In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, Myles and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week—including GoGo at the Grammy’s, exoneration with no restitution, a Hendrix family dispute, and thousands of Latino drivers labeled as white. DeRay interviews Barrett Holmes Pitner about his new book The Crime Without A Name: Combatting Ethnocide and the Erasure of Culture in America which was named one of NPR’s 2021 Best Books of the Year.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Kaya, Myles and De’Ara talking about the news you don’t know from the past week. And then I sat down with Barrett Holmes Pinter to discuss his new book, “The Crime Without a Name: Combating Ethnocide and the Erasure of Culture in America”. My advice for this week is, you know, the pandemic, the hard core part of the pandemic was so wild and it felt like the days were endless and there were so many people I talked to all the time and we just like didn’t maintain it after the pandemic. And we talk still, but like, I used to talk to them every day or like very often because we were all, you know, stuck in the house. And I’ve been trying to do a better job about reconnecting with those people. So shout out to Dom, shout out to Nick, shout out to a whole set of people that, you know, we talked a ton during the pandemic and then the world opened back up. Talk to your pandemic friends too. That’s the advice for this week.
De’Ara Balenger: Family, family, welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People, post-Thanksgiving. We are grateful. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @dearabalenger.
Myles Johnson: My name is Myles. You can find me @Rapture on Instagram and Twitter.
Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson, @hendersonkaya on Twitter.
DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay @deray on Twitter.
De’Ara Balenger: So development since we last convened. We had a verdict for the Ahmaud Arbery case come out. So Gregory McMichael, his son Travis, and their neighbor William Roddie Bryant, were all found guilty. Lots of guilty’s. Guilty on all counts. Given the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict that came out literally the week before And now here we are again with another case that is a reflection of the realness and terror of white supremacy. This one, I thought they couldn’t get away with not finding them guilty, so I don’t think I was surprised by the verdict. I think it’s more of a processing of the fact that this verdict isn’t going to bring this young man back to his family. But no, interesting to hear how y’all are processing it. You know, I think to hear, to hear his family speak, to know that they’re going into a holiday season without their baby, it’s just it’s just a travesty.
Myles Johnson: I think I speak for a lot of people, ready to get off the rollercoaster of verdict, the verdict, the verdict, the verdict, and like these kind of, like and the cyclical-ness of it. Yeah, that’s really all I have to add. I don’t want to just take up space talking about something that like, I kind of feel a little bit empty on. I just feel like I’m ready to get off the roller coaster of just like something bad happening, holding your breath, and either which way it goes like despair is to be found underneath it.
Kaya Henderson: You know, I’ve been Debbie Downer about this stuff, feeling quite jaded, and I am ecstatic for the family that, I mean, I think individually that family feels like justice has been accomplished in as much as it possibly could have. To De’Ara’s point, it doesn’t bring Ahmaud back. But, you know, in the end, these, out here in these judicial streets, we were not guaranteed of a conviction. And so I’m sure it is solace to his family. And, you know, cynical Kaya was like, you know what, every once in a while, they got to throw us a bone and make sure that we don’t rage and to make us believe that the system actually works. This one was indisputable and so, you know, whatever, but I’m not particularly confident that the next two or three or five or seven are going to work out. But because I’m trying to, you know, I try to walk on the happy side of the street. The one silver lining in this still cloudy situation that I found, which doesn’t usually happen, is that the ex-prosecutor was charged and is going to jail, y’all. This is the lady who you know, well she was charged with misconduct, and she, this is the lady who did not bring charge—didn’t arrest the dudes, didn’t bring charges against the dudes. You know, she was in cahoots with the po-po and all of the things. And now she is going to be held accountable. And so this is an interesting one to watch, I think, to see what happens to this lady who did not carry out her job the way she was supposed to carry out. And thankfully, the community spoke and got the process moving. But I think this one is going to be an interesting story to follow.
DeRay Mckesson: So there are a lot of things that this makes me think about. One is that this is a police story in some ways, that the older father, there was a father and son is a part of the three, he was a former police officer who had worked with the prosecutor’s office before, and he sort of thought that he was going to navigate the system and figure it out and move people around and just like skirt around. And that didn’t happen, thankfully. The second thing is, like Kaya said, the prosecutor is actually being charged for not upholding her oath, and it is so hard to hold a prosecutor accountable. We never see prosecutors held accountable for this stuff. It just never happens. So, you know, she actually got booked into jail the day the verdict, the verdicts came out, so that was again shocking. And remember, in this case, two prosecutors in that office recused themselves after she was, after that prosecutor was in trouble. Every member of the Brunswick judicial bench, all five judges, also recused themselves. I mean, they really did play to just like, ride into the sunset with this one. And if not for the online virality of this story, if not for that video, we wouldn’t be here. So is a reminder that we should make everything public that, like all these videos, should be public. Everything should come out. Because that’s how things hide. And I’m happy for the family, I’m happy that there was some sort of accountability. And remember that Georgia is the first state to repeal the citizen’s arrest law. Every state has one and Georgia was the first to repeal it. As you know, probably, citizen’s arrest laws are laws that popped up after the end of legal enslavement to allow white people to steal, detained Black people lawfully. So happy that Georgia did that. Georgia does almost nothing great in criminal justice these days, so it was good for that to happen.
DeRay Mckesson: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
De’Ara Balenger: So y’all, my news this week is from The Washington Post. It’s about GoGo music. If you don’t know by now, I’m from Washington, D.C., southeast Washington, D.C. to be clear. Even though I’ve been living in New York for 10 years and have a New York driver’s license, I still love my city and any time I can be involved, any way I can, I am. And so part of being a D.C. girl is the love of GoGo. Music that we are still very much trying to keep alive. When I was coming up, I went to private school and I would still make the private school have a GoGo at the school. So Rare Essence would be at the Maret School, Junkyard Band would be at Sidwell Friend’s school. I don’t know what these kids are doing today to not have these GoGo bands at these schools. I mean, it’s tragic. However, we see GoGo in this article is making a come—not even making a comeback, GoGo is here, we’re just trying to get some recognition. So they basically had a big Zoom call, the Recording Academy, to talk about what’s going on with the Grammys. And there were a bunch of members on this call. And so Kokayi, who’s D.C. person, D.C. native, who’s a rapper and musician in the city, is actually a part of the Recording Academy and made a big push on the Zoom call for GoGo to be in the category of Regional Roots Album. And so it would be along the same line of music that is Cajun or Native American or Hawaiian. They even put polka in here—OK, cute. The fact that polka gets some representation and not GoGo is a whole thing, but you know, I’ll leave that for another podcast. So this kind of, the conversation around GoGo started last year at the Oscars when—it’s in article, I don’t know, it wasn’t Meryl Streep—Glenn Close doing Da Butt, and I don’t know who fed Glenn Close those lines, but she sure did know them to the song. Now everyone thought this was cute. I didn’t. I didn’t think it was cute. Actually, it got on my nerves because it’s like, This isn’t a joke, y’all. And it’s, you know, we shouldn’t get recognition because this white woman knows the words to Doing Da Butt. Anyway, so I think this has kind of been like a conversation that’s been brewing given the national attention that GoGo had. So from people like Sugar Bear and Chuck Brown and all of these people who have been making this incredible music for decades now, now we’re going to see the Recording Academy start to consider some GoGo music as a part of this Regional Roots Album category. So some of the people that were on the line for this Zoom call who also supported this were PJ Morton—obsessed. If y’all don’t know who PJ Morton is, you better go find out. Yolanda Ad—love. Yolanda Adams, Paul Wall, y’all know I went to law school in Houston so that’s another favorite of mine. [unclear] and Lahla Hathaway. Basically, if this was a concert, I would buy all the tickets, these people that were on this Zoom call who were supporting this effort. So thank you to y’all. So I just wanted to bring this to the pod because, you know, I just thought it was great news. I love, you know, we can share perspective and shine light on pieces of who we are and how we came up, because I think that’s so important to our identities overall as Black folk. But yeah, but read the article, it goes along, you know, and talks about kind of, you know, history of GoGo, folks that have supported GoGo over the years. I guess, so inspired by all of this, Doug E. Fresh is now going to make a tribute album to Chuck Brown. Go ahead, Doug E. Fresh. So, yeah, so I just thought this was wonderful. So shout out to D.C.. Shout out to Kokayi for making this happen for DC. Yeah, and everybody go listen, go stream some GoGo over the holidays.
