How The Cuomo Allegations Are Colliding With A Second Wave of #MeToo

Tanya Selvaratnam, who accused NY attorney general Eric Schneiderman of abuse in 2018, speaks on the Cuomo allegations

In just a few weeks, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been accused by seven separate women of sexual harassment — igniting questions about his future as a politician. In the wake of calls from his party to resign, Cuomo says he won’t consider it until an independent investigation into the allegations is completed. Now, he’s facing an impeachment inquiry.

Just as the accusations began to emerge, Tanya Selvaratnam — a filmmaker and writer who spoke out about an abusive relationship with former New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman — released her new book, Intimate Violence, on Feb. 23. Selvaratnam’s allegations concerning Schneiderman’s persistent emotional and physical abuse were first revealed in a 2018 New Yorker investigation, leading to his resignation. 

In an interview with KCM, Selvaratnam details her reaction to the Cuomo allegations, an alleged culture of silence in New York politics, and his subsequent apology. She also explains why she sees the tide shifting towards a second wave of the #MeToo movement. 


KCM: As another New York state politician, Andrew Cuomo, has now been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, what is your immediate reaction to the allegations? 

Tanya Selvaratnam: My immediate reaction is that there needs to be an independent investigation, and I’m relieved that Eric Schneiderman is not the person in charge of that investigation. 

I believe in due process, and I, myself, submitted to multiple legal and journalistic investigations. Even though participating was painful and uncomfortable, I wanted to support the process. Before jumping to conclusions, an independent investigation is essential. 

From a survivor’s perspective, could you tell us what it was like to make the decision to come forward with your own story? What was the aftermath like? 

I felt like I didn’t have a decision when I discovered that I was not the first person Eric Schneiderman had abused. Abusers are skilled at making you feel that you are responsible for the abuse. They’re also very skilled at customizing the abuse. But as soon as I found out what he had done to a previous girlfriend, many years before me, I realized that there might be others out there. Plus, I knew that there would most definitely be others after me if I didn’t come forward. 

I was grateful that the reporting by The New Yorker was so airtight and thorough, that it resulted in his quick resignation. If that hadn’t happened, I would have been very afraid. I had made plans to leave the country and had deleted my social media accounts a couple of months before the story came out. But my situation was unusual in that the abuser I was exposing was the top law enforcement officer of New York state.

Cuomo had a press conference recently, where he apologized to anyone he might have hurt with his actions. What do you think of this apology? 

Until the veracity of the allegations are established, I don’t want to read between the lines of his apology. But on the surface, the way he seemed to separate his intent from the woman’s experience is classic chauvinism and misogyny. 

Say the allegations are verified by an investigation. If so, what do you think should happen? 

Depending on what the facts show, appropriate action should be taken. That should be determined by those in charge of the investigation. 

I want to point out that while harm is harm, there are different types of harm. Sometimes, people think abuse is solely physical violence, but it can also be verbal, emotional, digital, legal and financial. I believe in repercussions that are appropriate to the abuse. In my situation, we were talking about intimate violence in a committed relationship, that involved physical, emotional and verbal abuse. The allegations made against Cuomo involve inappropriate touching and sexually suggestive language, which constitute sexual and workplace harassment. In his apology, it would’ve been nice to see him acknowledge that he was in a position of power and how he benefited from that power. 

Why did you title your book, Assume Nothing? What’s the power of that phrase when talking about domestic violence? 

“Assume nothing,” is what Eric Schneiderman used to say to me. He would say, “Assume nothing, trust no one.” I decided to write the book after I had many people reach out to me around the time of The New Yorker story in 2018. They were sharing their own stories of abuse. I wrote the book for them, and to give others the tools to spot, stop and prevent intimate partner violence in their own lives. 

I wanted to reclaim the language he used to silence me, and show readers that a victim looks like all of us and perpetrators are of all stripes. Even fierce women get abused, even “feminist” men are abusers.

Would you say writing the book was cathartic for you?

I wrote my way out of the darkness. Writing the book was painful because I had to recall what I tolerated. I also had to recall the fractures within myself that stem from being witness to domestic violence in my home during my childhood. When people tell me that it reads like a thriller, I’m amazed because I didn’t set out to write a thriller. I just wrote the story as it unfolded. 

Well, they often say truth is stranger than fiction. 

Right, can you believe that the Cuomo allegations came out the week my book did? I couldn’t have scripted that. Plus, did I tell you that Cuomo knew about Eric’s violent behavior towards women years before I dated Eric? Eric’s violent behavior was well-known in inner circles. Popular culture focuses on the catfights of women, but men have cat fights too, and the animus between Eric Schneiderman and Andrew Cuomo was palpable. 

I shudder to think about the dance with each other’s devils they might have done if Eric were still in power. The investigation would have been inherently compromised. 

How do you know that Cuomo knew about his violent behavior? 

He was aware of a violent relationship that a previous girlfriend had with Eric, which I found out about when the New Yorker investigation was happening. I also know that Rep. Kathleen Rice knew. It’s ironic to me that Kathleen Rice was the first elected official in New York state to call for Cuomo’s resignation. 

But no one ever warned you?

No. 

You recently told The New Yorker that you feel we are facing the second wave of the #MeToo movement. What makes you give this assessment? How does it differ from the first wave? 

Before Evan Rachel Wood came out with abuse allegations against Marilyn Manson, and FKA twigs accused Shia LaBeouf of abuse, I think some people were privately asking if the #MeToo movement was waning. It had been a while since there was a #MeToo story in the news. 

But I think the next wave of the movement will be about exposing intimate violence in committed relationships. There is so much stigma and shame around it because there are typically only two witnesses, the victim and the abuser. The statistics are devastating. One in four women, and one in seven men will experience some form of intimate violence in their lifetimes. 

