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Pod Save The People

Listen to Yourself (Blair Underwood)

DeRay, Sam, Brittany and Clint discuss how sheriffs undermine their successors, a multipronged approach to eliminating inequality, racial discrimination in the cable TV industry, and reducing bias among prosecutors. Actor Blair Underwood joins DeRay to talk about his role in “When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s series about The Exonerated Five.

 

Show Notes

  • NYT: Black People Are Charged at a Higher Rate Than Whites. What if Prosecutors Didn’t Know Their Race?
  • LA Times: Supreme Court will decide major racial bias suit against cable TV giants
  • The Atlantic: Better Schools Won’t Fix America
  • ProPublica: Wasted Funds, Destroyed Property: How Sheriffs Undermined Their Successors After Losing Reelection
  • Netflix: When They See Us

 

Transcription below:

DeRay: Hey, this is DeRay and Welcome to Pod Save the people. This week,  we have the news as usual with me Britney, Clint, and Sam. Then I’m joined by actor Blair Underwood to talk about the new series that he is in that you’ve already heard us talk about, When They See Us. The show is directed by Ava Duvernay and it’s about the five black and brown boys who wrongly convicted, and we now know is exonerated five. 

Blair: These young men that play the exonerated five, I was absolutely blown away with their accessibility to their emotions to be open at that age and I didn’t feel anybody acting. And watching the whole project, I felt like they were so committed and in to it.

DeRay: The message for this week is about being open to new experiences. So I was doing something recently and I was like, oh, I just want to go do this one thing and then it was like, no I should probably keep going and I should probably like stick with it.

And I stuck with it and it turned into something really beautiful. I learned so much more than I would have learned if I just walked away and it’s those sort of things that like part of his trust your gut make sure that you listen to yourself and that you don’t block yourself from [00:01:00] Joy or experiences that really can help change your mind and I’ve been in so many places around like okay came to this one thing.I’m good. Now, I gotta go. Da da. Like, you know, I came in to just have this one conversation with somebody and I’m just ready to get out but sometimes it’s like you know why I also need to stop over there I need to say hi to this person or just like just trust your gut.

 Because recently this past week, I was just in a place where I like let myself walk a little bit further and obviously it brought access to Joy that I would not have known otherwise and that to me was my lesson this week. Let’s go.

Brittany: Hey y’all. It’s the news. This is Brittany Packnett @mspackyetti on all social media. And this is Sam Sinyangwe @samswey on Twitter. And this is Clint Smith @ClintSmithIII. Ay ay ay ay ay. And  this is DeRay @deray on twitter. Uh hey Clint, Happy Father’s Day. Happy Father’s Day pew pew pew 

Clint: I appreciate y’all. 

DeRay: Big PaPa Clint.

Clint: [00:02:00] This is my first Father’s Day is a father of two. I was telling Britney before we started recording, I felt very lucky. So, you know, we’re recording this on Sunday before we release it on Tuesday. And today, it was a great day. I woke up. I took my kids to the park. I came back, put him down for a nap.

I watched the Women’s World Cup, the U Women’s team do their thing against Chile and then we went to get a fried chicken brunch at this dope spot and then I got the itis which is usually like, great oh itis now I’m going to take a nap lay back on my couch. But when you have kids, you can’t do that. So the itis just becomes this cruel terrible Insidious thing that’s like haha, now you tired but you got three hours left until bed time

And so you just you push through. It’s been a good day. 

And I should also note that as always, I’m thinking about on Father’s day, and just as I do on Mother’s Day, the incarcerated parents, millions of incarcerated parents and their children and [00:03:00] how we have a system that makes it so difficult for people to even call their loved ones on the inside for children and parents to stay  in contact with one another. 

And I’m also thinking a lot this Father’s Day about people fleeing from violence in other countries who are showing up at our Southern border who want safety and security for their families, who are walking and traveling thousands of miles just to feel safe and to give their families and their children a better life and I’m thinking of how terribly so many of our leaders are treating those folks and I hope that there were moments of joy for them to the extent they were able to find it on this Father’s Day.

Brittany: Amen to that, you know, I also because I’m one of them often think of people who are without their fathers by whatever circumstance, um incarceration, death, those that never had a relationship, those that have strained relationships. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, they can be particularly difficult for folks who are experiencing that kind of loss in [00:04:00] whatever way it manifests, but I’m also just filled with a lot of gratitude even though my own father is no longer alive, My pastor from home Pastor popo for a long time has been like a father to me. My mom’s husband and stepdad  John has been incredible and supportive Reggie’s dad has become like a father and will be soon my father in love as I like to say. 

And so it’s like, you know, Dad y’all deserve your day. the folks who are fathers and who our father figures you deserve your day. DeRay, how’s Calvin’s Father’s Day?

Deray: Calvin’s good. You know, it’s funny. I so my mother left, my father raised us. So I call him I’m like what you want for Father’s Day? He’s like I don’t want no, I’m just so happy y’all are such good kids and I’m like I just can’t Okay. It’s funny if people ask me all the time, like what do I want to eat? Like I’m in all these places like what you want to eat?

I’m like, oh spaghetti. They’re like, did you last very growing up? Like because my father was such a guy in terms of cooking so he would cook one meal on Sunday, we would eat it for seven days and then [00:05:00] he would make a new meal. So we get like a huge vat of spaghetti. If you were hungry, you put in the microwave, and that was food. It was like, okay Daddy.

Brittany: Spaghetti was the only thing my dad knew how to cook too. 

DeRay:He would make crab cakes and people were like, the crab cakes are great. You’re like, yeah, they are great, but seven days for lunch and dinner is a lot. But Calvin’s cute. Sam, Did you see your dad today? Where are you?

Sam: I’m in New York. I called him today. We had a conversation. He’s in Orlando, Florida. So yeah, we just talked about life, and we’re just kicking it. We talking about stuff. I don’t know, long-distance Father’s Day. Anyway, so talking about the news today, there’s actually a really incredible policy Innovation going on in San Francisco right now in the prosecutor’s office.

So district attorney George Gascon has recently implemented a policy designed to address racial bias in decisions about who to prosecute and how to prosecute people in the city of San Francisco. And the way that they’re doing it now is that they have implemented [00:06:00] a policy of removing or redacting the name And other identifying information about people before prosecutors make a decision about whether to charge them and what charges to prosecute them with.

