Our Body Politic

Next-Level Thinking for Public Safety, Meet a 10-Year-Old Chess National Master, and the Biden-Harris Administration Toughens Up on Covid-19 and Voting Rights

Episode Notes

Farai Chideya talks with Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Biden-Harris adviser on Covid-19 and health equity, about where we are in the pandemic. Researcher Dr. Jenn Jackson shares the GenForward survey results that show young people’s evolving stance on policing and police reform. Sharon Chang and Kamal Sinclair of the Guild of Future Architects reimagine public safety. Ten-year-old Tanitoluwa Adewumi and his family on overcoming obstacles to help him become chess national master. And Farai Chideya, Errin Haines, and Jess Morales Rocketto update us on the voting rights debate in the weekly news roundtable, Sippin’ the Political Tea.


00:55 Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith is Chair of the Presidential Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force

13:10 A look at the GenForward surveys on protests and policing

18:49 The Guild of Future Architects takes on public safety reform

27:42 Tani Adewumi shares how he became a chess national master

32:05 Sippin’ the Political Tea: Errin Haines, Jess Morales Rocketto, and Farai Chideya talk about the week’s news

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. As you know, we're still growing and evolving our show and we're shaping it 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 Podcast 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. This week we examine policing and incarceration using data, and explore new frameworks for talking about reform. First, a COVID 19 update with a top Biden, Harris administration official. Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith serves as senior advisor to the white house COVID-19 response team and chair of the administration's COVID-19 health equity task force. She also has many roles at Yale University, associate Dean for health equity research. CNH long professor of medicine and epidemiology, professor of public health and management and director and founder of the Equity Research and Innovation Center. Dr. Nunez-Smith. Welcome to Our Body Politic.

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith:

Thank you so much. It's great to be here. Looking forward to conversation with you today.

Chideya: My sister used to work in public health. She's a doctor, MD-MPH, and has done a lot of different things that have really let me know that health equity has been an issue for a long time. And I will say that I've also had experiences in my own life with relatives getting health care that seems to have not been equitable based on race and class. You have such a wide ranging approach to this. How are you looking at health equity through the lens of COVID-19? And after that in general, how do you look at it?

Nunez-Smith: This is an issue that has come to the forefront in this past year plus, but has been in the consciousness of so many for a long time. Particularly those who are from communities that are minoritized and marginalized. Because the reality is for so many people, the experiences that they can reference are contemporary and are personal, and have to do with the most recent time that they have sought healthcare for themselves or their loved ones. And felt disrespected and felt unheard or ignored, felt as though the carrier received was subpar. I think that's important for us to start with some of that acknowledgement of institutions that have proven themselves untrustworthy. That we need to move away from thinking about individual level trust or mistrust in systems that have structurally disadvantaged people over time. And talk about the onus being on these very institutions to prove themselves, ourselves trustworthy. And so when we look at our data, our best estimate suggests that maybe 10 to 20% of the variation we see in terms of health outcomes has to do with healthcare specifically. Now, I will always argue that's 10 to 20% variation we shouldn't see, but it's not the big part of the pie. The big part of the pie, our social economic drivers, there are things that result from policy quite frankly. And so when do we have those conversations about housing, access to nutritious food, economic, educational opportunity, and understanding how closely linked all of this is to health.

Chideya: So given that the Delta variant is in the U.S. and appears to be rising as a percentage of the cases, how does that affect health equity work? I mean, where are we in the cycle of the pandemic?

Nunez-Smith: It's an important moment, where we are right now as a nation. We can also talk as a globe, but certainly as a nation, where we are right now in the pandemic. We're seeing two different realities emerging. And I think that is something that is concerning many of us. That there is one reality for individuals and communities to be really clear, where there is high vaccination rates and uptake, and then a different reality emerging for those who are unvaccinated and those in communities where there is low vaccination uptake. When we see the hospitalizations and deaths in the past couple months, over 99% of the people hospitalized passing away from COVID-19 have been unvaccinated. And so we are fortunate to have what is the most powerful tool in the toolbox, vaccine, and we have three. That importantly do confer a high degree of protection against all the variants in circulation here, including the Delta variant. So being able to get people the information and the access that they need so that they can make the personal decision to protect themselves and their families. That's our work now and it's urgent.

Chideya: You also just referenced in passing that this is international, of course the pandemic is international. And I understand you were born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and that you've been doing research in the Eastern Caribbean. Has that intersected with your work on COVID too?

