Welcome to the first episode of Our Body Politic, created by award-winning journalist Farai Chideya. This episode digs into the controversies surrounding the Census with actor and activist Alfre Woodard. Farai talks to two lawyers leading the campaign to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court. Errin Haines of The 19th and Jess Morales Rocketto of the National Domestic Workers Alliance discuss the power of Black and WoC voters this November. Plus, our weekly Covid update about the pandemic’s impact on communities of color.
1:57 April Reign and Sabriya Williams talk about the death of Supreme- Court- Justice Ruth-Bader-Ginsberg.
4:14 Why representation in the Supreme Court matters.
5:35 Republicans’ plans to rush a new Supreme Court Justice.
8:38 “There’s already names that are being circulated of Black women who might be Supreme Court justices and nominees.”
13:51 Errin Haines and Jess Morales Rocketto talk about the importance of the Women of Color vote in the upcoming presidential election.
15:18 Oh my gosh. Absolutely. Women of color are key to winning elections.
17:18 Erin Haines - “I mean, you don’t have Joe Biden as your presumptive Democratic nominee weeks ahead of schedule without Black women, right?”
18:58 Jess Morales Rocketto - “To my Latina sisters and fems, honestly, I think the most important thing is that we can really make the difference in this election.”
20:43 Covid news and how essential workers are disproportionately affected by the virus.
22:07 Last month, the CDC abruptly changed its testing guidelines, saying people who weren’t showing symptoms of COVID-19 didn’t need to be tested, even if they thought they’d been exposed.
24:09 Dr. Kavita Trivedi talks about her background iat the CDC as an epidemic intelligence service officer, and helping to manage outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant infections and manage infection control.
26:56 “We have now clearly seen that African Americans, Latinx communities, are disproportionately affected by the pandemic in so many different ways. “
29:05 Dr. Trivedi stresses the importance of the flu vaccine this upcoming winter, so that doctors can rule out the sickness when COVID symptoms arise.
32:16 An interview with Soraya Nadia McDonald about Naomi Osaka.
37:25 Naomi Osaka repping Black Lives Matter masks during the US Open.
40:02 An interview with Alfred Woodard about the importance of the Census.
42:29 “So many people are putting their lives on the line daily to keep the country rolling.”
49:25 Alfred Woodward says, if those enslaved can show up for the Census, so can we.
47:48 “I tell stories because I want to lift all of my sisters and my brothers the same way that griots have always done.”
48:49 “Black Lives Matter was a hashtag that started after the death of Trayvon Martin to find each other online.”
Farai Chideya: I’m Farai Chideya. Coming up this hour on Our Body Politic, actor and activist Alfre Woodard on getting involved and getting busy, in her case with the 2020 Census.
There is so much need and so much uncertainty and fear. What we are able to do now is to get very active. That cures it all.
Chideya: What’s at stake for people of color even as we mourn the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the battle for the seat she left vacant. A discussion about Black women voters and our power this election.
Errin Haines: Black women are a strategic voting bloc, and they have shown that, right? I mean, you don’t have Joe Biden as your presumptive Democratic nominee weeks ahead of schedule without Black women.
Chideya: Stay tuned. Our Body Politic will be on right after the news.
Chideya: I’m Farai Chideya. I’m a veteran journalist of three decades and counting. I’m a Black woman, but most relevant to you and me right now, I’m an alarmed citizen. Welcome to Our Body Politic. I created Our Body Politic to seek answers to two questions that I’ve been writing and thinking deeply about. First, how can we reach Black women and other women of color so that we know ourselves better? Across race, culture, national origin, citizenship status and more, we need to engage in saving our own lives. Second, how do we together rebuild America in ways that nourish us and our communities?
I can’t answer this alone. These are expansive questions that demand collective effort and wisdom. Our Body Politic is fact-based and data rich. We will be impartial, but not coy about the truth. We won’t just bring you both sides, but many sides. My guests and I will help you to take the country’s pulse and prepare you to engage more deeply in public life. We’ll also cultivate our wellness as women of color.
It will be my honor to speak with you each week with the collaboration of the NPR member stations presenting Our Body Politic, KCRW, KPCC, and KQED. You’ll also get to participate in this discussion using a new narrative analysis system called Speak. Speak makes it easy for you to call the show and leave anonymous messages. These will be grouped and analyzed to get a sense of how all of you are doing week to week.
I am so eager to get to know you and to help us connect to the meaning and power of our lives. Let’s get started.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just one week ago rattled the nation. We grieve the death of a public figure beloved by many, and millions of Americans also fear the fresh political crisis over her empty seat on the highest court in the land. I invited two people to join me to discuss what’s at stake for America and for people of color, specifically. Lawyer April Reign is the creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. She’s also co-founder of the She Will Rise campaign to champion putting the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.
