Our Body Politic

Why the Tulsa Massacre Matters Today, the Insurrection as White Supremacist Backlash, and Tackling Algorithmic Bias

Episode Notes

On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Farai Chideya  goes through the most important news of the week with contributors Errin Haines of the 19th and Jess Morales Rocketto of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Farai welcomes Trymaine Lee of MSNBC’s podcast “Into America” to talk about his coverage of the centennial of the Tulsa Massacre. Social justice advocate Tamika Mallory shares her family’s legacy of activism in her new book, “State of Emergency.” OBP tech contributor Mutale Nkonde of AI for the People explains why we’re more aware of disinformation and misinformation after January 6th, and what her organization is doing to combat algorithmic discrimination. 


00:39 Sippin’ the Political Tea with Errin Haines of the 19th and Jess Morales Rocketto of the National Domestic Workers Alliance goes over the week’s news

18:22 Trymaine Lee of MSNBC on the Tulsa Race Massacre’s impact on Black business owners today

30:39 Tamika Mallory on her new book and generations of her family being activists

39:45 Mutale Nkonde of AI for the People explains our growing understanding of disinformation and misinformation and their role in Covid vaccinations

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. As we grow and evolve our show, we need lots of input from listeners like you. So I want to ask you a small favor. After you listen today, please head over to Apple Podcasts on your phone, tablet, laptop, or anywhere you listen and leave us a review. We read those because your ideas matter to us. Thanks so much. This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. This week we're trying something new, starting the show with our roundtable, Sippin' the Political Tea. We know how much you appreciate real talk from us. 

Joining me this week is Our Body Politic contributor, Jess Morales Rocketto, civic engagement director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Welcome back, Jess.

Jess Morales Rocketto:

Hey there.

Chideya: And we've got Errin Haines, editor at large at The 19th. Hi, Errin.

Errin Haines: Farai, how is it already June? How is it already summer?

Chideya: I know. And you have certainly been busy. We're going to talk about some of your incredible writing on The 19th coming up. But where should we start today?

Haines: Well, thanks. I hope we dig into some of it too. But we have got to start I think with the 100 year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, where you had president Joe Biden being the first U.S. president to go to Tulsa to mark this tragedy. And he delivered remarks this week. Here's a clip of some of what he had to say.

President Joe Biden:

My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre.

Haines: Okay. So Farai, him being there in this moment saying these words, why does his language about the massacre matter, especially where discussions about reparations are concerned?

Chideya: First of all, obviously morally it matters. But secondly, one reason, Germany just recently apologized for genocide in Namibia. And someone posted that on Twitter being like, "Hmm, so the Germans just apologized for killing people in Namibia and defacto enslaving some of them." And but this kind of is really interesting because the U.S. has never apologized for slavery. And one of the reasons the U.S. has never apologized is because it's viewed as something that could be a precursor to reparation. So I think this language about the massacre, which is obviously a local issue with international significance. Tulsa is of international significance, but it's still local. And this language may matter.

Haines: I think this does matter, especially with us being in a moment where we are a year out from this national reckoning on race that I do hope continues as a country and having the president of the United States to use language that leaves behind a more honest and accurate account of what actually happened just feels really important for these folks to have their experience, the experience of their ancestors and kin validated in that way. But I do think it is also important to point out that in the president's remarks, which were quite lengthy and covered a lot, reparations was not something that was brought up. And that was something that was not lost on folks in the audience and also some of the lawmakers, especially members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were in the room to hear what he had to say. So also during that address, President Biden assigned Vice President Harris yet another task, which is to protect voting rights. Let's listen to a clip.

President Joe Biden:

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed For the People Act to protect our democracy. The Senate will take it up later this month and I'm going to fight like heck with every tool at my disposal for its passage. The House is also working in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is critical to providing new legal tools to combat the new assault on the right to vote. To signify the importance of our efforts, today I'm asking Vice President Harris to help these efforts and lead them, among her many other responsibilities with her leadership...

Haines: Listen, my ears perked up when I heard this, as if Vice President Harris did not already have enough to do. And really on the heels of that, she also was tasked with trying to get more Americans vaccinated over this next month of action that the President has said June is going to be.. Later this month, she's going to Central America to deal with some of the root causes of immigration, something she's also been tasked with helping to solve. She's been selling the American Rescue Plan. Jess, if you were Vice President Harris, how would you go about ensuring that the For the People Act, one of those voter protection bills, passes the Senate and becomes legislation?

