Our Body Politic

January 29, 2021: The challenges of distributing the Covid-19 vaccine equitably, Black identity in the White House and beyond, and our weekly roundtable unpacks the first set of Biden-Harris executive orders.

Episode Notes

This week, Farai Chideya and her guests talk about the challenges and victories of Covid vaccination efforts, and dive into the administration’s plans to reverse course on four years of Donald Trump. Dr. Grace Lee of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices describes what must be done to distribute vaccines equitably. “Vaccine Vixen” Ashley Nealy explains why as a Black woman she wanted to participate in the clinical trials. Actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith analyzes the image of Vice President Kamala Harris in the White House. Author Kenya Hunt reflects on Black female identity around the world in her book, Girl Gurl Grrrl: On Womanhood and Belonging in the Age of Black Girl Magic. Plus, political journalist Errin Haines of The 19th and Jess Morales-Rocketto of the National Domestic Workers Alliance get into the swift actions of the Biden-Harris administration, the white supremacy problem within law enforcement, and the future of the Republican party.

EPISODE RUNDOWN

0:43 Dr. Grace Lee explains that some populations who are less likely to be willing to receive the Covid vaccine, are the same groups that have been disproportionately ravaged by the disease. 

4:20 Although many people are skeptical about getting vaccinated, Dr. Lee says inoculation is the best way for society to create immunity.

7:10 Dr. Lee emphasizes the importance of community leaders leading the way towards vaccination, especially within groups that may not trust the medical establishment.

10:21 A caller from the SPEAK platform shares what she’d do to get the pandemic under control if she was at the White House.

12:03 Ashley Nealy, a Covid-19 vaccine trial participant, shares why it’s important to encourage other people of color to take the Covid-19 vaccine. 

15:56 Playwright, university professor and author Anna Deavere Smith discusses her most recent works, including a TIME magazine article on Vice President Kamala Harris. 

18:02 Deavere Smith explains how she uses performing arts to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

23:04 Fashion director Kenya Hunt explores her experience of Black womanhood, in the U.S. and abroad.

24:14 Hunt explains why she thinks Black women like herself feel pressure to represent a whole demographic of people, and why that’s too simplistic.

27:20 Seeing the political force that Black women wielded in the recent U.S. elections gives Hunt hope and optimism.

28:19 Errin Haines, editor-at-large at The 19th, and Jess Morales Rocketto, civic engagement director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, take part in our weekly politics segment Sippin the Political Tea.

28:58 Haines and Chideya talk about the slate of executive orders signed by the Biden-Harris administration within the last week, including the reversal of the transgender military ban. 

34:09 With the new administration’s huge emphasis on racial equity, Morales Rocketto admits that she has been slightly skeptical, yet optimistic, about the Biden-Harris administration’s plan to deliver on this front.

36:56 Haines breaks down Democrats’ plans to get cash to people who are most in need of assistance, emphasizing the impact this could have specifically on women.

41:07 Haines and Chideya discuss the warnings from the Department of Homeland Security of increased threats of domestic terrorism.

43:24 Haines and Morales Rocketto unpack the importance of the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, which is expected to start on February 9th. 

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya:

Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. As you know, we’re new and creating the show with lots of input from listeners like you. So I want to ask you a small favor: after you listen today, please head over to Apple Podcasts on your phone, tablet, laptop--or anywhere you listen--and leave us a review. We read those because your ideas matter to us. Thanks so much.

This is Our Body Politic. I’m the creator, and host, Farai Chideya.

We’re looking at challenges the Biden-Harris administration faces from the very start of their administration -- first and foremost, how to distribute COVID vaccines. Dr. Grace Lee is a medical officer at Stanford Children's Health and a member of the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. That's a federal advisory group that makes recommendations about vaccinating the U.S. population. She also belongs to several COVID-19 vaccine subgroups and committees at the national, state and local levels. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Dr. Lee.

Dr. Grace Lee:

Thanks for having me.

Chideya:

With everything that you're doing, all these different subgroups, all these different committees, all of this important work, what would you say is your number one priority or focus in terms of how the vaccine reaches the public?

Lee:

For me personally, it's really about ensuring that we can safely deliver the vaccines and give the public confidence about receiving vaccines and getting vaccinated. We've been so fortunate that the development has gone as well as it has and that we have two incredibly efficacious vaccines, and we have seen unprecedented demand. But one of the things that I think is important to remember for all of us is that vaccine acceptability is not even across the board and we have seen that there has been just such a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 infection and disease.

I've taken it really personally, actually, the impact on health equity that... Or really, the disparities that already existed and that have been exacerbated or compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, and feeling strongly that vaccines are, one, small, but really measurable in a potentially effective way for us to address health disparities and really to move us towards... Closer to the goal of achieving health equity.

