Charles Blow in Conversation with Network Board Chair Jesse Salazar
At ComNet16, Communications Network Board Chair Jesse Salazar interviewed The New York Times columnist Charles Blow on writing, the role of narrative in policy change, the issue of race in America, and why the nonprofit sector needs to wake up.
I have the privilege of introducing Charles Blow. I want to first just welcome him back to Detroit. I understand that he spent a couple years here at the Detroit News, which is one of our local papers. I know that in your materials, in your app I believe, you have his full bio, so I told him that he had to tell me something special so that I would look good up here. He’s like, “There’s nothing special.” I said, “This is not about you. This is about me,” but he would actually start joking and talking about it, and one of the things he shared with me was that he grew up and everybody called him Charles baby because he was the youngest kid in the neighborhood, so everybody in the neighborhood, all of the other children, went to school, and he stayed home in the neighborhood, and he was pretty much raised by all of the elders and all of the seniors in his community.
You can see exactly what that did and how it rubbed off on him. Here is a man who has the confidence that you can only get when you’re really loved and when somebody calls you Charles baby, so I think I’m the only person that calls him Charles baby now, along with Mrs. Brown from his hometown, but you have to have truly been loved to have the confidence and the fortitude to speak with such brilliance, with such courage, and with such clarity that Charles has been doing as a New York Times columnist and as well when you read his book, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. You see the passion. You see the forthrightness, but you also see the gentleness that would see from what he was able to glean from his upbringing. I wanted to just also share a couple thoughts about that.
When I think about what work Charles is doing, it is really about helping clarify the context for all of us. You all know that we work at foundations, and foundations tend to like to focus on the content. We want to figure out what the solution is, what does the data tell us that we can do and use, and we also want to look the smartest of them all. You, as communication professionals, are tasked with this great thing to make each of your foundations look good and to prove that you know the content, but I think one of the things that we miss as foundations, quite honestly, is that we miss the context. Content has no meaning without context, and I think that Charles Blow creates the context for us.
I’m so grateful to be able to introduce him. I’m so grateful to be able to hear him, but most importantly I’m super grateful for the voice that you have in our country in the way that you raise truth, and you do it with such power. It is really my privilege to introduce Charles Blow and Jesse Salazar, who is going to interview him. Will you help me give a great and grand applause for Charles baby as he takes the stage?
I won’t call you Charles baby.
You’re 24 years old. You’re the youngest department head at the New York Times working on visual design.
A bit of a sensation. You’ve become a visual columnist, but for the last few years you’ve been focused on writing about politics and race, so why is that? Why the transition?
I don’t see it as a transition. It’s an evolution probably is a better word for me. It is whatever feels right to me in the moment. I’ve never been the sort of person who games out the next 5 years and 10 years of your life and the things that they ask you in the interview, and they say, “You know, where do you see yourself?” which I don’t know. I’m just trying to do this job, you know, so for me it was trying to be as natural and as genuine and as true to myself as possible, so I write about things that matter to me, things that are the most personal to me, things that I know about. I think that that is where your power is is in being able to tap in … not trying to emulate another person and to sound like someone else, but rather to sound like the most authentic version of yourself, to write about or to convey in any way the thing that you know most personally and deeply. That is where you are the authority.
One of the other columnists once said about the columns at the New York Times that it should sound like a symphony, that we should all be playing a different instrument, but together it should sound great. Once I realized that the benefit of having me as a columnist was not that I sounded like the rest of the people in the room because I was not.
People say, “You’re the only black columnist.” I’m also the only southern columnist at the New York Times, and once I realized that that is part of the way I sound, that is a part of the aesthetic of me, that is part of that kind of southern Gothic storytelling as part of the cadence of my language, once I realized that it was not a demerit to have grown up poor which was unlike the other columnists at the New York Times, it is not a demerit not to have all gone to pretty much the same kind of prep schools and Ivy League schools, but my experience is very … All of that exists in the South in a very poor environment, and that that is not a negative but a positive because it allows me to bring to those conversations a completely different aesthetic and perspective. Doing that has been empowering for me, and I hope that it comes across in the language.
It does. It’s interesting because I think everyone in the country has very strong opinions on this election and what’s happening in our country, but you have really created for yourself a distinct voice in talking about this election, so could you give me some sense of how you think you’ll be talking to your grandkids about this election?