We also have co-founder Sabriya Williams, Director of Operations at the Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice. Thank you both for being here.
April Reign: Thank you for having us.
Thank you for having us.
Chideya: Can you tell us how significant Supreme Court rulings are in everyday Americans lives, even for people who might think big government doesn’t affect them? April, why don’t we start with you?
Reign: Sure. What we know is that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of laws in this country, and laws govern everything that we do, regardless of whether we want them to or not. So, issues regarding the environment, issues regarding healthcare and the Affordable Care Act, issues involving mass incarceration, so some of the biggest cases that we think about are like Brown vs. The Board of Education, and Roe vs. Wade, and people say, “Oh, okay, well those were decided 40 years ago or 50 years ago.” But they still reverberate today and there are some who are still attempting to roll back some of those protections. And so, it absolutely is imperative that we be mindful about who is sitting on the court and whose interests they represent.
Williams: To piggyback on definitely what April was saying is that the Supreme Court, they interpret the law, right? So, what does that look like if we aren’t included in that? If the interpreters of the law don’t look like all of the United States, what does that mean for us? That means that if there’s somebody who can’t understand my experience, then you’re interpreting the law in the way that you’ve grown, in the way that you’ve had your experiences. And so, unless we have that proper representation on the court, all of the United States is not really being represented.
Chideya: I was just online with some friends and one of them said her 14-year-old daughter was just weeping and inconsolable. Does that surprise you?
Williams: No. I have a 14-year-old daughter that was weeping and inconsolable, who what really… Has said from day one that, “I want to be a civil rights attorney.” And so, last night was very hard. Hugging my baby and letting her know that you know what? It’s okay, because we have been in this fight before and we’ve prevailed. And so, what we do know about Ruth Bader Ginsburg is she was a fighter to the end, and so she has left that legacy, and so that’s what we’re gonna ride that wave of fight, and justice, and gender equality, and that’s what we’re gonna make her legacy mean something.
Chideya: April, Justice Ginsberg first announced that she’d had early stage colon cancer in 1999, and over the decades, she battled cancer in her pancreas, lungs, and liver. She tried very hard to hang on. And just days before her passing, she was quoted as saying, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” So, what would need to happen in Congress to prevent President Trump from appointing a new Supreme Court justice?
Reign: Mitch McConnell has already put out a statement. In the same statement in which he acknowledged the passing of Justice Ginsberg, he also said that Trump’s replacement, the vote will be put on the floor of the Senate. And so, what we need is at least four Republican senators to be fair and say, “You know, the vote should not come until January.” But the larger question is what it’s going to mean if Trump is reelected, because what we know is that he has named 45 people to his short list for the Supreme Court. Only two of those people are Black, and one of them is the Kentucky Attorney General, Daniel Cameron. He is the only Black person of the 20 names that were announced back on September 9th. He is just 34 years old. He has only practiced law for nine years. Imagine going to the Supreme Court after just nine years of experience. And he is the person who refuses to arrest and charge the officers who killed Breonna Taylor. And so, we could absolutely see Trump saying, “I’ve done more for African Americans than anybody else,” as he’s already said, and nominate Mr. Cameron, and yet that would be a step backward. Not just for Black Americans, but for all Americans, truly.
The other issue is that of the 53 Circuit judges, which is the level just below the Supreme Court, there are no Black judges. And the Senate just confirmed last week three more judges for 208 total, but only nine are Black and only two are women. So, systemic racism in America persists in part because our courts, legislatures, and civil services have always been predominantly white and male, and the white male experience has defined the moral compass that under guards our laws and policies. And so, that’s why Sabriya and I, along with Kim Tignor and Brandi Colander, have started the She Will Rise campaign to nominate and confirm the first Black woman as Supreme Court justice.
It’s been 231 years and no Black woman has ever been nominated or confirmed, and we believe that her perspective is important here.
Chideya: Sabriya, why did you want to get involved with the She Will Rise campaign, you know? This was something that you were working on before Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, and how does it change your goal?
Williams: I think it just… It makes the lens more clear, right? It shows us why this is so important, and it’s important because Black women have a PhD in being Black women, right? And so, that’s why I wanted to join this campaign, because it’s time. We have served, and we sat back, and we watched, and we nurtured, and we grew all of the people that are now literally at the head, and we know how that works. And so, we’re now gonna put ourselves in those places and those spaces.
Chideya: There’s already names that are being circulated of Black women who might be Supreme Court justices and nominees. Anita Hill, Sherrilyn Ifill, so can you talk first of all about who might even be nominated or nominate-able, and what are the criteria for that?
