On Wednesday, November 4, 2020, john a powell discusses the outcomes of the 2020 elections in a live Q&A with OBI. This was the first event in our new #AskOBI series featuring reactions from institute staff and faculty on trending topics.
Emnet Almedom: Hi everyone. Welcome, welcome. Welcome to our conversation about “What Now?”, a live Q&A with the Othering and Belonging Institute. My name is Emnet Almedom, I'm a research and policy analyst with the Othering and Belonging Institute, and we're a think-and-do tank at the University of California at Berkeley, where scholars, researchers, communicators, and our community partners — like those of you on the line with us today — work together to build a world where all people belong. So today I'm really excited to introduce this new online series that we're doing called #AskOBI, where we'll answer your burning questions. We'll help you make sense of deeper issues at play in the news and get a bit deeper than what you're hearing. And of course today there is plenty going on that we'll be talking about.
So I'm thrilled to kick off with our director, UC Berkeley professor john a. powell, an internationally recognized expert in the areas of civil rights, civil liberties, structural racism, poverty, and democracy — all issues to talk about on this day. john, so welcome, thank you so much for joining me today, for joining our audience for this discussion about the election.
john a. powell: Thank you, Emnet.
Emnet Almedom: And speaking of — yeah, thank you — speaking of our audience, for those who are watching us, whether it's on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, you can absolutely engage with us throughout. I'll have a couple questions just to kick us off, for us to get into, but we would love to hear from you. We know everyone's following along. Whether it's anxious or excited, whatever it is, just very open to hearing those questions. You can either go directly in the Facebook or YouTube chat box or if you're on Twitter you can use the hashtag #AskOBI. And make sure to follow us so you can keep up to date.
So before we get into questions I guess how are you feeling, john? Did you get any sleep last night? How did you kind of handle election night?
john a. powell: Well first it's good to be here with you. Appreciate the work the institute is doing, that you’re doing. Last night was not a very peaceful sleep. Like a lot of people, I checked polling, what was coming in, and then I went to bed and sort of woke up every hour and checked again. So I'm a little tired today. I've had three or four things already today. So yeah, last night was not my most peaceful night.
Emnet Almedom: Yeah I'm sure plenty of folks can relate to that. Same here. Just kind of went back and forth on different platforms trying to stay updated but also stay calm. But before I jump into kind of more detailed questions and then we open it up, I wanted to just open it up generally, to give you an opportunity to kind of share your general thoughts about the results that have already come in. There's still plenty of counting going on. It'll take some time to get to a final, final answer. But curious kind of what are you concerned about right now and also where are you seeing areas for hope or optimism in this time?
john a. powell: Well the country, as you know, was already deeply divided, polarized, and the axis of that polarization takes on different forms. It could be masks and not wearing masks. It could be in support of Black Lives Matter, or framed as Black Lives Matter or with the police, which is not an appropriate linkage but that's how it's linked. Law and order. Do you believe in racial justice? Climate change. Do you believe the virus is real? And what do you think about immigrants or indigenous people? Who does this country belong to? So those are some of the divides.
It's not a secret that the Republican Party is organized around a set of those and in some ways weaponized them. And I should say from my perspective, the party that we've seen over the last four years is not the true Republican Party. It really is the Donald Trump Party. And I think Trump did not try to unify the country which, historically, after an election the president then reaches out to say, “I'm the president of the whole country and everyone's a part of it.” Sometimes the president will appoint members of the other party to his cabinet. That was not Trump. And so in a sense, the lines have been sharply drawn. And I think that while there's, let’s say, responsibility and maybe even blame to go around it's not-. And this election actually heightened all that, and the appointment, Justice Ginsburg dying.
I think a lot of people — in fact we did a poll, seventy percent of Americans said there was too much polarization, they want to figure out a way to come together. The election was not the vehicle for that. It could have been, but it was not. So I think right now the country is more polarized. I just checked with a friend and colleague in Detroit where they're counting mail-in and absentee ballots, and there are demonstrators, most of them Trump supporters who are stomping and banging on the doors saying “Stop the counting, stop the counting.” Trump says to count past November 3rd is a violation of the law. It’s not. So anyway you’re just seeing even deeper polarization.
The good news, in terms of hope, is given the record number of people that voted both before November 3rd and on November 3rd, cumulatively there was relatively little violence and disruption. And we had a larger number of African Americans, Latinx, and white people showing up to the polls. One of the largest increases was among Asian Americans. So I think people want to be involved. I don't think we necessarily have the mechanism in place with that yet. People are struggling to try to figure that out. But I think some kind of optimism, one could say, is people want to figure that out. The country is more divided than the citizenry. The people haven't figured out how to connect, but they want to.
The leaders, and particularly the leaders in the Republican Party under Trump, and going back to when Obama was in the White House had very little interest in the national level and connecting. And then there are local elections in California and Berkeley. We had a number of interesting races, and I won’t go into those, but I think, I feel like while no person or platform or party is perfect, California’s trying to move in the right direction.
