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Interview with Michele Jawando, VP of Legal Progress at for Center for American Progress

"They're afraid of the 2.6 million people who came out and marched on the anniversary of the Women's March. They are afraid of the young black activists and Black Lives Matter who are standing up... They’re afraid of our activism, and our civic awareness, and awakening that I think is happening.... There is a civic awakening that I think is happening and I think that, that's powerful because what [the GOP] are afraid of, are our voices." This is one of the points you'll hear in this powerful conversation with Michele Jawando, Vice President of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress and Co-host of Thinking CAP Podcast. We discuss controversial judicial nominees, the Supreme Court, voter suppression and the #MeToo movement.


Jenn Taylor-Skinner: You are currently serving as the vice president for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. And the first thing I thought of was that you must be really busy in this administration maybe with all the illegal, unconstitutional, moral quandaries that our president and current administration find themselves in.

Michele Jawando: Yes, though.

JTS: I'm impressed but I also feel a bit sorry for you. I think “Does she ever get any sleep?”

MJ: You know, I will say it has definitely been an interesting time. I think like many others, I definitely thought 2017, I would be thinking about what progressive litigation agenda would look like. I was daydreaming about various candidates for Supreme Court justice; maybe for the first time, we'd have a black woman... Serving as a Supreme Court justice on the highest court in the land. And this has been a sharp turn in a very different direction. You know, whether you're talking about judicial nominations and nominees this president has put forth, we haven't seen a wider or more male set of nominees in the past 45 years and we're seeing that every day with the names that this president puts forth; whether you're talking about actions at the Department of Justice under the leadership of Jeff Sessions, and the way that he is really targeting low-income communities; communities of color, the way they are targeting even issues around reproductive rights and choice, and using the full power of the Department of Justice to do so. It definitely keeps you on your toes, but in many ways, I'm enthusiastic because I do believe that that message of this administration is declaring a war on many facets of the progressive community, is getting out and you're starting to see more people paying attention.

JTS: Yeah. So, let's talk about these judges, because you know, that's one of the most worrying things to me because these are lifetime appointments; right? And there is some attention being paid to this. But I think the most troubling thing is that, well there's several troubling things, but a record number of people who've been nominated, either nominated or confirmed, in comparison to Obama's presidency at this point. And I think at this point, do you know how many have been nominated by Trump; is it over a dozen at this point?

MJ: So, there's been over a dozen judges who've actually been confirmed... And so, what that means and why that's significant for your listeners, is that that is eclipsing both at this same point in history. That eclipses both the record for President Barack Obama and George W Bush; and particularly when it comes to Circuit Court nominees. Now, what's that; right? Because a lot of us–

JTS: Yeah.

MJ: Are familiar with like Judge Judy, judge Mathis, right... So, when you start talking about, “What do you mean?” and I think a lot of people are familiar with the Supreme Court as a concept, but the feeder Court to become a federal judge, that's a constitutionally recognized position. In the Constitution, these are lifetime appointments and what many people consider the feeder, so like how you get to become a Supreme Court justice, often is serving on an appellate court. Because this is a smaller group of judges; right? If you say that there's almost 12,000 federal judges around the country; this is a smaller subset of that population. And so, what does that mean? These are people who you have to pay attention to because any one of these people could be on the Supreme Court. And what we've seen is that both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Trump administration have aggressively moved forward to nominating these people. Now, how is that possible?

JTS: Yes.

MJ: Well, the reason there are so many of these positions that they're able to fill is because during the last year of the Obama administration, the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, basically said, “We're not doing work anymore... Like, “We're done. We're not giving you any other judges”. We all remember at this point, where Mitch McConnell said, “Nope, you can't pick a new Supreme Court Justice, Barack Obama”. So, Barack Obama identified an individual, Merrick Garland, who had bipartisan credentials, and Mitch McConnell said, “No, you can't do that." And so, it created these vacancies that really, really impact people's lives on every measure, every issue; whether you're talking about access to reproductive rights and freedom, if you're talking about just your opportunity to have your day in court, and the erosion of consumer rights, judges in our courts matter and Trump knows that. I don't always know if progressives know that. But Trump knows that.

JTS: So, when I started reading about this, I was really appalled because I think Merrick Garland was the one that got the most attention. But correct me if I'm wrong, but this sounds like they were playing a long game with these nominees. It wasn't just Merrick Garland that they held up, they held up sterile of Obama's nominees.