Morales Rocketto:

Well, listen, first of all, I think I would be really concerned about my time management. She's responsible for a lot of stuff, and some of the highest priorities of the administration. But I do think that this voter protection bill is probably the most important thing, both for her own potential future aspirations as well as for being the kind of thing that represents something bigger. I would really honestly think about it like a little campaign, like when she was running her presidential campaign of getting this bill passed. And she has some powerful allies, most specifically in Speaker Pelosi, who have said for years this is their number one priority. She's definitely going to have to, however, appeal to moderate Senators, a number of which are her former Women's Caucus of the U.S. Senate. And I think that that's where I would start, is with those really important U.S. senators for 2022 that are women. So Maggie Hassan, Catherine Cortez Masto, some of those folks are the ones that she really needs to get in with.

Chideya: Let me jump in here. Actually, Errin, you have been doing a ton of reporting on the Black women multitasking their way through the current administration. Tell us more about what you were digging into.

Haines: Yeah, well I mean, look. When president Biden tasked Vice President Harris with voting rights, what I thought about in addition to the idea that she already has a pretty hefty portfolio and is going to have a very busy summer, she's not the only one. The president also talked about changes that are coming to HUD and Secretary Marcia Fudge, a Black woman leading that department, is going to be tasked with tackling issues like red lining, which we know is a very real thing that is affecting Black wealth. You've got Cecilia Rouse over at the Council for Economic Advisors who said specifically that she sees her role as trying to root out racism in our economy. You've got the head of Medicare and Medicaid, a Black woman, who is going to be administering that agency, which we know has some disparities around health care. And so you just think about some of the biggest challenges that are facing not only this administration, but that have historically faced our country. And it just seems like over and over again, the administration is tapping Black women to confront them.

Chideya: And Errin, I'm so glad you're writing about this. It's just really important to keep track of who's doing the work in what many ways. And anyone who wants to read that article or any of Errin's other work can go to 19thnews.org.

Haines: Let's stay on voting and visit the Supreme Court because June is the month for many SCOTUS decisions. And there are some major cases the court will hear including the one on voting rights. Jess, I want to come to you. What means are civil rights groups taking to make sure that folks have access to their voting rights?

Morales Rocketto:

The biggest civil rights groups in the country that are working on voting rights are really always on. So they haven't stopped since the 2020 election, even though there was an unprecedented voter protection effort to make sure that people were able to vote in such an important election. One of the things that we're seeing now is in addition to the legal work that these groups have done for a very long time, making sure that we're able to go into the courts, set legal precedent to make sure that people can't steal the vote away from us. You're also seeing more of them taking up the bully pulpit and really using TV, using social media to call out what's happening and to galvanize people around the country. That's creating pressure on big businesses, elected officials and other influencers in different states. And it's helping create kind of a swell, not only for each state, but also across the country where people are seeing, well, that happened in Georgia and now it's happening in Texas and now they want it to happen in Arizona. And I think that that's part of what's been able to keep this in the news. With what we were talking about earlier with Vice President Harris, now you really have a national figure who can speak to this in addition to Congress. I'm starting to see a lot of momentum being built in the voter protection space. That's so important because one of the things that people kind of forget a little bit about H.R. 1, which is the big voting rights bill and this new moment of voting rights energy is that we are in some ways still fighting for the basic provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which is kind of wild that we're still, 50 years later, working on some of the same exact provisions. So it's going to take all of that effort to actually get this over the finish line.

Haines: Yeah, good point you're making. Farai, a lot has been made about these conservative justices that are now making up the majority of the Supreme Court. I'm wondering what impact that has when it comes to voting rights.

Chideya: Yeah. I mean we are just at the beginning of this composition of the Supreme Court, but this looks like one with much more ideologically fixed conservative jurists. So I will say that even within that, the topic of voting rights could provoke some unusual reactions because it is so foundational to very notions of democracy. So it's a much more solidly conservative court, but this issue does have the possibility of surprise.

