DeRay, Brittany, Sam and Clint talk about the unequal distribution of federal disaster funds, how a messenger’s identity affects a movement’s momentum, kidney donations, and artificial intelligence. Actor André Holland joins DeRay to discuss his new film “High Flying Bird,” the commodification of Black athletes and how art helps him work through trauma.
DeRay: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. On this episode, we have the news with me, Brittany, Clint, and Sam as usual and then we have André Holland, the incredible actor that you already know from Moonlight and his new movie out called High Flying Bird.
André Holland: In a way, I think that all the projects that I do, particularly this one, come out of questions that I’m asking myself or something that I’m dealing with for myself.
DeRay: The message this week, I’m just gonna read and I reference it a little bit in the interview with him but there’s a speech that his character gives in the middle of the movie and I love and it’s called “The Mango Season”. You need to watch the whole film to understand how it fits into the narrative, but I’m just gonna read it because this has been, when I saw it, I loved it and when I hear it every time, I love it.
DeRay: His character says, “Gavin had shot up to 6’6, a mango season they called it. All you need is a mango season and everything will change and it did. Everybody was coming down there to see him play. I guess this is the part where y’all expect me to say that I was jealous. Oh, I was, but not at him. I couldn’t be jealous of that fool. No, I was jealous of the cats that got to play him.
DeRay: “Gavin loved this game. He was thankful to God for his height, his talent, and then he lost all that. He lost that love and then he left the game. Lost his life. Y’all don’t lose that love, all right? Even if your mango season ain’t come, won’t come, past, hold on to that love. It’ll get you through.”
DeRay: I love the idea of a mango season, that we often have a mango season in our life and in our mango season, we learn what love feels like and we gotta hold that. We gotta keep that feeling for as long as we possibly can because it allows us to do so much of the work of finding our gift and finding our magic everyday
Brittany: Airplane travel has of course become much more safe over the past few decades, but most certainly this is a time of great tragedy for anybody who was related to those folks that were flying.
Clint: Yeah, just to echo that sentiment. Can’t imagine what the families of those folks must be experiencing. There has been media coverage around the plane crash and to the extent that I have seen, it has been relatively thoughtful but it is important to note the way that sort of public mourning manifests or doesn’t manifest itself when certain people die and when others don’t, you know?
Clint: I think Ethiopian Airlines plane crash that kills mostly people, I believe, from Ethiopia and from the continent of Africa, I think it’s worth sitting in brief for a little bit that almost 200 people lost their lives and it is getting coverage but the way that the sort of public reckoning with it seems to not take place in the same way that it would had a plane full of predominantly white people died. Just always something to be mindful of.
DeRay: One of the first ways the news came across was like, “And there were Americans on the plane” as if the only reason that we would care was because Americans were on the plane. We should actually care because people died in general and so many people died. The other thing and Brittany, this is sort of just piggybacking on what you said.
DeRay: It was reported in the Daily Beast that no new model of a jet has recorded two fatal accidents in its first year until this Boeing 737 MAX8. There really is a question about why would we even fly … Something is off with this jet, so I hope that Boeing is doing something to take action so that there are no more jet fatalities with this specific jet because clearly something is wrong.
Sam: My news today is about artificial intelligence and it’s actually a two part news because these are both related to artificial intelligence. The first has to do with the Department of Defense which recently developed an AI weapons system that apparently is one of the most sophisticated weapons systems at targeting people and it’s forced them to clarify that their existing policy on when and how artificial intelligence systems can kill people or use force is still in effect.
Sam: That policy is simply that any decision about using lethal force that is done by a drone or other weapon system that is using artificial intelligence needs to have people somewhere in that process who have the power to make the final decision about whether to use force. That’s sort of the official US policy on the use of artificial intelligence.
Sam: But that is now becoming a little bit more tenuous because of the development of weapons systems that are just able to target people and objects at a rate that’s much faster than what a human can do. That exists. It’s actually going into operation.
Sam: My second piece of news that’s related to this is a study that actually looks at artificial intelligence systems and how they are discriminating with regard to race for driverless cars. This is a study from the Georgia Institute of Technology that looked at automated vehicles and how well they detect pedestrians based on the lightness or darkness of their skin tone.
Sam: What they were able to show in running thousands of images of different people and skin tones, they were able to find that actually this system that is supposed to be guiding driverless cars correctly detected the presence of people who were light skinned at a higher rate on average about 5% more often than detecting people who had darker skin.
Sam: What that means in real life is that if you have driverless cars using this system that you’re more likely to be hit by those cars if you have a darker skin tone. Both of these have implications for not only some of the battlefield but also just our everyday lives and I think that as AI continues to be used more and more in every aspect of our lives, the way in which that shows up and the way in which that may actually be implemented in discriminatory ways or have discriminatory implications needs to be taken into consideration on the front end before these things become more widespread.
Brittany: I know that we’ve talked about the meeting that several of us had with Facebook. Gosh, was that last year, DeRay?
DeRay: It feels like forever ago but yeah, it was just last year.
Brittany: It was just last year and we asked very pointed and specific questions about everything from white supremacy online to how to tackle fake news and the meddling that occurred with our voting process in 2016 and the answer that we received most fundamentally was the machines will take care of it, the algorithms will figure it out.
Brittany: This is just another piece of frankly the mounting evidence that shows us that the algorithms are problematic too. That if the math is also biased, that that’s actually not a solution to fight bias. It’s not a solution to fight injustice or white supremacy. I know that we had talked about this over and over and over again but we really, really cannot emphasize enough how important diversity, inclusion, equity, and anti-bias work, not just non-biased work but anti-bias work in the sciences and in the research field is critically important.