Kaya Henderson: So as a New York girl who’s been living in D.C. for more than 20 years De’Ara, you know I’m about it. Thanks for bringing this to the pod. If you have not lived in D.C. or if you have not spent any time in D.C., you can’t fully appreciate what GoGo means to this city, to this community, to this culture. I was reflecting just this morning on the first time I heard GoGo music. I saw Chuck Brown play at the Homecoming concert at Norfolk State University in what had to be, I don’t know, probably about 1985 or so. And I know Miles wasn’t even a star in the sky at that point, but [laughs] but there I was with my 10th grade self, wondering Why is this all do with a jerry curl out here rocking the whole entire place? And so I was super excited. I live here. I’ve come to love GoGo music. And so then it took me to the Grammy nominations, which happened this week. And alas, all of these folks who had gotten up their gumption to pull their GoGo albums together in time for this new nomination and new category, there’s no GoGo that was nominated. And so it goes to show you that policy change doesn’t always make practical change, but it’s the first step and we’re going to get it together and see some GoGo representation in the Grammys, hopefully soon.
Myles Johnson: I have like very like complicated feelings around the Grammys in general and like how much we should care and support those things. And it just, I feel like it always puts us on a rollercoaster. I’m like, Oh, anything that could actually make Beyoncé feel insecure or make her, or put in, put it in the universe that she didn’t create excellence is like, a tool of the devil. So I really relaxed on that. But what it did make me think about and what it [laughs—
De’Ara Balenger: I think Adele, I think Adam agrees with you too, which is why when she got up there, she was like, Beyoncé should have won this, OK everybody, thank you.
Myles Johnson: Listen. Listen. And Split the award in half. So I really do think that these are kind of iconography and these moments that are that we kind of like just put on a pedestal can specifically for Black people can harm us. But what I did think about when I was reading this news was how there’s this weird, because all time is happening right now, right, so what’s happening in Asia and Africa and everything is happening right now, but I’m like, Oh, Black Americans are making art ancient Black history right now. So, so we’re actually creating art and music that is going to be foundational for a long time that and it’s important to maybe wrap those things up in things that white people will not destroy, like white supremacist tools of validation to prove that it existed and that it mattered and that it was connective and a remembrance of Black culture and African culture. And that’s what I, that’s what I really thought about, about how there is a usefulness of kind of like wrapping those things up so we could almost keep our culture safe in the ego of white supremacy. But you know, it’s going to be fu—the Grammys until we get that time machine and lemonade gets what lemonade needed.
DeRay Mckesson: You know, so I don’t, I’m from Baltimore, and club music is amazing. But we love, we love the sounds that come from down the street as well so the only thing I have to contribute—shout out to club music—is that DC made GoGo Music the official music of DC a year ago, and that is really cool. And part of the legislation called for the implementation of programs to archive GoGo music and its history in the district. And it is so beautiful. You know, this is something that should be a model for places like Baltimore, where, like music really does shape so much of the culture, you know, like Myles said, it is being, it is being archived in the most beautifully homegrown ways but but ways that might not survive over time. And what do we do to, like, recognize that and then build structures so that, like the next generation of kids will always be able to listen to Miss Tony sing How U Wanna Carry It? Which is like old school club music thing in Baltimore. Or like “Hey, all You Knuckleheads” or whatever the legendary GoGo is. That like generations of people should be able to benefit from this because it has shaped the sound of a place. And when I saw that it is the official music of D.C., I was like, That’s actually really dope. And I, and I hope more Black places do that and that like we do that to Black music.
Kaya Henderson: I’ll add one other thing. There is a great book by an amazing sister here in D.C. named Natalie Hopkinson. Dr. Natalie Hopkinson, called GoGo Live: the Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. And it traces the history of blackness in Black culture in Washington, a rapidly gentrifying city, against the backdrop of the history of GoGo. Nat Hop is amazing. She’s a professor at Howard. She is a great, a great cultural ambassador for our city. So pick up her book GoGo Live.
Myles Johnson: I don’t why, I want to say Hallelujah. Praise the Lord, all day. Y’all really did that. I’m feeling it in my bones. Feeling vindicated in Holy Spirit. I’m really excited about this news. So it was, I’ve always been really into music my whole life. There was not a time that I was not obsessed with music. One of the first artists that really changed me was Jimi Hendrix. He just celebrated a birthday yesterday, which, so yesterday would be November 27th, depending on when you’re listening to this, but he just celebrated a birthday yesterday. He died at 27 from an overdose. And I remember listening to the music and thinking, Oh wow, Black people can do whatever we want to do. And it was so interesting and I had not experienced any type of weed smoking or drinking at that time so this was a music that was the first time that I’ve ever had anything that I would say was really transcending, in the way that people sometimes use narcotics—no judgment—to transcend. And also, he was so exploratory and so expansive with how he used the guitar and how he created lyrics. There’s a song called Angel that I absolutely love and implore everybody to listen to, and is really this like blues psychedelic rock anthem. And it’s beautiful. And I remember really feeling emotionally moved and also like mentally expanded when listening to it, which was a very interesting combination for me to expand. And I got into Jimi Hendrix around the age of 13, 14, so I wasn’t, that was really new for a song to make me think. And even though I was used to music making me feel, it was something that made me think and feel. But fast forward to the news that I have because I was in my head thinking, Oh, I want to find something to celebrate one of my heroes with. And unfortunately, I went to the Guardian and I found: Jimi Hendrix family dispute escalates over use of name for music school. And I said, if there’s nothing to bring to my big brothers and sisters to this podcast, it will be this because I know I don’t understand things ,and I know that sometimes I could be a little bit reckless with how I understand things, but I feel like if I was born with the last name Hendrix and I want to do something with Hendrix with it, I don’t get why you press stop. And I don’t get how you go, I don’t get it, and I’m not going to lie to you and pretend like they’re—this was my ulterior military motive for bringing this up. I needed to understand how if my last name is Hendrix, how come it can’t be School of Hendrix? And that is my daddy or my grandpappy or my cousin on the left hand side, why can’t I do that? Why can’t it happen? So to be more clear about what’s going on, so the current dispute began in 2017, when the musician’s brother, Leon Hendrix, was sued for using the Hendrix name on products which include cannabis edibles, food, wine, alcohol, medicines and electronic products. An order was made against him for 4002 and $18—thousand eighteen dollars, and an injunction was taken out against him, preventing him from further use of the name Jimi Hendrix, the name Jimi, the name Hendrix in any configuration or any image, likeness or signature of Jimi Hendrix. A New York judge has now ruled that Leon, along with his daughter Tina Hendrix, violated the injunction by running the nonprofit, non-free music school: Hendrix Music Academy. They must recall any merchandise bearing Hendrix name and likeness, t-shirts with Jimmy’s face were sold on its website, and rename the school. I don’t understand that. I do not get how you can be part of somebody’s bloodline, how you can be a part of somebody’s legacy, literally living legacy, and you can’t do, and you can’t use it. And what I truly don’t understand—because I can understand the likeness and I can understand the Jimi Hendrix portion of it, even though I still don’t agree with it and I still think that it’s criminal and crazy that that’s happening, I can still kind of understand—what I don’t understand is my real last name is Johnson. [laughs] Why can’t I then make my Johnson vaccine? Why can’t I then make my baby powder? That’s the name that I got. So if your real last name is Hendrix and people connect or don’t connect it, I don’t understand how that is, how that’s right, how that happens, and I truly think because Black musicians, Black people in general, don’t make wills, we are so left out of economic, expanding economically. It just feels like, oh, when you have a chance to do it because you have this supernova in your bloodline, when you have a chance to do something, you are barred from doing it even though it’s good, it’s good work, it’s a music academy, it’s cannabis, it’s things that are aligned with what he would want, and why can’t you do it? I don’t understand how that happens, and I really, really—again, I’m going to return to this part right now—I don’t understand, if that’s your real last name, how can somebody stop you from using your real last name in any way, shape or form? That’s my news. That’s really my, that was my news, and that’s also my riot. It was less news than more just I was so infuriated. Because I was like, How is this happening? And this news, just to be clear, was 10 months ago. So this is a pretty fresh case of a fresh moment that is just happening. It’s not old, it’s happening right now, and I don’t get it. Help me.