Then during the pandemic, we’ve seen alarming rates of increases in domestic violence around the world. We have to take this opportunity to address it. So my book came out, shortly after Evan Rachel Wood and FKA twigs shared their stories, and just before the Cuomo allegations became public. I don’t think that is a coincidence. Nothing was planned, but I do think it is in the ether. It’s in the energy shift that’s happening. 

What needs to change to address these issues? 

Moving away from Cuomo, this highlights a larger problem with the ecosystem, which is the way that men are conditioned to behave in ways that power over women, and women are conditioned in ways to accept that power and be silent about it when they are harmed. We need to chip away at that conditioning. 

That’s going to involve an overhaul of education, and the ways boys and girls are brought up. There needs to be healthy manhood and female empowerment training in every school. There need to be improved laws that protect victims and survivors and help them feel safe in coming forward. And there need to be more resources at a governmental level for organizations that provide shelter, legal services and mental health counseling for victims, survivors and their loved ones. 


This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Interview conducted by Amanda Svachula. 

Op-Ed: After 25 Years of Inaction on Gun Safety, It’s Time for Senate to Step Up

The Everytown President on the urgent need for gun safety legislation

In the nine years since his sister, Zina, was shot and killed by her estranged husband, Elvin Daniel has become something he never could have imagined: a practiced public speaker. In 2013, the industrial supplies salesman stood alongside other victims in Washington, DC and told his story. In 2014, he testified before the U.S. Senate. And in 2019, he spoke at a Capitol Hill press conference.

Every time he spoke, Elvin talked about Zina’s love for Disney World, Rick Springfield, and — most of all — her two daughters.

Every time, he summoned up the courage to relive one of the worst moments of his life — the moment he picked up the phone and learned that Zina had been shot.

And every time, he delivered a message to lawmakers that could not be more simple, or more urgent: The American people cannot wait any longer for action on gun safety. 

But up until recently, there was little evidence that Elvin’s message was being heard. It has been nearly 25 years since Congress passed major legislation to address America’s gun violence crisis. Since then, more than 800,000 Americans have been shot and killed — a total that exceeds all U.S. troop combat fatalities since the Civil War.

Thankfully, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the U.S. House of Representatives have been listening to Elvin and the 93 percent of Americans who support background checks on all gun sales. In 2019, they passed H.R. 8, a bill to require background checks on all gun sales. Unfortunately, the bill was blocked from a Senate vote by then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

But the gun sense majority in the House was undeterred, and this Congress reintroduced and passed H.R. 8 with a bipartisan vote on March 11. To understand why we desperately need a new federal law requiring background checks on all gun sales, you need to first understand how easy it is for people with dangerous histories to get around a check under the current law.

As of today, only federally-licensed gun dealers are required to run background checks. But you are only required to obtain a license if you define yourself as “engaged in the business” of dealing guns — a term that is not clearly defined in the law — which means people can essentially choose for themselves whether or not they will be required to conduct background checks. 

This loophole defies common sense. It’s like having two types of security lines at the airport: one for people who are willing to be screened, and one you can stroll right through packing whatever you want.

This loophole is giant. Nearly one quarter of Americans who acquire a gun do so without a background check, because it’s easy to find unlicensed dealers online or at gun shows. For instance, Armslist.com, the nation’s largest online gun market, features more than 1 million online ads every year offering guns for sale that would not legally require a background check to be completed.

And most importantly, this loophole is deadly, as Elvin knows all too well. Zina had taken out a restraining order on her killer, but that didn’t stop him from logging on to Armslist, finding a stranger selling a handgun, and meeting in a McDonald’s parking lot to buy the gun without a background check. The next day, he went to the spa in Brookfield, Wisconsin where Zina worked and murdered her and two other women.

Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic and its fallout has put even more Americans at risk of being shot. Thanks in part to fear mongering from the National Rifle Association, gun sales have surged — and many of those guns have likely flowed to people who are prohibited from owning them. Between March and September 2020, the average number of posts on Armslist by people looking to purchase a gun in states that do not require background checks on all sales doubled compared to the same period in 2019.

At the same time, the risk factors that lead to gun violence are also on the upswing — with predictable results. As unemployment skyrocketed, so did calls to national suicide hotlines. As shelter-in-place orders went into effect, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline ticked up. As already underserved neighborhoods lost in-person schooling, after school activities, social services, homes, and jobs — and as police-community relations have frayed — we have seen an alarming increase in gun homicides. And as far-right extremists railed against Covid restrictions and the election results, we have seen a rise in armed intimidation, most notably in the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there has never been a better time for Washington to act on gun safety. The White House is now led by two tried and true gun sense champions. Both chambers of Congress are led by gun sense majorities. The biggest roadblock to common-sense gun laws — the NRA — recently filed for bankruptcy. And a clear majority of Americans support background checks on all gun sales, including 89 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of gun owners.

This comes as no surprise to Elvin, who is both a Republican and a gun owner. Here’s how he put it in his 2014 Senate testimony: “Gun owners like me are used to background checks — we do a background check every time we buy a gun at a store or from a dealer. They’re easy, they’re quick, and they prevent guns from being sold to criminals.”

The House has done its part to close the giant loophole in our background check system — now it’s up to the Senate to act, and act quickly. Because when it comes to gun violence, there is no vaccine on the horizon — what we need right now are courageous leaders and common-sense laws. 


John Feinblatt is president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Texas Senate Hopeful M.J. Hegar Calls For Solution-Oriented School Reopening Plans

The Democratic Senate candidate believes partisan politics should be taken out of the conversations around school reopening plans.

As school districts across the U.S. prepare to return for the fall semester, a bitter battle has emerged over whether or not to reopen classrooms for in-person learning. While there is universal agreement that in-person instruction is superior to online classes, school officials don’t have a clear idea of what a safe return looks like. Thousands of students and faculty members have already been sent home due to exposure to the virus.

Texas Democratic hopeful M.J. Hegar, who is challenging Republican Sen. John Cornyn in November, said at least part of the struggle with school reopenings has to do with the fact that the conversations around them have been extremely polarized instead of solution-focused.

