Host Farai Chideya talks with MacArthur Fellow, poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, about why we struggle to articulate exactly how we want to change the prison system in the U.S. OB-GYN Dr. Jamila Perritt explains why she dreams of exercising her medical practice without the interference of politics. Gwen Ifill Award winner Sisi Wei of OpenNews examines the transition from focusing on diversity in newsrooms, to doing impactful anti-racist work in the media industry. And on Sippin’ the Political Tea, Mutale Nkonde of AI for the People and Nicol Turner-Lee of the Brookings Institution help Farai examine the latest tech news.
0:44 Reginald Dwayne Betts on the power of reading books
13:01 Dr. Jamila Perritt on the impact of abortion restrictions on women of color
21:28 Sisi Wei on anti-racist work in the media industry
31:50 Sippin’ the Political Tea: Mutale Nkonde and Nicol Turner-Lee cover the most important tech news of the last few weeks
Farai Chideya: Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. We're grateful for your feedback so after you listen today, consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcast. It helps others find us, and we read everyone. Thanks so much.
Farai Chideya: This is Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. This week, we dive deeper into reproductive rights in Texas, and try to figure out what's really going on with Facebook and what that will mean for communities of color especially. First, a conversation with a MacArthur Fellow.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, lawyer, and 2021 MacArthur Fellow. He spent over eight years in prison and told me how reading books really planted the seed of what his career would become. Right before the 2020 election, Betts published an Op-Ed in the New York Times Magazine, knitting together his experience of prison, a traumatic harm done to his mother, and the history of politicians who impact the criminal legal system like then candidate for vice president, Kamala Harris. I asked him on to tell me about how he thinks about the intricacies of the topic and his poetry. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Dwayne.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.
Farai Chideya: About a year ago, you wrote that piece. It came out October 20th, 2020. And among other things, you talk about your mom having been sexually assaulted. Why did you decide to write about that in that New York Times piece?
Reginald Dwayne Betts: Yeah, part of it is if you go back to 1984, if you go back to the early 1990s, when we talked about the national policy, even though it had a real direct influence on how I lived my life, it had a direct influence of what I experienced in prison, it meant that I didn't have an opportunity to get a college education because Pell grants were stripped out of prison. And I was just thinking that being able to write about the Senator and thinking about what everybody else had written about her in a way in which what they'd written about her flattened out all of the nuance and the tragedy and the trauma in what is going on in cities and communities all across this country. And it flattened out my mother's story. I felt like I wanted to use the opportunity to deal with something that I've long tried to reconcile, my desire with freedom, with my understanding that some people could meant profound harms in a world and in a country where we have no real context for accountability.
Farai Chideya: The piece that you publish included you speaking to then candidate Harris. Now she is Vice President Harris. How do you see her as a public figure? Because you go into a lot of the complexities of your different relationships to her history as a prosecutor. What do you think now?
Reginald Dwayne Betts: It's very early in her VP-ship, but we all get to choose what will matter to us and what footprint we will leave. Joe Biden left a huge footprint on a criminal justice system in the way things operate both rhetorically and through policy. And I haven't seen it yet, but I would love to see VP Harris decide that she wants her footprint 15, 20 years from now to had demand something that was like more hopeful, more promising and something that believed in the reality that Mitchell Jackson, served time in prison, just won a Pulitzer Prize. I've served time in prison, I went to Yale Law School. Desmond Meade in MacArthur Fellow. Like who was creating policies and opportunities that believe in us? You got a long list of people. And I've just named a few. I've named a few that have national profiles, but you have a long list of people who've proved fundamentally what's possible. I would love to see policies that suggest that they believe in that.
And we could start with parole. We could start with bringing back parole on the federal level. We could start with pushing it, incentivizing states to increase their parole release rates. We brought Pell grants back. Now let's start rewarding some people who have spent... I have friends who have spent 25 years in prison and they expected to die in prison. And they still were taking classes. They still were studying. And we live in a society that is not welcoming them. I would love to see VP Harris pay attention to some of these narratives and think about how policy could help them understand that freedom is not as far away as it feels right now.
Farai Chideya: Tell us about the Redaction project. And then I want to get into some of your poetry.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: Yeah. So one of the things was, I have read these lawsuits by the Civil Rights Corps. The lawsuit were suing cities and locals because they were locking people up because they couldn't pay traffic tickets because they couldn't pay minor fines because they couldn't pay bail. But what I found profound about the lawsuits was that it said, "I'm going to address the technical legal question, but I am also going to tell you what happened to the lives of these folks. You lock somebody up because they can't pay a thousand on a traffic ticket. And then they lose that job while they're locked up."