MJ: That's so right. And you hit the nail on the head. They're playing the long game. So, there's been a 30-year effort in this country, really by arch right conservatives, to redo the country in an image that minimizes what we recognize as well-thought and well-established civil and individual rights - human rights in this country. You know, we just released a paper here that really looked at 45 ways that Trump has eroded the promise of Roe versus Wade. And essentially from the moment, 45 years ago, that decision came down on the Supreme Court, there's been an erosion of reproductive rights and access in this country. And what many actors see, particularly on the kind of arch conservative side is… listen sometimes you get what you want with the executive [branch], if you have someone in power that you agree with; sometimes you get it on the legislative front, when you have politicians who you agree with. But a surefire bet is for me is to identify and put in place judges who agree with me, who agree with my point of view, who want to minimize rights for all people. And if I can get them in place, since they are the last line; if there are any complicated questions or issues that we deal with as a society, we believe that you go into the court to do that. And conservatives recognized that. And for 30 years, they've been funneling a certain ideology and trying to move people politically, and with social networks, and with conferences, to put these individuals on the bench at every level, to really reimagine this country in a very different way that quite frankly has a hostility towards the many rights that you and I have come to cherish.


JTS: So, let's talk about a few of these judges. Because, you know, they have views that are–let's see how can I put this nicely? They have hostile views towards certain communities, LGBTQ community–


MJ: Antiquated, hostile, violent–

JTS: I'll just say homophobic, racist, and xenophobic.

MJ: Right, right.

JTS: I don't need to be nice, I guess... and some of them have just been deemed to be unqualified. I think there was one who was rated as unqualified by the American Bar Association. So, I'm just curious–

MJ: Unanimously.

JTS: Yeah. exactly. Unanimously. There wasn’t a single vote. 'Yeah, I think he's alright.'

MJ: Right. No, he needs to go...  And like it's so rare for that to happen. So, it's amazing.

JTS: How are these people, who is putting forth these nominees? Is somebody saying “You know, I'm gonna find the least qualified person. That person; that one right there” [And] giving their names to Trump? How are these people coming forward?

MJ: Well, I think you raised a really important point. Because traditionally, the way that the process works–you know–say you're a lawyer in the great state of New York and I'm well regarded in the legal community, what then happens is if you get on the radar or the attention of the State’s senators, those individuals can make a recommendation to then the President. And then the President says, “I agree with your recommendation. Let's move forward” and then that triggers a whole series of events to move that person from nomination to confirmation as a federal judge.

What's been really, really different in this administration is President Trump, particularly in states where there is a Democrat and a Republican or many states where there's been a bipartisan process to identify individuals, the Trump administration and those who are complicit in his work in the Senate have basically said, “We're not gonna take any feedback from you. And in fact, not only are we not taking any feedback or your recommendations, but over your objections, we're gonna move forward with the individuals we want.” And so, that's why you're getting so many people who are unanimously unqualified. And we haven't seen this in the past when there have been nominees who people have said, “Listen, I don't think that they're right; either temperament, or character, or fair-mindedness”. Most presidents don't put those people forward...This president just disregards it. So, part of the reason you're seeing individuals who should never be considered is because the Senate GOP Republicans and the President Trump have disregarded hundreds of years of precedent on how we identify and we bring fair-minded individuals to the bench.

JTS: You know, that that answers a lot of questions for me because it seemed like a concerted effort, but I couldn't see what was behind the wall; like the hidden part of this. Because–you know–thinking about Trump and the way that he's–you know–governed. You know, he's not a politician. He's generally probably for most of his life he's been removed from this process. So, it would be really surprising for me to think that he followed the careers of these people and he knows exactly who they are. So, they're being handed to him to nominate.

MJ: That's right from individuals and organizations who very clearly have an ideological bent that is not one of fairness or even respect for the law that they disagree with. You know there are organizations like the Heritage Society and others who spend millions of dollars running campaigns either for or against individuals. There's an organization called the Judicial Crisis or Action Network that works... yo put forward these nominees with millions of dollars of ads that they run against moderate or Democratic senators who disagree or saying “Actually, I don't think this individual be a good person”. And that's damning.

Whenever you start running campaigns around judges, you have to ask yourself, but why do they believe that they know how you're going to rule before you even have a case?

JTS: Yes.

MJ: What is it about your background? What is it that you've done or said in the past? And I think that's the danger with this moment. If you have people who are our judges who we place an ordinate amount of trust in, in establishing and keeping up the norms that we've put in society. If we can no longer believe that that fair-minded temperament still is real and is something that we can trust and believe in, then we have a wholesale problem that's much larger than just these individuals. We're talking about an entire branch of our government that has completely broken down. And I think unfortunately, with this president, we are heading in a really, really dangerous direction.