 So this is the only city in the country doing this that we know of so far, but it is designed to correct a really extreme level of racial disparity in prosecutions in San Francisco in particular.

So in San Francisco, black people are about 6% of the population, but more than a third of those charged by the district attorney. So I’m hopeful that this policy will ultimately bear results. Again, this is new so we haven’t seen you know, a whole lot of research evaluating whether this can actually work but it’s an example of an interesting innovation in the field that hopefully will bear fruit and then scale to other cities as well as a way to reduce the racial disparity and prosecution.

Brittany: This is something that seems like it would [00:07:00] make a lot of sense, right? This is a strategy that people have employed in all different kinds of ways both funny and more serious. And so I’m really fascinated by this innovation, especially because it just seems so simple in some ways. I’m hoping that the research bears ou sot that people don’t even try to make other associations.

I remember when we talked on the podcast previously about the fact that despite the good intentions of banning the box that people then made assumptions about the applicant’s race and therefore their propensity to have been in jail based on their name or other identifying factors. And so I’m hoping that things like the neighborhood where the incident occurred or other elements don’t lead people to lean on their biases in different ways and that this actually is a solution.

But either way this is an indication that these folks are willing to figure out how to do more to eliminate bias from the criminal justice system. And sometimes it’s not about investing millions of dollars. Sometimes it’s not about a really wild innovation,  it’s actually just about [00:08:00] looking at the problem and its most simple terms and trying what’s best.

So even if this innovation and intervention doesn’t work exactly the way that they wanted to even though I hope it will, hopefully they’ll keep trying. 

Clint: I‘m really glad you brought up one of those points Brittany because as I was reading this article about this innovation, that was one of the things I was thinking about most right like okay, it’s great that we’re removing the names, it’s great that they’re removing the race, but what if they see what neighborhood happened in and people know the demographic makeup of that neighborhood? But I was heartened to see that the folks who are implementing the study took that into account, right? And so part of what they’re doing and you can tell that they’re being thoughtful and serious and rigorous about this because they also are removing information about locations where crimes are said to have been committed.

And so I think that that is a really important piece, right? Like finding all the means by which someone could make assumptions about the person who engaged in. The criminal activity that they have been charged with or said to have been charged with and [00:09:00] making sure that you account for all of those different factors and then you know, it is very difficult and near impossible to remove every single thing that would lead someone to make assumptions because human beings make assumptions about people and oftentimes those assumptions are animated by a set of experiences, a set of messages that we’ve inundated and taking in and that shapes the biases that we have.

But, I was really glad to see that the location piece was a part of this and I also just didn’t realize the extent to which I mean, you know that it can be one of those things where we see statistics about disparities in arrests and disparities in incarceration all the time, but sometimes when you look at the numbers of a particular municipality, it can remind you of how stark the issues are and so finding out that although black people make up only six percent of San Francisco’s population, which I didn’t realize, there were so few black people in San Francisco at this point, They account for 41% of people arrested 43% of those booked in jail and 38% of cases filed by prosecutors [00:10:00] between 2008 and 2014. 

And so this is a very real issue. This is a clearly something that needs to be addressed and I’m hopeful that we will learn something that is able to be applied to different municipalities across the country.

DeRay: So I used to work in human capital, that was my sort of field in education. And blind hiring processes have been thing in the human capital cities for a long time because the biases are real. I didn’t know until preparing for this article today in this discussion that the blind process, the first time it was used in a way that researchers can track was with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

And it was in 1952. They were trying to add more people to the orchestra because they had gotten a lot of racial discrimination complaints and this is like the beginning of it which is blind auditions. It was the beginning of it. They are it did change the makeup of orchestras and then it spread throughout the process the hardest part in the hiring process is that there’s a point where the demographic information people will just have to know it because like your interview the [00:11:00] person and then when they come in for an interview you clearly know demographics, but it is interesting to account for people’s biases in this way Sam, I hadn’t thought about it being used in a prosecutor’s office. It’d be interesting to see these things scale.

I also it also makes me think about how much data we already have about prosecutors, but it’s never been put in a way that people can access. So what would it look like if we just got a fraction of the data that prosecutors offices have. I interned in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office when I was in college.

And I remember watching all the notes that were required for every prosecutor to put down on the files and I saw it all you know. But they were never rolled up in reports really like there was all this stuff that. It would totally change the way people made decisions and I’m interested to think about how much other stuff we’ve already collected the data.

The data is already there. It’s just never been analyzed that could also push the profession to just make better and different decision. 

Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is Coming. 

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Brittany: My news actually deals with the entertainment industry and the potentially landmark decision that the Supreme Court may be making this Fall. It’s all actually about the Civil Rights Act of 1866. That was an act that was adopted by a reconstruction Congress that essentially said, “All persons shall have the same right to make and enforce contracts as enjoyed by White Citizens”.

What does that have to do with entertainment? Well, a man named Byron Allen who owns a firm called Entertainment Studios Networks is an OG in the black media industry. He has been creating shows, networks and this studio, when folks were saying that it couldn’t be done by an African-American person. As he has continued to try to move this studio forward, he feels he has [00:16:00] been discriminated against when it came to two firms in particular, two Cable firms, actually picking up 7 of his channels. 

Those two cable firms are Charter networks and Comcast. So he’s filed a ten billion dollar discrimination suit against Charter and a 20 billion dollar claim against Comcast. those claims have moved through the courts and the Supreme Court has actually agreed to hear the case. As you can imagine, Comcast and Charter have come forward with appeals.

But interestingly, they have actually urged the Supreme Court to hear the case in those appeals because both of those firms want to make sure that there is a federal civil rights ruling from this case actually quote requires proof of actual discrimination. Because the question here is not just about whether or not black media companies have a more difficult time, but whether or not Comcast and Charter in particular are guilty of discriminatory intent.

 So it’s one thing for very few of their channels to not be black owned. It’s a different thing to prove [00:17:00] discriminatory intent and not picking up Byron Allen’s channels essentially Comcast has said that they carry several networks that are partly owned by black people and that two of their networks, the Africa Channel and the black family channel, are wholly owned by black people. Comcast has said a similar thing.

