Make it a Big Deal (with Prof. Dorothy Roberts) | Crooked Media
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April 12, 2022
Pod Save The People
Make it a Big Deal (with Prof. Dorothy Roberts)

In This Episode

DeRay, Kaya, Myles and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week— including the evolution of no knock warrants, Black Jews speak up & speak out, freed people’s letters to their former enslavers, and T.I.’s public feud with a Black woman comedian. DeRay interviews author and professor Dorothy Roberts about her new book Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families— and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.











DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, De’Ara Myles and Kaya as usual, talking about the news that you don’t know in the past week, the underreported news. And then I sat down with author and professor Dr. Dorothy Roberts. Now I learned a ton. The book is great. You know, I always heard people talk about the child welfare system, but I didn’t really know the ins and outs. And we talk about her book “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.” It was an explosive conversation. I learned so much, and I hope that you learn more too, especially about what she calls the family policing. I got chills in this one, so y’all, I’m grateful for Dr. Roberts and I’m so honored to share your insight.


De’Ara Balenger. Now, my news was inspired this week by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, otherwise known now as Justice K.B.J. I had the pleasure and honor of being at the White House last Friday, when she formally accepted her role as associate justice, alongside President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris. And it just was also such a beautiful day. The sun was shining. Not a cloud in the sky. And it was such a moment when both K.B.J. and Kamala came out of the White House with Joe Biden. So these two incredibly strong and gifted and brilliant Black women walking across the South Lawn to the podium. It was quite a moment. And so in her speech, K.B.J. talked about, she actually quoted Maya Angelou’s famous Still I Rise poem, saying, “I am the dream and hope of the slave” and that really stuck with me given this historic moment of the first Black woman becoming Supreme Court justice, in how overdue it is, but also how major it is, how transformative it is. And I came across actually a few weeks ago in the Washington Post, letters that were written by formerly enslaved folks. Letters to, two of them letters to the individuals that enslaved them and one to President Abraham Lincoln. And these letters are painful. They’re cutting. They’re brilliant. But what he brought to bear for me is the incredible fortitude of our ancestors and how that has impacted Black folks, and how it has stayed with us and continued to make us steadfast in the face of the most insurmountable challenges. These letters, and I hope that you all take the time to read them through, are completely a reflection of of pain and suffering and longing, but they’re also a reflection of just complete rationality and intellect and still empathy really directed at folks who wanted nothing but violence done upon them. And so I just wanted to share a few of them. You know, one was written by Mr. Jordan Anderson in 1865. He and his family were freed by union troops during the Civil War, and they left Tennessee for Ohio. A few months after the war ended, Anderson’s former enslaver actually wrote to him, asking him to return to the plantation where the harvest was about to come in and promising a wage and freedom. So get this, so you are freed by the union troops. You and your family are chilling and prospering in Ohio and your former slave master rights to you, asking you to come back, promising a freedom that you already have, in fact, and giving you a wage. And so, you know, Mr. Jordan Anderson writes back and says things like this, “As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score as I got my freedom papers in 1864 from the Provost Marshal General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy—who is his wife—says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly. And we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores and rely on your justice and friendship in the future.” So basically, pay us for our labor that we’ve already worked for you. That’s how you can show us some goodwill. Full stop. The next letter is actually by Miss Annie Davis, it’s to Abraham Lincoln. It is titled “It Is My Desire to Be Free.” It was written in 1864. Now we know Abraham Lincoln was never a slave holder, but as president during the Civil War, he held the fate and freedom of millions of Black Americans in his hands and such he received hundreds of letters from Black Americans, both free and enslaved, many which are collected in a new book. And this book is called “To Address You as My Friend.” And it’s written by Jonathan White. To Address You as My Friend: African-Americans Letters to Abraham Lincoln. So clearly this was a frequent occurrence in so many letters, in fact. Jonathan White was able to write a whole book about it. So when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, he did not free enslaved people in slave states that remained in the union like Maryland, where Annie Davis, what Annie Davis was held. So she writes, “Mr. President, it is my desire to be free, to go to see my people on the eastern shore. My mistress won’t let me. You will please let me know if we are free and what I can do. I write to you for advice. Please send me word this week or as soon as possible, and obliged, Annie Davis” So there’s no evidence that Lincoln actually responded to this letter. However, the state of Maryland ended slavery a few months later, a move that the president supported and had urged. The final, there’s actually—one, two, three, four, five letters in total, so I’m going to read one more, will quote from one more. This is from Frederick Douglass. It was written in 1848, titled “I Took Nothing but What Belonged to Me.” So 10 years after escaping from slavery, Frederick Douglass, who you know is famed abolitionist, orator and activist, he published an open letter to his former enslaved, Thomas Auld. And he published it in the abolitionist newspaper Douglass founded, “The North Star.” And this was an excerpt from the 3,400-worded letter. “I remember the chain, the gag, the bloody whip, the death-like gloom overshadowing the broken spirit of the fettered bond man, the appalling liability of his being torn away from wife and children and sold like a beast in the market. Say not that this is the picture of fancy. You well know that I wear stripes on my back inflicted by your direction and that you, while we were brothers in the same church, caused this right hand with which I am now penning this letter to be closely tied to my left and my person dragged at the pistols mouth 15 miles, from the Bay Side to Easton to be sold like a beast in the market for the alleged crime of intending to escape from your possession. All this and more you remember and know to be perfectly true, not only of yourself, but of nearly all of the slave holders around you. At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded on your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers with a view to filling your own ever hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these your sisters are. Have you sold them or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? Are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse to die in the woods, is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them.” So just kind of wanted to share these, wanted to share a moment of reflection of this very, very complicated historical and social and political place that we live called the United States of America, in which the first Black woman has been placed on the Supreme Court, Justice, Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. And as she rightfully quoted Maya Angelou, she is the hope of a slave. So I just wanted to bring all of that full circle to let you know where my head was that in that moment where I was actually able to participate in that moment, in that historical moment, which I will never forget. But I guess with that, I just didn’t want us to forget how we got there. Our ancestors, the brilliance, the intellect, the resilience, the steadfastness, the pride that resonates among all of us each day. So take a look at these letters, y’all, and I’ll talk to you soon.