JTS: You know, it's funny; you're reading my mind. At least you’re taking the fun of the from me because I was gonna ask you–


MJ: Like minded great people.

JTS: I was gonna ask you about the Judicial Crisis Network. Somebody recently said that, I think it was actually Chief Justice John Roberts of all people. He said, “Judges are not politicians. But the GOP, they're treating them like politicians by running these ads in the Judicial Crisis Network ran some ads for, I think, Neil Gorsuch." That's right over $10 million; right?

MJ: Right. The work of that I try to do every day, I can't imagine if I had $10 million, it would not be to run ads on behalf of a nominee. But it begs the question, and there were some really great questions from Senator White house on this point. You know, we don't even know who these individuals are that give you this money because they come through secretive packs. But we have an idea of why. Because they believe that you would rule a certain way that's very different than how Barack Obama's nominee would rule. And I think because they are willing to put so much money around your nomination before you step foot on a bench, they believe that there's something to be gained from you doing that. So, much of this work is about value and self-interest. And if you look at current Justice Gorsuch's record, he's been hostile to workers’ rights, there's some indication of this hostility on reproductive rights, and since he's been on the court he has quickly become one of the most conservative members of the Supreme Court ruling against individuals, ruling against kind of again consumer rights. That's not a surprise. That's not an accident. And the people who spent $10 million know that... And they know that it is in their best interest to have someone like him look at these cases because that means at the end of the day, that probably their bottom line is gonna be better and that's again, that's really unfortunate.

JTS: Yeah. So, 10 million dollars sounds like a lot, but when you're expecting your $10 million to help transform the country. 

MJ: That’s right.

JTS: And the culture of the country, it's not a lot.

MJ: That’s right. That's right.

JTS: You know, and that's what they're doing. They're thinking that this investment is worth it because–you know–the long game; we're going to transform the country.

MJ: That's right. I mean–you know–we know things are changed. You had a senator Lamar Alexander recently tweet out how much he enjoyed spending dinner together with Justice Gorsuch and his wife, debating and talking about the issues of the day. I mean, that level of closeness between two branches of government who are supposed to look at–you know–the Supreme Court is supposed to look and interpret the laws that Congress sets, but you have this very intimate conversation and relationship. So, you wonder how fair can you actually be in that circumstance. And so, I think we Trump has set and opened up the door to an erosion of the way things have traditionally been done. And look I am all for–some things needed to be blown up in our system. But what's not okay, is someone like me as a woman having a fear that every time my reproductive rights go before the court, that immediately I know four people are going to rule against me; doesn't matter what happens. It doesn't matter what we're talking about. If we're talking about birth control, we're talking about abortion, if we're even talking about a case that we're gonna look at this term in the Supreme Court where they say, “Listen, you can't make up things and tell women that a medical information is true or not true; like you can't even do that”. And that's problematic... that's the direction that we're heading in.

MJ: On that bright note–

JTS: Yeah, on that bright note, yes, let's talk about voter suppression.

MJ: We just had all of the great warm, fuzzy topics.

JTS: Yeah, you know, you're a legal  expert. So, I have to ask you these questions. So, you know, there have been some recent victories–you know–around suppression and voting rights. And, you know, there have been several state and federal courts have ruled against the GOP gerrymandering and I think there have been about between eight to ten states that that have ruled against GOP gerrymandering. But for some reason, this does not comfort me. Because they've had–you know–10 plus years, 20 years to put these practices in place. I mean, should we still feel worried or is this encouraging?


MJ: You know, I think it goes again to kind of this idea of the power of the courts. If you think about issues like the Muslim ban, or these gerrymandering decisions or even decisions around voter suppression, the courts have really been the last bulwark against this administration. On the issue of gerrymandering and redistricting specifically, I will posture that there are some Republican officials who say, “Listen, we're no longer gonna battle in the in the marketplace of ideas. We're no longer gonna do that”. That's typically how democracy is worked; you put out an idea, I put it out an idea, we know this policy helps X people, I try to convince you that this is the right way. You have some GOP officials who are like, “Nah, we're not gonna work that hard anymore. What we're going to do is we're gonna shrink the pool of people who can make decisions in this country. We're gonna shrink the pool of people who can vote in this country. We're gonna make it so difficult that people who disagree with our ideas–you know what? We're gonna make it really hard for them to vote. Because if it's difficult, or if it's hard, or we take away their ability to participate in the franchise, then maybe we win. Not because we're expanding how many people vote or not because we have such a great idea but we're doing this because we know we can't win and so we're doing gonna try to take people out of the game”. That's really how I think about voter suppression and what we've seen across the country; whether we're talking about voter ID laws, strict voter ID laws; whether we're talking about the elimination of polling places. You know, one of the things that is so funny is when you look at many of these cases; in the state of Texas, you couldn't use a student I'd, but you could use your gun license registration.