But Byron Allen came back and said, look Comcast’s assertion is actually misleading and they actually carry channels that are partially owned by African American people. This also begs the question about other factors when it comes to the entertainment industry. If you can’t prove discriminatory intent and folks from Comcast and Charter come back and say, hey the quality wasn’t high enough or this is appealing to audiences that we’ve already got covered on our channels. Well, then this begs the question about access and resources that are available to television studios like Byron Allen’s. if we talk about quality can we actually do that without recognizing the lack of resources that studios owned by people of color have access to. 

But I wanted to bring this here, especially knowing that we talk all the time about justice, but that [00:18:00] culture and justice deeply influence each other. We can think about this week’s interview with Blair Underwood and his role in When They See Us as more evidence that the culture and media and television and art can help change the justice system as we know it and there are more and more creators of color who are choosing alternatives. And so this is certainly a case to watch as Byron Allen tries to make a seat at the table for Black folks in traditional media spaces.

Sam: So this was fascinating to see some of the legal debates going on between the various courts that have heard this case. So it really seems to center on this argument that according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals who cleared these lawsuits to proceed. They said that they can proceed because cable firms can be held liable if racial bias was “a motivating factor in the refusal to do business with Alan’s firm, even if it was not the deciding factor or the actual cause”.

Now what the firms are saying is that in fact [00:19:00] racial bias has to be the deciding factor in order for this to be upheld, and that if it’s one of many factors, even if racial bias existed, if it cannot be proved that it’s actually the deciding factor that without racial bias there would have been a different outcome, that would suddenly mean that they did not have a case. 

So it’s just fascinating that these types of arguments, they’re still trying to sort of figure out, at what point does racial bias and racial discrimination actually constitute a deprivation of one’s rights?

And you know, of course the courts that are hearing this unfortunately at the Supreme Court level are very conservative. And so, you know, this is just another example of how what is defined as racism and what we’re entitled to in terms of compensation and our legal rights are being defined by a court that in many cases may not understand or agree with what those rights should be.

Clint: I’m hopeful though I’m not confident in our current Supreme Court’s ability to understand the nature [00:20:00] of how discrimination even works and I think about how the Supreme Court has again and again demonstrated that it does not have the capacity to understand the historical structures that shape the contemporary landscape of inequality and the capacity to have any recognition of the very real role that discrimination and discriminatory intent on a structural level not even on an interpersonal level necessarily how that shapes the opportunities that certain people have and don’t have. And so I think we saw an example of this in the Voting Rights Act legislation, which was I believe 2013 with a gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and I remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I think was the person who had a quote where she said because I think Justice Roberts rationale was that the rules about protecting the right to vote for people in the South were no longer necessary because there had been a growth in the number of black people and historically disadvantaged communities who were voting.

 And Ruth Bader [00:21:00] Ginsburg I think said that that type of argument was like saying, oh, well, we don’t need an umbrella anymore, because we’re no longer getting wet, even though it’s still raining. So I think that that’s an example of the sort of absurdity with which this court understands race, but on a some good news, I think Brittany spoke to the importance of having different outlets in different spaces with which to share the stories of black life.

I saw that Netflix tweeted out that When They See Us has been the most watched Netflix series in the United States every single day since it premiered on May 31st, and they tweeted that out a few days ago. So shout out to Ava, shout out to the cast, crew, the exonerated five, and I think that the more people we get in positions of creative Authority and the more people we include in those spaces, The more we’re going to continue to disrupt dominant narratives that have existed and these narratives in the people who have benefited from them will crumble because they no longer become the only people who get to tell the story. [00:22:00] And we’ve shown that these shows not only are important in a Justice oriented way, but also are able to be successful and to be watched and to make a lot of money.

DeRay: We’ve said a lot already, I’ll just say so I know Byron, I’ve talked to Byron on several occasions, but what I appreciate about him when I learned about the lawsuit what I appreciate about him every time I talk to him, is that he is definitely willing to go to the end of everything like to fight to sue to push to use every mechanism to make sure black people are represented fairly and that I think is important. This court is disappointing, like every time they make a decision, you have no clue where the 5-4 is going to split. You know Clarence Thomas just wrote that random opinion recently, and like Clarence  you haven’t said anything and eons and then this is what you say. So I’m nervous about that.

But you know in a functioning democracy, we see every single branch be one that has a check and balance on the other. We clearly aren’t there yet because you know everything’s falling apart, but I’m hopeful about this and I appreciate that he’s willing to fight it this farl I also think the lower Court’s disagreeing [00:23:00] is interesting and good and I hope that that continues to happen across the country or on some of these big issues at the lower courts to actually be really aggressive about forcing the Supreme Court to make decisions and things that really matter around race.

Clint: So for my news, I’ve been thinking about this piece that was written by Nick Hanauer in the Atlantic last week and he is the founder of the public policy incubator Civic Ventures and has done a lot of venture capital and has been very involved in the philanthropic world, specifically as it relates to education.

 And Hanauer argues that there’s this idea in philanthropy around what he calls educationalism, which says that if we modernize our curricula and our teaching methods, if we substantially increase school funding, root out bad teachers, open enough charter schools that American children, especially low income and working class communities, would start learning again, and we’d be able to achieve economic equity and better graduation rates and wages would increase poverty and inequality would decrease and the sort of larger public commitment to democracy would be restored and everything would be hunky-dory.

But he says what [00:24:00] he realized decades later is that this idea of educationalism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they’re underpaid, not necessarily because they don’t have a certain degree or having been educated to the extent to which they need to be and they are underpaid because of 40 years of trickle-down policy starting with the Reagan Administration that have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like him. And that to be clear that is not to say education doesn’t matter. It clearly does. But we have to understand what education is providing people and what sort of opportunities it is or is not providing people in sort of historical and social and economic context that we currently find ourselves in. 

He also goes on to write that Americans are right now more highly educated than ever but despite that and despite nearly record low unemployment, most American workers at all levels of educational attainment across the spectrum has seen little to any wage growth since 2000, so over the last 20 years. From 1979 to 2017, the average real annual rate of the top 1% of Americans rose 156% [00:25:00] and the top .01% wages rose by 343% while the purchasing power of the average Americans paycheck did not increase. 

