‘We Have to Be Better at Telling the Truth’: Jamilah Lemieux on the Media’s Responsibility in the Trump Era

Writing while black isn’t an easy thing. Since it’s not the default viewpoint (i.e., white), any nod toward racial identity is likely to get blowback for being “too political.” But after a campaign season that was defined by highly public verbal sparring matches over racism, it’s more important now than ever to create a space for voices that are normally pushed to the margins.

In many ways, the Facing Race conference in Atlanta, Georgia, was exactly this kind of space. For two and a half days in November, some 2,300 racial justice activists gathered to participate in panel discussions and workshops on how to make moves toward achieving long-sought racial equality. One of the conference panelists, Jamilah Lemieux—currently Vice President of News and Men’s Programming for Interactive One and former Senior Editor of Ebony magazine—sat down with us to talk about her work as a writer, and what kind of media we’ll need in the years ahead.

Brandon Tensley: Could you start by telling us more about the importance of being under black thinkers? Roxanne Gay hit on this yesterday—the idea that when you’re working under a white hierarchy, that can affect the voice that actually comes out of the work. Has that figured in your writing, or have you seen that play out over your career?

Jamilah Lemieux: I routinely hear from my friends who are freelance writers about their struggles with non-black editors, who may be very earnest in assigning a story or accepting a pitch about something directly impacting or shaped by black people. It’s not every editor—I’ve had great experiences with white editors, and non-black people of color editors—but if this isn’t your lived experience, if this is not your community, your vernacular, your lens, then you can’t always be trusted to know how those stories should be told.

Unfortunately, so many black journalists have basically been told that they can’t be unbiased. When they’re doing reporting, even when it comes to op-ed writing, we’re told that we can’t be trusted to be the final say. We’re too close to the information, we’re too close to the story, right? And so we end up with the idea of whiteness as default.

In particular, I think of some of the mainstream men’s publications and their interviews with black male athletes and rappers. There have been instances where the subject was offended or bothered by the writer or just not really getting any insight. It’s almost like National Geographic stepping into Compton or Chicago to talk to someone who’s American, as if he’s from some mystical, magical land where there are gangs and basketball. To that example, the conversations between rappers and black male journalists are so much richer. Even if they’re from different class backgrounds or different parts of the country, there is something that kind of unifies them in their black maleness.

So, I think that the best reporting about black people is led by black editors. I think that the best op-ed writing about black people has been touched and shaped by black editors, and I’m looking forward to empowering more black editors to do the work I’ve been able to do in the last five years.

Michael Richardson: We do a lot of work on poverty issues. What do you think the media’s role is in reporting about poverty and illustrating the narrative of people’s stories?

JL: There’s what the role is now, and there’s what it should be. The media, of course, has not been kind to folks living in poverty. It has not been honest. Oftentimes, we just have these very trite, narrow, limited stories about what it means to be impoverished in America, when that entails such a diverse set of experiences.

There are people who are glamorous and popular, who in certain ways enjoy a decent quality of life, perhaps outside of the household, who are living in poverty. There are so many people who have experienced periods of poverty, but who are no longer living in poverty and maybe themselves are trying to escape or erase that experience, so it’s not something they include in their own narratives about themselves. They don’t talk about it often, or it just becomes this anecdote once you’ve made a whole lot of money and you’re wildly successful. Then it’s cool to say, “I grew up poor.”

But the media, much like the government, criminalizes poverty. It shames people for struggling and acquiring benefits we pay a lot of taxes to fund. And we just simply have to do better in telling the truth about what it means to be poor.

Think about a show like Atlanta, where there’s actually a plot twist at the end of the season when you see where the main character lives. He spent the season house-hopping from his woman’s house to his parents’ and other women’s houses, and you just never really thought to ask, “Does he have an apartment? Does he have a home? Does he have somewhere where he can collect mail?” And then you see in the last episode that his home is a storage unit.