About this election? I hope I won’t be talking to them about this election. I hope that on November 9th I never have to talk about this election again.
Well, this national moment that we’re in where there is this real feeling of anxiety about the future of the country.
Right, that anxiety is personified by a particular man, right? Part of the thing at the Times is that we are part of the ethics policy of the opinion columnists. It’s not a written pol-, but we know it is that you’re not supposed to endorse anyone. That’s for the Editorial Board to do, but they didn’t tell me that I couldn’t be against somebody, so it is really important to me … People often write to me after I write a column, and they say, “Oh, but his supporters won’t take this … You know they won’t change their mind.” I’m actually not writing to change anybody’s mind. I’m really not. I am writing to bear witness to a moment that in the long sweep of history, if you look back at this time and you look at what I said or what other people said in this moment, then I think it is really important to be on the record as having taken a firm position in opposition of demagoguery and bigotry and misogyny.
I feel like on a moral level it is my responsibility that I have to say what I believe is true in this moment. If someone can use that in their outreach and if they want to take that into … put that in the hopper if they’re making decisions, so be it. If they don’t, so be it. I really don’t care about changing minds and votes and that sort of thing. That’s not really my job. My job is truly to say I see something, and I have an obligation to say what I see, and that is what I’m doing.
I worry, though, that after Election Day, regardless of the outcome, our country has changed. Something is different. Some things have been broken. Some demons have been brought back. Can you talk about what you think …
Unleashed. Can you talk about what you think the legacy of this election may be and what it’s going to mean for our politics in the next few months and years?
You will be surprised to know that I think a couple might be positive, all right? I have never been under the illusion that there was not discrimination in this country, that there was not bitterness, that there was not hatred, that there was not anti whatever you want to put behind it and phobia whatever you want to put in front of it did not exist. In fact, it has existed from the moment that America was formed. In fact, that is part of the way that America was formed. It was trying to disenfranchise some people, trying to civilize the Native Americans, which was basically an extermination process.
I have books so I know that this is true, but what this cycle is doing, and it may not necessarily be a permanent feature, but it is a current feature, it is normalizing and elevating a certain strain of rhetoric and dialogue and saying that, “People have told you for a decade or so that what you feel is not appropriate, but I am saying that it is appropriate, and it is appropriate to voice it, and you are justified in feeling however you feel, no matter how offensive it is to other people.” That is a real thing, and that will outlast the election to some degree.
Strangely, I teach a class now at Yale, and we’re following this election in real time. One of the things that we were talking about, and I believe this is true, is that a tiny positive, tiny, is that it is also proven that politicians are not completely wedded to their past, no matter how horrible it is because I have …
They have a chance to change.
You have a chance for rehabilitation, and you can do some wildly horrible things in your youth, and in your older age people may not care so much about it. I have worried for quite some time, since the advent of the Internet and kids posting literally everything. If any of you have kids …
… how many times have you had to tell your kids, “Do not do that. You know, like the Library of Congress is keeping every tweet. You’re not going to be able to get rid of this,” right? Not only what you see but what you don’t see, which them sending like nude pictures of themselves to everybody they’re interested in. I’m like, “Do you have to do that to get a date?” I’ve been worried about that because young people do things that may be just really bad judgment, and they say horrible things to each other and put it in social media, and I was worried that 30 years from now we would have a generation where very few of them could seek public office because you’d have all this garbage. One thing that this man has demonstrated is you can have been a horrible 20-something, and you still have a shot.
I’m really worried about what my future might be. About two weeks ago there was a press conference at the Mayflower in DC … I’m sorry, the Willard, and it was terrifying. There was an alt-right think tank that pulled together all these journalists and supporters, and they had this sort of punchy, funny, rollicking good time press conference where they talk about how they’ve never had so much attention, they’ve never had so many new followers, money is flowing into their coffers. They said, “Our efforts to raise awareness about white nationalism have never been stronger. We’re poised to build a new generation of organization,” and it was truly terrifying to me that they just had that smirk of somebody who has just won or feels like they’ve just won. I’m a little worried about how you think this group, the social sector, can configure itself to combat efforts to reinforce the racial hierarchy that exists.