Chideya:

What we're beginning to see, though, is that in some cases, the populations that are most likely to get sick and die from COVID are not the most likely to get vaccinated and that people who have more privilege, whether it's more access to the internet, more access to regular health care, are getting it faster even if they're not the ones who are most at risk. How does the community of people in both the public sector, in private hospitals, in pharma, ensure that people most at risk get this vaccine?

Lee:

I feel it's incredibly important to have two measures that we're keeping ourselves accountable to. One is efficiency and the other is equity. I think when you're most efficient at delivering vaccines, what happens is that you're right. People who might be at the front of the line and able to self-advocate effectively or already have a strong belief in vaccines or are less hesitant will be the ones who will receive vaccine first. My hope is that in the coming weeks, we will be able to make sure that while we are absolutely efficiently delivering the vaccines, that we don't lose sight of equity. And in fact, if it means we have to slow down a slight amount to be able to ensure equity, I'd really be in favor of that to make sure that we are protecting those who are most vulnerable for both infection and severe disease.

Chideya:

So, there's the people who might want it who can't get it and there are the people who might get it who don't want it. How do you deal with different types of resistance to being vaccinated?

Lee:

So, when I'm talking to somebody who has questions, and I'm glad people have questions about getting the vaccine and what are the benefits and what are the risks, I point folks towards the idea that it is a far safer way to develop immunity. This pandemic is not going away soon. The risk is always out there. Vaccines are a far safer way of developing immunity to COVID infection compared to actually getting the infection.

Chideya:

Yeah.

Lee:

I think the other sort of thing I would like to point out or just highlight is that there is a robust post-approval vaccine safety system that exists in the U.S. There are multiple federal safety surveillance systems and the committee I co-chair is focused on ensuring that we are reviewing the data. Right now, we're meeting on a weekly basis. I think the other challenge we have is tackling misinformation. It is so challenging to be able to address every piece of misinformation. We'll do whatever we have to do, but I think we're also trying to just make sure we remain focused.

Chideya:

Yeah.

Lee:

And our goal is to make sure that people feel comfortable in what to expect when getting a vaccine. What are the known side effects and how are we monitoring safety. So, I hope we can do all of those things, but I do feel like partnership with the communities that actually have a higher proportion of perhaps vaccine-hesitant individuals is going to be really important. And also, bringing into the picture scientific and non-scientific voices who can help to rebuild the trust that has been lost over the past year but also over the past decades in terms of what our hope is with these public health measures.

Chideya:

I definitely think about cultural competency from a couple of levels. There's the very public symbolism of the first person to be vaccinated having been a Jamaican immigrant who works in health care, a nurse in New York. And then, there are places like Tayo Help, which is... It, among other things, publishes information for the Filipino community in California, culturally relevant information on COVID and other health care issues. What kinds of culturally relevant contextual information do you think helps get the message across?

Lee:

I want to speak highly of one particular group of individuals who are my College of the National Medical Association.

Chideya:

Mm-hmm-

Lee:

They are Black physicians representing, I think, the communities that they serve. But even then, I'm assuming that it's not enough. I mean, I think we're going to have to continue to do more. It's really who do people trust when they're thinking about a recommendation for vaccination? Fortunately, most people continue to still trust physicians in a recommendation, but not everybody. And then, how do we then engage those who are the trusted voices? And sometimes, it is community leaders. And so, I think it's a matter of trying to anchor in and make sure we can do that together and in a way that's impactful and meaningful and culturally relevant, as you mentioned.

Chideya:

There's been a lot of talk in communities where people have disabilities or chronic illnesses about what their priority is. And from what I understand, and please correct me if I'm wrong, that the rollout varies from state to state in who's considered a priority population. How should people with chronic illness or disability begin to think through how their state is treating this? Because I've definitely seen some concern.

Lee:

Yes. So, originally the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, we had recognized early on, number one, that we wanted to vaccinate everyone who was at high risk for both infection or severe disease or death, and that has always been a priority or a goal. But also, we recognized that we would not have enough doses in the early months of the vaccination program to be able to vaccinate everybody we would want to. And so, I think one of the challenges has been that those national recommendations were meant to be tailored at the state level, so we wanted to ensure the states had flexibility. The challenge being that when there is flexibility, there is variability and where there's variability, sometimes that creates confusion, particularly when you live close to a border or a state line.

So, how do we address the variability? Again, I am hopeful that in the coming week or weeks that there will be more coordination and more of a national conversation about where we need to anchor in. A higher level of coordination across states to minimize the variability can help us as a nation reduce the confusion that we're seeing about when am I eligible and why is so-and-so eligible in State A whereas I'm in State B and I'm not eligible. I think that is the most challenging thing for me personally to address for my patients and families as they're coming through.