Kaya Henderson: My news this week is in commemoration of the Jewish Passover, which will be happening on April 15th. And Michael Twitty, who is a renowned African-American food historian and author, boldly proclaims in this week’s New York Times that Blackness deserves a seat at the Seder. I must say it one more time, “Blackness deserves a seat at the Seder.” What is Michael Twitty talking about? Well, Mr. Twitty is talking about the traditional Jewish Passover celebration, a dinner that commemorates Jewish enslavement by, and liberations from, the Egyptians. It’s one of the most important Jewish holidays that celebrates freedom, and it provides the opportunity for reflection and remembrance. The Seder plate actually contains a number of symbolic foods. And for Black American Jews like Mr. Twitty, the Seder table can be a place to and I quote, “claim and create our own culinary traditions.” At Mr. Twitty’s Seder, there are a number of the traditional Seder foods that are represented by foods that are important to African and African-American culture. So Charoset, which symbolizes the mortar that the Israelites used to build bricks for the Egyptians, at Mr. Twitty’s Seder are made with pecans and molasses. That pecans symbolize the African-American resilience and celebration in the South—think pecan pie, which is key to our culture—and molasses, represents the sugar cane that’s central to the American slave trade. Karpas, which symbolizes hope and renewal at the Seder table and is usually dipped in salt water to remember the tears of the Israelites, is made at Mr. Twitty Seder with sweet potatoes, which are an important vegetable in the African diaspora. Maror, which are the bitter herbs that are meant to remember the bitterness of slavery, at Mr. Twitty’s Seder, are made with collard greens. In fact, you’ll also see things like West African brisket, Senegalese chicken soup and matzo meal fried chicken. And all of these recipes are available in the article. You can click on them and get your own Seder preparation on with a soul food spin. According to a 2021 report the Pew Research Center, there are about 5.8 eight million Jewish adults in the United States, and only 1% of the adult Jewish American population identifies as Black. More disturbingly, more than 80% of those people have said they’ve experienced discrimination in a Jewish setting, and so there are often questions of authenticity that plague Black Jews. But Mr. Twitty, in his embracing of—Mr. Twitty, who is a Black American Jew—in his embracing of the Seder tradition, asserts that Passover and our liberation story from slavery are stories that are interrelated. The telling of the story of the Jews being in bondage by the Egyptians and the story of the Passover, where God actually sent plagues on the Egyptians and allowed the Jews to pass out of of Egypt unscathed and took them to liberation is a story that provides an opportunity not only to reflect, but given the interrelated themes of the Passover and liberation from slavery, they’re often an opportunity to connect for African-Americans and Jews, and most importantly, for Black Jews. Mr. Twitty asserts that, “We’re making a claim on how we do our culture. There have been Jews of African descent since there was Judaism, and we won’t stop telling that story.” Michael Twitty is a 2018 James Beard Award winner for his book “The Cooking Gene”, and his newest book, “Kosher Soul” about the intersection of Jewish and African diasporic culture, will be published in August. I brought this to the pod because I, we don’t, because we don’t hear stories of Black Judaism, because it’s important to understand that all Black people are not monolithic. We come in all shapes, sizes, colors, religions, cultures, and I’m empowered, frankly, by the connections that we’re able to trace to the Jewish liberation story. And I am always excited to see how Black folks put their own twist on stuff. We’ve been putting our own twist on stuff since the very beginning. And I, for one, am going to buy Kosher Soul even though I’m not Jewish, but I think it will be an interesting culinary experience to think about celebrating the Jewish culture with African diasporic foods.


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.


[ad break]