JTS: What?

MJ: In the state of North Carolina. As they looked at–yeah, like it's so ridiculous; like a student ID, you had all of your information, you could track it, that was an acceptable. “Gun license? Come on in.”

JTS: It's crazy.

MJ: In the state of North Carolina, there was a Federal Appeals Court that said that the state's voter ID law targeted black people in the state with almost surgical precision.

JTS: Yes.

MJ: They literally wrote the law to target black voters and tried to keep them out of the voting booth. I mean, that's where we are. So it's really important for people to understand the stakes and what are they afraid of, they're afraid of the 2.6 million people who came out and march on the anniversary of the women's march. They are afraid of the young black activists and Black Lives Matter who are standing up and saying, “You know what? We can no longer just talk about criminal justice reform. We're going to both ID, run people in these positions, and we're going to kick out politicians who aren't into criminal justice reform”. They’re afraid of our activism, and our civic awareness, and awakening that I think is happening. There isn't a lot I can say is good about Donald Trump. But the one thing I could say is there is a civic awakening that I think is happening and I think that that's powerful because what these GOP often time legislators are afraid of, are our voices. You know, there was a report that just came out. The now disgraced, disbanded voter suppression committee right that President Trump announced. They asked the state of Texas to give them a list of all of the Hispanic surnames who were listed on the voting rolls. We don't have to be geniuses to understand what that was about. This is a battle and we have to be ready for it.

JTS: Again you've read my mind because I was going to ask you about that next. So, we kind of know what that was about in Texas, but there are still some questions around for me because if they’re on the voter rolls, there are citizens and they can vote.

MJ: Correct...

JTS: And if you're a citizen, you can't be deported.

MJ: Correct.

JTS: So, what is the point of wanting these names?

MJ: You know, I think we should all be concerned about the kind of idea. And when you think about the presidents, I don't know if you can curse on this, but the president's–you know–ass hole countries comment... Or even how he began his campaign saying–you know–all Mexicans are rapists; right? He has an idea, in his mind of who has value, who counts, who matters, who can vote, who can participate, and disproportionately. It doesn't look like people of color. You know, I think that the reason he said, “Let me or what” the reason that the commission tried to access this list of people with Hispanic surnames, is because they didn't have a last name like Trump, or Davis, or Kennedy, that somehow that made them less American, or less of a citizen, and with less access to the rights that you and I and everybody in this country enjoys. And so, I think it was almost an attempt to what we've seen across the country is something called Voter Purging; where they're challenging.

MJ: Your ability to vote, kicking you off the voter rolls, because of your last name or because of some trumped up reason. There's a case before the Supreme Court right now where the state of Ohio has one of the strictest kind of voter purge laws that if you don't vote in two consecutive elections, they just take you off the voter registration rolls.

JTS: Yes.

MJ: Now, why would you do that? That makes no sense. If you–sometimes not voting had been a choice for people or they disagree, but that doesn't mean that they should ever lose their right to participate... And so, I think because you know my last name is Jawando. My husband is half Nigerian and half white. My maiden name was Lawrence. Am I any less valuable or do I have greater value because my last name was Lawrence; when before I was married and now has Jawando? I'm the same individual. But in the president's mind, there's something more okay about Michelle Lawrence than maybe Michelle Jawando.

JTS: Yeah. But–you know–I just can't help and fathom what they were planning to do with this list of names, since technically, anyway, I'll move on from that question.

MJ: No, I mean it's a great question because the problem with this administration is they have access because they are running the government to a full panoply of information about who we are in this country. The federal government and state governments, we make a compact with them, and we give them a great deal of information about ourselves. And we want to believe it's for good purposes that we can get our Social Security checks, that if we're sick we can access Medicaid or things of that nature, or if we're talking about the census that we give our information because we believe that once were all counted, we'll get more resources in our community. That's what we have come to believe; that's the public trust. And the concern about this administration is because of the rhetoric, because of the policies, the nefarious intent behind asking for this information, you look at people like Steven Miller and his administration and you wonder, “Why do you want this information?” and I think that why you have the unease and anxiety that I share.

JTS: You know, I don't often invoke Godwin's law just because I–but–you know–I just feel like sometimes we are in 1938 Germany–you know–where people who are identified by their names and this is just a scary thought.

