Take A Step Back (with Dr. Marcus Johnson) | Crooked Media
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May 18, 2021
Pod Save The People
Take A Step Back (with Dr. Marcus Johnson)

In This Episode

DeRay, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week, including sickle cells, police reform, critical race theory, and the midterms. DeRay interviews Dr. Marcus Johnson about racial and class disparities in the world of dental health.


DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save The People. In this episode is me, Kaya, Sam, De’Ara. And we cover the underreported news of the week. And then I sit down with Dr. Marcus Johnson to discuss the racial discrimination in the world of dental health. So my advice for this week is to step back a little bit into just like make the decision that needs to be made, to look at all the options. Like I’m an options guy.

I like to think all the things through. Even if the option, even if we know, we will probably take one path. There’s really power in going through what the options are. But you need the perspective to be able to do that. So step back, take the perspective, and then make the informed decision. Here we go.

KAYA HENDERSON: Welcome to another episode of Pod Save The People. We’re so excited to have you. I’m Kaya Henderson, @HendersonKaya on Twitter.

SAM SINYANGWE: I’m Sam Sinyangwe, @samswey on Twitter.

DERAY MCKESSON: This is DeRay, @D-E-R-A-Y on Twitter.

KAYA HENDERSON: All right. So friends, family, De’Ara is going to be joining us in a few minutes. She’s running late. But in the meantime, what big news happened this week? The CDC came out with new guidance on masking and social distancing. And effectively has said that if you are vaccinated– this is the part that people seem to miss. If you are fully vaccinated, that you do not have to wear a mask, and you do not have to socially distance. And that has thrown the whole conversation into a tizzy. What say you, Sam? What say you, DeRay?

SAM SINYANGWE: So there’s one thing around like what does the science say? And then there’s another conversation around how are people going to interpret this and potentially use this to game the system and contribute to furthering the risk around coronavirus. So I think around the science, it’s like, yes, the vaccine’s super effective saving lives. Once you’re vaccinated, like your risk is so much smaller that like, yes, you should be able to go outside.

You should be able to be safe. You’re protected. You’re significantly less likely to spread it. Great. But like the interpretation of it is, well, if you don’t have to wear a mask, how do we know for sure that you’re vaccinated? Like how do we– are people going to use this to game the system and go around without masks, who actually aren’t vaccinated? And is that going to contribute to making people feel unsafe?

Like people who are high risk being around so many people without masks, not really having a way to confirm or verify if they’re actually vaccinated. What about situations where people are vaccinated but other people are saying in the same events that they’re vaccinated when they might have– I’m hearing conversation around fake vaccination papers now. And like all of this stuff that is like really– this isn’t a surprise. You see this like fake IDs and like fake everything.

But like in the context of this, which is really dangerous, and it would be really easy for people to just make a paper card. I think, that is actually something to be worried about people doing. So again, I think, the science is clear that, yeah, we should be able to go outside. And I like to be outside and go to restaurants and like the next person. But also I want to be mindful of how people are feeling in this moment. And people might not be comfortable being around a whole bunch of people without masks, not being able to verify for sure if they’re actually safe.

KAYA HENDERSON: I mean, my question is, is the science really clear? Because even if you’re fully vaccinated, you can still get COVID. You are not likely to get it as severely, but you can still get it. And I didn’t spend a year in lockdown avoiding COVID, only to go out here now and catch it from somebody because everybody is unmasked.

I think– I just read an article about eight players and staff on the New York Yankees, all fully vaccinated. All just tested COVID positive because folks are running rampant with it. And I think it’s interesting to see how some jurisdictions are not following the CDC’s new guidelines. So I live in Washington D.C. And even though the Governor of Maryland lifted the mask restrictions, there were a couple of counties here who said, no, they’re actually going to stick with the mask restrictions. Or the mayor of D.C. has an elongated timeline.

So I think it’s interesting to watch how different jurisdictions handle this. But I’m worried that people are going to go buck wild. I’m worried, Sam, that people are going to lie. I’m worried about a whole bunch of things. And I’m worried about a lot more people catching COVID because we’re so pressed to be free, whatever that means. I’d rather be free and careful.

SAM SINYANGWE: And this is like a sort of not part of the main conversation around masks. But one of the things that’s also been interesting is to see the huge decline in the common cold. People catching the flu has gone down dramatically just because more people have worn masks but wash their hands because of coronavirus. So there is like a whole another conversation around mask wearing, in general, apart from coronavirus, having health benefits that like we lose– if we move to a completely reopening with the masks– without masks and like going back to normal.

DERAY MCKESSON: So the other thing is that governors and mayors are completely caught off guard. And this goes back to what Sam was saying about the distinction between the good science and good policy and what it means to actually roll out things that people can follow. What would another week have been to allow businesses to get ready for this, to allow mayors and governors to actually plan for this? And I know this is sort of a random rope-in of Kamala.

But when she was in that interview not too long ago and she was asked, is America racist, and she said, no. It’s that these are things– I know people who are like, I’m watching the government lied to me, that like they are lying to me. People are just literally not telling me the truth about some things and expecting me to believe the other things.

And if these sort of fumbles that I think actually just don’t help public safety in the end. And you know it’s something like it’s not yet 50% of adults are vaccinated yet. I don’t think we’ve gotten 50%. I think we’re close. It’s like high 40s. I would hate for a new strain to take hold because we just were putzing about as we rolled out the next step of the COVID guidance. So I’m hopeful.

KAYA HENDERSON: There are also still places that are seeing increasing cases, right? And so why not kind of a graduated set of guidance that says when you get down to X then you don’t have to do Y. And that’s how it started out at least with prior guidance. But given that people’s data is still increasing in some places around cases, it seems not prudent to just issue this blanket free for all.

DERAY MCKESSON: It’s only 37% of the country is fully vaccinated.

SAM SINYANGWE: Yeah, we don’t even know how long fully the vaccines last, right? So in the research– there was research showing that it was about six months, I believe, that the effect lasts for about half of the people. And so about half the people in the sample were still protected after six months. The other half were not after being vaccinated.