Nunez-Smith: Yeah, absolutely. I did grow up in one of our nations territories. Which is another, I think, reflection on sort of race and place and health, and what it means to be from one of our country's territories where quite frankly, even in our policy, reflected a different tier as far as healthcare and healthcare reimbursement. And so no question, my own personal lived experience, as well as the realities of those policy contexts really have helped inform and shape my own connection to the work personally. As somebody coming through and training in medical school, as your sister did, going through in residency and others and seeing just firsthand that so much of what landed people in a hospital bed had very little to do with biology, very little to do with genetics and a whole lot to do with social instructional realities, and seeing that. But yes, this is a global conversation, and all of my colleagues, particularly in the Eastern Caribbean. I stay connected, very connected to them and hear on the ground about the need for increased vaccine supply. And the United States is stepped up, President Biden has been really clear, it's goal seven of the national strategy that we will reclaim our role as a global leader, helping to provide vaccine to the world. But it can be such an interesting space to be in, to go from one conversation in some countries where people are really struggling to connect with vaccine to get access, to get supply. And then to have conversations here domestically, where we are so fortunate to have enough supply domestically. Now everybody, 12 and older, is eligible. We have the supply here. But to see some of the issues here are different and have to do a lot with trust and other things as far as getting people actually vaccinated. Because we know vaccines don't save lives, it's the vaccinations that do.

Chideya: I have a family in different parts of the world, particularly in Southern Africa. And they're having a hard time getting the vaccine. Do you think that on a moral level vaccine should be treated more like medical open source technology? There was that moment many years ago where South Africa broke patent law to produce antiretrovirals against AIDS. And the U.S. thought about challenging it but ultimately didn't. Maybe not in this pandemic but in future pandemic, should we treat the medical formulations of vaccines as a common good regardless of nationality?

Nunez-Smith: Yeah. I mean, I'm learning so much more about this issue now myself, and I will say the administration has, in terms of the trips waiver and other things and understanding that that's one piece of it. This understanding of the formulas and then this other conversation around making sure that there's true intellectual partnership right in this space. It's that's sort of a recipe as you or I might take into our kitchen. And so there's intricacy of how one actually goes about making the vaccine requires deep, genuine, and true intellectual partnership and exchange. Which we absolutely need more of. And I think the pandemic has taught us that in times of need, we're able to work across silos. We're able to work across barriers that have existed that have largely been bureaucratic ones in a spirit of collaboration. But I will say that it should never be a political issue. And the president has spoken clearly to this, and says, even as the United States donates doses and is doing so very aggressively across the globe, that this has to be guided by public health. The U.S. government is not using vaccine as some political tool to carry favor. This is all part of how we should be postured now and moving forward. And I think it's unfortunate if other countries take a different stance and approach.

Chideya: Now, getting back to vaccines in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci said that he thinks there should be more vaccine requirements at the local level. The federal government hasn't laid out a mandate to get vaccinated. How do you view that choice and the role of the federal government?

Nunez-Smith: I don't often get a moment to stop and say, listen, this is where we were in January and where we are now. And I think the federal government, President Biden's leadership has been just so focused. It's so clear, a whole of government response to where we are now. And I think it's important to note that progress in terms of vaccine and vaccination, but importantly, as you pointed out, the federal government has not issued a mandate. Does it have an intent to do so? Is not issuing a vaccination verification system or a passport, and it doesn't have intention to do so. The reality is we started talking about earlier is every community looks very different in COVID-19. We have set national benchmarks, national metrics. We are pushing, we are doing just pulling every federal policy lever imaginable and inventing new ones to be able to get people connected with the resources they need. So the federal administration clearly we see the important critical role for the federal administrations at play. And also is to understand that at the community level is where these transmission dynamics and transmission metrics matter the most. And so whether we're talking about anything, be it mask or other mitigation strategies, it has to follow, reflect what's happening on the local scene. One thing I'll say about the vaccine and mandates, and I've said this before, I'm a practicing physician, I'm a healthcare worker and it is customary for my employer to require me to have certain vaccinations. And so I anticipate we will see that, that we will see mandates. We see them now in terms of colleges and universities and being on campus and other things there. And for some, and there's been polling data to suggest that for some people, they said they would get vaccinated if it were mandated. For other people, they say they are waiting for FDA approval in order to get vaccinated. And so I expect we will see some, maybe not huge numbers, but we might see some shifts in vaccine behavior as mandates emerge and we transitioned to anticipated full approval from the FDA.

Chideya: So last question, what does success look like for you? You can either frame that in terms of COVID-19 or just in terms of your whole career. What does success mean to you?