Emnet Almedom: Sure yeah we'll have time to get into that as the audience shares their questions. But a couple things: you spoke about in terms of we're still waiting for votes to come in and we're seeing some initial expected push back like what you talked about in Detroit where folks are trying to demand — Republicans demanding — the count be stopped, but I think also across the country we're seeing so many reminders that, you know, every vote counts, count every vote, this like rallying cry that I think is happening across national and grassroots organizations that it’s so powerful and, you know, so important to have any semblance of this true democracy. So as we think about that, if you can elaborate a little more, what do you think people should be paying attention to or looking for as new counts come in? What should they keep in mind as those numbers come in?
john a. powell: Well, a couple of things. One, the numbers are quite high. Two, I think we should be critical of rank partisanship coming from Democrats or Republicans. And as I said earlier, in this election cycle, it so far seems like it’s mainly coming from Republicans. So for example, Trump people are demanding no more counting in Michigan where Trump is behind, but in Arizona he wants a recount. So it's almost like, “If I'm behind, count again, count again till I’m ahead.”
Emnet Almedom: Right, of course.
john a. powell: “If I'm ahead or close, stop counting.” So I think we should try to — and, you know, people are affiliated with parties — but try to really think about the country, try to think about the institutions and the structure. And as you suggested, this was a positive move for our republic. We don't really have a very robust democracy. The UN recently downgraded the United States as a democracy. Our institutions are not in place to actually do what they need to do. I think the Supreme Court got it wrong when they said almost unlimited political gerrymandering are diluting peoples’ votes.
But the fact that people are getting engaged, the fact that we have demonstrations on the streets actually demanding justice, demanding participation — I think all those are positive things. And the question in part is: how do we continue those things? How do we operationalize them? And how do we do it in a way without falling into the trap of demonizing the other side? How do we make sure we listen? Part of a number of conversations about listening and bridging. I think again from the religious communities to activists to corporations to governments, people want to figure that out. To me that's extremely positive. If we can get more examples and more leadership and even at the state and local levels if we can’t do it at the national level. I work with a number of cities that are saying they want to become inclusion and belonging cities, Including cities like Lincoln which is not normally thought of as a hotbed of [inaudible, 10:58]. So I think all those are hopeful signs.
I think the most hopeful sign is us. We can stay engaged, figure out a way to take care of each other. Talking to someone who disagrees with you is what we call bridging. Doesn't imply that you disagree any less. Doesn't imply you change your mind or take their position. It basically implies you're willing to acknowledge someone as a human being, listen to their suffering, their story, and see if they can make some connection. Turns out that that’s powerful, and it does move people, but the purpose of it is really to see people, to recognize people.
The reason I say we're not a democracy — if you just think about the whole idea that we don't have direct elections, we didn’t have a direct election of senators from the first hundred years. The quote-unquote “founders” really didn't trust the people, and they certainly didn't trust people without property, and it's always been contentious as to how we expand that. Women didn't get the right to vote until 1920. Blacks in many ways didn't get the right to vote until 1965 and we're still fighting that.
So as President Obama used to say, we're trying to make a more perfect union, we're trying to create an inclusive, belonging democracy and that's a life-long project but I think it's worthwhile.
Emnet Almedom: Absolutely, yeah. I appreciate those points of democracy as a work in progress and that we do have to reckon with so many of these anti-democratic institutions that were put into place in a very different time, in a slave society, and kind of trying to reckon with that reality. I also want to build on the point you were making around trying to see across differences and how, you know, how folks are engaging in the political system.
And one thing that I've really been sitting with is, you know, remembering that we're still actively in a pandemic that continues to spread, and that there's been incredible get out the vote work that was done by the very same organizers in communities that have been hit hardest by COVID‑19, and hit hardest by, again, institutional failures, not just the virus, that failed to respond. And so those are the same groups, as you alluded to, that have been pushing for rent cancellation, defund the police, other calls to action. And of course there's always tension between different types of political engagement. But overall, like you said, we're seeing this incredible, historic voter turnout. And those results so far seem to suggest a Biden victory, but it's very close in some senses.
So I would love to kind of hear your thoughts of what do you make of how close and how the margin is not as wide as either polls had suggested, or as one would hope that maybe Trumpism would be repudiated in this time much more strongly? What do you make of the fact that that's not exactly what we're seeing? What does that say to you about how Americans of different backgrounds are understanding or relating to the Trump administration?
john a. powell: Well you pointed out that we have this old system, the system that was put in place initially, again a republic, but also republic designed to actually protect slavery. Some people find that, “Well, you’re knocking our country.” For anyone who has kids, you know, if you love someone, you love something it means you care enough to actually critique it. And the country had a very ambiguous beginning. And one of our most famous political speakers of all time, and by many people the greatest president of American history, Lincoln, was very critical of the constitution because it was a slave document and that's what the Gettysburg Address was about.