I think that’s an experience that’s more common than a lot of us know. This character is someone who is cool and popular. He’s got this cousin who’s got a rap career, and he’s managing it, so he’s going to parties. He attended Princeton, so he’s got some very highfalutin friends, and this very pretty on-again, off-again girlfriend, and a child. You wouldn’t think that this person is, in theory, homeless.

BT: Could you put that in the context of this political moment, where, especially over the past few days, there’s been racist, homophobic backlash? Do you see your role—and other people’s, as well, especially people of color—as a writer, as a thinker, needing to shift going forward, even just looking to 2017?

JL: We’ve been doing this work for quite a long time. We’ve always had this work to do. It’s urgent now, more than ever, and it’s daunting.

Your class status won’t protect you.

We have so much work to do. It’s going to get harder. It’s going to get more intense. I think that the closest thing to a silver lining is that I don’t think people will have the luxury of ignoring this work in the way they once did. Your class status won’t protect you. Deciding to be detached from media won’t protect you. People you know will be impacted by what’s going to come.

I think that the level of vitriol, and the outward expressions of hatred by people who are supporting our next president, are going to force a lot of people to wake up and pay attention. That’s an opportunity for media-makers on every side of the business. For those of us who do advocacy journalism and want to change hearts and minds with our work—as opposed to simply driving traffic to a website or people to a newsstand or television network—we have a difficult ride ahead of us. But there are people who are equipped to do this work, and we just have to fight to keep each other sustained, to not just completely fall apart, to make sure that we have funding, to make sure that we have space. I do think that great work will come from what’s going to be a very dark time.

MR: What do you think the role is for progressive media advocates in lifting up these voices? What would you recommend to them as they continue on this journey?

JL: For those of us who work on the editorial side, making sure that we are looking for a diverse pool of content creators and writers. We can’t keep hearing from the same people over and over again.

Understand that people need joy, people need safe spaces, and people need a break. So you know, if a Solange album comes up, or Beyoncé drops a project, people are going to want to celebrate that. Make space for that.

Also, be more lovingly critical when we’re talking about ourselves, whether it’s an album, a politician, a thinker, or somebody who said something problematic. Learning how to critique our stuff with love, as opposed to “Did you really like Solange’s album? Is it really a big moment in music, or just something you all like right now?” or “So-and-so said something kind of offensive, so he’s dismissed, he’s problematic, he’s thrown away.” We need each other, we can’t afford to lose each other. We shouldn’t make energy to hurt people’s feelings.

You’d be very hard pressed to get me to sit down and write a long excoriation of Tyler Perry in 2016 or 2017. I just don’t think that’s the best use of my time and talent. I’m also not going to dismiss the people he reaches. I’m not going to say I don’t have stern critiques of his work and some of the messaging he puts forward. But at the same time, knowing who our enemies are, and who’s a real threat to our lives, is more urgent than it’s ever been.



Trump’s Latest Cabinet Appointee Spells Doom for Medicare

Editor’s Note: Early on Friday, February 10, Representative Tom Price was confirmed as the secretary of health and human services.  

If you were wondering whether Donald Trump would keep his promise to protect Medicare from cuts, you just got your answer. Trump’s choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services is none other than Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), one of the country’s leading advocates for turning Medicare upside down.

Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump assured voters that he would not take an ax to Medicare. In May of last year, he made that particularly clear when he told the Daily Signal, “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.” That fits in well with Trump’s allegedly populist campaign message—in fact, it would fit even better if he pledged to expand Medicare and other social safety net programs.

But with the election just three weeks in the rearview mirror, Trump is already wrapping his arms around various proposals to gut the social safety net that conservatives have long advocated for—including schemes to weaken Medicare. Price’s appointment is just the latest signal that the incoming administration is willing to put seniors’ health care on the chopping block.

Price has spent his career attacking Medicare.

Price has spent his career attacking Medicare. In 2009, he marked Medicare’s 44th anniversary by bashing it. “Nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government’s intrusion into medicine through Medicare,” Price wrote. Two years later, Price introduced a bill to shift more Medicare costs onto seniors by partially privatizing the program.