Farai Chideya: Right.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: Or they are single parent and you locked them up. And who's taking care of their children?" It was beautiful except I thought it was really complex and most of my folks wouldn't really be able to way through the 35, 40, 50 pages of legalese. And so, I wanted to script it so you just had the voices of these folks talking. And I did that. And then me and Titus had been going back and forth for a long time about potentially collaborating, but it's really hard to think about how to create art in which the text isn't just a subscript for the image or vice versa. But the visual element of the redaction lines allowed it to stand alone visually so that when he was creating these etchings, the two pieces could be in conversation.
Farai Chideya: You mentioned Titus in your poem Ghazal. Am I pronouncing it right?
Reginald Dwayne Betts: Yes.
Farai Chideya: Yeah. Tell us a little bit more about that poem.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: Yes. The line is, "Titus Kaphar etched faces against these gray bars. He knows redaction is a dialect after prison." And what's cool about the poem is that it ends with this line, "After prison." Every couplet. It's written in couplets and it always ends with "After prison."
Like it say, "Name a song that tells a man what to expect after prison. Explains how Occam’s razor: you're still a suspect after prison." And each of these things, they weave together to tell 15 different stories, but to tell those 15 different stories in a way that you begin to recognize that those stories overlap and are in conversation with each other. It's all a push to realize that after prison night, the last couple of it says, "Shahid, sing. You're loved, not shipwrecked, after prison." The poem becomes this articulation of this desire. Everybody called me Shahid in prison. But it's not just a desire for me. It's a desire for everybody who knows prison intimately not to be shipwrecked when it's over.
Farai Chideya: And you also have a line in here, "The state murdered Kalief with a single high bail." Kalief Browder, who eventually killed himself after just being kept jailed, not even imprisoned formally. Jailed. Explain how bail relates to his story and to the much bigger story for people across the country.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: I mean for his story, he allegedly stole a backpack and they kept him in Rikers for three years for a robbery charge. And they set a bail that was too high for his family to pay. I've been to Rikers, not incarcerated at Rikers, but I've been to Rikers as somebody invited to speak to some young folks and to walk around and look. And it is a dark place. And most prisons and jails are dark places, but the way it relates to that poem and to this broader work into the whole Bail Reform movement is, bail is meant to ensure that you come back to court. It is not meant to ensure that you remain incarcerated. And in prisons— I mean, in jails across the country, judges are setting bills out of reach of the people who are incarcerated. And it's not a question of safety. It's just a question of ease. "If I make this too expensive for you, maybe you'll plead guilty."
The ultimate tragedy is that if you really care about this work, you're asking two questions always: how does the system ruin us and how are we playing the role in ruining ourselves. And it was us who terrorized Kalief Browder while he was locked up. It's like a tragedy. It's one of those things that we need to figure out how to address both in those situations.
Farai Chideya: Rikers is back in the headlines. I mean, it's never far from the headlines, but here's just two from the Appeal. "A homeless man has spent 800 days at Rikers after stealing cold medicine. Now his prison sentence may be beginning." Another one is in New York Times, "Sexual Assaults are Worsening a Crisis at Rikers, Jail officials say." So there's already a crisis. And now, there's more crisis. I mean, how does it make you feel to watch us not necessarily learn from the past and from the death of people like Kalief Browder?
Reginald Dwayne Betts: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting though, because when we say watch us not learn, I think that's the...
Farai Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Good point.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: The reason why we haven't learned is because we don't believe it's us, you know?
Farai Chideya: Yeah.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: I mean, we believe it's the jail officials. We believe it's the prosecutors. We believe it's the judges. But the truth is, it's all of us. We have long allowed a system to operate in our name that is radically unjust. And we demand accountability without articulating what accountability looks like. And what undergirds the story is our inability to understand how to respond to true harm and how to do it in a way that doesn't strip anybody of dignity. And because we can't do that, then of course you end up doing 800 days for stealing cough syrup. Because what happens is, all of the people who should never be in Rikers must be there to make the system make sense.
Farai Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And you're a lawyer. So as an artist and a lawyer and someone who has seen the system from the inside, what do you want to see happen? And what could I do? Me personally, what could we do as citizens together?