Nunez-Smith: Equity a verb, equity also a team sport. And so the success, whatever we achieve or don't achieve will rise and fall in our partnerships, in our collaboration. So my daily benchmark for success is, am I showing up as a good listener today? Am I being present in this conversation in this space? Am I really sharing power in the way that I need to? And then am I taking what I've learned and using that to help shape and inform the work on the ground?

Chideya: Dr. Nunez-Smith. Thanks so much.

Nunez-Smith: Thank you. Please be well.

Chideya: That was Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith. She heads the Biden, Harris administration's COVID-19 task force on health equity and advises its COVID-19 response team. Here on Our Body Politic we've been collaborating with the data scientist at GenForward to go in-depth on policy issues backed by numbers. The GenForward survey is a first of its kind nationally representative survey of over 3000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 36. It pays special attention to young people of color and how race and ethnicity shape responses. Dr. Jenn Jackson is one of the research consultants for GenForward. I asked them on the show to talk about the surveys focused on protest, racism and police. Dr. Jackson, welcome back.

Dr. Jenn Jackso...: Thank you for having me again.

Chideya: So you did polling on protest and policing last year as a followup to work that had been ongoing. So what has stayed the same? What has changed?

Jackson: A lot has actually changed. And it's interesting, we started asking some questions about policing back in 2016. One of the questions we asked was how serious a problem do you think the killing of Black people by the police is in the United States? And back in 2016, 49% of the young people we asked believe that the killings of young Black people was a part of a larger pattern in not an isolated phenomenon. In 2020, it rose to about 57% of young adults who believe that these killings were actually a part of a pattern. And we're seeing that a lot of the opinions about violence against Black Americans have just been increasing steadily between 2016 to 2019, and to 2020. In 2019 55% of all young adults believed that these killings were a very or extremely serious problem, but by August, 2020, this number rose to 63%. So it's just been consistent that we see that, as folks I believe are witnessing the murders of folks like Briana Taylor and George Floyd, their opinions of the seriousness of killings of young Black Americans are also increasing.

Chideya: So in thinking about the kinds of questions that are really critical to understanding the moment today, we've been listening here at Our Body Politic to a podcast called Sounds Like Hate produced by Geraldine Moriba. And among the many things it tackles is Confederate statues, what role they play in communities and how families and individuals relate to the history of our local regions. You've asked about some of these issues, what have you found?

Jackson: So we've asked about Confederate statues quite a bit over the past few years. We've seen overwhelmingly that it's young Black Americans who still see this as a threat to their actual lives. And when we talk about this subject with a young white respondents, their responses are different. A lot of them respond that this is more of a threat to the American identity. This is not the American way.

Chideya: The idea of talking about policing is super complicated. I mean, I remember so many Sunday dinners where my uncles would talk about being good, hardworking law abiding men who were harassed by the police. And yet at the same time at the same table, there would be these conversations like we need policing and we need someone to help keep order. Does that complexity come up at all in how you do this research? I mean, is there room for complexity?

Jackson: It's really important to note that even though young Black folks, and Black folks writ large, typically are situated very centrally in this conversation on police abolition. A lot of Black people have consistently said that they actually support policing. And a lot of Black people have said that, visited a right number of police officers in their neighborhood and that they want to have police. And we actually asked that question in July, 2018 and August, 2020. But what we're seeing is just like some of the other data that we've seen, that those numbers in support are also decreasing. So when we asked young Black people, young folks across the board, do you think your community has the right number of police officer's, needs more or has too many? Back in July, 2019, only 14% of the overall sample population that we talked to said that their community had too many, but by August, 2020, it was 24%. So 10% more. And the same thing happened across the board. So the right number about 47% of that was the right number in 2019. 54% in 2020. But the number that I think is actually really interesting, in July, 2019, 37% of young people that we sampled said that their community needed more police officers, but by August 2020 only 20% share that same sentiment. And when we look across the different racial groups, when we look at Black, Asian, Latin X, white groups, I think people would assume that that average is being pooled by Black Americans, but that's not the full story. Every single group said that they needed more officers in their community in 2019 and had a precipitous drop in August 2020. And Asian young adults were the least likely to believe their community needed more officers, not Black Americans, but Asian Americans.

Chideya: Dr. Jackson, it was great talking to you. Thank you so much.

Jackson: Thank you for having me.