After Trump’s election, Price said that he hoped to have a Medicare overhaul “within the first six to eight months” of the Trump administration. He’s planning on using a process called budget reconciliation—which would allow conservatives to push through major policy changes without needing to secure a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority in the Senate.

Privatizing Medicare has been on conservatives’ wish list for years—Speaker Ryan advocated for it as a way to cut the program’s costs as early as 2010. In a budget proposal that year, Ryan pushed the idea of “premium support,” which would effectively swap out the current Medicare system—where the government pays hospitals, doctors, and other healthcare providers—for one where every person essentially gets a check to buy their own insurance on a private market. Effectively, the plan takes power away from Medicare enrollees and puts it squarely into the hands of private insurers. Ryan’s most recent version of the plan would not eliminate traditional Medicare right away, but it would undermine the program and raise the eligibility age.

The devil is, as always, in the details, and so far Price and Ryan have declined to specify exactly what their Medicare overhaul would entail. But the consequences are potentially very grave: previous proposals would hollow out the current program and replace it with one that covers fewer people, offers its enrollees fewer benefits, and opens the door to charging much higher premiums to seniors facing the most significant challenges to their health.

It seems Trump is now falling in line.

Despite his campaign promises, it seems Trump is now falling in line . Price’s appointment follows a statement the president-elect put out on his transition website, where he pledges to “modernize Medicare, so that it will be ready for the challenges with the coming retirement of the Baby Boom generation—and beyond.” In the world of political parlance—especially after an election where Trump made a number of explicit attacks against many groups of Americans—this may not sound like much. But in fact, this phrasing strongly suggests that Trump is getting ready to join conservatives’ long-running effort to gut Medicare as we know it.

This is what makes Trump’s pivot on Medicare so disconcerting: It appears to be yet another example of how the populist rejection of establishment politics that defined his campaign’s narrative was just a ruse. Another broken promise originally made in bad faith.

My late grandfather, a New Deal Democrat who proudly cast his first vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third term in 1940, taught me many things: The airy pleasure of crooners Bing Crosby and Perry Como, how to handicap a horse race, the importance of being on time. (Incidentally, I’m still working on that last one.)

One lesson in particular is sticking out as we get more information on President-elect Trump’s plans for office. It went something like, “A person breaks a promise every single minute. If they’re acting in good faith, you give ‘em another chance. But if you know they aren’t, just go ahead and throw the first punch.”

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the American people appear to be ready to throw a punch. They happen to like their Medicare the way it is, and fiercely oppose turning it into a premium support-based system. According to a June 2015 poll, only 26% of respondents support transitioning Medicare to a premium support model. In contrast, an overwhelming 70% of respondents said they preferred keeping Medicare structurally as it is.

There is no doubt Donald Trump was wise to the popularity of Medicare when he promised not to cut it a year and a half ago. Now that he seems likely to join in Speaker Ryan’s barrage of attacks on the social safety net, he may be surprised by how his supporters respond.



Trump’s Education Plan Is a Recipe for School Segregation

In September, Donald Trump stood in front of a Cleveland, Ohio charter school and spoke about the troubled schools in the American “inner city”—a term the president-elect famously uses as a catch-all for poor and/or black neighborhoods. The promise Trump made then—which he’s reiterated in his plan for his first 100 days as president, and reinforced with his pick for education secretary—is to greatly expand school choice. The idea is that if a neighborhood school is failing, poor kids should be able to use federal and state funds to attend whichever school they want.

But evidence of the flaw in Trump’s plan was right in front of him. The charter school he was speaking at—the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy—is not doing well. The state of Ohio gives the school a grade of D for its students’ test performance.

School choice is not a new concept. For decades, states have been trying to encourage competition among different school models. That has led to an explosion in the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate outside of the control of local school districts. The trouble is, researchers have found that these schools have mixed effects. In some cases charters improve test scores, while in others students do significantly worse than they would in neighborhood schools. Some districts have also tried giving students vouchers to go to private schools—which Trump has also called for—and have had similarly mixed results.