Reginald Dwayne Betts: See, I was guilty. I plead guilty. I went to prison for eight and a half years, and nobody was fighting for my freedom when I was just saying I was guilty. Now, a lot of people now say they would, but that's because they look at Dwayne right now and they like me and they think I'm intelligent. But when I was 16, what would've spoke most loudly to them was the pistol that I had admitted to using to rob somebody. And so, when we say "What can you do?" And I say, "What can I do?" I mean, the first thing is to find a way, really like Bryan Stevenson says, is to be proximate to the harm. And that harm is twofold. Somebody raped my mother. So I got to be proximate to that harm and I got to be proximate to what I expect the system to do to the person that raped my mom and what am I willing to articulate and argue that the system should do.
I think one way to become proximate, if it's not about listening to the people that you know and how they've been hurt and what the system has done to them, is I do think it's about reading books, reading John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers, trying to understand what it means to be incarcerated, right? Reading The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. Reading Women talking by Miriam Toews. Reading these books to get a real sense of what the system looks like on a profound human level. I think we are trying to get to the moment where we can have a real influence on policy. But in my head, it all starts with, you could become truly fluent and know more about the department of corrections and prisons and jail by reading five books. And so I think we should all just read those five books. And then when something comes up, speak about what we've learned and try to take local action.
Farai Chideya: Dwayne, I am so grateful to you. Thanks for spending some time with us.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: It was truly a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Farai Chideya: That was Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, MacArthur Fellow, and lawyer. You can support his work sending books to prisons by going to freedomreads.org.
It's been just over two months since the abortion restrictions went into effect in Texas. It's just the latest in a long crusade to limit access to abortion care, something my next guest knows a lot about. Dr. Jamila Perritt is an OB-GYN and also president and CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health. Welcome, Dr. Perritt.
Dr. Jamila Perritt: Thank you so much for having me.
Farai Chideya: So in June, you testified before the Senate judiciary about the need for federal abortion protections. Tohan also spoke, a young woman in Texas who'd had an abortion in order to leave an abusive relationship. Here's a bit of her, speaking.
Tohan: I spoke with the current counselor. She had to tell me that abortion is dangerous and it can affect my ability to have kids. I know research shows that's not true, but the state of Texas required her to tell me that anyway.
Farai Chideya: And on September 1st, the six-week ban went into effect in Texas and it became even more difficult to have an abortion. So what is the new reality for women in Texas? And how have you been paying attention to all of this?
Dr. Jamila Perritt: We've seen communities outside of Texas that are seeing just a tremendous influx of folks who are seeking care outside of the state. But it's important to understand that that's only a possibility for folks who have the time, the resources, the support, the money to be able to travel outside of the state to get care. And the truth is, most people don't. And so access to care that you may be able to obtain in New York, in California, in DC, where I live is simply not the same.
Farai Chideya: How does this factor in for black women, for indigenous women?
Dr. Jamila Perritt: There are lots of reasons why black indigenous and other folks of color have a need, increased need for abortion care. So many of those are related to the systems that aren't in place to support us in terms of access to comprehensive community grounded and responsive reproductive healthcare. The inability to raise our children in environments that are safe, that are sustainable, that are supportive of us building our family in the way that we want. And all of those things really contribute to us needing access to abortion care more so than other communities may.
Farai Chideya: I want to go more into the policies side in a little bit, but how did you decide that this was your path? How did you decide that being an OB-GYN was something that you wanted to do?
Dr. Jamila Perritt: I don't think that I ever had a memory or a desire to be anything other than a doctor I became introduced and fell in love with women's health. When I was in college, I began volunteering at a planned parenthood then. And that was really an introduction to me of abortion care. I assumed that abortion care happened within the context of care when you were a gynecologist, when you were an OB-GYN, when you were a family medicine doctor. And it wasn't until that time that I saw that in many places in this country, it occurs in a separate, in a different way. It's othered.
And so becoming exposed to abortion care provision early in my development towards a career in medicine really framed the way that I thought about what my work would be. But I'd say that it's also important to name that I grew up in DC. And it's really hard to grow up in DC and not understand the impact that politics has on the health and wellbeing of your community, right? And so for me, I knew that providing clinical care wasn't going to be enough to make sure that the folks that raised me, the community that made me, would be well. And I needed to get to those folks who were writing these laws, who were making legislation that was harming us. And so that's where this intersection between health and policy really began to take shape for me.
Farai Chideya: Yeah. I mean, does it get exhausting as a physician to have to think about the constantly changing legal landscape? I mean, you've kind of gone deeply into this, but thinking about yourself as a doctor, did you think you'd have to be messing with the law on this level?
Dr. Jamila Perritt: I never thought that this would take up so much of my work. I knew that there were systems and structures that shaped the way that I would provide care, but I had no idea that so much of my time and energy would be spent in this way, really trying to communicate to legislators, to politicians about the harms that they were causing and also their responsibility to support health and wellness for the folks that elected them.