Myles Anderson: So my news is kind of read more like a piece of gossip, but, you know, I want to dive in to this this because I don’t see a lot of platforms that I think that give good thought into, like feminist or political or social political critique talking about this, and I think that’s how sometimes things get just put under the rug or it doesn’t, you need a documentary in order to like in order to address it and so many people have been victimized or whatever until people talk about it because it really starts in the shadows or in these like little ways and I wanted to talk about it. So, today, the news on a lot of gossip blogs, entertainment blogs, music center blogs, was T.I. and getting into an altercation with a comedian named Lauren Knight. I found this article on The Fader, but then as I was, you know, reading more about it, I saw that there was like little crumbs everywhere outside of thefader dot com, but I definitely would recommend reading the article on The Fader by Rafael Helfand, because it’s just kind of straightforward, this is what happened, just so you can get the basis of it and come to your own conclusions. Now, any who, T.I has been trying to—or whatnot trying to—he has been getting into comedy and he was at a bar in Atlanta called Our Bar and during, excuse me, during Lauren Knight’s set, he began heckling her and, you know, comedians talk or whatever, and then he began saying, you know, Take off your wig, and then before you knew it, you know, Lauren being, you know, you have to be a sharp comedian, especially if you’re Black and a woman, so you kind of hit back and was like, We’ll, you know, I’ll take off my wig when you address those sexual assault allegations, that T.I. and his wife have been going under and stuff. Then everything kind of got escalated. So there’s video of this incident, by the way. So everything escalated, and T.I. gets on stage, embraces like, bear hugs Lauren, and then begins, like taking the mic from her and begins, like yelling, and there’s there was confrontation going back and, there was, you know, just like this tense energy going back and forth. And I was looking at it and I and I was like, Oh, jeez, I’ve really wanted to talk about this on the podcast, and I was reluctant because I didn’t, I have thoughts and I have opinions, but nothing is an indictment on what T.I. has or hadn’t done. Or, because I do know that Laura, Laura and T.I. have like since like made up publicly and stuff like that. And it’s not like about me taking this binary side of, Oh, I am riding with T.I. or I’m riding with Lauren, or like or anything like that. But it is me wanting to have more of a bird’s-eye opinion on the situation. And one of the things that I really, that’s just sitting, that’s sitting with me is that nobody got up to help when T.I. Got on stage, you know? And I can’t help but link it to the kind of like, to me, like borderline absurdist reaction that’s happening around Chris Rock and Will Smith. And then how there’s just like this virtual silence from a lot of more mainstream, non-insular news cycles about what T.I. has done. And then also, when it comes to situations like this, now I will agree that what Will Smith did to Chris Rock is indicative of somebody who might have rage, behavioral and violent problems, so this might not have, and we know this because we read Will Smith, but this is not Will Smith first fight, altercation, his first time addressing something he doesn’t like with violence. But his violence has always happened with men, and I would assume people who he assumes can quote unquote “handle it” you know—and we can go on the debate with that. However, so taking that same science and train of thought, I have to look at T.I. in this situation with the same gaze. I have to see that this is a person who is so comfortable in addressing things by using his physicality that he did it in front of a group of people, that he did in front of a state, he did it while there were cameras out and phones out in all the other, you know, things that we use to record now in the social media age. And he didn’t and he felt comfortable with it. And I have to say rightly so, because nobody did anything. And you know, I do come from a space where I believe victims first. I do come from a very deep Black feminist queer sex positive space where I do believe victims first. I do think that is less dangerous to society to believe victims, and for something to be proven wrong than to [unclear] for people who have, or who who can have potentially been brutalized. Because, you know, it just is, it’s proven that that’s the better thing to do. But even outside of that, I think, well, even just me as a logical person, I’m like, this is indicative of a pattern to me. This is, this is indicative of somebody who doesn’t respect personal space, somebody who uses cursing, demeaning, yelling, physical, the physical force, to get a result that they want. And that’s scary to me. And not scary as in, you know, horror movie movies, scary. It’s scary just when you think about what has happened behind closed doors, this person feels that comfortable doing that in public. Now what people agree to and what people end up feeling better about after they have their own individual specific subjective conversations, that’s the one thing. There’s been so many times where people have done things that are wrong and then they, you know, get forgiven by the person, or the person who was offended gets forgiven or there is money exchanged, or, you know, maybe the person doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but I think that is not our job to really care about the two people that are involved. I think it’s our job as, you know, just intelligent consumers of content and as people to look at things a little bit more objectively and a little bit more aerially and come to our own results and not be, and conclusions and not be so influenced by what has or hasn’t happened, why, by about what somebody feels OK with and doesn’t feel OK with. And I do think that, you know, T.I., some disturbing things that have come out about Trey Songz that, you know, maybe in the future, you know, we’ll get to talk about it and stuff like that, too. I do think that often we get chances to really hold people accountable in a way that is that is solid and astute, and I think sometimes specifically stories about things that happen in, you know, comedy clubs or at concerts or at parties, and we don’t get to look at it. And we don’t get the type of gazes that we want to look at it and usually the only people who are, you know—and this is not discrediting these professions—but usually is people who are gossip columnist, people who are sensationalist, people who are saying sassy opinions talks, and there’s nobody who really wants to take this kind of more feminine political gaze into it until it becomes such a spectacle and a travesty, and it becomes so big that you have to talk about it, or there’s a lone person discussing this, this thing until it becomes bigger. And we saw that with R. Kelly. There was a lone journalist who was always documenting what R. Kelly was doing until, you know, he got really big. And then, you know, then for a long time, it was only Dream Hampton who was interested in in these in these voices and documenting and creating a, creating a documentary around it. And then when that, when you know, when that bulk work was done, then it became a conversation. And I really do think that we have the opportunity to make things conversations and to talk about things and to call things inappropriate and to connect things logically and to have spirited debates and conversations about things. We have the opportunity to do that before it becomes, you know, these intimate terrorisms that, and traumas for people. We get, you know, and, you know, all accusations on T.I. alleged, but, you know, allegedly, you know, it could have, that might have already been the case. And I think that we have time to talk about it now. And I think that I feel specifically passionate about it because, you know, I’m a lover of art, I’m a lover of art, I’m an artist, so I find myself in gallery spaces, parties, after parties, you know, performances, comedy club, all these kind of like dark, and not, just these nighttime spaces. And I think that there just needs to be a space where we can be free, but there also needs to be a space where people can be free and safe. And I think that really starts with calling things out that are inappropriate and calling things out that are indicative of other things. And it really comes through this commitment of protecting each other during those spaces and during those times and making a conversation about things that’s outside of people’s celebrity or good or bad, but a full and robust feminist critique of the situation that is more objective, that is more, you know, like hands off. And then also, you know, rallying for a certain type of thing that we want before and a certain type of culture we want before something happens that, Oh man, it got so bad. And yeah, that’s been on my heart for a long time, on my heart and on my mind that in order for us to really begin to transform culture om the way that we want to see it, and I think the way that, you know, we all we all are hoping for, specifically when I’m thinking about the culture of arts and entertainment and all this other stuff, it really starts with having to call things, you know, calling things wrong when they’re small, calling things wrong. When the first time it’s wrong, you don’t need to plant a seed of wrongdoings before we can say it. We can call it wrong, right then. And you know what we do with that wrongness is, I think, up for debate. And I think that we’re transforming our views of what punishment is, and is punishment necessary and what’s punishment versus justice, and I love those conversations, but we can’t quite get to that conversation if we’re unwilling to look at the things that are wrong. Specifically, what’s happening to a dark skin, you know, woman comic in a bar in Atlanta, you know, which is not the sexiest and most interesting—and when I say sexy, I mean, most appealing to media, not like literally physically sexy—but it’s not the most appealing victim to, you know, mainstream Hollywood. And it’s not the most appealing situation for, you know, feminist circles that aren’t just filled with Black queer folks and to talk about. I think that we need to address those things right now while they’re seeds and we need to call things out when they happen and we need to rally around people, even when sometimes people don’t understand to the full extent why they even need to be rallied around for, you know? Sometimes people have been brutalized and victimized in something brutally patriarchal can happen to them and they don’t even know, you know, and they don’t even see the wideness of the violence that happened to them. And you know where were hard-kicked specifically as Black folks to survive it and get through it. And I think that’s something that makes us beautiful, but I think that also in community and also if we’re all rallying around each other as people who are marginalized in the arts that we do get the opportunity to speak our truth and we do get the opportunity to be rallied around and somebody else to stick up for us, even when we don’t have the capacity to stick up for ourselves and when it’s just easier to move on. That’s my news. Read about it. And I think that just in your own personal life, that’s where it starts too, when somebody says something that’s inappropriate, when somebody does something that’s inappropriate, when somebody makes you feel uncomfortable, when you can see somebody else make somebody else uncomfortable. I’m really in the era, in my own life, where my phrases is like, Make a big deal. If it feels like a big deal in your gut, make it a big deal. If you know, don’t be afraid of ruining the party, don’t be afraid of, you know, being too feminist or o, you know, somebody weaponizing the term cancel culture against you. Don’t be afraid of any of those things. Just make it a big deal, if it feels like a big deal, you know. And before you know it, you began to be one of the hands crafting a culture where people know that these things can’t happen, you know, and we don’t have to wait for people to come out that they have been just disgustingly brutalized in order for us to take that initiative, we can take it when we see, when we see hints of it or when things happens where that’s not as extreme, we can say something then you know? And we have the right to make it a big make it a big deal because if it disturbs somebody else and it disturbs us, then it’s already a big deal. That’s my news, you know, and that’s my peace of mind, and I can’t wait to hear what the other parts of you know, the team thinks about it. And I kind of want to bring this up more and more when things that happen that I think should get a certain type of gaze on, it doesn’t. And I want to be the person to bring that to, you know, conversations more and more and more and more because I think that’s really where it starts, in these small seeds o,f these seeds of controversies that sometimes get overlooked with our news cycle.


