June 23, 2013
Guests: Patrice Harris, Alfons Pomp, Erika Nicole Kendall, Jonathan Metzl,
Dawn Porter, Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, Joshua Dubois, Kai Wright,
Jelani Cobb, Bryon Bain
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY, MSNBC ANCHOR: And the amazing soldiers, fighting the
good fight in Gideon`s army.
But first, I have a table full of beautiful black men.
Good morning, I`m Melissa Harris-Perry.
If you were a black man on November 4th, 2008, you may have felt like you
were the king of the world. That`s because as "The New York Times" saw it,
a major racial barrier had fallen with the election of Barack Obama as
president of the United States. It did seem that the barrier to the
presidency had fallen and certainly the election of Barack Obama was a win
for the whole country. He shook up the old assumptions about both black
America and black men because he was seen as different.
He had parents who were both black and white. He`s highly educated and
accomplished. But in no way did President Obama`s win sweep away the last
racial barrier in American politics with ease. As the "Times" put it, it
was not so much of the barrier had fallen as that an energized electorate
had hoisted the president over the barrier. But the barriers was facing
black men in America remained firmly in place.
While the national unemployment last month was 7.6 percent, it was at 13.5
percent for African-Americans and hovers around 30 percent for young black
men. And though the number of young black men who graduate from high
school in four years has increased to 52 percent, still lags behind the 58
percent of Latino males and 78 percent of white males who graduate in the
same period of time.
Remains the case that one in 15 black men 18 years of age or older is
inside incarcerated. And according to "Newsweek`s" cover story this week
called "the fight for the black man," that is the key reason why low income
black men are being left behind in America. But, is the fight for the
black man about the choices he makes or the circumstances he faces? Is he
partly to blame for his situation and needs to just do better, or is he
victim of a system designed and determined to keep him down?
Let`s just look how "Newsweek" covers have dealt with black men over the
years. In the civil rights era, this Negro and his reason for his fight
are framed as separate from the rest of Americans. So there were reports
about what must be done for the Negro in America and reports on how black
America was doing as a whole. There were even vivid portraits of how black
men in America were getting along. Even when the reports were good for
black America, our skepticism was noted.
While it is important for us to pay attention to inequality, there was a
danger in turning brothers into nothing more than a collection of problems.
The tendency is to focus exclusively on the pathology and to render the
As Ralph Ellison wrote more than 60 years ago, "I am an invisible man. No,
I`m not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe, nor am I a
Hollywood movie (INAUDIBLE). I`m a man of substance, of flesh and bone,
fiber and liquids and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am
invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me." By
refusing to see stark realities that African-American men face, we risk
missing why these circumstances exist. By focusing on the highs of
President Obama and the lows of the incarcerated we miss the men who are
living fully human lives with successes and failures and joys and
frustrations, but juxtaposed against invisibility of black men humanity is
the hyper visibility of their bodies to those who assume that they are
Whether it is the routine reality of being stopped and frisked or the
horrifying possibility that they could face what happened to 17-year-old
Trayvon Martin in February of last year or Sean Bell killed by police in
November of 2006 or (INAUDIBLE) this man gunned down by police in February
And let`s be clear. Things are not just black men`s problems. All of us
are right there with them because what impacts the men of the commune
affects us all. So, it isn`t so much that black men needs to be saved
noticed to be saved but they do need to be understood and heard because
their fate is our fate. And what happens to black America affects all of
At the table, Bryon Bain, author of "the ugly side of beautiful rethinking
race and prisons in America." Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history
and the director of the Institute of African-American studies at the
University of Connecticut. Kai Wright, editorial director at and a fellow
at the Nation Institute and Joshua Dubois, who is President Barack Obama`s
long, time spiritual adviser as well as director of the White House office
on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships. He left the white h this
year to become the weekly religion and values columnist for "the Daily
Beast" and "Newsweek" as well as founders and CEO of values partnership, a
new social enterprise connecting the faith community with private, public,
and not for profit institutions to create private impact important public
good. And very importantly, he is the author of the "Newsweek" cover
story, "the fight for black men."
Thank you all for being here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you for having us.
HARRIS-PERRY: So Joshua, why this story now?
JOSHUA DUBOIS, FORMER HEAD, OFFICE OF FAITH BASED: Well, so I wanted to
retell the story that quite frankly we thought we already knew. You know,
we had vague general notions about these young men and boys in our inner
cities. Either we thought they needed to get together and show more
responsibility, or we thought the government needed to invest in them more.
But, our analysis really stopped there. We had forgotten about the beauty
of their stories, the complexity of their history and the opportunity we
have as a nation if we invest in them as well. So I wanted to get bought
stories and bring a little bit more complexity to where black men are as a
group in this country.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, I appreciate that project but I`m always a little
nervous when it comes from "Newsweek," right, which is part of why we
showed those images.
I mean, Bryon, Joshua`s piece in part makes the point that incarceration,
it really puts incarceration at the center of the story that he`s telling.
Your text, "the ugly side of beautiful," which I`m about two-thirds way
through, I was trying to finish this morning. In part suggests that, yes,
incarceration is shaping but not definitive of black men`s experience.
BRYON BAIN, PRISON ACTIVIST: Yes. It`s not definitive but certainly has
an impact. I think that`s the duality we`re dealing with. How is it that,
you know, I can have the same educational background as President Obama and
as mother says he ended up in the White House, and I ended up in the
jailhouse. (INAUDIBLE). So, I think that`s what we`re wrestling with.
Four times as many brothers incarcerated as inside Africa under apartheid.
And at the same time we have the best and worst as Al Sharpton says the
article as well. He said it has to be that`s the complexity of the problem
and duality we`re dealing with now.
HARRIS-PERRY: I mean, numbers are tough. When we just look at sort of the
percentages, African-American men were looking at one in 15 incarcerated
which is dramatically different than Latino males who are one in 36 and
white men who are at one in 106.
But Jelani, if I`m watching and I`m not already starting from the
assumption that this criminalization is occurring to black men, if I look
at that, I say, well, brothers should stop committing crimes, right? They
are in jail because they apparently are criminals.
JELANI COBB, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF CONNECTICUT: Well, I mean,
there`s two ways of looking at this, right. One is just the simple fact we
know that the drug war is what`s driving this. We know that African-
American men are not using drugs disproportionately. That black Americans
in general are using drugs is roughly to say in the same proportion as
whites are but still being drastically over incarcerated as a result of it.
But, let`s take it outside of that and just look at basic reality of
America as a cohesive society. This country cannot afford to have one in
15 black men incarcerated, not if we have this idea we`re going to be
globally competitive and remain globally competitive.
HARRIS-PERRY: But I thought incarceration of black bodies was good for
some kinds of economies. So, I want to push you on this idea we can`t
afford it. Because when we say, all right, we`re all in this together, I
think except that there are real economic interests associated from the
beginning, from the period of slavery that takes the labor of black men and
turns it into the wealth of the nation to the farms all the way to this
moment. So, it must be good for someone`s economy or it wouldn`t exist.
COBB: But I think it is the economic version of a sugar high. That, you
know, people have made a lot of money on incarcerating black bodies. But,
that`s not an industry that will produce returns. If you`re talking global
competitiveness, leading in software, technology, what we`re bringing to
the table is leading in incarceration. There`s no future that can be built
DUBOIS: And you know, the other thing, is in text, we breaking state and
federal budgets now. There`s an economic art on the other side. In fact,
a number of Republican governors are now coming to the stable because their
incarceration costs are through the roof. That`s why Governor Nathan Deal
working with the NCAA on criminal justice reform because we can`t afford to
incarcerate black men in the numbers that we are now.
KAI WRIGHT, FELLOW, NATIONAL INSTITUTE: In communities where you have mass
incarceration, the economic development that is lost in those neighborhoods
and the spill out effect, I mean, there`s been all these studies about the
way in which mass incarceration impacts health care in a neighborhood, the
way it impacts jobs in a neighborhood, the way it impacts schools in a
neighborhood. It has this massive spillover effect that costs taxpayers a
whole lot of money and is a loss of opportunity. But also stepping back
from all of that, back to this idea, I think one of the things we struggle
with around the conversation about black men is the need to either have
people be exceptional or be criminals.
WRIGHT: And that we can`t -- actually from President Obama on down to the
most allow down black man on the planet has victories and every one of
them. Every one of us, everybody at this table has our good days and bad
days, there is good choices as well as bad choices. That`s true as well as
the fact there`s been a system built since slavery. And that`s a hard
thing for people to hear, slavery, sit slavery. As soon as you use slavery
WRIGHT: A system that has been built since slavery. You trace their
specific choices. You just got through laying them out. There are more
that go all the way through 2012 decisions, 2013 decisions. But, it`s the
choices made that specifically in policy in 2012 to lead to mass
incarceration of black men. And so both things are true.
