Ratchet Academics (with Dr. Christopher Emdin) | Crooked Media
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September 28, 2021
Pod Save The People
Ratchet Academics (with Dr. Christopher Emdin)

In This Episode

DeRay, Kaya, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week, including Gayl Jones, abortion laws, and Our Black Girls. DeRay interviews Dr. Christopher Emdin, author of “Ratchetdemic: Reimagining Academic Success.”

Kaya: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/26/us/oklahoma-abortion.html


KAYA HENDERSON: If you have a chance, check out the new podcast Crooked History. And episode three features yours truly explaining how the Red Scare seeped into American’s classrooms and changed the way teachers discuss communism and socialism. This ain’t the first time that folks have been in our classrooms trying to decide what to teach. And so check us out on Crooked History, the Red Scare episode three. 


DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Kaya, and De’Ara talking about the news that you don’t know from the past week. And then I sit down with the one and only Professor Christopher Emdin, the author of Ratchetdemic, Reimagining Academic Success, where I learn a lot. This is his second time on the podcast. He’s always a joy. 

This week I am that guy. I don’t really have advice as much as you should be watching Ted Lasso. I love Ted Lasso. I’m a Ted Lassian. I’m in. I’m sold. It’s phenomenal writing, incredible cast, want to talk about every episode. 

DM me what you love about it if you do watch it. If you don’t, give it a chance, watch the first two, three, and then just stick with it. I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it. Here we go. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, welcome to another episode of Pod Save The People. I’m De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @DeAraBalenger. 

KAYA HENDERSON: I’m Kaya Henderson, @HendersonKaya on Twitter. 

DERAY MCKESSON: And this is DeRay, @Deray on Twitter. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: All right, y’all. So we’re together. We’re here. Even though I talked about it last week in my news, and I’m sure y’all heard, we’re going to raise it up again because now black folks are starting to pay attention to immigration now. So thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Not just now. Not just now. 

Mexicans in my family we’ve been hurting for generations now, but OK. Now we got Sheila Jackson Lee at the border. Now we’re ready to do some things. OK, so one, I think it’s a good thing ultimately, and I think it’s actually been having over some time now how we’re starting to have these intersectional conversations around immigration because obviously it’s just not the Latinos that are crossing the border, it’s everybody. And so obviously, this conversation is sparked from what’s happening with so many Haitians at the southern border. 

And one thing that I just think is important that everybody knows and that actually lifted up in my news last week was that many, many, many, many of these Haitians that are at the southern border, they left Haiti months, weeks, or some even years ago. So many of them have been living in South and Central America. Now it’s getting so bad. Now they’re pushing towards the border. 

Most of them have also crossed El Darien. It’s jungle, and it’s a five-day trek that crosses from Panama to Columbia. It’s not easy. Many people lose their lives. Many people are robbed, raped, et cetera. It’s awful, obviously. 

So I just feel like I think it’s important to raise that up because I think just the way immigration is talked about in this country and sensationalized, you would think Haitians just left Haiti yesterday and got on the boat and ended up at the southern border in Mexico, but that’s not the case at all. These people have gone through who knows what to get even to that point. Obviously, the images that we’ve been seeing the fact that there’s a very slow response, a disorganized response, to our general crisis at the border I think is telling and wild. Kaya, DeRay, what are your thoughts? 

KAYA HENDERSON: I think your point about when we pay attention to what’s happening at the border is an interesting one. One of the things that I learned that I didn’t know when Mr. Trump and his administration really started with their border enforcement was that there were lots of African immigrants at the border. It wasn’t just Mexicans. And we weren’t talking about that at all. 

And so, I think how the media portrays the immigration struggles is really, really important, and they don’t always tell the whole story. They tell a story that they want to tell. And I think these last two weeks or so, watching the pictures that have come out at the border of them rounding up these immigrants, I think brought a whole new level of consciousness to folks. Number one, of course, the parallels to what happened during slavery were just so evident. 

And then the response was we’re going to– 

DE’ARA BALENGER: We’ll take the horses away. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Take the horses out of the equation. It’s like there won’t be any– Oh, my gosh. I mean, what is tragic, and you all have heard me talk about US policy and world policy around Haiti before and Haitian history and how much of a hand we have had in creating the mess that is Haiti, what’s galling is now we turn our back on people who actually have a right to seek asylum. 

One of the great things about America is that the Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor and says, bring me your huddled masses. This is a nation of immigrants, and we actually make room for people who are seeking asylum from the very things that many of our Haitian brothers and sisters are fleeing from. And to have a liberal Democratic administration not address this in a more thoughtful way to me, it’s personally galling. 

It is so racist-looking. I’m going to be generous and say racist-looking. It’s not a good look. And these people who’ve suffered earthquakes, and hurricanes, and the assassination of their president, and lawlessness, and all kinds of stuff, we are turning our backs and putting them on flights to go back to the place that– come on. Who are we? 

DERAY MCKESSON: Now let me just say that it is– I’ll just start by saying that the Biden administration was a better choice than the Trump administration. So that’s the preface to everything I’m about to say. And it was embarrassing to see Jen stand at the podium and say that they were going to get rid of the horses as if we didn’t see the people use whips on the horse. The horses didn’t do anything wrong, as was already said. 

But for her to say that with a straight face was just offensive and embarrassing. That was just bad. The second thing is that I was one of the people who was like, you know what, when they come in, they will so obviously just undo the Trump stuff, obvious, right? And then we see they have not. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: They have not. 

DERAY MCKESSON: And this is a great example of– there’s been this push. People have been, well, the administration has been suggesting this idea that the Haitian refugees did not come legally in and they’re not requesting asylum in the most legal way. And there are two treaties– and De’Ara knows much more about this, but the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees in the 1984 convention against torture which prohibited the US from returning people to countries where they risk persecution or torture. 