“I am very concerned that the conversation is only about open or don’t open,” Hegar told Wake-Up Call. “The conversation does not seem just like so many other things in politics — it’s very this or not instead of being solution-oriented.”

Amid conflicting data from health officials, Hegar said school reopening plans should be more centered around science, data models, best practices from other countries, and guidance from public health officials. Hegar, a combat pilot and healthcare worker, said she draws upon her own experience when weighing school reopening plans.

“I’m trained in crisis management — both from the military and then from my time in healthcare. And in crisis management, when you have a crisis and lives on the line — you set milestones and rubrics and decision gates,” she said.

Ultimately, Hegar believes that the U.S. needs to get schools open again, emphasizing that in-person classrooms are especially vital to at-risk students. As a mother of two young sons of her own, plus three stepchildren, the issue is especially personal for Hegar.

“There are a lot of reasons we need our kids in schools both to support working parents, but to give kids adequate nutrition, to screen for abuse, there are social isolation issues. Not to mention, I have no replacement for a teacher — every day around here is teacher appreciation day,” she said.

Hegar said school closures have also highlighted another crisis that existed long before the pandemic: childcare. Working mothers shoulder most of the child care responsibilities and this includes taking more a more active role in their child’s virtual learning. In fact, 66% of women said they are primarily responsible for helping children with remote learning during the workday, compared with 41% of men, per a survey conducted by YouGov in partnership with USA Today and LinkedIn.

“Women do disproportionately shoulder, that,” Hegar said in reference to childcare. “It’s important to acknowledge that men are also struggling with childcare issues too,” she said. “We need to get childcare facilities in schools. We need to get to a place where we can open them again.”

As the pandemic rages on and all eyes are on the presidential election, Hegar faces an uphill battle of her own in what has long been considered a historically conservative state. Cornyn currently leads 43%, compared to Hegar’s 34%, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.

But Hegar, who is set to have her first debate against Cornyn on October 9, remains hopeful about her chances.

“Life and death issues here in Texas are becoming less and less partisan and more about let’s find someone who is willing to listen to us who has faced our challenges and who is going to present solutions based on solving, based on accomplishing the mission,” she said.


Written and reported by senior writer Tess Bonn.

This appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.

How The Pandemic ‘Highlights the Struggles that Some People Already Have to Vote’

‘Thank You For Voting’ writer Erin Geiger Smith on how this has made people more aware of various barriers to voting

As mail-in voting has taken center stage during the pandemic, recent U.S. Postal Service mail delivery delays have sparked concerns over whether the agency can handle the anticipated influx of ballots this November. Critics have blamed these mail delays on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s cost-cutting measures, which include removing curbside collection boxes and eliminating overtime for postal workers. In response to growing outrage, DeJoy suspended these changes until after November’s election. Senate and House Democrats, meanwhile, have vowed to continue to hold DeJoy accountable and push for more USPS funding.

Journalist Erin Geiger Smith sees the controversy surrounding the USPS and the postmaster general as an opportunity to boost voting options. “Anything that highlights the struggles that some people already have to vote, it makes us consider more and figure out how to do better. That’s the opportunity that we have here,” Smith told Wake-Up Call.

Smith has not only contributed to major news outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times — she’s also the author of Thank You for Voting: The Maddening, Enlightening, Inspiring Truth About Voting in America. The book offers a comprehensive look at the past, present, and future of voting.

“One of the privileges of mine that I realized when reporting this book, because I kind of started with that too, is [the question of] ‘Why wouldn’t you vote?’ It’s difficult for some people to understand voter suppression if you’re not facing those barriers,” she said.

Smith said she initially saw mail-in voting come into renewed focus at the start of the pandemic — and she pulled her book off the presses, so she could dig into the subject more.

“It seemed like a great chance for more coherent vote by mail laws across the United States, which, in a dream world, could lead to more coherent laws across the country,” she said.

As Smith alludes to, every state has varying mail-in voting rules. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah all currently conduct elections almost entirely by mail. The rest of the states can be divided into two categories: those that allow any registered voter to apply for mail-in ballots, and those that require an excuse.

However, 11 out of the 16 states that require an excuse to vote absentee have recently announced changes to eligibility requirements amid coronavirus fears. This comes as an increasing number of states embrace mail-in voting as a way to prevent large crowds from gathering at polling places. But, although President Trump himself has used mail-in voting, he has claimed that it leads to fraud, despite some studies saying otherwise. Smith pushed back against this claim, saying vote-by-mail fraud is not very common.

“I think more than anything, it’s important to note that vote by mail is safe. The systems are set up, every state has done it in some form, so they know how to do it. It’s just going to be about volume, “ she said. “And it’s going require a lot of patience on our behalf on having those ballots counted.”

She believes the biggest challenge this November is educating Americans about voting by mail. While the share of Americans casting ballots by mail has steadily risen, it still remains relatively low overall. The share of voters who mailed in their ballots increased from 7.8 percent to nearly 21 percent from 1996 to 2016, according to a Pew Research Center study.

“The biggest takeaway is that people need to learn exactly how to do it in their state, figure out if it’s the best option for them, do it as early as possible,” Smith said.

Whether the pandemic will have a fundamental impact on the election remains to be seen, but Smith believes that the crisis will lead to greater public awareness around their voting options, whether it be a vote by mail or early voting or in-person voting

“No one is arguing that there should be only vote by mail,” she said. “ There will always need to be opportunities for in-person voting and there should be robust options this year, too.”

This originally appeared on Medium.

How Climate Injustice Has Exacerbated the Covid-19 Crisis

“When people say we have to save the planet, my question is: ‘Who are we saving it for?’ Because often, the answer is not for everyone.”

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a leading marine biologist working on designing the future of coastal cities. All of her work is rooted in social justice and, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, she notes: “Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.” Between launching a new podcast called How to Save a Planet, and releasing an anthology of writings about climate change, Johnson took some time to speak with Wake-Up Call about environmental racism and steps policymakers need to take to create climate justice for all.