HARRIS-PERRY: Well, and your point is well taken. As we come back from
the break, I want to talk about this idea on the one hand I do want to talk
fundamentally about the problems, the issues, especially the issue of
incarceration. But I want to back up from it because it does lead us to
this weird place where we` thinking about let me show you Michael Jordan
and President Obama, right, which are very particular, you know,
formulations of black manhood or let me tell you this story and then we
miss, right, everything else in between. And so, then everyone else has to
be encountered, as I there are you President Obama or are you the low down
black man. That`s what we`re thinking about.
Up next, a surprising and unscripted moment between President Obama and the
black men of America.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Whatever successive
achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less
on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs and instead been due to that
sense of connection and empathy, the special obligation I felt as a black
man like you to help those who need it most, people who didn`t have the
opportunities that I had, because there but for the Grace of god go I. I
might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have
been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: That was President Barack Obama speaking to the young men of
the all male historically black college of Morehouse during his
commencement address on May 19. As one of my guest, Joshua Dubois writes
in his story on Black men in America, that was an unscripted moment, a
genuine ad lib from the president.
Joshua, as my favorite part of your piece is you have that inside
knowledge. That`s not on script. He goes off script. Why is that moment
DUBOIS: You know, I thought it was a tremendous bridge of empathy for him
and really for our country connecting the leader of the free world to men
facing extraordinary challenges, men who, as the president said, are in
jail. He said, I could have been in jail. And for the president of the
United States to say that, that means that all could say that. We all
should be able to find some point of connection. And they are not just
black folks, but every single Americans with these men were facing
challenges with unique history, responsibility as well. We should be able
to plug into their experiences. And I think that`s what the president did
in a speech there.
HARRIS-PERRY: Well, it was an interesting contrast to George W. Bush who
used to -- when he would give commencement addresses. He would make a joke
about being a c student, right? And it was sort of like the possibilities
of mediocrity as a wealthy white man with -- who comes from a certain kind
of legacy, you could nonetheless end up, you know, in the White House. And
so, really different sort of narrative what we hear from the president here
is despite all of the things that I am, I still might not have ended up
here, because as a black man I might have been targeted by this environment
I find self.
DUBOIS: If I didn`t have the supports around me was a key point of his.
If I didn`t have people there for me across this journey to lift me up,
open new doors, opportunities, I could have ended up in these same places
so many thousands and millions of black men are ending up.
HARRIS-PERRY: I just want to point out interestingly that Joe Gibbs, a
student who graduated from Morehouse on May 19th who heard that was just
murdered this week in Atlanta. And as far, at least as far as it`s being
reported right now, was murdered in what looks like an anonymous shooting.
And it was certainly an underling to what the president was saying there.
But it still felt like, and I think a lot of people critiqued it is like he
was saying, that you guys can fix this. And it felt like, well, you can
contribute to fixing it but I still want the critique of the larger set of
things that make this possible.
WRIGHT: Well, and also, Mr. President, you can fix this.
HARRIS-PERRY: Well, yes. He is the president.
WRIGHT: And I -- listening to the speech, I was moved by that piece of it
and some of those really genuine connections with the black male
experience. But I was also deeply frustrated because I think back to, you
know, if you go back to LBJ`s speeches to Howard in which we laid out the
idea of equity and why black people, black men, specifically, but black
people, are experiencing the problems Barack Obama can articulate. It`s
because of the system we created. And in that speech -- in you know, in
LBJ`s speech going back to `65, it is where he laid out, well, here is what
government is going to do. This is what we can do.
Yes, as individuals we all have to take responsibilities for our lives.
Kai Wright has to take responsibility for Kai Wright`s life. However,
government can take responsibility for the fact that there is as been
doubled the unemployment rate achievement check has been with the black
unemployment rate has been double since they have been counting it, since
it`s been counted it, is all the way through. And we can talk about that
on any numbers of indicators.
And so, there are things that policy can do. And I was deeply disappointed
in that speech not to hear the president talk about here is what we can do
to make this journey, to support you in this journey.
COBB: And I think that`s when we come to the issue of political realities.
I think there are two things here. One is the boost we get from the
profound empathy the president is able to express. This is an experience
that he is not lecturing from the outside. He knows what it`s like to grow
up without a father and make yourself into the president of the United
States. That`s an extraordinary testimony.
And at the same time, the very political reality that allowed LBJ, who was
working with a Congress that was much more compliant than the one the
president is working with, this is not simply to make an excuse for
President Obama, I think he could be more active especially on the level of
executive order but this is the complicated nature of this.
And if I could add one last thing, I think the president was actually
pandering. Some things we found people were upset he was lecturing or
controlling the black community, I thought he was actually pandering --
HARRIS-PERRY: To the black community, not white folks.
COBB: To black community. Now, because, you know, all African-Americans
have our moments where we`re frustrated with ourselves. And he was in
essence saying I`m enough of one of you to recognize I get frustrated too.
That was a point he pointed out a connection not cajoling or looking down.
DUBOIS: Well, I find it interesting when he goes to connect it should be
around it`s with those conservative values. Throughout his presidency when
he seeks to connect with black America --
HARRIS-PERRY: But also, to sort of, they also, has an ease with black
cultural references and world view that just is, right? And I don`t think
it`s performative, but we do -- part of the pleasure of having the Obamas
in the White House is watching the performance of a black family in the
White House, right, and recognition at a certain point that was a punch
line. To say, Black president was a punch line, right, like you could --
you already knew all the jokes that came before and after it. And so,
living through the reality of it is a kind of double consciousness but a
DUBOIS: I think we have to be careful not focus on his cultural references
and tenor of a particular and instead, where the administration is seeking
to invest its energy. If you asked 100 people what the most effective
turnaround is for low income communities, 90 of them would say Harlem
(INAUDIBLE) has done a great work than JF Kennedy is doing there.
The president has modeled that through the promised neighborhood program,
Arnie Duncan and so forth are seeking to invest hundreds of millions of
dollars in this proven turnaround strategy. It is surround people with
care and support but Congress isn`t doing what they need to be doing.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, Joshua, we are going to go to break. But, I got to tell
you like that`s exactly the moment that and certainly distresses me. And I
want us to get to that because on the one hand, yes. But I always feel a
little deflated when I hear that, because what we do is put sort of
programming inside of a structure that is itself so stacked against. And
so yes, like yes, I want the programming but I also would like to
DUBOIS: We have to do both.
HARRIS-PERRY: Right. OK.
So, when we come back I want to play you guys a little game of black man
free association, say a word, see what you say. So up next, realities of
being African-American man in America even when you`re the king of the
HARRIS-PERRY: It was on in Miami this past Thursday when Miami Heat beat
the San Antonio Spurs, although I love that guy Tim Duncan. But, it was an
epic game seven. And they won to win their second straight NBA title. And
whatever your team allegiance may be, the win was impressive. But, what
struck me was what NBA finals MVP, Lebron James said after the game.
Quote, "for me, I can`t worry about everybody says about me. I`m Lebron
James from Acron, Ohio, from the inner city. I`m not even supposed to be
here. That`s enough. "
Lebron may have been talking about his critics, but his statement speaks
volumes about what young men think about their possibility. Did that
moment resonate for anybody at the table?
DUBOIS: I wanted to screen, you are supposed to be there. And I know I
apologize that as a society we have communicated to you that you`re not
supposed to be there, that you are not supposed to break through barriers,
that you are not supposed to achieve the highest of heights. You know, he
is supposed to be there. That`s what I want to say.
WRIGHT: I kind of took it differently, you know. Guys, I knew growing up,
and I think a lot of us had this message from our parents, you are not
supposed to succeed. This is not built for you to succeed. You have to
know that getting started. Yes. And so, everything you are going to do is
going to have to be exceptional. And some of us have managed to be
exceptional. And I think that`s really an important way to understand the
big picture of black men is some of us have managed to be exceptional. But
we are, in fact, exceptional.
HARRIS-PERRY: But, I wonder though a little about -- on the one hand I
felt that, like I felt that moment from him. But then, I also wonder about
the extent to which we create just survival as the narrative that we have -
- so, you know, if I talk to my adolescent nephew and I say, what`s your
goal for the year, and he`s like, I just want to make it to 18, right?