Reign: It’s really interesting, because although the presidency, for example, has specific nominations, specific requirements, you have to be 35, you have to be a natural born citizen and so on, the Supreme Court doesn’t. So, the concern, though, is that the traditional way that someone has elevated to the Supreme Court is through the Ivy League schools, and the Ivy Leagues have been in the news a lot lately because we know that they are not necessarily the best arbiter for intelligence. We know that they haven’t always been open to marginalized communities, and so it’s imperative that we widen the net in determining who should be on the list. And so, part of the @SistaSCOTUS campaign is going to be to say, “Look further. Look wider than you typically would to find qualified women.”
Because as I mentioned, if you’re only looking to current judges, you’re not going to find Black women, at least at the Circuit judge level. At some point, it becomes a slap in the face to Black women. Not one Black woman has ever been nominated to serve on the Supreme Court. This is clearly a consequence of systemic racism and an erosion of trust, especially felt among Black women who repeatedly turn out in record numbers to represent our communities through our vote.
Chideya: The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Republicans’ challenges to the Affordable Care Act just a week after the presidential election. Now, the ACA and Medicaid expansion have helped millions of people of color, including women, children, get adequate health coverage for the last decade. We’re now in a position where the court could decide whether Americans lose healthcare, reproductive care, immigration rights. So many different civil and human rights are at stake and in play in Supreme Court cases, so lay it out for us. What do you think could happen now?
Williams: I mean, we would lose greatly. Our rights would be trampled upon in ways that we probably haven’t seen in our lifetime, because Roe v. Wade was I think when I was born, so I’ve never known a time when I didn’t have a right to my own body choices. And so, thinking around the Supreme Court is always an afterthought. We’re only thinking about it right now because Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed. We have to start thinking about this as we’re thinking about every other part of our life, because this is the long game.
Reign: I would hope that every American becomes involved in this fight, because it truly will affect them. And if it doesn’t, it affects someone that you know, and so that’s why having a Supreme Court justice who truly thinks about all marginalized communities. Not just Black folks, not just Latinx folks, but also thinking about people of the LGBT+ community. Also thinking about people with disabilities, whether cognitive, physical, or invisible. It has to be more than just hope, I think. It has to be action at this point.
Chideya: April Reign and Sabriya Williams of She Will Rise. Thank you so much.
Williams: Thank you.
Reign: Thank you.
Chideya: I’m Farai Chideya and you’re listening to Our Body Politic. Coming up later this hour:
Clip: “I feel that my expertise is needed most in my home country, which is the United States.”
Chideya: Our first in a series of conversations with public health experts and doctors who are saving our communities.
This is Our Body Politic and I’m your host, Farai Chideya. Fact: Black women are a strategic voting bloc. Fact: There aren’t many persuadable voters in this election. Fact: The Republican Party has historically focused its efforts on Black men when it focuses on the Black community. Fact: The Democratic Party needs Black women, not only to show up at the polls, but bring friends, daughters, and mothers, as we characteristically do when we’re excited about a candidate. These realities pave the road ahead to the election, so what can the two major parties’ presidential campaigns do to secure the support of Black voters?
We invited two political insiders to drill down on the thinking and strategies candidates must be weighing right now. Errin Haines is a veteran political journalist, editor-at-large at The 19th News, and I am so happy to say, a contributor to Our Body Politic.
We’ve also got political ninja Jess Morales Rocketto. She was the lead digital political organizer for Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams, and now Civic Engagement Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Hi, Jess. Welcome.
Jess Morales Rocketto:
Hi! So excited to be here.
Chideya: Errin, glad to have you with us.
Errin Haines: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.
Chideya: So, we are just weeks from the election. What is the status of the race from where you stand?
Yeah. I mean, I think of this time as the time where people really start freaking out. If you thought Trump was gonna win, now everything is going to tell you that Trump is gonna win. And if you thought Biden was gonna win, everything is gonna tell you Biden’s gonna win. But where I actually think we are is really in a race that feels incredibly volatile. There are lots of voters that are still up for grabs. Not about who they’re voting for. I don’t think there are any persuadable voters in this election. But actually, about whether or not they will vote.
Chideya: Errin, what about you?
Haines: Yeah. I mean, I think Jess is right that we are talking about persuasion and turnout, but not persuasion in terms of trying to get voters to go for Trump or Biden, but to show up, especially in the middle of a pandemic, where people are balancing their public health concerns with the health of this democracy. Listen, all of that is factoring into how voters are headed to the polls, or whether they think that their vote is going to matter or not.