DeRay Mckesson: My news for this week is actually an advocacy update. So most of you know that Breonna Taylor was killed in Louisville. Most of you probably know that Amir Locke was also killed in a non-knock raid in Louisville, just like Breonna Taylor was. And there have been efforts to ban no-knock raids all across the country. On Friday, last Friday, the city of Minneapolis announced one of the most sweeping bans around non-knock raid in the country. Now let me explain it to you, we worked with them on this. It was, the mayor’s office worked hand-in-hand. They did a lot of good stuff on this policy. There’s still some room to grow. But let me back up and explain to you the context. So when Breonna was killed, there’s a law that passed in Louisville that is called Breonna’s law. And one of the things that it does that’s so important is that it was the first law that really helped people understand that just banning no-knock warrants doesn’t matter because the police don’t really need a no-knock warrant to break into your house. There are two types of search warrants. There’s a no-knock warrant and there’s a ‘knock and announce’. A ‘knock and announce’ is what you see on the news or on TV, where somebody like a police officer comes up, they show you the warrant or they say something and you come outside or you let them in. But that doesn’t really happen like that in real life because the police can get one of those warrants and then they can say, Well, I said, I asked for DeRay, or I asked for Katie, or I asked for Kaya, and then just break into the house. So functionally, as the person in the house, you experience them the same way. And this is important because when Breonna Taylor was killed, the police said that they said her name before they entered, which satisfies the required, satisfied at the time, the requirements for a ‘knock and announce’ and still the effect was the same. Now let me explain the context. One of the biggest things that you can do is that you can put a waiting period in. So one of the things that Brianna’s Law does that’s really important is that as the police have to wait at least 15 seconds before they execute any search warrant, so whether it’s a no-knock warrant or something else. And then because of advocacy, you know, we we worked on or wrote every single state law that has restricted the use of no-knock raids in the country, six states. The best in the country is Maryland. They have a 9.5 out of our rubric. You can go to endallnoknocks dot org to see exactly what it looks like, to see the progress around the country with regard to no-knocks. So in Maryland and in Maine, there’s a 20-second waiting period. That is the highest general waiting period in the country. So the police, before they execute any search warrant, they have to wait 20 seconds before they enter or do anything else. What Minneapolis did is that they put a 20 second wait time during the day and 30 seconds in night. The 30 seconds at night is currently the longest wait period in American history, which is wild. We think that 30 seconds should be the floor, not the ceiling. And because we’ve been doing this work for the past couple of years, specifically around this issue, it has been an uphill battle to get even 30 seconds, which is why Minneapolis is the only thing the only city with a 30-second wait time for a night. We want them to be 30 second overall. 20 seconds is good for them in the sense that 20 seconds is not bad, but 30 seconds would be better. And the way we think about that is that most people can’t get from their bed to the front door, without running, in 30 seconds, even during the daytime, because so much is going on. And there are a lot of things with no-knocks that people take for granted. So people, I took for granted, I didn’t know that the law doesn’t require the police to be in uniform when they execute these or have anything on them that says they’re the police. I didn’t know that the law doesn’t really require them to actually say that they’re the police. I didn’t know that the law allows them to use flash-bang stun devices. There are a host of things that are really not great. But when we poll people and we ask people they like, Oh, thought that was a law. You’re like, It wasn’t’! So Minneapolis is at a 9.5 now out of 15. There couple of things that they can’t do at the state level at all. So, you know, we would want—and Virginia this a part of that law—we would want it so that any evidence obtained in violation of the laws is inadmissible in court. The mayor doesn’t have the power to do that unilaterally at the local level, that’d be the state. So we’re hoping that the Minnesota state legislature moves on some good stuff. But the policy in Minneapolis is literally one of the best in the country. And the other thing that Minneapolis did is that they did a review of all the latest search warrants that were executed in Minneapolis. They have their office, there’s an Office of Civil Rights that worked alongside the Office of Police Review. And one of the things that they found that is so incredible and powerful, cities all across the country to repeat this data analysis, is that they found that every single time, literally every time that the police waited, the person complied. And it’s a reminder that the police don’t need to break into people’s houses. People will comply. They don’t need to go in all these rationales and say they need to do for safety, they are just trying to be Rambo in communities. But I say this because change is happening. I feel like we talk about the stuff that is not great a lot, we talk about the problems, and I wanted to update you with some good news. And you can go to endallnoknocks dot org and see for yourself. But things are happening, change is coming and we can save people’s lives. Let’s go.