And so, on the one hand that`s a reflection of his reality, particularly
living on the south side of Chicago. On the other side it doesn`t allow
him to reach for excellence if he thinks I`m just going to t try to survive
BAIN: I`ve been in so many conservations of where they are celebrating 21,
or 22, or 25. So, there is that sense that, if you make it to in just a
very young age and that actually speaks to the crisis that we are in,
right? It is the crisis that is happening on your watch. And if we talk
about the prison system and its impact on that feeling, I think we can`t
ignore those numbers are constantly recycled in the media, the numbers dead
before 25, incarcerated before 25. I think that`s why Lebron can say that
and it can make sense to folks because we`ve heard that over and over
COBB: I understood that in very personal terms. But, what I saw that I
said, yes, and I`m Jelani Cobb from South Queens, New York. And if I were
to go through the community that I grew up in, I went to public schools.
And very many of my peers were incarcerated, one of my friends shot and
killed. I`m not supposed to be the professor at the University of
And what you`re saying implicit in that is that none of those things were
accidental. We were not happenstance. But, we exist in a society in
which whether by public policy or public opinion, whatever the channels
are, these are outcomes that are anticipated and not inadvertent. And so,
I thought there was a very good explanation of what is going on in the
community the growing up in. And I say, don`t judge that community by me,
judge that community by what happens most of the team.
HARRIS-PERRY: All right, black man free association game. I`m going to
say a word, one of you jump in. Here is the word, fathers.
HARRIS-PERRY: OK. We got absent, we got us.
HARRIS-PERRY: Awesome. So, from what perspective are you coming with
COBB: Willie Cobb, 3rd grade education of Hasel Haze (ph) Georgia, taught
me the most important things I needed to know.
HARRIS-PERRY: But for you is absent.
WRIGHT: I had a wonderful stepfather. My father wasn`t there, passed away
incarcerated in Carolina. And so, that fully kind of processed how that
impacted me but absence is serum one of the ways it has.
HARRIS-PERRY: Right. And it is interesting that like it`s your personal
narrative that in part gives you the free association.
BAIN: Yes. You know, it`s one of the things I`m committed to doing better
than my dad did.
HARRIS-PERRY: Which is what we hear from president Obama often as well.
HARRIS-PERRY: Global. Beautiful. What?
HARRIS-PERRY: Revolution. Why revolution?
BAIN: Because I think the capacity is there and co-opted in many ways on
the main stream level. But I think around the world more than in United
States, folks see adopt as a forceful resistance and radical thinking and
COBB: Mine is frustrated.
HARRIS-PERRY: I know, it is because we`re of a certain age, right? And
so, we are visually old enough to like how the critique of new hip-hop.
But, that really might be being old. Sexuality.
HARRIS-PERRY: We love Kai.
HARRIS-PERRY: Beautiful. Anything else?
I think the black community is grappling with how to think about LGBT
equality and how to, you know, how to be progressive on many issues and
conservative on others.
HARRIS-PERRY: Let me ask one last one. Sagging pants.
COBB: Please stop.
BAIN: Also fun.
HARRIS-PERRY: Respectability response. You said also fun.
DUBOIS: Consciousness. Pick up their pants.
WRIGHT: What`s wrong with people having their pants sagging.
COBB: I`m sorry. This came out of the prisons. Brothers not being able t
wear belts because people were worried they would commit suicide. And I
can`t buy they are just being like a political fashion.
DUBOIS: But a lot of fashion came from a lot of crazy places. I mean,
COBB: Rebellion against social --
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. That`s how I read it. So, I`m surprised to get the
respectability response from you all. Maybe the old hip-hop dad.
HARRIS-PERRY: Coming up black men are doing it for themselves. How they
are trying to make a difference for the whole community. That`s next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID MILLER, URBAN LEADERSHIP INSTITUTE: The body of work that we do is
really based on keeping young black males alive and really getting these
young brothers to understand you can grow up in itself as a neighborhoods
but you don`t necessarily have to become the neighborhood and we want to
reduce the likelihood young men will go to jail. We have to begin to teach
young men critical life skills and leadership development.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: That was David Miller of the Urban Leadership Institute
speaking as part of the open society foundation`s black male achievement
program illustrating African-American men are working to make a difference,
the difference, for themselves.
So, let`s go to this question of what difference brothers themselves make.
This is what the president was, in fact, asking of the Morehouse graduates.
Jelani, one of the things that distresses me the most is this says kind of
species data piece that goes out into the world that says there are more
black men currently incarcerated than were slaves. And it is both
factually accurate and completely misleading. It makes me also feel like
we`re getting to a place where we don`t feel like we have way of changing
COBB: Right. I think the problem with that is this. That may be
technically true. There are also more African-American homeowners than
there were people enslaved at the end of the civil war. During the 2012
election, triple the number of black people voted in that election as
people who were enslaved. And they are more black people who have college
degrees than there are those enslaved.
HARRIS-PERRY: There are just more people.
COBB: People. Our population is something like 9.8 times larger than it
was during the time of slavery. And so, with all these things are much
larger. And when we make those comparisons it opens us up to the idea
nothing has changed since slavery, that we`ve made no progress.
And so, I think it`s kind of like strengths, opportunities, threats things
organizations do. In black America we only talk about weaknesses and
threats. If you don`t talk about strength and opportunities, you kind of
lose track of what you have to doing right.
DUBOIS: Yes. The rhetorical point, I think, the power of it is that I
think it draws attention to the fact we were once called savages, to be a
slave. And then we have been now called, you know, criminal to be
incarcerated, you know. So, I think that`s the connection that`s deeper
than just sort of the raw numbers thrown out there.
HARRIS-PERRY: BUT Bryon, but part of what I want to do on the solutions
piece, so you have a law degree from Harvard, for goodness sake, right?
But when I first met you, my first connection was through spoken word
performance, which means you`re meeting young people in the classroom. You
are doing work around law and policy, you are also doing cultural work.
When you think about solution, solutions that may have to come before we
get the laws changed, before we get all the structure changed, what do
those solutions black men bring to the table themselves look like?
BAIN: Well, I think for one, you know, the litigation strategies that we
have employed to move right this country has always been part of a broader
social movement. And so, I see the work in the arts and culture as being
part of the movement to push policy strategies through the conscious and
awareness of the public. But I think the work that I`m doing is finding
out how to actually link folks incarcerated to e conversation. I think too
often we`re not including folks who have the experience, lived the
experience of being incarcerated.
HARRIS-PERRY: We talk about them, but --.
BAIN: Exactly, not at the table, you know. So, I think that`s the big
part of what I`m doing, is getting folks in the conversation like groups
like rightful association. The (INAUDIBLE) only Brooklyn think tank formed
by formerly incarcerated professionals. And the study, the work they are
doing is in formed by the living experience of (INAUDIBLE) going through
GED to PHD, you know from prison to getting the experience and now using
being some kind of experts on their experience and what`s happening across
the country to build this abolition movement that we need today, that we
had in the 1800s.
DUBOIS: It`s an extraordinarily exciting time, probably one of the most
exciting times for black male achievement, not just invest in challenges
but invest in thriving black men in this country. One big umbrella for
black male achievement open society foundations conglomeration of
organizations that are working in this space. Joe Jones, who is the
centerpiece of the "Newsweek" piece, has a wonderful organization called
the center for urban families in Baltimore that is really reframing the way
we train young men to participate in the workforce with some beautiful
things going on this country. But now is the time to really put our
shoulder on it and push it forward.
WRIGHT: Just an elemental way, our both and strategy is important. So, we
as individuals and as communities in our personal responsibility piece, I
think, need to celebrate our strengths and our opportunities, right, and
celebrate our sagging pants. Celebrate our culture and the things that are
positive instead of constantly engaging ourselves and being engaged around
our deficits. That`s us. That`s the piece we can do, you know.
But then, we also need to hold policymakers accountable for the problem
with history is it`s easy to end up with these sorts of species stats, but
we also have to remember that it all connects. So, the incarceration rates
we have today connect back to the incarceration rates we had yesterday
which connect back to all the of the choices we made during the actual Jim
Crow, all of the economic choices that carved black men out, which connect
back to black codes, which connect back to slavery.
So, it`s not about now versus then, it`s about the continuum and what
policymakers can do to interrupt the continuum. So it is both,
policymakers interrupt continuum, us celebrating ourselves.
HARRIS-PERRY: And maybe, you know, in there, a little bit of high-quality
public education that doesn`t, in fact, sort of take us out of it but
allows us to, in fact, for free, as a result of our contributions to
society as citizens educate children when they are poor. Imagine that.
Everybody hang out with me here. Right, and hold that and jobs on the
Coming up, we`ll get to Paula Deen in just a little bit later in the
program, but you knew that, right?
But up next, a stunning twist in North Carolina`s moral Monday protest.
You will not believe what conservatives are up to now.