It is worth noting that Americans with college degrees enjoy significant wage premiums over those who don’t have them. But, even with that advantage, adjusted for inflation, hourly wages for recent college graduates have barely budged against in 2000 and the bottom sixty percent of college graduates earn less than that group did in the year 2000. 

A college diploma basically is no longer guaranteed passport to the middle class and this is all to say that education means a lot. We are teachers, we have been teachers, we continue to be teachers, we’ve committed our lives to public education in many ways. But we have to recognize that we need to invest in our schools 100% ,but we also need to invest in high-quality housing and health care and child care social services and mental health and and all of these different things that are the sort of prerequisites necessary to secure the American dream, so to speak or middle-class life.

 And that if we’re not creating those [00:26:00] foundations, people will continue to become more educated as they have over the last 30 years but they will not have the economic outcomes or have the same level of economic mobility that they have in the past. 

Brittany:I, like you Clint, am always glad to see when someone corrects themselves, especially publicly especially when that person takes the onus upon themselves to do the work of privileged people and to get other folks like them to see the light. 

We often talk about white folks work, men’s work, rich people’s work. If you possess privilege, part of your work, part of your role in equity work, is getting together with the other folks who share that privilege because they will hear you differently and receive your evolved perspective differently.

And so certainly there’s a great more deal of work to be done, but I do see this as a step in the right direction because this is a part of the conversation that those of us who are people of color, who are folks from low-income backgrounds, who possess marginalized [00:27:00] identities and have been working in education for a long time have been saying. And I remember when the three of us kind of entered this space, all the talk was a great teacher can make the difference. That it’s just a great teacher great school leaders and great schools, and that’s going to change everything.

The truth of the matter is lots of us have lived lives that prove the opposite. That folks had access to great schools, but encountered racism or income inequality xenophobia islamophobia in other ways that continue to impact our lives. And people kept telling us that those things don’t matter as much as to what is being put in your head in school. But we were all living lives that prove the exact opposite.

So I’m glad that these things are finally starting to break through. And that intersectional lens requires that we assess all of those systems of oppression, how they interact in a single person’s life, and how we are simultaneously solving for those issues. S

So to your point, I often tell people if your solution toward criminal justice does not include housing, education, health care, employment, child care, [00:28:00] etc., then your solution will ultimately be insufficient because it only addresses one of the issues that people face in their lives. This is part of the reason why culturally responsive pedagogy is so important in schools because it sets young people up to have a critical consciousness about how the world around them works, about the intersectionality of those systems of oppression, and gives them the academic skill and confidence to actually go and face those things down.

So hopefully we are graduating young people who do not make the same mistake and think that just great teachers and great schools can change everything alone. The thing that I did see missing in this piece though was any kind of race analysis. Certainly income inequality is critically important, but if you are not bringing a racialized lens to income inequality by itself, let alone these other intersectional issues, then still the scope is limited.

Sam: So one of the things that really stood out to me about this article was this line educationism appeals to the wealthy and powerful because it tells us what we want to hear. That we can help restore [00:29:00] shared prosperity without sharing our wealth or power. And that stood out to me because it made me reflect on some of the sort of broader social and political forces that shape how we develop public policies, how philanthropy operates, and in large part is this critique of folks in positions of power, folks in philanthropy not really wanting to change the underlying structural factors that have brought them to those positions of power in the first place, and instead sort of making investments in what are sort of the most politically convenient or politically easy thing to do and that often ends up being investing in education. 

And it made me reflect also on these stigmas that are often associated with investing in adults, right? I think often times investing in kids, investing in schools is something that at least to a broader degree than some other issues, you can get sort of bipartisan support. You can get support among folks with a lot of money and power to make some of those investment,  although, surely, there’s a lot more investment that needs to happen in the public [00:30:00] education system, but you contrast that with investments in adults, whether that is making sure that folks have jobs, making sure that folks who are returning from incarceration have opportunities, making sure that wages are higher so that those very people who are in those corporations that often have a philanthropic arm, well many of those corporations have policies that are making sure that a large proportion of their workers continue to live in poverty with minimum wages that are far below what would be required to make a living.

And so this is a sort of broader critique on the idea that charity or that making investments in things that I think many people agree with and that sound good may not necessarily be targeted to the scale of the problem. 

And again with the racial analysis. You look at issues like the racial wealth gap and what we’re seeing in the broader conversation about the role of education in shaping economic outcomes is also true when you look at the racial wealth gap. And so on analysis from Demos for example, found that closing the [00:31:00] gap in college graduation between black and white Americans would only close the racial wealth Gap by 1%, and so clearly there’s a lot more that needs to be done to change the broader structural factors that are ensuring that folks even who are educated continue to work and earn amounts that are far less than what reflects the work that they do. And that requires raising taxes on the wealthy and it requires changing the way that corporations do business in America.

DeRay: I’ll say three things. One is you know, we’ve never fully funded public education. So I agree with this analysis in almost every way. I’m also mindful that one of the reasons why the outcomes haven’t changed in the way that people said when we joined teaching 12, 15 years ago is that we’ve never resourced it in a way that would lead to the outcomes changing.

So, I do think that classrooms and schools can do incredible things. I think that you know kindergarten classrooms well-funded and well-staffed can teach kids how to read and close the reading gap. I do believe that we can make sure [00:32:00] that kids like know how to add and do the operations. Like those things, I believe right? Like I think that they can happen. It is not shocking to me that we’ve not reached those outcomes when we have never funded public education. And in a little bit to what Sam said, that there is this tendency to fund programs and not actually the system.

 I think about Baltimore has never been fully funded.What does it mean that we would sit in cabinet meetings and make really tough decisions about an elevator or fixing stairs or books? There wasn’t enough money to actually fund it equitably. 

The second thing is that what is true is that it has to be classrooms plus so like what was interesting in the article that you shared was that one of the things that talks about is this notion that like only a fraction of classroom outcomes have ever been attributed in studies to things solely happening in schools, right that like where the kids can eat dinner sort of matters right, where the kids are safe going home sort of matters, where the kids have things to do over the summer. So they all these contextual things that actually matter and it’s a reminder too that school systems actually have to be partners in the [00:33:00] political fabric and not just pawns.