So those are the two governing things around refugees and the Refugee Act of 1980, whole system of things. But what Trump did that was a nightmare and questionably legal is that he essentially just got rid of the asylum system. There was no more asylum all of a sudden under Trump. And in March 2020, ordered the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, over the objection of the CDC people, to invoke something called Title 42. 

And it was a 1944 public health law that allowed the government to bar asylum seekers in the name of quarantining people for public health. It had never ever been used to literally just kick people out. It was created only in the context of a public health crisis. It was formed as a part of the Public Health Service Act of 1944 that allowed the US government to quarantine anybody, including US citizens from a foreign country. It was never used to expel people until Trump. 

And again, who thought that the Biden administration would just keep it going? And I must say, the Dem should be worried about the midterms and should be worried about the next go-round because we told people it wouldn’t be as bad. We would fix it. Tadadadada– I saw those images of the people whipping the Haitian refugees. I thought it was Photoshop. I thought this was Russian propaganda. And then I looked, and I was like, oh, my God, that is real. In 2021, that’s wild. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: In 2021, mm. 

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And more what the heck is happening in 2021 news, my news reflects on the impact of the new law in Texas banning abortions. And effectively, what is happening is ladies from Texas who are seeking abortions are flooding abortion clinics in neighboring states. In fact, since the new law has gone into effect in many of the clinics and surrounding jurisdictions, they have seen increases in triplicate, quadrupled, 10x even. 

In fact, this one Oklahoma clinic called Trust Women Oklahoma Clinic had 11 Texas patients in August and 110 Texas patients in September. 


DE’ARA BALENGER: The Hope Medical group for women in Shreveport, Louisiana, went from having a handful of patients from Texas to having half of its patients come from Texas. And in the Little Rock Family Planning Services Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in August, less than 2% of their patients were from Texas, and in September, 19% of their patients were from Texas. And so what’s happening is women are traveling long distances. 

The clinics that are providing abortion services their schedules are full for weeks. And so, you have women who are pushing back their date for their procedure, which makes the procedures more costly and more dangerous. And you have women who are ending up just having to carry their pregnancies to term. 

Marva Sadler, who works at the Whole Woman’s Health Clinic, which runs four clinics in Texas, says, I think a majority of women are being sentenced to being parents because they can’t arrange child care or take time off from work to travel. Literally, in many of these clinics, 2/3 of the schedule patients are from Texas. And these clinics are having to hire more doctors and more staff. 

This is all a result of Senate Bill 8, which you all have heard about, which is the most restrictive abortion law in the country. It amounts to almost a complete ban on abortions in Texas. It prohibits most abortions after six weeks, which is literally when most people find out. There’s no exceptions for rape or incest. 

And the tricky thing about this is it takes the state out of the equation by charging citizens to enforce the law. In fact, they make citizens bounty hunters because they pay $10,000 per abortion if a citizen sues a clinic or anybody else who violates the law successfully. And while you can’t sue patients, the women who are getting these abortions, you can sue doctors, staff at the clinics, even the Uber driver. What I mean how does the Uber driver know what you’re about to go do? Why should he or she be sued? 

But it actually is enabling. Any citizen who has anything to do with it or not do with it in Texas outside of Texas to sue the people engaged in the abortion. And the Supreme Court had the opportunity to block the law, but they actually refused to do that on a 5-4 vote. The one thing that they did not do was rule on whether or not the bill is constitutional. And so, there’s a big legal argument happening because Roe versus Wade guarantees women the constitutional right to an abortion. But the way this is being implemented, all but bans, it makes abortion unconstitutional in the state of Texas. 

Of course, the people who are most affected by this are poor women. In fact, one-half of American women who got an abortion in 2014 lived in poverty. And so, the vast majority of people who are affected by this are poor women. And there are stories about women losing their jobs– women and men. Not just women, but women and men losing their jobs because they took off work to travel a long distance to get an abortion, or women and men not being able to pay their rent or their car notes because they spent the money to get an abortion. 

And what’s even worse is that while Oklahoma right now is a bit of a refuge, there are five abortion banning laws in Oklahoma that take effect on November the 1st. So this is a short-lived solution to a big problem if the law in Texas doesn’t change because as of November 1, Oklahoma will have even more restrictive bans on abortion. And so at Trust Women Oklahoma Clinic, for example, four of the eight doctors could no longer perform abortions. 

So the Justice Department has sued Texas, and Merrick Garland, the US Attorney General, calls it an attempt to nullify the Constitution. He says that Texas is trying to nullify the Constitution. And this is going to be a fight that we continue to see because many other states are replicating or attempting to replicate what Texas has done. 

This has invigorated both sides of the abortion rights fight. And all of that is what it is from a policy perspective, but I brought this to the pod because the real-world impact of hundreds and thousands of women in Texas– there are millions of women in Texas who no longer have the ability to make decisions about their reproductive rights. And women are doing very desperate things in order to not bring children into the world if that’s what they choose not to do. 

And we’ve seen this happen before in American history. It can only get worse. It won’t get better unless we figure out how to do something about this. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I didn’t know that about 40% of all abortions in the United States are actually medication abortions. Medication abortions rely on pills rather than surgery. There’s two pills. It’s been available in the US since about 2000 when the FDA approved the use of one of the medications. And it’s approved by the FDA for up to 10 weeks of gestation. 

And in 33 states, only physicians are allowed to provide abortion pills. Clinicians providing the medication must be physically present when it is administered in 19 states, meaning abortion patients can’t take the drugs at home. I mean, it is really wild to see how this happens. And as you can imagine, Republican governors in Arkansas, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, and Texas signed laws this year prohibiting abortion drugs from being delivered by mail. This was seen both as a way to stop abortion but also in response to telemedicine that was taking off during the pandemic. 