Wake-Up Call: Why is the climate emergency as pressing as our current Covid-19 emergency?

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: When it comes to the climate crisis, quite simply, we’re running out of time. Science tells us that we are barreling towards all these different tipping points, whether that’s for sea ice, ocean currents, permafrost, or coral reef. All of these things are really teetering at the edge. And yes, we have multiple crises that we’re dealing with right now, but that doesn’t mean that we can neglect climate change because the clock is ticking.

And there are abrupt punctuations: Massive wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts and heatwaves. All of this is slowly building. It’s like, you’re a frog in a pot of boiling water. And then all of a sudden — well it’s too hot.

We’ve been very lucky as humans to have a pretty stable climate for the last tens of thousands of years. And we’re about to be out of that comfort zone for what humans can comfortably live in. We were seeing temperatures of 125 in Baghdad this week. That’s not a temperature where you can walk around in and get on with your day.

Covid-19 is killing Black Americans at twice the rate of their white counterparts. How is climate injustice a factor in this?

Oil refineries and power plants are often near communities of color and poor communities, which means they have higher rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. They’re already dealing with weakened lungs and immune systems because of fossil fuels, which puts them at a higher risk for Covid-19.

Then, if we think about how people get through summer, they tend to gather in air-conditioned spaces. There are cooling centers during heat waves for people who can’t afford air conditioners. And that can become a risk factor as well.

Could you tell me more about the history of environmental racism in the U .S.? How has pollution disproportionately impacted communities of color?

When people say we have to save the planet, my question is: “Who are we saving it for?” Because often, the answer is not for everyone.

As a Marine biologist, I think about which beaches are dirty and which water is clean and safe to swim in. Polluters can get away with pollution in places where people don’t have the power and resources to fight them, in communities that have been disenfranchised and marginalized in one way or another. We see that with air, water, chemical, and land pollution. There are a lot of maps that can describe the overlap between communities of color, low-income communities, and exposure to toxins. And we know Black communities are much more likely to have that exposure.

That’s sort of the general landscape of the problem when it comes to environmental injustice. And of course, these communities have been fighting it from the very beginning. We’ve seen local environmental justice groups trying to stand up for their rights to clean air and clean water, but some people have a louder voice and more influence than others.

How do you want to see policymakers address these issues going forward and how can people on the ground fight for justice?

The role of government is to protect the citizens and not just let corporations pollute the environment. One of the things I was really excited to see just this last week was a new bill introduced in Congress called the Climate Equity Act, by Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Alexander Ocasio-Cortez. It has all of these different elements in it that require you to take climate justice, and the air, water, and public health of marginalized communities, into account when allocating federal funds. Another aspect is the legal system. We should be suing people and holding them accountable for illegal polluting.

You’re launching a new podcast, ‘How To Save a Planet.’ What do you hope to explore?

It’s a podcast about climate solutions. I think it’s really important because we often talk about the problem and not quite so much what we can do about it. Each episode kind of takes on a different solution or opportunity.

What does it look like to transition from fossil fuels to renewable? How do we transform agriculture so that it’s actually absorbing more carbon in the soil instead of releasing it? What does it look like to farm the ocean in a way that’s regenerative and part of the climate solution? And at the end of each episode, we’ll actually give people an opportunity for getting involved.

You also co-edited a new book coming out, an anthology titled ‘All We Can Save.’ What did you have in mind when curating this and what do you hope people get from it?

There are essays by 41 different women who are leading on climate — everyone from NASA climate scientists, soil scientists, to policy experts, artists and architects, and farmers. It includes poetry, art, and is just this really incredible collection of wisdom. In particular, we curated it as an anthology of writings by women climate leaders, because for the last few decades, the voices we’ve been hearing most loudly on climate have been a pretty small group of men.

It’s important that it’s an anthology because the work of addressing the climate crisis is so multifaceted. We need a mosaic of experts in order to make sure we have a habitable planet in the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Written and reported by staff writer Amanda Svachula. 

This originally appeared on Medium

The NRA Is Facing An ‘Unprecedented Challenge’

Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Fight Gun Violence, on two new lawsuits seeking to dissolve the NRA

America’s largest gun lobby is facing two major lawsuits: Last week, New York attorney general Letitia James filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the National Rifle Association, claiming it diverted roughly $64 million in charitable donations over the years. D.C.’s attorney general filed a similar lawsuit on the same day.

Robyn Thomas, the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Fight Gun Violence, weighs in on the origins of the lawsuits and what they might mean for the NRA’s future.

Katie Couric: What prompted the recent action against the NRA by the New York and D.C. Attorneys General?

Robyn Thomas: The NRA lawsuits filed by the New York and Washington, D.C. Attorneys General were the culmination of a more than year-long investigation into a widespread pattern of corrupt, fraudulent conduct.

They are a coordinated response to a breathtaking pattern of illegal conduct by the NRA’s leaders. The lawsuits detail repeated examples of NRA’s leaders looting organizational assets to pay for international travel on private jets and luxury yachts, and self-dealing with board members who were supposed to be looking out for the organization’s interests instead of lining their own pockets. With clear evidence of shocking mismanagement, corruption, and theft, the Attorneys General were compelled to file these lawsuits against the NRA and NRA Foundation.

How significant is it?

This is a moment of unprecedented challenge for the NRA. The New York lawsuit seeks 18 separate forms of relief — including permanently barring several current or former NRA officials from ever being associated with New York charities or seeking charity donations in New York. But the most serious of these for the NRA are those seeking to dissolve it in its entirety. It’s worth noting that in a recent high-profile case involving another charity that broke the law in this way — the Trump Foundation — the New York Attorney General put the foundation out of business and made Donald Trump pay restitution of millions of dollars. Only time will tell whether the NRA will suffer the same fate, but the Attorney General has made a very compelling case that it should.