Those things were in place and some of those structures are still in place. There's a debate whether or not for example he Electoral College was just all there to help small states or if it was really there to protect slavery. And certainly the three-fifths clause which a lot of people get wrong; they say black only counted as three-fifths in the constitution. Blacks didn't count at all. Slaves counted as three-fifths of a person to enhance the political representation of the slaveholding state. So the more you counted slaves for that purpose, the more the slaveholding state, the more power that state acquired. But the slave got nothing out of that. And so the three-fifths clause in our constitution was designed to actually enhance the power of slaveholding states.
But it's not just our history. We just had a famous case, which a lot of people are disturbed by, called Citizens United which basically changed the way we make political contributions to candidates running for office, to referend. And we basically enhanced the power of money, and in doing so, we decreased the power of people. And many people of all political persuasions felt that was wrong. And I think it was wrong. The Supreme Court in a highly divided decision overturned a hundred years of Supreme Court case law, enhanced the power of corporations and the rich to make us less of a democracy and make us less accountable. So it’s not simply things in the past.
There’s a case in Shelby County where the Supreme Court essentially gutted much of the Voting Rights Act. There’s a theme here too because a lot of this is done not just as legislation but through the courts itself. And we've seen the Supreme Court become more and more political as with appointment of the last justice. Remember that when President Obama tried to appoint someone in the last ten months of his office, the Senate refused. They said a president who was leaving office should not have the right to select the next Supreme Court justice. And so in ten months they refused to do that. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and in less than a month — just before the election — we rushed through an appointment. Even if you like the appointment, it's basically saying that's hypocritical, that’s duplicitous, that's not how democracies work. So there's some things to be fixed. They probably won't be fixed now because it looks like Biden will be the president and we'll have a Republican Senate who has lost, from my perspective, lost its way in terms of the traditional Republican values — small government, low taxes, you know, they don't hold up any of those things. The sort of principles associated with Republicanism is largely gone — with a few exceptions, people like Mitt Romney.
But what we do have is a number of people demanding participation and that demand has to go beyond November 3rd, and that's to actually be involved. We have people running for office at record numbers. We have trans people going into Congress. So all those things are actually quite hopeful, and we have to think about how to actually expand on them, how to tell the story about them, how to make the institution responsive to people. I think we'll get back in the Paris Peace Accords. You know in the Bay Area… I was thinking about this, 2020 can be thought about the year where it was hard to breathe: from George Floyd to the coronavirus — a respiratory disease — to wildfires. And again we have an administration that, in the midst of that, left the Paris Peace Accord and ignored the coronavirus. So anyway, I think that there’s some change, even though we don't have all the pieces in place.
Emnet Almedom: Absolutely. Thank you for that. It’s very painful symbolism that you speak to for this year. I think we'll move on to some questions. I'll see if there's any that are already popping up. Here, okay perfect.
So again you can keep bringing them in on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. This is our first one I believe off of YouTube from Edward Bryant, saying: “It seems that yesterday, especially in Red States, represented a hard core reestablishing of white supremacy. What are your thoughts?”
john a. powell: Well I do think white supremacy is prominent in the United States. It's always been there in some kind of way, sometimes it calms down a little bit. Leadership matters. I think President Trump ran on a white supremacy ticket and he's governed from a white supremacist perspective. And even with people who are not necessarily embracing white supremacy, they're too often willing to forgive him, like “Well, I know he says some racist things but he's helping the economy.” How much would you pay for white supremacy? And think about this: if you were a person of color, how much do you think you'd have to pay a person of color for them to be comfortable with a white supremacist regime? Or if you're a woman, how much do you think you have to pay women to be comfortable with a regime where sexual harassment and misogynation was the norm?
So we're a big country, by size and population, we have many conflicting values, but the people who are willing just to tolerate white supremacy are way too many. Then there are others who actively embrace it. And I know part of that is because change is happening in the world. People are afraid. White people are afraid. Black people are afraid. Police are afraid. All of us are concerned about our safety. But my safety counts as much as anyone else’s. Part of the norm or the story of white supremacy is that Blacks or people of color threaten their safety, threaten their existence. That may not be the case, and most of the time it’s not the case. That wasn’t the case in South Africa when the apartheid government failed. And leading up to that, there's this constant drum beat that if Blacks came to power they're going to attack whites. That was the fear the whites had. In many ways that fear is present in the United States. Both in terms of white as not being a numerical majority, but also in terms of, really, Black people and people of color coming to power.