So luckily, there are set of people who are pushing back against these. But remember that the Texas law banning abortion pills will take effect in December. So there’s a window right now where abortion pills are legal in Texas or easier to access, and that will go out of the way. So it is just really, really wild. 

The last thing I’ll say is that eight states require counseling to promote the idea that medication abortion can be reversed. And mind you that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not support prescribing the medicine that supposedly reverses it. And says a reversal claim is not based on scientific evidence. These laws are in places like Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: So my news is from the New York Times. It’s about Gayl Jones. I have to admit I’d never heard of Gayl Jones, which I then began to feel extreme guilt about but then I remembered I live in a country that doesn’t teach me my own history. But anyway, Gayl Jones is this prolific incredible amazing writer. I didn’t know. Kaya, did you know Gayl Jones? 


DERAY MCKESSON: I didn’t know anything about her. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: I mean, it’s wild. It’s wild. And so part of it is because I just I have my own philosophy around how little we know about Black folks post-civil rights movement. I feel like any action that was happening in the ’70s somehow is really, really, really, really unknown, more so than the things that predate that. 

It’s a really long article in New York Times. And then I started digging, and there have been several articles on her. So she’s a little bit mysterious in that after her first couple of books, she literally went into hiding. Now there’s a bunch of personal reasons why she did that. And I’ve even been thinking about do I even share on the pod the personal reasons. 

But part of this whole discussion around her is really what does it mean to be a public figure. What does it mean to be a writer that– I mean, she’s like Toni Morrison status you all. Toni Morrison was her editor. And Gayl Jones, she’s from Kentucky. She’s from a farm. And I love, I love, I love– because I read several articles about Gayl Jones, but I love the way Imani Perry talks about her. 

Because she says basically when the white folks write about Gayl Jones, they basically talk about how she was a poor black girl plucked from the South. She went to Connecticut College, and the white saved her. But in fact, she was from this really phenomenal well-educated family actually from a part of Kentucky that had the most teachers during the time of the segregated South. So she was amongst writers, became a writer at a very early age, and then went to Connecticut College, then from there went to Brown and then ended up in Michigan. 

But it’s just really interesting– of course, I ordered all the books I could. It’s just interesting for me, and I’m going to talk less about Gayl Jones’s history because I feel like everyone needs to go learn on their own and do their thing to find out and do a deep dive on this woman and her history. But I think for me, it was more of a conversation, particularly thinking about Michaela Coel’s statement at the Emmys in terms of visibility and people feeling the need to be so visible all the time. 

Gayl Jones is this incredible writer, but she doesn’t necessarily purport to be a part of the movement even though she’s very much writing for the movement. But for her, she wants to do her own thing. And obviously, I’m projecting, but she wants to do her own thing and not necessarily be in the spotlight or give interviews or basically do all the things now that we expect anybody to do that gains any notoriety. 

So I just thought that part, just as a philosophical discussion, was so interesting to me just in terms of where we are now and what we expect, particularly from the Black community, what we expect of our thought leaders, what we expect of people that are in the spotlight, and how she just didn’t play into that and how, in fact, some of her writing I guess was so violent that even Audre Lorde said not quoting directly but was like that’s a silly little book that the woman had wrote because she’s so disagreed with how she characterized Black queerness actually in one of her writings. 

So I just wanted to bring this up to the pod because it evoked so many things for me. Just obviously now in my 40s, filling the gaps of Black history still even though I was a Black Studies major. So so much to learn as such an incredible canon, but just also thinking through and analyzing Gayl Jones just as a figure and what she has meant for literature, what she’s meant for Black women, for Black writers in general. But then also just kind of how complicated her personhood is and how all that fits into her story. 

She’s fascinating. I thought the history around it was fascinating. And just thinking about how we see celebrities today, how we see thought leaders today, et cetera, et cetera. So just wanted to bring to the pod and get your all thoughts on all of it. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Thanks, De’Ara. I did not know about Gayl Jones. I knew about her most famous book, Corregidora, but I didn’t know her and I didn’t know anything about her story. And for me, this brought up a whole set of questions around self-definition. You know the Audre Lorde quote about defining yourself for yourself, that seems to be what Gayl Jones was really intent upon. 

She rejected the characterizations of her that people were writing about. She decided that she wanted her work to speak for her, not these characterizations of who she was as a Black woman. Not even just vis-a-vis white people, but her response and reaction to other black writers who weren’t cool with the fact that she didn’t neatly tie up the story or make her characters remorseful. 

I found real power in her assertions or her perspective on motherhood that motherhood is not a defining characteristic for women and unpacking that. And so this whole thing read to me about Gayl Jones trying to live life on her own terms and not letting the world tell her story. She didn’t want her personal story told. 

And so she did everything that she could, including moving to Europe and coming back and letting people know about it. And all the while, she is writing. And so the interesting thing is bled out of nowhere she’s got a new book. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: That part. 500 pages of a book. 

KAYA HENDERSON: I love it. I love it. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I do think too, Kaya. You make me think about this interesting thing about– is the art not enough? You put all this stuff out, you do all this, but the way capitalism is set up is that the art is never enough. You actually have to become the product too. The art can’t do it all. You have to do the interviews. You have to go to the parties. You have to– the art is not enough. 

And she was like, the art is not only enough, but it is all you will get, and you will get it on my terms when I want you to have it. My life is actually too much to give you to. 


DERAY MCKESSON: And there’s something about that I just respect so deeply because I think it is hard to do. I think the allure of celebrity, the allure of being at the party, whether you are the product or not, is just so great. And there are some people it makes me think of very differently– Harper Lee, who wrote To kill a Mockingbird. Just the refusal, not the I don’t want to go, but the refusal to participate is just so fascinating to me. 