And for some people, particularly for older people who are sort of in the first round of vaccines, that was about like five-six months ago. So we don’t know if the first round is wearing off, and folks need to get revaccinated. Or maybe folks are going around feeling like they’re protected, especially the most vulnerable folks.

And it could be that the vaccine is actually wearing off at this point, and you need a new dose. So like– I mean, all of that is something that we are just now going to start seeing because the vaccines just started rolling out like five or six months ago to the first set of people. And we still don’t even know what to expect.

KAYA HENDERSON: My news this week is from the Atlantic. And it’s an article called “The GOP’s Critical Race Theory Obsession.” and I brought this to the pod because we are seeing a spate of Republican bills– at least a dozen Republican bills– introduced both in state legislatures and in Congress that revolve around this academic approach called critical race theory.

Interestingly enough, while this critical race theory conversation is dominating a lot of political conversations, a recent Atlantic and Leger poll reports that 78% of Americans had not heard of critical race theory. Going back to the beginning, critical race theory is a theory that was asserted by Derrick Bell, who was the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard Law School.

And it examines the interaction of race and American law. In fact, proponents of the theory argue that the nation’s– our nation’s sordid history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination is embedded in our laws and continues to play a central role in preventing Black Americans and other marginalized groups from living lives untouched by racism. That concept has been extended beyond law and is now in conversations in education and health care and politics and a bunch of different things.

And so the Republicans have introduced a number of bills in Congress and state legislatures that would effectively prevent public schools and universities from holding discussions about racism. The bills have very vague language that ultimately serves to censor conversations about racism in public places. What the Republicans say is that– or what these bills say is that they prohibit divisive concepts.

They prohibit race and sex scapegoating. They prohibit questioning meritocracy or suggesting that the United States is fundamentally racist. And that conservatives say that critical race theory teaches Americans to hate America. Legal scholars say that these bills impinge upon our right to free speech and will likely be dismissed in court.

But the larger purpose, it seems, is to rally the Republican base, both to push back against any re-examination of slavery and segregation and to push back against any attempts to redress historical offenses. That becomes very interesting when we cross-reference that with some of the conversations that we’ve had about reparations here at the pod. One of the questions that the article addresses is why all of a sudden, how all of a sudden did the conservatives get so obsessed with critical race theory?

Well, it turns out there’s a young man named Christopher Rufo, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which is a libertarian think tank. And he ended up, I guess, becoming concerned about critical race theory after hearing from a municipal employee in Seattle about how critical race theory was being used in diversity training in the municipal government in Seattle.

And he ended up doing research and Freedom of Information Act requests and whatnot and learned that this kind of diversity training was happening across federal departments and agencies. And so Mr. Rufo began to write that critical race theory, which he describes as the academic discourse focused on whiteness white fragility and white privilege, he says is spreading through the federal government through these diversity trainings and is being weaponized against Americans.

And that set off the Republican interest in and growing snowballing concern about critical race theory such that President Trump signed an executive order banning use of critical race theory by federal departments and contractors and diversity training. That, of course, was challenged in court. And a federal judge agreed that that is a violation of free speech.

Mr. Biden rescinded the order, but we’re seeing these state legislatures introduce and pass these bills. And so this is the latest chapter in the culture wars. And it’s quite concerning because it really does question how we get to have a frank conversation about what has happened and what continues to happen in this country. And so I figured since 78% of Americans are not paying attention to this, we should bring it to the pod and make sure that people know about what’s going on.

SAM SINYANGWE: So Thanks for bringing this to the pod, Kaya. I was wondering what the back story was behind this because it’s not like there was some explosion of critical race theory in public school systems across the country the way that Republicans have been talking about this.

But it seems like it’s just one guy who was on like a crusade or some mission to deal with this fake problem that he perceived which was people better understanding and learning about this nation’s history with regard to how Black and brown people have been treated historically and how the systems and structures that enabled that treatment, the legacy of those systems and structures, and many of those same laws and policies continue to exist and continue to affect people’s lives and continue to need to be addressed and dismantled.

We’re seeing state after state Republican legislature after a Republican legislature deemed critical race theory as this sort of existential threat to the nation’s children or the nation’s understanding of what it means to be an American or America being somehow inherently good in the world. And even in the state that I grew up in, Florida, Governor DeSantis signed a law banning critical race theory among other things.

And I remember growing up in Florida, in Orlando, and we got absolutely no critical race theory whatsoever in the school system growing up. Like this didn’t exist. There’s not a school in the area, unfortunately, where students are exposed to any of this information by the time that they graduate.

What we were exposed to, And what students continue to be exposed to is a curriculum that is infused with a narrative around the United States, around US history that is biased, that is biased against Black communities, that is biased against indigenous communities, that erases the experiences and stories of generations of Black and brown people.

A curriculum that in Florida– I remember they– as we were growing up, we were being taught in US history, AP US history that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. That was what we were being taught in school in Florida. So yeah, there is a biased curriculum out there. There is something that is an existential threat that is really problematic in school systems across the country. And it’s the exact opposite of critical race theory.

It is the teaching of a narrative and a sort of mythology about this country that enables white people to go on believing that they just built all of this themselves and that they are inherently superior and that Black and brown people are at fault for their own condition. And like all of this is contributing to the dynamic we see today, contributing to policies and systems that cause harm. So I mean, the Republicans are going to do what they’re going to do. But certainly, I haven’t seen any critical race theory in any schools and certainly have seen quite the opposite.

DERAY MCKESSON: I think what I had to add is I think about Toni Morrison saying that the very serious work of racism is distraction. I mean, it’s like think about how many resources, how much money, how much lobbying on our side has been devoted to combating this thing that actually isn’t even– it’s not even a problem, right?

And just it’s veering us away from dealing with all the structural things that the Republicans are doing, all of the ways that money is being taken away from schools and communities. I know we’re talking about police and some other news. But in seeing police departments to ramp up because their homicides are increasing. And it’s going to be a deadly summer.