It will be a shift. It should be a shift, because no group — white, Black, Christian — otherwise should dominate. But that will be a new America where we really structure and live out a society where no group is excluded, no group has the right to dominate, and no group is superior. So we have to be careful we're not trading in white superiority for some other kind of superiority.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you for that. We're trying to get some other questions coming in here. … Alright we'll switch on to this one, can you share thoughts — we talked about it a bit at the top here, thinking about the propositions in California — could you share your thoughts on Prop 16? People are saying, “What does it mean that in a summer of actions against police brutality in California, Prop 16 was defeated?”
john a. powell: Just for people who don’t know, Prop 16 was to reverse Proposition 209 which was anti-affirmative action, and it would've allowed to use race in public benefits like schools. I definitely supported Prop 16. From my perspective, even though it's on the one hand an extension of democracy, because you're allowing people to put forward legislation, potential legislation, and not just the legislatures, it's also problematic because a lot of these things are complicated. There's a lot of horse trading. And you can't do an adequate job oftentimes through referendums. Also the advertisement is just gross. I watched some of the propositions and the ones I even knew about, if you watch the ad, you have no idea what's really going on. And so you get media, you get money, you get a distortion. You don't get what people call deliberation, a deliberate democracy. And oftentimes it's framed in terms of a zero-sum, that if you help people of color, it means you hurt whites, or vice versa.
I think it’s interesting because always with race-based affirmative action there's a notion that race shouldn't matter — maybe it shouldn't, maybe it should. It does matter, and it matters at every point in our life. It matters how long we're going to live, it matters what kind of school you’re going to go to, what kind of neighborhood you’re going to live in. So we have segregated schools — segregated by race and economics and therefore putting extra stress on those schools — and then at a later state when students are getting ready to go to college, we say “Now we're not going to look at race.” So the issue is not going to go away entirely because it's just not appropriate. The question is how do we actually both expand the public resource of education and other things and at the same time make sure that groups are not deliberately, systematically excluded. Prop 16, I think would've helped and I think there needs to be a greater discussion. So in that sense I'm kind of disappointed that it failed but I think it opened up a chance for us to have greater discussion.
Emnet Almedom: Yes, let's definitely hope so. We also have a couple questions here around the Voting Rights Act which you alluded to a little bit with the Shelby decision. I guess, what are the prospects for strengthening the Voting Rights Act given the Republican Senate or what we expect will be a GOP-held Senate?
john a. powell: Well a couple things. First of all, we can do stuff at the state level, even at the local level, and we are doing that here in California. If you're in a state where you have Democratic control or a reasonable Republican, sometimes independents. There's some states now where, for example, in terms of reapportionment is actually done by an independent body. So we should keep moving forward with those ideas. Yes, I expect at the federal level, Republicans will try to block it — most of them, but not all. So again, there's still one or two, three moderate Republicans in the Senate who might be able to be convinced to support something. But in two years we'll have another election. So we should be working on this and then move and demand something different. Make that one of the election issues.
In the meantime, what can we do at the state level and at the local level? And what can we do to educate the American people? I think this last election was amazing just in terms of, partially because of the virus, a hundred million people voted before the election. Why don't we always do that? Drive-by voting. Voting that was open twenty-four hours. Drop boxes. Now on the other side, to be clear, we had them trying to close down the post office at the very time people need to do mail-in voting. So you have some people who are aggressively trying to make sure that people generally, and people of color in particular, and Blacks even more particular, don't have the right to vote. So we have to look at it on all those levels and address it at all those levels and then make sure eventually, both at the ballot box and in courts, we fix this voting system so we move closer to having a real democracy that is extended to all people.
Emnet Almedom: Absolutely. Another question coming in from Hugh Vasquez, “With being deeply divided, no matter who wins, how do we heal the divide where we all feel as though they belong in this nation? The divide is massive.”
john a. powell: That's a great question. I think the divide happens at multiple levels. There's been a number of studies showing we're geographically segregated and that actually increased polarization. It's not impossible, but it's harder than hate up close. So you’re hating people you don't have contact with And we see that people who are most hostile to Muslims, for example, have no contact with them. People who are most hostile to Blacks have no contact with them. Part of the success of the Marriage Equality Act was through love. Basically, Justice Kennedy was one of the people who wrote the opinion and he made a comment, he didn't quite get why it was such a big deal, he didn't know any gay people, and his clerk said, “Actually you do. Here I am one. And the clerk last year was one.” And in a sense, he had to humanize the issue. That won't solve all problems, but it moves us in the right direction.
But right now we’re so segregated, and the negative effects are multiple. So part of it is, since we don't naturally come together, where do we come together? Where can we create a container where we can actually get to know each other again? We have to be deliberate about that. Initially, it's going to be awkward. Because when you're swimming against the stream, it takes a lot of work. If you relax, the stream carries you in the direction it's flowing. Right now bridging and connecting is going against the stream. People won't understand it, people will be suspicious of it, and there's not many containers for it.