Chideya:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Lee:

But I am extremely optimistic that if we can get the supply we need, we are going to be able to deliver vaccines to as many people as need them, either because of risk, infection, severe conditions or hopefully to the entire population and that if we can protect the population quickly, that we can really conquer this pandemic together.

Chideya:

Dr. Lee, just really appreciate your time. Thank you.

Lee:

Thank you.

Chideya:

That was Dr. Grace Lee, associate chief medical officer for practice innovation at Stanford Children's Health.

Crystal:

Hello. This is Crystal from Ohio and the first thing I would do as president would be to get a hold of and start managing COVID-19.

Chideya:

That's a listener calling in to the Speak Line, answering the prompt we've given you this month. What would you do if this was your first day in office as President of the United States?

Crystal:

COVID-19 is impacting us in so many ways. Our physical health, our mental health, our bag. It's impacting us financially. So, that'd be my first priority, with a focus on Black, Latino and indigenous populations. We know that it is hard to social distance if you have to be on the front lines. Telling one to wash their hands and they might not have running water. So, it is greatly impacting people that are already historically oppressed.

Chideya:

We want to keep hearing from you, and this week we want you to tell us how have your priorities changed since the start of the pandemic? I know that for me, I actually moved states to be closer to my mother and extended family and it's been really rewarding, even though it's been hard being away from my friends as well. So, I think a lot of us have made decisions for our families. Our number to answer that question, how have your priorities changed since the start of the pandemic, is 929-353-7006. That's 929-353-7006, or go to ourbodypolitic.show and scroll down to find a Google form to respond in writing.

Chideya:

I'm Farai Chideya. As you heard from Dr. Grace Lee, there's still obstacles to getting everybody vaccinated, and among them is a long history of mistrust between communities of color and the medical establishment. Ashley Nealy did her part earlier in the pandemic to get people ready to think about getting vaccinated. She's a web designer in Atlanta and she's now got the title of Vaccine Vixen on TikTok. 

Tik Tok Clip:

I just want to go over the Pfizer product you’ll be taking today, it can cause abdominal pain, acid or sour stomach, belching, bloating, cloudy urine, decrease in amount of urine. Heartburn, indigestion, itching skin, pale skin, passing ga - oh wait all of that is from the vaccine? No silly, not from the vaccine, this is Advil!

She participated in a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial last year and she's spent the last few months sharing that experience. Welcome, Ashley.

Ashley Nealy:

Thank you for having me.

Chideya:

So, tell us about Vaccine Vixen, your persona on TikTok. I think it's amazing that you have a whole TikTok devoted to this.

Nealy:

I've been getting a lot of questions from friends and family about the vaccine process, of trying to debunk some of the myths that have been put out there about what the vaccine does and how it was created. So, I decided to just create some funny videos to try to get people's attention about the side effects, about the clinical trial process. So, the first video I posted reached about one and a half million people.

Chideya:

Wow.

Nealy:

So, people... Yeah. Were excited about it but I've saw both sides of the argument about whether we should take the vaccine or not. But I was at least glad that the conversation was being generated.

Chideya:

And so, did you know whether or not you were getting the vaccine or the placebo?

Nealy:

No, I didn't. And I had some people... We'll be unblinded soon. In February, I will be. But I'm pretty sure I got the vaccine based on the side effects that I experienced. So, everything that I had experienced on the informed consent form mentioned that this was common with the vaccine and not really common if you got the salt water injection. I was really fatigued, so that was the biggest sign for me. It was hard for me to get out of bed the next morning. I had a loss of appetite, body aches. My body was warm and I had some sweating. And those symptoms just lasted about 24 hours, so by the time the following morning happened, they were all gone and I didn't have those same side effects after the second dose as well.

Chideya:

So, there's definitely been documentation that Black people are more resistant to taking the vaccine than whites and there's a long history of medical racism, so... Including very unethical testing protocols and experimental protocols. What would you say to another Black person if they came up to you in person and said they would never take the vaccine, let alone a trial?

Nealy:

I get that a lot, actually. A lot of those comments that I got on TikTok and the social media were from people telling me that they didn't feel comfortable taking the vaccine. And I always empathize with them. I say I recognize our painful history of medical racism that still exists today. But I just encourage them to think about the risk/benefit analysis of it. We know the effects of COVID and how it's ravaging the African-American community more than others. I tell people that you can find comfort in hearing from us that have gone through the trials to make sure that this process was fair and equitable and that it actually works on us. So, I always empathize. I do think people hopefully will come around when they see more, and some people just need more data. But letting them know that this process still went through all the other protocols that any normal clinical trial would go through and then that we had a great representation of people of color in the trials, too.