Listen, this is what I call kind of the Buchanan legacy. He wrote that book where … I think the book was part of the reason he was no longer booked on MSNBC or was let go. I think he was a contributor there or something, but basically the argument he was making was a real one which was it is something that people have said forever, “Power does not concede itself,” that people simply don’t hand over power in any society, and that we just seem to think that demographics will keep marching in a particular direction and eventually things will just flip, and legacy power will say, “Ha, we didn’t have enough babies. You can have the power.” That’s not the way it works. People will cling to power with their last breath, and part of what you are seeing is a backlash against a rising demographic wave in which people see themselves being outnumbered.
The America that people want back is one where that power was never challenged and where it was secure. They see an insecurity in what is happening. They see the very structures that were meant to secure that power becoming threats to it, like the franchise of voting, which is why you see people rushing to constrict the franchise of voting itself because as the demographics change, it means that if each vote truly has the same power, and I only have one and you have one, and your numbers keep growing, that means eventually I won’t have enough to maintain the power that I have.
It means that we get to an issue like the Second Amendment which no one had ever taken literally to mean a gun in every house and you can take it everywhere you go. It can go to the supermarket and go to the bar with you or whatever. In fact, the only people in America who have ever had their guns taken away by law on a state level were African-Americans, so for me to know the history of how people had completely avoided embracing the Second Amendment when they thought that after the Emancipation Proclamation that they might turn into Haiti where black people had rebelled and killed white people.
Therefore, they said, “No, we have to go in and make sure that these black people do not have guns in their homes,” and literally passed state laws that made that legal, to then turn around and say the first black president, he’s coming to get your guns. I’m like, “No, the only people that ever had their guns taken away were black people. Stop this nonsense,” or to have these white people pushing to have more and more chance to buy more guns and to take them everywhere that they go, when in fact the only people who people got upset about doing that were black people. When the Black Panthers showed up in the Sacramento Statehouse with guns, white people, including NRA, rushed to pass laws that prohibited people from showing up in public with guns. The Mumford Act was signed by Ronald Reagan.
Let’s dive into that a little bit, this history of segregation that has been a part of our country’s story. There was a comment that came up in a session yesterday that we are living in de facto Jim Crow, and I think the events that have happened, the quickened pace of violence, the quickened pace of discord, have reinforced this idea that even if the law is not technically causing Jim Crow, there is still such a lasting legacy to racial hierarchy and racial separation in this country, that the effect is similarly …
No, we are consciously re-segregating. It’s not de facto. It is like people are making conscious decisions to do this. It is the reason that states like Arkansas are seeing there are fewer and fewer black people there and because there are fewer black people there, there’s a rising tide of white people flowing into Arkansas, right? It is the reason that when studies look at segregation of schools, schools nationally are more segregated now than the year that Brown v. Board of Education was ruled upon in the Supreme Court. We are doing this. This is not a passing thing. This is not just a regional, here, there, somewhere sort of thing. We are doing this. People are separating themselves on purpose.
In the city of Baltimore in one of the efforts at reform for the police, the city has instituted this program where all police are required to take history courses in the history of race in Baltimore so that they can understand the processes of redlining, the processes of exclusion from business, from government entities, et cetera. Do you think there’s value in propagating programs for institutional actors to understand that history?
Absolutely, I mean nobody understands it. It’s amazing that anybody has a program to understand it. People who are being suppressed by it don’t understand it. There is a tremendous loss of historical narrative, and there has to be a conscious reclamation of that history because people … We’ve seen a smattering of books around this subject the last few years, and people are almost shocked by what the books say. I’m like how is it possible that you could be shocked by this? This is like a living history. This actually happened, probably in your lifetime, probably in your parents’ lifetime, and you have no clue that it happened? How is that possible? That is because it has been systematically excluded from how we educate. It has been scrubbed in many ways from our oral histories and knowledge and what we choose to hand down from generation to generation.
What I am learning is that that has to be an active thing. There is no passive way of transmittal of this information from one generation to the next. You have to actively instill and teach and make it a systematic part of how you transfer. If you do not that, it simply will not transfer and it will be lost.
Yesterday morning Aaron Belkin, who had led some of the communications efforts around the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said that one of their challenges is they had study after study, research point after research point, that made the argument that dismantled the arguments of advocates for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but that they couldn’t find the right ambassadors to carry that message forward, that nobody was going to believe the gay activists who were trying to make this argument, that it took a Secretary of Defense making these arguments. Who do you think in our country has the standing or the moral heft to be able to be the ambassadors for the message of this voluminous history that we have?