Farai Chideya: And when you think about the number of abortion restrictions, 19 states, 106 abortion restrictions as of October 2021, for example, I have read various books where people talk about how there were different ways of dealing with pregnancy whether it was prehistory or just older history. I know this may sound a little difficult, but do you think abortion is over medicalized? Does that sound ignorant?
Dr. Jamila Perritt: It sounds absolutely accurate. I think most of reproductive health is over medicalized, right? And anyone, to your point, that takes a look at the history of medicine and reproductive health in this country sees the roots of that. And the roots of that lie in white supremacy values and an attempt to undercut, discredit, destroy the black midwifery force in the south, right? And so what that meant is, it is a complete over medicalization of reproductive healthcare including abortion care, right? And so the ties between white supremacy values, racism, and reproductive health run deep in this country. But we as healthcare providers have never really committed to grappling with that in any real way. And as a result, we continue to see these growing inequities and outcomes for black women and pregnant people, right? And so we see these divides, we see this in, certainly, access to abortion care, but also in black maternal health, in the birthing practices of black and indigenous birthing people, right? And so that history is real and the over medicalization is a consequence of that, and of us not grappling with that legacy,
Farai Chideya: Thinking about your role as a physician and as a civic leader and really championing how we approach these issues, where do you want to see us go knowing everything that's happening kind of in the greater universe?
Dr. Jamila Perritt: My greatest desire would be that we, as... I don't know, a society I guess, can reach the point where we agree that politics has no place in medicine. We know that abortion care is safe. We know that it is a personal decision. It's a community and a family decision, an individual decision and not something that should be discussed or debated in the halls of Congress. My hope is that I don't have to make one more visit to Congress or the Senate to talk about science and medicine and medical care. And these conversations can happen instead in our exam rooms, in our offices with folks that love and care for us and about us.
Farai Chideya: I mean, I will say that when I was covering 2016, the presidential election from the field, anti-abortion sentiment was such a huge predictor of voter behavior. So part of me, I hear what you're saying, but I'm like... I find it hard to imagine a world where this issue is not highly politicized. It sounds like you still can imagine that.
Dr. Jamila Perritt: I have to. I have to still believe that it's possible, otherwise the question for me becomes, "What is this all for?"
Farai Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Dr. Perritt, thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Jamila Perritt: Thank you for having me.
Farai Chideya: That was OB-GYN, Dr. Jamila Perritt, head of the organization, Physicians for Reproductive Health.
Farai Chideya: There are more and more conversations out in the open today about what a representative newsroom can look like and why it's important to include communities in the work that journalists do. Sisi Wei received this year's Gwen Ifill Award from the International Women's Media Foundation in part for her commitment to diversity in journalism. She's co-executive direct OpenNews and started the DEI Coalition as a call out to unite people in the media fighting against racism in the industry. Welcome, Sisi.
Sisi Wei: Hi, Farai.
Farai Chideya: Congratulations on the award. And what does it mean to you?
Sisi Wei: I feel like sometimes I even have a hard time articulating how momentous I feel like it is. Not only because the past awardees, the four years before me, are absolutely amazing individuals, and specifically because I've had the pleasure of working with Nikole Hannah-Jones before. She was very instrumental in my early ability to be brave about fighting for diversity at Republica. And so, one, I, getting this award after them, but then also in honor of Gwen and the fact that this award exists in a world in which a lot of journalism is about awarding not sort of this kind of daily needed constant work in transforming our industry. For it to be so visible and valued, I think that part has been incredibly meaningful and it's just an incredible honor.
Farai Chideya: It would be so easy to just walk away from this work, because frankly, it hasn't gone well. We've seen a lot of promises from the news industry and not a lot of action. Why did you still feel compelled to step into this? Or what was maybe an experience that you had that gave you a context for why you do this work?
Sisi Wei: Yeah, I mean, it almost feels like we've been banging our heads on the wall for eternity, right?
Farai Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sisi Wei: Colleagues that I've worked with who are journalists of color who have said to me, "Sisi, I support what you're trying to push forward here when it comes to diversity, but I just can't allow myself to participate because it brings up too many wounds." And I get that and I support that. I have had my own cycles up and down in which it feels like every moment of my day I spend thinking about how can I make things better for other journalists of color in my situation and then moments in which I thought like, "I can't do this right now if I'm going to stay healthy. And I need to take a break."
Farai Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's real.