So my experience in cities is schools become these like emotional playgrounds for political leaders. So, they won’t make a tough decision because they need the votes or they will make a decision that’s not right, but it is sort of cool because they need to pander. And that superintendent should be as important as the person who’s deciding zoning, as important as the person who is deciding parks and recs, anything else in the city, police, people, firefighters, the superintendent should be a part of all this discussion.

 I was always mindful in Baltimore that if you needed to get a message to every single home in the city of Baltimore, on one day, the only way to do that was a school system. We could backpack a message home and it will get to every single house with a child for all intents and purposes and no other apparatus in the city could do that. And I was always mindful to of what does it mean that you know, I use Baltimore as an example, we have employed as many people as the city itself.

And the last thing I’ll say is that I worry about these conversations about educationalism. I was just in one, [00:34:00] and I was looking at some of the Baltimore numbers,I was looking at DC numbers, anybody’s numbers at this point in the urban school system, and the numbers are really bad. It’s either you think that all the kids are dumb or you acknowledge that adults for years and years have just failed young people at scale. There’s really no reason why we have 30%  graduation rates. That is a failure of adults to invest increase supports either in school or in communities. There’s no reason why only 2 in 10 kids can read in a lot of school systems. That is not kids who didn’t show up ready. That was adults who didn’t invest in ways that would change the outcomes.

So mine is about these Sheriffs. So I didn’t even know it- the interesting about Sheriffs, what makes them different from police chiefs, if you didn’t know, is that Sheriffs are elected. So accountability is really hard across the country for Sheriffs, because a police chief is normally appointed by the mayor. So you put pressure on the city council the mayor to change the police chief.  

A Sheriff is elected on their own, so when they do wild [00:35:00] things, it almost always has to be a violation of the law just because there’s never been great recall strategies for Sheriffs around the country or great energy.

 But there’s this article that the Republica put out called Wasted Funds Destroy Property: How Sheriffs Undermine their Successors After Losing Re-election. It’s by Connor Sheets who writes for al.com. Connor is a great reporter. He’s done a lot of incredible reporting about race and justice over the years, but this one details a set of Sheriffs in Alabama who essentially sabotage their successors.

So it opens with the story of Phil Simms who became the sheriff after Scott Walls lost and when he comes into the building on his first day he realizes that they have drilled holes in the cell phones of the top leaders of the past administration. They have destroyed iPhones and Androids that belong to the last sheriff and his top brass.

They’ve removed the hard drives from every computer from the old sheriff and the deputies and they just destroyed a whole set of records. [00:36:00] What they go on to show is that this is not unique just to this one town in Alabama, but they tracked where a Sheriff lost an election, they also showed that Sheriffs suddenly were paying out money to themselves, that they were just diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars to themselves from reimbursements. There’s  one town where they just bought like five barrels of detergent like liquid detergent to wash the dishes.

They bought thousands of dollars worth of toilet paper that they’re just wasting money to sabotage  the successor. And there has to be a mechanism to stop this. When people ask us why are we hesitant about the police or about people who are in those roles? 

You know Sheriffs run the jails. They have no real public oversight besides the election that happens every four years. There are no hearings that normally happen when Sheriffs like they are just doing their own thing and you think about all the money we pump into those systems with really bad outcomes already. But they’re up here sabotaging the next people, so imagine what records they destroy that we’ll  never know. Imagine if there’s a reformed elected [00:37:00] Sheriff who comes in who wants to clean up all the mess that was made before and do right or prosecute crimes by the last people. They just destroyed stuff. That would be unacceptable at any other government agency and I hope that Alabama they change the laws to provide some sort of accountability and I hope that the DOJ at the federal level investigates the Sheriff so that they are held accountable.

Clint: What this made me think of more than anything is as we’ve talked about on the podcast before, you know, they’re around 18,000 police departments in the United States. And I think about how over the past decade, local journalism has been decimated. And I’m thinking so much about who is investigating and holding these 18,000 police departments accountable, and I’m worried about the fact that we don’t have enough local journalists who are able to hold these institutions accountable. And it did lead me to think about how we have fewer and fewer spaces that are able to tell stories like this and how that is incredibly disconcerting.

Sam: So in reading [00:38:00] this article, one of the things that really stood out to me was the fact that so many of the potential revenue streams for the Sheriffs that previous Sheriffs were cutting into were built off of activities that never should have been authorized in the first place.

So, you know, one of the stories here is about a Sheriff that before he leaves office name was Sheriff Leroy Upshaw in Barber County. Before he left office, he stopped selling pistol permits and halted the jail’s work release program, which the article calls to vital revenue streams in the county.

So actually, the way that they make money off of the work release program is by exploiting folks who are incarcerated there and that’s sort of what this Sheriff cut in order to, the article at least presumes, to spite the incoming Sheriff. But that really shouldn’t be reinstated. Why are the revenue streams for these Sheriffs in the first place coming from things like exploiting folks who are incarcerated there, selling weapons and pistol permits. Those don’t seem to be [00:39:00] things that Sheriff should be able to raise money from anyway. 

So on top of I think the political effect of having incoming Sheriffs being disadvantaged or spited or having evidence destroyed and undermined by outgoing Sheriffs, I think this also sparks a broader conversation about the economics of Sheriffs departments and how those are often built off of exploitation and practices that should no longer be authorized in the first place. 

Brittany: I’m still not fully clear, nor can I fully wrap my arms completely around exactly what a Sheriff does because it looks a little different in every space.

And even though Sheriffs are tied more to Democracy than say a Police chief that is appointed by a Mayor or a Board of older people, we still see in stories like these all of the ways that things are done in the dark. To your point Sam about how revenue is raised about all of these decisions that get made even by somebody who is democratically-elected that we have no engagement with as the [00:40:00] public, that we have no transparency around that we have no knowledge of.

 And so we have to remember that these systems are intentionally complex and not be intimidated when it feels like every round goes higher and we’re never going to get to the bottom of this thing because we keep finding out something else that’s damaging, that’s worrisome, that’s dangerous. But it is a reminder that every time we think we’ve got a simple solution, we have to remember just how complex this whole thing is. 