See, this is a tough question for me because I come at it very differently in the sense that I am not of the mind that I should spend any of my time trying to educate you out of your ignorance. One of my favorite quotes of Toni Morrison is that one of the great effects of racism is distraction. It keeps you explaining things that don’t need to be explained. It takes time away from you doing your work in the world and from you loving your family and from you teaching your children because you’re constantly trying to explain this thing that they say, “You’re not capable of doing this,” “You’re not smart enough for that,” “Your people don’t have a history in this,” and you go and find the research, and you say, “No, this is true and that is true,” and all that time and energy and passion that you have put into that knocking down of that mythology and of trying to dispel another person of their ignorance is time that you have taken away from doing your work in the world while they have been able to spend their entire time while you were out doing that research putting in their work in the world. Why would I give you that?
Now I know that there are people for whom this is their life’s work and trying to change other people’s mind, and I do not knock them. In fact, I applaud it. It is just that personally I am not one of those people. I won’t give you my passion and my energy because I am too busy loving my people and my family and my friends and doing my work.
Yeah. You know, I agree that that’s an unfair burden. I had many mentors who knew that I wasn’t quite as talented as some of the other kids when I got to school. You know, there are all sorts of things for the rural Latino kid, and they took real time out of their day to mentor me, to give me guidance, to help me do something with my life, and I’m tremendously grateful for that, but every single one of them told me, “Now, the thing is, Jesse, you better give back. You better find somebody to mentor and continue to do that throughout your lifetime. That is your obligation. You do have to keep fixing, supporting the community how you can.”
That is different than fixing the defect in another, right? That is basically helping someone to see that they don’t have a defect in themselves.
Right? It is, in fact, the inverse of that sort of outreach. I completely believe … If you start from the premise that race anthropologically has no basis in science, that on a genetic level I am as likely to have as much genetically in common with someone who looks white as someone who looks black in any room, that all of the anthropologists will tell you the same thing. It has no basis in fact, that it is a weaponized construct designed to advantage some people in society and to disadvantage others. If you start from that premise, then any discrimination based on race is illogical and immoral, and I immediately assume that when you express a racist attitude that I have the moral high ground. Therefore, I’m not punching down. I’ve already dispensed with you because I don’t have time for that. You haven’t read enough.
Also, if you understand that it makes no sense and that it is a weaponized tool, then you come to understand what Martin Luther King said at Stanford in 1967 that the ultimate logic of racism is genocide, that if you believe that I am somehow, because of the racialized person that you have made me, not suited to sit next to you or live next to you, that eventually that line of logic means that I am not fit to live at all. I won’t consume that sort of poison.
When I look at that sort of logic that your mentors were giving you, I say that all the time because part of what is important to me, what is edifying for me, is to look at every person and help them to see that this thing that has been imposed on you has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with the people who want to assume and make you believe that God made a mistake, that He has permanently assigned some people to a lesser status in society, that he permanently gave some people, based on how much sun their ancestors got and how much sun some didn’t and whether or not they lived in a cold climate or a hot one and whether or not their hair coiled to keep the moisture in and whether or not it was straight so that if they fell into one of those cold lakes that they would lose that water as soon as possible, they wouldn’t freeze to death, based on that God made a mistake and permanently assigned different character traits to these people, and they did not. It is a lie. You are just as good and you are just as smart, and you can be and do whatever you want as long as you do not let the weight of that lie rest on your shoulders.
That’s right, and you know, I think that every person of color, minority voice, in an organization feels in some way the weight of the lie of other people making assumptions about their identity. You know, I think it’s a double burden that regardless of what you pursue as a person of color, you end up being asked to be a representative voice in some way for a larger group that may not emulate your experience, so how do we go about, as communicators at foundations and leaders of large nonprofits, to lift some of that weight or to carry some of that weight?
