank you. It's so good to be here.

Chideya: And, I'm joined by Our Body Politic contributor, Karen Attiah, also a columnist for The Washington Post. Her work focuses on race, international affairs, culture, and human rights. Welcome back, Karen.

Karen Attiah: Thanks Farai. Good to be back.

Chideya: So, let's get right into it this week. We are talking about critical race theory. The thing that many people deliberately describe the wrong way. Here's a clip from NBC News about the fight happening around critical race theory or CRT.

NBC clip: Parents are accusing school boards of indoctrinating kids by teaching critical race theory. That's an umbrella term for the academic study of racism's extensive impact. But new NBC reporting shows that the blowback is not a grassroots movement. It's actually a national push, with at least 165 local and national groups aiming to disrupt lessons on race and gender.

Chideya: Khiara as a scholar of critical race through. Why do you think this debate seems to be gathering steam, even as more news outlets have tried to explain what CRT is and isn't?

Bridges: I think the debate is gathering steam, because it's working. The whole reason why we're talking about critical race theory now, is to get that base that Trump coalesced into a movement to get them active, to get them out of their homes, and to keep them afraid about losing what they imagine to be their country to non-white others.

Chideya: And Karen, we're going to do a deep dive on this later, so don't go into too much detail, but give us a quick hit on how CRT is showing up in politics. And, do you also think it's gaining steam?

Attiah: Yeah. I mean, from where I've been based, my home State of Texas, naturally, one of a handful of red states that has... Well, actually not even explicitly said CRT should be banned from schools. But, governor Greg Abbot, basically, saying that any teachings that make kids feel uncomfortable or guilty for things that happened in the past should be outlawed. And it's absolutely gaining steam. And, I think just like Khiara said, why is it gaining steam? Because, it seems to be working. And, it's actually quite frightening frankly. And I think also it's gaining steam, because as we saw last year with the protests in Black Lives Matter and pushes for more diversity and inclusion, that gained steam too. So, it's almost this push and pull, this action and backlash that we're seeing here in our politics.

Chideya: Yeah. And, school board meetings and classrooms have become ground zero for the issue. So, Khiara walk us through how you make sense of, why the pipeline into students brains is, right now, a treacherous road?

Bridges: I would start back in September, 2020, when the general public became introduced to the term critical race theory, with Christopher Rufo appearing on Fox News, saying that, federal employees were being trained in critical race theory. But, it wasn't popular, or maybe even interesting to most people, until people started to claim that it wasn't federal employees who were at danger of being exposed to this theory, but rather children, right? K through 12 schools. And that's when we really saw momentum build on this particular culture war, when children were identified as the likely victims of this exposure.

Chideya: And, this has real world consequences. At least, six educators have resigned due to death threats. It's led to poisonous school board meetings. And of course, lawmakers looking at this at the state level, introducing this legislation to limit the teaching of what they're calling critical race theory, which in many cases is basically history that's accurate. And Karen, with all of this going on, you are someone with one of the top jobs in journalism and opinion columnists for The Washington Post. So, how should journalism be covering what's now this massive legal battle royale.

Attiah: I actually had the opportunity to attend one of these contentious school board meetings, in the case of Dr. James Whitfield in Grapevine-Coleyville Heritage High School in North Texas. This is the Black principal who was accused of promoting critical race theory. And so, I had an opportunity to go to one of the hearings, where the board was deciding on his professional fate, as the first Black principal of Grapevine-Coleyville Heritage. And, you saw how the dye was cast, right? He had not received any indication as to why exactly his job had been put on the line. He'd been put on administrative leave after he complained on Facebook about the treatment he was getting, about the threats and the abuse he was getting, and not getting support from the district. And, to a certain extent, I think one thing when I went into that meeting, I saw overwhelming support for this man. Students who were crying at what their school board was doing. There are so many parents and students who are aghast at what is happening. And, the right wing, the GOP, they're using these issues, CRT to frame themselves as the party of parents' rights. And, we hear so little from the parents and advocates who are fighting back. And, you know what? Honestly, the voices that get lost in this and that miss out the most are the rights of the youngest citizens, of the students. There are students who protested, who are also facing consequences for speaking out in favor of learning about their history. The children are the ones who are suffering the most. Who are being used as pawns, frankly, in this culture war games, that also teachers don't have time for. It's a spread of, and I've said this before, a backlash, I think to the visibility and the power of the LGBT community, Black Lives Matter, frankly, that really shook up... Me too, I think, it's not just critical race theory, but it's also attacks on books and materials written by women, written by LGBT. It's the power structure trying to retain power, right?