I know there's a lot of vaccine hesitancy, not only in African-American community, but I've also heard in the health care community. But I'm just hoping as more people... More people get vaccinated and share their stories that more people will feel comfortable taking it so that we can hopefully have a normal fall or end of the year coming up. I'm not sure about summer just yet.

Chideya:

All right, Ashley. It's been so great to talk to you and thank you for everything you're doing.

Nealy:

All right. Thank you. Thank you for having me. It was great talking to you, too.

Chideya:

That was Ashley Nealy, Georgia-based web designer and COVID-19 vaccine trial participant.

You may know Anna Deavere Smith from her tour de force one-woman plays rooted in community and conflict, Twilight and Fires In The Mirror. Or you might know her from acting in major series including Nurse Betty and The West Wing. A playwright, university professor and author, Anna also wrote a Time magazine article exploring the ancestry and ambition of Vice President Kamala Harris. Welcome, Anna.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Thanks for having me here.

Chideya:

You are just someone who I adore your work and your brilliance so much, so I'm going to fan girl for a second. But you did this piece for Time magazine about Kamala Harris as she was preparing to become Vice President of the United States, and of course, she is that now. What did you find that you hadn't been looking for already, something that surprised you?

Deavere Smith:

Well, I didn't know she was a Brahmin. I probably should have known that. I didn't know that. And I didn't know very much about Tamil Nadu and the partic... She's very complex if we just look at race and culture, and I think it's really sort of glorious how complex she is because it means to me we have a chance not just to say, "Oh, she looks like me. I'm happy to see somebody there who looks like me." That looking like me, quote unquote, is not so simple, and I think that's what we need, frankly, to disrupt racism, is less simplistic ideas about racial identity.

Chideya:

Yeah. And so, I want to pivot from your work on this article to your broader work. So much of your work does deal with these intersections of identity, race, class, region. And a project that you've been working on is The Pipeline Project, which deals with the school to prison pipeline. And both of us happened to have gone to the same high school in Baltimore, Western High School, at different times. Baltimore certainly has a double, triple track of school to prison pipeline. Tell us more about The Pipeline Project.

Deavere Smith:

Yeah. Well, the school to prison pipeline... As we know, this came from data that showed that Black, brown and Native American kids are pushed out of school more often than their middle class counterparts and that a certain number of expulsions and suspensions at a certain time in their development pretty much predicts that they're going to end up in circles of incarceration.

Chideya:

Mm-hmm.

Deavere Smith:

And so, I did 250 interviews in several geographic areas and I finished that project. It was a play. It was a movie. It was a book. It was town halls. But I came out of all of it thinking, huh. In terms of the perception of the problem, we think immediately... I think if I said, "Draw a picture of who's on the school to prison pipeline," it would be a boy of color.

Chideya:

Mm-hmm.

Deavere Smith:

Although girls are getting on that pipeline in an exponential manner. But the fact is I want to flesh out the ecosystem of what happens to kids, to look especially at girls. And the first place I went is our high school.

Chideya:

Oh my gosh. This is just thrilling me to pieces. I mean, what do you hope to get out of it for yourself? I can only imagine that the school will get a lot out of it. The girls will get a lot out of it. But what do you want to get out of it?

Deavere Smith:

You know, for me the most important thing is that I'm changing my process so that I will not be just doing interviews. But one of the ways that I'm going to learn about these young ladies is by creating performance workshops and I'm going to be using performance as a way of knowing. And having performance be the way that I learn about these young ladies' lives. And that's the newest thing about what I'm doing.

Chideya:

I absolutely love that. And I have been to a number of different types of performances that incorporate teens and give them a chance to reflect on different aspects of their lives, even as they're acting out things that they may not have come up with. There's always a self that shines through. And you are someone who can be really protean in how you embody different people. What has the experience of being a skilled performer who can do everything from your own works, like Twilight and Fires In The Mirror, to The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, brought out in you as a human being? Where do you think it has taken you?

Deavere Smith:

Oh, that's a very complicated question.

Chideya:

Bite off a tiny piece of that.

Deavere Smith:

Well, I mean, I think... Oh, I think one thing that it has revealed to me... My own plays have revealed to me how important it is to me to champion Black men. I mean...

Chideya:

Mm-hmm.

Deavere Smith:

After what I just said about these girls... And I really think, in many ways, my works are dedicated to my brother Deaver, who passed in 2015. So, we're all miss... Part of ourselves are mysterious and I think I've learned that, how much I'm dedicating my work to him in my choices of who I choose to perform and who I choose to champion.

Chideya:

I guess the last question I'll ask is what do you see ahead? And again, you... Okay, I admit. You can't answer this, but give it a try. What do you see ahead for the arts in the Biden/Harris era? Do you see any changes coming ahead? Or what would you like to see coming ahead in that regard?