Clint: I’m brought back to one of the most egregious and unsettling versions of this and that was a few years ago when Google photos came into the fore and I remember the application mistakenly labeled photos of black people as gorillas and obviously, being labeled a gorilla is tied to a long history of dehumanization and caricature to make black people seem inherently inferior.
Clint: That you have this huge application that was released and couldn’t tell the difference between a human being and a gorilla was unsettling and again sort of reflective of a much larger problem. There’s no room for error. These cars should not be put on the road and such technology should not be implemented and put out into the world until that margin of error is decreased to the most finite point that it can be.
DeRay: I think what I was struck by is just how pervasive AI is in ways that we don’t even … That don’t hit the public conversation ever. There’s a Washington Post article that is called “Wanted: The Perfect Babysitter. Must Pass AI Scan for Respect and Attitude.”
DeRay: The author Drew Harwell is writing about this company called Predictum that’s an online service that use advanced AI to assess a babysitter’s personality and it aims its scanner at one candidate’s thousands of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts. What it does is that it offers a risk rating for the person based on what they post and the words they use that gives them a score of being a drug abuser for instance or bullying or being disrespectful.
DeRay: It’s all predicated on the words and the quote “toxic behavior” that they’re searching for. As you can imagine, there are already fears that this is gonna just reproduce the biases that people who use language that’s in group language, it might be slang, you might say, “That’s dope” and the AI might think that you do dope and that’s not actually helpful.
DeRay: Try and think about all the ways that we often think about AI in criminal justice and in some of the big ways like the court systems, stuff like that and Sam, I think you bringing it up with the self driving cars, I didn’t even think about the self driving car not seeing people of color.
DeRay: I certainly didn’t think about a babysitter AI potentially being rolled out to screen babysitters across the country. You really have no recourse if the algorithm says that you’re dangerous. You’re sort of screwed. It’s not like you would even ever know as the babysitter. People just wouldn’t be hiring you and this could actually just reproduce a set of biased values. Again, you wouldn’t even know. I didn’t know until prepping for this article.
DeRay: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned, there’s more to come.
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Brittany: I think that you all were around last week on the internet when we all saw hell freeze over. The very conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times released a column entitled “The Case for Reparations.” Of course, the name is reminiscent of the article four or five years ago in The Atlantic by TaNehisi Coates that was also called, “A Case for Reparations”.
Brittany: In that original article by Coates, he laid out in painstaking detail both through personal narrative, through statistical analysis, and through historical lens why African American descendants of enslaved people are, indeed, owed reparations in this country.
Brittany: We’ve talked about it plenty of times on this podcast. When you look at the undergirding of the economic system, of politics, of society in America, that indeed it is true that it was built on the free and forced labor of enslaved Africans and it is still continuing to reap benefits for certain people and reap detriment for others.
Brittany: Who would’ve thought that David Brooks would indeed cite that article and say, “Five years ago, I read this thing and I was dubious at best but through a number of experiences, personal reckonings of my own, and some real study and thought on this, I do agree that reparations are owed to African American people.”
Brittany: In the online discussion of that, I found myself reminding our readership and our listenership of something we talk about often, that if you are a person that holds a privileged identity, it is your responsibility if you desire to be an accomplice or a co-conspirator even more than an ally … It is your responsibility to help explain and build a bridge for folks who are just like you.
Brittany: White people need to go talk to white people, men need to go talk to men, cis folks, you need to talk to cis folks. Wealthy people need to talk to wealthy people, et cetera. This was a reminder of that because so many people will be talking about reparations that would never have read Coates’ article, that never heard of or saw Coates’ article and would not have known of Coates’ article had David Brooks not cited him.
Brittany: I was one of many people who put Coates’ article back up on the internet to remind people that this conversation has been going on for decades but most recently has been happening because of a black author. As that conversation was going on, a researcher hit us up and said, “Hey, we actually did a study on this that proves that what you’ve been saying all this time is true.”
Brittany: That indeed white people do listen to white people differently than they listen to black people. In the study, they had a white person, a black person, and an anonymous person, who it turns out the white subjects assumed were black. They had them try to convince the white subjects to support Black Lives Matter.
Brittany: White subjects were more likely to support Black Lives Matter if they assumed that the appeal was coming from a white person. When the appeal was coming from a black person, they were not only less likely to support Black Lives Matter as a movement, but they were also more likely to believe that the black explainer was more racist than the white explainer.
Brittany: In some ways, it was a water is wet study and some ways, it’s very illuminating. But I know as much as people … Quantitative data with their qualitative data, I wanted to bring that study here.
Clint: I have a couple thoughts. One, I do wanna acknowledge, not necessarily give props but I do wanna acknowledge that David Brooks is an incredibly public figure and has previously come out against reparations very publicly and has now walked that back. I don’t say that to say yeah, David Brooks, you’re the man.
Clint: I say it because I do recognize that in people who think out loud and think in public and write and speak and do all those things, that it is rare for people who have once held a specific position to then, even if it’s days later, weeks later, years later in this case, to sort of walk that position back and say, “I was wrong. I’ve learned some things. I’ve thought about some things. I’ve had some experiences that make me believe that the thing that I used to believe is not true anymore.”
Clint: In Ta-Nehisi’s article, he even talks about how previously he didn’t believe in reparations and only over the course of years doing this research did he come to believe that. I say that because I do think it is important to give credit where credit is due.