HARRIS-PERRY: North Carolina`s moral Monday protest marched on this week
as demonstrators staged their seventh protest in eight weeks. According to
our NBC affiliate WNCN in Raleigh, between 400 and 500 people have been
arrested thus far. As we`ve covered extensively here in Nerdland, the
nonviolent protests aimed to push back against the dramatic rightward shift
that the state of Carolina government is currently doing, it is led by new
governor, Pat McCrory. But this week, it was the governor`s budget
director who was making news in all the wrong ways.
Meet Art Pope said budget director and conservative multimillionaire, whose
think tank the Civitas Institute has set up a database of moral Monday
protesters. A database that includes ages, race, employment, and even a
column that alleges whether or not that protester has an issue with his or
her voter registration. The Pope think tank also has a multiple choice
pick the protester game, a game featuring head shots of protesters with
All right. So, we were meant to have Chris Crumb here with us. We are
having a little trouble with the technicals on having Chris from North
Carolina. But, I do want to pull out from the panel, because I`ve been
making this claim what`s going on in North Carolina, the weekly protests,
are sort of the new social movement and we may be missing it because it`s
happening in North Carolina. We`re saying, this isn`t national politics so
we don`t need to cover it.
But guys, North Carolina is a critically important state.
WRIGHT: Yes. And well, it had long been a buttress of progressive
policymaking in the south on a whole host of issues. And that has changed
as a result of the 2012 elections. So, elections have consequences.
But I think there is two big picture points here, one negative and one
positive. State politics matter deeply to people`s lives. That is very
easy to only engage at the national level for everybody from ranging from
national news media on down to activists. But state politics matter deeply
and you`re seeing that in the behavior.
But also, you`re seeing that in the remarkable movement that`s pushing
back. And I think, you know, at color lines we`ve been over the last few
years covering a lot -- in racial justice, this is one example. You can go
across movements, the dream act is a really great example of these strong
grassroots movements truly making change. They don`t get noticed. But,
they are really making change.
HARRIS-PERRY: You know, the dream act one is such a good example because
it required people to actually out themselves with a status, right, of
being an undocumented person, a status that could have very real
And Jelani, part of what I`m just appalled by, so Art Pope basically bought
this state, right? He uses the post citizen`s united realities to mean
that he can get all this money into these local elections. They get into
the local offices, they redraw the districts in 2010. Now, he has been put
into government by the governor for whom he was the primary person.
So now, he`s the budget director. The Civitas Institute is funded almost
exclusively by him. And here are citizens going to tell their government
what they are displeased with and he puts their names, their phone numbers,
their addresses and their mug shots -- does that not sound exactly like --
as much as we don`t want to say things haven`t changed but I was like well,
that`s exactly what they did in the Jim Crow south.
COBB: That`s exactly it. And then, we are talking about this
historically. This is how the movement in Birmingham and Bessemer emerged
in the civil rights era. Because the NAACP was effectively shut out of the
south during the early portion of the civil rights movement because state
by state by state they passed -- these legislatures passed laws saying any
national organization that operated within a state had divulge their
membership. And what it allowed them to do what exactly what Art Pope is
doing with the Web site, is that any individual who go and say well, who
would end up like the members of my state in Alabama, in Mississippi, and
so on. And so, you had to rely on grassroots activism because the NAACP
had been pushed so far to the margins. And I think this is even kind of
more pernicious because it`s attacking inherently North Carolinian
grassroots activism where it is. So, this is not a new tactics.
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. No. And it is appalling. I`m so sorry that we`re not
able to have Chris. You know, Nerdland, you know, I`m not leaving this
North Carolina story. So, we will have more on moral Mondays in the weeks
But I want to thank Jelani and Kai and Joshua, not only for being here in
general but also pulling together for a fast segment on North Carolina as
well. Bryon is actually going to be back later.
But coming up, a major change in America`s battle against obesity, and the
changing attitudes about weight, then and now. That`s up next.
HARRIS-PERRY: This week with one sweeping pronouncement the country`s
largest group of doctors issued a single diagnose to 85 million adults.
And as annual meeting in Chicago, the American medical association dropped
the news on those living with obesity that they now also have something
else, a disease.
And still, unclear exactly how the organization`s recognition of obesity as
a disease will make a difference for those living with it. What`s almost
certain is the medical pursuit of less weight will translate to the weight
loss industries in flex of more money. Because obesity, maybe a new
disease, but it doesn`t meant that it wasn`t already in old business. In
fact, our national obsession with weight has been big business for, well,
as long as there`s been show business.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, hey, hey, it is fat Albert.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: It was more than 40 years ago that the `70s babies were
introduced to this rotund hero of the hood and his friends in the animated
series, Fat Albert, whose creator Bill Cosby was one of the original
crusaders against fat shaming.
Last year, Cosby talked to Atlantic magazine about his deliberate depiction
of Fat Albert saying that quote, "he was invented by me, because in those
days in the `60s, a fat person was stereotype to always be someone
giggling, laughing and lacking of any kind of strength enough to take
More than two decades after Cosby`s character represented on the television
for the team "I`m fat and I`m awesome," he got a sister in the struggle
when another unapologetically overweight character appeared on our screens.
In 1988, comedian Roseanne Barr introduced us to her on-screen alter ego
Roseanne Conner, mother, wife, friend, worker, and overweight American.
And when she dared us not to worship her as a domestic goddess and working
class heroine, well, we did enthusiastically making Roseanne the number one
show and the most watched show between 1989 and 1990.
But, let`s be honest. What has kept us glued to our screens over the years
isn`t fat acceptance, it is the struggling, the sweating, the succeeding,
and, yes, sometimes failing to trim the fat that kept us watching and
spending. The weight loss industry would never be the same again after its
two titans came stepping in. One, a native New Orleanais, who battles
through his owned struggles with obesity and emerged on the other side, a
short shorts wearing, curly pro rocking all this music, love and genuine
pop culture icon.
More than three decades and counting, Richard Simmons has taken the gospel
of fitness everywhere. And according to an estimate from Dr. Oz has helped
humanity lose more than three million pounds.
But as good as Richard Simmons had managed to continue to look in his tiny,
shiny shorts, no one did more from leg warmers in leotards, than workout
revolutionary, Jane Fonda. Fonda almost single handedly launched the
1980`s fitness craze when she released her Jane Fonda`s workout home video
in 1982. It went on to become the top grossing video of all time and made
the then new technology like the VCR into a permanent fixture in American
homes. Watching how we moved to shed the points -- the pounds has been
almost as riveting as how we and what we eat.
Before he passed away in 2011 at 96 years young Jack (INAUDIBLE), had us
believing he found the fountain of youth pouring forth from a juicer spout.
And we all became believers that the secrets of getting skinny could be
found between two pieces of bread when we met Jarrod who dropped more than
200 pounds, 15 years ago on a diet of subway sandwiches.
But there is perhaps no one more recognizable and identifiable with the
struggle, the shame, the triumph and the disappointments of weight loss
than Oprah Winfrey. In the nearly 30 years she`s been on televisions we`ve
watched Oprah negotiate her relationship to food and with her own body.
And she has quite literally put her personal weight battles right on the
front page, which perhaps helped prime us with the hunger to consume more
entertainment featuring people trying to consume less. Because we haven`t
been able to get enough through 14 seasons of obese contestants vying for
victory, less body fat and a cash prize on the biggest loser.
Up next, why declaring obesity a disease might not necessarily mean those
trying to lose the weight will be -- those who are trying to lose weight
will be the biggest winners.
We are back with more Nerdland at the top of the hour.
HARRIS-PERRY: Welcome back. I`m Melissa Harris-Perry.
This morning we`re taking a closer look at the American Medical
Association`s vote this week to classify obesity as a disease. And like so
much of our conversation about health care policy, this one revolves around
money. The AMA`s decision does not carry any legal weight but it could
encourage more health insurers to cover treatments that directly address or
As it is, most spending on obesity, about $150 billion a year goes to treat
obesity related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. But the
doctors who make up the American medical association also want to be paid
for discussing weight loss, nutrition and risk factors with their patients
and for managing obesity as a chronic condition even when the patients
don`t have another illness such as diabetes.
The AMA also hopes classifying obesity as a disease will help direct more
federal funds to research and cures and finding prevention programs. And
the pharmaceutical industry could get huge profit boost as a result of this
if the move leads to quicker approvals for weight loss drugs and more
insurance coverage of those drugs. The majority of Americans believe that
obesity is a serious issue. Look at that, 81 percent. We don`t agree on
anything at 81 percent. But somehow Americans believe that it is a serious
problem and that something must be done. But it does make you wonder about
the impact of defining more than a third of the country as sick.