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.


[ad break]


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: This week we welcome Professor Dorothy Roberts. She’s an acclaimed scholar of race and gender and a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. I read one of her early books in college, Killing Rage, and it was huge. I didn’t, it was one of those things when you read a book and you’re like, Whoa, I didn’t know books could do this. So it was an honor to have her on the podcast to talk about Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. Professor Roberts refers to the child ware as a family policing system and argues that it was designed to separate, terrorize, and destroy Black Families. Did you know that a majority of Black and indigenous children are taken from their families due to poverty and lack of material resources, not parental neglect? In the new book Torn Apart, I learned a ton! I will stop talking so we can get to Dr. Roberts. Let’s go.


DeRay Mckesson: Professor Roberts, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.


Professor Dorothy Roberts: Oh, you’re very welcome, DeRay, thanks so much for having me.


DeRay Mckesson: So what’s so wild is that when I saw, when I got the email about this book, I was like, Oh my God, we got to talk to her. And then I was like, Did she write Killing the Black Body? Is this the same, Professor Roberts? And that book was something I read in college, and it really helped me think through so much of the way we talk about Black bodies. So I wanted to say first, thank you for helping to just like change the way I thought about my own identity and work. And I’m super pumped to talk about your new book.


Professor Dorothy Roberts: Oh, wow. Well, that’s really a great compliment. I appreciate. That that’s what I strive to do, to transform things in my book, so it’s nice to hear that Killing the Black Body had that impact on you. I really appreciate it.


DeRay Mckesson: It did! So now can we start with how, so the new book Torn Apart, about the welfare system, I learned so much that I don’t even know. I’m like, trying to pack in all my questions because I’m like, Oh my goodness, I didn’t know. How did you even get to welfare? Like, how—not welfare, but you push us in the book to not even call it anything about care or welfare because you’re like the system doesn’t do that—but how did you study sort of this system of taking kids away from their families in the name of a better family or neglect or abuse? How did you get to that?