Clint: Second, I also think that it is remarkable that we are having a national conversation about reparations in the way that we are. We have presidential candidates being asked what their stance is on reparations. To be clear, scholars have been studying this for many years. Derek Hamilton, Sandy Gerrity, many, many people. Activists have been talking about this in many spaces for many years. Clint: Now, we’re in a moment where the speaker of the House has endorsed HR40 which is a commission to study the issue of reparations and whether or not that is necessary and what harm has been done to the black community and how amends can be made. I think people of good faith can have different conceptions of what the best way to move forward through a policy lens is for reparations.
Clint: But I do think it is worth saying, it is a good thing an it is incredible that we are in a position where it is at the forefront of our discourse in the way that it is.
Sam: Building on that point, Clint, this may be the most prominent conversation about reparations that we’re having as a nation since the 1870s, right? This is huge. That wouldn’t be possible without the space that was created by the protests, by the conversation about police violence, about racial injustice in so many aspects of society that when you look back at when the seat change really took place and you look at the data, you look at the polling data, this took place in 2014.
Sam: That’s when you see racial attitudes shift significantly in favor of a more progressive stance on race. You see that happening for everybody who is not a Republican, so Republicans have stayed where they are, maybe even gotten a little bit worse. But overall, if you look what’s happening across the country, people have better attitudes on race.
Sam: They’re more open to acknowledging and addressing racial inequity now than at any other point since the civil rights movement. We often miss that because our politics and our political system responds to a different set of incentives, favors particular groups and particular perspectives.
Sam: You see structures like the electoral college and others that will take a country that is actually moving left and actually give you a result that is a president that is far to the right on these issues. But overall, what’s happening as a nation I think is positive and I’m hopeful that these conversations will get a little bit more concrete.
Sam: We’ve seen some proposals for example from Cory Booker with the baby bonds. We’ve seen from Elizabeth Warren on housing and down payment assistance in communities that have been red lined. We’re starting to see some proposals to address the legacy of racism, of segregation and slavery and I’m hopeful that those conversations will continue, that more candidates will come out in support and some of the candidates who haven’t supported to date might have to change their minds as well because obviously this is something that people are open to now in a way that we haven’t seen before.
DeRay: The only thing I’d add is that what the David Brooks piece, the thing that I struggle with and you struggle with intentionally is one of the reasons that Brooks highlights that he came around is because he had personal experiences.
DeRay: While I think that is interesting and important, it sort of is a feature of dominant culture that the only time you start to believe people is when you personally experience the thing. It’s like he’s like, I was around poor people and it’s like well, that is interesting and great.
DeRay: The thing though is that we should think that putting kids in cages is bad whether you saw the kids in cages or not. There are a host of things that our value should actually help us be on the side of whether or not we personally have met with people.
DeRay: The reason that the idea that the only time that you come around is when you have had a personal experience is that that actually very quickly becomes some sort of voyeurism and exploitation if you need to go on a poverty tour to believe that poverty is real. You need to go on a red lining tour to believe that red lining actually happened.
DeRay: While I agree with you, Clint, it is a good thing that Brooks came around, I’m mindful of the texture of how that happened. The second is Brittany, to the study which was a fascinating study. It’s something that we’ve known for a long time which is why you called it a water is wet study.
DeRay: It also is interesting to think about what the implications are and I don’t know if we did this a long time ago, Sam, one of your pieces of news, episode 10 or whatever was about how support for public policy actually decreases as people of color support it.
DeRay: That’s sort of an interesting thing to look at in this light that people of color are sort of expected to support racial justice things and are discounted when they do support them, which is what this study says, the discounted piece. I’m adding the expected to support.
DeRay: People actually just believe dominant culture people about issues around justice and what’s interesting in this study is that they explicitly use issues of police brutality. That is the issue and show that white people think that people of color are racist and anonymous people are racist if they don’t know the race. But they believe white people, that they’re sort of objective and unbiased when they offer their opinion which has fascinating implications for how we actually build coalition.
DeRay: It is a reminder that in this moment, it’s good that there are so many white people actually ready to do work or willing to be ready to do work, whatever that is because as we work to dismantle white supremacy, they will be important.
Brittany: I’ll just close with two really important nuances. One, as DeRay just referenced, I talk about those elements of white dominant culture all the time. One of them is the worship of the written word. That if you haven’t seen it written down and if it doesn’t have numbers attached to it, then it’s not believable.
Brittany: If a piece like Brooks’ is the first time that you ever considered reparations because the messenger was different, sit with that and interrogate why that’s true for you. The other thing to remember is that reparations can and we can have this conversation with a lot of nuance about exactly how it’s delivered.
Brittany: Here’s why. There is certainly monetary reparations owed to the people who are direct descendants of enslaved people because it was indeed their labor that built this country. But there are also so may ways in which racial justice and the legacy of racial injustice manifests today whether you are a black person descended of slaves or you are an immigrant from the Caribbean or you’re AfroLatinx.
Brittany: There are so many ways in which black skin in this country will set you back and that is deeply connected to a legacy of racism, of slavery, of Jim Crow, et cetera.
Clint: For my news this week, I’m thinking a lot about the issue of organ donation and kidney donations. I’m thinking of it ’cause my dad was recently here in D.C. and he was doing some advocacy work on the Hill to get members of Congress to back a number of issues that would help people who are living donors, meaning they donate their organs while they’re still alive and also to help people who are in need of organ transplants and donations.