One hopeful container we're seeing is in the private sector. The private sector in some instances is fairly diverse. They understand that their bottom line — and some of them would go beyond instrumental reasons, some of them have a real moral reason — they want to help have a workforce and customer base that's diverse. And so the divisions, both racially, economically, even ideologically, is a problem. I think we need to lift this up. It should be a part of our schools, part of our funding, to bring people together. If we don't learn how to bridge, then all the other things we're trying to do will be for naught.
Emnet Almedom: I want to jump back to what you were saying about the Voting Rights Act and how we can move it forward at the state level, but also how to balance the fact that we did see huge expansions this year with twenty-four hour voting, early voting, weekend voting, while also seeing some very intense suppression tactics. I think that really ties to this next person's question, Reggie Lewis has asked us, “When do you think Texas, Arizona, and Georgia become purple or blue states?” And of course voting rights play a huge role in that. So what are your thoughts there?
john a. powell: Well I think Arizona’s already purple or blue, it went for Biden. And Georgia was too early to call. Georgia's certainly a battleground state in a way that it probably was not in the past. Part of it is just the growth of demographic change, but demographics is not destiny, you have to do work. Texas is very interesting, the second largest state in the country, a big Latinx population, but not the participation level and not the organizational level. So I think part of it is just talking to people. Part of it is educating people. Part of it is creating structures that work. So in Texas for example, one of the things they tried to do was to have drop-off boxes distributed throughout Texas. Geographically, Texas is the second largest state in the union, second to Alaska, so it's huge. And the governor came back and said “No we only have one drop-off box per county.” Harris County — which is where Houston is, counting almost four million people — people have to drive an hour to get to a drop-off box. That's basically voter suppression. What's the cost? What's the reason they only want one drop-off box? Like I said, I live here in Berkeley, if I walk five blocks I pass a drop-off box, if I walk another five blocks, I pass another.
So we need to call people out. And to some extent we need to make it clear that people's right to participate and right to engage with each other shouldn't be a partisan issue. That's really the heart of democracy, and in a society that’s functioning well, being a Democrat or Republican should not say anything about your commitment to democracy or your commitment to your fellow citizens. That’s not what we are right now, and that’s why I say the Republican Party in particular has lost its way.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you for those reflections. So Liz Baxter here has asked us: “Thinking of South Africa’s experience, how close is the United States to an apartheid state?” We’d love to hear what you’re thinking on that.
john a. powell: Each country has its own expression and you can’t completely translate one to the other. It is interesting that apartheid, when South Africa decided to adopt apartheid in 1948, they actually came to the United States and studied how we had instituted apartheid even though we didn’t call it that — both in terms of Jim Crow laws but also in terms of isolating Native people on the reservation. So their apartheid system in some ways was a tinkering and a modification of our already-existing apartheid system. Some people don't realize Nazi Germany didn't originate in Germany, it originated in the United States. And again, people came here to sort of see how we instituted racial oppression and took it to Germany and modified it, and some of the parts they didn't adopt because they felt the United States was too harsh. So we already have a long history in terms of oppression, in terms of enslaving, in terms of domination, and we call it different things, but when you look at people’s life expectancy, people's access to voice and power.
But we've also made some progress. We should not shy away from saying that. You know, we have a new book out called Caste where Isabel Wilkerson, who gave us Warmth of Other Suns which is about black migration in the South, basically says we have a caste system. We should call it that. It’s interesting. The caste system, if she’s right, or Jim Crow, can't simply be addressed by bridging. The structural, cultural divisions are too strong, are too informal, to simply address by bridging. So you have the famous Loving case where literally a white man and Black woman got married and it was against the law. So it was against the law for them to bridge. So we have to look at the formal and informal practices.
Good news is we're not there now, we're in a different place. Part of the highest family formation in the United States, but certainly in California, are cross ethnic lines. By some accounts, by the end of this century the largest formation in the United States will not be white, Black, or Latino, it will be mixed ethnicity and mixed race. So people are doing it naturally, organically you could say, but again, demographics aren’t destiny, it doesn't mean necessarily we'll move to a more open, free society.
But yes, we have some kind of apartheid system and I think we're sliding backwards and forwards at the same time. And that’s likely going to be going on for the next decade. Are we going to be a much more open, multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious society where everyone belongs? Or are we going to be a society where the “We” and “We the People” is only white Christian males? That to me is the big question facing the United States, and Trump represents the latter. His ethnic nationalism, his authoritarianism is not toward being white Christian and male, even for people who are neither white, Christian, or male. So you have some who are attracted to that because of his patriarchy, because of the way he dominates women. So I'm not just talking about people's phenotype. I'm talking about an ideology of white dominance, which is not just white people, and not all white people.
Emnet Almedom: Yeah, I appreciate this point that you've been making around understanding the systemic nature of what we're talking about. It's in our institutions, it's in the way we vote, the way that we make our decisions, and also trying to think about the interpersonal, of how can we bridge those divides where possible but acknowledging this overarching system that we're all part of and need to be very specific in the ways that it operates, that purposefully tries to cut us off from that bridging and that interpersonal connection. So thank you for that.