Again, I’m probably going to be redundant here. I come at it just from a different perspective, which is kids first come to learn and to know by reflection, so the more you can give a child an opportunity to see themselves, the possibilities of themselves, and people who look like them achieving, freed of the shackles, the more that child is free themselves. I have never met a three-year-old who didn’t want to learn everything in the world. What we have to then say is at what point does society clip the wings of some, at what point does society shackle some? At what point do they rob them of dream, and then how do we attack that nexus point so that that stops happening? There are a lot of ways across society that we do this, we do this damage, we do this violence to certain children, and we pretend that we are not conscious of the fact that we are doing it.
From the very moment that children are introduced to power structures in America the disparities kick in. It is almost impossible to find a children’s book that features minority children that is not about history, it is not about self-acceptance in their hair and their skin color. Almost none of the literature is about dreaming. They’re not slaying the dragon. They are not capturing the alien. All of the adventure that we grant to white children is denied to black children. They get books about your hair is beautiful even though it’s curly. They get books about Martin Luther King as a child, and they get books about Sojourner Truth as a child, and they never get books that say, “You are strong and amazing, and you can dream. The same stars that you stare up at are the stars that everybody stares up at, and the dreams that you have are valid.”
From the time these children enter into preschool, their rates of suspension in preschool is incredibly disproportionate to their white counterparts. What the research tells us is that one suspension, even when you are a small child, impacts graduation rates. If you don’t graduate, it impacts the rest of your life and your life earnings. What we know is that all children make mistakes. Well, not all children. Many children make mistakes around drug usage in small … They experiment. Some smoke marijuana, whatever, and that all the children do it at about the same rates no matter what race they are. Yet 90% of all drug arrests are black and brown children. We know the mark that that leaves for the rest of that kid’s life. In fact, in the ’90s, you were forbidden from even applying for federal financial aid if you had ever been arrested for a drug crime. They’ve since gone back on that, but every time I would hear someone say there are more black men in prison than in college, which is not quite … The statistic’s a little bit off, but I’m thinking you do understand why that happened, right?
Are you literally trying to pretend that you’re in the dark? Are you literally trying to tell me that you don’t understand that 9 out of 10 of the people, all of these kids were doing these drugs at the same rate, and 9 out of 10 of the ones that you arrested were black, and then you told them that they could never apply for federal financial aid to go to college so that they could never turn that mistake around. Then you have the audacity to blame them for being disproportionately represented in prison. You have the audacity after mass incarceration is sucking hundreds of thousands of black people, young, marriage-age black men, out of black communities … You have the audacity to say why are not more of the children being born to black families not being born to black couples and only being born to black women, when those women are now at a deficit of people who are marriage age because you have sucked them out and put them all prison for doing the exact same thing that everybody else was doing.
Part of what has to happen is a mass education of our own complicity in the suppression of other people. What we try to pretend is that actually that has nothing to do with me. It’s sad. It’s really sad, but that’s over there. What the Justice Department report, the second report in Ferguson, taught us was that it actually has everything to do with you. Your hands have blood on them, too, because what that report taught us was that there are whole municipalities that are using police departments and turning them from protect and serve to profit and punish.
Local politicians face budget shortfalls, and instead of doing one of two things, either raising taxes, which liberals would love, or cutting services, which conservatives would love, they do neither so that they can stay in office. Instead they turn to police departments and to the courts, and they say, “We have a 7% shortfall. You need to make it up.” That means that they’re pushing these police departments into more and more contacts with these poor and minority populations. That means that eventually with all that tension something eventually happens and somebody gets shot. Then people go protest, and we look at that like that has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with you.
There was a brief moment a few months ago before the election really got under swing when the Koch brothers and the ACLU and Van Jones and Newt Gingrich all got together, and they held events and conferences and rallies. They said, “We need to come together to fix this broken justice system. This is a bipartisan issue. It’s a national disgrace, and we’re going to do something, damn it, about how bad these things have come.” The impact of that has been almost nothing, and the conversation has changed. For me, that isn’t an issue of policy. That’s an issue of communications. Somehow that narrative began to dissipate, and the public attention toward these challenges was lost. How do we reclaim that?
You keep pushing me into areas that’s going to make both me and you uncomfortable, so I’m just going to just say what’s on my mind.
I have to tell you I really appreciate this conversation.
All right, good.
I really do.
Good because I don’t know how it’s going, okay.
I think it’s going great. I’ll be honest with you. I’m sitting up here feeling genuinely touched and moved and trying to keep it together …
… because you’re right. These are deeply inhumane crimes against children and families.