Chideya: One of the reasons we started Our Body Politic was to talk about what I consider a super demographic of women of color. Heterogeneous in terms of race and ethnicity, income, party preference, national origin, religion, just to name a few. But despite this diversity, I feel women of color in aggregate are underserved by our political system. Would you agree, Jess?
Oh my gosh. Absolutely. Women of color are key to winning elections. We are key to taking back the Senate and the White House in 2020. Black women specifically vote higher than any other group in the U.S., but what I call big white data would really have us believe otherwise. There is such an anti-Blackness in the political data world, it devalues Black women’s vote, and that actually means that campaigns don’t invest in Black women. One of my biggest proof points on this is Wisconsin in 2016. The margin of victory in Wisconsin for the presidential, so what Trump won by in Wisconsin is less than the amount of registered women of color voters in Wisconsin, that is overwhelmingly Black voters, who didn’t vote. If you’re already registered, that means that actually what happened is not like you’re apathetic. It’s actually that we didn’t convince you to come out to vote. We didn’t give you a reason to come out to vote. This is not like a rocket science problem. This is like a racism problem.
Chideya: And Errin, you have a long history of working for major news organizations and covering race and politics. How do you think about this whole question of how the political system, especially the two-party system, serves women of color?
Haines: The reality is that women, as we know, are the majority of the electorate, and we know, as I have asserted for the better part of at least two years now if not longer, that Black women are really the vanguard of the Democratic Party. And what we have seen is a shift in that electorate, in particular, that says, “We will be valued not just for our output, but for our input.” Right? You have seen Black women’s political leadership on full display and really the strength of Black women voters not as a monolith, which I feel like is a bad word that people like to use to kind of dismiss the power of the Black vote and the Black women’s vote, and in particular Black women are a strategic voting bloc, and they have shown that.
I mean, you don’t have Joe Biden as your presumptive Democratic nominee weeks ahead of schedule without Black women, right? And without Black women kind of pushing, you would not have Joe Biden just saying… Well, I shouldn’t say just, because it was huge that he pledged to put a woman on the ticket as his running mate, but really, the conversation shifted very quickly from woman as running mate to woman of color as running mate, to Black woman or else. Because that was really going to make the difference between Black women simply showing up at the polls, which is something that Black women always do, versus Black women showing out at the polls, meaning that they were going to bring their sister, their sorority, their households, their church members, rounding up those absentee mail-in ballots for people, getting PPE for people who have to stand in line at the polls. Doing the things that Black women normally do in an election cycle, but really because again, this is an election that’s going to be won on the margins, what needs to be done to see the kind of record turnout that Joe Biden is frankly going to need if he’s going to oust an incumbent president, period, but President Trump in particular.
Chideya: If each of you were speaking to a friend or relative who was a woman of color, and you had just one brief to say about what to do to empower yourself in this election, what would it be? Errin, I’ll start with you.
Haines: Michelle Obama probably said it best. Make a plan to vote. I was just talking to my mom this week and she was running down plan A, B, C and D for what she was going to do to make sure that she was able to cast a ballot this year, because she, in every election, doesn’t matter if it’s president or dog catcher, she is there.
Chideya: Jess, one quick piece of advice.
To my Latina sisters and fems, honestly, I think the most important thing is that we can really make the difference in this election. If Latina voters turn out, we have the possibility and frankly the responsibility of being the second largest potential voting bloc. That’s the first time that’s ever happened in this country’s history, and it will only happen if we turn out, and I think sometimes especially for Latinas, there’s a feeling that you need a PhD to go out and vote, or somehow you aren’t enough, you need to learn more, or find out more. And actually we are 100% enough. What you know right now is enough. All you have to do is vote your values.
Chideya: Jess and Errin, so thrilled to have you on our inaugural episode. Yay! Thank you!
Awesome. Thank you so much.
Haines: Seriously. Glad to be pioneers.
Chideya: Every week on Our Body Politic, we’ll bring you a COVID update, telling you about research, politics, and where and how the virus is most actively spreading. Here’s what we’re tracking this week: Earlier this month, the Centers For Disease Control published a study looking at the 121 children and young people who had died of COVID-19 by the end of July. The study found that most of them, over 80%, were people of color. Nearly half were Hispanic. Most of those who died from the disease had one or more underlying health conditions. The report connects those outcomes with the fact that Latinos and or non-whites are more likely to face barriers to getting healthcare. They’re more likely to be uninsured or underinsured, to lack adequate transportation, and their families are less likely to have access to paid sick leave or childcare.
The CDC also notes that groups with the highest death rates are disproportionately represented among the country’s essential workers. These are people who can’t work from home, and so they and their families are at higher risk of exposure to the virus.