MJ: That's right. That's right.

JTS: So, I’ll move on from that. But I didn't want to ask you about voter suppression at the polling places; like at that level. And–you know–no one's been able to answer this question for me and I'm not really sure how it happens. But there are citizens who are participating at this on some level whether they're willing or unwilling. So, when a person goes to vote and they're told that they're turned away because they say they don't have the right ID or for whatever reason their name isn't there or they're mistakenly identified as someone else. And that person turns them away, this seems to be happening more often. So, who are these poll workers and how do they get into these positions?

MJ: Great, great question. So I think most people will be surprised to know that even though we've had a great explosion over the last 10 years really, of the actual voter technology that we use. So, in many cases a physical maybe ballot that you used to have has been replaced with a touch screen machine or if you have a physical ballot, you then enter that into a vote counting machine. That in spite of all of the updates around technology, the average age of the American poll worker is 72. Now, my grandpa is 91; I love death, but–you know–my 4 year old is much more savvy than my 91 grandpa, when it comes to certain areas of technology.

JTS: Yeah

MJ: And I want every 72 year old who wants to participate in our democracy and serve as a poll worker, I want them there, but I also want us to do a better job of bringing in younger people. People who have a greater understanding and sensitivity to perhaps also physical disability that many people deal with when they go to the polling places, language differences, and we have not really made that an emphasis when we're recruiting for election judges, as they're called in someplace or poll workers. Each state and really even going more macro from that; each on a county level, there is a poll worker-election judge training that takes place. Some organizations like the League of Women Voters that just does amazing work on a local level. Have a campaign and run a program all year long to recruit election judges or poll workers. But you don't see a wide scale understanding that that's a critical need.


JTS: No.

MJ: And why is that so important. So I'll give you an example. I live and what's considered a very progressive state. It's not in many ways, Maryland. But I, maybe four years ago, I went to go early vote and the poll worker asked me for my ID. And I said, “Ma'am you can't do that” and she said “Excuse me”. I said, “You are not allowed to ask people for their I.D. in the state of Maryland” and she was like, “Well, I just want to match”. I said, “Ma'am, you cannot do that”. Now, I was there on the last day of voting. I don't know how many people she asked that question to.

JTS: Right.

MJ: And then it was only after I credentialed myself; because here I am a young African-American woman, how dare I kind of push back on a poll worker, and I said, “For the record, I'm a civil rights, voting rights attorney. In the state of Maryland, we do not have voter ID laws that require you to ask for voter ID information before you register or before you begin the process. And she was taken aback. And now I want to believe that maybe it wasn't nefarious; maybe it was just negligence. But we don't do a good job of making sure that everyone has the same access to the polls no matter where you live.

JTS: Right.

MJ: Unfortunately, we have such a cookie-cutter system, and it's such a very decentralized system, so that my experience in Atlanta Georgia could be very different than someone else's experiences in say Brooklyn, New York or in in Seattle, Washington. And that doesn't make sense. There's issues around how do we get more resources to our election officials so that we have more voting machines, so that you don't have people standing in line for an hour. I mean, I have three small children. My husband and I, we have a seven-year-old, a five-year-old, and a four-year old? Yes, okay. Sometimes I forget. I cannot imagine. Like, going to the store sometimes is a scary proposition.

JTS: Yeah.

MJ: Standing on line to vote for an hour with my three children? Like it's just not gonna happen.

JTS: Right.

MJ: And imagine how many people have that same fear or if I'm trying to run in on my lunch break. I'm trying to be there for 20 minutes maybe max. Why am I spending so much time waiting? So, like we have an issue of equity. Some areas spend more money to recruit, get better technology, do a better job of training, have more voting machines, and others don't. And that's why we have such a disparate experience in this country when it comes to voting.

JTS: You know, you talked earlier about–you know–our activism, and the activist energy, and how the right was afraid of the surge of actives energy. But–you know–with all of this energy, is there anything that you can think of that we're overlooking?


MJ: I do think this kind of recognition that there are some issues that we fight for and some we don't. And that we kind of choose when we're gonna fight for people. And I think–you know–you've heard a lot about the Progressive Party or Democrats kind of not being there for dreamers, or not being there for black women. And I think that's because sometimes we make these value propositions of like whose fight is worth having and worth talking about. And so, I think as people are a part of the resistance, really ask yourself, “I know these are issues that I care about–you know–whether it's the environment or CJ; but like how am I showing up for other people?” I think is really important because that's how people will feel connected in this movement; when it's not just them fighting just for themselves and their own self-interest but for the interests of their brother or their sister next to them.