We're getting another question here on: “What does it tell us about the state of progressivism or liberalism when a very overwhelmingly blue state, like California, votes against” — like we spoke about — “Prop 16 and 21 and for 22?” What does that tell you about California right now?”
john a. powell: Not much. I mean we're talking about a state of forty million people. We're progressive on some things and not on other things. And while I share your concern, I don't think we want to have a litmus test. I don't think we want to say... Progressivism has a sort of history on race. So I think we have to be more nuanced. I haven’t looked at all the data but it seems to me — first of all, we've got 16 on the ballot — it polled pretty well, it didn't win. But California is sometimes, people say, three states: it’s the North, South, and the Inland Empire. We are a big state. There are people all over. The first time California looked at marriage equality, it failed, and now I think it's widely accepted in California. So we're talking about a process. We shouldn't be overly discouraged if we don't get something first time at the blocks, nor should we assume that the people who have questions are necessarily bad people. That's part of engaging people. So I mean, I certainly don't celebrate that we lost these issues.
And on I think 21 — I get them mixed up one of them was the Lyft/Uber issue.
Emnet Almedom: 22, mhm.
john a. powell: That was just clearly, it was two hundred and four million dollar spent on a proposition. That's just money. If you watch those advertisements, you would believe that most drivers sincerely want the situation to remain independent contractors. That may not be accurate. That wasn’t just true of that proposition, that was true of many propositions. I have dialysis so I know a little about dialysis. The dialysis industry in California, I believe, heavily needs to be regulated. It gouges people. It's about money. It's not about health. And yet if you watch those ads, you'd be completely confused, because they have people of color — as they did on 22 — and working people, they had support from groups. So again I wouldn't read too much into it because of the way money comes in and because of the way we do these referendums, it's hard to know what people really think. Looking at the ads you have no idea what 16, 21, or 22 really means.
Emnet Almedom: Yeah I think that's a really excellent point around kind of understanding the nature of how those questions were asked, how the propositions... Even thinking a little bit about the language of the propositions, just the way our democracy is carried out and how, you know, it's sometimes very difficult to engage with this question of a direct referendum without all the information and again with all of the influx of money on the other side.
And then this question here from Gloria ties to something we talked a little about about how it is kind of a close margin that we're expecting for Biden — closer than one would've hoped or understood — and talking a little about trying to “understand people of color, immigrants, and others who supported Trump seemingly against their own interests.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
john a. powell: Sure, I think part of what that really suggests is that we don't understand these populations. There was a good article in the New York Times, I think maybe a month ago, written by a captain in the Army. His point was this: that Black people are of all different stripes, and in a healthy world, you'd have maybe as many Black conservatives as liberals or progressives. The fact you have Black overwhelmingly supporting Democrats or liberals, he actually says, speaks to the fact that we have a racist system that push Blacks who would otherwise be conservative into liberal positions. The point he’s making is that we’re all heterogeneous. And when it looks like we’re not, it’s partially because of some structural flaw to push us all one direction. And I think he has a lot to say there.
I mean from my perspective, to some extent, I’m shocked that white people support Trump. He's such a flawed person. It makes sense to me that his sister apparently doesn't like him, that his niece... I mean you can be conservative without being someone who denigrates women or people with disabilities or Native Americans, or lie every time you open your mouth. But I also understand people's interest is complicated. Sometimes people have a single issue, it could be pro-choice or pro-life. It could look at the world just through that lens. When people try to understand not just people of color but why men, particularly white men, are such strong supporters of Trump. And what they come up with is that he helps them in their pocket book. So if you organize your entire identity by how much money you have, maybe you think Trump is good and you're willing to overlook some of the things that you don't otherwise agree with.
So I think really what your question suggests to me is that we need to actually engage with people who don't support Trump, but then also with people who do support Trump. And so that we're not answering that question from an analytical perspective, we’re answering it from an empirical perspective. We're actually talking to people: why do you support Trump? Without attacking them, without assuming they're bad or they’re idiots. And some of that's done through something called deep canvassing, and deep canvassing has turned out to be extremely effective, much more effective than traditional canvassing. Part of deep canvassing is deep listening, which is part of bridging. So if we don't understand, and I for one don't really understand — although on some level it makes sense — it means we need to sit down and talk to those groups more and hear their concerns.
Emnet Almedom: Yeah I think one thing that stood out from what you were saying was also considering — as we talked about — this feels like a very close vote and that there are folks who it will take time whether through deep canvassing, through conversations among your family members, your neighbors, to understand where they stand and how they think. But we're seeing in particular kind of the closeness in terms of the vote — we're seeing different exit polls still being determined and they’re not complete — but that vote and closeness is definitely happening more amongst white voters and we’re seeing some new pockets of whether it's Black or Latinx trying to think more specifically around where is that closeness of the vote actually happening.