Chideya: Yeah. Yeah.

Attiah: Ultimately, that's what this is about.

Chideya: Well, looking at the chess board, as of early November, 28 states introduced bills or took other steps to restrict teaching what they're calling critical race theory. And, 12 states have enacted these bans, that's from education week. And, Khiara, what do you think the long term effects of these legal battles and legislative battles will be?

Bridges: Well, I'm afraid about the consequences to the first amendment and the way that we interpret it. I love to tell people that, back in the nineties, actual critical race theorists, Kim Crenshaw, Gary Peller, Neil Gotanda, Mary Matsuda, right? They were interested in investigating how the first amendment ought to be interpreted vis-à-vis hate speech. And they were interested in encouraging scholarship that made arguments, that the first amendment ought not to be interpreted to protect hate speech, expletives, and racial slurs, campuses should be able to prohibit students from saying that speech. Why? Because it was hurtful. It was injurious to people of color. It damaged them and excluded them from the body politic. And also, their arguments got zero traction, right? People dismissed it. What is completely wild to me is that those same arguments are being picked up and embraced in this particular moment. It's exactly what the anti CRT folks are arguing. They're arguing that, "Well, there's just certain types of speech that make white kids uncomfortable. Tony Morrison's, Beloved makes them feel bad about themselves. Hearing about the Chinese Exclusion Act, and hearing about Operation Wetback, those events, child slavery, the civil rights movement, Ruby Bridges, makes white kids feel bad about themselves and makes them feel guilty. And so, we have this perversion of the first amendment, how the first amendment can't protect people of color from harmful speech, but it's perfectly protective of white kids."

Chideya: We just spoke earlier in the show with Rashad Robinson of Color Of Change, and also the Aspen Institute Commission on Information Disorder, which just produced a major report on disinformation. And, we talked about the ways in which race and disinformation get put into a merge lane, as people look to weaponize information or rather disinformation. So, Karen, looking at this from a committed journalist perspective, this wave of disinformation and how race, and now what's being called CRT play into it. How do you see a path ahead to increasing the level of trust that people have in news these days? Or do you?

Attiah: I actually, a few weeks ago, did a live chat with Washington Post readers. And I got a lot of questions about, "Karen, can you just explain what CRT is?" And again, I try to write from the perspective of, okay, well, how do you push back against what is a well funded information war? Does it make sense to try to say, "Okay, well, we'll just write a bunch of articles, or we'll just have a bunch of workshops about what CRT is," is that actually what is going to work? And I find myself being quite skeptical about that, because this is not about CRT, because it's not being thought in schools. It is not. It's about control. It's about power.

Chideya: And let's go deeper into the politics, like Virginia's recent gubernatorial election. Here is a clip from the hill of governor elect Glenn Youngkin, addressing his supporters during the campaign.

Glenn Youngkin: We have some poor chapters in our history. We have to teach them. But friends, Dr. Martin Luther King call called us all to be better than we are. He called us to judge one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin. And critical race theory is a political agenda that is absolutely in our schools, and it teaches everyone to view everything through a lens of race. And then, pits our children against one another.

Chideya: So, let me just start very briefly with the question of invoking Martin Luther King. I will go to the good professor. What is the point of invoking Reverend King here?

Bridges: Dr. King is one of those figures who actually stood for something very particular, but has been rendered into an ambiguous figure whose sayings, whose words, quotes can be used by those on all sides of an issue, as affirming their claim. We see it in the law all the time, with Dr. King's hope that we would one day be judged on the content of our character and not the color of our skin, as a claim that the constitution demands color blindness. And therefore, programs like affirmative action or race conscious school assignments, those things are unconstitutional. So, we've seen Dr. King weaponized. To claim that Dr. King would be, in some way, opposed to the intellectual framework, that critical race theory actually is. To claim that Dr. King would be opposed to teaching about Ruby Bridges, and these efforts to desegregate schools in the 1950s and 60s. It really is laughable.