Many public school advocates argue that even the best charter schools can cause problems, because they drain money from other schools. That raises a big question about Trump’s plan, which would redirect $20 billion in federal funds to let students choose different schools. If that comes from the Department of Education budget, as some analysts expect, it would likely come from the two big buckets of federal money that go to K-12 schools now: $15.5 billion in Title 1 funds for schools with low-income populations and $12 billion for special education. Using that money for vouchers could mean decimating before- and after-school programs, tutoring in reading and math, and other supports for students facing the most serious academic challenges. The plan would also encourage states to dig money out of their own education spending for school choice.

There’s a huge and growing gap between rich and poor kids.

Though his plan is misguided, the education crisis Trump points to is real—and really serious. There’s a huge and growing gap between the academic achievement levels of rich and poor kids. Today, students from wealthy families outscore their low-income counterparts by nearly 400 points on the SATs and are far more likely to graduate from high school.

One of the most successful ways to help low-income kids do better is to reduce income segregation, which has grown by 40% since 1990. That has a serious impact: One eye-popping study found that students from lower-income, less-educated families who attend school with wealthier peers are 68% more likely to attend a four-year college than those who go to an income-segregated school with peers from similar backgrounds.

The study’s author, Gregory Palardy of the University of California at Riverside, said segregation is the single biggest way that U.S. schools shortchange low-income students. Schools serving poor children tend to get less funding, hire less-skilled teachers, and offer fewer advanced courses than their counterparts in wealthier areas. And, Palardy said, poor kids simply have a harder time succeeding when their peers are all facing similar disadvantages. He said lower-income kids are far more likely to succeed if they go to school with more affluent peers who know a lot about college and expect, as a matter of course, that they’ll continue their education beyond high school.

“They rub off on you and your view of the world,” he said.

One of the arguments behind school choice is that it would reduce segregation by letting parents send their kids to schools that are more diverse than their neighborhoods. But studies have found that the proliferation of charter schools has led to greater economic—as well as racial—segregation. There are essentially two sets of charter schools. One enrolls predominantly privileged white students—often pulling them from more diverse neighborhood schools—while another serves mainly poor black and Latino communities.

The importance of integration hasn’t gone unnoticed in education policy circles. Across the country, some school districts are working to reduce economic segregation, and earlier this year President Obama proposed a $120 million grant program to support these efforts. But all these plans depend on higher-income parents’ voluntarily participation, which isn’t always easy to achieve.

Dr. Catherine Cushinberry, executive director of the national organization Parents for Public Schools (PPS), said that richer, white parents may want to keep their children out of poorer, more heavily minority schools because they mistakenly worry that these schools won’t be good for their kids. But, she said, it’s often possible to convince them that a more diverse school has advantages. That’s part of PPS’s mission.

“The source of our beginning, really, is in Jackson, Mississippi in the early ’90s,” Cushinberry said. “It was around this notion of white flight. We’re still dealing with similar issues as we did in 1991.”

One way to unify communities is around bringing together strong, quality schools.

Today, PPS supports parent activists in school systems from the Deep South to San Francisco, where rapid gentrification is raising new questions about school segregation. In addition to encouraging school integration, the organization works to get parents involved in improving the schools.

One recent, hopeful story comes from Oktibbeha County, Mississippi. Two low-income, mostly African-American high schools were closed, and the students moved to the more affluent Starkville High. Fearing that wealthier white families would pull their kids from the school, members of PPS Starkville worked with the state legislature, Mississippi State University, and other local groups to help smooth the transition. They found ways to get new funding for computers, books, buses and equipment, and to open new programs—including a pre-K. In the end there was no white flight. A number of white students actually left private schools for the new, more integrated district.

As far as Trump’s plan to increase school choice goes, Cushinberry said there just aren’t enough details available yet for her to comment. But, she said, in the wake of the election, she’s been thinking about how Americans can work together across social divisions.

“Certainly one way to unify communities is around bringing together strong, quality schools,” she said.