What does it mean for the future of the NRA?

The NRA will fight this litigation tooth and nail and could drag it out for years. What’s certain is that, in the near-term, the organization is hobbled — hemorrhaging money, spending millions of dollars in legal fees, and losing the confidence of its members with its reputation in tatters. This will dramatically reduce its ability to play a role in the final stages of the 2020 election, and will leave at most a weakened NRA when a new Congress convenes in Washington in 2021. There is a very real possibility the NRA will be dissolved entirely once this action runs its course, but even if some version of the organization survives, it will be a shadow of its former self.

What does this mean for NRA members?

NRA members should be outraged. An organization that was created to represent their interests clearly devolved into one that cared far more about making its executives incredibly rich men. The NRA has long been out of step with most gun owners, shifting to extremist and deadly views, dramatically moving away from its roots of being stewards for responsible gun ownership.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared on Medium.

‘Caste’ Instead of ‘Race’: Isabel Wilkerson On America’s Man-Made Divisions

Wilkerson on writing what Oprah’s calling her “most important” book club selection ever

After publishing the acclaimed The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson spent 10 years working on Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents — which Oprah is calling “the most important” read she’s ever selected for her book club. (The T.V. legend also just announced she’s sending 500 copies of Caste out to CEOs and leaders.)

In Caste, Wilkerson looks at the U.S.’s divisions without once using the word “race.” She instead draws attention to America’s caste system, established by English colonizers that landed hundreds of years ago. Wilkerson offers a new roadmap for Americans to talk about race and more, below.

Wake-Up Call: The New York Times called your book an “Instant American classic,” and Oprah Winfrey has said, “All of humanity needs this book.” What do you hope readers gain from reading “Caste”?

Isabel Wilkerson: I really, truly hope that people will be able to see that the divisions we live with are artificial and man-made and that if they have been made by man, they can be dismantled by man. We can push through and transcend these divisions that have been created long before any of us were here.

Why did you decide to avoid the word “race” and focus on “caste” instead? How do you define a caste system?

Think of a society like a building, and the building has joints, beams, and pillars, but we don’t see those things as we walk into a building and go into a particular room. Caste is an artificial hierarchy with a graded ranking of human value in a society. You’re born into a position in the hierarchy that many societies build for themselves. That ranking determines standing, respect, access to resources, through no fault or action of one’s own.

In the same way that caste is the bones, race is the skin. Race is the metric that’s used to determine one’s place or assignment in the caste system. It’s the marker. It’s the signal of where an individual fits in the caste system that was created in the United States, which was based upon what we call race.

What are the origins of America’s “caste system”?

Caste can be an instructive term for us because it’s been around for so long as an idea. We know of it from India, of course, because that’s the classic originating caste system going back thousands of years. Race is a relatively new term that only dates back for 400 or 500 years, dating back to the exploration of the world by European explorers when they came upon people who looked different from themselves. It didn’t have meaning until the building of the new world and the arrival of people from all over the world, settling into what is now the United States and South America.

English colonists, in particular, chose to create a hierarchy with people who were brought over. Africans were at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy. The indigenous people who had been driven from their land were exiled outside the hierarchy and not even included in this hierarchy that was created.

You mention in the book that “race” is more flexible than “caste.” Americans have redefined race to maintain this system in certain periods of our history. Could you provide some examples?

Anyone entering into the hierarchy from outside had to then figure out — “Where did they fit in?” And that’s how the caste system began to adjust itself based upon the demographics of who entered into the society. What was interesting about that is that people who are now considered to be without question part of the dominant caste would not have been considered “white” at different times in American history. In the late 19th century, early 20th century, people who were Italian, Polish, Romanian, and Lithuanian, did not fall automatically in the category of being white.

Access to the dominant caste has shape-shifted as people arrived here and had to be put into a slot. It’s this putting people in slots that creates the hierarchy that we still live with today. Even now, anyone arriving new to the country has to figure out where they fit into this preexisting system. In some of the continuing debates over immigration, we see reflections of these enduring questions about who is American and who should qualify to be a citizen.

Why do you think caste is a term that’s not often applied to the U.S.?

It generally remains within the realm of scholarly writing. And it never went beyond that, because race became the central defining feature of group dynamics — and often also of politics and other ways of looking at disparities in our country. We’ve not had the benefit of this different kind of lens of looking at ourselves. It’s in some ways liberating because it lifts us up from the more familiar, often freighted terms that we have developed strong emotions. It takes the emotions out of a conversation because in itself, it’s describing a structure that we have inherited. It’s not about guilt or shame or blame or finger-pointing. It’s about the structure that we’ve inherited.

In writing this book, I view myself as having been a building inspector. I have returned with the report on the building. It’s an X-ray, you might say, of what’s underneath what we think we see. Our focus on race is important in getting us to where we are, but we see that it hasn’t taken us as far as we need to go. There’s still a long way to go. I think recent months have certainly shown us that. There’s no way to really cross these divides unless you can see them for what they are.

As America’s ‘building inspector,’ how would you say its structure compares to two other caste systems you look at in the book — Nazi Germany and India?

The focus of my research into the Indian caste system was necessary because that was the oldest and most recognizable caste system. I did not go to Germany in the same way. I began looking into Germany because of Charlottesville. At the Charlottesville rally, we could see the confluence of this imagery — the symbolism of the Confederacy and of the Nazi symbolism — all coming together in the people who were protesting the potential removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee. We could see that they themselves were making a connection.

I set out to try to understand how Germany had begun the work of reconciling with what had happened there. I discovered so much more than I ever could have imagined. I discovered that German eugenists actually were in dialogue with American eugenicists. American eugenicists’ books were very popular in Germany in the years leading up to the Third Reich. Clearly the Nazis needed no one to teach them how to hate, and yet they did look to the United States. They sent people to the United States to research the Jim Crow laws, as they were beginning to debate and contemplate the Nuremberg laws.