Chideya: Dr. Jenn Jackson is assistant professor at Syracuse University in the Department of Political Science, and a research consultant for the GenForward Survey. Another great collaboration here on the show is with the Guild Of Future Architects. They help us imagine our shared futures as women of color. Today I want to talk with them about incarceration, both prisons and jails, but really our entire approach to dealing with harm and safety in our society. Mid-last year saw the lowest number of people in jails nationwide in more than two decades. The threat of COVID-19 led many local authorities to release people held on low level charges and suspend court operations. Arrest rates went down. But a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice found this decrease didn't last long. By spring of this year, the number of people awaiting trial or serving sentences in jail had already climbed back up. For our latest installment with the Guild Of Future Architects, I'd like to welcome founder Sharon Chang. Hi, Sharon.

Sharon Chang: Hi Farai.

Chideya: And Kamal Sinclair, the Guild's executive director. Hi, Kamal.

Kamal Sinclair: Hi, Farai.

Chideya: The U.S. has the world's largest prison population. One quarter of the world's prisoners with just 5% of the total global population. Kamal what does this say about our society?

Sinclair: What does it say about American society is that we have developed our systems based on, I would say, fear-based ideologies that look at people that are other than us, as people to fear, people to maintain. And this isn't something that's new. This is something that has been empirically proven over and over again. It's not just these kinds of narratives that we're hearing from kind of Trump ism around, people coming over the border or people in our neighborhoods that are going to rape and pillage and take. We're constantly using those narratives of fear to do social control around power and resources. And when I was in my twenties, I went to the New York City public library, and I found a book called, The Colonial Debates. And this was a set of debates that happened among the governors of the colonies before the transatlantic slave trade really started in earnest. And the question was, should we bring Black people over to this country to serve as labor? And there were arguments for the economic reasons to do it and economic reasons not to do it. But what was the most interesting argument was, if we bring a race of people over here and enslave them, we will always have to sleep with one eye open. We will always have to be in fear for our lives. And I feel like that is quite frankly a fundamental whether we know it or not subconscious part of an unconscious relationship to social control. I mean, some people that's a long time ago, we've got to understand what is those deep, psychological imprints that have created these relationships of fear that make us want to increase social control.

Chideya: And Sharon, can you take us again into what your project of shared futures means? When you take on a shared future, as you have around this issue, what does it mean? And yours is called Beyond Prisons, tell us more about it.

Chang: The definition of a shared future is a potential reality co-created with shared visions. And Beyond Prisons for me, it started with two films. One is a feature narrative, the other is a feature documentary. And the unique thing about this project is that both films were shot at a maximum security level for prison in Indiana. We ended up asking 13 incarcerated men to co-create and co-direct the documentary with us. And the film ended up being nominated for an Emmy.

Chideya: Do you have an explicit goal of producing certain types of structural change or what's the end goal?

Chang: So to me, a transformative justice system in the making is the ultimate expression of our collective imagination. If we allow ourselves to collectively imagine the system based on trust, we can take a leap of faith together from fear and control to trust and tolerance and accountability.

Chideya: What does it mean to be in it, and I'll go to you here Kamal, for people who are not incarcerated, what does it mean to be invested?

Sinclair: I remember when I was trying to raise money for a Black male achievement project and somebody said to me, "Why should I care about this?" And I tried all these different ways of trying to humanize the situation, and at the end the argument that won the point was, look at your tax dollars going into mass incarceration. They're like, "Yes, that's why I should care about this." So I think at the very minimum, there's these really simple impacts economically and socially in terms of the safety of our streets. People think incarceration makes us more safe. It actually can make us less safe because we're not supporting people to have health and wellbeing. We're not supporting people to have healthy families and networks of resources and kinship systems. And therefore it does create situations where you have homeless people that people are like, oh, we need to get clean up our streets. I don't feel comfortable seeing people on the streets. All these different ways that we dismiss people that have any poverty or try to dismiss people that have mental health issues or dismiss people that are struggling in ways that we have designed with our systems. I think that's the part of it that we don't take responsibility for that the extremes of wealth and poverty that we're seeing continuing to create wider and wider gaps. These are the things that we need to address that are much more intrinsic to our systems than just locking them up and putting people away. That is the last resort. And when you really think about doing restorative justice, doing holistic care, the prison population should shrink dramatically. Because the majority of people that are in prison are part of a system that's broken. The other piece of this is that we are locking up incredible potential. We don't understand that when we invest in other people's potential, it actually opens up an abundance of resources that we can all benefit from.

Chideya: Sharon, maybe you can take us a little bit inside this visioning for a society where justice is equitable and transformative. What are some of the things that your teams of futurist and the other collaborators you work with have been talking about?