All this stuff that does require our attention and yet, the Republicans are being really intentional about introducing this ridiculous legislation that we know is bad. But it is just such a distraction device. And Kaya, you nailed it. I, too, didn’t know where this came from. I was like did somebody give a critical race theory speech somewhere? Was somebody’s kid in a class and got like– I don’t know– turned on to racism being bad? Like what happened?

No, none of that. This is like, again, white supremacy leading us down this random road where we know we got to do something about it. But it actually just takes us away from some of the core work that we have to do so. That’s all I have to add here. I think that we’ll win in court on these things. But to even have to go to court to try to win is such a path away from our core work. Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save The People’s coming.

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DE’ARA BALENGER: Building off of Kaya’s news a bit when it comes to the Black women of it all, I got excited by this particular article. It really just talks about all the Black women who are running in 2022. I think there’s been so much going on. Of course, just day to day, it’s hard for us to think about the strategy going forward and what the midterms will look like and all of that.

Tom Perez said it in terms of Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, duh. But really thinking about the last election and Georgia– places that are really on the move, both the 2018 midterms and the 2020 elections, how Black women, whether it was in Alabama or Georgia have really led in terms of organizing voter engagement, et cetera. Knowing all that and still Black women have– just not represented anywhere near equitably.

Thinking about what 2022 is going to look like and some of the excitement around some of these candidates, folks like Kathy Barnette, Andrea Campbell, people that are going to be running in Massachusetts, Alabama, and elsewhere. So I just wanted to bring this one up just because I think it really has been hard to focus on the future in terms of who’s running where, what races we need to pay attention to.

And so maybe that’s something we’ll start to do in terms of really starting to ramp up our preparedness and awareness around candidates running where and why we should be supporting whom are just some kind of food for thought around some of these candidates. And a place to kind of watch some of this happen when it comes to Black women running is Higher Heights.

And so check them out if you all are not familiar. Glynda Carr is a CEO there. But I think they are probably leading an effort around strategizing the support of Black women candidates across the country. So more to come there but just wanted to start to have the conversation around what these elections are going to be looking like moving forward.

KAYA HENDERSON: I thought some of the statistics that they cited in this article, they are things that I knew in my head. But seeing and hearing these things one after another really kind of hit me in the gut that the women comprise half of the United States population. We only hold a quarter of seats in Congress, zero Black female senators, no Black female Republicans, never been a Black female governor in our nation’s history, and clearly no Black female president nor a Black female Supreme Court Justice.

Hearing those things back to back, makes it very clear that we’ll thank a Black woman for flipping Georgia or for doing the other things that we’ve done and still not support and uphold Black women’s leadership. And so it was heartwarming to me, frankly, to see one of my complaints about the Democratic Party as we seem to play a short game.

And Republicans seem to play the long game. And so it was heartwarming to see that these folks are strategizing through 2030, right? I would press on and say, and beyond, right. We need to have a strategic plan for a Black female leadership past 2030. But the fact that they are planning that long out is inspiring to me. And for all y’all who are thinking about it, run, Black girls, run.

DERAY MCKESSON: FiveThirtyEight did this article recently. They said, “Why Biden is Unlikely to Talk Meaningfully About Race Anytime Soon.” And they bring up a study that we talked about at one of the episodes in the pod. But they bring out that study that was at Yale that suggested that highlighting the benefits of policies around lines of race actually decreased support for them.

And they talk about how Biden is sort of doing this thing that they call racial distancing. It’s a sort of like highlighting things that are going to benefit people of color, Black women, Black men, people in marginalized communities but not explicitly highlighting race. And I am just not sure that that is actually going to work in– definitely not for the midterms but in the long run. I think that what I found is that people want elected officials to talk about race and to talk about it in smart ways.

And I think that the idea of just sort of talking about, oh, this will benefit so-and-so dah dah dah. I think that a lot of the rhetoric is actually lazy from our politicians about how they talk about race. I think that people are more primed to understand racial inequity to talk about why we should reverse these policies because they disproportionately impact people. I think that the time is now. I think that the country is actually moving more left.

And to not do that feels a real disservice. And I think that post-Trump, I think that we barely got people to vote last time. And they voted in record numbers. But it was an uphill battle for all of us who did any voter mobilization. And I think there’s some people might legitimately check out. I think that like not talking about race, people would be like, you know what? This isn’t a sham.

We tried, it didn’t change. People wouldn’t talk about it last time. Like I think that that is– I think we cannot dismiss that. And I think that Trump was so wild that it forced people to participate a little bit more. But I worry that not talking about race might actually lose us people, who otherwise would totally be on our side.

SAM SINYANGWE: So my news is about Brooklyn Center, which is the city where Daunte Wright was killed by the police. They just passed legislation this past weekend, by 4 to 1 vote, a resolution that lays out a new path forward for the police department reconstituting it within a sort of broader public safety department and makes a whole host or proposes a whole host of more transformative changes that are really important as a potential model for other cities across the country.

Over the past year or so, we’ve seen a number of cities pilot programs, create alternatives to policing of mental health and traffic offenses and other issues, sort of in piecemeal. So a city like Denver piloted the STAR program around mental health issues and creating alternatives to that. We’ve seen in Berkeley, the city has tried to create alternatives to traffic enforcement.

We saw in Ithaca, the Mayor proposed creating a new public safety agency that has different roles where it’s no longer a police officer responding to things like traffic enforcement, like mental health, like low-level issues. And what we see in Brooklyn Center is the combination of all of those things put together in one approach, in one city. And that’s what makes this so important as a potential model.

So in the resolution, it proposes creating a alternative approach to traffic enforcement, particularly for nonmoving violation. So these are like the equipment violations, like having an air freshener hanging in your rear view, or having a broken taillight. These are type of equipment violations that were actually cited as a reason for police to pull over Daunte Wright and kill him in the first place.