Deavere Smith:

I think that the movement that began after the murder of George Floyd has really caused folks in all different kinds of arts institutions to question how we work, to ask not just for equity but really a profound face-off of... People my age helped build the off-Broadway theater as we know it, helped build the regional theaters as we know them. But we don't own anything.

Chideya:

Mm-hmm)-

Deavere Smith:

I would like to see a Black American theater at the level of the Studio Museum in Harlem, at the level of Jazz at Lincoln Center. And I just don't know why New York City does not have something at that level. That's what I would like to see happen.

Chideya:

Hmm. All right. Well, Anna, thanks so much for coming on.

Deavere Smith:

It's always a pleasure to be with you, Farai.

Chideya:

That was Anna Deavere Smith, author, playwright and actor.

Vice President Kamala Harris is Black and South Asian and all-American, something that Anna's article dives into. Another view on the expansive territory of Blackness comes from Kenya Hunt. She's the fashion director at Grazia magazine based in the U.K., an American who grew up in Virginia. Her new book is Girl Gurl Grrrl: On Womanhood and Belonging in the Age of Black Girl Magic.

Kenya Hunt:

Well, I wrote the book purely out of love for Black women. I felt like I was witnessing and participating in a shared experience that, to me, felt like it was transcending country and geographic borders, but also time. And I felt like I was living a very specific existence as an American expat abroad, so I wanted to explore my story and my experience of Black womanhood as I saw it against this backdrop of heightened visibility for Black women and women of color, period.

Chideya:

So, Hunt invited friends and women she admires to share their experiences. Her book explores the diversity within the Black community worldwide.

Hunt:

It's interesting because for the vast majority of my adult working life here in the U.K., I have been in circumstances where I've been either the only Black woman in the room or the only one of two or maximum, three if I'm lucky, in most professional settings. And so, I felt like I was thrust in this position of constantly having to represent an entire group or demographic of people. And so, I think I learned a lot about myself with age and wisdom as I learned to reject that expectation to sort of represent this entire sort of demographic, because we're not a monolith. Our experiences are so complexed and nuanced.

Chideya:

Here she is reading a passage of her book.

Hunt:

Are skin folk always kinfolk? As the world recognizes us in unprecedented ways thanks to the galvanizing capabilities of social media, and as the world of culture rushes to capitalize on that moment, showing Black people on film, TV and the glossy page, the question underpins the movement.

Chideya:

Hunt uses both the personal and global history to explore Black identity.

Hunt:

I learned a lot in reading a lot of the discussion that came about in response to what was happening in Legos around... And Nigeria around SARS, and how we show up for one another across the diaspora. Similarly, when Beyonce released Black Is King and there were those who were just so blown away by how visually stunning and arresting it was. But then there was some real, very real valid critique that emerged as well about the ways that we depict Africa and how sometimes we can push... Either push ourselves to the margins or either sort of create this kind of mash-up of culture that strips the nuance out of the experience.

When I was growing up in Virginia, you were either Black or white. That was basically the end of it. There was no real notion of origin or no real sense of story and history. And so, it wasn't really until I started at university that I really began to get a real sense of that. And then, moving here to the U.K., I also became really quite familiar with the fractures in our communities as a result. You have nations in Africa where Blackness doesn't exist in relation to whiteness.

Chideya:

She's come to embrace this impossibility, this inherent complexity in defining identity.

Hunt:

I have discovered that I think there's value that can come out of the fractures. I don't necessarily know if it's the most realistic or helpful thing to expect Black people the world over to get along and agree all the time. I think there's real value that comes from the fractures and the debates that we have.

Chideya:

And her book adds to the celebration of Black women, especially.

Hunt:

Watching Black women be the driving mechanism in the American election. But not just that. I mean, they were the driving mechanism in all of the sort of key pivotal movements that we watched unfold in 2020, from the Black Lives Matter movement to Black women really being the political force that put Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in office. It does give me hope and it makes me incredibly optimistic.

Chideya:

Kenya Hunt's book is Girl Gurl Grrrl: On Womanhood and Belonging in the Age of Black Girl Magic. Find it wherever you get your books. Out now.

Each week on the show, we bring you a roundtable called Sippin' The Political Tea. We go through the key political news of the week with Our Body Politic contributor Errin Haines, who's editor-at-large at The 19th, and Jess Morales Rocketto, civic engagement director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. 

Hi, Jess.

Jess Morales

Rocketto:

Hey, Farai.

Chideya:

And hey, Errin.

Errin Haines:

Hey there.

Haines:

So, Farai, Jess. It feels like if it's a day of the week, there's an executive order coming out of the Biden/Harris administration.