Clint: My dad has had two kidney transplants. He has had chronic kidney disease for a large part of his adult life and we are so blessed and so fortunate that there were two living donors and he’s still with us because of that. That is unfortunately not the case for so many people. There are 100,000 people in the US who are currently waiting for a kidney donation.
Clint: Every 10 minutes, another person is added to the national transplant waiting list. That’s for organs in general and 82% of those patients are waiting for a kidney. Kidney donations are by far the largest need. Everyday 12 people die while they are waiting for a kidney transplant.
Clint: Part of what I want to bring this up for and to make clear is that some people think that you can only donate your organs if you’ve been killed in a car crash or if something’s happened to you and that is certainly the case but you can also donate, for so many organs like a kidney, you can donate while you are alive. That has a huge impact on the person.
Clint: A kidney from a living donor can function anywhere between 12 to 20 years and a kidney from a deceased donor often functions for 8 to 12 years. Sometimes a living donor kidney can function for twice as long as a kidney that’s coming from someone who’s deceased.
Clint: There are a lot of misconceptions about organ donation that I think are really important to dismiss like I remember hearing that if you donate your organs even after you died, then you can’t have an actual funeral ’cause your body’s all messed up and that is not true. That is not the case.
Clint: You can have a normal funeral or a cremation or whatever you prefer and there are so many people that can be living donors. People don’t know that you can function with just one kidney. All you need is one kidney. If you are willing, please consider what it means to be a living donor. You are saving someone’s life, you are saving the lives of people like my dad.
Clint: Make sure that you go to registerme.org where you can register to be an organ donor. Make sure you change your driver’s license and make sure that you take some time and consider what it means to be a living donor. There are policies in place that make it so that you can take time off of work and people like my family will be so, so grateful for the gift of life that you have given someone.
Sam: Clint, this was really, really eye opening for me. I didn’t know much about this issue at all. I didn’t know that 58% of the US population were registered organ donors. If you haven’t registered yet, you can go to registerme.org and become one. I also didn’t know some of the racial demographics of who was impacted by this issue, who was awaiting a transplant.
Sam: 58% of patients awaiting life saving transplants are people of color. 58%. This is an issue that disproportionately impacts communities of color. If you can, contribute and help out, register yourself at registerme.org. This is definitely an issue that needs more attention and more action because it’s unacceptable to have anybody waiting on this list not knowing whether or not they’ll be able to survive.
Sam: For many people, approximately 8,000 people each year die because the organs that they need are not donated in time. This is a serious issue, life or death, and you can be part of making a difference.
Brittany: I’m glad that you brought up all of the theories around what can go wrong with kidney donation. I remember turning 16 and getting my driver’s license in Missouri. They asked me if I wanted to be an organ donor, I said enthusiastically yes, and it wasn’t until a few weeks later when I was very excitedly showing people my driver’s license ’cause I was 16 and I was just excited to have one.
Brittany: Someone who was religious that I loved very much told me to go get that taken off. I asked them why and I heard so many of the things that you just talked about. That I wouldn’t be able to have a proper funeral and more importantly, that it was going to be a sacrifice of the soul. That the idea of putting one person’s organs into another person’s body was problematic with the soul.
Brittany: I just kinda thought to myself, if I’ve got a working heart that the God we both serve gave me, why wouldn’t God want me to use that heart or that kidney or whatever organ that is in life or in death to help save another life.
Brittany: If we all come from the same human fabric anyway, as is the religious ideal and belief, then wouldn’t this be the way that I can use whatever I’ve got and whatever God gave me to the betterment of other people?
Brittany: As I talked with that person, it was clear that they had just never interrogated where they heard that from and why they believed that and if they even thought that was true. I think through the course of that conversation, they started to think differently. I certainly wasn’t discouraged ultimately from removing that from my driver’s license and it’s still on there.
Brittany: But ultimately, we have to recognize where some of these ideas about these things come from, really pick them apart and interrogate where they could be coming from and make a decision tht can help so many people.
DeRay: There was a study that talked about in 1995, 7% of white patients on the list received a live donor kidney within two years compared to 6.8% of Hispanics and 5.1% of Asians and 3.4% of blacks. Black people in 1995 still the lowest to receive a live donor kidney.
DeRay: By 2014, black and Hispanic patients were actually less likely to get a live donor kidney than before. 11.4% of whites received live donor organs compared to 5.9% of Hispanics, 5.6% of Asians, and just 2.9% of blacks. It was getting worse.
DeRay: The second thing that I didn’t know is about the out of pocket cost for donors. I literally had no clue. I don’t know, in my mind, it was like you wanna donate, you go to the hospital, I didn’t know who paid for it but what research shows is that 53% of living kidney donors have more than $1,000 in out of pocket costs including travel and healthcare as well as indirect costs such as lost wages.
DeRay: And 20% have more than $5,000 in out of pocket costs and that’s actually one of the reasons why the research suggests that the disparity in race is so great because the disparity in disposable income is so closely linked to race. I just didn’t know. Thanks for bringing this up, Clint. I learned a lot.
DeRay: My news, the title of it is “How Federal Disaster Money Favors the Rich”. We’ve talked a lot about natural disasters. I think that AOC has done a really good job of putting climate change on the national conversation with the Green New Deal.
DeRay: But what this talks about is why disparity in disaster aid actually favors people who already have money. One I didn’t even think about is that some of it is literally just a matter of the forms. A lot of the application requirements aren’t designed to favor some citizens over others. They’re designed to make sure that there’s no fraudulence.