In addition to the traffic enforcement issues, which we know are responsible for– about 120 people are killed by police each year after traffic stops alone. In addition to that, it creates alternative responses to mental health issues where a civilian mental health provider will be responding to those issues. And again, that is another 100 people nationwide are killed by police in those circumstances.

And then finally, what is potentially the most transformative aspect of this resolution is that it creates a delineation in terms of the power of the police to make arrests. And it prohibits making arrests for misdemeanor offenses, which are the vast majority of arrests that are made nationwide. So we know that the majority of people who are killed by police nationwide are killed in circumstances that reflect the situations that this resolution is designed and targeted to address, traffic offenses, mental health crises, and arrest for low-level offenses.

So that’s what makes this resolution so important. Again, it is the start, not a finish. It passed 4 to 1, but now they actually have to build this thing. And build it out in a way that makes sense that doesn’t replicate or reinforce some of the issues that have been happening within the existing police department and to make sure that that structure that is now being built, that will be civilian led, that will be creating alternatives to the police in so many of these situations, that that structure is transparent and accountable as well.

DERAY MCKESSON: So in reading the resolution, it is a reminder that the devil’s in the details. So the resolution, as Sam said, calls for these things to be true, but the policies actually have to be written. And we have seen this time and time again. And all of us have actually worked– we’ve either worked in government or have written policies for the government or influence policy for the government. It’s that the actual details can look a whole lot of ways.

So when I think by resolution number four, it says that there’s going to be community safety and violence prevention committee. And importantly, a majority of the people on it have to be city residents with direct experience or the close experience of immediate family members with being arrested, detained, or having other contact with the Brooklyn Center PD. And that group is going to review and make recommendations regarding police response to protests.

They actually call out in the resolution that this committee is going to review any draft collective bargaining agreements. I mean, I’ve never seen that before. So this is actually really– it’s really cool to see this be written here. But I’m most interested to see like how this actually comes together, right. Like who gets appointed? Because it doesn’t say how these people can get appointed. It just says that they will be there. I’m like, what that looks like?

And the second thing, too, to Sam’s point about that there will be a city-wide citation and summons policy. The resolution calls for the city manager to implement a policy. But the policy itself is not yet written. So I hope that as we continue to think about these sort of moves forward, that reporters and the activists, organizers, citizens, stay tuned to how these policy things get written. Because a lot of people read these articles, and they’re like, oh, it’s done. And you’re like, no, no, no, no, no.

This is definitely the beginning. And the real rubber will meet the road when the policies actually get written. And I hope that those policies come before the council. But there’s some sort of public review of them, so they don’t just get like put in and nobody even knows and remember. Brooklyn City is a– so the Mayor is a part time, it’s not a full time role. City council is not– These are not full-time roles. So it’ll be interesting to see what the oversight actually looks like as these policies get written.

KAYA HENDERSON: One of the things that I appreciated about this is the inclusion of community voices. Over my career, I have learned that when you co-create solutions with the community– and people have heard me say this on the pod before– you get to the best answers. You get to the most sustainable answers. I think the people closest to the problem often have the best solutions. And so I was excited to see the emphasis on how many community voices were engaged in the creation of the process.

I take the point in the we got a long way to go to see how this is going to play out, especially as policies get written. But I thought it was very interesting that– not interesting– expected that the hateration was coming from the Police Union President. But I liked the Mayor’s response, which was listen, we’re going to like– we’re going to try until we get this right effectively. And people are going to try this stuff. People are going to make mistakes. We should absolutely learn from what’s currently out here and not make the same mistakes.

And I think there’s a lot to be learned already. But I think having the expectation that we are going to have to revise some of these policies that we’re not going to get them all right on the first time. It sets the expectation for the community that one policy or one resolution doesn’t change everything. And so I think, we have to stay vigilant. I think we have to stay resilient and keep on pushing until we get to the policies that serve us the way we deserve to be served.

DERAY MCKESSON: Simone is around the police shot. A police is just out here and be in the Far East and other ways that we got to talk about. So I’ve been obsessed with coroners and medical examiners for a while. And then the New York Times put out this piece that was very well done. If anybody from the New York Times is listening, can y’all please list the cases?

They say things like we looked at 45 cases. It’s no linked to the cases. It’s no like– can somebody link the cases one day? Anybody? Shout out to the Times. Great reporting, but we have no way– if somebody wants to take this information and do more digging in their town or community, they can’t. So please link the cases. But this article is great. It is entitled, “How a Genetic Trait in Black People can Give the Police Cover.”

I mean, I think that’s a gentle title. But what this goes on to talk about is a sickle cell. It’s that there’s a sickle cell trait is overrepresented in Black people. And there are all these cases where the people died in police custody. And the medical examiner has ruled that their death is actually tied to the sickle cell trait. Now these cases, when you read about them– again, New York Times, please link to all the cases that you say you’ve researched, which you don’t provide summaries for.

But when you read about it, you’re like, come on. It’s just another way that the police are just covering up killing people. And I think about– there’s a case in Baltimore that I knew about. And I actually didn’t know until I read this that it was sickles. I remember when this happened, I didn’t remember that they invoked sickle cell in this process. But it was a 30-year-old guy. He cut his hand on a mirror, called the police, and they came to his house. And they killed him.

They shot him. They kill him with a stun gun. He died at the hospital. And the medical examiner said it was undetermined. And that part of it was by the sickle cell trait. It’s like– it is remarkable. The number of people in the system that are not only the police but that participate in the death of Black people and the covering up of the killing of Black people. And the state’s attorney didn’t charge any.

It just– the police are the obvious target, right, because they do the bad thing. But they don’t do it alone. And this article was a reminder that it is impossible for the police to act alone, that there is a system of people at every step who allow it, who enable it, who don’t ask questions, who don’t challenge in. When I just read more and more about these cases, where like sickle cell apparently caused people to die in custody.

And what the New York Times does say is that in every single case that they mention, none of the people actually even had sickle cell. That give us the presence of the trait alone that doctors were using or the medical examiners were using, who are not always doctors– medical examiners are using to say that the person died. And it just blew my mind.

