Donald Trump sent Mike Pence on a $250,000 secret mission to protest black protesters at an NFL game. It was like the White House’s own bizarro version of the civil rights movement. This week on Intercepted, acclaimed author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about Trump, Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, the NFL, and much more. “The Color of Money” author Mehrsa Baradaran breaks down the roots of economic apartheid in the U.S., the ongoing impact of slavery on black communities, and offers a provocative history of black banks. The Egyptian government has launched a targeted assault on LGBTQ people, following a Cairo concert of the popular band Mashrou’ Leila where rainbow flags were waved by the crowd and gender conformity challenged from the stage. We speak with the band’s lead singer Hamed Sinno about being queer and Arab in the Middle East and Trump’s America.
We’re doing a live show this Friday, October 13, at the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in Toronto. Tickets are still available here.
Jeremy Scahill: Everybody, this is Jeremy, and I just want to express a huge thank you to all of you who have contributed to our fundraising drive for this show, for Intercepted. We’ve been utterly humbled and blown away by the support that we’ve received from the Intercepted community. More than a thousand people have signed up to make contributions to keep this show growing and to keep it strong.
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I’m gonna shut up now. Let’s get on with the show.
Back to School (1986): Guess who’s getting some class?
Donald J. Trump: The media’s fake.
BTS: Rodney Dangerfield is going back to school.
DJT: You have a lot of haters out there screaming questions. In the meantime, I’m here. It’s sort of amazing. So I want to focus on North Korea, I want to focus on Iran, I want to focus on other things. I don’t want to focus on fixing somebody’s back or their knee.
BTS: Since when did you dream about going to college?
DJT: We’ve got very high marks. We’ve got A pluses.
BTS: Here’s a book on sex education.
DJT: Incredible. I love this.
BTS: The world’s oldest living freshman.
DJT: This is my wheelhouse, and I understand it so well.
BTS: Say it! Say it!
DJT: It’s fake news. There’s nothing else you can say about it. It’s like handing people money. We’re going to have more money to spend on buying product and I’m doing what I do. I thought that when I got to the Oval Office, I would have a beautiful health care bill.
BTS: She is the teacher.
DJT: She is a great human being. But she’s not a capable person. A sick person. But probably smart.
BTS: And actually, I’d like to join you, but I have class tomorrow.
DJT: Doing my nice buildings all over. In and out, in and out.
BTS: He’s not just the big man on campus.
DJT: They have these beautiful soft towels. Very good towels. The cheering was deafening. I’m here, and sometimes I ask myself, “How did I ever get here?”
[Talking Heads, “Once In A Lifetime” plays]
JS: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 31 of Intercepted.
DJT: We’re going to have to do something with Obamacare because it’s failing. Henry Kissinger does not want to pay 116 percent increase in his premiums, but that’s what’s happening. And it’s actually getting worse. It’s getting worse by the — by the minute.
JS: Donald Trump welcomed back to one of the most heinous war criminals in US history, Henry Kissinger, back to the White House on Tuesday, and Trump used this horrid villain as his poster boy for trying to overturn Obamacare and strip millions of people of healthcare.
Now, we should say that Kissinger supporters are equal opportunity war crimes apologists. Hillary Clinton desperately tried to get Kissinger to endorse her in 2016 and other Democrats have heaped praise on Kissinger over the years. Let’s be clear here Henry Kissinger is the man who played a crucial role in the killing of more than a million Vietnamese, and the saturation bombing of Laos, the genocide in East Timor. This is a man who helped overthrow governments, supported murderous death squads and holds the distinction of being one of the premier killers of the modern era.
Trump wheels out the almost-lifeless corpus of Kissinger for a White House photo op and complains that Kissinger doesn’t want to pay more for his healthcare. How many of Kissinger’s victims are around to weigh in on the quality or cost of their health care? And also Henry Kissinger is hardly eating cat food and living check to check. No, for his atrocious war crimes, he has been awarded this noble statesman status, celebrated by Democrats and Republicans alike.