Chang: We've been talking a lot about listening, where just perpetually in this game of fear and aggression. And the root cause is really just our inability to listen. So our team has been very focused on the process of healing, the process of listening to one another in hopes that we would just slow down our process of jumping to the conclusion and let solutions that are already working in communities come to the top. Because there's another thing that's really important and relevant here, is that the overall narrative. What stories we tell ourselves and tell each other. And sometimes people get very disillusioned and frustrated and jump to the conclusion that well, it's impossible. Nothing's going to work. We cannot possibly come up with a better, more restorative justice system. There are all these other problems we have to contend with. But I think, ultimately when I talk about this taking a leap of faith, is by understanding that there are a lot of really good stories. Stories of things working that are being suppressed. We're just not told the right stories. We're often just told the stories that extend fear and control. Now, overthrow certain systems overnight, but try to understand that the foundation of a new system is often already in place. They're just hidden and buried. We just need to start to propagate the ideas and the solutions and the right intentions. So we can continue to make progress.

Sinclair: I want to just say that the members of the shared feature Beyond Prisons also include Miguel Rivera, Martin Pettis, Claudia Peña. Who's a trauma informed restorative justice lawyer. So it's just a really incredible group of people that have had deep practice and processes, not only of justice but processes of healing.

Chideya: Well, I want to leave it on that note of healing. So much to explore here. And of course we will continue to cover the carceral state and the alternatives. Thank you so much, Sharon.

Chang: Thank you for Farai.

Chideya: Thank you, Kamal.

Sinclair: Thank you Farai.

Chideya: That was Sharon Chang and Kamal Sinclair of the Guild Of Future Architects. We had the pleasure recently of sending one of our producers to a household in Long Island to talk with a very special family.

Tani Adewumi: My name is Tanitoluwa Adewumi and I am age 10.

Chideya: Earlier this year, Tani as he's known, became one of the youngest people ever to become a U.S. Chess National Master. He won every game at a tournament open to advanced players of all ages. He's only been playing chess for about three years. He won the New York State Championship two years ago when he was eight.

Tani Adewumi: I progressed in chess because I was bored and I did not have anything else really to do. I lost a lot of games but then I started to improve a lot.

Chideya: Tani's family is originally from Abuja, Nigeria.

Tani Adewumi: The first time I ever played chess was probably with my brother in Nigeria, but we didn't really know much then. So we just move pieces around.

Chideya: In 2017, Tani, his parents and older brother had to flee their home country when they were targeted by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Here are Tani's father Kayode and mother Oluwatoyin.

Kayode Adewumi:

We were living very good before we left the country, if not because of the prosecution, which is still going on in the country. I mean, in Nigeria, we don't even thought that we could be here we are now. But one thing is we have belief in God.

Oluwatoyin Adewumi:

He's the pillar of our soul. He's the pillar of our life. He made us to where we are today.

Kayode Adewumi:

We believe in him because God can make somebody from low level to the higher level.

Chideya: At first, they moved within Nigeria, but eventually left the country on tourist visas. They landed in Queens, New York, where a local Nigerian pastor helped them find temporary housing in a homeless shelter. Kayode owned a print shop back home and says they were doing well. In the U.S. getting back on their feet was much harder than anticipated.

Kayode Adewumi:

We thought that everything would be just rosy, but when we get to the system, we know is very different from where we are coming from.

Chideya: Tani and his older brother, Austin happened to enroll at a public school with a chess club. When Oluwatoyin asked about it, she mentioned their economic situation. The coaches waived the $330 fee to join. And the rest is history.

Oluwatoyin Adewumi:

In every of our dreams, we are always positive because since he has won the New York State Chess Championship, everybody has been very kind to us, with all that support we'll believe is going to get there. Even beyond.

Chideya: Tani's fame brought the attention of readers from around the globe who raised money for his family through GoFundMe. Last year, the Adewumis published a book about their experiences. And now they're giving back to those who helped them, even their old shelter through the Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation.

Oluwatoyin Adewumi:

We have to remember where we came out from, which is the shelter. So we have to send some gifts to two different shelter within the [inaudible 00:30:26]. The one we were before, and some other ones around.

Chideya: Meanwhile, Tani is focusing on the next big hurdle in front of him.

Tani Adewumi: My next goal would probably be to get the title of International Master, and then Grandmaster. I want to become the youngest Grandmaster.

Chideya: We asked what advice Tani and his brother Austin had for young people who want to achieve their dreams.

Tani Adewumi: I would just say, putting a lot of practicing into it.

Austin Adewumi:

I will say, work together and support each other. Family support I guess, that's the only way.

Chideya: Oh, and one more word to the wise from Tani.

Tani Adewumi: Always believe in yourself.