Chideya:

Exactly.

Haines:

Right?

Morales

Rocketto:

It's like Oprah and free cars. You know, like you get an executive order. And you get an executive order.

Chideya:

I love it.

Morales 

Rocketto:

And you get an executive order. I'm into it. I'll take it. We'll take them all.

Haines:

Every day I'm ordering. I mean, I'm just wondering which one of the president's executive orders has caught each of your eye the past week? Farai, why don't you go first?

Chideya:

For me, it's the transgender military ban. This has been a real back and forth that has been really hard on a lot of service members and hard on the military itself.

Haines:

Yeah.

Chideya:

The lack of a consistent policy. And one of the reasons, I think, that we have to understand... It takes quite a lot of money to transition gender and to have good health insurance that is able to help you become medically who you are is something that the military can offer if transgender people are allowed to serve. So, to take it out of the context of just military, this is a health care law in many ways.

Haines:

Absolutely. And also about jobs. I mean, more than 13,000 service members now back online with this executive order.

Chideya:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Haines:

Jess, the executive orders are something you and I have talked about for a story I wrote for The 19th. What about you? What executive orders caught your eye?

Morales 

Rocketto:

For me, partly because I work on this issue and because I do feel like it's a pretty surprising move from the Biden administration, is the no use of private prisons executive order that the Biden administration just put out. Big problems with that are most prisons are not private prisons and it doesn't extend to immigration detention facilities, which are largely private prisons. So, I don't want to minimize what a big deal it is and how long we've been fighting for something like this. I was surprised to see this as one of the early kind of opening criminal justice reform efforts from the Biden administration.

Haines:

Yeah. I think what I heard from a lot of activists that I spoke to in the past week was that these were good first steps, not... Again, it's only been about a week since the Biden/Harris administration has taken office, but already the tone that they're setting suggests certain governing priorities that they have in mind.

I want to go now to us playing a clip of President Biden talking about racial equity.

Joe Biden:

We need to make the issue of racial equity not just an issue for any one department of government. It has to be the business of the whole of government.

Haines:

So, Susan Rice is tasked with shaping domestic policy overall as the domestic policy advisor for the new administration. What she said this past week was that every White House department is going to be involved, which was a strategy that she said, having worked with previous Democratic administrations, is unprecedented in this country. And I think that really what struck me in this past week was seeing just how much racial inequality was on display, really front and center, whether we were talking about climate change, whether we were talking about housing, the criminal justice piece that you mentioned, Jess. Or the pandemic. To hear President Biden, frankly a white man in his late seventies, talking about systemic racism, talking about racial inequality doesn't have to be a zero sum game, right? Speaking directly to white voters who may feel like they lose something if Black and brown and other marginalized folks in this country gain something.

I think that that certainly is a different tone than what we've seen not only in the past four years, but really in the history of this country in confronting these issues in a way that I certainly have not heard in the time that I've been covering politics in such a big way. But I wonder, Farai, Jess, what both of you made of just hearing such a focus on racial equality, really coupled with the diversity that we've seen on display as these confirmation hearings continue to roll out. Farai, what do you think?

Chideya:

Yeah, Errin. I mean, one thing that comes to mind is something that came from a friend of mine who helped me out with reporting in the 2016 political cycle in eastern Ohio. And she is a person who told me about the rise of militias 15-plus years ago. She's someone who helped connect me to the local Republican Party leadership. And one thing she said was that people from her hometown saw what happened with the siege of the Capitol and it was a wake-up call in a way that even the death of George Floyd wasn't because it was like, "Oh, wait. This... What?" You know? And so, I think that what we have to realize is that there will be people who are for and against President Biden's directives on racial equity, but a lot of people actually, at least for the moment, are kind of plugged in to this is life or death for white people as well as life or death for people of color.

And there will be times where white Americans probably will forget that and the question is how does the Biden administration stay the course? And staying the course has to do with public policy, and we're going to see how the public policy battles play out far beyond the election.

Haines:

Yeah. Yeah. Jess, I'm wondering what you'd add to that.

Morales 

Rocketto:

You know, it's really interesting because in my conversations with the transition over the last couple of weeks, members of the transition have stressed racial equity to me so much that I was starting to get a complex about it. The number of times that people talked about racial equity. I would be like, "Oh, is this just because I'm a woman of color organizer representing the women of color group? Is that what this is? Come on." I had been a little bit skeptical of this kind of transition into racial equity and frankly, in part because of the rhetoric on the campaign and this early administration phase, this sort of relentless focus on unity, which I think is a little bit at odds with this message of racial equity in some ways.

And so, I... I am... I am still, I must confess, a little bit skeptical about it, although it is exciting to see it. The domestic policy council's pretty wonky, but I'm really keeping a close eye because I'm optimistic about what might come out of there.