The article does a really good job of talking about how this is a pattern. This is not isolated. You think about– we had a call a week or so ago in our organizing Life, where I was talking to a researcher who said that there are right wing groups that are funding this sort of research about these sort of links, like things that the police are not killing people, that they must be dying some other way.

And it just both broke my heart because I can imagine all these families who are getting no sort of accountability or closure and essentially people being blamed for their own deaths, that like they did this to themselves. And you’re like– it’s just wow. So I wanted to bring it here. You obviously know a death that was quoted as a medical emergency. And then that was not true. And that is the death of George Floyd.

If we had not seen the video, then the police would have had us believe that he died for some other reason. And then the last thing I’ll say about this is that in the Times– and they tweeted this. In the Times researching this article, they found a case from 1973 that was criticized by a doctor named Dr. James Bowman who is none other than Valerie Jarrett’s father. And what he notes, he says– I’ll just read this.

He says, in early 1974, I was involved in expert testimony before a grand jury in a case in Illinois that could lead to an unfortunate precedent for persons with sickle cell trait. A man who had sickle cell trait was allegedly beaten and strangled and suffocated with a blanket by guards in a prison hospital during the process of subduing violent acts of the prisoner.

Merely because sickle cells were found intravascularly at postmortem examination, the Cook County Coroner and a consultant medical legal examiner from another state claimed that death was the result of a sickle cell crisis following pressure on the neck, which led to hypoxia. There’s a legacy of this. I mean, it both broke my heart and reminded me of like when we talk about this being systemic and historical, it is at every level.

SAM SINYANGWE: Yeah, thanks for bringing this to the pod, DeRay. For me, this reminded me of the fact that there is so much that we either don’t know or is not being tracked when we look at the data on police violence because of things like this. Because of a medical examiner deciding to– and again, the medical examiner isn’t always a doctor.

But the medical examiner just deciding that this person who was strangled by the police actually died of hypertension or actually died of excited delirium or might have had marijuana in his or her system from a joint a week ago. It’s stuff like that they literally can rule in ways that completely exonerate or ignore or act like the police played no role at all in killing somebody.

And when we look at how that aggregates up in the context of data, those cases are not tracked in the Washington Post police shootings database, for example. When we do the mapping police violence tracking, it’s really difficult to figure out in some of these cases where the only information that is provided is the statement from the police and what the medical examiner says.

And so if you include the case in the database, then the right wing sort of ecosystem and the police will say, well, actually, that wasn’t us. You are attributing this falsely to us and making us look like we did something we didn’t do. And then you see the video. And it’s like, well, actually, you are just trying to cover this up. And if not for the video, if not for the bystander who was courageous enough to report what happened, if not for those things, they would have covered it up, right.

The medical examiner, the police department, in some cases, the DA’s office play a role in counties and cities across the country, in colluding on some of these investigations, in ruling them in ways that try to evade any and all culpability for murder, for killing people on the part of the government, on the part of police departments, on the part of these agencies. So it is a huge issue.

I know that excited delirium and sickle cell are sort of two of the biggest things that I’ve heard of in this conversation. But I think that there are probably so many other things that we don’t know about that are probably happening. Sickle cell is new to me. After this article blew my mind. We know about excited delirium for a while in the context of people who are killed by tasers.

That’s often something that police use. The excited delirium is this thing that the person just got really excited and died as if they weren’t electrocuted. But again, these are things that have just sort have been made up by medical examiners, by police departments, as excuses to cover up the damage and the harm that they’ve caused.

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DERAY MCKESSON: Dr. Johnson serves on the American Association of Endodontists, Public and Professional Relations Committee, where he hosts the endodontics podcast, Endo Voices. He has the goal of bringing a quality to dental care across the world. And today, we talk about why racial disparities exist in the world of dental health, and what we can do about it. I love him. He’s a good guy. And I learned so much. Let’s go. Dr. Johnson, thanks so much for joining us in Pod Save The People.

MARCUS JOHNSON: Hey, DeRay. It’s a pleasure, man. Thank you so much for having me here. I really support the platform and love what your– the information you’re bringing to the people. So thank you.

DERAY MCKESSON: It’s so good to have you. Now, can you talk to us– just start us off with like how did you get to being a dentist? What does that even– like what was the path that you always wake up and care about teeth? Did something happen? And you were like, this is what I want to do. And then how did you start to specialize in this part of the dentistry?

MARCUS JOHNSON: All right. You know, I’m happy to take you on that journey. Ever since I was 11, I always wanted to be a dentist. And I kind of get into the backdrop of how that develops. But of course, I have to acknowledge my parents. They always encouraged me to study and work hard. And they were college graduates well after I was into middle school and things like that.

But those are always the conversations we had. I had a phenomenal dentist, Dr. Michael Ontiveros. And he was everything that you thought a dentist should be. He was well respected in the community, very kind, made you feel very comfortable, did great work. But I was just kind of some on this platform with his white coat is something that really wasn’t too attainable.

I was in the store one day, and I was hanging out with my dad. He stays in a sweat suit. He’s just like a perennial athlete who always likes to work out. And I happened to see someone that I thought look like Dr. Ontiveros. So I said, dad, is that Dr. Ontiveros? He’s like, indeed that is. And it blew my mind because at the time, Dr. Ontiveros was in the sweatsuit just like my father.

So I drew that line of congruence from that to say that hey, this guy is just like my dad. My dad was my hero. And from there, I just said, you know what? Dentistry seems like something I definitely want to do. And the Lord has blessed me from then. I’ve just been able to stay in that vein and really, never wavers. It’s just been a phenomenal experience to be able to realize something at such a young age.

And now, as a grown man, to speak from the perspective of kind of attaining that dream and making that a reality. And I guess, to kind of tie that into how I went through endodontist, which is the specialty arm of dentistry, which is to save natural teeth and pretty much eliminate pain with a pain specialist experts in pain management. I have always wanted to be a dentist. Once I got to dental school, did everything you needed to do.