Chideya: That's Tanitoluwa Adewumi, chess national master, his brother, Austin, and his parents, Kayode and Oluwatoyin. Thank you to Priscilla Alabi, our producer who met them for this interview. You can find the family's foundation @tanitoluwaadewumifoundation.org. Each week on the show, we bring you a roundtable called, Sipping The Political Tea. Joining me this week is Our Body Politic contributor, Jess Morales Rocketto. Civic engagement director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Welcome back, Jess.

Jess Morales Rocketto: Hey.

Chideya: And OBP contributor, Errin Haines, editor-at-large at The 19th. Hey, Errin?

Errin Haines: Hi Farai.

Chideya: So what version of tea are we sipping politically today?

Haines: Oh man, we got to sip the voting rights tea, because all eyes are on voting rights this week. There are efforts underway at the state level to make it harder for people to vote. Nowhere more in the headlines right now than with Texas where you have those local state representatives, literally fleeing to D.C. to get help from Congress and try to keep their GOP colleagues back home from passing more restrictive voting laws. Let's listen to a clip of governor Abbott of Texas.

Governor Greg Abbott:

What the house representatives can do, the speaker can do is issue a call to have these members arrested. In addition to that however, I can and I will continue to call special session after special session after special session, all the way up until election next year. And so if these people want to be hanging out wherever they're hanging out on this taxpayer paid junket, they're going to have to be prepared to do it for well over a year. As soon as they come back and inside of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done.

Haines: Jess, there just seems to be so much at stake here. Is this move going to produce the results that the Texas legislators are looking for? And have we seen anything like this before?

Morales Rocketto:

It's definitely a bold move by Texas Democrats. We've seen it one other time before in the last 20 years or so. This is something that you do when you're really trying to pull out all the stops. And that's what I find so admirable about it. The way that this ends is either Republicans come to the table and they are willing to negotiate on the bill or potentially the legislators go back to Texas and they get arrested. So no matter what, the stakes are pretty high and the consequences will be pretty serious.

Haines: I agree. Bold is a good word. These Texas Democrats are feeling like the stakes could not be higher. They're literally risking their freedom to block voter suppression efforts in Texas. And they've come to Washington because the federal government has historically been the place where people can seek redress when states seek to disempower them. So we'll see if their government is ear for them this time. Farai, I want to come to you because we heard those threats from Texas governor Abbott in that clip. What else is on the line in this situation?

Chideya: Well, I mean, I think one thing is to also think about state legislatures in general. State legislatures have tended to be weighted towards Republicans compared to the overall votes of the citizens. And Texas, Florida, and North Carolina are some of the states that are gaining congressional seats based on the U.S. census. So in addition to what's happening right now, there's a whole battle over gerrymandering in Texas. And that affects, of course who the representatives are in the state. And so I think that this is a perfect microcosm of how many different issues around voting go together. Like the kind of voting rights bills that we're dealing with, both at the federal level and the state level, don't deal directly with gerrymandering. And there was a supreme court decision that essentially said, you have to have a proven intent that gerrymandering is racial. You can't just show that it has a racial impact. You have to prove the intent, which is really hard to prove. So I see Texas as a microcosm and it's putting some pressure on the Biden, Harris administration to have these Texas legislators in town.

Haines: Such a good point you're making about redistricting and gerrymandering in the census. Where the census numbers are going to be out next month for states to start thinking about redrawing those lines. And so with these new laws being enacted and moving through state legislatures time is definitely of the essence. That's something that seems to be not lost on President Biden, who made some stark remarks on voting rights this week during a visit here in Philadelphia. I was actually on hand for that speech. Let's listen to a clip.

President Joe Biden:

We're facing the most significant test of our democracy since the civil war. That's not hyperbole, since the civil war. The Confederates back then never breached the capital as insurrectionists did on January the sixth. I'm not saying this to alarm you, I'm saying this because you should be alarmed.

Haines: So President Biden also called these efforts to curtail voting rights un-American, unpatriotic, undemocratic. Farai, what is this alarm from the president communicate to you and how does the federal government play a leadership role in this voting rights debate?

Chideya: Basically, a president gets to lead directly through many different forms of action, including executive orders. And also gets to lead as the defacto head of the party. But the reality is that the math is still the same in terms of him being the head of the party effectively and communicating with the congressional Democrats who may or may not fall in line. And also the president's not budging on the question of the filibuster, and if that's not on the table, it really limits the president's options.

Haines: So the president's options are limited. And while Democrats from the Texas legislature in the nation's Capitol, Democrats in the U.S. house of representatives are trying to whip up support to protect voting rights themselves. Jess, we've talked about the filibuster in the past weeks. Farai just mentioned it here. How is this likely to play out?