DeRay: That’s the news. 

Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned. There’s more to come. 

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And now my conversation with actor Blair Underwood who joined me to talk about “When They See Us”. The show is directed by Ava DuVernay and it’s about the five black and brown boys who wrongly convicted and we now know as the Exonerated Five. 

Blair, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.

Blair: Hey, man, [00:42:00] thanks for having me. I appreciate you. 

DeRay: I’m excited to talk about “When They See Us” and we can jump right in. Do you remember the case from ‘89? Like do you remember this in the news and on TV? 

Blair: I do, you know, I was living in New York from 1985 to, just a year-and-a-half, 1986 and I moved out to Los Angeles. And I was out here at the time because I think was April 19th, 1989.

But I just remember seeing it on the news and hearing about it. And I’m that feeling that you know, you often have. I grew up really all over to my dad was a military guy, he was in the army, but spend a lot of time in Virginia, especially. And I just remember as a kid every time you’d see a crime on TV and especially if somebody was accused of the crime and if they’re black you would just kind of hope and pray, “Please don’t let it be a brother, please don’t let it be brother.” 

And I remember that feeling with the so-called Central Park Five then, now the Exonerated Five but I remember seeing that same please don’t let it be true, please God don’t let it be true Because you know, it represents all of us. 

DeRay: You know, I was so young, I was born in ‘85. [00:43:00] So I remember this case like being an adult and being like wow that thing happened so long ago, that was bad. What did you learn, knew about the case this go-round now that you I mean, you know, it’s so much better because you were part of “When They See Us”, but what are the things that you know now that you just had no clue about?

Blair: Well, you know, there’s a lot of it actually because I just knew the broad strokes of it. You know, my character was Robert Burns and he represented Yusef Salaam, one of the five of course. And Robert or Bobby Burns was the divorce attorney for Yusef’s mother Sheronne Salon. He was a successful divorce attorney by all accounts. He had his own place men practice up in Harlem, but he was not a criminal attorney. So it really wasn’t his skill set to represent him in this criminal trial, but the Salaam family trusted him, they loved him. He was a friend and he had done such an admirable job in the divorce proceedings for Sheronne Salaam.

So for me, it was important just in the telling of this character to specifically for what I was [00:44:00] doing, I was not to make him in any way come off is inadequate or bumbling or foolish or anything like that. It’s just he was trying hard and he was a bit over his head in terms of just the arena he was playing. It was just a different language, legalese, you know from divorce to criminal law. 

But the things I learned mostly was about the case and the individuals that populated the case. Not just those five boys and we have to remember, if you haven’t seen it or if you’re not familiar with the story that these were 14, 15 year old boys in the oldest was Korey Wise at 16 years old, they’re kids when all this happened.

So the fact that there was no DNA from any of the five with the jogger, of course, Trisha  Meili who was beaten and raped that evening, none of their DNA was on her at all. The fact that there were confession tapes, but they were forced, coerced confession tapes. But you know it when people hear the broad strokes of the story, well how could that happen? And it’s important that we understand that a lot of things that happen in terms of evidence that [00:45:00] obfuscates and muddies the waters. And when you have 14, 15 year old boys who are sleep deprived and they’re scared to death for hours upon hours and they’re being asked these questions and interrogated by professional interrogators and the police officers, not with their mothers, not with their parents, not with an attorney present. You know all of that is suspect.

So you can see how people can confess. And you always ask yourself, “Why would you confess to a murder you didn’t do? Why would you confess to something you didn’t do?” But it happens all the time. And when you put those elements in there, a lot of it is sleep deprivation, a lot of it is just being tripped up with the right questions at the right time. And people being scared and being told, as these 14, 15, 16 year-old boys were told, “If you just do what you’re told, you can go home. You want to go home right? You know what? Just tell us what we want to hear, you go home.” 

So there’s a lot of that but when people look at just the evidence and say well wait a minute they confessed? Well, it’s not that easy. It’s never that easy. 

DeRay: How did this role come to you? How did you how did you say yes? 

Blair: So how I came to this project was through [00:46:00] Ava DuVernay. And she extended the invitation and said would you like to come on board? And of course I jumped at the opportunity because number one: it is Ava and I see her auteur, an artist, and just an extraordinary human being as a person, but also as an amazing artist, director, filmmaker, and storyteller. So I saw that it was announced that she was doing it first and very much want to be a part of it, but you know, I know how it is on a production side, you know, you kind of have your ideas of who’s right for what roles. And then,  she’s a friends, so I wouldn’t hit her up say, “Hey hook a brother up.” But but she did reach out and I’m glad she did brother and I jumped at the chance. So whenever Ava calls about any kind of project, I’m like well hey when and where to start shooting? I’m down. 

DeRay: And how did you prepare for it? Was it like, did you have sort of just like sit downs or people walk you through the evidence outside of the script? Or was it all centered around the script and then I don’t know how it’s like preparation so that you could understand the nuances of it well [00:47:00] enough to play the character. 

Blair: Yes, great question, you know I missed the first week because they had the whole table read with all of the Exonerated Five and all the cast and crew of course. The trial happens in the second installment of the four installments, so I didn’t come into like two weeks later, so they did a lot of that work early on. 

But in terms of the actors that came on board later on, I’ve never, man, I’ve been this business 35 years, I’ve never had anybody give the amount of research that was provided to us through – I mean Ava and her team put together like a dossier of just news articles, news reports, any information you could find on these real people, on these characters, videotaped interviews and all that kind of stuff. They gave it to us. So that was the jumping off point. 

And then you know in my case, Bobby Burns actually passed away not long after that trial, that’s my understanding. And he was sick during the trail, that’s why he actually were times he fell asleep during the trial which we shot initially and I think Ava out of taking that out because she didn’t want it, you know the character to come off as being comedic in any way and not taken as[00:48:00] seriously. But I found out later and Yusef seemed to think because he died later that he was probably a medication at that time, that’s why he fell asleep so often. 

But just those things – and Yusef made himself available, even though I didn’t meet him because I wasn’t there the first week. He wasn’t able to be there when I shot two weeks later, but we spoke a number of times on the phone and gave me a lot of insight into our relationship, you know his attorney Bobby and him at 16 years old.