Sisi Wei: Yeah. And it took me a long time to realize that I can take breaks, and that taking a break is not the same as quitting. Something that I believe in. And so, that was a whole journey, and that the whole point of breaks is that you can re-energize or let go such that one day you can return to the work again.
Farai Chideya: Yeah.
Sisi Wei: And I think I did take a break for something like one to two years in which I was aware, I pitched in where I could, but otherwise, did not put it upon myself to be the primary person thinking about what to do next, what's wrong with the scenario, right?
Farai Chideya: Right.
Sisi Wei: I just needed to stop, otherwise it just felt like I was going to break in some irreparable way.
Farai Chideya: Oh, absolutely. And this is also what I call unpaid civic labor.
Sisi Wei: Yes.
Farai Chideya: Which women of color do all the time in so many different ways. Unpaid civic labor in trying to prop up voting rights or various other rights. The work that we do often benefits the public at large, and yet is frankly sometimes resented and feared. So thinking about newsrooms, women of color today represent about 8% of print newsroom staff in the US. There's many different ways in which we are not seeing parody, not only in raw numbers but in where people live in different hierarchies. Nonetheless, recently there have been some notable and diverse hires in a bunch of major journalism jobs. So how do you see the state of play today?
Sisi Wei: I have a lot more cause for optimism today than I did two years ago. And I see that in a lot of different places. So I see that both in the actions and recognition and surge in union activity in the last two years. I think the NewsGuild released some numbers earlier this year. I don't remember the exact stat, but it was something like over the past two years the number of people who have unionized specifically as journalists in communication work has surpassed the total of the last 10 years. Something like that.
Farai Chideya: That's fascinating.
Sisi Wei: Yeah. And I think the new groups that are pushing for unionization either for the first time or at new media orgs, there's a lot of POC involvement and leadership in that work, which historically is not present in the existing structure of unions and journalism. But now I feel like what gives me a lot of hope is that they are now starting to become driven by people of color who are explicitly, as their number one most important ask, is that a company be held accountable to whatever they choose when it comes to an element of diversity that's important to these folks.
Farai Chideya: Yeah. And the OpenNews website says that you are, and I'm quoting your own language, "A community of journalists creating a future where newsrooms are anti-racist, equitable, inclusive, and collaborative." So do you make a distinction between diversity work and being anti-racist? And what is it, if so?
Sisi Wei: Yeah. There's so many levels and I'll highlight two. One is that I feel like when people talked about diversity work, especially in journalism, what they were really trying to say is like, "Let's not imply that people are doing racist acts or that anything like that might be happening, but instead we just happened to not have a diverse staff. And if we just hired in a more representative way..." Or no, I think that's even go too far. "If our staff just happened to be a representative, then we fix the problem." And that's all it is, right?
Farai Chideya: Right.
Sisi Wei: There's sort of just this downplaying of like, "What are the actual issues here?" So that is sort of the general vibe that I have about what doing diversity work meant years ago. Then the shift from naming racism and then to naming anti-racism, to me means that we're going beyond, like, "I have great intentions. I'm not racist," which is a phrase I've heard so often, into this realm of which like, "That is no longer good enough."
Farai Chideya: Right.
Sisi Wei: "What you need to be, you, me, everyone need to be, is we need to be proactively not okay with racism. Dismantling it from our systems that we have embedded in our work," as opposed to just, "I'm only responsible for my personal self and my intentions." That doesn't cut it. And it's not what we need to actually help people of color and to create an industry that is actually equitable.
Farai Chideya: We have to wrap up, but I have to just end on Gwen Ifill. I will remember her funeral and all of the people gathered to see her off. We actually had a really beautiful moment at the Democratic Convention. We were both covering it in 2016. She was already under treatment for cancer. She looked great. And we just took a photo together. It was my screen saver for a long time. She was someone who I didn't know well but who always supported me. She went to the mat for people she knew well and people she didn't. I'm getting all choked up here. What does her legacy mean to you?
Sisi Wei: I really wish that I had gotten the chance to meet Gwen in person. I feel like something that I know about Gwen is that she sort of marries this idea of like, "We are not here to just bring anger." I think the phrase that I've heard attributed to her is that this idea of bringing light and not heat.
Farai Chideya: Yeah.
Sisi Wei: I think that subtle difference in how you approach something is so meaningful to me because— And I felt it before, because I can get lost in the anger sometimes of how upset I am at how things work. And I think there's moments and space dedicated to that and we need that as human beings to process. But this idea that in our work, we're going to bring light which exposes wrongdoing allows you to call in allies in a way that allows them to continue working with you. It just applies to so many different scenarios. I take a lot of inspiration from how Gwen took that approach, because I think it's an approach that we can only take when we're at our best, you know?