Kaya Henderson: So, as an educator, I was outraged that, I mean, they’re not trying to hawk, you know, Jimi Hendrix energy drink, right? There’s a school, it’s a school for kids. It’s a music school that is that pulls on the tradition of an icon of our community. And like you, Myles. I was like, her last name is Hendrix, she didn’t call it the Jimi Hendrix Music School. Her name is Tina Hendrix, she calls it the Hendrix Music School. What’s the problem? And what I did find a little later on because I went down a rabbit hole on this is that actually maybe a month after your article came out, the legal feud was resolved. A district court removed the Hendrix Music Academy and Tina Hendrix from a contempt order stemming from alleged trademark violations. And I found this in the Seattle Times, and they went on ahead and said that the court ruling that was issued before calling, you know, saying that they had trademark and copyright infractions, they vacated that. And so the school didn’t have to change its name and they didn’t have to remove any of this stuff. And Tina says all she ever wanted to do was help kids in the neighborhood, in the same neighborhoods that her uncle loved. And so they, the Hendrix Music Academy, can continue to share his legacy and their family legacy with kids all over Seattle. So there’s a good news ending to this story.
Myles Johnson: How did it happen?
De’Ara Balenger: Now, I will just say, as somebody who has lots of different kinds of cousins that when I saw this, I was like, Hmm. Well, the other side of the story is it looks like Leon Hendricks has been wheeling and dealing for quite some time and got left out of, it looked like, like—because Jimi Hendrix didn’t have a will, so then they’re putting the will, you know, trying to figure out who gets what—he was cut out of it. And then I also found a hit that said a judge,—and you know, whatever this is neither here nor there—but a judge was saying that he allegedly had some drug issues that he needed to get under control before he would be able to get whatever. So all that to say, if, you know, I’m in a dispute with my cousins about my grandfather’s name, and my cousins are like, you know, coming out with, I don’t know—what are the things called the, you know, gummies that have my grandpa’s name on it, knowing good and well what my grandpa died of, I’d be like, Come on, y’all. So I think part of it is this is a case of, I mean, you all know what typically happens with Black families when some of our family members pass and there is no will or there is a will and people don’t like the will. So I just I, you know, all that to say, like they open this nonprofit, they open this school, are clearly doing things in this neighborhood that are helpful. I will also say that, you know, opening a nonprofit and then asking for donations, that is a whole thing that, you know—mmm. I don’t know, Hendrix family. But Myles, thank you for bringing this. I think it just triggers certain things in me, given what my family situation is. But, you know, that’s not the same for everybody.
Myles Johnson: And again, my thing is always going to be, because I’m always going to go for the, I want as many people to get away with as much as they can in this lifetime because God knows we live in a country that has to. So my whole thing is always going to be now do they deserve this fee? Do they deserve to go to jail? Maybe we can call Tyler Perry up and they can get a movie made out of them and get embarrassed. Yes, we can do that. But do they deserve to go to jail and deserve almost half a million dollars charged on them? And that’s what, and that’s what I’m saying.
De’Ara Balenger: No. No. It’s too far. It’s too much. I think it’s just for me, you know, at the first lawyer in the family and that side with the cousins, I’m always the person to detangle a lot of these things. So that’s why I’m very like, Well, what exactly happened and how did we get here and how can we make everybody feel whole? And obviously, how can we avoid real attorney’s fees, which is clearly not the route to take?
Myles Johnson: Exactly yes, and I agree with you. My job as the hoodlum of my family is to stretch, is to stretch the boundaries of right and wrong until they get to somewhere that is not Black and white, but just Black. We all play our part.
DeRay Mckesson: Myles. The only thing, I, I completely forgot that he was that young when he died. I don’t know why. Maybe just because like time passed, and I was like Whoo, 27, that was really young. And also, I know we’ve sort of mentioned this, but I need to have somebody on the pod and I’m going to have them scheduled to talk about Black people and wills and estates, but it is one of those things that like the moment that these people get fame, like there has to be a plan because it just leads to—I mean, Prince! It just leads to pure chaos afterwards.
De’Ara Balenger: Not even famous people, DeRay. Just even granny. Is granny’s will together?
DeRay McKesson: Get it together way before you get sick.
De’Ara Balenger: And does everybody know what’s going on?
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah, not good.
Myles Johnson: The fight that I’ve witnessed over my grandmother’s Sears Hunter Green purse, there was mayhem in the kingdom.
De’Ara Balenger: And don’t let there be a mink. Don’t let there be a mink around, because it’s going down. OK?
DeRay Mckesson: It’s like, and it brings out, I’ve seen this money stuff just turn siblings into the worst people. Me and TeRay already had this conversation. We get along. We not fighting over nothing. We like, you can have it, you can have it. It’s just, we’re not doing it. It’s just like because we’ve seen aunts and uncles just be really not their best self.
Kaya Henderson: That’s generous.
DeRay Mckesson: And we can, we can plan in front of that.
Myles Johnson: A holy way to put it.