One thing all the systems have shared deeply is this sense of feeling the need to protect the purity of those things identified as dominant from pollutants. All three of these societies went to tremendous lengths in order to keep the groups separate. They would focus on things such as water, a sacred element that couldn’t be shared by both groups. In India, Dalits, who were known as untouchables, weren’t allowed to drink from the same cup or well. Even their shadows were viewed as polluting. In Nazi Germany, Jewish people couldn’t swim with those who identified as Aryan. And in the U.S., there were tremendous restrictions on access to pools and bodies of water for African-Americans.

These societies are very different in so many ways, but there are parallels in that they delineated and ranked people, according to who is considered most valuable.

How much time did you spend on this book? Where did you get the idea for it?

It began with the completion of The Warmth of Other Suns. In that book, I chose not to use the word racism because it did not seem comprehensive enough. It didn’t seem accurate actually in conveying the broad, multilayered restrictions.

In some ways, this is a continuation of that. And so you could say that it has been 10 years in the making. I began to really dive in earnestly after Charlottesville though. And worked nonstop.

A lot has changed in these 10 years. Bringing us to the present, what are the solutions to fixing these longstanding divisions in the U.S.’s infrastructure?

I describe myself as a building inspector and ultimately I’m presenting my findings. It is up to the owners of the building to then figure out what we must do in order to strengthen and repair the building that we are in. All of us have a stake in repairing the building that we’re born into. Everyone needs to open their hearts and minds to the history that we’ve inherited. And it will take all of us to find a way out of a system that has been in place for 400 years. This is not going to be one person, one law, one person, one election, one individual. All of us have a part to play in maintaining what happens to be here now, and I think that it will take all of us to find a way out of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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This originally appeared on Medium

Why Living In a ‘Man’s World’ Isn’t Working For Women

Political advisor Jennifer Palmieri on her new book ‘She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence from a Man’s World’

During the 2016 presidential campaign, while she was serving as Hillary Clinton’s director of communications, Jennifer Palmieri experienced two revelations: one political, one personal. She noticed female candidates were being held to higher standards than men. And she realized that by trying to succeed in a man’s world, she had been shying away from asking for what she deserved.

In her new book, She Proclaims, she explores why women’s gains in the workplace have “sputtered out,” and offers a roadmap to freedom from the constraints that have held them back for so long. Here are takeaways:


Katie Couric: In the “preamble” of your book, you write, “One hundred years after women won suffrage, we still live in a world where men hold the vast majority of power and women are consistently undervalued relative to them… it is time to declare our independence and proclaim the start of an exciting new era for women.” What was your “aha moment” that it was time for a new approach?

Jennifer Palmieri: Honestly, the entire 2016 campaign felt like one long “aha moment” of women being held to a higher standard than men. But I also had a personal epiphany in a 2016 off-air conversation with the MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski.

I was complaining about how low campaign salaries were, when she interrupted me to say “I can tell right now you aren’t being paid what you are worth.” I was really taken aback. I had not told her what I was making or how it compared with what others on the campaign were making. And while I cannot remember word for word all she told me, this one phrase she said remains very clear in my mind: “It’s written all over your face.” She could tell just by looking at me that I was the one who would make it all work, would never drop a ball, would never complain about what I got paid. I was just glad to be there.

What she said to me was devastating, because she took everything I thought made me valuable in the workplace and turned it on its head. And it was devastating because I knew in an instant that she was right. She forced me to face the truth that I wasn’t doing so great in a man’s world. I was doing great making a man’s world run well for them, by keeping my head down and working hard to keep things running smoothly. It was not only not getting me anywhere, it was actually propping up and perpetuating power systems that keep women and all people of color from gaining true success.

It’s why I called the book She Proclaims. I wanted to force women to say this stuff out loud. We have internalized so many messages that tell us that we are not as interesting as men, or as valuable as men and that we have to try to dress like them and speak like them to fit in. That is by definition a man’s world and women must declare our independence from it.

You say following a man’s model is untenable and that our dependence on such a model has only perpetuated a system that keeps men in power. What do you mean by that? Can you give some examples?

Women make the world run, but men are still running the world. Millions of women work hard to make profits for their employers in corporate America, but only 7 percent of Fortune 500 company CEOs are women. More women are working in television news but, with the exception of CBS, all of the television news networks are run by men and have always been run by men. Congress is still made up of 75 percent men. It’s bonkers.

No matter how hard women work, we can’t seem to move the needle when it comes to putting more women in charge. For many decades attempting to model ourselves after men seemed to work. We made steady gains in the workplace, but in recent years we seemed to have sputtered out. Following a man’s path has turned into our rut. Chapter by chapter, She Proclaims identifies the biases and behaviors that are serving to keep us in that rut and gives women advice for changes.

It seems women’s progress has plateaued and you give some pretty depressing examples. But aren’t there some reasons to celebrate as well?

Absolutely. I work in politics, and I have been really inspired by the historic number of women who are running for office at all levels of government. After Hillary lost in 2016, I was worried that her experience would chill other women from running. I could not imagine women watching what she went through and think, “Oh, sign me up for that!” But, that’s exactly what happened. At our core, women know we deserve better and believe in ourselves too much to tolerate stagnation any longer. I see millions of women in America waking up to the same realization I had — this man’s world was never our destination. We have nothing more to prove. We are moving on — fortified by all we have learned here — and are going to create our own space.

My dad used to say, “Women are their own worst enemies.” Do you think that’s true, and how do we change that?

It has been true, and it’s what we have to change now. For too long, women have been buying into the notion that we are in competition with each other for a finite amount of success. We have to banish that notion from our heads or we will make it true because, like most mistaken beliefs, it is self-perpetuating. If we are pitting ourselves against each other, there’s no way we are ever going to make progress.

Here’s the transformation I had to make in my own life. In my career, I always tried to support women. This was something I used to do out of a sense of obligation and with some misgivings that the woman I was helping might end up outshining or even replacing me. Now, supporting women is my mission. I know sustained progress for each of us is dependent upon other women being valued and succeeding.