JTS: So, wanna talk about an article that you wrote it's titled: “Policymakers Must Be Responsive To The Needs Of Black Women” and you mentioned a number of ways in which black women are overlooked by our politicians. And as we know, from the recent elections, the special elections specifically, the black women, they bring home the vote. So, what are some key ways in which–you know–black women aren't being taken care of by policy makers?

MJ: Well, you know I think that there are a few things. When you think about black women, I think often people think about an outsize imprint as a part of the voting electorate, but black women remain woefully underrepresented when you're talking about elective office, or in the judiciary, or in C-suites in corporate America.

JTS: Right.

MJ: And I think while you see there is this movement for greater access to political office, you think about Kamala Harris, from California; you think about Stacey Abrams, in Georgia running for governor, as the front-runner there; but what we often miss is that there's considerable obstacles to securing high-profile offices; whether you're talking about governorships or in the House of Representatives, only 20 black women out of 535 members of the House of Representatives, and two of those black women are non-voting because they're delegates from DC and the Virgin Islands are in the United States House. And Kamala Harris is the first black woman in the United States Senate since 1999. When you think about just in terms of the incredible buying power and then the dearth of black women. Right now, there is not one black woman running a fortune 500 company in this country.

JTS: Right.

MJ: Not one, not one; you can't name them. The last person is Ursula Burns, who was at Xerox. But when you just think about kind of representation, if I can't see it, if I'm not there, how do people believe it's possible; it's feasible or how do they recognize the influence that black women have, if we're doing nothing to recognize their out size–I think they're outside power and position.We unfortunately, have some stereotypes that we deal with as black women. There's the very tired tropes around the angry and the aggressive black women. And Melissa Harris has a great historical piece called “Sister Citizen” where she really looks at the reason and the origins of these stereotypes that are really centered and kind of tropes from slavery... But how they affect our idea about what women's leadership really looks like. And that often, even sometimes when we say women, we don't think about black women, we think about white women; even when we say the word women. We don't think about Latinas or we don't think about Asian women in kind of this larger narrative about kind of our women's movements story in this country. So, I think it's really important to center conversations, to make sure that we do as much as we can to be inclusive, and I also think that we just have to be really honest. I think progressives haven't done a great job on this and neither have conservatives. Because we're just like, “Oh”. We're not paying attention to it. And I think that there's something to be said for intentionality. We did a paper here that really looked at gatekeepers; like what are those networks that keep you out of elected office. Sometimes it's the party committees in these states who say, “You're not viable, black woman; because you don't have a million dollars in your bank account”. Well, black women are considerably on the lower scale when it comes to equal pay and there's an outstanding wage gap and you have less access to networks of high wealth individuals; does that mean you're not a good candidate because as historical factors? I would argue; no. Do you speak to the needs of your community? And I think that that's something actually that candidates of color across the board and women really face, but it's often is specifically attuned for black women and people of color. So, there are a host of reasons. But one of the things that I continue to be hopeful is that in this moment of reckoning; whether we're talking about sexual harassment, whether we're talking about equal pay and conversations were having about salaries and who gets paid what. That it will open up a door in an opportunity for us to ask in our workplaces, where we go to school, where we go to church; am I seeing leadership around me that's more inclusive and more diverse? And if not, do I have allies who can say, “We actually need to be doing better and let's figure out a way forward”.


JTS: And so, speaking of progressives, and I'm curious of what your thoughts are in this. Because in some circles, people are saying that Democrats are failing because they're too focused on you know quote-unquote ‘Identity Politics’ which includes women of color. What are your thoughts on that?


MJ: So, I often say a white guy said that. You know, like no one else is ever asked to minimize themselves. But really from the origin of our position in this country; being written in as a three-fifths compromise in the Constitution, black people have always been asked to minimize themselves as not whole people. And you have to then shrink yourself in any policy conversations or in any spaces to make others around you feel better about whatever they're going to do. Dr. Abrams Kandi often talks about racism is not actually about ignorance or hate, but it's actually about self-interest. And then you use racist ideas to perpetuate that self-interest. And so, I think when people say the word identity politics, what they're talking about is, “If I mention or talk about the needs of communities of color, or black women, or black people, or dreamers, and DACA, then somehow, there are whites who aren’t going to support me. And so, I'm concerned about my self-interest; whether it's reelection, whether it's approval ratings, and so because of that, I'm going to make the decision to put forth this racist idea of identity politics. Because my self-interest is not the right thing, it's not the just thing, it's not what we should be doing; it's the self-interest to keep me in power. And in order to do that, in order for people to have power, you have to often minimize someone else.