Joining me now are Dr. Patrice Harris, a member of the AMA board of
trustees. Dr. Alfons Pomp, a chief of bariatric surgery at New York
Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center. Erika Nicole Kendall,
the blogger behind "A Black Girl`s Guide to Weight Loss." And our buddy
here in nerdland Jonathan Metzl, the director of the Center for Medicine,
Health and Society at Vanderbilt University. So nice to have you all here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nice to be with you.
PERRY: So, let`s start with why the decision to make obesity and
define it as a disease.
DR. PATRICE HARRIS, AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION: Thank you for
having me, Melissa. One in three adults are obese in this country. And
the rate of childhood obesity has tripled over the last couple of decades.
So the AMA believes this policy will elevate obesity to the level that will
raise awareness, call more attention to the disease, and actually change
the way the medical community tackles this complex issue.
PERRY: So, let me push a little bit on this. If one in three
Americans is struggling with obesity, it almost makes me less likely to
believe it`s a disease and more likely to feel like, well, either it`s a
norm, right? And therefore not a diseased or pathological state. Or when
you look at the sort of speed of the rate of change how quickly so many
more Americans have become so much heavier, that it can`t possibly be
pathology in our bodies. Our bodies don`t change that fast. That it must
be our structural environment.
HARRIS: There are complex variety of factors that lead to obesity,
environmental factors, medical factors, genetic behavioral factors. These
all lead to obesity. There`s no one size it`s all approach. But certainly
the human toll, the human suffering and the cost of obesity and obesity-
related illnesses is high in this country.
PERRY: What difference will it make to you as a bariatric surgeon to
have obesity defined as a disease?
DR. ALFONS POMP, NEW YORK PRESBYTERIAN HOSPITAL: I think not all
patients were overweight definitely are surgical candidates, but I think
there`s a percentage of people that have very significant obesity that are
surgical candidates and now are going through a process which is very
difficult to get, actually to have weight loss surgery. It`s really hard,
because this is the only disease where you have to sort of prove it`s not
your fault. And I think you sort of hit the nail on the head. This is a
disease that is rampantly increasing. This is a disease -- this the first
time in the history of humanity where we have an epidemic that`s not of
HARRIS: And it`s much more than will power, it`s much more than
people`s fault. And I`m not sure we understand entirely.
PERRY: Yes. Jonathan.
JONATHAN METZL, CENTER FOR MEDICINE, HEALTH AND SOCIETY, VANDERBILT
UNIVERSITY: Well, you know, I`m very sensitive and supportive of the
arguments that classifying this as a disease will allow more people to get
reimbursement for treatments and I think that that`s a very important side
effect of this. But I`m quite concerned about classifying this as a
disease for two reasons. And one is that the definition of what obesity is
is incredibly slippery. That`s actually, you know, we often use this thing
called body mass index.
PERRY: Yes. The good old BMI, I have one on my iPhone.
PERRY: I know, it`s horrible, isn`t it? I know.
METZL: And the thing is that, by that definition, you know, a lot of
times people who are meet criteria for being overweight are also just
incredibly healthy. And people who have a lower BMI can have a lot of the
medical issues that people have relate to. So, in the absence of a
standard definition of what a disease is, I think that obesity is open to
all kinds of judgments in a certain kind of diagnostic way. And we know
from history that obesity is not just a disease by itself, it`s linked to
concerns about race, concerns about gender.
I think without the standard definition that makes it more difficult.
And the second issue, just that we know that obesity is linked to a series
of social, structural issues. Obesity is linked to poverty, it`s linked to
socioeconomic status. And I think that in a way this is an open call for
AMA not so much to say, take two diet pills and call me in the morning but
to address structural issues. I mean, yes.
PERRY: It`s so much interesting because, you know, the reason, right,
that we`re word about obesity is because it is co-morbid, right? It moves
along with other things that we know are diseases like, diabetes,
arthritis, other kinds of things. Right? But then the thing that moves
along with obesity is poverty. Right. So, the thing co-morbid with
obesity is poverty. And so, my little question is that, why not label
poverty as a disease.
PERRY: So, I guess, yes, Erika giving me no. And then there are
just drinks and water and run around.
ERIKA NICOLE KENDALL, "A BLACK GIRL`S GUIDE TO WEIGHT LOSS": You
know, it`s so frustrating, but in my mind I look at this from the
standpoint of now they have to do research. You know, there`s so much,
when it comes to preventive care. You know, when you go to your doctor and
your doctor says, you know what, you`re gaining weight over the course of,
you know, these past few years what`s going on. When you tell the doctor
what`s going on. Then it`s like, OK, well, is the doctor equipped with
enough information to help you navigate that?
You know, the doctors more often than not what I hear from my
readership, is that they deal with a lot of fat prejudice from their
doctors. Because a lot of what doctors are equipped with now is their own
personal experiences. So, if you have a doctor that gets up at 4:00 in the
morning and runs seven miles every day and you can barely get up, you know,
to go to your job, that doesn`t help you. You know, if your doctor just
said, eat less, move more, eat less of what, move how?
PERRY: You know, when you say that, honestly, come to my doctors
here, I honestly do find your blog more useful as a space for thinking
about weight loss than any conversation I`ve ever had with a physician.
Right now, granted I`ve never had a conversation with a bariatric surgeon.
Right? But there is a way, which it does feel a little bit like the
medical profession is behind the curve in a useful way of talking to people
about managing their weight.
HARRIS: I think Erika is right and we want this classification to
really spur more research, more research on prevention and more research on
what are the effective ways that doctors and patients can communicate about
this and we`ll be able to talk about obesity as a disease in and of itself,
and not just the medical complications, not wait until it gets so far along
that it`s so much more difficult to treat.
PERRY: Oh, why would we want to do that? I mean, in other words,
why would we want to pathologize the fat itself? So, fat now equals
disease or sick, it feels like it suggests thin equals healthy. And that`s
kind of obviously patently false.
POMP: It`s not only about, you know, that this fat tissue is there.
This fat tissue is actually pretty metabolically active. And for different
races and for different people, it has a different degree of being active.
So this is actually a metabolic disease where obesity is almost a symptom
of this metabolic disease.
PERRY: Explain that a little bit. Break that down. Because you say
metabolic and my first thought is what about metabolism, speeding it up or
slowing it down.
POMP: So, people always think that obese people have slow metabolism.
Actually, the contrary is to obese people often burn a lot more calories
than thin people. When you start to accumulate a lot of adipose tissue,
your body reacts to that almost like an inflammation. So, you`re sort of
primed for certain cardiac disease. You`re primed for the sequelae of
diabetes. This is a huge health issue. And to sort of comeback with this
body mass index, it`s really a poor definition, every half back in the NFL
is obese by NFL standards.
PERRY: Right. Because they are so muscular.
POMP: They are so muscular. And so, they have five, seven percent
body fat. So, it`s not a good indicator. We`re working on getting that.
I think this will sort of stimulate, the AMA decision will stimulate, sort
of research into how we can define obesity better. And again, you know,
from the surgical perspective, it`s not everybody who is overweight. It`s
not 20 pounds overweight that becomes a surgical indication. But we need
to have, and the doctors, per se, we`re not going to deal with this
entirely by ourselves. This is multi-disciplinary, it requires
PERRY: So, when I hear research -- my thought is always been the
kind of research we end up getting is pharmaceutical research. Right? So,
the sort of payoff structure on the back end is less about how to eat
fruit, right, and more about how to take this pill?
METZL: No, absolutely. You know, in a way, I mean, this is -- I
think this is an open moment of opportunity. And on one hand, I think it`s
a challenge for the AMA. What we know from medicalization that defining
something as a disease brings a new level of stigma. And so, what`s the
mechanism for addressing the stigma. But also, just large in our country,
you know, there`s no more recess in many schools, in many low income areas
don`t have grocery stores.
METZL: And so, this is a structural issue as much as anything else.
PERRY: And that`s exactly where we want to come, when we come back, I
want to talk about structure and stigma and the evil media and how we
contribute to all of it. In part, we`re going to talk about Coca-Cola and
how they say, don`t blame us if you`re fat. We make water, too.
PERRY: We`re talking about the American Medical Association`s new
classification of obesity as a disease. One of the major factors
contributing to the U.S. obesity epidemic according to the Institute of
Medicine is the consumption of sugary beverages like soda. That prompted
many anti-obesity advocates to target the beverage industry. But don`t go
telling Coca-Cola that they are part of the problem.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Across our portfolio of more than 650 beverages,
we now offer 180 low and no calorie choices. And most of our full calorie
beverages have low or no calories versions. Over the last 15 years, this
is how we introduced the average calories per serving across our industry`s
product in the U.S. by about 22 percent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PERRY: Wow, seriously. Look, my question here is, does classifying
obesity as a disease let company like Coca-Cola off the hook for their role
in the epidemic?