Haines:

So Jess, you just said something really important that I want to drill down, and that was the idea that the relentless pursuit of unity can be at odds with the pursuit of racial equity. Talk about what you mean by that.

Morales 

Rocketto:

You know, there's been such a relentless focus on unity in these early days. It was the thrust of his inaugural address and you can't... It's the only thing...

Haines:

Central to his campaign, right? I mean, yeah.

Morales 

Rocketto:

Totally. Absolutely central to his campaign. And I feel like there is a big shift from his campaign rhetoric now into this kind of [inaudible 00:35:03] focus on racial equity and I think what I'm hearing from folks and what I sometimes hear when he says it as well is a little bit of a... A feeling that he's asking people to kind of sweep under the rug some of the things that actually do divide us. And so, I think it is a little bit hard to stomach. There hasn't been as much examination of what white supremacists need to do, what people in the Republican Party need to do who are supporting that white supremacy implicitly or explicitly. Sometimes it does rub people the wrong way, and speaking for myself, it definitely sometimes rubs me the wrong way.

There's a real tension between this idea that in policy, it's going to be all about racial equity and in rhetoric, it's going to be all about unity and maybe sometimes without the examination of race and racism and how that's playing out in extremely live ways right now.

Haines:

So, now I want to talk about more actions from the Biden/Harris administration. Democrats have a plan to give parents at least $3,000 per child and the Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy suggests that this plan could curb child poverty by more than 54%. Jess, I'm wondering what you think about this.

Morales 

Rocketto:

Well, it's a really exciting proposal. Listen, there's been a lot of... Especially during the pandemic, big shift around just giving people cash. I mean, I really hope that we can get to a place where this is the kind of thing we do without a global pandemic. So, some reports on this have shown that Democrats would want this to go through the pandemic and then would fight for it to go afterwards, and I think it's a no-brainer for right now when it's absolutely something that we should be fighting for.

Actually Errin, I have a question for you about this because...

Haines:

Yeah.

Morales 

Rocketto:

Women in relationships with men do most of the child care, even when both parents are working full time. I wonder if you think this will help women remain in the workforce, this sort of check proposal.

Haines:

Well, listen, the reporting that we've done at The 19th shows that women need all the help they can get to stay in the workforce, right? I mean, 2020 was a year that we know decimated jobs for women. Less than half of those jobs returned by the end of the year and we know that... I think something like 12... More than 12 million jobs held by women had vanished during the pandemic. And so, certainly addressing child care as an economic infrastructure issue, right? Not just as something that parents should be handling individually, in individual households, is going to be key. But whatever resources that the federal government can bring to bear to address the disproportionate impact that this pandemic has had on women, but really the inequalities that were in existence even before the pandemic so that women in the workforce are entering a new normal on the other side of this is crucial and seems to be a priority of this administration.

Morales 

Rocketto:

Farai, I wonder. Do you think that there are any effects for women who are planning for their future on this? We're not going to be in the pandemic forever and people's careers are absolutely going to change. Will there be any direct or indirect benefits for women whose children receive these checks?

Chideya:

Well, I think one thing is that a lot of people are kind of frozen on what to do about their family planning. There's actually been a baby bust during the pandemic because, for obvious reasons, although people have a lot of time to get fresh with each other, the incentive to actually have children is pretty... Pretty bad at a time where you don't know where your next paycheck is coming from or the stability of all sorts of things. And so, the United States, believe it or not, actually does need children and families. Many countries in Europe and Asia are experiencing below replacement birth rates which then ends up affecting the economy. And the U.S., as complicated as we are as a nation and as an economy, has benefited from having a higher birth rate.

Chideya:

So, there's all these structural issues, but then just speaking as a woman who is someone without kids, who wanted to have kids, I waited a long time because I wasn't sure if I could afford a family. And I may still adopt at some point, but I think a lot of us, whether we have kids or not, have paid a price for the way that America deals with parenting and deals with the economics of parenting. Not just women, but men. And so, I do think that anything we can do to stabilize how parents are treated as workers in America and as caregivers in America will be positive.

Haines:

Well, speaking of people at work, but headed in a totally different direction, the arrests of dozens of suspects involved in the attack on the Capitol have revealed that an alarming number of police officers and servicemen participated in that insurrection. And that has led people of color in the ranks to start speaking more openly about their experiences. I want to go to a clip now of a Black FBI agent talking to Trymaine Lee, host of MSNBC's podcast, Into America.

Into America Clip:

I have to say this, that working in local law enforcement, I work with guys that, with all due respect, were probably card-carrying Klan members when they were off duty. And when we were on duty, we did what we had to do, but when I was off duty, they just were people that I didn't associate with.