DeRay: But they require a computer, they require long amounts of data or a lot of data about your past and houses and locations and bank accounts and all that stuff that just … If you don’t have a computer, you can’t fill out the application so you obviously aren’t gonna get any of the aid.
DeRay: I hadn’t even thought about that. And then, NPR did a study on one federal disaster program and found the same disparity. The program used federal and local money to buy homes that had been flooded or affected by natural disasters and to turn those homes permanently in to green space to reduce flood risk which makes a lot of sense.
DeRay: The buy outs are voluntary and the homeowner could use the money to go somewhere safe. The buyouts disproportionately went to whiter communities and when they looked at it, they looked at about 40,000 property buyouts and found about 85% of them went to white and non-Hispanic people.
DeRay: Like NPR was trying to tease out why and again some of the why they believe is just inaccess to even apply for these things and then some of it does appear just to be discrimination, just good ‘ole American discrimination.
DeRay: Was interesting and fascinating ’cause I hadn’t thought about the way the disproportionate aid was impacted by the choices that people could or could not make to even access the aid.
Brittany: I found myself so frustrated by the reporter essentially saying that the low interest loans that FEMA provides also suffer from this kind of bias even when you adjust for credit scores. If a black family or a Latinx family and a white family have the exact same kind of range of credit scores, the families of color are still less likely to receive the low interest loan or receive it at the same rate as white families.
Brittany: I just continue to find this frustration when we require people of color and other marginalized people to do all of the right things and they do and they still suffer from the bias. We tell people fix your credit, be financial sound, get a good financial education, make wise decisions with your money.
Brittany: And they do, and then a natural disaster hits and they’re still left, even after all that hard work, suffering from the things that they cannot avoid simply because of the color of their skin. I also think it’s really important to recognize here that this is only gonna get worse.
Brittany: That with climate change, natural disasters are not going anywhere and until the bias is actually rooted out of the system, we’re not going to see a fix here. It’s interesting because NPR initially submitted a FOIA request for these records and they were denied which tells me that the federal government knew that this bias was going on and they really didn’t want anybody to know about it.
Brittany: They eventually sued and won and that’s how we were able to get this important data.
Sam: The only thing I’ll add to this, I was recently watching on Netflix, the 2000s. It’s a show about the 2000s. But, one of the episodes covered Katrina and I was shocked. They had a video of George W. Bush. This was on September 9th of 2005, this was less than two weeks after Katrina.
Sam: This is a direct quote from him. He said, “The storm didn’t discriminate and neither will we in the recovery effort.” This goes to what you were saying Brittany around the fact that the government, FEMA itself, has tried to keep this under wraps and now we’re seeing the data.
Sam: More than a decade after Katrina, years after a number of other storms have hit, still in the midst of what’s been going on in Puerto Rico and the recovery there. We’re seeing the data that confirms what people have been saying for quite some time. People in New Orleans, people in Puerto Rico, people in Houston about the ways in which the federal government responds to these tragedies and these disasters often times is implemented in racially discriminatory ways.
Sam: This isn’t surprising. We’ve talked about how these same practices happen in so many other spheres of society but it’s particularly egregious when you’re thinking about people who have the highest need, people who just experienced a disaster, people who desperately need help and even still in that context seeing how the government can respond in discriminatory ways is heartbreaking.
Sam: I hope that the next administration takes this issue seriously and makes sure that some of these issues are thought of on the front end because if we continue just responding and compensating people according to the way that it’s always done, we’ll continue to have discriminatory results that leave a lot of people behind.
Clint: Just to build on that point, Sam, as you all know, I’m from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina was my senior year of high school. Our home, neighborhood was destroyed as was so much of the city and we were in a position where we were fortunate to have family who lived elsewhere who we could rely on.
Clint: I remember watching, as so many people in our community, just were flailing after the storm. If you don’t have disposable income in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, you don’t have money to get the basic necessities, to find a new apartment.
Clint: Even before you can apply for FEMA or before you can get access to services from the government, sometimes we fail to to understand the extent to which the processes by which we tell people living in poverty or people in need of assistance, just get online and apply for this thing or just go to this office or just print this out. So many people don’t even have access to a computer, so many people don’t have access to the internet.
Clint: So many people don’t have the resources or time to figure out who the person they need to go to and then get there and also, are they gonna bring their kids, are they gonna leave their kids, do they have the education necessary in order to fill out the forms in the way that’s not gonna force them to come back?
Clint: Or in a worst case scenario, that’s gonna have their application denied even when they are materially deserving of it. I saw so much of that happen in real time with folks that I know and so many people throughout New Orleans and this exists in so many different ways with natural disasters across the past decade.
Clint: But I did not know the extent to which the gap in wealth and income was exacerbated but it makes sense intuitively because I’ve seen and heard so many of those stories from people back home.
DeRay: That’s the news. Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere, there’s more to come.
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DeRay: And now, my conversation with Andre Holland who recently starred in the Netflix movie, “High Flying Bird”. Andre Holland, honored to have you on Pod Save the People.
André Holland: The honor is mine. Thank you for having me.
DeRay: Excited to talk about your newest project on Netflix. I will try to have no spoilers about it, but what drew you to this project?
André Holland: Well, it’s actually a project that I helped to create. Five years ago, I was working on this TV show called The Nick with Steven Soderbergh and I was at a place in my career and life where I felt like I wanted more opportunities than were available to me, specifically opportunities that I found to be quality opportunities that spoke to myself and my experience.