KENDALL: No. No. You know, these people drive me nuts. Because
it`s so dishonest. You know, drinking calories is a really quick, really
efficient way to drink everything you should -- all the calories you should
be eating in one day. You know, there are some people who go to their jobs
and they hit their vending machine up for three times a day. You know, and
it`s like, OK, that`s helping me get through the day, because I need the
caffeine. But then again, you just drink 800 calories. And then you`re
going to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And then, at the end of the
day, you`re wondering why you`re gaining weight.
PERRY: So, if we now have a classification though of disease as
opposed to -- because I keep thinking of obesity as an environmental
justice issue. Right? So when you have low wages in the country and you
have high poverty and then you have people in circumstances where they have
multiple jobs that make it difficult to cook nutritious foods and then you
have farm subsidies that make available lots of, you know, highly sugary
processed foods and then you have, community disinvestment that keeps you
from having deepest sidewalks or safe neighborhoods to walk in, and then
you have a pharma industry -- I just feel like, wait a minute.
This is environmental justice issue. This isn`t cancer. The disease
here is in us. Like, we`re the bulimics on the sugar high. And I just
wonder like -- on the one hand, I want to address what you said, the way in
which people suffer. On the other hand, I don`t want us to go to like an
individual pathologizing instead of a collective structural one. So, how
do we balance those?
HARRIS: The AMA does have policy surrounding the multi-disperse
solutions to obesity. And it is about recreation and school and getting
folks to have safe, livable communities where they can exercise and walk
and increase in recreational centers. The AMA has also committed to
improving health outcomes. We are embarking on a new initiative where we
will be working with the YMCA and other community organizations to decrease
the incidence of diabetes. So, it does take a community approach, approach
on federal, state, local levels in order to solve this problem.
PERRY: I`ve been giving doctors a hard time. But media is really
bad. And we have this practice across television that if you are doing a
story on obesity, we do this B roll, BO, right? So, it`s like, there it
is, that our sort of the obesity B roll, you can go get it from our
archives. Anytime you`re going to do any story. And you might notice none
of those people have heads and or you can`t see their faces. Because the
assumption is, no one would want to be identified as being fat because it`s
METLZ: Well, my former colleague at Michigan Anna Kirkland wrote this
terrific book called "Fat Rights." And she calls that image the "headless
fatty." That`s the image. Because they never show the head. It`s all
about the buddy. It doesn`t matter what`s in your head. And so, again,
we`re laden with this cultural stigmatizations of obesity that really
reinforces this idea that it`s a problem of will. And getting back to the
industries, I mean, seriously, I mean, Coke is an issue but look at like
the changing size of, you know, in the 1950s, a movie popcorn was 170
calories, and now it`s like even three big Macs, if you look at the size of
the Hershey it`s has grown. So, this is, you know, the first Paula Deen
scandal before all this.
PERRY: Yes, right.
METLZ: It was about eat, you know, fatty foods, oh, yes, sorry, I`m
being funded by diabetes medication person.
METLZ: So, the industry issue here is I think huge and a major,
major part of --
PERRY: Your point about the movies, one of my producers actually went
to see a movie last night and apparently had to stage a revolution in order
to get a child size popcorn and soda, which is the only sort of human size
one. And it feels like to me like that environment where we both shame
people -- can you imagine if all black people on television were headless
because we didn`t want to show their faces because it`s so shameful to be
black. So, on the one hand like we shame people who are fat, we seem to
have a lot of anger about it, then we label it as a disease. So, in other
words, I`m not sure if I want people to lose weight or want us to get over
HARRIS: If I could say something about the stigma.
HARRIS: .because I`m a psychiatrist by training.
HARRIS: And for many years people folks thought that mental
disorders were a moral fail or some satanic possession and there was lots
of stigma. And we were able to understand that mental disorders are cause
by biological factors, it reduced the stigma. I really think that this
approach with obesity is going to reduce the stigma. It`s more, it`s not
about blaming the victim.
HARRIS: It`s multifaceted.
PERRY: So, this goes you a point that you don`t have to -- no other
disease you have to prove that you`re not at fault in order to get
POMP: And it`s very, very significant. I think the other point is
that we`re all living in the same environment, and yet not everybody is
PERRY: We don`t all live in the same environment. Right, we don`t.
Like if you live in a neighborhood with sidewalks and high-quality grocery
stores and parents who stay home and schools that have P.E. And you can
afford to pack lunch every day, that is a different environment than people
who don`t have those things.
POMP: But not everybody in any of those environments is mutually
exclusive that they are not all obese, so they`re not all. So, that`s what
I sort of alluding to. In other words, there are lots of people who live
in disadvantaged environments or advantaged environments, let`s take it the
other positive way.
POMP: So, there are lots of people who live in countries, the Middle
East, for example, where everybody is well to do. And their obesity is a
huge problem there in the Middle East, for example. So I`m not sure it`s
all related to that. I think we need to look at the people that aren`t
obese in particular environments and sort of take home from them what the
differences, what the positive input on those people is. But again, I
think by making it a disease you take away the -- nobody is obese on
purpose. Nobody is obese on purpose. Just like nobody has cardiac disease
on purpose. I`m sure there`s some people that are but it`s a minority.
KENDALL: You know, I think that, you know -- and this is probably
what has a lot of people iffy about this conversation is the fact that
when we make statements like, well, we all live in the same environment,
yes, you know, there are people who live in some environments where some
people are obese and some people are not. But we just like lots of
different things to tribute to obesity, lots of different things contribute
to thinness. And there are lots of people in this country who have things
like eating disorders that contribute to thinness, and we think they are
OK, but they need help, too.
KENDALL: So, I think that`s probably the struggle with embracing
obesity is being considered a disease is the fact that we don`t know what
contributes to individual sizes. And that`s why I`m in support of this,
because I feel like the research is going to bear all that information out.
PERRY: Erika, you lost 130?
KENDALL: Hundred and seventy pounds.
PERRY: How much as you were making -- I mean, I read the blog a lot.
But as you were making the kind of big changes. And I know there were
moments in your head sort of a start, and then a false starts -- sort of
thing, how much of it was about fundamentally changing environmental
factors for you and how much just behavioral.
KENDALL: You know what, there`s so, so much. Because for me I had
to get over a binge eating disorder. So, for me, it was like the emotional
standpoint, but then there`s also the financial standpoint. Over the
course of the blog, which is been like it`s going on four years now. You
know, I eventually got married. So now it`s not single parent income, it`s
two-parent income family. You know, it`s like, it`s not me taking my
daughter in a stroller and walking to the grocery store putting my
groceries in a duffel bag and walking them home.
Now, I can call a cab if I need to, you know, I can go to whole foods
regularly. You know, it`s like there`s money matters. Money matters,
environment matters. When I`m in New York I have sidewalks. When I go
back to Indiana, I don`t. You know, it`s like, how am I going to run, I
have to compete next with a tractor-trailer. You know, it`s like a lot of
these things contribute to an individual`s ability to maintain a certain
size and we need to study that.
PERRY: Well, I`ll tell you what, as we`re figuring it out. And this
one is not going away as we pointed out. But I just tell you, I do have a
fan of the blog, but it`s really my very best friend on the planet Blair
who mugs your blog. So nice to have you sitting at the table with me.
Thank you to Dr. Harris, Dr. Pomp, Erika and to Jonathan.
And up next, oh, Paula Deen.
PERRY: Normally in any given week, there are so many people up to
shenanigans that have us saying, wow, seriously. That they are all
fighting for contention in our segment. But this week, this week, every
time we found ourselves in shock and awe over what someone said or did,
that someone was always the same person. You know who it is, you all,
Paula Deen. Wow, seriously? Now, we thought we`d had our fill of
delicious drama from television`s number one pusher of all things artery
clogging back when we found out that first ugly truth.
You remember, that while she was stuffing us full of fatty food, she
was stuffing her pockets with money as a spokesperson for a diabetes drug
maker, oh, and keeping quiet for three years about her own diabetes. A
little questionable integrity among friends. When Paula was still showing
us southern style love with those delicious no calorie stay at home cooked
meals, only as it turns out Paula thought those meals at her brother`s
wedding would have been better served in another kind of traditional
southern style, by slaves, or at least black men playing the role of
slaves. This was, some of what was revealed in a deposition from a $1.2
million lawsuit against Paula and her brother bubba.