DeRay: Ava has said publicly before that there was grief counseling on set because the topic was so heavy. Had you had that experience before?

Blair: No, bro, I’m telling you that Ava’s a whole other level. Let me just, let me just say that but, I’ve never been involved in a situation or a project – and I’ve done some deep, heavy subject matter type stuff where the producers provided grief counseling and again, I’m in LA preparing to go to New York to shoot this, they’re shooting two weeks in and I get these emails from the production saying, “Okay, we’re dealing with some very heavy subject matter. And if you need to speak to someone or talk someone, this is a grief counselor. Here’s the phone number.” And I’m like these folks are [00:49:00] going in. I don’t know what they’re doing over in New York, but they’re going in. 

But they did and I tell you man, I have to, I always give props to Ava of course because she’s at the helm of all, but every actor in this project was phenomenal and was such an honor for me to work with them. But these kids especially, these young men that played Exonerated Five, I was absolutely blown away with their accessibility to their emotions, to be open at that age. And I didn’t feel anybody acting you know, and watching the whole project I felt like they were so committed and into it. And when you do that, when you’re dealing with this kind of material, it goes deep and it hurts you and it affects you and it changes you. And thank God Ava and her team around her saw that and recognized and said we need to have some help here, safety net.

DeRay: What was it like as a dad to see these young people like go through such a wild experience. I don’t know, how do you think about that as a father who has black kids in a world where we have certainly not erased the inequity. [00:50:00] 

Blair: Well, you know, there’s real life how I think about my kids and young people today, and then there’s the, you know, recreating this on a soundstage. From the creative standpoint, that was the most difficult day, the day of the verdict you know, when these kids find out what’s going to happen with their lives that they’re going to jail and just the very raw visceral reaction in that courtroom, in the galley, and from the young people in the families. And all of us, you know, as an actor, you draw from what you know and you draw from your heart your soul and your spirit so it’s real. 

You know, acting 101: if you believe it, the audience will believe it. So it’s incumbent upon us to make sure we believe what we’re doing. So your central nervous system doesn’t know you’re acting. Your central nervous system doesn’t know this isn’t make-believe in the moment. So you feel all those very very difficult emotions. And so I feel it, I felt it as a parent in that moment, but I feel it every day, in real life. Every day. [00:51:00] 

My 18 year old son who just graduated high school, he came home late at one o’clock in the morning. The door was locked. Now, he’s got a spare key, he knows how to find a spare key, wasn’t thinking about it.

He climbs up on the roof. He sees that my daughter’s light is on and he’s knocking on her window to wake her up. She screams, she goes downstairs and let’s him in the house. I didn’t even know that, I slept through the whole thing. But I told him last night, I said, “Son, the world doesn’t see the beautiful, gorgeous, brilliant, brown, amazing child that we all know to be you. As a black man in this country and in this world, you are seen as a threat because of your skin color.” And he’s tall and he’s handsome. I said, “You don’t even understand,” and he’s about to go to college in the south. I said, “People be ready to take you out if they see a black man walking at night, climbing on somebody’s rooftop.” 

That will happen here, but more than here, in the South nobody’s going to ask questions. So it’s a very real conversation this race talk that we must have with [00:52:00] our kids. So in terms of “When They See Us”, I was glad that we all had a chance to sit down as a family and watch it and then have these discussions afterwards because I need to him and everybody I met, anybody else within my voice that I can talk to to say, you have to know how people perceive you. 

You’re looking at: this is my home, I’m gonna knock on my sister’s window, but you have look at how the outside world sees you. And I said, I’m a black man, you are now a black man. To many people in this world, you are considered a threat by your presence. And you have to know that and live life accordingly. Never be afraid of it, but know how you may be perceived because I need you to come home safe at night. 

DeRay: I read that you got pulled over by the police not too long ago.

Blair: I did. I was going to say, many times in my life.

DeRay: How was that? How were they?

Blair: This cop was cool. I mean, he was a white cop and it did it turned out he was cool. You know I been put up so many times and sometimes they’re cool, sometimes they’re not. But no, there have been other times man where I had gun put to my head and have guns drawn on me and you know, the usual.

DeRay: It is a wild, you know, people don’t [00:53:00] realize that a third of all the people killed by a stranger in this country is actually killed by a police officer. 

Blair: Wow, yeah.

DeRay: And this is actually the first year ever where black people are more afraid of being killed by an officer than being killed by community violence.

Blair: This year is the first year? 

DeRay: Yeah, yeah the first year ever. So it’s always been close, but people, but black people have always been more afraid of like community violence than they have the police. But this year it is, it’s more and it’s even while hearing you say that you’ve had a gun pulled on you, you know because people would be like, well, you know, you’ve been a movie star for a long time that like these things obviously wouldn’t happen to somebody like you. And they still have, you know? 

Blair: Yeah man, that was the point I was making to my son: people don’t know who you are. And I always go to the hopeful place and we have to, DeRay, we have to remember how beautiful we are. You know, I used to tell my kids we wouldn’t say if you’re identifying something to say that person’s black of that person’s white. If they’re talking about a person of African descent or a so-called “black person” I would say you have to say that person with the beautiful brown skin. You got to put that “beautiful” adjective on it because I knew that [00:54:00] some in this world will see them a certain way and they will automatically criminalize them and automatically fear them.

Especially, I have two sons and a daughter and my sons are hanging with two or three or four their friends who happened to be black with beautiful brown skin. You know, it’s important that you know, it’s almost like it’s like programming. You know that you know who you are and you know that you are a child of God and how special and wonderful and beautiful and brilliant you are. It’s all about self love and understanding that. 

DeRay: And what was the conversation like with your family about “When They See Us”?

Blair: You know, we talked about how real this is. We talked about, don’t think you’re immune because you live in California or because whatever your reality is because it’s often times a perception of who you are that people respond to. And just letting them know, I mean, I really really wanted to hear more from them what they were feeling and I was just I think an eye-opener. I think one of the reasons what I watched in my wife was in tears, I was angry. She was feeling the hurt as a [00:55:00] mother especially for these boys; I was angry. 