Haines: Absolutely. More conservative court, but definitely a different climate to be talking about voting, especially in the wake of the 1/6 insurrection. Look, let's talk about immigration. We got a lot of tea to get to today. The New York Times obtained a 46 page draft document from the Biden-Harris administration, which would basically make it easier for people to immigrate to the U.S. So coming back to you, Jess, is this effort by the Biden-Harris administration the kind of direction that you would like to see?

Morales Rocketto:

If I'm being honest, that report is kind of like a little bit of a nothing burger.

Haines: Okay. But please be honest. Say more.

Morales Rocketto:

Well, people are kind of making a big deal about it. There's a few things in there that are new and are really important. For instance, the U visa program, which is a little bit controversial because it grants legal status for immigrants who help the police. People have been kind of waiting to see what the Biden administration's position is on that. I will say, there isn't a number of things that people have really been calling for in particular around asylum and the southern border, which the Biden administration has had challenges addressing because of the political realities that they feel about immigration. Namely, that it's kind of a losing issue for them. I don't agree with that. And I do think that we're still looking to see what on the administrative relief side, so what the President and the federal government can do without legislation, what kind of the full vision for the Biden administration is. This report was kind of supposed to be that. And I think it's just a little bit lacking in part because of their concerns about what's happening at the Southern border and about anything having too high of scrutiny while they try to fix those problems.

Haines: Yeah. Yeah. And for folks who haven't seen it, this document offers detailed policy proposals that would help more foreigners move to the US including high skilled workers, trafficking victims and the families of Americans living abroad. American Indians born in Canada, refugees, asylum seekers, farm workers and immigrants who apply online could pay less in fees or even secure a waiver in an attempt to reduce barriers to immigration. But Farai, I want to come to you because I'm wondering what roadblocks you foresee for this reform.

Chideya: So many roadblocks. It's like a dirt road with a lot of potholes. I think we talk a lot about Senator Joe Manchin. If he's someone who doesn't like attention, he's got to be miserable right now because he's definitely getting a lot of attention from President Biden and from the White House and also Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. In addition to everything that is in this report, there's also a lot of things that are happening quietly through the Biden Harris administration's actions, like continuing temporary protected status for Haitian Americans. That was an issue I became, um, more aware of because the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I live has a lot of Haitian American. So I think that it's not a surprise that this is a little bit of a word salad, this kind of omnibus report, but I think a lot of things are getting done kind of more through executive order and federal decisions, but what happens in terms of actual votes in the House and Senate is going to be challenging.

Haines: Yeah. A challenge indeed. So there are also reports that the White House is considering fast-track family deportations. And Jess, how do you square this move with the move to make immigrating to the US easier for other categories of immigrants?

Morales Rocketto:

It's a really good question because what we have is almost a lack of clarity about the administration's policies more broadly around immigration. So you have an immigration bill in Congress, the US Citizenship Act, which is less formally called the Biden bill, that is the most progressive immigration policy that we've seen maybe ever in the United States. At the same time from this administrative side, you have policies like this. We would call this a trial balloon. It's getting leaked so they could see if they're getting a lot of backlash for it. And this is completely inconsistent with where the Biden administration says their vision is for immigration more broadly. And certainly with their own immigration bill that's in Congress right now, that really matters because these administrative proposals have a lot less oversight. The federal government and the president are the ones who approve those. And that is really scary because the far reaching efforts around deportations in particular are something that's very concerning to advocates and we've really been pushing on this both privately and publicly. It's especially concerning because these are specifically family deportations, and three in four people who are trying to cross are part of a family unit. Now, when you are a part of a family, there are different provisions that are associated with how people have to be treated. And those are very hard fought for protections for people. This fast track is a little bit trying to skirt those protections, which is pretty scary and not consistent with what we would expect from a Democratic administration. So this is something that people are really pushing back against, but it's important that we don't allow it to happen. And that goes back to what I was saying earlier about the Biden administration's fear about doing anything at the Southern border that they might be criticized for politically. And my hope is that they can kind of do smart policy and smart politics. It is not smart politics to come after anything at the border that even has a whiff of the Trump administration, and backpacking family deportations is very much in kind of that vein of the Trump administration, their immigration policies.