Farai Chideya: Yeah.
Sisi Wei: Gwen was so often a demonstration of what we could be like at our best. And I think that is something that has always been special about her and one of the main reasons why I wish I could have met her in person.
Farai Chideya: Sisi, congratulations and thank you.
Sisi Wei: Thank you so much.
Farai Chideya: That was Sisi Wei, Co-executive Director of OpenNews.
Sisi Wei: This week on Sippin' the Political Tea, I'm joined by Dr. Nicol Turner Lee. She's a senior fellow in Governance Studies, the Director of the Center for Technology Innovation and serves as co-editor in chief of TechTank. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Dr. Turner Lee.
Nicol Turner Lee: Oh, well, thanks for having me back. So glad to return.
Farai Chideya: And also joining, another repeat customer of brilliance, Mutale Nkonde, a race and tech expert, the founding CEO of AI For The People. Welcome back, Mutale.
Mutale Nkonde: Farai, it's such a pleasure to be back.
Farai Chideya: Well, we have so much to do so I'm going to jump right in here. Let's begin with the headlines about Facebook. Here's a clip from CNN of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, addressing the Facebook papers.
Mark Zuckerberg: Good faith criticism helps us get better, but my view is that what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company. The reality is that we have an open culture where we encourage discussion and research about our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific to just us.
Farai Chideya: And Mutale, how do you rate that answer?
Mutale Nkonde: I think Mark Zuckerberg is saying what his shareholders want to hear. Zuckerberg's response is really crafted to at least hold share price. I don't know that given the news that we're going to be increasing share price, but we have to understand how his incentives are aligned. The Facebook brand-
Farai Chideya: So basically you're starting with the idea that this is about maintaining market value and it's not as much about like the bigger issues that we'll talk about later today.
Mutale Nkonde: No, not at all. There is no track record of this company ever responding to the needs, desires, and wants of society, or even what's good for our democracies. So in saying this, if we listen to the statement closely, he goes in and invalidates. He tries to put out this idea that these papers are out of context by kind of coming out by saying that we're great. And then backing away, it's another, in my view, play to dodge accountability. And we have seen this over and over again.
Farai Chideya: Yeah. And Nicol, the Facebook papers have been out now for a few weeks. How is this story unfolding or evolving? The headlines keep coming. Even if there's not new documents released, there are people doing takes on it.
Nicol Turner Lee: We all can't sit here and look at the Facebook files as if there were not documents and receipts in them from a long time ago. We all remember the big Cambridge analytics scandal where that wasn't handled properly. And we also know that Congress is partly to blame because we didn't come up with the right regulatory response nor do we have legislation that's around data privacy. With that being the case, what's different this time is that we're actually seeing more actors. I don't know if you ladies remember when the co-founder of Facebook did a big spread about all of these problems a long time ago. Maybe a couple years ago, right?
Farai Chideya: Yeah.
Nicol Turner Lee: But what now we're seeing is that there are individuals within the company that have the protection through the whistleblower, a statute or a language, to come out and tell us things that we probably already knew but they have the inner workings around that. I think what's also interesting though, is that as we've seen the revelations about their algorithms, their leadership structure, their values, we're also seeing a series of announcements coming out about Facebook around, for example, the ban of facial recognition technologies. Just recently, they have decided that they're not going to use sensitive attributes in ad targeting. These are, I think, ways in which to sort of clear the deck, but most importantly, they're still not the type of coherent and comprehensive response that we need from Facebook around many of these issues that do require some regulatory or legislative guidance.
Farai Chideya: Yeah. Mutale, what about this name change? What do you make of the Meta Facebook?
Mutale Nkonde: The metaverse. This attempt to relitigate, it wasn't, "That was Facebook. We're the Metaverse. We're different" when in actual fact it's the same company. Facebook as a brand still exists. Much like Alphabet is the parent company of Google, that does not mean that Google Search doesn't exist as a company. And just to add to what Nicol was saying, I think for me, these papers revealed that black women told the truth right at the beginning. I mean, we all know Your Slip is Showing, which was an online protest.
Farai Chideya: Yes. Yes.
Mutale Nkonde: What was that? 2013? That was black feminist and women of color who actually were able to tell us that 4chan and 8chan existed years and years and years before government and large papers like the New York Times and Washington Posts and the others who were given these documents were paying attention.
Mutale Nkonde: AI For The People is doing a lot of work in what we called the advancement of advanced technologies, right?