And so, I think–you know–identity politics is just this ridiculous phrase that was put forth in order to minimize people in this country and say that some people's rights are worthy of conversation, and care, and concern and others aren’t.

JTS: That's really interesting because when you think about, it all politics are based on one's self-interest.


MJ: That’s right.

JTS: And when you move away from–you know–what's of interest for yourself, you get closer to a democracy.

MJ: That's right.

JTS: Like even if you think about gender inequality...  I was just talking about this with somebody the other day, with Katie Watson, abortion in a sense that–you know–giving women the freedom over their reproductive rights. You know, women are inconvenient. You know, when they are in the workforce, they take half the jobs And they take half the spots in college– And actually the person I interviewed yesterday, this is her quote. And the same thing with race, people are always kind of thinking about their own interests.


MJ: That's right.

JTS: You know, that kind of underlies everything in politics.

MJ: You know, Shirley Chisholm has this great quote about abortion. She was like, “Women have always had abortion, they always will have abortion, the question is, is it going to be just the purview of very rich women or very poor women when you're when you're talking about access, and reproductive rights, and freedom. But I think that there's this kind of idea that there's some inconvenience that we will tolerate. We will tolerate the concerns of poor, working-class, white people in a way that we don't tolerate concerns or needs of poor, working people of color”. We've just made a value proposition in this country that we're willing to hear your concerns and not others. It's the reason why we have the opioid epidemic being considered as a public health problem and the crack epidemic was considered a crime problem.

JTS: Right.

MJ: It's the way that we've made decisions on how we handle policy. And all policy has to be specific. It has to be guided; why? Because you're solving a specific problem. Policy just doesn't come from anywhere; you see a problem, you fix a problem. And so, we have to have solutions that really speak to the specific needs in each of our communities. And we have to have policy solutions recognizing that when my Latina sister doesn't have to worry about whether her brother is gonna get deported because he came to this country when he was three, but she was born here and the anxiety that she deals with, or if my white home girl who is deathly afraid to be in an office with her supervisor because of how many times he's propositioned her, or as a black woman, if I walk into a space, are you intimidated because I make a point that's different from yours and somehow I am now aggressive.

We gotta fix life for all of those women; for all of those people. Because when each of them feel that they can live up to their potential, then that works out better for all of us.

JTS: Yes.

MJ: If I can focus on just having the best solutions, my company gets better. If that young sister doesn't have to worry about deportation for her family, then you know what, she's gonna excel in school. And if my young white home girl is able to just walk into the office and be bad and bold, and not have to worry about being propositioned for sex, you know what, she's gonna enjoy coming to work and bring her talents. And so, that's why fixing these problems and really talking about these solutions, it helps everybody; it doesn't hurt actually anyone. There's this lie that if I work on these problems, it'll hurt someone. It actually makes it better for everybody.

JTS: Yeah. Again, I'm just not sure how you're reading my mind because {crosstalk 44:13 – 14} I was to ask you about–you know–being in the office and–you know–sexual harassment, and–you know–kind of the Me Too movement. So, bizarre, I was thinking about this after reading your article; The Me Too Movement, and the way black women and women of color experience these things in comparison to white women; sexual harassment and sexual assaults. And–you know–it's interesting, I was listening to Dave Chappelle's a New Special on Netflix. And he said something really interesting which brought back a memory for me. He talked about how black women deal with sexual harassment when they are targeted by a black male or women of color, when they're targeted by someone else who's a person of color. And how it's different in that there's this kind of need, there's this struggle between the desire to protect that person because they're hostile elements outside of the community, and to protect themselves. And–you know–and I thought back on my own experience, when I was in college with a professor who was black, and–you know–I was at a university and was sexually harassed. And again, we were at a university and so it was a mostly white space. And I struggled with the desire to protect him. And because I was proud of him, the level that he'd reached in his career, but then also to see myself as being victimized by him.

MJ: Yeah.

JTS: And I'm just curious is that–you know–that's something that doesn't come up quite often with the Me Too Movement and how women of color have to deal with very different experiences. And I guess I'm curious as to whether you think that we would all benefit if there was kind of a divergent movement to account for these experiences?