So we have another question here for you, john, from Mercy Das-Sulc — hope I pronounced that correctly — “[...] Can Biden build a green economy that creates well-paying jobs? Will the Senate and McConnell be an impediment?” So kind of this theme we've been talking about a little bit of: it’s exciting, hopefully we'll have a Biden presidency and be able to close that chapter but of course many other issues and in particular a GOP-held Senate.
john a. powell: This is an interesting question so thank you for it, but two things. For a lot of people — and my guess is a lot of people certainly in the Bay Area in California — Biden wasn't their first, second, or third choice on the Democratic ticket. So we had a candidate who to some extent positioned himself as a centrist and the Bay Area is not particularly centrist. And the green economy was not something that Biden really completely embraced. So his effectiveness will be in part, what does he really stand for and where can we move him? How can we hold him accountable? So that's sort of a little bit of a downer.
But here's the good news. We're back in the Paris Peace Accord. That should be one of the first things. You don't need the Congress to go back to the Paris Peace Accord. Trump has issued numerous executive orders; on day one, you could actually invalidate many of them and, within a month, probably most of them, and a lot of them have to do with climate. One of the things Trump tried to do was to actually remove California from being able to control its pollution emissions as a state. He tried to preempt into saying “No, we want you to allow more pollution in the air.” So that can be changed immediately. So again, there's some things, there will be some limits, no doubt. We don't know where those limits are and even with those limits we can be in a much better position than we are right now. And limits are just there temporarily, you know, none of us are going to be here forever. People can be moved and we've just got to figure out if these issues are really important a— nd I think they are. I think this is one of the defining issues of the twenty-first century — then we figure out how to organize to make it real. And if people can't get on to embracing a more sustainable, belonging world, maybe they should find another job and not be a senator.
Emnet Almedom: I think that's fair. Yeah I think there's a lot, there's plenty of movements — whether it's Sunrise Movement, thinking about those who push forward the Green New Deal — that movement building work is so exciting and something to be engaged with that will do the work of pushing the Bidens or whoever it is that ends up at the top of this system, they'll continue to be pushed by those doing the movement work.
So we talked little bit about understanding and reckoning with these very anti-democratic institutions that we have. We talked about the Electoral College which I think was already front of mind for folks after the 2016 election, again it's rearing its ugly head once again. I think we're seeing a lot more conversation this year about the federal courts and the Supreme Court. So from Stephanie Martin Llanes, she's asking: “What is the role of federal courts and the SCOTUS moving forward, the Supreme Court?”
john a. powell: First of all, hi Stephanie, I know Stephanie. So again, the courts are complicated because you have the federal court, but you also have the state courts. In the short term you can try to shield some things from the federal court because you don't want ultimately the Supreme Court deciding things. Until proven otherwise, you have a very right-wing court. Roberts is now like the center of the court — Roberts is not a centrist. He does, I think, care about the institution of the court, but he's very conservative. And then you have the other four who are each one more radical to the right than the other. So they will do damage, no doubt about it.
The question is, one, what can we keep from them? Like going to state court when we have to go to court. Two, the institution of court in my mind is broken. The court has way too much power. The power was not given to the court in the constitution, it was actually served by the court. Those of you who are lawyers remember Marbury vs. Madison. he court decided that it was the one who should be the arbitrator of all constitutional matters; the constitution didn't decide that. And with the Civil Rights amendment, it was actually clear that the drafters of the Civil Rights amendment — 13th, 14th 15th Amendment — intended for Congress to be a coequal power to the court on civil rights issues. That hasn't evolved.
From my perspective we're living outside of the scope of the constitution. From a political perspective, I think we actually need to reframe the constitution, not so it's liberal or conservative, but so it can't be captured so easily and it really has a role of not being a super-legislature. If you read Shelby County where they struck down the Voting Rights Act — this is actually interesting — the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized, passed the Senate under George Bush ninety-eight to zero. Nothing passes ninety-eight to zero. And then the court struck it down. You had every Democrat and every Republican in the Senate, and a Republican president saying, “we need this,” and you have the court come along saying, “no you can't do it.” To me it was just an incredible usurpation of power and we have to figure out around it. The short term with the Senate being as it is, we have to put some sort of stop-count measures, but there are things that can be done.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you for that, the history lesson is very helpful as we're trying to remember what brought us here, what's new, what's old, what reminds us of the past. Thank you for that. We have one more question from our audience and then we're going to start closing out here at the bottom of the hour. But from Gloria Castillo, she's asking: “Could you help us understand the wide divide between rural areas and cities as we see such a polarized and sometimes very different understanding of reality?”
john a. powell: That’s a great question and it’s a complicaticated and in some ways beautiful question. It's not just understanding of different realities, it is different realities. One of the things that technology’s done is concentrated power, wealth, and education in tech centers, which are usually urbanized centers like San Francisco or New York. For people who felt like they're left behind in rural areas, they're largely right: they have been left behind. The gap between the have and the have nots, the inequality is huge. The economy since the 1970s has probably increased by maybe three or four times, but all that money’s gone to one percent in the point-one percent — not to rural areas.