Haines: AImmigration is definitely about to come back into focus as the vice president, again, heads to Central America to get a sense of the reality on the ground there. And I think that that's going to do a lot to really drive the conversation that we're having back here at home about the way forward. So last weekend, former Trump advisor, Michael Flynn, spoke at a QAnon conference in Dallas. And he was asked about the coup in Myanmar, which was essentially a military overthrow of a democratically elected government. Here's a clip from megatv.info.

QAnon conference clip:

I'm a simple marine. I want to know why what happened in Myanmar can't happen here.

Michael Flynn: No reason. I mean, it should happen. No reason.

Haines: Farai, you've been keeping a close eye on extremism in the military and the person who posed the question identified themselves as a simple marine. What does this moment, this exchange with Flynn mean to you?

Chideya: Well, first of all, Michael Flynn is asking for sedition, sedition. We should name things what they are; insurrection, sedition. My uncle is a former my uncle, two of my uncles are former marines. So in any case, this is not about former marines, this is about the entire state of the US military, which we continue to report on here, which is that there are a number of current and former military members and veterans who are deeply entrenched in beliefs about sedition. I think that the threat level of what's happening in America right now, it is very underground for some people. And we have to realize this is about sedition, this is about domestic terrorism, and there will be more to come.

Haines: Well, wow. We really had a lot of tea this week, but we're going to have to leave it there for now. It was great chatting with you again, Farai.

Chideya: Thanks so much, Errin.

Haines: And always nice to be in with you, Jess.

Morales Rocketto:

Thank you.

Chideya: 100 years ago on May 31st, 1921, a white mob attack to the residents of Greenwood, the district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street. White assailants with weapons and even dynamite killed an estimated 300 people. 10,000 Black residents were left homeless, the livelihoods of thousands wiped out. We now call it the Tulsa Race Massacre. 35 blocks of Greenwood were burned down. Experts estimate that in today's dollars, the white mob destroyed $200 million worth of Black owned property. It all started with a false allegation that a Black teenager attacked a white teen in an elevator. Trymaine Lee, host of MSNBC's Into America podcast, reported two special episodes out now about Tulsa's spirit of survival, the wealth lost to Black families, and how the struggle continues today.

Chideya: Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Trymaine.

Trymaine Lee: Farai, thanks so much for having me.

Chideya: I was really just so moved and so touched by this two-parter on Tulsa and how it relates to the lived daily experience of people right now. I love that you foregrounded this in the present. And so let's start with Tori Tyson, whose family lost everything to the massacre.Here she is in your first episode.

Tori Tyson: We are resilient, we rebuild. It may just seem like it was easy for me to move my business within a month, and I felt like I was destroyed. So I can just imagine how they felt.

Chideya: And she's harkening back to how people must've felt right after the massacre. Tell us a little bit about who she is and what she says about this story.

Lee: Tori Tyson's story, among many of the stories we try to tell between the podcasts and the documentary, was one of the more heartbreaking stories. Tori Tyson comes from three generations of business owners in the same location, where an aunt, a cousin and then Tori took over this space and it was a hair salon. Her great grandmother survived the massacre, but their burger shop, they had a burger shop which was destroyed. And so Tori comes from these generations of business owners, but they never owned the actual land so she had been renting. And then ahead of the Centennial, she started noticing that people were being pushed out and priced out and she ended up falling victim to that. And so for Tori and any number of other people today in Tulsa feeling a different kind of violence, not the bloody violence of the massacre, but an economic kind of violence. And it's like every time this community pushes forward somehow, they're beaten back by the same kind of forces.

Chideya: You go into questions of what's sometimes called urban renewal and also gets called negro removal. How does that era, which has happened all over the country for decades, but a lot of it happened in the sixties and seventies, how does that relate to the era of the massacre?

Lee: So the Greenwood District, which had been 35 blocks of unparalleled economic prosperity for Black folks destroyed in the 1921 massacre, but in the decades to come, they were actually able to rebuild. It wasn't to the full heft that it had been in 1921, but they began to come back. But then over the years, the community began to struggle like so many of the Black communities from disinvestment and so on. But then with urban renewal, the government literally came in and drove a highway right through the neighborhood. So it's like this visible scar. When you go to Greenwood today, the first thing you notice is this highway just cutting right through Greenwood, right across Greenwood Avenue.

Chideya: You also talked to the Eaton family who was able to hold onto their property. So tell me about them.