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DERAY MCKESSON: OK, my news is there’s been so much conversation about Gabby Petito, who was the missing white woman whose body has not been found. It’s been a long conversation about her boyfriend and his family and who was a part of it. And it sparked a conversation about the attention that we either put on or don’t put on Black women, indigenous women, who disappear. 

And what I wanted to bring to the pod is that there’s a website called ourblackgirls.com that tracks missing and murdered black girls over time. I had never heard about this website. And this topic had been a topic on the timeline, I don’t know. Six months ago, I feel like this surfaced again. But still, I literally never heard of this website ourblackgirls.com. 

And I went to it, and it tells these untold stories of Black girls and women who’ve gone missing or who were found dead under mysterious circumstances. And it was started by journalist and activist Erika Marie Rivers in 2018 as she spends her nights and her time combing through the databases, archive footages, and old articles, whatever she can to figure out how to give voice to their stories. And it just blew my mind. 

It was a phenomenal example of how we take it upon ourselves to tell our stories to make sure that people aren’t unheard. And in 2020, of the almost 270,000 girls and women who reported missing, 90,000 of them or about 34% were black, and remember that Black girls and women are only 15% of the US female population. So there is a wild over-representation. 

And remember, in contrast, white girls and women, which include those who identify as Hispanic, make up 59% of the missing while accounting for 75% of the overall female population. So I just wanted to bring this here because ourblackgirls.com is a resource. It is a place where you can go to find the information that is not getting picked up in mainstream media to tell the stories that we should be focusing on. 

KAYA HENDERSON: One of the things that stood out to me in the coverage of Gabby Petito is the fact that everybody and everything in Wyoming got themselves together to look for this woman. And in Wyoming, more than 400 indigenous girls and women went missing between 2011 and fall of 2020. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: That part, Kaya. That part. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Bananas. Bananas. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: I’ve been outraged vicarious about the number of indigenous women that go missing that people are talking about them and mainstream folks aren’t talking about them, raising it all up, raising it that Black women, indigenous women, Latina women, this is just across the board. There’s just such a different approach to response when it comes to those women being missing. 

But your story reminds me this week, Minnesota actually announced that it’s going to have the first task force to investigate missing Black women in particular. But I thought that was interesting– anytime Minnesota does something, I’m like, oh, for real? That’s what’s happening there. And evidently, it’s going to be a 12 person panel made up of representatives from the courts, law enforcement, and victims’ advocacy groups. 

And they will come up with policy recommendations to address the issue by December 2022. So all that to say, I think that’s the first big actionable thing that I’ve seen in terms of a government body. I know the Department of Justice, but this was in the Trump times. They were looking into the uptick in Black girls missing in D.C. And that was around 2017. 

Remember, it was wild. So I don’t know if the Department of Justice has picked that back up, or we should actually investigate that a little bit. But, yeah. Thanks for bringing us to the pod, DeRay. 

KAYA HENDERSON: The piece about indigenous women being missing in Wyoming really just– it was a B in my Bonnet on top of how I feel about Black women and Latin– women of color just being ignored. And when people say Black Lives Matters, it’s not a slogan. This is what we mean. We mean that we want you to look for our women, our Black women, our indigenous women, our Latina women, the way you look for white women. 

Our lives matter as much as theirs, and so we want the same level of energy. We want the same level of action. We want the same level of investigation. And this is also why representation matters. So Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Indigenous American cabinet member– she’s the Secretary of the Interior. She, in April, announced the formation of a new missing and murdered unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to ramp up attention to an investigations of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaskan natives. 

And so when you have people who are from the community who know what the community is facing, who know where the gaps are in leadership, then they actually can bring the full brunt of, in this case, the federal government to bear on issues like this. And so, I think that I’m appreciative of leadership and policy change. But what I also love about this is this is a little black girl in California who is a journalist by evening, and then late at night, she is lifting us up. 

And it’s not just her. There are two women in Prince George’s County who started the Black and Missing Foundation. There are podcasts– Crime Noir, Black Girl Gone, Black Girl Missing. There are regular everyday people who are lifting up these stories and telling these stories, making these people’s situations known. And we each have a responsibility. We can each tweet and retweet when we see missing people or post on Instagram or whatever. 

It takes all of us working from grasstops to grassroots folks if we are going to deal with this epidemic of missing women, especially women of color. And so what I loved DeRay about this is that Our Black Girls, the website, tells the stories. These are not numbers or a data. They are telling a story about these women who were mothers, and wives, and sisters, and friends, and aunties, and tells you about their lives and makes you care about them in a way we so deeply care about all of these other folks who the media covers. 

And that is really important to humanize Black women, to humanize indigenous women, and help people understand that our Lives Matter too. 

DERAY MCKESSON: And Pod family, today is Sam’s last day with the show, and we want to wish him the best moving forward. You know, like I know, that Sam’s analysis of the data and helping us think through how to understand the world we’re in has been invaluable. He’ll continue to do amazing things. And Sam will always be a member of Pod Save the People’s family. 

SAM: Hey, it’s Sam. My news this week is a little bit different. This is my last episode of Pod Save the People. It’s been quite a journey, over many years and hundreds of episodes and countless issues that we’ve talked about. So I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you to our listeners for listening to the conversation, for listening to our discussions about the data around each of these issues. 

And as I leave the pod, I hope that you will continue to engage with these issues in your lives with family and friends with policymakers. I hope that you’ll continue to look for the data behind the story and disaggregate that data to identify which communities are most impacted. I hope that you’ll continue to look for solutions to each of these issues as well. And use data as a roadmap for figuring out which solutions have the strongest evidence that they actually work. 