There's a book called Economics of Belonging. What would a belonging set of economics be? So the conditions that poor rural folks find themselves in is very different than most of us. We read about some of these rural counties where they don’t have a hospital, and in order to go to a hospital, they got to go two hundred miles — that is a different reality. Literally I can walk to a hospital.
In 2016 when Hilary Clinton was running, Elsadig, who’s on my staff, and I were writing a piece about the trade agreement in Asia and we were critical of it because… It's a little bit complicated, I won’t go into all the details, what I’ll say is this: the promise of globalization was reneged. The promise is, “We’re going to grow the economy and we’ll all share the wealth.” The first part of that promise was kept. We grew the economy but it was not shared. In a sense the failure to address that — and that was a failure both by the Democrats and Republicans — to create a system where we all participated in the growth. We're more than willing to have people who are low-income, people of color, women, participate in the pain. As someone says, we socialize the pain and privatize the wealth. Think about 2008 when the housing market crashed. It was like, okay, we've got to bail out the banks. Maybe we do. What about the people owning the houses? No we couldn't do that. And that was under Obama. Now Obama acknowledged that he made a mistake because he gave the banks billions of dollars and then he asked them to renegotiate the mortgages that homeowners had. The banks already had the money, so they said no. Instead of tying given money to them but on certain conditions, he actually tried to do it on the largess. That would be a nice thing to do. It's not nice, you're president of the country!
So we did leave out large numbers of people. And so when people in rural areas complain about being left out, including a lot of Blacks and Latinos living in rural areas — sometimes when we think of rural, we think of white. So I don't have any problem with them being concerned about being left out. Where I do have a problem is instead of [inaudible. 56:20] concern about the economy and especially private corporations, when they turn around and blame Blacks and Latinos and immigrants for their problems, that's the problem, it's misdirected. Yes they have real pain, but it's not my fault.
Emnet Almedom: Yeah, that's a very powerful note to end on as we kind of think about what a Biden presidency might look like and think about those lessons around negotiating and kind of the narrative of the different divides and differences in our country and how to speak on them and manage them. So I think we're going to close out here. I know we've touched on so many different issues, some very big picture issues as we're awaiting on election results.
As we know, and we mentioned at the top of the hour, the votes are still being counted and we really want to continue to make that message very clear that this isn't over until all votes are counted. Deadlines are different across all the states, but that's the main message, right, all votes need to be counted. So we have put together some election videos. We've linked here the socialpresskit.com/obi where you can take some of our content and feel free to share that in your networks and whatever audiences and communities that you're a part of to help amplify that message using this or your own voice.
So I want to end on that note with our Q&A and just one last question before we close out, just on a positive note. So the outcome of the presidential election is just one aspect right of this larger fight — we've talked about so many different issues — this larger fight for justice and belonging. Earlier, you gave us some thoughts about what's giving you hope, some of the incredible things that have still happened despite all odds. And there's an activist and an organizer named Mariame Kaba who fights for the police and prison abolition. She says that “Hope is a discipline. That hope is something to be practiced and sustained.” So in that vein, we'd love to end with some advice for the audience post-November: what can ordinary citizens and people like us do to continue this fight and to fight for the hopes that we have?
john a. powell: That's a great question. I would reframe it in a couple of ways. First of all, there's no ordinary. All of you are amazing and that's what makes hope possible, it’s when we — I have children and when they were growing up I used to say, if I could wish one thing for them, it would not be health would, it would not be money, it would not be that they have hopes that then get realized, it would be engagement. Engagement. And I think when we're engaged then it’s actually better than hope. We don't know if we're going to win or lose but when we're engaged, not only are things possible, but we become possible. We become hopeful. I don't really organize around hope so much. I'm not an optimist or a pessimist. I describe myself as a possibilist. Things are possible because we are engaged or not. So that's what I would advocate to people. Some people like the term hope, I like the concept of engagement or discipline.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you.
Thank you everyone for joining us. We're seeing folks, they're saying, “Fired up ready to go,” “May the struggle and the work for justice and belonging be ever emboldened now,” “We fight on,” and yeah that's absolutely true.
Our time is up. Thank you everyone for being here, to our audience, you can follow us on Facebook and Instagram for other segments like this. We'll keep them short, we'll keep them engaging, they'll be #AskOBI. So stay engaged, to john’s point, and we'll be in touch. We'll be having different events like this in the future. Thank you so much.
john a. powell: Thank you.
Emnet Almedom: Take care everyone.