Kaya Henderson: My news is about a Missouri man named Kevin Strickland, who was exonerated after serving 43 years in prison for a triple murder that he did not commit. You know, these exoneration stories are heart wrenching to me as somebody who is deathly afraid of jail to think about spending 43 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. It literally breaks my heart. But to take it to a whole new level of heartbreak, this man who was exonerated, he was convicted, first of all, having no physical evidence attaching him to the crime, and basically based on one eyewitness’s very faulty identification. And the eyewitness, a year after he was convicted, was like, Yeah, I don’t think he was the one. And the two people who were actually guilty of the killing were like, Yeah, no, he didn’t have anything to do with it. And still, this man sat in jail for 43 years. Thankfully, there’s been a change in Missouri policy, which allows prosecutors to look back at cases that that need revisiting and that allowed the Minnesota Innocence Project to bring his case to the forefront. And he was exonerated, which is great. So then the question is how much did he get Kaya, because of course, the state of Missouri owes him a whole lot of money? Nada. Nyet. Zero, zip, zilch. They give this man no money for the time that, no compensation for the time that he has served in prison. This man has been in jail, um, the murder was in 1979, and he walks out of jail with no money. Why, you ask? Because Missouri’s law about compensating exonerated individuals requires that in order to get compensation, your exoneration has to be based on DNA evidence. And since there was no DNA evidence to put him in the place to begin with, there is no DNA evidence to exonerate the man. And so he is actually ineligible for compensation from the state of Missouri. What a further miscarriage of justice. Thankfully, when the state fails to do its job, the community rises up and they have raised, an online fundraiser organized by the Midwest, It’s the Midwest Innocence Project—sorry, not the Missouri—the Midwest Innocence Project set up an online fundraiser, one of his lawyers and the executive director of the organization put it together. And the community has raised over a million dollars for Kevin Strickland’s reentry into society. He doesn’t have a bank account. He doesn’t have a phone. He doesn’t have a government ID. He was overwhelmed by the highway system, right? This is a man who literally has been behind bars and we have said to him, Sorry, not so sorry, and here’s not a dime to help with your acclimation, reclamation into society. In fact, one of the most interesting parts of this story is that when you look at the national registry of exonerations, of the 2,900 exonerations that have been registered, only 549 involve DNA. And so if all of the states had this kind of compensation scheme, it would mean that less than a quarter of the exonerated folks would have access to compensation from the government. To me, if you are able to change the law or the policy that allowed prosecutors the discretion to revisit cases that looked wrong, then this is an easy fix. This is a stupid rule. We should be able to figure out what compensation looks like for anybody who is exonerated, and it has nothing to do with how the exoneration happened. Fix it, Missouri. Get this man what he’s supposed to be old. You stole his life for 43 years. Give him some money, please.
DeRay Mckesson: So I will say that the thing that broke my heart, in addition to everything Kaya already said, is that he was asked, What do you want to do—this is before it was guaranteed that he gets out—he was asked, What do you want to do when you first get out? He said, I want to see the ocean and I want to see my mother’s grave. And the first thing that he did when he got out is he went to go see his mother’s grave. And it’s like society failed him, that like allowed for him to just like, sit in jail, he didn’t do it. Kaya already went through the details but you think about all the other people who are like Mr. Strickland, who, like a reporter didn’t stumble across their case, an advocate didn’t fight about it, they didn’t have a lawyer, they didn’t write notes, and yet they are still in. And even the national database of exonerations is, they have acknowledged that like, they don’t have them all either. That, like, we know, we’re undercounting this. So when people talk about like pro-death penalty and stuff like that, it’s like, we’re getting it wrong on the easy ones. Like we’re not even, this isn’t like the, this isn’t the ones with like, you know, 7,000 reams of testimony. It’s like we are putting people away for long times on like cases where there’s like no real evidence anyway. And remember, this was an all-white jury that did it. It just is, this case, like so many others that have popped up in the national conversation are just a reminder that the system produces an outcome because of the way it’s designed. And a lot of people don’t know about the design. So one of the features is what Kaya talked about, is that what happens when the design says exonerations only by DNA matter? For some people, they’re like, Yeah, that makes total sense. And then you’re like, no, no, no, there are a million other ways you can get out, there are a million other ways. But like, who is leading that advocacy part? You know, the DNA law was put in in good intentions, that wasn’t like a poorly-intended law, but it just is incomplete. And there are a host of those things across the country.
Myles Johnson: Whiteness is gangster. Like that, that’s what I keep on thinking about. Like the, that’s really wild. And I think about my uncles and I think that my first like, my real—both my uncles spent time in jail. My uncle Troy, who passed away last year, spent most of our knowing each other in prison because of drug charges. And I just remember, like, how bad other people would talk about prisoners and people who went to jail and the drugs and sold drugs, and I don’t know, loving people who experienced those things and did those things made me understand, made me understand clear that no, it’s like white people that are really gangster. It’s like there’s a whiteness that’s really gangster, this white supremacy we’re in that’s really criminal. Because how do you take somebody’s life, put them in a cell for 43 years, and not give them a dollar? Not, you can’t, you cannot even buy a like a Big Mac or a McRib and we’re not seeing that we’re actually living in something really criminal and really like really harsh. And maybe because I just want to go see House of Gucci, it’s just making me really see how we’re actually living, and a lot of these things feel kind of like mob, mafia, clans-man. Like, a lot of these things feel really absurdly cruel. And I think that again we should maybe rethink our morality and what we think is like the most horrendous thing that’s happened or all the worse things that are happening—this is the worst thing that’s happening. This, to me, feels worse than murder. This like, this is cruel. It’s extremely unusual. And it’s evil and it’s vile. And it’s really remnants of people who are kind of where gangster-ness comes from and where and where barbarian-ism comes from and its remnants of it and it’s allowed to happen. And now there’s documents and papers and suits and gray hairs and [unclear] that go around it but in the middle of it, it’s still a really, really, really gangster essence. And it’s gross. It doesn’t feel good. I’m not talking about Gangster’s Paradise, I’m not talking about ’90s gangster. I’m talking about like a different version of it that it feels weird. And I think that people should really examine what they think is right and wrong because I just I just cannot imagine, I just cannot imagine 43 years. Forty three years!
De’Ara Balenger: Myles, I think to your point, it is, it’s just a, it’s a larger conversation around morality and humanity. And I think partly what’s wrong with this culture, with our culture, American culture, is that we don’t give any dignity to people who are incarcerated. And I think, you know, the whole culture of how we set up this system is that we lock people up and forget about them. But these are human beings. These are people who have families who are still very much a part of our society, even though they are incarcerated. And, you know, like, I think ultimate, you know, over two million people incarcerated, six, I think, six million of those people, it extends to their families, really. So there are millions of people who are living with incarcerated loved ones. And obviously we have those who are incarcerated. So I think it’s also just discussion of like. What are we doing as a society to ensure that we are still treating people who are incarcerated with dignity, with care. And I think whether you’re guilty or innocent, it still is a matter of, these are still human beings we are responsible for, who we should all be accountable to one another. I think my eyes were opened when, actually it was DeRay who introduced me to the D.C. Department of Corrections, and I learned that you can volunteer at a jail or prison locally. You know what I mean? Like, you actually can, whatever your skill set is, bring that to bear when it comes to making sure that you know, people—people. They’re in our neighborhoods. If there is a jail or prison in your community, those are your neighbors. And so what are we doing to ensure that we know who these people are, that we are, that we are, you know, letting them know that they’re not forgotten, that their families are not forgotten? You know, so I think partly it’s, you know, and I think, you know, this is what Bryan Stevenson has been trying to do too with films like Just Mercy and in his work is that, you know, we can’t forget about folks who are incarcerated, and we can’t treat the most vulnerable members of our community with disdain.