Professor Dorothy Roberts: Well, it’s interesting you mentioned Killing the Black Body because I discovered the so-called child welfare system and its targeting of Black communities while I was doing research for Killing the Black Body. That book, which I started writing in the late 1980s, it was published in 1997, as you know, had to do with the devaluation of Black mothers, especially our childbearing. And I was investigating the prosecutions of Black women for being pregnant and using drugs. There were hundreds of Black women who were being arrested around the nation for drug use while they were pregnant. And at the time, I discovered that what was happening to thousands and thousands of Black women was that their newborn babies were being taken from them and put into state custody. Many of them left at hospitals to languish, some put into foster homes. But there was this extreme family separation going on. And I soon realized that it was happening disproportionately to Black families. In fact, at the time I was teaching at Northwestern and so was familiar with the Chicago system and in Chicago, almost all of the families who were torn apart by the Child Protective Services are Black families.


DeRay Mckesson: Now let me just quote something that you write in the book on page 124. “Throughout its history, U.S. family policing has revolved around the racist belief that Black parents are unfit to raise their children. Beginning with chattel slavery and continuing through the Jim Crow civil rights and neoliberal eras, the white power structure has wielded this lie as a rationale to control Black communities, exploit Black labor, and quell Black rebellion by assaulting Black families.” I was compelled by the many stories you put in the book. There are a lot of people, though, who would hear this and say, OK, yes, there probably some abuses in the system, it’s a big system, but somebody has to be watching out for kids, somebody has to make sure that kids aren’t abused and there should be some intervention. What do you say to those people?


Professor Dorothy Roberts: Well, first of all, it’s not true that there just some abuses in the system, that these are flaws where families are broken apart unnecessarily. Black families are targeted by the system and the system has always been designed to target the most disenfranchised, disempowered, and marginalized community. It almost, it’s fair to say that it almost exclusively targets impoverished families. Almost all of the families that are in the system are poor or low income. And then there are huge numbers of Black and native children who are taken from their homes. This isn’t just an aberration, this is how the system is designed, and it was designed that way from its very inception. It has always been from the very beginning, a system that is based on, and its mission is to disrupt Black, native, and impoverished communities by taking their children away. So it’s just wrong to say, well, there’s some flaws in the system or there’s some aberrational abuses of power. It is a system based on terrorizing families in the most disenfranchised community. That’s its purpose, to blame them for societal inequities that harm children. And it’s a way of maintaining a racial capitalist system by powerful white elites who maintain their power by putting the blame on parents in these communities for the harms to children. So that’s the first thing. We need to think about the design of the system and not see these problems as aberrations. Now, it is true that there are many, many children in America who suffer hardships, whose families suffer hardship, but it’s not because their parents are pathological or don’t care for them, it’s because of the way our society is structured to deny these families the material resources they need for their children. And most of the children who are taken away and put in foster care are there because of allegations that their parents neglected them. Only 17% of children in foster care were taken because of physical or sexual abuse. We first have to recognize that the main reason this system investigates and removes children is because of poverty, because of lack of material resources. The way to address that isn’t to take children from their families, it’s to provide the material resources that families need, and that would take care of the vast majority of allegations of parental neglect. Now, of course, there are still cases where children are being violently abused or where there is severe neglect because of some problem that the parents are having that we need to address, but there is mounting evidence that the child welfare system does a terrible job of that. In fact, what most people learn about the child welfare system are children that go into the system who are then severely abused or killed. Now these are rare cases, but they happen despite putting billions and billions of dollars into the system. It fails children all the time, not to mention that the foster care system itself inflicts grievous harms on children. Children are sexually and violently abused in foster care. The rates of suicide are high, and for Black children in particular, they end up at high rates going into juvenile detention and prisons, high rates of houselessness, high high rates of poverty. The outcomes of foster care are terrible. So the question is what’s the best way to take care of children and families in America? Certainly, the foster care system and the system of family policing hasn’t worked. And that’s my answer. We need to replace it with a better way that will work, which primarily means providing the material resources that children and their families need, and developing better ways of addressing violence and families, which prison abolitionists and anti-carceral feminists have been working on for decades.


DeRay Mckesson: I want to ask, let’s zoom in to the book, and there were so many stories here that were heartbreaking and hard, and you make the case so well about how this is just another carceral system, that this is the police for so many people, but just doesn’t look like what people think the police looks like. Can you talk us through the story of Cornelius Frederick, and why you thought it was important to include his story in the book?


Professor Dorothy Roberts: Yes. Cornelius Frederick was a teenager who ended up in foster care because his mother died and his father didn’t have the means to take care of him, and he was put in a so-called therapeutic residential center, Lakeside Academy, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. These centers, where Black teenagers are often put because it’s hard to find families who will take them in, these are prison-like facilities. And a third of all teenagers in foster care spend time in some kind of congregate care setting, not with individual families, but in institutions. And Black children are more likely than other children to end up in one of these institutions. And I thought it was important to tell his story because I wanted readers to understand that the image of children going into loving foster families and being cared for well because they’ve been rescued from dangerous parents is simply false. Many children end up in these kinds of prison-like facilities Cornelius Frederick through a piece of bread one day in the cafeteria, and he was jumped on by a number of guards who held him down as he screamed that he could not breathe, as other children were trying to get the guards to leave him alone, and he was asphyxiated to death. Now, this isn’t the only example of this. I tell about other children who have been killed or severely abused in these kinds of institutions where too many foster children are placed.