How to Survive an Anti-Feminist Backlash

The course of feminist progress never did run smooth. That may not be a comforting thing to acknowledge, in November of 2016 — now that we’ve elected a white supremacist beauty-pageant mogul with over a dozen outstanding sexual assault allegations, and potentially handed the Supreme Court over to a conservative supermajority that could effectively erase most of the second wave’s gains — but it’s true. Every feminist stride forward has been accompanied by backlash; the forthcoming Trump administration is just one more dark period in a history where bursts of light have always been the exception. The question is how to keep the movement alive, or at least on life support, until real progress is possible again.

The pattern laid down by history is clear. The first major book of feminist theory in the West, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was shockingly popular when it was published in 1792. Key figures in American politics — John and Abigail Adams, Aaron Burr — studied it with care and reverence. If things had gone only a little differently, the United States might have been founded as an explicitly feminist nation. But Wollstonecraft died, and the posthumously revealed details of her sexual life and mental illness were used to conduct a campaign of character assassination until feminism itself became tainted by association. That led to the 19th century and the Victorian era, whose institutionalized misogyny and sexual conservatism still comprise the backbone of most anti-feminist thinking today.

Every feminist stride forward has been accompanied by backlash.

The cycle repeats. The 19th century did, eventually, give us the suffrage movement — but white women gaining the vote did not prevent the harshly enforced racist patriarchy of the early 20th century. By the 1960s, the Father Knows Best era had gotten unbearable enough to give us the second wave — which, after making rapid cultural and legislative progress throughout the ‘70s, met the freeze-out of the 1980s through the 2000s. Throughout the 2000s, an independent women’s media movement, facilitated by the rise of blogging, broke the taboo on talking about gender politics. It so effectively mainstreamed the feminist movement that, by the early 2010s, mainstream journalism and pop culture alike rode its coattails. Now, right on schedule, we have New York Times op-eds on why liberals should stop talking about “identity politics.”

Oh yeah, and Trump.

Granted, Trump’s more-than-flirtation with fascism will make this particular cycle worse. Some, like journalist and scholar of authoritarian regimes Sarah Kendzior, see no hope at all for feminist progress: “We need to prevent the Trump regime. There will be no organizing under it,” Kendzior told me. “If we go forward under his regime, it will be authoritarianism and there is a decent chance we will be jailed or killed.”

Yet “preventing” the Trump administration is likely impossible: There is no evidence that the electoral college will swing to Clinton, or that evidence of Russian influence on the election will be investigated deeply enough or quickly enough to call his victory into question. If we believe that Trump will happen, the question then becomes how to slow him down, and how to keep organized and committed to that task.

I asked Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Magazine — which arguably laid the groundwork for much of the 2000s women’s-media renaissance — how her readers’ needs had shifted in times of more intense backlash, like the Bush administration.

“For every reader who had lived through the supposedly post-feminist ’80s and the feminist ’90s, there were more who were just coming of age and coming to feminism in this conservative time and realizing that they needed feminism much more than they had expected to,” Zeisler says. “So to me it felt less like a shift than a continuum. The one thing we did experience was that people were not coming to us just for pop-culture and media analysis. They wanted concrete, actionable information: Who to write to, where to protest, etc. And they wanted to hear more directly from activists.”

Of course, there’s the issue of what that activism will look like and what our goals can reasonably be. In recent years, feminists have had the luxury of playing offense. We could afford the time bitching about millennials’ “entitlement” and focus on micro-aggressions. Now, the issue is not just abortion stigma, but whether we will retain the right to abortion; not only how the media represents or employs marginalized people, but whether the media itself will be free to produce anything but Trump propaganda.

This is painful, not just because of the losses themselves, but because we seemed to be so close to making tangible gains. Policies for paid family leave, more affordable college, and a strikingly ambitious plan to cap child care cost at 10% of a family’s income were all on the table in Hillary Clinton’s administration. She had also vowed to fight restrictions on abortion, defended late-term abortion, and had committed to overturning the Hyde Amendment, which prevents poor women from accessing federal funds for abortion and thus puts it out of reach for many poor women.