DeRay Mckesson: And, you know, De’Ara’s being really modest because I did connect De’Ara with the D.C. jail folks, and De’ya—De’ya, Lord, see I’m Baltimore today—and De’Ara put on a whole day event, got all these people up in the jail, like got the mayor to come out to, like, provide services and resources. And, you know, De’Ara hadn’t done that before, but was a great example of like understood the power of community and that we should be loving on everybody, right? That like everybody, you know, most of the people incarcerated in general will be back in community and that we actually all benefit from making sure that people have the resources and supports to be back in community so they can make a different decision, at its best, so . . . Yeah. This was uh, wow.
My news is about, my news is also an extension of the gangsterism of the police. So in Jefferson Parish—oops—so in Jefferson Parish, the sheriff’s office, they’ve issued over 73,000 and only six were for Hispanic and Latino people. And it was sort of interesting because Hispanics account for nearly a fifth of the population in the 400,000-person parish. And reporters and advocates are trying to figure out how are the numbers so low? Like people’s experiences were like, we know they pulling over people who are Hispanic, but like why the numbers are low. And what the sheriffs are doing is that they know that you can’t have racial disparities if it ain’t no race. So they are coding all the Hispanic people as white as a way to mask the disparities. And it is just such a phenomenal example of like the police know they wrong. Like, they know it! And they are going to use every which way they can to obscure the fact. And I remember we were putting together a map of police violence, we found the same thing is that, you know, we were looking at was like, Wow, are the police disproportionately killing white people? And it’s like, Oh, no, people just code all the white victims, all the Latino victims as white people. And this was just such a simple way that it completely throws off in the analysis. It like sort of shapes the way advocacy happens. It stops or slows down legislation from moving because all of a sudden there are no disparities. And they went, you know, they went overboard. They just were like, there are no Latinos. And it was like, Well, that’s not true. But this happens in a more insidious way all across the country in data sets where it’s harder to do for Black people, but when we think about Latinos, it is easier to do in this way because they can just hide, hide it in the data. And we also think about why some, when we look at some of the polling, the Latino communities that are more conservative, and I can see people being like, Oh no, there are no racial disparities with Latinos in this community. You’re like, No, no, you are lying. You are lying. That is a lie. And I just want to bring this here because I am not often surprised by the antics of the police, because this is so blatantly ridiculous but I, that I bring it.
De’Ara Balenger: Well, I’m going to put on my Mexican hat for a moment because I think part of the problem is, with my people, is that they don’t mind being categorized as white. So when I started to work in Miami and was, you know, a young, scared, and unsuccessful prosecutor—let me tell you—all the Cubans that I work with who were, to me, Cuban—and some, darker than me—they categorized themselves as white. So I think in some communities—and this is the, you know, this is something that the Latino community has been challenged by, is that they want proximity to whiteness, right? So I think DeRay, in this case, like it is, you know, obviously like the police up to no good and trying to hide data, da, da, da. I get that. But I think there’s another conversation, a cultural conversation with Latino people around what’s going on? Why the uptick? And, you know, like they’re more and more, you know, voting on the conservative side, and we’re seeing that election after election. We saw that in these past series of elections, that more and more Latinos are voting for whoever the GOP candidate was. You know, so we can get into it on a different day or, you know, maybe have some guests come on and talk about what the hell is going on. But I think that’s what comes up to me, comes up for me as a Latino person who’s always, because of my blackness, having to fight to be Latino. Or always, you know, trying to, you know, trying to, trying to have this conversation even around labeling and why some people like to be called Hispanic. I have no idea. And I know because of data, you know, and collecting data now that’s kind of the labeling that we use, but I hate that word. You know, the conversation over LatinX and whether people like LatinX or not—I mean, my partner wrote a whole book about it. So I don’t know. I think those are some of the things that come up for me. It’s just like a deeper conversation with the Latino community about what’s up, what are we doing, and what does that look like moving forward? So basically nothing to do with that article, really, so sorry.
Myles Johnson: Well, I’ll continue to blame cops. [laughs]
De’Ara Balenger: Bring us back, Myles. Bring us back!
Myles Johnson: That’s something about these moments, is that in our imagination, we can, there’s so many different stories that can happen and they’re shaped by our experiences and the information that we have. And I’m very comfortable in thinking that a lot of this is because, to kind of sweep up the nefarious things—and again, I think that, some people rap about it, some people make movies about it—but cops do it. They do it. And I think that’s really important to kind of remember they do things that a lot of people would be surprised to see in a film. And it’s a shame, and I think the base of it is the shame that we don’t know. That’s where the failure is, in the fact that we don’t know. We can argue that they knew about, it’s nefarious, and they and this is on purpose, and every single person who was killed because of this, it’s because, they were trying to, you know, fudge the numbers, and that you can argue the other way. And the fact that we don’t know is really the failure. The fact that there’s no confidence in something is supposed to serve and protect us is really, truly the failure. In that, yeah, that, that’s to me, where the foundation of the failure is.
Kaya Henderson: This is yet again the example of a policy gone wrong. And policies are not that difficult to change. The Jefferson Parish policy, or the, actually, the larger policy says that you have to collect racial profiling data unless you have an anti-racial profiling policy on your books. And so the Jefferson Parish Police Force has an anti-racial profiling policy. It says racial ethnic, religious affiliation, and gender-based profiling are totally unacceptable. If you have that policy, you’re not required then to track what your arrests and tickets and stuff look like. However, it’s very clear that this is intentional because when they looked at the most common last name—so hw how this even came to pass is they looked at the last names of people getting tickets right. And when 5 of the top 10 most common last names of people cited as white on tickets were Rodriguez, Martinez, Hernandez, Garcia, and Lopez, it ain’t no way these po-po don’t know that these are Latino people. And so the policy actually incentivizes misbehavior, and so we need to change the flipping policy. Everybody should be collecting data because everybody should want to know whether or not their police are misbehaving, are disproportionately targeting minorities, people of color, whoever, whatever. And if you are honest about it, then fix the frickin policy and let’s see what your police are really doing.
DeRay Mckesson: I think that’s it.
Kaya Henderson: Well, friends, have a lovely Sunday brunching and doing all of the things. And, for what? What you say about us? What you say about us? You be antagonizing the movement, people. [laughs]
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere, there’s more to come.
DeRay Mckesson: So language is really important. And this conversation with Barret Pitner really helped push me to think differently about the way we use language and the precision that’s required. Now, his research focuses on the term ethnocide, which describes a systemic erasure of a person’s ancestral culture. And his focus is on the quote, “linguistic void in how we discuss race in culture United States.” I learned a ton. We go through his book. His book is dope. You should get it, The Crime Without a Name: Combating Ethnocide and the Erasure of Culture in America. What is a crime without a name? Here we go with Barrett Pitner.
DeRay Mckesson: Barrett! Thanks so joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Barrett Pitner: Yeah, thanks for having me.
DeRay Mckesson: Now I’m fascinated by the book, and the entry point is a point of language. Can you talk about how you got to this work as a field of study? And like, what’s your story? How did you get here?