When I ran the communications departments in the Obama White House and for the Clinton campaign, I made hiring women — and particularly women of color — a priority. I knew having diverse teams would make our work better, but I did not foresee the ways these women would enrich me. I learn from them, they inspire me, and they always have my back. They are not my competitors. They are my support system.

I want people to buy and read your book, so I don’t want to give everything away…but can you tell us three fundamental changes that you advocate for that will finally even the playing field?

Support women. It’s the most empowering change you can make. Women in the room begets more women in the room and that begets more opportunity for us all. Say what you believe, particularly when you know it’s not what a woman is expected to say. Do this to contribute your best thinking to the word and honor the generations of women who came before us who were silenced. Do not settle for less than you deserve. When you do that, you are diminishing the value of all women. Stop expecting to do worse than the men and don’t accept it when it happens.


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This originally appeared on Medium.com

Gabby Giffords On How Covid-19 ‘Has Laid Bare’ The Severity of Gun Violence

The former Arizona congresswoman warned we must do better when it comes to addressing the rise in shootings across the U.S.

The U.S. has seen a dramatic rise in shootings in major cities across the country, including in New York City and Chicago. New York City alone has seen more than 500 shootings so far — outpacing this time last year when the city saw 365 incidences. Though the city has seen a drop in overall crime, Chicago saw a 75 percent increase in gun violence, with 424 shootings in June 2020 compared to 242 in June 2019.

This uptick has been particularly harmful to communities of color, which have been disproportionally affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest following George Floyd’s death in police custody in May. Every single one of the 100 victims shot in July was a minority, and in Chicago, Black neighborhoods have seen a 76 percent spike in shootings since the same time last year.

Gabby Giffords, a former Democratic congresswoman-turned-gun-control advocate, said this increase in gun violence must be addressed, along with the effects of police brutality against people of color. With these communities feeling especially vulnerable, she maintained that the first step in solving this problem is investing in new policing models and public safety initiatives, such as community-based violence programs.

As a shooting survivor, Giffords knows first-hand the impact of gun violence — she was shot in the head at a constituent event in Tucson, Arizona in 2011. The House-passed Bipartisan Background Check Act is titled H.R. 8, in honor of her representation of Arizona’s 8th District.

Wake-Up Call: How has rising gun violence and the reckoning over police brutality affected the future of policing?

Gabby Giffords: We have to protect communities in ways that preserve the sanctity of human life — not destroy it. When acts of police brutality cause communities to lose trust in the police officers who are supposed to serve and protect them, gun violence goes up. If we live in a country where many people don’t feel safe because of their zip code or the color of their skin, then none of us are truly safe. We can’t settle for that version of America. We have to build a better one.

The virus has stymied efforts to curb gun violence. What are some ways to address this growing issue?

Covid-19 has laid bare just how severe our gun violence problem is. It took the literal shutdown of schools to stop school shootings from happening. Still, shootings in many of our cities continue to rise, despite lockdowns. We must do better. Fortunately, a number of states are taking action: Virginia’s lifesaving new gun laws recently went into effect. Rhode Island passed important ghost gun legislation. Courageous lawmakers in these and other states are recognizing and addressing the dangerous intersections of coronavirus and gun violence, which our team has written about extensively.

Several studies have shown that Black communities are disproportionately hurt by gun violence. How do guns factor into racial disparities?

Systemic racism affects Black Americans in so many ways, including the recent horrific spate of high-profile killings. These tragedies need to be met with action. We need to pass gun safety laws that will close dangerous loopholes in our federal laws. We need to fund community violence programs in our cities. And we need to address the many inequities in our legal and prison systems, which means rooting out the systemic racism that makes living in this country a different experience for Black Americans than it is for white Americans.

The pandemic has triggered an uptick in gun sales, particularly among first-time buyers. What are some of the basic rules about responsible gun ownership?

I’m a gun owner. Like many other reasonable gun owners across the country, I know that rights come with responsibilities, like passing a background check and safely storing your firearm. My heart breaks every time I read about a child unintentionally shot with an improperly stored gun. First-time gun buyers need to understand the responsibility they’re taking on when they purchase a deadly weapon and enroll in firearm safety courses. Most importantly, people should know that owning a gun does not automatically make you safer — in fact, research shows the opposite.

Your team spends a lot of time advocating for community-based violence prevention programs and alternatives to over-policing. Can you tell us more about these programs and how they work?

There are a few different models of community-violence intervention programs, which usually work by engaging the small percentage of a city’s population at the highest risk of violence. These programs, which aim to stop individuals before they pick up a gun, have been proven to drastically reduce violence in a short amount of time. Gun violence costs the American economy $229 billion a year. The investment required to keep these programs running is minimal compared to the lives they save and the tremendous cost savings they generate. Cash-strapped states facing difficult decisions must continue funding these vital programs. We can’t abandon the courageous street outreach workers who are on the front lines of two crises: COVID-19 and gun violence.

Though a vast majority of Americans have supported requiring background checks on all gun purchases, there are still loopholes in federal gun laws that exempt unlicensed sellers from having to perform background checks before selling firearms. What are some challenges to closing these loopholes other than lobbyist groups like the NRA?

Candidates are running and winning on gun safety at the local, state, and federal levels. But unfortunately, too many politicians still take their marching orders from the NRA. Since the Bipartisan Background Checks Act passed in the House in February 2019, Mitch McConnell has refused to even allow a vote in the Senate. I’ve always loved a challenge, and this is a fight we will win. This year we can elect a gun safety majority in the Senate, preserve our majority in the House, and get my friend Joe Biden into the White House. In the coming weeks, we’re hosting a series of virtual events in states with key Senate races. I hope you’ll join me at some of these events!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared on Medium. 