Lee: That's right. So we tried to approach this kind of the tale of two families, right? Telling the arc of the past century, beginning of 1921 and ending here in 2021 through two families. So where Tori's family was dispossessed, they were never able to recoup physically, at least, what they lost or the wealthy lost. The Eaton family had been able to hold on to their family business and the actual physical buildings, right? So they were about a mile outside of the city center where most of the destruction happened. And it went from a barbershop, to a photo studio, to a salon. They had this house and this commercial building that had stayed in the family for a hundred years and still in use today. And they've been able to pass some degree of not just financial stability, but just stability, right? The one son is a business owner in Houston and has a business in Greenwood. The other son went off to Houston and around the world touring as a musician. They were able to enjoy the fruits that they were able to protect. Bobby Sr. actually helped start the civil rights movement in Tulsa from his barbershop that his father had started. And so this family kind of exemplifies what could happen when you're able to hold on and you're able to pass on wealth. The counter opposite of what happened with Tori. Tori's family has dealt with the pangs of that terror from 1921 in every generation, dealing with poverty and alcoholism, and now the dislocation once again.

Chideya: And the second episode in your podcast series really dealt a lot with ramifications on people from whom the truth was withheld, but who have to grapple with it now, like a white Tulsa woman whose mother witnessed the massacre and was one of the few Tulsans to talk about it openly. Here's a clip from Marylin Joy Avery, who goes by Joy talking about her mother.

Joy Avery: I think she was very upset about it, but I think probably even more upset because I didn't believe her.

Chideya: And once she did believe her mother, she also began to think about why things were covered up for so long. Here's Joy again, when you asked her if she was worried about her family or neighbors and whether they had participated in the massacre.

Avery: Actually, I was more worried about waking up to having a cross burned on our front lawn because it was really scary. There were a lot of important people. When I was reading about the Ku Klux Klan, there were mayors and there were highly influential people who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.

Chideya: And Trymaine, I have been thinking a lot about the arc of history and how things only get dealt with sometimes once people who had their hands on the knife, the gun, or the stick of dynamite, in the case of Tulsa, are dead and the record has been wiped clean. So tell us a little bit behind the scenes of how you even got someone to talk about this.

Lee: Well first, I want to touch on this idea though for a minute, this idea of this erasure. And in so many ways, there was this vast conspiracy of silence where people simply just didn't talk about it. On the Black side of town, you had folks who had dealt with and had to carry this deep trauma and hurt and pain and didn't want to talk about it. On the white side of things, you had newspaper articles disappearing from the library. You had evidence from the police department simply disappearing, vast troves of pictures and other documents. And on one hand, we understand how stories can be misshapen and the narratives can be put off-center a bit from the truth, but there were white people in this community, the white power structure, they knew well what happened, and they did their best to cover it up. There were thousands and thousands of white people who participated in this massacre, and those stories were also passed down, whispered about at times, but passed down nonetheless. But to your point with Joy, it was so hard finding white folks to talk. And our team was just making all the calls, touching base with all the stakeholders, just trying to find some white folks who would talk, and very few of them would. And whether it's a matter of shame or whether it's a matter of some people, they might not say it publicly, but they're proud of their people. And you see that kind of thing emerge around the context of the Confederate monuments or how we remember or lionize those generals who fought so hard against the war of northern aggression and all those things. They hold on to that, and they don't want to feel shamed about their love and allegiance to their people. But Joy, again, she's a reluctant bearer of her mother's torch, I would say. And I think she means well, and she's a nice lady. She truly is. But she's not like some of the other folks that we were able to talk to, like Pastor Lavanhar or the other young lady we spoke to, who they're about this work. They're trying to make a change, but those voices are few and far between.

Chideya: And then you take the kinds of cover-ups that you're talking about and think of them in light of new legislation. Oklahoma's governor just signed a law that's going to go into effect on July 1st that bans anti-racism teaching, bans teaching that makes anyone "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress" due to their race or gender, any lessons that suggest that someone is responsible for past actions committed by people of the same race or sex. So once again, we see the threads of history. We saw a massive cover-up, and one of the people in your podcast also says, "This is a murder investigation. We know now this was not a riot, but a massacre." So this is still a case for a murder investigation, and we don't have time to go into all of that. But how do we process all of this to just pull it together against the backdrop of this kind of law that is asking us to talk about certain types of history?