School started this month for millions of students across the country. Many schools have opted for remote learning over the internet to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but nearly 17 million kids nationwide don’t have access to the internet. That includes one in three Black, Latino, and Native American households, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. What’s more, 22 million kids in the U.S. depend on school for free or reduced price meals. Research from the Brookings Institution shows that with schools closed to in-person learning, only about 15% are getting those meals.
President Trump insists a vaccine for the coronavirus may be ready by as early as October, but most health experts, including some within Trump’s own administration, believe all Americans won’t have access to the vaccine until April, 2021, at the earliest. After CDC director Robert Redfield told Congress that face masks remain the most effective way to stop the spread of the virus, even more effective than a vaccine, Trump called him to tell him he was wrong. And we have more evidence that politics is directly interfering with our response to the virus.
Last month, the CDC abruptly changed its testing guidelines, saying people who weren’t showing symptoms of COVID-19 didn’t need to be tested, even if they thought they’d been exposed. The New York Times later reported that the guidance was issued against the advice of the CDC’s own scientists, and the change actually came from officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In light of those findings by the New York Times, the CDC has reverted to their initial recommendation.
All of this comes after the revelation in Bob Woodward’s new book about the president that President Trump deliberately downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak back in February, even though he knew the virus was deadly and likely to spread.
For many Americans like me, the COVID pandemic has made things clearer than they’ve ever been. Among them, public health is not some obscure set of practices which only medical professionals and people leading government agencies have to care about. It’s something that all of us need to understand. Today, I’ve invited Dr. Kavita Trivedi, a CDC-trained epidemiologist who helps organizations understand and act upon the latest developments in COVID containment. Welcome, Dr. Trivedi.
Kavita Trivedi: Thanks for having me.
Chideya: Well, I’m just so thrilled, and I’m just gonna say on the air that we connected through my sister, who like you, worked at the CDC, and I’ve just been incredibly compelled by the work of people in public health, who are really working to save our lives at a time when it is not always valued by everyone in the society. So, let’s talk about your career in public health. You worked for the CDC. You were starting a stint at the World Health Organization in Switzerland, or you had planned to until March, when all of this was going down, and you could have moved to Geneva, but you decided to stay in the U.S. because you felt you could do good work here. First of all, that’s amazing. Secondly, what do you do?
Dr. Trivedi: My background is training at the CDC as an epidemic intelligence service officer and then working at the State Health Department here in California, helping to manage outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant infections and manage infection control. In the last six months, my expertise in infection control has become quite popular and in need, I would say, and so now I have many organizations where I am guiding them on kind of grappling with all the science coming out around the pandemic, and understanding the epidemiology, as well as then how to apply the science and the epidemiology to how their organizations continue to function during the pandemic.
I think it’s important for me to continue bringing my voice to educate people on public health, and one of my superpowers is taking epidemiology and science and being able to boil it down into information that anybody can swallow, translate, absorb, and then implement in their everyday lives. I feel that right now my expertise is needed most in my home country, which is the United States.
Chideya: When we spoke over the phone for the first time, you told me a story about one of the places you advised having people of color and white employees, and when the pandemic broke out in the U.S., there was a difference in who showed up. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Dr. Trivedi: Yeah, so one of my clients is an agency that cares for mentally ill and developmentally disabled persons. They, the beginning of the pandemic, were not directly able to access PPE in any substantial form, and because they were primarily in the social services area, were not really given a lot of guidance on how to keep their employees and staff safe. One of the things that they noticed is out of fear, many of their employees would call in sick to work, and they noticed a difference between their white essential workers and their workers of color, that their workers of color, many of them would show up even in uncertainty around PPE. I think that the pandemic in so many different ways has magnified health inequities and disparities, and this is just one example of that.
Chideya: Is there any reasoning behind why there was such a difference in the white employees and the people of color employees showing up? Do you think it’s lack of information, lack of work ethic, privilege?
Dr. Trivedi: Yeah. I think there are probably a lot of reasons. We have now clearly seen that African Americans, Latinx communities, are disproportionately affected by the pandemic in so many different ways, and I think being underinsured, uninsured, having less healthcare facilities in these communities of color, having less access to testing centers, I think all of these issues as social determinants are certainly affecting the ways this pandemic is playing out in our communities of color.
Chideya: What else do you think we need to be talking about when it comes to how different races and ethnicities are coping with the pandemic, either as patients, as families, as healthcare providers?
Dr. Trivedi: I think one big issue I see is certainly a lack of understanding around the pandemic. We are seeing this kind of across educational levels, but certainly a lack of being able to reach out to these communities that are being disproportionately affected. So, trying to educate people within communities of color, trying to make them understand that wearing a face covering will protect them and will also protect others.