Trump’s gender policy is still taking shape, but the early signs — he’s affirmed a commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, and made moves to forbid single parents from filing as “head of household” — are that we will not just stall out on advancing these agendas, but rapidly move backward. That means that defensive activism is the only activism left.

Most feminist activism has taken place not in the bright sunlight, but in the shadow of overwhelming and oppressive conditions. Cindy Cooper, of the reproductive justice organization Words of Choice, points me to the way much pro-choice activism arose specifically in response to the backlash of the Reagan ‘80s. She cites an essay by longtime activist Barbara Santee: “Young people must prepare themselves for a lifelong engagement in this crucial war to protect women’s reproductive autonomy,” Santee wrote. “If side A is prepared at any cost to take away side B’s freedom, and side B is saying, ‘It can never happen,’ it will happen.”

We can’t relax, and we can’t assume that everything (or anything) will work out.

In other words: By underestimating the damage that Trump’s extremist right-wing movement is prepared to do to women’s rights, we all but ensure that damage will occur. We can’t relax, and we can’t assume that everything (or anything) will work out.

“I don’t think any backlash ever ended,” Cooper added. “A lot of horrible things have happened in the Obama years, from murders at Planned Parenthood to the vast expansion of state anti-abortion regulations. In fact, historically, it’s been true, I believe, that more bad things happen in the abortion area when there are pro-choice people in office because the antis go wild. Of course, now we may be facing the worst of the worst… reproductive rights is an ongoing lifelong battle, and so are all of the fights for civil rights, freedom and human rights.”

If the Trump administration does nothing else for feminism — and, trust me, a Trump administration will do absolutely nothing else for feminism — it can, at the least, galvanize us into an awareness of how fragile our progress always has been, and remind us to keep committed to that lifelong, never-ending march.



Norman Lear on What Progressives Have to Learn

I sat down with Norman Lear, the celebrated television writer and producer, in the wake of the 2016 election. We talked about the different turns his career has taken—from his time writing for classic sitcoms, to his founding role at People for the American Way, to his work on America Divided, the new documentary series on inequality in America—and about where we go from here, in Trump’s America.

Rebecca Vallas: You’re probably best known for your career as a TV writer and producer from popular shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons to Sanford and Sons. But you later branched out to advocacy work, founding People for the American Way in 1981. What drove you to enter the advocacy world in that kind of a formal way?

Norman Lear: Well in 1980, there was a proliferation of TV evangelicals, the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Jimmy Swaggarts and so forth. They were mixing politics and religion, and I’ve been scared of the mix of politics and religion since I was nine years old. That’s when I took civics in school, and I was so in love with the founding fathers. I loved those guarantees of freedom and equal justice. I loved what we read about who we were and the promises we made.

RV: I’m struck by the People for the American Way’s organizational founding mission statement. You describe the organization’s goal as in part, “to promote a sense of community and tolerance and compassion for others.” What lessons might we draw from that, as we look back on one of the ugliest and most polarizing campaigns in recent memory?

NL: Well, in a sense, isn’t that mission statement representing organizations—left and right, as a matter of fact—that all cling to the wish of equality for all? As a matter of fact, I often think the right has taken those ideas and those words. If one asked oneself “who does the flag belong to, left or right,” I think the answer would have to be right. Who does God belong to? Right, if you had to make a choice.

I don’t believe that the right has been behaving in an American fashion or a Godly fashion, certainly not any more than the left. But I fault us on the left, for letting God go, for letting the flag go, for letting patriotism go. We’re not as at good at bumper sticker stuff as the right is. Our hearts and souls are there, but I wish our asses were too.

RV: During this election cycle I think many have actually pointed to Archie Bunker, the character that you wrote for All in the Family. He was a staunch conservative, a blue-collar worker, who wasn’t exactly shy about his views when it came to minorities and women and LGBT individuals and on and on. The show was set some 40 years ago, but people have been seeing Archie Bunker all over the 2016 presidential election.

NL: The Archie Bunker you just described, he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. He just came out of fear. A fear of progress, a fear of forward movement—the idea of a black family moving in next door scared the hell out of him. That’s not what’s happening right now. We don’t have an Archie Bunker, ‘cause that would suggest heart and soul.