Lee: The audacity and the sheer gall to put pen to paper that we don't want to teach a history that makes anyone feel less than themselves, shame, embarrassment. What? That's being Black in America for the last pick a 100-year increment. Come on now. But I think for so long, we talked about this conspiracy of silence, and Tulsa was just one example. But when you think about what happened after the Civil War and the Daughters of the Confederacy and all these other organizations who really intentionally rewrote history. And when we talk about this idea of what systemic racism looks like and institutional racism and the long-cast shadow of white supremacy and racism, it's this. It's codified. There was one interview I did, and we didn't end up using it. But the gentleman was talking about how they looked for the newspaper articles that were reflecting on that day some decades after the massacre. And there was some remembrance of May 31st or June 1st, the days of the massacre. And the only thing they noted from the day was a beauty pageant, a pageant, not the murder of hundreds of people, not the firebombing from the sky, but a pageant, right? So the extent at which society, white society in particular, will try to molest and mold and reshape the narrative to suit their needs, to reaffirm their position of dominance in this community, in this culture, then we're going to see this time and again. And you can clearly see the ligaments from 1921 until now is the same playbook.

Chideya: Thank you so very much, Trymaine.

Lee: Farai, as always, thank you.

Chideya: That was Trymaine Lee, MSNBC journalist. Find his Tulsa series on Into America wherever you listen to podcasts. Tamika Mallory has been going to protests since she was a kid. Her parents were civil rights activists. And when her son's father was killed by gun violence, her activism took an even more personal turn. She became executive director of the National Action Network, a civil rights group that focuses in part on anti-gun violence.

Chideya: She later co-founded the Women's March on Washington and now has her own firm, Mallory Consulting. She explores her family's long history of pushing for change and her own visions of justice in a new book, State of Emergency, How We Win in the Country We Built. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Tamika.

Tamika Mallory:

Thank you so much for having me.

Chideya: Let's just dive right into your book, "State of Emergency, How We Win in the Country We Built." You dedicate the book to your son and talk about how your work as an organizer has put a toll on him. So tell me about Tariq and how you see yourself as a mother and as a social justice leader.

Mallory: My son and I actually are best friends. He's 22 years old now and at this point in his life understands much better why I was gone a lot when he was growing up. And that's not unusual for busy parents and, of course, for our leaders, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and a number of other people who are far greater leaders than I. They were away from home a lot as well. And their wives, they really did focus much of their attention on raising their kids and taking care of the family and the household. In my situation, my son's father was deceased, so I never had that.

Chideya: On the personal level, you talk about your parents being activists and organizers, but also there's someone named Shepard Mallory, who you write about in the book. Tell us about him and why he's an inspiration to you.

Mallory: One day I was in the Museum of African-American History in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian, and I happened to be in one of those rooms where they show a film. And I saw that they were talking about three men who helped to free enslaved people in Virginia, North Carolina and in that area. And so they said Shepard Mallory. And I found myself standing in this dark room, looking at the screen like what? I had never heard that before. So I Googled him. And the first thing that came up for me is that the plantation he was on and the man that he ran from, lived in a place in Virginia that a river ran behind it called Roanoke River. Well, my grandmother's house where the house is currently, my grandmother has gone on, but the place that we go to still right now that we still own is in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. And so the river, Roanoke River, which is only about 45 minutes away from where my grandmother lives, it was clear to me that this must have some connection. So I traveled to Virginia to go find this place. And when I went there, I found out that Colonel Mallory was the one who had slaves by the last name Mallory on his plantation. I learned this story about Shepard Mallory being one of three who fled along with some other folks and made it to the Union side. And as I was learning that, I became fascinated by the idea that whoa, I thought all of this time that I was doing this work just because, and now I'm finding out that it's actually in my blood. And I'm fascinated by the idea that someone who is potentially a great-great grandfather or something like that to me is responsible for how so many people got free in that part of our country.

Chideya: You're talking about the Civil War era.

Mallory: The Civil War, that's right.

Chideya: Today, you write, "It's no secret that America is at war with itself." In some ways, this era is a bit of a proxy Civil War. And you talk about the vigilantes storming the Capitol building January 6th, et cetera. What's your perspective on January 6th and what that says about how different people are privileged to show up? You point out that, and these are your words, if it had been a nonviolent protest for Black freedom and justice, it would have ended tragically.