Chideya: In general, do you think people are now getting COVID fatigue, meaning getting tired of all the mask wearing, tired of all the hand washing, and what do we need to know as flu season comes?
Dr. Trivedi: Absolutely. I think there is a sense of COVID fatigue. I think as flu season hits, we have been really happy to see that in the southern hemisphere and in other parts of the world that have experienced this flu season before ours, we have seen that their flu rates are much lower than in previous seasons, and part of the reason for that is because of universal masking, and washing hands, and physical distancing. So, all of these measures that we are trying to put into place in the United States, we need to continue to kind of have that message be strong. Flu vaccinations are also incredibly important. We need to get vaccinated this year, as well, so that when we come into healthcare with respiratory symptoms, the healthcare provider can be confident that we’re not dealing with flu, but we’re dealing with potentially COVID.
So, I think especially in children, where I think the diagnosis may be slightly more difficult.
Chideya: So, what do you think is one thing that more journalists should ask about COVID that you just aren’t really hearing in the conversation now?
Dr. Trivedi: I think one thing that we should continue to ask is asking the experts what works in this particular situation right now. And I think that question and the answer will be different. At least the answer will be different throughout the rest of the pandemic, because science is changing. Epidemiology is changing. We’re learning more and more as we move forward. I think people shouldn’t get hung up on the fact that, “Oh, well, you told me to do this three months ago and now you’re telling me to do something different.” I think it’s okay to change and I want people to understand that is what science is, and we want public health recommendations to be guided by the science of the day, of the moment, of the collective science that we have learned.
Chideya: Dr. Kavita Trivedi, thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic.
Dr. Trivedi: Thanks, Farai. I really appreciated it.
Chideya: Each week after you listen, I want to hear from you. We’re working to understand the political lives of women of color in our country at this moment, and we need you. Give me a call at 929-353-7006. That’s 929-353-7006, and tell me what is the most important challenge you’re dealing with right now, how are you dealing with it, and why is this the most important thing you’re facing? We will listen to every message and will incorporate your experiences, opinions, and insights, as we shape the show week to week.
Thanks so much for listening to Our Body Politic. We’ll be right back.
You’re back with Our Body Politic. I’m Farai Chideya. Life is heavy right now. It’s the lead backpack, the noonday demon, the crying time. Use whatever metaphor that fits. We are all being tested in different ways. So, we’re going to end our show every week with Rise, a series of stories and conversations that lift you up, give you ways to engage, and take you places, virtually, of course, that fill you with delight.
If you’re a sports fan, you’ve probably heard of Naomi Osaka, the tennis superstar who’s blazed a trail through the sport leading to a Grand Slam in which she faced one of her idols, Serena Williams. Osaka’s rise to fame has inspired millions of fans around the world, but it’s her pointed activism for justice that has earned her respect and admiration from the Black Lives Matter community. Here to tell us more is Soraya Nadia McDonald, the award-winning culture critic at The Undefeated. She recently wrote about Osaka’s strategy and impact, and we’re so happy to have you on Our body Politic, Soraya.
Soraya Nadia McDonald:
Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Chideya: So, I have been just completely fascinated by Naomi Osaka in part because I have a number of friends who are Japanese or Japanese American, including ones who live in Tokyo, and we have talked about race and ethnicity in the Japanese culture. She’s such a format breaker in terms of how people think of someone who is Japanese Black, and she has not been shy whatsoever about claiming all the parts of herself. I find that so refreshing, so what do you see as her role in the zeitgeist, as well as her role in athletics?
It’s funny, because it feels like she’s just getting started. It’s just been amazing to see her sort of progress, and the way that she thinks about herself, and her celebrity, and how she can use it. Her father, Leonard Francois, deliberately sort of followed the paradigm that Richard Williams set. That influence of the Williams sisters and what they were able to accomplish was so instrumental in her being who she is now, both in just watching them, and their professional success, but also how they use their platform, particularly with Venus. She really pushed and pushed for pay parity in tennis, along with what we see still as the fights for racial equality and dignity that Serena has spoken about. We see Naomi kind of taking on that mantle on this huge stage with the U.S. Open, with the seven masks that she decided to wear.
The thing I find incredible about Naomi, not just Naomi, but the people she has around her, specifically Leonard, her father, and her trainer, Abdul Sillah, who was also for a time Serena’s trainer, because I think one of the things that is actually really important about Abdul’s role in Naomi’s career is that he’s not just preparing her physically, but also psychologically, where she wasn’t sort of riddled with self-doubt that was springing from her identity, right? Like-
Chideya: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, let me just jump in for a second and ask about social media, because social media, like you’ve outlined these beautiful connections between kind of Serena and Venus’s path and Naomi’s path, all of them rather have been able to apply Blackness in a very powerful way as they shape their image, and sounds like her trainer, Abdul, was also part of giving her access to that strength, but when Venus and Serena were young, there wasn’t social media, which is also a space of taunting and trolling. I mean, I’m not sure if she’s ever talked about that.