 

It really drudges up all those emotions and we talked about that. Why were we angry? Why does it trigger so much right now? So strong a part of it I think is because though it’s been 30 years, this is the 30 years or so called anniversary of that. Not a whole lot has changed. You just mentioned that statistic about people being afraid the cops will kill them and more so than the community, being taken out by that. It’s so present. 

You know that reality in 1989 is as relevant today as it was in 1619. And so a lot of our conversation was about that, but also to be aware. It’s all about being aware, aware, being woke whatever you want to call, but being aware of the world in which you live. So you know how to carry yourself in that world, but don’t ever let anybody make you apologize for who you are and know that you earn the space you take up.

It was it was a lot of conversation about self-love, self-awareness of the world in which we live, but also know that [00:56:00] you are loved and you were loved by a community and your loved by people who don’t look like you too. You know, there are hateful negative people and every culture, but they’re also very loving righteous people in every culture.

DeRay: There a lot of people who, myself included, who are sort of like, you know watching it all back to back is hard. It’s so close to home you know? What do you say to people who are overwhelmed by the content? 

Blair: The first thing I say is that I understand; it’s overwhelming. I implore and urge them to just take a break but come back to it and just see it. And just know at least for these five that it ends on a hopeful note in that they are exonerated, thus the Exonerated Five and not the Central Park Five. But there was a cost that they had to pay: years, time, sacrifice, relationships, all of that. I mean that’s, those are years they’ll never get back. 

But at the end they all came out on the other side. Yusuf said to me at the premiere, I said, “Bro how’s this feel like right now? This is the premiere of the “When They See Us”,” and you know DeRay, you met Yusef. He was clean, [00:57:00] always clean.

DeRay: He really is. 

Blair: And he said, “Man I’ma tell you like Korey said to me” –  Korey Wise was the oldest who did the most time, 14 years – “he said, ‘Man, it’s like life after death. Life after death.’” So, you know, he’s in a good place. I know An for a fact, Antron’s struggling more and he said that to me that night. I said, “How is it for you?” Antron McCray, and he said, bro – and I’m not speaking out of turn because I’ve heard him speak of this – he said, “I’m struggling. I’m still struggling.”

You know, he had moved out of New York and he said, you know he changed his name at one point. And I said, “What’s the hardest thing that you’re struggling with?” And he said, “Just trusting people.” 

And we should be able to trust – you talk about law enforcement – we should be able to trust law enforcement we’re paying their salaries as taxpayers. But that’s not often the reality for us, especially the black folks in this country. So he’s still struggling with that man. So there’s a cost to pay but that said, it’s hard to watch, to answer your question.

I think we owe it to those five because they lived it. [00:58:00] You know, it was harder to live it then to watch it. And know that at the end it came out on the other side and that’s something Cory says all the time. I’ve seen him saying that the number of interviews like, you know, people want to say like man you did this and you did that, heap accolades on to me said, “Listen man at the end of the day, I’m a survivor. I’m just a survivor.” And he survived and they survived and I think we have to remember that. 

DeRay: What’s your advice to actors in this moment? I think there are a lot of people who look up to you as somebody who knew you had a long and successful career and you chose to do a series like this. You could have done a whole lot of things. I meet so many young actors who are like I want to make a difference; I wanted to dah dah dah, who are new and green and they’re always looking for advice. You know, I’m not an actor. So what I can do is ask people like you what is the advice you’d give the younger generation in the space?

Blair: Oh, man, I would say we all have a voice. And what your generation understands better than my generation did – and also you have the tools and the technology, even if it’s your phone in your hand – that your voice can be heard. [00:59:00] And your voice can be magnified and people can hear it and you can make a difference.

You tell your story. You write it. You produce it. You created it. Even if you’re just in another room or just on the street corner, throw up ad pull up your smart phone and tell that story and put it up online and social media. Get the word out. And that’s what’s happening, also just going back to “When They See Us” – man the prosecutors in this, it’s Linda Fairstein or Elizabeth Lederer, you know, they’re catching some heat right now.

So it’s been 30 years but because of this project, because of people’s awareness, because this story is being told, people are starting to see and understand the reality and the totality of what they did in prosecuting these boys. And they got to pay a price for it now and that’s what’s happening, right now. 

DeRay: Well, two questions we ask everybody one is: what do you say to people in this moment who are losing hope. There’re a lot of people right who have voted, they’ve emailed, they’ve protested, they’ve called, they’ve done all the things. And you know, there’s some people who watch a series like “When They See Us” [01:00:00] and it is overwhelming to them and their hope is challenged, right. They sort of were like, wow we’re screwed. This is really hard. What do you say to people in those moments?

Blair: First and foremost, look how far we’ve come. Look how far we’ve from whence we have come. You know, know your history. Learn your history. Learn about the people who have made changes and made differences: Martin Luther King of course, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, the ones we hear about. But there are thousands of others who are unsung heroes, but you got to dig for them and find them and look in your own community looking and your families. To me that’s why it’s important to know when you could see somebody and touch them, somebody close to you who is accessible to know that they’ve kind of come through this.

And it’s just about having knowledge, knowledge that you can navigate the world in which we live and just know that we have come this far and we will continue to grow and will continue to progress and we will continue to thrive as a people. 

DeRay: And what’s a piece of advice you’ve gotten over the years that’s stuck with you?

Blair: I think some of the [01:01:00] best advice I was ever given was: those who you allow to define you, will confine you. Those who you allowed to define you – and I say, it was actually  said to me “those who define you will confine you” but I change it to those who you allow to define you will confine you. In other words, don’t let somebody tell you who you are. Know where you came from, know you came from strength, that you came from perseverance and we’re here. And it’s only going to get better. Never see yourself as or your skin color and definitely not your culture as a liability. 

I’ve always seen my dark skin as an asset to this country, to our community, to our culture.

DeRay:  Well, thanks for making time to talk today. I’m thankful, I hope more people watch it. It already looks like a ton of people are watching it already. So I hope that you’re able to help add context to why it’s important. 

Blair: Well DeRay  listen, I appreciate you. I appreciate the time and taking time to talk to me and talk about the project. So I appreciate you. [01:02:00] 

DeRay: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in on Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out, make sure you rate it wherever you get your podcast whether it’s Apple podcast or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week.

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