Farai Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mutale Nkonde: So we're looking at quantum, we're looking at AR, we're looking at VR. But in changing this and making this take, there are also promising in our view to take the mistakes of Facebook through to this new entity, which actually isn't saying that they're not going to use facial recognition, because to use that type of immersive technology, you do need to take biometric measurements. And that's something that we're looking at very closely ourselves.
Farai Chideya: Yeah. And I'm going to turn this Nicol, but you feel free to jump in too, Mutale. Six years ago, I wrote a piece for The Intercept called the Facebook of the future has privacy implications today. And I wrote about how Facebook was filing a patent for back of head recognition and how they were aggressively moving to expand their ability to tag people who weren't even Facebook users. So those of us who were paying attention saw these trends coming. Why didn't we do more, Nicol? And who is the we who could do more?
Nicol Turner Lee: Well, I think that's the problem, right? The we doesn't know what they actually are doing. I think what happened with regards to the Facebook product then is that policy makers were way behind the technological innovation, but more importantly, Facebook acted in the scope of permissionless innovation, which allows for this permissionless forgiveness, which is an apologetic stance towards any type of egregious behaviors that have implications for people.
Now, with that being said, AI and technology generally was like that. And we're just now recently seeing these movements towards responsible tech. But let me speak to this meta issue that I think is a meta issue. You have a metaverse and you have a name change, typical of companies who want to do some rebrand alignment. But you also have now a Facebook that has the privilege of taking their embedded technologies and placing them on a wider platform of which policy makers will still be behind with regards to the technological cadence. But more importantly, to be in the metaverse means that you have to submit to the standards of what that environment is. And my particular problems with something like that is how do you go in an immersive environment that is still developed by people who do not experience or understand the lived realities of groups of people. So you're essentially creating metaverse experiences, which may be mismatch with ordinary people or with people with cultural or racial demographic.
And in my view, a name change doesn't necessarily disregard the fact that you have a company that sees itself on the brink of reordering society in the way that we know it. And that to me, I think, is more problematic when we start thinking about how do we as ordinary citizens connect with this new digital reality that in many respects, we don't have agency over.
Farai Chideya: Let's just talk a little bit about whistleblowers for a second. Frances Haugen is the whistleblower who is behind the most recent revelations and they've gone wide, but there actually has been reporting showing that most tech whistleblowers are women of color, Nicol, that came from Politico. Are women of color getting credit for the risks they've taken?
Nicol Turner Lee: No, we're not. Not at all. People who have the lived experiences of people of color, women of color in particular who have been in this space not in the last year but for many, many years in technology, we are often discredited. And I think that speaks a lot to how fundamentally race is positioned in these companies. I was actually watching last night and I actually know her, the Facebook commercial of Rochelle from Facebook, African American woman who works in the Civil Rights division. I was listening and watching that and thinking to myself, "Wow, it's so interesting that Facebook is trying to provide the color of the company." And Rochelle is a fabulous individual, an amazing individual who knows her stuff, but we need this company and many other companies to recognize that you cannot make us the products of their goods and services. That it's important to have a variety of seats at the table, particularly on applications that have long ranging civil and human rights consequences.
Farai Chideya: I'm jumping in because I can't remember who says this, and you might know, but someone said that if you are not paying for something, you are the product essentially.
Nicol Turner Lee: You're the product. You're the product.
Farai Chideya: Yeah, because you're being data mined.
Nicol Turner Lee: That's it. And in my view, when you look at companies like Facebook or like the big five, Twitter, Amazon, their boardroom, their C-suites, their decision making roles are not equipped with women of color or people of color in general. And when we have come out, we're not there anymore because for some reason, the values that they have asked us to embed into their organizations are those that are counter to where they ultimately land up, mind the best profit for their shareholders…
Farai Chideya: Well, yeah. Let me, Mutale, come over to you. We've talked about a few different people including a little bit about your work, but there's also the black women whistleblowers, you know?
Nicol Turner Lee: Right.
Farai Chideya: Ifeoma Ozoma, Aerica Shimizu Banks, Timnit Gebru. What is the kind of position of black women in tech?
Mutale Nkonde: There are two things. One of the things around Frances Haugen was her level of clearance. Anybody that's worked in that company knows that not everybody gets access to documentation. And so, because you have relative power imbalances within teams, it would be even difficult for a woman, but definitely a black woman to get to that level of seniority that she would have access to that type of documentation. And even when women are in senior level roles as Timnit was, she was the co-head of Ethical A.I., at Google, they're not necessarily respected or credited or given senior support.