I don’t think she spends a ton of time sort of sorting through her replies, and the thing is is one of her biggest influences as an athlete… Obviously, there’s Serena, but the other one is Kobe Bryant. Now, if you want to talk about that sort of Mamba mentality that I think she has really kind of taken on in terms of Naomi doesn’t necessarily talk a lot, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a lot to say. She’s very strategic. She understands what it means when she is in front of a camera.
Chideya: So, let’s talk about those masks. She wore seven masks with the names of Black people killed by police or vigilantes. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice among them. And people, as we know, have lost their sports careers over taking a stand, or specifically taking the knee. What do you think she gained and what do you think she risked?
What I think she gained is actually kind of incredible. One, there’s actually a peace of mind. One thing that I kept hearing over and over through the tournament after it became clear that she had a mask for every round was this idea that perhaps this activism was going to be a distraction for her, or how incredible it was that she could maintain sort of this steely focus as she’s wearing these masks and calling for attention to the movement for Black lives. And I actually thought that was sort of backward. I think when you are living, especially now, in the midst of this pandemic, when we are so physically isolated from each other, and that can feel psychologically isolating, too, and you’re seeing these images of Black life being extinguished and captured on cell phone video.
There’s so much despair that can well up, and that’s I think what makes it really difficult to concentrate and really difficult to work. And it’s that feeling of helplessness, like what can we do to stop this? I actually don’t think that Naomi was distracted at all. I think she came into the U.S. Open with a mission and a purpose, and the other thing is that this isn’t her first rodeo. She’s come with two Grand Slams in her belt already, so this is a thing that she knows she can do. She knows who she has decided to basically sort of pick up and carry on her back, and I think if anything, that has strengthened her. And then when you have these personal video messages from Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s father, and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, it further propels that sense that what you’re doing is just, and right, and to keep going. And you know, once you’ve got that as your directive, you just go.
In terms of what she might have lost, I can’t imagine that any of her sponsors would be so foolish as to say, “We’re going to cut off this relationship because you have decided to be vocal that Black lives, including your own, matter.” I mean, that would be incredibly short sighted. And even there, in terms of her relationship with her sponsors, she has had to make sure that they see her as a Black woman.
Chideya: Soraya McDonald, thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Alfre Woodard is an award-winning actor with among other things, four Emmys, plus she’s an Oscar nominee. Her prolific career as a producer and star spans decades and includes roles in Spike Lee movies and the film 12 Years a Slave among many others. She’s also deeply involved in causes she cares about. This year, she’s using her platform to raise awareness of the 2020 Census. I started by asking how do you persevere in such important work during a pandemic?
Well, you know, one of the things that isolation has given us is the ability to crowd more things, important things that need to be taken care of, into a day, because we don’t have to park, we don’t have to travel, we don’t have to go into spaces, so it’s allowed us to be able to do more work, healing work we really need. Right now, as you know, Farai, there is so much need and so much uncertainty and fear. What we are able to do now is to get very active. That cures it all, so when people talk about feeling unease, we all say, “Okay, get busy.” There are things to do. And that gives you your power, and it also gives us progress.
Chideya: Causing good trouble. So, you are pushing for people to get counted in this year’s census, and we have a number of legal battles over how long it goes on, but how did you get involved and what are you doing?
Woodard: Oh, what I’m doing along with thousands of others is sounding the alarm to get everybody to fill out their census before the 30th of September. So, remember, it was supposed to go to the end of the year because of the pandemic, the global pandemic. It was the right move to say, “Okay, we’ll keep this census count open until the end of the year.” Well, it got to be a political football, as a lot of things do, and it was moved up to October 31st. Well, three weeks ago, surprise! It was moved to the 30th of September. Most people are concentrating on trying to stay healthy, trying to navigate without employment. So many people are out of their jobs. So many people are putting their lives on the line daily to keep the country rolling, so people aren’t really focused on that. What we’re trying to do is to make sure that everybody knows you only get that count once a decade, so COVID exposed so much wanting in our society, so much lack and need. People were getting sick, but they’d have to go three hours to the nearest hospital, and there are not enough hospital beds. Everything that the Census covers and counts, that $1.5 trillion that goes across the society that is taxpayer money that we’re all due, well, the people that didn’t get counted in the 2010 Census, they’re the ones that are suffering the most.