Barrett Pitner: So, you know, the amended story is I went to journalism school at Northwestern and I was going to be a regular journalist. Then around 2015, I got the opportunity to start writing opinion pieces in The Daily Beast. And you know, it’s kind of interesting when someone says that you opinion is something that’s unique and they want you to just articulate your ideas instead of like reporting other people stuff. And so I started writing about culture and politics, and when my stories came out, I noticed that the nuances I was trying to articulate, I didn’t think the audience was like, really getting it. And that made me really think about how to like, rephrase what I was trying to say in these pieces, and eventually it hit me that maybe there wasn’t the word to articulate what I was trying to say, and now I need to find old words or make a new word to articulate what I was trying to convey in my pieces. And that kind of started this linguistic journey to create, to write my book and everything like that. And so, you know, the book was difficult, but in many ways it was a process of trying to find the language to articulate to other people how I already saw the world. So, you know, it was hard, but you know, just, it’s just finding a way to communicate with other people, essentially.
DeRay Mckesson: And why for you is language so important? There are a lot of things you could have written about that had to do with race and justice and the many social ills of the world—what for you made language stick out as one of the defining assets of how we think about solutions and how we think about this work?
Barrett Pitner: In America will always talk about action. Everyone tries to articulate that actions are the most important thing, but let the language precedes the action. And so you have to have precise language so that people can actually communicate and work together on things. And I think one of the big issues in America is there’s a lack of clarity with language, and we try to fill that lack of clarity with emotional connection. So a good example would be, say, your, we all have conversations with our friends and your friend might misspeak and you know what they are trying to say. So even though they didn’t actually say what they intended to say, you cut them some slack because you know what they’re trying to say. And that’s just a natural thing that all of us do. But then the question happens, like what happens when you talk to someone that isn’t already your friend? Like, there’s another layer of precision so that they know what you’re trying to say so that they can agree or disagree or whatever. You can’t just like, expect everyone to cut you that slack because they understand what you tried to say. And so language is essential so that we can communicate precisely and accurately how we see the world and how we interact in the world. And without that precision, it makes it almost impossible to effectively work together with anybody. And so language is key/ and for me, how I like, honed in on it came out because I was a journalist and I had to write my pieces, where my columns weren’t things I was writing to just my friends. They were writing to a general audience and they had to know clearly what I was trying to say because they didn’t, they don’t know me well enough to cut me that linguistic slack. So I had to be very, very precise. So the profession kind of made that need for precision to increase a little bit more. And like a key distinction for me is like in the U.S. when we talk about race—and I mentioned this in a column I recently wrote about the book for The Daily Beast—but like when Americans talk about race, we talk about race as if that’s the thing that defines our existence. But I never saw it as that. It’s definitely a part of my identity but I, the thing that really defines long distance is my culture. But in the U.S., when people talk about culture, we often perceive that as an appreciation for the arts or entertainment. And so like if I said culture, I’m talking about the traditions and things that sustain me and nurture me and somebody else would hear Barrett likes go into the museum. And that’s like, we can’t have a conversation just due to that ambiguity with the language. So I kind of had to make sure we could understand what each other is saying so that we could decide to work together or not. And so that’s one of the reasons why language is so important.
DeRay Mckesson: Let’s go straight to Chapter 1, and one of the biggest things that you pushed me on was ethnocide. How did you get the word ethnocide? How did you rediscover—I guess, you know, you didn’t make it up—but you talk about the journey to the word and why you think the word does work that other words don’t do.
Barrett Pitner: Yes. You know, the journey for me to ethnocide is that first I constructed the word and then after I constructed it, I wanted to see if somebody else had already made it. And turns out this gentleman, Rafael Lemkin, had made it in 1944, but the word had been largely ignored. And so as an African-American, when I was thinking about America’s systemic divisions and our conflicts, normally the discussion is like the racial division, it’s race this, race that. But I never really saw it that way. I always thought as a cultural problem, where like America has a culture that instilling people to act this way or that way, and the color of your skin can impact how that culture impacts you. But it’s a cultural conversation, not a racial one. And so sort of thinking about it through culture, ethnocide made a lot of sense, because the transatlantic slave trade, which is like the foundation for these racial identities and the systemic division in the Americas, is, was due to the destruction of African culture while keeping the people. That was the agenda. There’s no ambiguity about that. So ethnocide, as in the destruction of culture, became a great word to talk about the foundational like structure that colonizers implemented that creates the division that we’re still struggling over today. And so ethnocide linguistically made sense to me. I never, you know, lots of people would describe the transatlantic slave trade as a Holocaust or a genocide, but with genocide the goal of genocide is to forcefully remove or eradicate people so that you can live in a space without them. Clearly, that’s not what the goal was for African people. Like, colonizers didn’t want to live in a space without Black people. They wanted to live in a space with African people and then be able to exploit African people in perpetuity. So it’s different than genocide, even though the terror might be similar. So I thought it needed its own word just to clarify that distinction between genocide and ethnocide. And in the work of Rafael Lemkin was really helpful because now there’s a whole like existing legal framework language that can kind of get added on to it. So even though people hadn’t really used ethnocide to talk about the transatlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, and the systemic divisions of America, there was already kind of like a foundation to apply this previous word ethnocide to like a new application of it. That make sense?
DeRay Mckesson: It did make sense, yeah. Can I read a paragraph to you from the book and then can we talk about it?
Barrett Pitner: Yeah, sure.
DeRay Mckesson: OK. “An ethnocidal society divides the people of its society by relegating truth to a negative influence. The source of truth resides exclusively with the ethnociders because the culture depends on sustaining ethnocidal division. They need to keep their power to divide society and possess the truth, regardless of whether it is true or false. Truth is irrelevant with an ethnocide. America has countless examples of the meaningless truths that ethnocide creates, but race is the most obvious one.” Can you help us understand that? Like why, when you say this idea that truth is irrelevant within ethnocide, what does that mean?
Barrett Pitner: So, so truth—and I talk about this like in a subsequent chapter—but lots of places, truth comes from communication. Like, I just determine what’s the truth by talking to other people in an equitable way. But if your society is based on sustaining division, where one person’s on top and one person’s at the bottom, or one group of people at top and one group’s at the bottom—truth is not a thing that’s valued in that society, because if the person at the top does something that’s wrong, that could result in them losing power, they don’t want that truth to exist. Because that truth would change their entire way of life. So their truth can exist, but it’s not actually important. What’s important is sustaining the power dynamic, where the person or the group of people who get to oppressed, which I call the ethnociders, get to oppress the ethnocidee in perpetuity. So, you know, there can be truth, but once that truth could make it so that there is an equitable relationship between people, then the truth just gets destroyed and sent away. So, you know, if you look at the conflict over a critical race theory, like critical race theory just articulates some pretty obvious truths. Like, we’re just talking about how in these states that were former Confederate states, there’s a foundation of racial division that has shaped the whole environment. That’s pretty obvious. But that’s an unpleasant truth that will make a lot of white Americans who enjoy the, I guess, how we would say, like the privileges of being able to exploit their environment, makes them feel really uncomfortable. So America has an agenda of destroying that truth. That truth has to go away. So that’s how truth becomes irrelevant within an ethnocidal society, because the emphasis isn’t to be truthful or wise or good, it’s supposed to be sustaining this vision that allows one group of people greater capacity to exploit other people in perpetuity.