Mallory: Well, I think we're in the midst of a revolution. And some people don't agree with me about this, but I think January 6th is a part of that revolution. And let me tell you why I say that. I think it is an example of the backlash, the pushback that happens whenever white supremacy recognizes that it's losing its grip on society. And I think that what we saw on January 6th is a sign that there is a true revolution, war, whatever you want to call it, in progress. You have to choose which side you're on, how courageous you're going to be, or whether you're going to dig your head in the sand and try to act like what's happening around you is not real. And so I think we're in that kind of moment, and I don't know any other way that this country has ever right-sided itself except to go through the moments that we see.

Chideya: Are you hopeful? And I know that can be a simplistic question, but I think that different people throughout history have interpreted the same moments of passion, pain with a moment of progress or a moment of destruction. So how do you see this moment? Maybe it's both.

Mallory: I think that's the unfortunate reality of Black people in America and probably around the world, that we always take steps forward and backwards at the same time. And I think that's what we're fighting for, right? That we make so many steps forward that going back becomes less and less significant, but we're not there right now. We're in a moment where you can have George Floyd's trial going on and Daunte Wright be killed right at the end of it. We're in a moment where you can have Daunte Wright killed and people be so upset, hitting the streets, protesting, and then you can turn around and see 16 year old Ma'Khia Bryant be killed and people say, well, she had a knife. That doesn't help our movement. You can be outraged when you see that it is a perfect victim, but be okay with the fact that a 16 year old baby was shot down after it's clear that every system failed her. Right. And so I think that even that mindset, even that sort of ideology if you will, that you have to be a victim that had your hands a certain way, did the thing a certain way. For me, it's not progressive.

Chideya: You and your book directly address the Biden-Harris administration. How do you perceive the political chess board with this new presidential administration?

Mallory: I think the jury is very much still out, but I also know that we are working with a Congress, particularly looking at the Senate, that is a mess. I mean, white supremacists are literally running through the Senate chambers and they provided the keys if you will, for the insurrection to happen. And so we're still dealing with a situation where one, we're going to have to gain control of some important seats across the country, including Joe Manchin from West Virginia, who is supposed to be a Democrat, but he sides with Republicans. His conservative politics are in our way. We're going to have to gain control of those seats so that we can force anything that we need to get done to happen without people having excuses. And I think we have to understand the political sphere. I think we've got to be just as energetic about getting in the streets and pushing Joe Biden and pushing this administration as we have other administrations. And I also think that we have to be geared up for the midterm elections because I fear that everything we have worked so hard to gain will be reversed if we don't ensure that we not only maintain seats, but that we actually gain more. I don't think we can back down in this moment and think that because we got a new president that things are going to change. I don't think it is at all that simple

Chideya: Tamika Mallory, thanks so much for joining us.

Mallory: Thank you.

Chideya: That was Tamika Mallory. Her new book is "State of Emergency: How We Win in the Country We Built," out now. Research shows that misinformation and disinformation still play a role in vaccine hesitancy. Here with more on that and other hot topics in tech and society is our regular contributor Mutale Nkonde, CEO of AI for the people. Hey Mutale.

Mutale Nkonde: Hey Farai!

Chideya: We always get such great perspective from you on all the different ways that tech and society impact us. So let's go to COVID, to health. We are still in the midst of a COVID-19 vaccination drive and there's research showing that misinformation is negatively impacting people's decisions to get vaccinated. So what do you know about what's happening here? Who's perpetrating what?

Nkonde: Yeah. So one of the things that's really interesting about COVID myths and Black communities is how most of the misleading information is based in actual fact. We're in a situation where from commemorating a hundred years, since the destruction of Tulsa through to looking at medical racism, whether it be Black women having higher infant mortality rates, many of the narratives are based in these real world instances. That's the way that these disinformation narratives around not being vaccinated really get propelled into Black and brown communities specifically.

Chideya: We do hear the sounds of Brooklyn behind you every now and then. The cars, the construction. Now, what are the platforms doing about this? Twitter or Facebook, et cetera, how do their policies shape what gets caught in terms of disinformation and misinformation going through their pipes?