And so, what we’re trying to say is we know things are tough, but you gotta get in there. It takes seven minutes, but you’ve gotta get in there. It determines not only schools, and roads, and transportation, bus routes, all those things that a community needs. It provides also the count of how many people represent you in the Congress and in your state legislatures. We can’t have 10 years go by without addressing the needs of the vast majority of Americans.
Chideya: You’ve talked a little bit about the stakes for people of color and women of color. What do you think some of the barriers to participation might be? And just if you could speak sister to sister, to people who are in my neighborhood, which is a very multiracial, predominantly Black, predominantly working class neighborhood, where people are being evicted sometimes, even despite moratorium. What would you say?
Woodard: Okay. Not only am I gonna speak sister to sister to the sisters, but I want to include our Latino sisters, our Asian American, Pacific Islanders, Indigenous sisters, and women altogether. The reason people are undercounted is that they have not always had cooperative and respectful relationships with the government. So, it just comes from generations of being suspicious, but what we’re telling people is first of all, there is not a citizenship question on this Census. The other thing is if you have a cell phone, if you paid a light bill or a water bill, the government already knows where you are, so it’s… Nobody’s coming for you. Matter of fact, it was so interesting, Farai. I did this thing tracing my roots, and I saw a document where my great grandfather, back in the 1840 census, he was listed as being enslaved on a plantation, and in the 1870 Census, his name is on there with the first eight of his 18 siblings.
So, if you can step out of enslavement and say, “Here I am. Here we are.” Then we gotta be brave enough to do it now. And like I said, there’s nothing on there that does anything that says, “I’m here.” If we don’t let them know where we are, none of those funds come into our area. If you ever wondered, why do they always get the new schools? Why is there always more buses or trains running over here? Why do they have more ventilators? It’s because we didn’t say, “Here I am, and this is all of us who are here.” It doesn’t matter who’s in your house. As long as you’ve been living in the States, in America, since April 2020, you count. We count the people in the country, not who they are, or what they believe, or what papers they have.
Chideya: Yeah. You know, what you’re saying resonates powerfully, because my family is really into ancestry and we have census records of many different generations. These beautiful, handwritten documents. I believe you’re from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Woodard: Yes, I am. I’m from Tulsa and my people, my mom’s people are from Texas. I’m related to a sixteenth of the population in Texas. And my father’s people were Texans, and they ran for land when Oklahoma became a territory, so all my roots are there.
Chideya: How do you think your upbringing influenced your desire to really stay engaged in our civil society and make things better?
Woodard: You know, my father’s people were landowners, like I said. My mother’s people were sharecroppers, and one of the things they both had, and raised us with an awareness of, is that the land is a great equalizer. And if you have a great harvest that year and your neighbor or anybody in your vicinity doesn’t, their crops fail, it is your privilege to be able to feed that family for that year. Not your leftovers, but the same thing that’s on your table. I didn’t decide to be a social activist. It’s like that’s what I know. That’s who… That’s what I was raised to believe life, the value of life is to live it together.
I tell stories because I want to lift all of my sisters and my brothers the same way that griots have always done. Telling the people stories so that they could see themselves, they could reflect, they could understand themselves best, and therefore, bring health to our community and the wider community. So, I’m your sister.
Chideya: I love it. Afre Woodard, thank you so much for spending time with us.
You’ve been listening to Our Body Politic. I’m the creator and host, Farai Chideya. We’ll be on the air and everywhere you listen to podcasts each week. We’re going to bring you interviews and insights that help you get through these rough times, all from the perspective of women of color. Making news and making it happen.
Coming up next week:
Clip: Black Lives Matter was a hashtag that started after the death of Trayvon Martin to find each other online. We were organizing, we were getting out in the streets. Our enemies, and in this case Russian agents, those that are hostile to the United States, but not necessarily hostile to African Americans, but more the project of the United States. What they started to do was also use the hashtag, so it was this case where you thought that you were communicating with Black and Brown people, we were down, we were gonna defund the police, but we actually had bad actors.
Chideya: Disinformation in the 2020 election, how it’s targeting communities of color, and what we can do about it.
Thank you for listening to Our Body Politic. I’m the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Our Body Politic is presented and syndicated by KCRW, KPCC, and KQED. It is produced by Lantigua Williams & Co. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is executive producer. Paulina Velasco is senior producer. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and master mixer. Original music by Kojin Tashiro. Michelle Baker and Emily Daily are assistant producers. Production assistance from Virginia Lora, Kat Hernandez, and Dhanesh Mahtani.
Chideya, Farai, host. “Naomi Osaka's Activism, Replacing RBG with a Black Woman, and the Fight Over the Census” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. September 25, 2020. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/
Presented by: KQED, KPCC, KCRW
Produced by: Lantigua Williams & Co.