I don’t think the country knows Donald Trump really well yet, despite the celebrity. Or maybe better said, we know him the way we know all our celebrities, which is to say we know about them from the tube, from lights, from the glare, from the glisten. But do we really know them? Not the way the media plays it.

RV: Well even if it isn’t fair to make a comparison between Donald Trump, our next president, and Archie Bunker, do you see glimmers among his supporters, or some of them at least?

We haven’t had an honest discussion of what’s at stake.

NL: Well, yes, I think there’s a lot of the kind of sounds Archie Bunker made coming from the supporters. They don’t know the issues and they have reason to be afraid. This is where I thought of Archie, and of Donald Trump from the very beginning, as the middle finger of the American right hand. They were feeling desperate for leadership.

You know, this is a republic that depends on an informed citizenry. And we don’t have national conversations that really inform people. We’ve got media, and in the case of 17 people running for the Republican candidacy, just people bumper stickering each other. By “bumper stickering” I mean using these short phrases that wrap the other guy. We haven’t had an honest discussion of what’s at stake here.

RV: For people who do want to have that honest discussion of what’s at stake, and for people who care about addressing poverty and tackling inequality, there are a whole range of related issues that you explore in the America Divided series. Where do we go from here and what can we take away from this election?

NL: More of America Divided, more of what you’re doing exactly at this moment, more conversation, and more honesty.

You’re talking to a man who is well known for his views and everything else, but I was thinking, when I was with Dolores Huerta, who comes out of the farm worker’s movement, very close to Chavez, and she’s been active, gloriously active to this moment. And she’s been arrested like twenty times, for people’s protest.

So you’re talking to a man now, and this man is listening to himself, who’s never been arrested. So I want to dust myself off. For all my spouting, for everything I’ve done, why have I never been arrested? I’ve cared enough, I’ve wished to protest enough, so maybe in my 94th year I’ll get to do that too.

RV: Well, I’d be happy to join you if you let me know where to go and when.

A lot of people have been describing this particular election and the election result as really categorically different from any other presidential election we’ve had. You’ve seen a lot of elections in your lifetime. Is it fair to categorize this election, and the outcome and the next president, as truly unique?

NL: Well it is truly unique, but it isn’t alone. When Al Gore lost, it was the Supreme Court who decided that he would not be the next president. That was truly unique. When Nixon came into the presidency and when he left the presidency, my God wasn’t that truly unique! So we’ve been here before. And we’ll get through it, we’ll get past unique.

RV: A lot of the discussion throughout the entire election season and also going back into the primary, has been about deep economic anger. Anger about inequality, anger about kitchen table issues, not being able to make ends meet, and the rising income instability across this country. What is your read about what progressives should take away from the final outcome here?

NL: Progressives should take away that we have been an utter failure. And that we talk our game, but we’re not sufficiently active or dynamic or truly honest. We have a lot to learn.

We have a lot to learn.

If we see Trump making mistakes like who he might appoint to the Supreme Court, we can stand up as one. I’ll get arrested protesting someplace. And everybody does his or her part in the same fashion. We’ve got to be heard from. We’ve got to remember eternal vigilance, eternal and daily vigilance. This is the price of liberty.

RV: You purchased, some number of years ago, one of the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence, for many millions of dollars. And you did that because you said that you “wanted to help re-acquaint America with its birth certificate.” Why did you do that, and do you think there is anything to take away from that at this particular moment in our nation’s history?

NL: Because it was like a moving civics class. I’d like to join a fight, if there is anyone listening to me, to get the civics back in the classroom. To teach American kids what America is all about. Who we are as Americans. Because we lost all that.

We were in love with our country when we understood what it was to be all about. What its founders declared it wished it be. We’re not taught that in school anymore. I wish to God we could get a movement that gets civics back in the classroom, so we learn who we’re supposed to be and we start taking care of ourselves and each other that way.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Listen to the most recent episode of TalkPoverty Radio for the full interview.