I think the word that you’re using, the inhumanity, the moral component of that, that is still stuck in the back of my jaw about this push because conservatives didn’t even come to the table until the states started to run out of money. They basically got to the point where they couldn’t afford to keep enough human beings in cages, and that is when they changed their mind about how many human beings they would like to keep in cages. I come at it from a different point of view, which is a moral point of view. What kind of society do you want? Why do we even have private prisons?
People don’t even register the depths of the immorality of a private prison. The fact that somebody’s making money off of it is the first level of it, but that’s not the only level of it. They don’t have the same kind of mission, which is at least in some state prisons part of the apparatus is to give them something to do, try to give a trade, so that when there is reentry, which is a huge problem, that they have something that they’ve learned to do. Private prisons don’t have that. These private prisons and jails, they just let them lie there for months, weeks, nothing. What does that do to the spirit of a person? Not only to be part of that system but to have nothing to put your hands to, no library. You just have to understand what that must be like for a person.
I’m from Louisiana where we’re going to take it up another notch, has the highest per capita prison population in the country. In Louisiana local sheriffs are allowed to own private jails. Thank about that conflict. One of the reasons that Louisiana’s unemployment rate is artificially low is because you could be a failed farmer and they would hire you at the local private prison run by your local sheriff, and it looks like everybody is more employed. Also you’re sucking massive numbers of people out of the unemployment field, so they’re never going to look for a job, so it looks like they have a low unemployment rate. No, they just have a bunch of people in cages and a bunch of people to watch them.
We need to turn to questions, but I want to get real with you for a second about an experience that I had.
Oh, this hasn’t been real? We’re about to get real.
I’m going to tell you the story of the first time I cried at work.
You were talking specifically about prisons, but I worked in government and I had the experience of seeing these systemic failures constantly. There was a morning that I was on my way to work, and I got a call saying that a city block in a Latin neighborhood had blown up. The gas line had broke and there was a huge fireball. Seven people were killed including a young baby, an elderly couple that were asleep in bed, and it really was a devastating site. Of course, everyone’s trying to figure out who’s responsible for this and why did this happen, and will this happen again? It turned out that all of the gas lines were old. They were from the ’20s, and the gas company had no interest in paying for the lines, and the government had no interest in requiring them to update the lines.
I remember the moment when we had the families of the people who had been killed in this fireball and neighbors in that neighborhood saying, “Okay, so what are we going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” and I had to sit there and try to explain to them that really no action was going to be taken. We were going to study it, and we were going to write some letters to some people and try to do some public shaming, but the experience of telling these families that these lives didn’t matter enough to the company or to the powers that be was, I have to tell you, one of the most devastating early experiences. It was then that I sort of felt what you were explaining, this sense that these human lives don’t have the weight enough to make people do something about their suffering.
I see this in so many places. You see it with the water system. There are people that say, “We are not going to take action to make sure that these kids don’t get neurological disease,” and on and on and on. Maybe this is a little too grisly. I know we don’t have much time. We should go to questions, but I want to maybe end with something a little bit nicer.
Anything would be nicer.
About a hundred foundations recently … Yeah. Sean was like, “This is going to be so fun. You’re going to have such a great conversation about all the interesting topics.” I’m sorry, everybody. About a hundred foundations came together after the shootings in Dallas, and they signed on to this message saying that the country is now in this moment of real discord and despair, and they were trying to put out a message that provided some kind of counter narrative to what was happening in the country. They said, “We’re not asking you to take policy action. We’re not asking you to go out and do a specific thing. We want you to share reasons for hope that you see in your communities.” With that they asked people to promote their reasons for hope, so what then, Charles, would be …
Oh, this is not going to be as nice as you thought it was going be.
… your reason for hope?
Let me tell you something. I’m not interested in narratives.
That’s not my thing. We’ll end with Martin Luther King. I’m interested in policy. One of the strongest things King ever said, he said, “The law may not make you love me, but it can keep you from lynching me.” I don’t care about you feel about me. I care about whether or not the tax dollars that we have all contributed to are being used to build highways into your suburb or put some more pipes down here so my kids don’t get lead poisoning. That’s what I care about, so the narrative point is not … I’m not, even as a writer, as a communicator, I guess, on some level, it’s just not my thing. I want to see how are we going to spend our collective resources, and are we so immoral that we would let some people die so that some people could live a better life? That, to me, is outrageous.