But I realized I just wasn’t to cut out to be a dentist. I didn’t like multitasking, doing a denture here, going over to do a cleaning there. And I just found mentorship within the endodontic community and was able to study under some phenomenal individuals, more specifically, Dr. Andre Mickel at Case Western, who was my chairman at the time. And I must say, I’m so blessed and thankful that I chose this profession.

And I think it would probably be remiss of me if I were not to just put this out there– that May is Save Your Tooth Month, which was an initiative that was developed by the American Association of Endodontists. So it’s really quite cool, and it’s a pleasure just to be with you to discuss dentistry but more specifically, the specialty of endodontics.

DERAY MCKESSON: And endodontics is like– that’s like root canal, taken teeth out– what are like the– for those who feel like we have no clue what that means, what are the things that endodontics specialize in, like the actual things that we would know?

MARCUS JOHNSON: Indeed, yeah. Allow me to kind of demystify that space for you. And it’s funny, because even though my mom– obviously, she loves me, and she knows what I do. Even when I told her I was going to study endodontics, she’s like, OK, you’re going to be doing braces? Like what’s going on here? But orthodontics is braces. And endodontics is the specialty, like I said, of saving natural teeth.

Essentially, we are working within the tooth, endo, and dontics is the tooth. We’re working inside the tooth, pretty much eliminating any bacteria, decay, infection, information that may cause someone to have pain, and allowing them to restore or keep their natural tooth and their natural dentition so that they can maintain a healthy and functional lifestyle. The art and science of endodontics is progressing so fast that there’s so many advanced technologies.

Just for the people listening, we have two years of advanced training beyond dental school. So we complete dental school, which is 4 years, and then we go into specialized for at least another two to three years in a residency program, where all we do on a day-to-day basis is root canals. And we do not take teeth out. That would, more or less, fit within the spectrum of a oral surgeon. So on a day-to-day basis, we are looking at ways to restore natural teeth and eliminate pain.

DERAY MCKESSON: Got it. And what about– one of the reasons that I was interested in bringing you in the pod is that we covered dental health stuff like– I don’t know– on the first 100 episodes. And now, we’re at over 200. But I thought that there were racial and ethnic disparities that showed up in dental procedures amongst kids of color. There were already studies that seemed to suggest that we weren’t saving as many teeth with Black and brown kids or Black and brown adults.

And I wanted to understand what that process looks like. I’ve been to a lot of dentists over the years, and I’ve never had a tooth pulled. But I have definitely had doctors recommend it. And I’m like no, no, no. Let’s see if we can do a root canal. And they’re like, oh, I don’t mind. I’m like, let’s just see. And then they do it, and it works. But how do you see race in as many shop in the field? And what can doctors like you do to save teeth?

MARCUS JOHNSON: What can we do to save teeth? Well, we have to really promote dentistry as, you know, just a profession as well but just oral health in general. And I plot the American Association of Endodontists, which I’m a board member of, for actually coming up with the strategic initiative where we were kind of focused on first, educating the public about what an endodontist does in our advanced training.

But then secondly, we wanted to get the public, engage them through value saving their natural teeth. And so once you, at least, have that awareness out there, everything can flow from there. And when we really look at racial disparities, ethnic issues, and socioeconomic sort of factors and how that plays into oral health care, in 2000– I think it was. The Surgeon General at the time with David Satcher.

He actually wrote a report which focused on oral health. It’s like an oral health report. And that was the first time that the Surgeon General had brought that to the forefront. And what he was highlighting was that, specifically within children– and we can talk about the disparities a little later– there was a rampant cary problem. And caries is just structured term for cavities. And he really looked at this, and said, this was a global problem.

Dental disease was affecting more children than any other condition worldwide. And so when you think about that, to put that focus on dentistry and oral health and tying it into general health, was really significant. And so we understand that allowing children to have access to care, to be able to go to the dentist and have that coverage really said a lot about the importance of oral health care.

Now, if we fast forward to once the Affordable Care Act was kind of introduced, what was good about that is it, again, we brought the focus back on oral health care, specifically within children. But it really didn’t do too much to address some of those disparities that we may see in communities that have a lower socioeconomic status or maybe just not strong access to care. And so that’s where I step in.

And that’s where we have to rely on the leaders within dentistry to actually elevate the profession through diversity. Similarly how I shared my stories, I was very motivated and inspired by my dentist who happened to look like me. And so it just kind of made sense. Hey, you’re kind of attracted to similar ideas that you can share or someone that may look like you. So in my position, currently I’m the New York State Association of Endodontists President, I want to be a visible individual.

I want to be on a platform where my knowledge is accessible. I can bring unique skills and sets and talents to really figure out ways that we can address the oral care problem and really get to the people that need it within those communities. If we look at just the US population and specifically African-Americans or just Black, in general, probably no more than 13%, right? Maybe 12.8% nationwide.

So when we look at those statistics, the fact that the dental market share has never been more than 4% in terms of Black Americans as dentists, we have to look at what factors may be affecting that. We kind of have to consider, is it something to do with institutional culture, faculty privilege, implicit bias? What are the factors at play as to why these numbers are staying stagnant? And when we look at our Hispanic and Asian counterparts, we see that they are continually tracking towards more representation within dentistry.

Just to give you an example, I would say that the Asian population probably is no more than about 6% nationwide, right? But when we look at dentistry from 2000 to 2021, we have seen steady growth to now, where they represent about 18% of the dental market share, which is phenomenal. We applaud them for that. But we have to look at what factors may be allowing different groups to realize greater numbers or representation in dentistry.

DERAY MCKESSON: What are the factors? Is that why– is it like that? Is that one of the– that’s what I’ve felt like I’ve heard before. Like the– going to doctor– can be a doctor, in general, defensive. To be a dentist is defensive. Dentistry isn’t covered under general health insurance if your reimbursement rates are lower, something like that. Like the cost of entry is harder. Or that’s something else? That they’re not allowed to dentistry schools. Are there not enough slots? Or like, I don’t know. What do you know?