The Biggest ‘Lies’ We’re Taught About U.S. History

Historian James W. Loewen breaks down popular misconceptions taught in American textbooks

Americans across the country are grappling with the impacts of decades upon decades of systemic racism. Many are turning to resources from academics, researchers and activists to educate themselves on implicit bias — and important events in history they never learned about. One such resource: Historian James W. Loewen’s 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me.

For his book, Lowewn studied 12 different history textbooks used to teach across the country, and found falsehoods and omissions in the story of the country’s past. In a new interview, Loewen debunks common U.S. history myths — and tells me why these “lies” are so dangerous.

Katie Couric: Jim, in 1970 — in your first year of teaching at a predominantly Black college in Mississippi — you heard some things from the students about reconstruction that really bothered you. How did you feel when you realized that people were learning history all wrong?

James W. Loewen: I was teaching at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and asked my students what they knew about reconstruction. Most of them thought it was a period when Black people took over the governments of Southern states, but screwed it up, and white people had to take control again. There are so many direct lies in that sentence.

How could this happen? Well, it happened because it’s what students had been taught in high school. And it became clear that Mississippi did this on purpose. Then I thought, what does that do to you? If you believe the one time your group was center stage in American history, they screwed up. When I later moved from Mississippi to Vermont, I heard the same interpretation of reconstruction coming from the pulpit. That’s when I realized that bad history has a lot of power over people, and their destinies.

So I thought, I’m going to write correct, useful history. I got a grant and put some faculty and students together, and we wrote a textbook called: Mississippi: Conflict and Change.

And there was resistance from every corner of the state to adopt your accurate version of history.

Yes, the state of Mississippi gave it an award of sorts. They rejected it. There was resistance from the state textbook board and we had to sue the state. An Episcopal school sued along with us, and that’s when 26 or 27, out of unfortunately 155, adopted the book across the state.

Later, you studied 12 textbooks from across America to understand how we teach history today, and wrote a book called ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me.’ What’s the overarching lie that you feel history teachers and textbooks have taught for too long?

When I moved to Vermont from Mississippi I realized this was a national problem. The biggest overall lie is, namely: We started out great, and that we’ve been getting better and better kind of automatically. It’s the myth of unrelenting progress.

There are some wonderful things that happened at our constitutional convention, but particularly in the area of race relations, progress looks more like a curve.

What’s the root of that notion? Why has American history been under this false premise that we’ve only gotten better and better?

The first key thing is that publishers don’t want to offend. It’s a sweet narrative. If we talked about the possibility that America’s getting worse in some ways, that’s going to offend someone.

Who really decides what’s being taught and what is in textbooks?

Texas is in a notorious position because it’s the largest state that adopts uniformly across the state in high school. Basically, no publisher wants to not be able to sell in Texas, so they pretty much make any changes that the textbook committee in Texas wants them to.

So are you saying many kids in this country are being taught history according to Texas?

Yes, I’ll give you an example. If you look at the secession of the states that left to form the Confederacy, they all said why: It’s about slavery, period. Everyone knows this in the history field, but when you look at a history textbook, you’re mystified because there’s no clear answer as to why states seceded. That’s because the states in charge didn’t want to mention the real reasons.

For a while, when I talked to people, a majority of them had this misconception that the Confederacy formed to preserve states’ rights. We’ve been lying to ourselves for a long time about this, and it’s just now starting to change.

Have history books changed? Are they now more accurate?

To my surprise, they are not much different. The publishers haven’t even caught up with this change in our culture. And what’s really ironic is some of these books are written by famous historians, but they aren’t really written by them.

Let’s talk about some important moments in history, what we’ve been taught and what actually happened. Who discovered America?

We’re taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. In fact, of course there were 100 million people living in the Americas when he got here. Secondly, there were many that came here before Columbus, like the Vikings or maybe others from different places. And third of all, this man who “discovered” America also started the transatlantic slave trade. And we forget about that when celebrating Columbus Day.

What are we taught about indigenous people in this country and what actually happened?

Mostly we’re taught that there weren’t very many people here, and they kind of roamed. Actually, there were as many people living in the Americas, as there were living in Europe. Folks came in, burning their fields and forcing them to roam.

What are we taught about our founding fathers? And tell us what reality is?

Some things we say about our founding fathers are actually accurate. There are some achievements in the Constitution and in the way they set up our government. We are not taught why some of our differences with England led to the revolution. Notably, George Washington wanted [Native American] land. And Great Britain was saying, “No, we’ve got this treaty line with the natives.” And that was one of the biggest single reasons, both for the American Revolution and then for the War of 1812.

Anything else that you think is so blatantly misleading and history books don’t mention?

Many Americans don’t understand what the nature of racial relations was in the period from 1890 to 1940. In 1890, there was the massacre at Wounded Knee, and the passage of Mississippi’s new constitution which limited citizenship to whites, and every Southern state followed suit.

Later, we’re taught about Jim Crow in the South. But we don’t always do it justice because the problem was much bigger. There was national discriminaition. North Dakota passed a law during that time outlawing interracial marriage. Harvard University threw Black people out of the dormitories. The problems of race relations stem from this time period, and we’re still trying to dig ourselves out even today.

You believe there’s a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present.

That’s my slogan. When we are able to face the past and tell the truth about even the bad things we’ve done, then that helps us be more open to change and to bring about justice in the present. When we have justice in the present, when we make a change, when we actually get things right, that makes us more able to tell the truth about the past, because now the past becomes kind of a success. So the one helps the other, and vice versa.

Where do we go from here? Do you think this movement that we’re witnessing across the country will begin to focus on how history is taught?

Well, it is already in the sense that it’s focusing on these Confederate monuments. I mean, most people never take the history course when they get out of high school. How do they learn history? Well, they see monuments. I think all the Confederate monuments will probably bite the dust and be seen as artifacts to teach people about the past.

Books purchased through our Book Shop links might earn us affiliate revenue. Katie Couric Media will donate those proceeds.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared on Medium.