So I’ll continue to go on writing and analyzing these issues around policing and criminal justice. And I hope that you’ll continue to be a part of the work to create change around the issues that you care about, the issues impacting your community because ultimately, we need all of us to win, and we need data to help inform our path to justice. 


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DERAY MCKESSON: Download and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. That’s Tea with A & Phee from Just Women’s Sports. Check it out. 


Today on the pod, I get to interview the one and only Professor Christopher Emdin, who wrote the amazing book Ratchetdemic, Reimagining Academic Success. We had a conversation that left me thinking about a host of things, and I think it will with you too. Dr. Emdin, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People. 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: I am excited to be here with you. 

DERAY MCKESSON: We’ve had you on the podcast before. We’ve not had a lot of people twice, so it’s cool to have you back. And it’s about ratchetdemic, your latest book. Can you talk about, in a lot of ways, in a very obvious way, you’re using ratchet in a new way and reclaiming it as the best way that I can describe it. Why is that the thrust of this book? 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: Ratchetness has so historically been viewed as this inherently negative, really non-respectable but not in a way where it’s raw and expressive, but it’s low-brow culture and to be demeaned and to be devalued. And being academic is viewed as the exact opposite– to be well-spoken and erudite and intellectual, et cetera. And I’ve always been bothered by the separation that has existed in the world between what is to be ratchet and what it is to be academic. 

And for me, it’s why not blur those worlds? Why don’t we bring them together in ways that showcase to everyone that you can be both ratchet and academic concurrently? And then, for me, it’s also playing with the word ratchet. Ratchet is certainly a tool. It is this thing that’s viewed as being inherently negative. 

It is also, though, for the New Yorkers and the world of the ’90s hip hop folks, your ratchet is your weapon. You know what I mean? Somebody’s got the ratchet on them. You should be scared. And so, to bring in those definitions together that you’re raw and expressive nature is your secret weapon that is hidden to be unleashed when necessary to take on the academic infrastructure and showcase your brilliance. And so that’s what ratchetdemic is about them. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Now, one of the things that you talk about in the chapter Cages and Conditioning– and I actually had not seen that Nipsey quote that you start the chapter with, “If the people in your circle don’t inspire you, you don’t have a circle. You have a cage.” 


DERAY MCKESSON: That’s a great quote. In that section, you talk about what it was like the reception of your first book. Can you explain to us why this is an important way to frame this section? 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: I’ve always been bothered by the way that my work in education gets claimed by folks who align themselves with the language of the work. I like reality pedagogy, or I like quote generative dialogues. I like one aspect of it, and I can attach myself to an aspect of it. And then claim engagement with the undergirding philosophy of it, which is about the freedom of Black and brown children in classrooms. 

And so, I wanted to be really clear that this is not a thing to attach yourself to a version of it. It’s a philosophy. It’s a way of being. It’s a way of knowing. It’s a way of existing in the universe. And so, ratchetdemic becomes a philosophical positioning. And it becomes a way I want to be in the world. 

And so you can’t take a word or a phrase or a fool from Dr. Emdin’s toolkit and then claim to be bought that life. You have to have a ratchetdemic identity in philosophy and way of knowing and being. And so this book is a direct response to the larger narratives in education that allows really powerful and transgressive and emancipatory work to become something that people have a linguistic allegiance to rather than have a philosophical and emotional and holistic adherence to. 

I don’t want my work to be caged. I don’t want to be conditioned into allowing folks to take some aspect of the work. I want freedom. And I want freedom in expression. I want freedom in pedagogy. I want freedom in how we think about Black children. 

And that freedom includes freedom of expression in words, in thought, in deed, in hip hop, in loudness, in expressiveness, in dance, concurrently with being thoughtful and intellectual in academic and being able to deal with complex information and being well-read and astute. And my belief is that we could do it all at the same damn time. And I want teachers to understand that. And I want young folks to believe that. 

DERAY MCKESSON: In that’s actually you talk about things like hypervigilance. Can you talk about how that showed up for you in that day and the encounter that you talk about in the airport? Why is that something that you name and relationship to our work with kids? 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: In the book around hypervigilance, even concepts I talk about like what I call the educational Stockholm syndrome, even my framing of the Oreo cookie as a metaphor for Americana, I name all those things because they’re often unsaid but always experienced. And when you don’t name things that educators experience and describe the phenomenon and how to overcome it, you become trapped by it. 

We’re all cages of the things about our work, our practice, and our existence that we don’t reveal. We’re guided by the things we don’t say, more than we are by the things that we express. And so, for me, it was about understanding educators go through hypervigilance. Educators have gone through trauma. 

Hypervigilance is a phenomenon where an individual who has been wronged, who has been maligned, who has gone through an experience with another person and has not healed from that experience will go into future experiences, looking for others to express the same kind of violence that was inflicted upon them initially. If somebody Stole your bike when you were five years old, and now as a grown-up, you’re riding your bike around town, you’re looking to see who’s going to try to take your bike. 

You’re so overcome with looking at every possible individual as going to possibly take your bike that you can enjoy the ride. Even the freedom that can come with riding your bike as an adult, you’re bound by your experiences previously. And that’s my vernacular way of describing hypervigilance is how we are victimized by previous wrongs and are so preoccupied with looking at how those wrongs will play out again that we can’t be free, that we can’t learn. We can’t teach. We can’t grow. We can’t be. 

And so that plays out with teachers but are oftentimes also plays out with young people. Because a young person who’s been harmed by ACS or who’s been harmed by the criminal justice system, or who’s been harmed by a judge or police officer, goes into a classroom and sees the teacher as an extension of that same phenomenon. You white, just like the white police officer who took my pops. And so I’m looking for the moment where you’re going to try to inflict some harm on me. And because of that, I can’t learn. 