Chideya: Yeah. And, Karen hold that whole Reverend King thing in mind, and let me fold in a quote from a New York Times piece that quoted Yale graduate student, Micah English, he said, "The Republican message right now is essentially Democrats and Biden are only concerned about teaching your children critical race theory instead of focusing on the economy. The Democrats have no unified counter message. And until they do, they are likely to continue to suffer major losses in the midterms and beyond." Now, Karen, I feel like the midterms are next week, not next year. Just judging by the heat in the kitchen. Can you give us a little bit of perspective on how these threads are also affecting the chess board for next year's congressional elections and other elections?

Attiah: I haven't seen Democrats with a good message on this. I mean, who wants to be seen as against kids or against parents? I don't think there is a unified counter message yet. And it's not enough to just say, "Well, we're not teaching critical race theory. It's an advanced legal theory, so let's not even pay attention to this." It is gaining steam and very quickly. They're going to have to stop bringing stuff in animals to a machine gun fight. I mean, the speed and the ferocity... The Democrats will see losses next year, for sure, if they do not get it together on this new cultural front. And I fear a little bit that the Democrats really aren't taking this as seriously as they should be. School boards in a lot of ways for some of these members are auditions to get into bigger arenas of politics.

Chideya: Oh, absolutely.

Attiah: Right?

Chideya: I can't help, but think of that classic Will Rogers quote, "I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat."

Attiah: That's how it feels. That's how it feels, for sure.

Chideya: Yeah. Yeah. And so, Khiara, let's close out the CRT talk with you. Imagine that you're talking to a friend who maybe you used to be close to and you haven't talked to in a while, and you find out that they are really on the... Maybe not on the anti, so called, CRT bandwagon, but adjacent. What would you say to them, just as a friend?

Bridges: Well, after I finish rolling my eyes hard. I think this was what Karen was getting at. I think it's important for us to move beyond the unproductive fight about what critical race series, and whether or not it is being taught in schools. I mean, I spent the first part of this culture war doing just that, right? Defending the boundaries of the term critical race theory. And so, now I've realized that I just don't have enough money. I don't have a platform to speak the truth in the way that the right has platforms to speak untruths. In order to meet the terms of the battle where it is. If I were talking to a friend, I would ask them, "What do you think the danger is of learning about our history, of reading literature, of being exposed to concepts like structural racism, like racial privilege, like implicit bias?" I think that a lot of reasonable people, right, in good faith would say that, it's an American to believe that we shouldn't teach concepts. It's dangerous, right, to offer our kids a version of history that doesn't align with reality. It's indoctrinating ignorance. And I think that, that contextualized grounded, nuanced discussion would get us a whole lot further, than fighting over what other critical race theory should or should not be in schools.

Chideya: Yeah. Well, we're going to close out our CRT talk there, but we have one more topic. And that one goes to Karen, who is competing for the first time at the U.S. Muay Thai Open in Phoenix, Arizona. How did this happen? And what is happening?

Attiah: Oh man, I've just always had just this interest in martial arts and striking. And so, when I discovered Muay Thai a couple years ago, I just got hooked.

Chideya: How do you feel when you fight?

Attiah: I would say, I feel free, I think. It is about your will. And it is about turning your brain off, because those of us who are in journalism or academia, we use our brain so much, we're in our intellectual logic feelings. And I think what we tie does for me is to remember that there's other types of knowledge. There's few things on this earth that's more scary than realizing somebody is trying to take your head off. So, it really tests who you are, in a way that no other thing for me really does.

Chideya: Let's all wish Karen the best as she trains and competes. And, thank you both for joining me today, Karen and Khiara.

Bridges: Thanks for having me.

Attiah: Thank you so much.

Chideya: That was Karen Attiah, columnist at The Washington Post, and Khiara Bridges, professor at UC Berkeley School of Law and a scholar on critical race theory.

Thank you for listening to 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 editor is Veralyn Williams. Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure are our senior producers. 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 assistant from Mark Betancourt, Elizabeth Nakano, 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 J.J. Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Honoring the Emanuel Nine, What We Can Do about Information Disorder, and Critical Race Theory as a Political Football.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. November 19, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/