MARCUS JOHNSON: I guess, you should first kind of dispel a couple myths. Dentistry is really not expensive. Now, when you happen to need what we call major treatment, maybe due to some sort of neglect, or some people just may not have access to care. So we’re talking about when you’re trying to do procedures like root canals, implants, crowns, bridges, things of that nature, dentistry does definitely take on a higher price tag.

But if we’re just talking about preventative and diagnostic services, under most plans, that is going to be 100% cover with no sort of copay. There’s no need for that. So when we talk about student debt, yes, student debt is a major factor that maybe prevents dentists from going out and practicing within communities where they may be not receiving as much reimbursement for their dental procedures, making it a little bit more of a challenge to actually cover off some of their student debt.

But again, that’s after someone has already come out of dental school. What we need to focus on is developing pipeline programs that specifically highlight ways to elevate diverse minds with unique talents and skills and elevating them to leadership positions. Therefore, we can be the ones to enact change from that level downward. And so it really starts with developing pipelines.

For instance, the American Dental Education Association, they have developed a tool kit which really focuses and encourages diversity within leadership positions. And just to give you another perspective, if we look at dentistry in general, the ADA is more or less our parent organization. As the American Association Endodontists, which I’m part of, a member, we are one of the 12 specialties under that umbrella of the American Dental Association.

Half of those specialties have never elevated a non-white president. So think about that. OK. That’s not to say that there are not qualified individuals. They’re definitely are. But there has to be a shift in the culture of how we view leadership and what that really looks like. And unpack these antiquated thoughts and beliefs that were once held and oftentimes prevent barriers to us providing new programs and initiatives focused on access to care and oral health care.

DERAY MCKESSON: One of the things that I think is so interesting about doctors in general is that sometimes, we don’t know how to advocate for ourselves in the room because a lot of us don’t go to the doctor that ton. So we go because our tooth hurts, or we go to the annual cleaning. What are the questions that we should be asking in the room when the doctor is like, I think, I need to pull your teeth?

I think one of my really good friends, she went to one doctor. And they were like, you need this extensive surgery. And she was like, let me just go get a second look. And like, the other doctor was like, oh, we can tighten this up. We don’t need to really do surgery. Like what are the questions that people should be asking of the dentist when they go?

MARCUS JOHNSON: Going to the dentist, first of all, I guess, you want to first ask yourself, what’s going allow you to be comfortable? And so because once you’re more comfortable in that setting, you’re more likely to feel comfortable posing the questions directly to getting the proper oral health care you need. So that’s first and foremost.

But whenever there is a diagnosis and within that diagnosis, subsequently, you’re going to need major work, like I said, maybe a root canal or extraction, a crown. Now, we’re not talking about cosmetics. Cosmetics is usually just based out of desire. If someone is wanting veneers or a new smile, that’s fine and dandy. But those really are beyond what we’re talking about when it’s just tear that is necessary to restore your natural condition back to a healthy state.

Never hurts to ask, well, is there a specialty service or specialty provider that I can just maybe have a second opinion with? If someone is saying, hey, you know what? You’re going to need a root canal. We know that most times, general dentists do great work in terms of root canal. However, endodontist does a root canal on a day-to-day basis.

And we have advanced technology and training which allows us to be very efficient in diagnosis and treatment of endodontic disease or case that need root canal. So it never hurts to say, well, there are specialists maybe you can recommend me to for a second opinion. You can always get a second opinion from a general dentist as well.

I think it just kind of starts within that vein of being comfortable and knowing first, is there a specialty or another resource where I can actually get some more information. If someone really wants to take it upon themselves, you can always visit the American Dental Association web page, the American Association of Endodontists. Trusted peer-reviewed websites and resources that are going to give you relevant information based within the signs and the data to support the current trends and best practices.

DERAY MCKESSON: What are some of the most common misconception that you have to deal with in the office? Like where people come in and they’ve heard something, like, no, that’s not I thought what it is. Are there any myth that we should dispel around the dental process? And do you do– do endodontists do gum issues, too? Or just– I know some people have like– whatever the technical term that is for like inflamed gum, for like gum.


DERAY MCKESSON: Like where you get deep cleaning, stuff like that.

MARCUS JOHNSON: Yeah. I’ll start there. There is a specialty or another arm of dentistry that deals specifically with what we call the peridontium or the gums. And that’s known as a periodontist or the study of periodontology. So there is a specialty for that. And if someone does have some gum issues, of course, you can start with just the basic cleaning from your hygienist, or sometimes, the general dentist may conduct that for you.

But if you need more advanced work, usually, you’re going to kind of seek out the specialty care from the periodontist. But in terms of Mr. Dispel, I think the biggest one is that patients oftentimes feel that going to the dentist, you’re going to be put in a lot of pain. And nothing can be further from the truth. When you go to a practicing experienced professional– and just for this conversation discussing endodontics or the specialty of endodontics– we are specialists in managing pain.

So you come in pain, and we know how to properly anesthetize you, get you comfortable so that we can eliminate whatever ailment it that has plaguing you and get you back to health. Now postoperatively, yes, you may have some soreness and maybe some discomfort. But we can always manage that with either antibiotics, if needed, and any sort of pharmacology. So understanding that when you go to the dentist, you’re actually going to be relieved from pain.

I think, it’s hard for patients to process that when you go in pain. Obviously you’re a little bit– your fears are heightened, things of that nature. But in actuality, you go to the dentist to get out of pain. In addition, I think another misconception is that patients often feel that if they’ve had root canal, that a tooth can never have a problem again. Yes, if someone has a root canal, we hope that the tooth will be fine for a lifetime.

But sometimes, you still have to have additional work beyond that. But understand that first, after you get a root canal, we’re cleaning the tooth out. We’re restoring it back to natural dentition or natural state of function, oftentimes, that’s going to require you to have a crown or a full coverage, something to protect the tooth after that work has been completed.