All right, now we’re going to take a few questions from the audience.
That’s as perky as I get.
Hi, my name is Layne Amerikaner, and I’m with People for the American Way. I just wanted to first start by thanking you for being here and thanking you for your amazing writing, which I know has been an inspiration to so many of us. I just wondered if you could speak a little bit about your writing process, anything you’d like to share about how you go from having an idea for a column to actually having the finished product of a column.
My writing process is like a four-step process. Panic, panic, panic, write. That’s the way I do it.
I’ll sit since I’m in front. I appreciated your remarks deeply, and I wondered, in light of what’s been happening in the last year or so, if you could talk just a little bit about self care. Your message about not needing to be an educator in a moment of time where in every direction you’re being asked, either from people like yourself or people who are trying to learn from you, how are you taking care of yourself? What are you saying about the importance of taking care of yourself so that we can make it through this moment in tact?
One of the things that I do in writing that is very selfish in a way, although hopefully other people get something from it as well, is that I have interviewed more of these mothers who’ve lost children than I care to remember. I have sat across from them and watched them vacillate from crying to laughing within minutes. It’s really interesting to watch, and the fact that I can now anticipate that it’s going to happen that I carry a handkerchief now, that I immediately know how to set them at ease because they are so used to or hesitant about people being in their space, that they’re going to be taken advantage of, and I can quickly say, “I’m not that guy.” Part of what I do every time that I’m with one of those mothers is that I need for them to be human. I need to make them human, not that they’ve been robbed of it but that I need people to understand … I need to write it as, what am I seeing? Did his mother just wrap her arm around mine because she cannot get out of this car because she’s literally exhausted, or the moment she whispers to me, “I just want to go home and go to sleep and never wake up again.”
Those moments where I just feel like, okay, this is a human being, and I don’t want to ever forget that, and I want to write it as if that person who was killed is a human being who had a life, might have made good choices and bad ones. Lord knows I have. Good ones and bad ones, and if in the middle of me making one of my bad choices, if I had lost my life, I would like for people to remember that I was a person and I had a life. I had a family who loves me, and they are hurting because I am gone.
I try to remember that and write it that way so that it’s not ever in those moments about big, and it’s not about people yelling at them, and it’s not about people releasing all their records about all the horrible things that they did, but rather that they were once a kid who dreamed and made choices. Some of them are good and some of them are bad, but they deserved to live. Something about that helps me to move to the next one. Unfortunately there seems to always be a next one, but if I just keep remembering that they’re real and they’re not numbers, it’s somehow therapeutic for me and I think for their families, and I hope for the people who read it.
Hi, thank you for being here. I wanted to ask a little bit more about what you said about narrative and policy change because I think a lot of the people in this room do see narrative as a path to policy change. I’m wondering what you think, if not narrative, is the path to the policy changes we need.
I guess I’m making a philosophical point, which is that the truth does not require consensus and that narrative seeks to build consensus, that there is a moral truth. There is moral thing that’s right. If I have to wait to build a consensus around what is right, it justifies the idea that when there is no consensus that it is okay for me to be oppressed, that the idea that you should have to build consensus is, in fact, anti-American because this country is founded on the premise that the minority would not be oppressed by the majority, that the entire system of government is set up that way, that the entire language of the founding documents … That principle is enshrined. Either we believe those documents or we do not. Either you believe that it was always wrong to subjugate some people because who they loved or because of what color they were or where they were from, or you do not. You do not get to come out after the polls switch over to the majority saying, “Now we think it’s okay for you to marry,” and everyone saying, “You know, I’ve had a change of heart, and now I believe in it.”
No, I take personal offense to that because it means that there’s something problematic in you that allows this to exist where you can only go with the herd and that there is no moral clarity within you that allows you to see that truth in people who are not like you, in people whose numbers are not as great as yours. Maybe that comes from a person who understands that in this country I will always be a minority. The trend lines on black people in America is never going to be … It’s flattened out. I just cannot buy into the consensus necessity. I think you have to buttress the moral argument and make it as strong as possible and say either you believe in right or you do not.
Charles, I want to thank you so much …
… for providing us this clarity and honestly for waking us up.