Haines:

So, there are now more talks about vetting. You saw the Department of Homeland Security put out a warning this week about the continued threat of domestic terrorism and white supremacy in this country. We're now weeks into the aftermath of the events of January 6th, but we're already learning how widespread this movement is and how global it is, right? Specifically in Germany, they had similar scenes play out last August with radical extremists storming the federal Parliament building in Berlin. These groups are actually watching each other's tactics across the globe and they're learning from each other's mistakes and gearing up to get even more organized for future similar attacks.

I mean, Farai, let me come to you and ask what can be done to address this. How can the U.S. under President Biden really take the lead in curbing global extremism?

Chideya:

There's a lot of different ducks that have to be lined up in a row. One of the first things that has to happen and is happening is that the U.S. is finally wrapping its brain around the fact that this cannot be a kind of unstated fact. There's been so much deliberate de-emphasis of white-led extremist movements as the key drivers of domestic terrorism. And in that same incredible episode with Trymaine Lee of the podcast Into America, the agent talks about how during the Trump administration, there was a de sort of... There was a diminishment of a focus on white domestic terrorism, which is the very lead form, and this misuse of this idea of Black extremist terrorism, which isn't even a thing. And yet, it became quantified or codified in some documents, and even once it was removed from federal documents because it was not a thing, it has trickled down into local law enforcement. So, basically, that's just another example of how disinformation warfare can enter the government itself.

So, first of all, there has to be a sort of de-biasing of American law enforcement. There has to be a recognition that the Internet and how it's regulated or not regulated plays into it. And there also has to be support for all of the courageous people. There are courageous people, white and non-white, across America and across the world who are saying we will not put up with this, and they need to be backed up. They need to be supported. They need to be protected.

Haines:

Okay. So, let's look ahead to next week. We've got an impeachment trial looming, starting on the ninth of February, and it's looking like we're already getting a sense for where Republicans may come down on this. Farai, I want to start with you and ask about what you're looking for in this second impeachment trial and what you think may be different.

Chideya:

Oh my gosh. Where do we even start? I mean, we could start with Mitch McConnell, who was for it until he was against it until he was for it and sort of against it. I mean, Mitch is in the driver's seat, you know? America is his Maserati right now in terms of how he does or doesn't interact with his fellow Republicans in the Senate. You know, it's a very difficult situation because a lot of Republicans feel threatened by some of their own constituents who are such supporters of the former President Trump that they are willing to go up against their own legislators, and some of them are willing to do it in ways that include domestic terrorism, threats to their families. So, we have to remember... And this doesn't change the fundamental math, but it changes how we can understand it. That some Republican lawmakers are scared of their own constituents and they're scared of what will happen if they vote for impeachment. And I believe that that affected the impeachment vote in the House and it will affect the vote in the Senate.

Haines:

Jess, I wonder if you can help folks listening understand just why should... Why average Americans should even care about this impeachment trial?

Morales 

Rocketto:

Well, I mean, the biggest one for me is that it matters... The impeachment matters because if he does get impeached for the second time, he's ineligible to run for office again. The other reason that this is important is that there are still a bunch of Trump-light type politicians in Congress right now. So, Marjorie Taylor Green, absolutely one of them. Josh Hawley, of course. You have Ted Cruz. You have the newly-elected Congressman Cawthorn. And all of them need a very clear rebuke of Trumpism and Trump behaviors. If we don't have that, I think it's not just Trump we should be worried about. It's all of this kind of class of Trump politicians that absolutely want to follow in his footsteps. And that would be a major problem.

Haines:

So, Jess, you definitely make a good case for why Americans should be tuned into the second impeachment trial. We will definitely stay tuned here. But this seems like a good place to end for now. So, let's do it again next week, Jess.

Morales 

Rocketto:

Okay. I'll be here.

Haines:

And see you later, Farai.

Chideya:

Oh, it's always great to be here with you, Errin.

That was Errin Haines of The 19th and Jess Morales Rocketto of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by Lantigua Williams & Co. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is executive producer. Paulina Velasco is senior producer. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Original music by Kojin Tashiro. Our producer is Priscilla Alabi. Michelle Baker and Emily Daly are assistant producers. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt, Sarah McClure, Kojin Tashiro and Virginia Laura.

Speaker 10:

Funding for Our Body Politic is provided by Craig Newmark Philanthropies and by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, empowering world-changing work.

Chideya, Farai, host. “January 29, 2021: The challenges of distributing the Covid-19 vaccine equitably, Black identity in the White House and beyond, and our weekly roundtable unpacks the first set of Biden-Harris executive orders.”  Our Body Politic,  Diaspora Farms LLC. January 29, 2021.  https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/