André Holland: I started pitching Steven on some ideas. I had an idea about the negro leagues which I was fascinated by and obsessed with. Through a series of conversations, we came to this place.
DeRay: How close does this mimic … There was a lock out in 2011?
André Holland: Yeah. DeRay: How close does this actually mimic that or was inspired by that?
André Holland: It was definitely inspired by it. There have been a series of lockouts, I think four, five maybe. But I know that the one in 2011 was really significant and we definitely reference that, used that kind of as a template for building out this story.
André Holland: One of the things that we found as we were researching is that in 2011 and also in prior lockouts, this idea of players starting their own league is something that has come up a number of times and it seemed like every time it came up, it sort of got to the point of can we do this?
André Holland: People came to the table and agreed and put the game back on. It wasn’t hard for us to imagine a world in which this kinda got pushed a little bit further down the line.
DeRay: I’m always interested when there are actors of color who do these performances that are deeply about race and identity and how much of that you carry with you afterwards, what that looks like. I don’t wanna give too much away but I think about the mango speech as one where I watched it and I was really quiet and it was heavy in its own sort of way.
DeRay: I’m interested in how much of these things stay with you after you’re done?
André Holland: It definitely sticks with me and in a way, I think that all the projects that I do, particularly this one, come out of a question that I’m asking myself or something that I’m dealing with for myself. It’s funny you talk about the mango speech ’cause that’s a place in the film that some people have said this backstory that Ray has feels a little bit wedged in.
André Holland: But for me, I actually really liked that speech as well.
DeRay: I love it, it was such a great metaphor.
André Holland: Yeah, ’cause I think also what he’s talking about in that speech is trauma from his past. An experience that he had where he lost someone who was very close to him. He holds himself accountable for that and I think because it’s something he hasn’t, Ray, my character hasn’t quite resolved. I think that’s a key to his behavior.
André Holland: That’s why he’s simultaneously really loving and paternal to this young player, Eric Scott, but at the same time, he keeps everybody in his life at a distance. He puts up this façade of being this really smart, well spoken, clever guy but there are moments that I see and I feel where he’s scrambling and he’s lost and he’s super vulnerable.
André Holland: That’s something that I too deal with having been born and raised in Alabama. I find myself often wrestling with these ideas of what has my past done to me, what kind of behavior has that created in me, how much of that do I carry, can I separate myself from that? Do I want to separate myself from my past?
André Holland: In some ways, I think the movie, this character journey in a way is about trying to merge these different parts of himself. His past where he wasn’t an agent, wasn’t wearing a fancy suit and putting those pieces together. I think that I carry a lot of who I am into the project and then often carry a lot of who I am into who those characters are away from everybody that I do.
DeRay: I think about this theme of what it means to love a game so much, what it means to willingly walk into a space that in some ways, as the film sort of teases, commodifies and turns people into products. But it’s all rooted in this love of the game and there’s something about when it becomes an industry that sort of taints the love of the game.
André Holland: Yeah.
DeRay: Did it change the way you thought about the love of the game and what that does to people, how it functions?
André Holland: Yeah, there’s a book called “Black Gods of the Asphalt” that I came across as we were researching, even prior to researching actually, written by this brilliant brother, Dr. Onaje Woodbine and the book itself is about just that. It’s about what the game itself means particularly to young black boys and girls who find themselves in these urban environments and flocking to these places for healing, really.
André Holland: He talks about the basketball court being one of the only places where people in those communities, in our communities can express real vulnerability. And yet, we look at the NBA and we look at professional sports or even college sports and people do project onto these black bodies our sort of fantasies about what it means to be a high flying bird without often understanding what the underbelly of that is, what that person’s journey is to get to that point, what they’re carrying with them, the people who they’ve had to leave behind.
André Holland: I’ve learned a lot about that and I think that’s made it very hard for me personally to enjoy sports in the way that I used to, particularly college sports. I grew up a huge college football fan but now when I go to games, it just feels dirty to me. I went to a game last year in Alabama and to be standing in the stadium, 80 some thousand people, many of whom voted the way they voted and feel the way they feel about people taking knees or having opinions politically.
André Holland: And yet, at every time out, I hear hip hop blaring from the sound system and these same people nodding their heads and dancing to Lil John or whatever it is. There’s a conflict that I haven’t quite yet resolved but that I know feels wrong and it feels complicated to me. In a way, I think that’s what the movie is doing is just putting the question forward of saying how do we engage with sports? Is there more to the story?
André Holland: Dr. Harry Edwards, who makes an appearance at the end of the film also helped educate me on the history of this transaction. The sociology of sport is something that he’s been dealing with for a very long time, so he’s opened my eyes to a lot of things and I hope that people who see the movie will then go and engage with his work as well and sort of unpick some of these things.
DeRay: One of your lines in the film is quote “put the control in the hands of those behind the ball instead of those up in the sky box”. Like you said before, when there have been attempts to change the configuration of ownership, that has sort of been a struggle. Do you have any hope that something might happen to change the NBA or any professional sports to make it more equitable, more just?
DeRay: Considering that without black bodies, the industry doesn’t exist, it comes to a grinding halt.
André Holland: I think, in all fairness, I think the NBA of all the professional sports, the NBA has done probably a better job than any of them in terms of giving players more control and allowing those players a platform to express their own ideas and points of view.
André Holland: But I think that in this movie, the NBA really is just a template for a number of other industries. The NFL for example is something that I think
DeRay: Is struggling.