Morales Rocketto:

This is a really interesting scenario because, now you have something new that's changing the conditions of this conversation, the Texas legislator. And I think it's interesting that the original state's rights state is the one that has come here to push on the filibuster. And that is going to be a pretty powerful push over the next couple of weeks, especially depending on how long they stay in Washington, D.C. I think the longer the Texas legislators are here, the more that influences the conversation. The same time you have the president getting in the game in a way that he really hasn't before. This is of course a hope that he can be a big signal to democratic moderates and especially Senator Sinema and Senator Manchin who have already come out against the filibuster. But in the house, you see a really interesting development from the house majority whip, representative Clyburn, a noted Biden ally, who is now saying, what if there was a carve out just for voting rights? So let's not end the filibuster. We know that maybe that ship has sailed, but what if the filibuster could not be used against voting rights specifically? The president has also signaled his own form of compromise by being pro at the standing filibuster, as a way of actually physically filibustering. I don't know if people know, but actually they don't have to do it right now. So there are a number of things swirling out there as people really do attempt to find a real compromise that might be palatable to Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema. And if Democrats could get the whole democratic caucus to stand together, you would have vice president Harris as, in this case, incredibly historic or tie-breaking vote.

Haines: So Vice President Harris has also been making the rounds on voting rights, with many versions of the expression "American as apple pie." Here she is during a voting rights round table in Detroit on Monday.

Vice President Kamala Harris:

I do believe that fighting for the right to vote is as American as apple pie. It is so fundamental to fighting for the principles of our democracy.

Haines: Now, I want pie. Farai, how would you describe the rhetoric that the vice-president is using and how do you view the task that she set out to accomplish?

Chideya: I mean, the rhetoric is as American as apple pie in the sense that everyone wants to claim the patriotic political football. I mean, that's part of the game of politics, is that you have two major parties and other smaller parties that are all using some form of patriotic rhetoric. So I don't find that remarkable. I do think that patriotism lands differently with different populations. There have been some sociological studies that essentially show that for some Americans, patriotism is essentially bundled with anti-immigrant sentiment or xenophobia and for other Americans it's not. So just saying something is quote American as apple pie, I don't think it's persuading anyone, I guess this just doesn't seem to me to be something that is necessarily going to be a game changer for people who are not in favor of supporting equal voting rights. And I don't know that it'll be persuasive even to her former colleagues in the Senate.

Haines: I mean, I think we definitely heard more forceful language this week from the President, it'll be interesting to see if the Vice President gets more forceful in her tone as well. And look, we know the Vice President has limited powers, but what she can do is, not unlike President Biden, use that bully pulpit to really underscore the urgency of the moment and the administration's commitment to shoring up voter protections. She talks about, telling voters not to let anybody take their power. But that's really not what they tell me they want to hear after standing in hours long lines in a pandemic. So, besides voting rights, there are other issues on the Democrats agenda, free school meals for all, tax breaks, cheaper prescriptions, immigration reform, money for elections, closing the digital divide and on and on. Jess, there's the issue of Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona and not always towing the party line. What's your sense of how the vote on the budget is likely to go?

Morales Rocketto:

Well, this is what we are calling in advocacy circles, the end of the beginning. So now the budget came out. Senator Sanders had a $6 trillion budget and moderate Democrats of which Senator Warner and a few others led on, got it down to a $3.5 trillion budget. Which is still way more than Republicans, and especially Mitch McConnell will accept. So now we get into the really sticky parts of negotiations. You saw some signals from moderate Democrats really early, they're signaling that they're not really sure, they want to know how it's going to be paid for. Senator Manchin, he is from the state of coal, said, "We can't get rid of fossil fuels." Actually, he said, "We can't get rid of fossils." Which I think means something different than he meant.

Chideya: I really like little fossils. I used to collect them as a kid. So, I hope they're not going away.

Haines: If I came across some fossils, I certainly would not want to get rid of them, shout out to Jurassic Park.

Morales Rocketto:

So I think, they're just looking at the bill, they're looking at the details. So we should expect to see some climate provisions change in the bill for Senator Manchin. Senator Sinema, it's a little unclear what she's after. She doesn't really believe in anything except herself. Schumer and President Biden have made really clear that they're going to try to get this done, but this could go for a while. I definitely don't think we're looking at next month, I'm even hearing some reports that this could go into the end of the year. So we should just hang on for the ride here.