DeRay Mckesson: Oh, the other thing that you did that was so interesting and I was like, OK, disparity defenders, I was like, never heard that phrase before. Can you talk about?—I’m sure they are mad about it, too—can you talk about your critique of the research community? There seems to be a strong critique of the way researchers have sort of like, I don’t know—you call them disparity defenders in a part of it—but how they have entered into the field of study around child neglect, especially with Black. How could the research community do better by the important issue of child neglect, and what would you say they have done so wrong so often?


Professor Dorothy Roberts: The child welfare research community have had to address the glaring fact that Black children are far more likely to be investigated and to be taken from their homes than white children. It was worse in the 1990s, but even today, studies show that more than half of Black children will be subjected to a child welfare investigation, and more than 10%, 1 in 10 Black children will be taken from their family by the time they reach age 18. That is just an abominable statistic of government power intervening into Black communities. So they’ve had to grapple with this, but there are many who, instead of seeing this as a sign of racism and white supremacy, instead of addressing the racial inequities in the system, they try to defend these disparities. That’s why I call them disparity defenders. So they try to do things like create statistical models that will erase the racism in it by looking for other kinds of correlations to poverty or single motherhood or involvement in the criminal punishment system or something else that might explain why it is that so many Black children are in the system. And then there’s another group that excuses it, that even tries to justify it by saying that Black children have greater needs than white children, and therefore they need to be addressed through the child welfare system. But of course, all of that ignores, papers over the fact that this is a terroristic system that is targeting Black communities, and that there’s been a political choice to deal with the needs of Black children by taking them away at large numbers from their families instead of addressing the material needs that they have by providing resources to families and supporting Black communities, and Black communities’ own ways of supporting families. So this is a really dangerous part of how research is done on these disparities in the child welfare system to explain them away and even justify them. And it’s a way of diverting attention from the need to radically transform how we, in America, deal with family struggles, with conflicts and families, but more basically with the huge inequities in resources that exist in the United States, and the huge inequities in the kinds of punitive oppression that are inflicted on families that include the family policing system, but also the fallout from prisons and law enforcement that makes families more vulnerable to the so-called child welfare system.


DeRay Mckesson: One of things that you tease on in the book that’s so interesting is the range of studies that suggest that Black kids will get, are more likely to be visited by CPS during the course of their childhood than white families. And that seems so intuitive and makes sense, just because the way racism is set up, but I didn’t anticipate that. Did you?


Professor Dorothy Roberts: I knew from my research and my activism against family policing that there were very high rates of involvement of child welfare agencies in Black neighborhoods. But I have to say I was astounded by the high level, that more than half of Black children are subjected to a child welfare investigation before they reach age 18. And that there are some cities in the United States where upwards of 60% of Black children in the city have been subjected to child welfare investigations. I have done research some years ago on what I call the racial geography of child welfare. I think this is an aspect of racism in the family policing system that can be ignored by the statistics that look at how many children are in foster care at a particular time, or even what percentage of Black children are subject to investigation. And that’s that these investigations are concentrated in segregated Black neighborhoods, and there’s so much investigating going on, and so many children have been taken from their families, that every child, every family in the neighborhood is affected. In other words, even if you yourself as a child haven’t been taken from your parents, you surely know that your cousin or your best friend or your classmates, you know that you know of those who have been taken. And so you live with the realistic threat that someone’s going to come knocking on your door and take you away from your parents. Parents in these neighborhoods know about the child welfare system. They know, again they have friends and neighbors who have their children taken away. And this affects the relationship between everyone in that neighborhood and the state, and it affects the way in which they interact with social service agencies that are supposed to be there, you know, to serve them, but actually are threatening them with child removal. This is an important aspect of what’s wrong with our so-called child welfare system, is that it turns the very people like teachers and doctors and social service providers who could be providing resources to families, it turns them into agents of the state to report families for child neglect and then threaten to take the children away from the families. So this deters people from seeking help that might be available, the little help that’s provided, because of this focus on investigation, accusation, and family separation. A really horrible example of this is what happens to women who are survivors of domestic violence, because in many jurisdictions, being a victim of violence in the home makes you a bad parent and is grounds to take your children away. So this means that many women—


DeRay Mckesson: What!?


Professor Dorothy Roberts: Oh yes, absolutely. There are, there are many, many women, I tell stories about them in the book who have had their children removed when they called for help. I tell the story of a mother in New York City who called the domestic violence hotline. She snuck into the bathroom so her partner wouldn’t hear and told them that she wanted help to get away with her son to safety and the hotline caller instead called the CPS department, and the next day she found a caseworker at her door wanting to come in to investigate whether the child had been abused. This eventually led to them taking her son away from her and putting him in foster care with strangers, and she had to go through a multi-year battle to get her child back.


DeRay Mckesson: You write in the book in a really clear sentence that welfare, the foster care system is uniformly bad for queer and LGBTQ kids. Do you still believe that?