André Holland: Clearly is struggling but even if you look at corporate America, if you look at entertainment, the entertainment business, this whole thing started because I felt disempowered in a way. I felt like I didn’t have a place in the business unless I was willing to be the thing that people wanted blackness to be.
André Holland: I wanted to play complex parts and yet there are these series of negotiations that have to happen in order to get to that point. I have hope that a lot of industries will change as a result, certainly my industry. I think that’s very much what Tyrell and I are engaged in right now.
André Holland: We did this project together, we did Moonlight together, and we have a number of other things that we wanna do together
DeRay: Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh.
André Holland: Yeah like building and empowering and inviting more people to the table and saying how can we tell our own stories on our own terms without having to answer to people who don’t necessarily understand or care to understand the complexity of who we are?
DeRay: One of the things I really loved and one of the things that frustrates me about a lot of movies and films is the way that the totality of black communities get shown. What I love about this is you see, I saw black people that I know. I’m like, I know her. That’s a lot. I know these kids.
DeRay: I used to be a teacher and I saw those kids in the gym. That was just how … That was kids, you know? It was one of the first times where I was like, I see black kids not being sad and distraught but you see them really being smart and annoying and you saw all of that. What’s his name, Jamir?
André Holland: Oh, Jamaro. The other basketball player.
DeRay: Yes, his mom. That type-
André Holland: We know those moms.
DeRay: You know I have met her before and I really loved the way that blackness actually got to be a complex thing in a way that we don’t … I think people try to do it but they sort of overshoot. They try so hard to run from the stereotype that they create another stereotype and I like that this didn’t do that in a way that was really special.
André Holland: Thank you. Appreciate you saying that. I gotta say that’s down to our writer Tyrell McRaney. He’s a brilliant brother and he’s interested in all the same things that you and I are interested in, I think. All praises to him for that.
DeRay: Yeah. Is there anything that you learned about the sport that surprised you? Just curious, you sat with this content for so long. Was there anything that you learned in the process that surprised you?
André Holland: There were a lot of things. When you talk to the players, my perception of it is that they’re these flashy guys who are just out here with too much money and grown kids, basically. But actually what I found is that a lot of these players, they know from the time they’re very, very young what the expectation is or what’s possible for them athletically.
André Holland: Their lives are often crafted around that gift, so therefore a lot of them are really, really, really, really smart and aware of what’s going on. That was something that I was really sensitive to as we were writing the script is that
DeRay: They weren’t the naïve sort of
André Holland: They didn’t come off as naïve and dumb jocks.
DeRay: I know what you’re saying.
André Holland: Particularly with them being, we’re talking about black players. I especially did not wanna put that image out there. It was easy to do because all the players I met weren’t like that.
DeRay: That’s cool.
André Holland: They actually were really clever. That was something that I learned that I really appreciated. Then again, just the Harry Edwards piece of it. That this idea isn’t new. The Colin Kaepernick idea isn’t new. There’s a long history of athletes sort of being activated in this way. The history of it was something that I really was surprised about.
DeRay: I don’t wanna give away too much for people that haven’t seen it, but one of the themes too is identity and sexuality with one of the characters. I’m trying to be vague if you haven’t seen it. Why was that important to you as a feature of this? Then did you get a glimpse, do you have any understanding of how you think the league would deal with that today?
André Holland: I know when we were working on this, Michael Sam in the NFL was
DeRay: He’s not playing right now.
André Holland: Not anymore, no, and that was a part of the controversy around it was how much of that was about his being out? That was something that was in the air when we were writing it but for me, from a personal standpoint, that character that’s spoken about from Ray’s past is someone from my own past.
DeRay: Oh, interesting.
André Holland: Hesitate to say who it is but someone who I was very close to who passed away when I was younger and our relationship is very much like that relationship between Ray and that character. It was important to me to put that in there.
André Holland: Also with Tyrell, as we speak about these things, a lot of what we talk about is that trauma, just that stuff from the past that keeps finding its way into the present. That’s something I was interested in was how does that affect this guy today?
André Holland: In terms of the sexuality piece of it, Tyrell, he’s always been interested in it and I by extension of knowing him have become more interested in it. Yeah, I think that’s always, often a part of the stuff that he works on.
DeRay: I think about when we experience trauma really early in life, we’re trying to figure out what it means and then we often have a moment where we’re like okay, now I know how to talk about it. Now I know how to process it. Did the film allow you to do that in any way?
André Holland: For sure, for sure, and I think in some ways when I look back at my career, everything I do has a bit to do with me trying to work through something. When we were doing Moonlight, and you don’t think about it at the time, but when we were doing Moonlight, vulnerability was something that I was questioning or wrestling with. Second chances. Do we deserve them? Do I deserve them? Ya dig?
André Holland: Getting to play Kevin, the guy who made a terrible decision early in his life and getting to re-encounter this person again and trying to open his heart and make space for that person to be themselves. That was really important to me.
André Holland: Also, The Nick, the thing that me and Steven were working on five years ago. When we started talking about High Flying Bird was about it’s this isolated, lonely dude who found himself being selected as special and put into this situation surrounded by white people, none of whom wanted him there and yet he had to navigate and find his way.
André Holland: Being a poor boy from Alabama and then finding myself in these situations that my friends didn’t get to participate in, I’ve often felt that isolation and that vulnerability that comes with that isolation. Anyway, I said all that to say I think every project that I work on has something to do with where I am.
André Holland: And I’m grateful for the art that I get to work that stuff out in front of people.