We are always operating with a vigilance about the next lick somebody’s going to try to get over on us that we can’t fully be present in the space. And for young people, that inhibits the ability to learn. And for teachers, that inhibits the ability to teach. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Now, I wanted to note too– there’s a part in the book where you address head-on this idea that the students are hard to teach, the school is hard to staff, the neighborhoods are violent, and the kids are bad. Which is just a set of things that I’ve heard in every educational setting I’ve ever worked in. This idea that, in some ways, our kids and our communities are beyond help, beyond skill-building, beyond learning. How do you contend with those notions? And how did you think about that in terms of the book? 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: So in the book, I try to describe that the inability of a power welder to see the magic and beauty within communities does not mean that the communities don’t hold that magic. So bring it to teaching and learning. The inability of the structure of traditional teaching and learning to identify the ways that young folks of color in particular and urban spaces expressed the desire to learn does not mean that those young folks can’t learn or don’t want to learn. 

And so, for me, I try to re-imagine the way we look at this thing. And people talk about having deficit views and having asset-based views. I think it goes beyond that. Don’t look at the community in a deficit way, and then you can see that they’re wonderful. It’s not that. 

Literally, some folks just lack the ability to be able to discern the magic in the ways of expression of certain communities, and as a consequence, they demonize it. So one of the examples I’ve give in my work all the time is some folks will see a bunch of Black kids hanging out on a street corner as violence about to happen, or loudness, or distraction, or a reason to call the police. You get closer, and you’re like, this is a hip hop cipher. 

They are wrapping and memorizing information. They’re displaying poetry. They’re activating their imagination. They’re doing metaphors and analogies and sharpening their linguistic swords and skills. And they’re giving each of the mantras of positive affirmation, and they’re celebrating beauty and magic. And it’s an educational moment. 

And if you cannot make sense of that moment, you will say look at that gathering of black angry kids. And so, for me, it’s how do we see the magic and the ratchet? How do we see that what folks have identified as wrong actually has magic in it and that that magic can connect to how they learn? 

That maybe it’s a deficiency– I try to reframe in the book all these phrases like achievement gaps. Some kids ain’t got no achievement gaps. You’ve got gaps and your ability to see their genius. That’s a deficiency of the individual who sees them only as achievement gaps. 

There are gaps in the ability of the test to be able to capture the complexity of the depth of their knowledge. That’s a system’s achievement gap. There’s an achievement gap in a teacher’s ability to be able to know that young folks of color need story and metaphor, and analogy to activate their genius. And if you can’t tell a good story, you’re deficient. Not them. 

Reclaiming of the magic and the ratchet. Also, being very explicit about understanding that ratchet is an intentional use as a way to demean young women of color in particular, like Black women, are the ones who are the most ratchet. And even Black men will weaponize ratchet against Black women. 

And so for me saying, you know, we all ratchet. And we all are ratchetdemic is almost like an opportunity for us to be able to reclaim this thing that we used to demonize a segment of our population as all of us, and then remind us that those things actually aren’t bad or problematic at all, but rather they’re gifts. 

DERAY MCKESSON: What do you hope teachers walk away from your book with? 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: The first thing I want you just to understand, particularly white educators, is that your whiteness is not an impediment to your effectiveness, but your attachment to white supremacies ideologies is number one. Number two, those who we name as inherently violent or problematic, are actually the ones who can offer us a pathway to transform the system or lens to look at the system to expand the ways that we teach– two. 

Three, what we hold up as the ideal and as smartness and as intelligence is weak. It is flimsy. It is useless. And if we are thoughtful about it, the only reason why it still stands is because we hold it up. And I talk about that in the Oreo chapter, which is probably my favorite chapter of the book. Four, all young people deserve certain inalienable rights of the body. They all deserve the right to be here. The right to be present, the right to love and be loved, the right to express passion, the right to speak truth to power, and the right to knowledge. 

And oftentimes, the challenges that we have in getting them to have content knowledge acquisition is a reflection of the denial of those rights that have nothing to do with content but have everything to do with humanity. Another thing I want teachers to understand is that if you do not interrupt this process of teaching and learning that demeans the humanity of young folks if you don’t just stop it, then you are complicit in the results that come from it, which sometimes equates to young folks being rushed into the criminal justice system, which means that young folks don’t graduate and the trajectory of their lives is truncated towards agency and possibility. 

And so if you won’t stop this trash, it’s your fault. And you can’t blame the system when as a pedagogy, you have the power to be able to transform the system by what you do. I want teachers to understand the need to be able to just celebrate the identities of young folks. 

I tell stories about young folks like Decepticons, a street gang in New York that started in one of the most beautiful and powerful and academically-rigorous schools in New York City. But the kids who are the most intelligent when perceived and viewed as thugs say you want thug? I’m a perform thug. And so, when we don’t embrace their identities and their culture and their genius, they will perform an identity that is reflective of what we project on them. And when they do that, you can’t blame them. 

And most importantly, I want teachers to make meaning of this in a way that matters to them. It’s not even the book just for educators. I don’t think teachers are just those who have a credential to teach, but rather that every adult who is youth facing is a teacher. And so every adult who is youth facing who interacts with young people, who has children, who has nieces and nephews, who warns the folks that they face to be able to walk in their genius and their brilliance, they all have something that they can gain from a ratchetdemic academic approach to looking at the world and a ratchetdemic approach to conversations with young people and a ratchetdemic approach of looking at young folks. 

Teaching is a performance art, and young people are works of art. And when you look at works of art, you don’t say, oh, that’s a good piece, and that’s a bad piece. You say I want to make sense of what the artist is trying to convey. I want to make sense of what let the artist create this thing. And as a performance artist, I want to convey something to the audience that speaks to their soul. And if we all look at teaching in that expansive way and look at how we see each other and young people that way, I think we’re better off as a world, as a society. You know what I mean? 