Professor Dorothy Roberts: Yes, and this brings up Governor Abbott in Texas, his directive to child protection agencies to investigate families where trans children have gotten gender-affirming care. This is a perfect example of how the child welfare system is deployed by the state to terrorize families that don’t conform to gender, race, or class norm. As I mentioned before, it goes after disenfranchised, marginalized people to make them conform or to blame them for problems that children have that are actually created by social discrimination and social structures and inequities. And yes, there is lots of evidence from stories told by LGBTQ children, as well as research, showing that they are more likely to be put in institutional care because it is harder to find families that want to take in queer children. In these facilities, congregate care, group homes, and so-called therapeutic residential facilities, they frequently encounter bullying by other children and even by staff. And they also, for trans kids, are forced to conform to the gender norms in the group home or in the institution that typically have separation of boys and girls, and they usually force trans children to be in the place that mis-identifies their gender. So there are exceptions. Yes, of course there are exceptions. But the general outcomes for LGBTQ children are worse, and there are many, many children who have told about the horrible, terrifying, violent experiences that they’ve had in foster care. And also, many of them run away because of this bullying and violence, and end up like many foster children in general, living in the streets, being exploited by sex traffickers, and when they’re caught by authorities, they’re frequently put in jail or juvenile detention. So this is another horrible aspect of the child welfare system that claims to be protecting children, but very often throws them into context of violence and pushes them into the streets, only to then be met again with more state violence, often by the criminal punishment system. Now this is one of the ways in which foster care is a pipeline to prison now.


DeRay Mckesson: Is anybody doing this right? Is there any place across the country, or is there like an advocacy group leading to make it better, or like, to dismantle it? Yeah, let me know. Let us know.


Professor Dorothy Roberts: There is a growing movement to abolish family policing and replace it with a radically different, reimagined way of caring for children and their families. When I wrote Killing the Black Body and later Shattered Bonds, there was hardly any organizing going on around this issue. Now there is lots of organizing, and your listeners can find many organizations around the country that are working to abolish family policing. And I’ll just mention a few. There is a Black woman named Joyce McMillan in New York City who herself experienced the terror of the family policing system when they took her children away from her on allegations of drug use, that she was using drugs, and she got her children back and is dedicated to ending this system. She formed an organization called Jane Back for families, which have been engaged both in protest marches, she’s put billboards around New York City that say things like, Some cops are caseworkers, and, They separate children at the Harlem border too. And she is also organized legislative efforts to pass bills in New York that would give Miranda rights to parents who—by the way, are protected from state intrusion into their homes by the Fourth Amendment, as well as they’re protected from police officers, but most places have a kind of exemption from the Fourth Amendment, which is unconstitutional, for child protective services, and other kinds of bills that would protect the rights of families against this kind of state intrusion. There is an organization, also in New York City, called Movement for Family Power, which is dedicated to abolishing family policing and to replacing it with a better way of treating children and families. There’s also an organization called The upEND Movement, and it is similarly dedicated to abolishing family policing and replacing it with a more humane way of addressing children and families’ needs. I should also mention around the country there’s the growth of what’s called family defender services, and these are these are public interest lawyers who are defending the rights of families to stay together. They represent parents in child welfare proceedings, and they are increasingly multi-disciplinary, innovative hubs for legal defense. They include not only lawyers, but also social workers and parent advocates to give a more holistic approach to the needs of families and defend them from being torn apart by judges.


DeRay Mckesson: Got it. Last few questions are: what’s the piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?


Professor Dorothy Roberts: Well, two things come to mind, if that’s OK. One is, what popped into my head is Derrick Bell, the late great Derrick Bell, who now has gotten prominence because he’s widely thought of as the founder of Critical Race Theory. And he was one of my professors at Harvard Law School, and he told me advice about writing, which was just put your thoughts on paper and then you can organize them later, but don’t sit there wondering what you should write. Just Write. That’s always stuck with me. And then another piece of advice, and I don’t know whom I get credit for it, was that collective action is always more powerful than individual action, and you should find other like-minded people with a common mission to work with instead of just trying to make change on your own.


DeRay Mckesson: Got it. And the last question is: what do you say to people who are, who are like they did everything they were supposed to do, they emailed, they called, they read your book, they read my book, they did all the things and like, the world hasn’t changed in the way they wanted it to. What do you say to those people?


Professor Dorothy Roberts: I would say to get inspiration from other people who are working toward the same goal, and to celebrate together the victories that you have, and continue inspiring each other to keep going. I’ve found that it’s been absolutely essential to me and my work, which I’ve been doing for more than three decades now. Today happens to be my 66 birthday, and I’ve been working as a scholar and activist since the late 1980s. Many of the issues I’ve been working on, the goals I’ve had, have not been fully achieved, but it’s been essential to me along the way to constantly be in contact with grassroots organizers, comrades who can celebrate when we have victory. That lifts my spirit and gives me the strength and the inspiration to keep going. So celebrate the small victories that do happen. It’s not true that we don’t make any progress at all. We do have victories that we need to proclaim and get hope from, and then believe that if not us, then those who follow us will keep working toward that horizon that we’re looking for, a truly humane and caring world that no longer oppresses people because of made-up differences based on power, a world where we truly care for each other and consider ourselves equal human beings. People have been working for that for centuries, and we have to keep on that path.


DeRay Mckesson: Awesome. Well we consider you a friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you back.


Professor Dorothy Roberts: Oh, my goodness, of course, I would love to be back. And hopefully when I come back, we can celebrate some victories in the movement to demolish family policing and replace it with a truly caring way of addressing the needs of children and their families.


DeRay Mckesson: Let’s do it! 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 A.J. Moultrie and mixed by Veronica Simonetti, and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Myles Johnson.