Nkonde: So we famously now know, thanks to Karen Hao's great reporting at the MIT Tech Review, that Facebook saw mis- and disinformation as a business opportunity because engagement drives revenue. At Twitter, they have been looking at labeling protocols as we've seen from the election, the former president's tweets, the same with TikTok. And one of the things that I thought was really interesting about TikTok, and I can speak about it because I sit on that content advisory board is the way that they were downgrading accounts that are spreading disinformation on platforms, but that's not perfect. Because of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, it's not their job. They're not liable to do this legally.

Chideya: You've mentioned that section of legal code. Could you just very briefly explain what freedoms or release from litigation this gives to the platforms?

Nkonde: Yeah. Sure. So section 230 was passed in 1996 when a tiny startup at Stanford called Google was starting. And the big question at the dawn of the internet was if we create these information platforms, how can we stop being sued if someone mean gets onto our platform and says something? And the work around at the time was you're creating a platform. You are not creating a news source. You're not creating an information thing. You're literally just creating a place that people can meet.

Chideya: So do you think that our increasing awareness of mis and disinformation on platforms means that we've got improving media literacy or is it both the best of times and the worst of times? How should we make sense of this?

Nkonde: I think after January 6th, mis- and disinformation became a mainstream issue. One of the things that I often write about and argue in my own work is that Black people have known about disinformation for a long time, for at least 400 years in this country, right? Examples like Tulsa where a 19 year old Black boy is accused of touching a white girl. That wasn't true, but that piece of untrue information can ignite certain behaviors. In this case, it was a massacre of over 300 Black people and the burning of a town, right? That's 1921. So when we talk about experts of people that know about the impact of disinformation, Black Americans are those experts. January 6th has really increased the general understanding of what can happen. The idea that online conversations have offline implications, but this is all because it's become a problem for white people. Now that it's a white problem, then hopefully we can get some solutions.

Chideya: Going deeper into some of the issues that we have at hand, let's talk about algorithmic discrimination. What does that mean? And how does it relate to this broader question of what are the responsibilities and roles of platforms?

Nkonde: Yeah. So algorithms are what I like to call the brains of technology. So if you have a door that opens automatically, the question may be, how does that decision get made to open when you get close? And what you'll find is that there are sensors and within those sensors are statistical models called algorithms that will make the decision whether to open or close. The problem is these statistical models are also being used to decide how long people stay in jail, whether they can access their homes, whether they're actually at an exam site. So with online proctoring, they may use facial recognition to see somebody at their keyboard. But if that person is Black, they often have to hold a light up to their faces because the camera itself does not recognize dark skin. And the reason it doesn't recognize dark skin is when we are designing these algorithms, we're training them with white people and white references in mind. And that's where the bias comes in.

Chideya: I just read something about how Google had developed an app to discover skin conditions, but it didn't work well on dark skinned people because only 3% of the input they used to create the tool was from darker skin. And so it seems as if certainly now is the time to start addressing these issues. And isn't there a bill being proposed in Congress? Tell us more about that.

Nkonde: Yeah. So over the last five years, we've been really thinking about a raft of bills that would really demand that we have impact assessment. So for example, before we release an online proctoring tool, which has been really in use during COVID, we would want those companies to show that Black students can sit in front of their screen and the camera is going to see them. The idea is like an FDA for algorithms, Algorithmic Accountability Act. So we introduced it in 2019 and it didn't go anywhere. But in a 2021 environment, there is a Senate sponsor and we're hoping that it can be passed.

Chideya: Well, Mutale, we're going to definitely keep you coming on to give us the latest in tech and society. Thanks so much.

Nkonde: Thank you.

Chideya: That was Mutale Nkonde, CEO of AI For the People. The organizations work is featured on the docu series called “Borat's American Lockdown and Debunking Borat,” available now on Amazon prime. Thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by Lantigua Williams and Co. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is executive producer. Paulina Velasco is senior producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Our producer is Priscilla Alabi. Julie Zann is our talent consultant. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer Kojin Tashiro. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt, Natyna Bean and Sarah McClure. 

This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Why the Tulsa Massacre Matters Today, the Insurrection as White Supremacist Backlash, and Tackling Algorithmic Bias.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. June 4, 2021.