We're not speaking about startups. We're speaking about extremely hierarchical companies where having lots of black women at the bottom is not going to change power structures or incentive structures within the company. And when you look particularly at Aerica Shimizu Banks, she's really interesting because her role was potentially the most junior of the three whistleblowers that you spoke about. They are seen as the most disposable. What I think Ifeoma really pointed out was the lack of financial support for whistleblowing too. So one of the things that we at least know about Haugen is that she has all of this financial backing and support coming from renegades of the tech industry to make sure that she has the legal support, the PR support, and the kind of structure around her that is protecting her in that work. Those safety nets simply do not exist for black women.
Farai Chideya: We've been talking about the cutting edge of tech, but not every thing that has a tinge of tech has to be new. On Tuesday, Representative Paul Gosar shared an animated video that was altered to depict him killing representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It used to take a Hollywood special effects team to make a video like this. Now a team can do it, but that's not the point. The point is that speaker Nancy Pelosi took to Twitter to ask the house minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, to join her in condemning what she called a horrific video.
Nicol, I'm going to go to you. This is a member of Congress depicting himself killing another member of Congress, a woman of color who already gets plenty of death threats. What do you make of this?
Nicol Turner Lee: It's really disturbing. I mean, the whole manipulation and use of deepfakes are in and of themselves disturbing because they're able to exploit both the image and the voice of subjects in ways that again can dissuade people from exercising their right to vote. But it's also one of those areas that we have seen this type of behavior lead to violence. We are sitting right now in Washington DC with Chairman Bennie Thompson, talking about an event that some Republicans believe did not happen, even though it did, and where misinformation led people to believe that Joe Biden was not elected.
Part of the challenge that we have in our democracy is that technology has an opportunistic aspect of it and a very perilous aspect of it. And our inability to not necessarily have kids like my daughter understand the differences, but have people who are mature, manipulating that technology to demonstrate their embedded feelings towards women and people of color and other leadership that does not necessarily agree with them, it's disturbing. And part of the problem that Washington DC has had with technology is that it is actually the problem that we have with society. Technology did not come in and create the political polarization, the discrimination.
Farai Chideya: Right.
Nicol Turner Lee: It is the fact that it is riding along values, norms, assumptions, structural layouts that actually allow the technology to spread that type of hate.
Farai Chideya: Absolutely. Subbu Vincent who is a leader in journalism, ethics, and academic really has set up a framework of culture disorder. This is not just like information disorder and disinformation. It's like a culture disorder which drives the disinformation, which then it keeps cycling and cycling. But Mutale, I just referenced speaker Pelosi. She was part of another one of these not so high tech, but tech-related controversies about the slowed down video. It slowed down the audio so that she sounded like she was slurring. And Facebook refused to take it down. Now, later, Facebook had another one of these videos and put a partially false label on it. Is that enough? Is that what we're looking to as a solution?
Mutale Nkonde: It's absolutely not enough. What happens when we see deepfake videos which are really the high tech version of what you're describing, sometimes called cheapfakes, is that you're moving the Overton window. You are creating a situation where that type of speech, that type of action, that type of sentiment becomes acceptable in the political mainstream. And that leads to radicalization. We know this. The science is there.
Nicol Turner Lee: Yeah. I think that you don't have to go as far back to the Nancy Pelosi deepfake to see that this is happening all the time. Look at what happened in the Virginia gubernatorial election, where overnight, critical race theory became an issue because we saw images of black students in schools fighting and all this other stuff. I mean, it's out there and it's actually infecting most of society.
But I would like to say this as we close up. Part of this challenge of the Facebooks of the world as well as the technological innovation, is that you have to have leadership that represents people of color. And right now we do not have, as we don't see in the tech industry, black people that sit at many of these important agencies that are going to make these decisions. We're not going to get very far if we're still dealing in these environments that don't see us.
Farai Chideya: Well, that's a perfect place to wrap it up. Thank you so much for joining me, Dr. Nicol Turner Lee and Mutale Nkonde.
Nicol Turner Lee: Thanks for having us. It was great.
Mutale Nkonde: So glad to be back. This was great.
That was Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow in governance studies, the Director of the Center for Technology Innovation, and Co-editor-in-chief of TechTank, and Mutale Nkonde, a race and tech expert and the founding CEO of AI For The People.
Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcast. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior editor is Veralyn Williams. Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure are our senior producers. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and makes this episode. Our political booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistants from Mark Betancourt, Elizabeth Nakano, and Natyna Bean. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath and J.J. Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.