DeRay Mckesson: Throughout the, throughout the book, you talk about your own family and like the sort of the journey of uncovering sort of, the family history. You talk about the Day of the Dead and like the family stories around that. Why was it important to do your own sort of interrogation of your life in this conversation, in this macro conversation about race and ethnocide?
Barrett Pitner: You know, when you talk about philosophy and concepts that can, you know, could be over someone’s head or just like people are unfamiliar with, you know, especially philosophy, where a lot of times the language people use is something that really un-relatable—I really thought it was important to make it so that these complex ideas I could articulate how they have a very practical manifestation in not just my personal life right now, but like the life of my family for generations. Where I’m not talking about abstract concepts, I’m talking about real, concrete impacts, applications to my day-to-day life. I thought that was really important. At the same time, like the focus of the book is me finding the language to articulate how I already saw the world. So like, if I’m talking to myself, I don’t need precise language. I know what I mean to say, you know? When I talk to my friends, my language needs to be a bit more precise, but they’ll cut me some slack. When talking to the general public, it has to be very, very precise. So the language that I’ve always had, lived with me kind of unspoken. I didn’t need to say anything. But now it exists in the world and I need to articulate these ideas and the best way to accurately articulate the world for me was these philosophical concepts. But it wasn’t, the [unclear] derived from my lived experiences. So it kind of paints a narrative where you kind of get an idea of how I’ve always seen the world, while also hopefully being able to use part of that narrative to apply it to your own life, and you can see of these complex ideas actually are really applicable to all of our day-to-day experiences, and it makes it quite relatable, is the hope. And then another thing that’s quite important is when you live in a place that’s ethnocidal, like America, there will be an emphasis on not remembering your culture or your history, your past, you know? Looking forward, don’t look at the past, don’t, you know, spend a lot of time knowing where you come from, especially if you’re a person of color, because those, that path can be really traumatic, or that path can bring a truths that American society is not comfortable addressing. And so making sure that I talk about my family history and the breadth of it so that people can see how that’s important to my day-to-day, but also maybe empowering other people of color to do that work too. Because there’s a growing, I don’t know, shift, I’d say, within the black community of finding our roots and learning more about where we comes from, because a lot of that has been erased. You know, that culture has been erased. So I wanted to make sure that my culture hadn’t been literally or figuratively erased in my own book to show people the importance of keeping that culture and not normalizing and [unclear] with erasure.
DeRay Mckesson: No, why does this matter today? So, you know, there are a lot of people who I think would hear this and say, OK, this is like an interesting intellectual exercise, like let’s use different language. And as organizers, we often say that people have the experiences before they have the language. And you just said it, right? That like this was a world—if you’re talking to yourself, you already had the language—but part of finding the language is how we communicate it out. Why does this matter today for how we think about solutions, and the world, or? You know, I think something top of mind for most people is Rittenhouse right now. Like, why does this matter today?
Barrett Pitner: Oh, it matters today, because you can see that our society is actively struggling with how to articulate problems that we know have been longstanding and systematic. You know, like when people talk about the Rittenhouse verdict, a lot of African-Americans especially aren’t surprised. We expected this. But there’s not a precision to say why this is our norm, and why this has been the problem. You know, we get close and we can talk about it, say like this person’s racist or that or whatever, and that’s close to being accurate. But it’s not. And so as we’re trying to tackle these problems that we know have existed for the entirety of our time in America, for generations, you have to have that precision of language so that you can accurately identify the problem. You know, like a good analogy would be COVID. Say COVID existed, and we didn’t have the precise language to define what this disease was. If we didn’t have it, then we would be very bad at making vaccines. We probably have a whole bunch of test theories or whatever. And you know, we try a bunch of stuff and, you know, we would hope that it would work and we find out that a lot of it doesn’t. But we’d be close. It wouldn’t be effective. But now that we have the precise language that COVID is this type of disease that does this, there are similar ones, and da da da da da, now we can make vaccines and life can get better quicker than a lot of people thought was possible. Like the expediency of making these vaccines is historic. So that’s how it works. So if we’re trying to organize people, you know, organizing people is all about communication, being able to have the consistency of language, being able to consistently be able to respond to someone who asked a question. Like why this happened, why is this problem? What can I do to fix it? How’s it going? That’s essential. So, you know, we all have our internal language, which doesn’t have to be precise. But if we’re trying to work with other people and get other people to understand the dynamics, you have to have precise language so that you can actively work together. You know, like a great example would be, you know, my friend Sam, he, you know, as I was working on this book, since it’s language, it’s hard for me to communicate it to people before it’s, you know, close to getting done because it’s a lot of language. You know? It’s easier for people to just think I’m just talking gibberish. But once you understand it, the next thing you know you say, This makes sense and I’m going to speak this language. I think the word ethnocide makes a lot of sense. That’s what people would say. And so that becomes really easy for them to say, Hey, ethnocide explains this. My friend said something that was close to it, like, we’re feeling the same thing. I know what they’re trying to say, but here’s a word that helps them say it better. And then they share that word and then they say it. And now those two people can collaborate and make change. And it just, it’s just, that’s what language does. And so I think it gives a really great opportunity to collaborate in ways that we hadn’t collaborated before, but also to envision solutions that we hadn’t thought about before. Because instead of having conversations about race and racism, we can have conversations about a bad cultural foundation, and that culture creates racial division. And so it’s not that someone’s racially good or bad, it’s that we all are being connected to something that encourages us to culturally not be as good as we can be. And so let’s address that cultural problem and then see what we can do. And I think it provides a really unique opportunity to make our society a lot better.
DeRay Mckesson: But it is, though, that people—is it an either/or? Can it be a both/and? That some people are being racially bad, right, like some people are racist and problematic AND they sit within a larger culture? Or am I misunderstanding? Push me, tell me, help me.
Barrett Pitner: Oh, yeah. No, you’re totally, people can totally be both. It’s more of like, what’s the order in which you think the problem comes from, you know? Like if there’s a, you know, like America’s an ethnocidal place, so we all are getting knowledge or information that is encouraging us to divide and be exploitative and, you know, not have empathy to other people. That’s just how America encourages a lot of people to act. There’s plenty of people that rebel against that quite a bit. And that’s quite good. And there’s other people who don’t, and a lot of those people we would classify as racist. But the origin for the problem is due to this foundational cultural problem and then they become racist. But there’s a lot of people in America that would never, ever say that they’re racist and they end up doing racist things because they think their, because their culture has told them that these are good things that aren’t racist. Like, you need to have a language to talk to those people. And being able to tell them, like this thing that you’re doing has racist outcomes because there’s a cultural problem, is a really great opportunity to be able to communicate with all these other types of people. And then if they decide to still do racist things now, it’s, OK, you’ve consciously decided to do racist things. There’s no ambiguity now. There’s no like, you just made that decision. Like, you were unaware that there was a cultural problem. I showed you that it is. You then decide to continue doing the thing that has racist outcomes, or you just decide to be racist. That’s just, that’s just me being fair. That changes the conversation. So, yeah, you can be both, but it’s what, you know, it’s what comes first, and the culture comes first, and then, you know, your connection to race and racism comes second.