DERAY MCKESSON: I love it. I love it. I’m interested too– since we had you on for your first book, what did you learn after that? We spend all this work to put the book out in the world. And writing the book is like a feat of God. And then it goes out in the world, and it is no longer just yours. It’s everybody’s. 

And now you’ve done that twice. How has that been? What have you learned? Or what would you say different? Or what would you– I don’t know. I’m interested in that. 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: Yeah, I feel you. For White Folks was a book that had a slow burn. It came out, and people were like, he put white folks in his title? He put Y’all in the title? It was like people didn’t know how to receive it. And then, over time, people saw beyond the title and dug into the book and saw what I was trying to say. 

This book, it was like, you know what, I don’t care if they get it or they don’t get. I’m just going to say what’s in my heart and soul about teaching and learning because I realized that folks can get the ideas, and for white folks, and still screw this thing up. And so it’s like don’t police yourself. Don’t put it in a way that’s palatable to school leaders or teachers, or the public. 

Don’t dance around the theme or topic. You wrote a book called Ratchetdemic? Bring big ratchetdemic energy into this book. I wrote this one like I was writing a rap verse when I was 14, and my goals are not to be a professor or a writer but to be a rapper. I had wordplay and double entendre. I had themes. I had topics. I had stories. 

I had ideas that aren’t fully developed. And I said, you know, let me just drop this idea here so somebody can read the book and pick up the idea and run with it. I played little tricks with the pen in this book. I wrote a chapter called Dr. White, and then I wrote about the cream filling of the Oreo that happens to be white. 

And then, I had a theme in the opening chapter that I brought back up in the fifth chapter, the same way that Kendrick would use a rhyming word in the first bar and then wait till the 13th bar to bring it back up. And I wrote a hip-hop ed book without naming a hip-hop ed by saying all the things I wanted to say that I say in the last book. And the book is what the title is. 

It’s Ratchetdemic, Reimagining Academic Success. I just wanted to break down and then rebuild up what academic success is. Is academic success passing a test? Or academic success feeling comfortable to go read something that you’ve not learned in school but you have the capacity to be able to sit with that work and be fluent? Is academic success getting a credential or degree, or is it being able to engage in a conversation with somebody with a credential or degree and not feel imposter syndrome, which I write about in this book. 

It’s like my work, man. It’s the one for me. And whether it sells 2 or 2000 or 200,000, it’s something that I had to say. I had to say it right now. I let it all out of my gut so I can be free and clear to do my next work. 

DERAY MCKESSON: One of the things that we ask everybody is what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you. What is that? 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: Two things, and both of them come from my mom. The first thing she said to me that I’m thinking of right now is little drops of water make a mighty ocean. And at 13, I had no idea what that meant. Now it makes perfect sense that there is no grand change that comes that’s an ocean, that’s a deluge of water, to wipe away oppression and inequity in schools. 

But it’s really about consistency. Little drops of water– it keeps dropping. Drop, drop, drop, , drop and consistent patterned action that are like little drops of water can bring a building down. And so don’t stop being a drop of water. You will become a mighty ocean. So that’s the first one. 

And the second one you know is if the hands don’t move when you talk to them, don’t trust them. It’s kind of crazy, right? 

DERAY MCKESSON: Is that from your mom? 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: Yes, my mom, man. 

DERAY MCKESSON: That is so black. 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: Yeah. If the hands don’t move when you talk to them, don’t trust them. Again I was like, what are you talking about? And then, when somebody’s speaking from the heart and from the soul, if fire is coming from the belly, your body has to move to let it out. You know what I mean? 

If it’s big ratchetdemic energy, if it’s big raw ratchet expressive truth from your gut, your body won’t allow you to sit still. And a lot of folks talk that revolutionary talk and you could tell they don’t believe it because they body don’t move. And so it’s like, yeah, man, I want folks to move. I want folks to dance. I want folks to be so excited about what they have to offer– their body can’t sit still. Because that to me becomes a marker that they’re coming with something ratchet them in their belly, and the world needs to listen to it. You know what I mean? 

DERAY MCKESSON: I love it. That is so wonderfully black. I think that’s great. OK, and then the last question is, what do you say to people who read your first book? Education still seems screwed. It feels like we haven’t made a lot of progress. What do you say to those people? 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: I am disgruntled with a lot of things in education. I don’t like where we are with assessments. I don’t like where we are with teacher training. I don’t like where we are with pedagogy. 

I don’t like where we are with allowing young folks to be expressive in school. I don’t like where we are with funding. I don’t like where we are with the movement toward privatization. There are things I don’t like, but education in schools because as long as there are young people who show up to buildings and we allow them to be who they are in the pursuit of their own learning, this thing can change. 

But we also still have immense possibility. When I talk about ratchetdemic, man, I want folks to understand that I feel this in my gut that things are being different in schools when we allow human beings to be who they authentically are. And when I say authentically are, I’m not saying like let the kids just be ration a lot. I mean, let teachers lead with who they are. 

Everybody wants to be culturally relevant to young people, and they’re not culturally relevant to themselves. And as a consequence of that, they cannot teach them because we ain’t relevant. I give you an example. A teacher who comes to the school and performs who they think a teacher should be. 

Let me be like the teacher I had when I was in fifth grade. Let me be like the person they taught me to do in this school of education. And so the teachers themselves are performing some version of teacher that is not who they are and, that’s why their teaching is so problematic. And if that teacher brought their full self and they were authentic, even if their version of authenticity did not reflect the authenticity of young people, young folks will connect to that teacher because real recognizes real. 

And I think sometimes we make this thing a lot more complex and layered and nuanced than it actually is. Let folks be themselves. Hold high academic expectations and don’t demean those things. Don’t make them less than– algebra is still algebra. Trig is still trig. Science is still science. 