And so, if there’s anything that the pandemic has shown us outside of so many social justice issues and economic and political concerns of the world, is that within dentistry, specifically, we have seen that effect manifest in the dental chair through cracked teeth. And so for whatever reason, maybe a patient is at home, they’re munching more, they’re snacking more often, or just the unrest.

Just because of the high degree of uncertainty, they’re grinding and clenching their teeth, and they are cracking their teeth. So after you have a root canal, it is possible to crack your tooth. And then that would either cause you to have that tooth extracted. Or sometimes, we can still save those teeth based on the level of the crack. So I think that’s another misconception is that if I have a root canal, I never need to have that tooth worked on again.

DERAY MCKESSON: Is a crack tooth and a chipped tooth the same thing? Or they’re two different things?

MARCUS JOHNSON: I guess, those levels. We should start off by saying that cracked teeth are going to occur oftentimes due to what we call parafunctional habits. Someone is grinding, clenching, things of that nature, of course, trauma, in playing sports, you take a fall. And if you happen to fall, you can chip part of your tooth. So those terms are really interchangeable, crack and a chip.

Now, understand, though, if you crack the tooth to the point where now the nerve is involved, that, in itself, warrants a situation where an endodontist like myself or dental practitioner needs to perform a root canal. If you just happen to have a chipped tooth or maybe the corner is chipped, but you’re not in any pain because the nerve has not been breached, there’s been no disruption of that layer, then usually some sort of basic cosmetic bonding will restore you back to a healthy smile without needing any further intervention. So a chipped tooth would essentially be a classification of a crack.

DERAY MCKESSON: And have you seen a lot of chipped teeth when people are coming back from COVID? Have you seen anything else? Was there a lot of decay? Or did people do it, in your experience doing a good job of taking care of the teeth? Or what’s your assessment of what happened to people’s mouth during COVID?

MARCUS JOHNSON: Well, COVID has taken a number on all of us. And it definitely has taken its toll on people’s teeth. I think most notably, there was a editorial in the New York Times. And this was back, I think, in maybe November or October 2020. And they were focusing on the significant uptick that the dental community was witnessing in terms of cracked teeth. And actually, one of my colleagues, who’s a classmate, was actually being interviewed for the article.

And it’s been just across the board. Like I said, people coming in just from the high degree of uncertainty, grinding their teeth, clenching their teeth. They’re sitting in front of a computer more. They’re munching more frequently, eating snacks, and things of that nature. So we’ve seen it all. But I definitely have seen, in compared to other years prior, more cracked teeth due to the pandemic setting.

DERAY MCKESSON: So to come to a close, what are some piece of advice that you have for– there are parents listening. What’s your advice to them about how they should– what they should do to take care of their kids’ teeth? What’s your advice to adults who are thinking about what to do with their teeth? And how do we think about what should change structurally so that we know that people who come from marginalized communities, in low-income communities can have better access?

MARCUS JOHNSON: Yes, fantastic. I think that’s a great way to sum it up. When it comes to kids, get in early. As soon as those teeth kind of come in, even beforehand, it never hurts to just get– seek the care for pediatric specialists. Even a general dentist is perfectly fine. We know that we can fill those teeth. Filling is a way to have a protective covering over tooth so that as soon as they come in, they’re less likely to develop cavities because cavities develop through acid in the mouth and the breakdown of the tooth.

I’m not going to get too scientific. But ultimately, it’s when the bacteria have access into the tooth. So if the top of the tooth is sealed, it’s going to be much harder for bacteria to gain access. So by all means, any parents with young children, please, ask your dental practitioner about sealants. And that’s the best thing that you can do moving forward. And you can continually fill those teeth if the ceiling comes off.

I mean, there’s so much to be said about just consistency. American Dental Association, when we looked at a analysis of dental benefits used by adults and kind of those spending habits and expenditures, they realized that maybe one out of three adults– we’re talking, of course, like 19 to 65– did not have one dental claim submitted annually. So what is that’s showing us? That’s showing us that people are not utilizing their benefits.

So if you’re going to have dental insurance, be sure that it’s worth it. Like I said, maybe run that cost analysis. Look at it, and say, if I’m paying this premium, but I’m not actually utilizing this dental insurance, maybe it’s something I don’t need. And maybe I’ll just pay out of pocket. And so if you can figure that based on your own basic cost analysis, I’m not really going to spend more than $600 with the premiums, the copayments, the coinsurance, all those fees adding up, it comes out to around that amount.

So you can kind of balance that out and see how it works for you. And lastly, when it comes to impacting real change, access to care, providing the necessary care to those in need, it really starts with us. And I don’t want to sound like I’m pompous or on my high horse. But when we talk about marginalized communities, we have to understand that who better to take care of us than us, right?

And that’s one of the reasons why I share my time between my private practice, and I teach as well in Interfaith Hospital in Brooklyn which is in bedside so that I can still share that responsibility and be there when I need to be. Because I can’t tell you the impact that it has when I see a young kid. And they say, oh, man. This guy just happens to look like me, the same way I was inspired by my dentist who happened to have some similarities in just how he looked and how he act and talk.

And we really have to step into those leadership roles. I mean, I applaud anyone who studies any sort of discipline, specifically those my dental counterparts. But I really feel that we have to do so much more. It’s OK to be a dentist. It’s OK to be on Instagram and things of that nature, promoting the culture. But we really have to take a step back and get involved.

And I can’t speak highly enough of organized dentistry and the way that it has benefited and supplemented my career. And I’m better for it. And I think that we have to really step into those positions and start visualizing what does oral health to look like moving forward and how do we shift these numbers so that more representative of what we see the demographics across the nation.

DERAY MCKESSON: Cool. We continue in the Friend of the Pod. I can’t wait to have you back.

MARCUS JOHNSON: Thanks so much. It’s good to be on here. And keep doing what you’re doing, man. It’s been a blessing,

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 that you raid it wherever you get your podcasts, whether that’s Apple podcast 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 Lands. Our executive producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Samuel Sinyangwe.