Haines: Well, look, as long as those fossils are protected. Let's talk about the impact of our politics on the ongoing global health crisis. Hello, there's still a pandemic happening and in a Washington Post, ABC News poll, more than six in 10 Americans approve of the way that President Biden has handled the crisis. Only 8% of Republicans approve of the overall job that he's doing. And 86% of Democrats have received at least one dose of the COVID 19 vaccine compared to just 45% of Republicans, and 38% of Republicans say they definitely will not get any dose of the vaccine. Farai, vaccine hesitation seems to go down party lines. If you were in charge, you wave a magic wand, you're president, what would you do to course correct?

Chideya: I would try an influencer strategy among social conservatives, including evangelicals and others who actually believed in being vaccinated, but also had credibility with their communities. The reality is that people are persuaded by people they want to be persuaded by. And president Biden talking all day, every day about vaccinations during a culture war environment of extreme polarization. But he's probably not the right messenger for certain groups. You have to go to people who have credibility in the space to convince other people of what's going on here.

Haines: So we're going to switch here a little and talk about Critical Race theory, because our colleague Judd Legum I'm over a popular information has uncovered where all the buzz around this previously obscure academic ideas suddenly came from. You've got the Thomas W. Smith foundation donating more than $12.7 million to 21 organizations attacking Critical Race theory. The foundation, which is funding much of the anti Critical Race theory effort is run by a person who opposes all efforts to increase diversity of powerful institutions and limits the introduction of curriculum about the historical treatment of Black people. Farai, are you surprised at all to learn about this?

Chideya: No, absolutely not. I mean, the reality is that American conservatives have been much better at putting in long money, high money and seed money to culture war issues, including in the educational space. Progressives tend to be more like let's create a new theory of change every five minutes. I'm just being honest about what I see, but a lot of conservatives are willing to really put down money, cash on the barrel, particularly to influence university and college students. And he's not the only funder, there's other funders like the Manhattan Institute, Think Tank. And so I think it really points to a real strategic focus on the right on controlling the narrative and controlling messaging and being willing to pay to do so.

Haines: I mean, strategic is exactly it. These types of efforts are always nothing if not coordinated. So, I mean, whether we're talking about taking over a state legislature, did judiciary are now an attack on how race is learned in our country. None of this is happening in a vacuum, and it's just important for us to continue to point this out early and often and to draw the connection to the overall attempt to maintain power in a rapidly demographically changing world. Jess, what do you think? Any final thoughts on this?

Morales Rocketto:

The thing that the Republicans are very good at, is they attack our ideas. And that can be, I think so powerful. This is of course, absolutely 100% reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. And as you can see, it's very effective not only in animating that very, very right wing base, but also in really eroding trust in the fabric of progressive ideals and the solutions that we want to move forward.

Chideya: And I think along those lines of what Jess was saying, there is a really porous barrier between things that are considered outside of the Overton window and things that are considered inside. The Overton window being basically like, what is it acceptable to say? Whether it's considered polite or impolite, accurate or inaccurate, what is the Overton window of what we can talk about? And now you're starting to see mainstream news organizations that have more of a right-leaning bent, picking up some of the material from the far right? So there was just recently a piece in the Wall Street Journal, which is known for more conservative opinion, and an op-ed piece is saying, Critical Race theory is a hustle. It may resemble a serious academic discipline but it's really just a fancy argument for racial preferences.

Chideya: Now this is getting to the core of things because the reality is, Critical Race theory is not a hustle. If it was a hustle, Kimberlé Crenshaw would be a billionaire. But also this idea of racial preferences, American public policy, through everything from slavery to red lining to the G.I. Bill, has had embedded racial preferences to build white wealth. But the term racial preferences is never used about those institutional structural issues, it's used when it comes to Black people and other people of color, beginning to address issues. So I just think keeping an eye on these long-term narrative threads, like to then begin to attach Critical Race theory, which is an academic discipline for grown people, not something that you teach in K through 12. First of all, to attach that to a racial hustle and racial preferences is the next form of this dialogue.

Haines: Critical Race theory is not a hustle. Put it on a T-shirt folks. We're going to have to leave it there for now, but it was nice talking with you Jess and Farai.

Chideya: Thanks Errin. Thanks Jess.

Morales Rocketto:

This is so great. Thanks everybody.

Chideya: That was Jess Morales Rocketto, civic engagement director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Errin Haines, editor-at-large at The 19th. 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. Jen Chien is executive editor. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Our producer is Priscilla Alabi. Julie Zann is our talent consultant. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistants from Mark Betancourt, Elizabeth Nakano and Veda Chand. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, the Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Next-Level Thinking for Public Safety, Meet a 10-Year-Old Chess National Master, and the Biden-Harris Administration Toughens Up on Covid-19 and Voting Rights.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. July 16, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/