DeRay: It makes me think of in organizing, we talk about this notion of young people, that young people often have the experiences before they have the language and part of our work is to not penalize them for not having the language even though they have the experience.
DeRay: What I hope art can do at its best is help people with the language. They help people access these things. That is my life, I lived it. The second thing is this notion that what whiteness provides is a psychic freedom.
DeRay: When you talk about white kids being able to do whatever, it’s like growing up, psychic freedom was not one of the things that we had. I think about always being mindful of we had to sleep on the floor when the gunshots got too close. I don’t know if we were un-free but we certainly weren’t free.
André Holland: Right.
DeRay: Psychically, even when we had food and drink, those sort of things.
André Holland: Yeah.
DeRay: I also think, have you been to a high school recently?
André Holland: To high school? Yeah.
DeRay: You go to high school, I see kids, I see the way they show up in the world and I’m like, we could never. That just wasn’t even possible
André Holland: Right.
DeRay: You know what I mean?
André Holland: Yeah.
DeRay: That’s exciting though, isn’t it?
André Holland: Yeah.
DeRay: I think it’s beautiful.
André Holland: I think that names the thing that I’ve been wrestling with is that I’ve never felt that I had that psychic freedom. Life has felt, for so many of us, like being on a tight rope.
DeRay: I think Eric, his name’s Eric, right?
André Holland: Yeah.
DeRay: His character reminds me of it in some ways. Two things, one is part of what it means to be marginalized since you grew up on the margin and part of growing up on the margin is that on the margin, you’re often unheard and unseen.
André Holland: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DeRay: You get people who suddenly get heard and seen for the first time and they get addicted to being heard and seen more than they get addicted to anything else because it’s one of the interesting caveats about whiteness too is that you rarely see white people, especially white men fight to be heard or whatever ’cause there’s an expectation of being heard whereas that is not most people of color’s expectation at all.
André Holland: Yeah.
DeRay: The second thing, part of too what it means to grow up in marginalized communities, you start to understand the constraint as a matter of survival, right?
André Holland: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DeRay: When you’re poor, you know how long $20 can go because you have to. It’s actually interesting when you talk to the people who study wealth is that they always talk about this notion, poor people don’t need to go to financial literacy classes. It’s not helpful because poor people actually know how to manage their money better than anybody else because they have to, right?
André Holland: Absolutely.
DeRay: That is understanding the constraints because you’ve had too. It’s also this thing is that when you grow up, you have to unlearn the constraints a little bit because you have just learned them so well as a matter of survival
André Holland: Totally.
DeRay: You can over index on the constraints in that you actually forgot to imagine because imagination doesn’t happen in a space where the constraints are so present.
André Holland: Yes, preach.
DeRay: It’s like how do we … It’s why I love this mango season thing. Mango season, everybody. It’s in the middle of the film. But yeah, how do we actually name the constraints and move them out of the way so that we can imagine again and imagine and ask the biggest question and do the biggest thing and dream the biggest …
DeRay: Which is in some ways, what would it mean to have our own league? How do we even put those things out as a valid and real thing? It’s like what whiteness actually always does is it always operates at the most extreme, it always asks the biggest question because the constraints are always mythical, right?
DeRay: The constraints are always these things that can be fudged. In blackness, the constraints are always life and death. They feel permanent even when we … When we say the system is broken and people say, “No, it’s designed to be that way”, my takeaway is that it was designed, right?
DeRay: Somebody made this up and because people made it up, we can make something better.
André Holland: Yeah, 100%.
DeRay: As we come to the end, two questions. One is there are a lot of people who would say that they’ve done it all. They’ve protested, they’ve called, they’ve emailed, they supported the arts, they did it, whatever and nothing has changed. What would you say to those people? People losing hope.
André Holland: I don’t think there’s room to lose hope. I don’t think we have that. It’s what you just said, right? The constraints. The constraints are real and we don’t have the luxury to imagine them not being there, so I think that we have to continue to call and protest and write and support the arts and all of the above. I don’t think there’s time to be in all ways tired.
DeRay: You so southern.
André Holland: Country as a haystack.
DeRay: Last question is, this is one I ask everybody ’cause I’m always fascinated, what is a piece of advice that you’ve gotten that’s stuck with you?
André Holland: Gotten a lot of advice over the years. My mother.
DeRay: What does she call you?
André Holland: When I was growing up, I always loved when she would call me buddy.
André Holland: Yeah, I’ve never said that out loud, I’ve never even told her that but she’d sometimes say, “Wanna go ride with me, buddy?” I’d just love when she would say that. Anyway, makes me a little choked up even thinking about it. But my mother always told me not to ever take no for an answer. She taught me to be courageous and bold and to keep pushing no matter what.
André Holland: Error correction is something that I’ve learned along the way, that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you don’t continue to make the same mistake over and over again. I’d say this is not so much advice as it is a bit of a salve for me.
André Holland: August Wilson says in Fences, you gotta take the crookeds with the straights. I always liked that. To me, it just says that the universe has a way of balancing itself. We have a way of balancing ourselves and I think there’s something about grace in there too, about having grace in the face of difficulty. Yeah, feels good to end to sort of hold and sit with.
DeRay: Honored to have you on the pod. Everybody, go see High Flying Bird. I tried not to put any spoilers in here. André Holland: It’s an honor to talk with you. I’m a big fan of what you’re doing. I’m grateful for your work, brother, and thank you for having me on.
DeRay: 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 you rate it wherever you get your podcast whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. I’ll see you next week.