We’re not going to dumb this down. We’re not going to lower the expectations. But we’re going to allow folks to– we’re gonna love folks up for those academic expectations by allowing them to be themselves in the pursuit of their own learning. So schools ain’t screwed. Our worldview is. 

Young folks aren’t broken. The system isn’t broken. It’s just that we’ve allowed it to be that way. Because as long as they’re young folks who are alive with immense and infinite potential, we can’t look at that infrastructure as completely broken or flawed. We have to look at it as just another site of possibility we’ve not reached yet because we’ve not opened up the reins or let folks learn and teach the way they know how to. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I love it. You had not worked inside of a school system, have you? Not just in a school but at the system level. 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: Not on the system level, man. Teacher, AP, researcher, but never district leader or superintendent of schools or anything of that nature. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Would you go to the district level? 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: I would go to the district level if folks would let me do what I know was right to do. I’ve gotten those invitations. And it’s like, y’all don’t want me. Y’all want my face. Y’all want my name. But y’all don’t want me. 

Because as soon as we start having those conversations, it’s like here’s how we do things and here’s what you need to– and I’m like uh-uh because I refuse to be locked into a role that robs me of the truth I hold in my belly about what is right to do. So I would do it, but I got to let folks let me do what I need to do. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I only ask because I worked in schools. I did after school. And then, I was the chief of human capital in the school system in Baltimore. There was something about having to make a decision that impacted 200 schools every day. That just completely changed the way that I saw our work and our responsibility because it was– at the school level, I knew my style really well. 

But all of a sudden, it was like, wow, I got to figure out how to do this thing across a whole set of schools. And it was just a very different way. So I’m always interested when we get such incredibly smart people like you, and I’d be interested in how having to make decisions at the district level would influence the way you thought about what was possible, what wasn’t possible, what levers were. So that’s my push to you as I think both need to learn a lot, but I’ll be so interested in how you thought about solutions from that perspective. 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: What I think that people don’t get about district-level leadership or even school-level leadership is that there’s a misperception that leadership on that level equates to having a unified approach to everything or a standardized method for everything. So I believe in this thing, and if I standardize this thing, then that would be best for everyone. And I think that it’s possible for you to have a Standardized method to allow folks in their locales to develop what they need for them. 

It’s one of the very, very fine aspects of leadership that folks just don’t get. I think we get locked into believing that I make a decision for everyone, and so I have to be really broad in my decision-making. Or I could say, you know what, I’m going to be broad in creating an infrastructure that allows co-generative dialogues across each school where particular factions within those communities identify a thing about their unique school, and I help them to see it to fruition. 

So I can standardize the method for garnering the information for each locale, and I could be equal parts localized and standardized and that there’s a really powerful interplay that can happen. We’ve been conditioned to believe that leadership means equality. Equality never equates to good pedagogy because good pedagogy is always localized. 

DERAY MCKESSON: You better preach today. Dr. Emdin, thank you for coming on the pod. It’s always a pleasure. I walk away, knowing a little bit more about a lot. I appreciate you. And tell people where they can go to stay in touch with you and to buy the book. 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: Thank you so much, DeRay. And I know this is the closing, but I have to say this. So let me tell you why you are a ratchetdemic. May I, real quick? So check this out. When you came in a game, and when I say came in the game, I’m saying that you were not in the game prior to, but you are out there teaching, you are out there leading, you’re out there protesting, you are out there fighting for Black Lives before it became a thing. 

And it’s so funny because– I don’t know how to have a filter. People always say, why are you still rocking that blue vest? Why are you still rocking that blue vest? It’s been all the time. Why you rocking that blue vest? Because he came in the game rocking the blue vest. And so no matter where the trajectory of my life takes me, no matter if it takes me to run for mayor, or it takes me to be on the board for this, or it takes me to be visible in this endeavor, I am holding on to the thing that came with me when I came into where I was. 

Before Pod Save the People, I was with the people. And I was rocking this vest with the people, so I’mma rock this vest now. And what folks don’t understand is that your best is your ratchetness. It’s the raw expression of who I was then that I carry with me into these spaces now. So now that I am where I am, I have access to things. I have platforms to preach into and have opportunities to be able to connect with communities. 

I am academic. I’m seen as bright. I’m seen as insightful. I’m seen as a person who can hold a really good conversation. But I was rocking this vest then, so I’mma a rock this vest now because my ratchet will carry me and will stay with me no matter where I go. 

And so the vest, for me, is the embodiment of a holding on to the fans you came in the game with, just like we all need to hold on to the thing, our humanity that we came into the world with so we can be ratchetdemic. So I’ve got to just share that with you. When I see you rock what you rock then and rock it now and you do big things, I’m like, how ratchetdemic is that? And wouldn’t it be magical if we all held on to those things and didn’t let them go even as we entered into where we’re destined to be? 

The book is Ratchetdemic, Reimagining Academic Success. It’s available wherever books are sold. If you go somewhere and then got to say go get it. I am Chris Emdin. I could be found on Twitter @chrisemdin– so it’s at C-H-R-I-S-E-M-D-I-N. I can also be found on Instagram with the same name. I hope you guys pick up Ratchetdemic and find some truth and magic in it. And I love to hear from you once you get it about what you think. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Awesome. I appreciate you. That meant a lot to me. People do give me a lot of grief for the best. And it’s so simple to me. I’m like, yo, this was the only thing I had in the middle of the street. This is it. 

And I will just never ever lose a relationship. And people think I love vests. I know it’s one vest. It’s the same dirty vest that gets cleaned by Patagonia. I don’t have a deal. They just help me. But I appreciate you. 

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: All love, always. 


DERAY MCKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to 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’ll see you next week. 

Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz Our executive producers Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Samuel Sinyangwe.