A former employee alleging sexual and racial discrimination at Deen`s
company, Paula Deen Enterprises. And when asked by an attorney about her
inspiration for good old plantation style weddings, Deen recalled a
restaurant where all the servers were middle aged black men wearing what
Deen described as a beautiful white jacket and black bowtie saying, quote,
"I`ve seen pictures." And the pictures that I`ve seen that restaurant
represented a certain era in America. After the civil war, during the
civil war, before the civil war. It was not only black men. It was black
women. And I would say the slaves. Because, you know, nothing creates
love like involuntary servitude.
And that wasn`t the only the classic, southern tradition Paula cap to
keeping in the deposition dropping n bombs on black people is another
beloved favorite up until it fell out of fashion, that is. When asked
whether she had ever used the word, Paula replied, yes, of course, but
that`s not a word that we use as time has gone on. All of that and more
from the deposition left Paula at the end of the week saying another word,
sorry. One video with a direct apology to her family, friends, and fans,
but curiously not the people she most directly offended and two others
apologizing to Matt Lauer who was visibly annoyed on Friday after Deen
bailed at the last minute on what should have been an exclusive mea culpa
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PAULA DEEN, COOKING SHOW HOST: Matt, I`m so sorry, I was physically
in no shape to come in and talk with you. The last 48 hours have been
very, very --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PERRY: So, the uproar ultimately ended with Paula`s goose getting
cooked when the Food Network took her contract off the table and her shows
off the air. A network standing up to one of its biggest stars? Add that
to the tally of Paula related news that made us go, wow, seriously?
Up next the provocative documentary that could change everything you
think you know about our justice system.
PERRY: This year is the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme
Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright which gives any criminal defendant who
can`t afford an attorney the right to a lawyer at no cost. Clarence Earl
Gideon was arrested and convicted for stealing soda, and a few dollars from
a pool hall. Gideon represented himself at trial. And after he appealed
his conviction, at the Supreme Court, excuse me, the Supreme Court then
ruled that the right to counsel in a criminal case is a fundamental right
of the American justice system.
More than 12 million people are arrested in the U.S. each year and a
majority of them, a majority of them, are represented by one of the 15,000
public defenders in this country. But with the justice system that is
strained to the breaking point, how is it possible for these public
defenders to do their jobs. The new documentary, Gideon`s army which
premiers on HBO, on July 1st looks into exactly that question.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the way it really works. You go to jail.
You`re charged with an offense based upon what a police officer thinks you
did. They set a bond. And if you`re poor and you can`t make the bond, you
don`t get out. So you sit and you sit and you sit.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PERRY: Joining me here in nerdland is the film`s director Dawn
Porter and two public defenders from the film, Travis Williams and Brandy
Alexander. Also with us is poet and prison activist Bryonn Bain.
Nice to have you all here. Dawn, let me start with you. Why, I
mean, obviously we`re at 50 years after Gideon, but why this film now?
DAWN PORTER, DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER, "GIDEON`S ARMY": I actually
started making the film after meeting Jonathan Wrapping who is a mentor and
trainer in Atlanta. So I actually even started making the film not
thinking about the Gideon anniversary. So it`s a really happy accident but
it`s a perfect one because I think people are now talking about the fact
that America, as you mentioned, arrests more people, imprisons more people,
we are definitely number one in the world with 2.3 people in prison, 80
percent of people who go through the Criminal Justice System are
represented by public defenders and yet very few people know what they do.
PERRY: And in fact, not only don`t know. But to the extent that
they do know, often have a pretty derogatory image of public defenders,
that they are bad lawyers, that they couldn`t get another job, that they
don`t do a very good job for their clients.
PORTER: Yes. And I think that that`s a common miss perception. And,
you know, I was a lawyer. I was in private practice in Washington, D.C.
And I didn`t know what public defenders do. And I think of myself as a
socially aware, and socially conscious person. So, when I saw these young
lawyers and they were talking about the constitution and they were talking
about people`s rights and freedoms, like, it just -- it really changed my
life. And I felt really compelled to just show people what I was seeing,
but also to show people the life through their eyes. You know, the
question they get all the time is, how can you represent those people. And
that`s what I sought to answer, is to follow them.
PERRY: Yes. And actually exactly, Travis, I was so moved by your
response sort of in who you are and how you represent your clients to this
question. Let`s just take a moment and see one more piece from the film.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRAVIS WILLIAMS, PUBLIC DEFENDER: The judge is going to tell you
that the state fails to prove their case. It is your duty, you must
acquit. That`s the beauty of this system. It`s set up to give people the
presumption of innocence, to give them an opportunity to not just be heard
but hold the state accountable. You want to take my liberty, you`ve got to
do it right. And if you don`t, acquit.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PERRY: Honestly, I came away from you in this film thinking I don`t
know if I have ever met anybody who loves America and the constitution
PERRY: Seriously, the sense of like we must do this because this is
who we are as a country. That is why you -- because it`s intense work.
WILLIAMS: Well, my love for America is deep. I mean, I really do
believe this is the greatest country on the planet, greatest nation around.
But it means nothing if we don`t have people to stand up and force it to
act right. I mean, essentially when something works well in the criminal
justice system, it`s because 12 jurors, set of warriors, a judge, somebody
forced the system to work and cooperate and live up to the high ideals
etched out in the constitution and other documents that really mean nothing
without the force of public defenders, without the force of strong
advocates behind him.
PERRY: Here you are standing in the court in that moment and you`re
making an impassioned plea not only about your particular client but about
what our constitution is, what our justice system is. But how many clients
are you typically managing at a time?
WILLIAMS: Anywhere between 100 to 120 or so. But my numbers are --
they fluctuate because I handle very serious felony offenses, rape, child
molestation, murders, so my numbers fluctuate. But usually about 100.
PERRY: But you said you were in the private sector, how many clients
would you typically have at a time?
PORTER: If I was really busy, I was juggling four things and unhappy
about it. I mean, that was one of the things that just stunned me. I
mean, these guys represent 100 people. In Miami the lawyers were
representing 500 felonies and 250 misdemeanors at one time.
PORTER: So, I would say to people, I don`t know what your day is
like but I don`t know if you have 750 families looking to you, you`re the
only thing between them in prison. It`s really stunning.
PERRY: That emotional piece, Brandy is, so, when you were standing
over here before you came on set, I just smiled, it`s you Brandy, because
I`ve been watching -- if watched the film. I became so invested in your
clients that at a certain point I had to turn the film off because I was so
scared about what the outcome was going to be. And I`m just watching it.
Talk to me about that level of emotional investment that you clearly have
for your clients.
BRANDY ALEXANDER, BRANDY ALEXANDER LAW GROUP: I always say, I don`t
think you can do this work without being empathetic. And I felt like at
one point I was losing that empathy. And I think that Dawn did a good job
of displaying my feeling for that in the film and my battle with that.
Because I struggle with continuing to do this work and feeling like I was
losing the empathy that I knew that I needed in order to represent my
clients. So the emotional side is something I feel like we need because I
don`t believe that you can adequately do your job as a public defender
without at least sympathizing but definitely empathizing with the client.
PERRY: I mean, but that can be tough. I mean, the client I was
rooting for was one we`re all pretty certain was not guilty. You sometimes
have to deal with folks who have admitted to you that they are, in fact,
guilty of some horrendous crimes when you have to go in there and do your
job. Why is it still valuable for you to be defending someone? And I
think for sort of folks who don`t really quite get the system, they think,
wait a minute, part of your job is to defend people who did armed robbery
or sexual assault or any of these sorts of things.
ALEXANDER: I think it goes back to the constitution. They are
entitled to adequate representation whether they did it or not. And the
prosecutor`s job is to prove beyond the exclusion of every reasonable doubt
that the crime was committed. If they can`t do that the law and the
constitution requires that my clients are found not guilty. And I know
that that`s very difficult for people to understand because you don`t want
rapists walking the streets. You don`t want people who murder other folks,
other people walking the streets.
But if we -- it`s a slippery slope. If we say we`re going to put
everybody in jail just because we know that they did something and not
because we have any evidence, we just know because they said that they did,
so we`re just going to put them in jail because they said that they did it.
People confess all the time wrongly. Just because you tell me you did it,
I`m still going to hold the state to their burden. They still need to
prove beyond into the exclusion of every doubt.
PERRY: I begin to just hate all the little DAs. Like, yo, you`ve got
it so easy. And you can build your little political careers. I`m sorry, I
don`t really hate DAs, I was just having an emotion about that. When we
come back, I want to ask you in part about, sort of at this moment, a lot
of us are thinking about Trayvon case and so, you know, sort of where our
interests lie on that question. Because there is more on this issue when
we come back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALEXANDER: He is a kid. And he`s facing a lot of time. If he`s
found guilty, it will break him mentally and emotionally. He`ll be broken.