MJ: You know I think that's just such a powerful narrative and I so appreciate your voice for raising. Because there is the kind of what I call the kind of intra-racial dynamics in the way that all of these issues play themselves out that often were afraid or we don't acknowledge exists. And I actually haven't seen this Chappelle special, so I have to have to now watch it. But I think that there are two things; one of the reports from one of my colleagues here Jocelyn Frye really looked at where you see the largest instance. You know, we hear about the Me Too Movement and immediately we think about Hollywood and very powerful, mostly white women who are affected. But when you look at the research and the data that we have, the industries where you see the greatest amounts of sexual assault and harassment are in retail, are in construction are in very low wage jobs that are disproportionately represented by women of color. So, when we talk about who's really feeling the effects, and it's not minimizing anyone's experience, because if you are a survivor of rape or sexual assault or harassment, this isn't to minimize those experiences, but this is to recognize that there has been an erasure of low wage, low income women in this conversation that we're having right now. And now, it is really important to correct that and to make them visible, so that we can have solutions that speak to their experience. So, I would say, one; some of this is about kind of resetting who and where we see the numbers of how women are dealing with sexual assault and harassment. I think two; and I'll tell you this conversation. My home girls and I. I have a group of my black sorority sisters from college and we started talking about Me Too. And we just were like, “You know what, I recognize that there is a power in the movement. I think we were more proud when we found out that it was started by Toronto Burke versus Alyssa Milano, let me just be honest, but I do think the conversation we had was interesting in that somebody said, “Well, I think that there's some sensitivity that white women have that black women don't have because black women are just accustomed to dealing with that." Like this is what we're saying; like it is the cost of doing business, of operating in spaces that sometimes you were the only one and you just have to assume that it's gonna happen.

JTS: Yeah.

MJ: And I thought about that and I knew, one; she was right and then two; I thought about how sad that is.


JTS: Yes.

MJ: That that is the reality. Whether you're talking about kind of intra-racial dynamics or inter-racial; between white and black, or any other race dynamics. There's so many things to unpack here; like I'm excited about this conversation because this is the beginning and I hope not the end. But I think it's also important to recognize that there's a spectrum of experience that women are also dealing with. There's a difference between where we've seen straight-up, “You're not gonna get extra hours working at my retail job or at my low-wage food service job unless you have sex with me. And that's a different experience than asking for a date in a way or a manner that makes someone feel uncomfortable. And those dynamics, we have to be very real like, who's experiencing what and how we deal with each of them.

JTS: You brought up an interesting point that–you know–not only does society put our needs last, but then we've internalized that and we've taught ourselves to put our needs last.

MJ: You know, it's something I struggle with as a mom of three girls. You know, I tell my daughter, if you ask them, I'm like, “What's your job?” Their job is to look out for their sisters. But part of me is also like, “Okay, now I have to teach them it's also to look out for yourself” and how do I teach a seven, a five, and a four-year-old that in a very real way? How do I teach them about bodily autonomy so that they don't have to hug everybody that they meet if they don't want to, so that they feel control of their body in a way that maybe I didn't understand when I was younger what that meant but now I do? And I think we're all kind of relearning. I think that there are cultural norms where women have been taught to be quiet and sit down and to be polite and not be offensive, that translate into maybe your sexual life and your sexual experience, so you don't say what you like, what you don't like, or if you feel uncomfortable. Because we've socialized girls to behave one way and we've told boys, “Pursue this woman, be aggressive, go after them, don't give up” that's how we've took that. We've socialized boys that way and we've socialized girls in the exact opposite. {crosstalk 51:02 – 03} so many things that we have to like unpack and work on.

JTS: Yeah. It's just these small little things. I have a son. He's six and–you know–he said something the other day about falling and not crying because he was brave. And I thought, where did he get the idea that not crying was brave?

MJ: That's right.

JTS: Right?

MJ: Right.

JTS: And I was thinking like–you know–these–and I don't tell him that, but I was thinking like even when you take your kids in for a flu shot–you know–even the nurse will tell them, “You didn't cry. You were so brave”.

MJ: That's right. That's right. That's right. Exactly, exactly. Hide your tears, hide your pain. There's a weakness there. Instead of, you know what, I know that that was really tough and thank you for telling me how you feel. And I'm proud of you that you told me how you feel. It's just difference.


JTS: Yeah.

MJ: But I think so much of what we've done has been passed down in this tradition and its culture and it's the way that we've thought about these things and these kind of binaries for such a long time that we're in a new movement, in a new moment, and hopefully, it opens up the door for us in a lot of different ways.

JTS: Well, Michelle MJ, I really enjoyed talking to you and thank you so much for this conversation. It's been really meaningful to me.

MJ: This was so–first off we were like on the same page on so many things.

JTS: I know.

MJ: And so, I love that. And you so much. It was great to be here.

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