DeRay Mckesson: Let’s talk about solutions. So you know that there are three, three sort of ways forward. One is like awareness, and then laws and policies. But the second, can we talk about the second one? Can you, let me paraphrase what I believe you said. And this is one where it’s like, Thank God, I get to talk to you because I’m like, I don’t think I’m smart enough, let me ask him. The second one was sort of to focus on like creating the cultural conditions for change. That’s my, like organizer paraphrase. Is that right? Am I close?
Barrett Pitner: 100 percent? Yeah. So the key thing is, if we live in a society that normalizes the destruction of people’s culture, well, a way that you have to combat that is to create the environment to create and sustain culture. And one of the problems that America has is we try to have these cultural discourses, it’s in many ways like a racial conversation, where it’s sustain the culture, sustain the culture of this race or that race or whatever. But in the U.S., if you are a person that cares about treating everyone equally, there’s a very high likelihood that you’re going to mix with somebody of a different race. And that’s going to create a new type of culture, a new type of culture that needs a name, that’s needs a structure to sustain the cultural practices of those two people and then create some practices of like a new shared culture. And that’s really, really important because if we’ve normalized for the longest time, the erasure of culture, we now have to start normalizing the sustaining and cultivation of that new shared culture. And that kind of gets people to start acting differently. That’s a very action-oriented way of doing things. And so like, in the book, I talk about Day of the Dead because Day of the Dead is an indigenous practice that’s been going on in the Americas but people around the world have a whole array of ancestor remembrance traditions that were unique to, like their physical, cultural place. But now they’re all in America and there’s not a place for people to remember their ancestors in a collective shared environment. There has to be that place. Like, you’re, if you’re from Cambodia, you have like a Buddhist practice to remember your ancestors and you’re really great friends with a Mexican person, and they have their tradition to remember their ancestors, you have to make a cultural space so you guys can do that together. Because that’s what a shared cultural community would need to look like. And America doesn’t encourage that. Like at my organization, The Sustainable Culture Lab, we’ve created that environment, like we call it the alters festival, where we bring people together of different ways of life, have them make altars representative of their culture and then put all those altars in the same environment so we can all see how these cultures are different, but how we’re all together in remembering our culture and this creates something new. It creates a new environment. That’s one way that we’re working to create this space to cultivate and sustain culture, but there’s a lot of other manifestations that can come from that. It’s just aligning your thinking to recognize the importance of sustaining our cultures from the past, while also creating a platform to share it and mix it with people who we want to like, share and mix our lives with.
DeRay Mckesson: Can you talk about the lab you run, The Sustainable Culture Lab? What is it? Can people get involved? Should people like, I don’t know, can they sign up? Like, what’s the, what’s the what? And then I’ll ask you the two questions we ask everybody.
Barrett Pitner: The Sustainable Culture Lab came about really organically, actually, as I was working on the book The Crime Without a Name. I actually took a pretty collaborative approach to like writing my book where I would, you know, I wrote it all on my own, but I had friends and I would talk to them because I wanted to make sure that how I was articulating things in my book make sense to people who didn’t know all this stuff. And as I would talk to my friends, they were like, This needs to be an organization, this needs to be something where you have talks, discussions to figure out, to share this with people. I’m like, I love that, let’s do it. And so The Sustainable Culture Lab was born out of that and this, it was created, we launched it in October of 2019. So right before COVID hit, essentially. So we started having a lot of gatherings in C.C. and COVID hit, and we had to figure out how to do everything online. So what we’ve done since then is we have a newsletter called The Word, where everyone gets a word every week to help empower themselves. Gives them a new perspective on how to see the world, how to articulate the world. So that’s called The Word. We have our newsletter. We were doing podcast and media where we have a whole strategy for what media we will be doing next year. We have our altars festival, which I loosely described, but it’s inspired by Day of the Dead. And so for people to participate and be a part of it, you can become a paid member of a Substack, which is just, SCL, you know, The Sustainable Culture Lab and it’s at Substack. You can just look it up. And you can give money through that. You can also give us donations. And you know what we try to do now that we can start doing more and more gatherings is create that space to create culture, and create the space where we have the language to empower themselves as they try to articulate a more equitable environment and just kind of grow from there. Because if you have that discussion, then you can start creating the proper action, and those proper actions can create policy, because you can have the right language to create the policies. It kind of all bleed together. The first thing you have to have is a philosophy and the word that can align you to think the proper way to make the change, and then we can work together to make change that transcends what has been the status quo. And so that’s kind of what we do. So I view it more as a cultural think tank, but with a bit more public-facing application.
DeRay Mckesson: Now the two questions we ask everybody, the first is: what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
Barrett Pitner: I try to build relationships with people and not think about it as like a business per se. I think American society tries to encourage people to be really transactional and talk to people in a way that you envision getting something out of them. My language, that would be very ethnocidal. I’m not trying to talk to people to extract things from them, I’m trying to talk with people to cultivate things with them without a full understanding of what exactly, but let’s see what we can do. Form a relationship. So interacting with people with the goal of creating a relationship, something that I would like to sustain in some capacity for however long it’s possible is, I guess, a piece of advice that I’ve kind of cultivated for myself after observing how people try to interact in the world. So I would say that is probably the best thing. Just be yourself, cultivate relationships with people, and create the platform for something cool to happen but don’t put too much pressure or view it as a transaction, is what I’d say.
DeRay Mckesson: The last question is: what do you say to people who feel like they’ve done everything, right? They called, they emailed, they read your book, they read mine, they listen to the podcast, they’ve done all the things and the world hasn’t changed in the way they wanted it to. What do you say to those people?
Barrett Pitner: Well, so there’s a lot of things I say that, like, first of all I don’t think you should limit yourself to your imagination. So, you know, the idea of how you think the world should change, if we live in a really great society, you know, the world we live in is going to exceed our expectations, or not exist within our expectation. So, you know, the idea of doing everything right? There is no such thing as doing everything, and there is no such thing as doing everything right. You just have to have a philosophy of actively doing actions that are beneficial and go from there. And be critical and analyze, you know, how you can make adjustments and make improvements because there’s no such thing as doing everything. So I think trying to, believing that you’ve done everything right means that there’s probably some other things that you could imagine doing, or that somebody else have imagined doing, that you should talk to them and do something else. But it’s a constant effort. Everything is a constant effort. You know, it’s like, Oh, OK, real quick. I’d say a lot of people think that things are, existence is static, and you that do a certain amount and then everything becomes how you imagined it and you just kind of get to chill in some like heaven on Earth. That’s just not how everything, anything has ever worked. Things work because you have a philosophy that makes it easy for you to consistently do good things, no matter what the circumstances. And the goodness you do, could be at a very micro level that impacts like yourself and your small family, and that’s maybe the extent that you can do. And then there’s other people, the extent that they can do could shape millions of people, but they’re only able to do that because of the philosophy and their consistency of action. So it’s never an everything. It doesn’t ever stop. You are going to both obviously do good actions all the time and that’s just how it’s supposed to be.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom! Well, we consider you a friend of the pod, and can’t wait to have you back.
Barrett Pitner: Yeah, thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it.
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we will see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by AJ Moultrie, and mixed by Charlotte Landes. Executive produced by me, me, me . . . executive produced by me. And special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Myles Johnson.