I can`t fathom. I cannot fathom turning around to his mother after a jury
has said guilty.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PERRY: That was another scene from the documentary, "Gideon`s Army,"
a film that follows the life of three public defenders who challenge the
assumptions of the U.S. justice system. And the woman featured in that
scene is one of my guests, Brandy Alexander who makes sure there`s a lot of
personal emotion invested in the kind of work that these defenders do. And
really not just personal emotion. But poverty is a regular part of this.
And I kept thinking that there was kind of that this was debtors` prison.
That you had folks who could have had these other alternative but
because they didn`t have $3,000 in, you know, bail, they couldn`t do it.
But also then your poverty. That scene of you sitting there with the stack
of, you know, student loans. Yes, so, I mean, how do you do this work when
it`s really so poorly paid? Yes. That was a like --
ALEXANDER: That`s a good question.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Still trying to figure that out. Right?
ALEXANDER: I think this is what I`m supposed to be doing at this
stage in my life. If I don`t do it, I may turn it over to someone who
doesn`t care as much. I believe that the vast majority of public defenders
are good attorneys. And I`ve seen it personally. And I know that most
people doing what we do, do it because they love it and because they
believe in the justice system. And even though it`s not functioning like
it should right now, we have faith that we`re going to be responsible for
making it work the way that it should.
ALEXANDER: I continue to do it, even though I can`t pay my bills
most of the time and I`m still poor and Sally May is knocking down my door.
ALEXANDER: Because I believe in my people, I believe in the United
States constitution, and I believe in the justice system.
PERRY: So, Bryonn, how many students at Harvard law are clamoring as
a graduate to become public defenders?
BRYONN BAIN, PRISON ACTIVIST: I wouldn`t say, it`s a majority.
BAIN: Not many.
PERRY: And you see this like great love of the constitution emerging
BAIN: Absolutely, I mean, the film I think is powerful and important
because it shows the work the public defenders do in a heroic light. You
are really doing the heroic work that needs to be done. Huge resources
stacked against where you`re doing, right? You know, the $74 billion
prison industrial complex with everybody from Victoria`s Secret to
Starbucks invested in that labor. Right?
You know, and so, you know, for folks who actually say, I`m going to
actually do -- what`s important what must be done. That`s a story that
must be told. And that`s beautiful to see that`s actually win. The see
you in court. And actually doing a job that should be done. Because I
have personally had bad experiences with public defenders whose work you`re
often cleaning up, trying to fix. You know? So I think it`s a story that
needs to be told. And we need to see this film. Everybody needs to see
this film. Because it tells the story that`s not been told quite enough.
PERRY: Travis, I was wondering, one of things that clearly the
challenges that you all have with your clients regularly, if the issue of
whether or not to plead versus taking it to trial. What are the key
factors that go into making that decision for you?
WILLIAMS: Well, when I`m giving my advice about how to proceed or how
to move forward in a particular case, I`m trying to minimize potential
damage or lessen the penalty or something. It`s so many circumstances
where we may have a good case but it`s just not worth the risk of, you
know, this potential sentence. The judge may give you this, it`s a
mandatory minimum in this situation. It`s not worth the potential for a
bad outcome. So I`m just trying to do what I can to get the best outcome.
Usually that doesn`t mean go to trial.
Usually that means to negotiate something that the client can live
with. You know, for example, if you`re convicted of trafficking in
Georgia, it`s a mandatory minimum fine of $250,000. Who has $250,000 to
pay on a fine over the course of some years? So it`s an incentive right
then, I`ve got to get trafficking off the table so we`re not dealing with
PERRY: Yep. Mandatory minimums felt like such a big part of this.
That the attorneys and the bench were constantly constrained by if we give
this kind of conviction, this is what`s going to happen, and no matter sort
of what other arguments we make. How much of the work that these public
defenders are doing is just are constrained by these laws that we`ve had
over the past decade.
PORTER: It`s an excellent point. And it`s one that I think the great
societal issues that we should be talking about these days. It`s not just
the work of the public defenders but it`s also the work of judges. Why do
we have judges if we`re going to tell them that if you`re convicted in
Georgia, if you`re convicted of armed robbery, no matter the amount. So,
Travis`s client was accused of stealing $96 which he allegedly split among
four people. He`s facing at least 10 years in prison, first time offender
with a separate amount of jail time for the weapon. So we`re really
looking at 14 years. In Georgia, though, you can get life for armed
PERRY: For $96.
PORTER: For $1.
PORTER: I had a client who was charged of stealing a beer, who was
also facing a tremendous, you know, one beer.
PERRY: This is like Jean Valjean story, right? These are the stories
of like an era that we think of having path -- this idea of debtors` prison
and of this kind of reactionary position towards anyone for even the
smallest in fraction.
PORTER: Well, the other thing to think about is who is being arrested
and who is being targeted. So, when you think about 80 percent of the
people who are going through the Criminal Justice System are represented by
public defenders, that means they`re poor.
PORTER: And if 95 percent of those people are pleading guilty, you
know, whether or not they have great lawyers, 95 percent of those poor
people are going to jail or becoming felons. And that is outrageous. That
is disenfranchising a whole host of people which has then ripple effects on
our political systems. So, it`s really something that`s affecting our
PERRY: Right. Bank of America steals from its home owners by not
giving them mortgages that, you know, that they absolutely had a right to,
right? But none of them go to jail, right? Even though that can be
hundreds of thousands of dollars, put families on street but for $1, you
can get life.
PORTER: You can bankrupt America, disrupt our entire economy and not
go to jail and get a great bonus but if you steal a beer in Georgia, you
might be in prison for life.
PERRY: Well, that makes it all very clear. We didn`t get back around
to the question of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin but it is this
question I think that both of you made so clear in the film which is just,
there`s an aspect of the justice system operating that is tough when we
have, when we`re on one side or the other. When we think we know but it
only operates when both folks, both sides have vigorous council.
Let me also just say, my sister has been a public defender for more
than 20 years. And I am inspired by the work of public defenders and I am
inspired by both Travis and Brandy and by the work that you did in making
this film in Vernon. Thanks for hanging around with us all day today.
Thanks to Dawn and to Travis, to Brandy, and to Bryonn. "Gideon`s
Army" premiers on HBO on July 1st, watch it, watch it, watch it, it`s worth
it. Up next, why the blogosphere is losing one of the most important
voices it has.
PERRY: For this week`s footnote, I`m bidding a fun farewell to my
favorite coffee shop Pam`s House Blend. After nearly a decade of
innovative original perspective changing writing Pam`s Spaulding has
decided to close the blog Pam`s House Blend. Launched in 2004, before
everybody in their 8-eight year old had a blog, PHB is one of the first
online opinion sources that I read on a daily basis. Now, Pam is based in
Durham, North Carolina. And as an African-American lesbian living in the
south during the gay baiting re-election campaign of George W. Bush, in
2004, she just needed a place to vent, but what started out as a personal
online journal of frustration became one of the most innovative and
inclusive spaces in the digital world.
Pam, her fellow bloggers reported the news and commented on the
maddening developments of national politics, but they always did so through
their own distinctive lens. Pam and her co-blogger out in -- from South
Carolina, stood at the intersection of race and gay identity in Southern
location reminding if the guy is not just an urban experience. And of
course there is Autumn Sandine who is the first transgender blogger on a
Over the years, Pam and her House Blend won many awards. And in
2008, she was only one of six African-American bloggers credentialed for
the historic Democratic National Convention which nominated Barack Obama
for the U.S. presidency. Early this week, Pam announced that she will no
longer produce Pam`s House Blend as a daily blog. Suffering from
progressive and generative rheumatoid arthritis, Pam simply no longer has
the stamina to work full time and to blog during all the hours that
normally would be reserved for sleeping.
We asked Pam what she wants to be the legacy of the House Blend and
she said, "I really do wish that we could get more LGBT people of color
blogging about politics and their rights. Maybe it`s the grind of
politics. Maybe it`s that politics is depressing, I`m not sure, but it`s
so necessary. And voices from the south are necessary."
Pam, you are a true citizen journalist. I will continue to check out
your personal posts about your favorite band, journey, but I will miss your
daily House Blend. Rest and take care of yourself, you certainly have
earned it. But if you are out there and you have a voice that needs to be
heard and a perspective that should be shared, maybe now is the time to
take up the banner that Pam has held aloft for so long. That`s our show
Thanks to you at home for watching. I`m going to see you next
Saturday at 10:00 a.m. Eastern when hopefully the court will finally rule
and we are going to talk about whatever it is they have done to our country
as a result.
Now it`s time for a preview of weekend with Alex Witt. And it is Mara
and her fabulous haircut sitting in today.
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