But it is fitting that Trump used Kissinger as his latest model for health care reform, because it’s all based on a big lie. Just like Kissinger’s status is based on the big lie that wars make us great or that Vietnam was something other than a massive string of war crimes. But maybe there is truth in there somewhere: that the preferences of Henry Kissinger mean more than the health of poor and working people in this country, or the lives of the people who die at the hands of U.S. wars.
I want Henry Kissinger to keep his government-subsidized health care, but in a prison cell. Because that’s the only thing Henry Kissinger should be a poster boy for.
Eric Reid: This is really disheartening when everything that you were raised and everything I was raised on, was to be the best person I can be, to help people that need help, and the vice president of the United States is trying to confuse the message that we’re trying to trying to put out there.
JS: This weekend, Vice President Mike Pence spent a quarter of a million dollars of U.S. taxpayer money to very publicly make clear that his boss, Donald Trump, will pull out all the stops, make unlimited resources available, tirelessly raise public awareness around the clock to confront the growing menace of black athletes protesting police killings of black and brown people.
Pence clumsily staged his version of a protest on Sunday when he pretended to be going to an NFL football game in Indiana. The press corps traveling with him was told to wait outside, because the Secret Service believed Pence might only be inside for a brief time. Sure enough, when the national anthem began and players knelt in protest, Mike Pence and his wife left the stadium. Hilariously, Pence posted a photo on social media celebrating his walk out. But it turns out that it was a picture from 2014 that Mike Pence had just reposted. These guys seriously cannot do anything without screwing it up.
Anyway, Trump, of course, couldn’t contain himself and he rushed to take credit for Mike Pence’s walk out, tweeting that he had ordered Pence to leave if such disrespect was shown to the flag. Now, the reason I’m bringing this up is to make this point: Mike Pence’s little stunt wasn’t really about confronting disrespect for the flag or the national anthem. This was about Trump showing his base that he won’t tolerate such actions from black people even if they’re millionaires.
Trump also privately intervened in the operations of NFL franchises, as his buddy Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, made clear when he said that Trump had reminded him of the NFL game ops manual. Now, that’s a document that dates back to the Vietnam War era, and it says that players should stand for the national anthem and remain silent while doing so out of respect. Jones said that he would bench any players who disrespect the anthem or the flag.
Jerry Jones: The policy and my — my actions are going to be that if you do not honor and stand for the flag in a way that a lot of our fans feel that you should, if that’s not the case, then you won’t play.
JS: Trump celebrated Jones’s position by tweeting, “A big salute to Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who will bench players who disrespect our flag. Stand for anthem or sit for game.”
This isn’t really about the NFL or the flag. This is about white supremacy. Trump’s position on this speaks to a long tradition in the U.S. of powerful white people despising disobedient or uppity black people. Contrast Trump’s passion and his time commitment to attacking black athletes protesting police killings with how he talks about the white supremacists in Charlottesville, where a neo-Nazi ran over and killed a woman, where white supremacists gang beat an unarmed black man.
DJT: Very fine people — on both sides.
JS: Contrast Trump’s obsession with black athletes disrespecting the flag and anthem to how he talks about John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war.
DJT: I supported him. He lost. He let us down. But, you know, he lost. So I never liked him as much after that, because I don’t like losers.
JS: Now, I personally do not believe that John McCain is a war hero. Vietnam was a massive war crime. But what’s interesting here is that Trump, who scrupulously avoided going to Vietnam, by the way, is attacking a guy who was a prisoner of war and then screaming constantly about black athletes disrespecting veterans.
Contrast Trump’s dedication to eradicating black athletes protest to his response to the ongoing horrors in Puerto Rico. His administration just let the Jones Act waiver expire, making it even more difficult for aid to reach Puerto Rico. I mean listen to how Trump talks about his now-infamous throwing of paper towels at hurricane survivors.
DJT: They had these beautiful soft towels. Very good towels. And I came in and there was a crowd of a lot of people and they were screaming and they were loving everything, and we were — I was having fun. They were having fun. They said, “Throw them to me. Throw them to me Mr. President.”
JS: Donald Trump responds to black and brown people in a radically different way than he does to white people. Puerto Ricans in his mind should have been grateful to him, and any Puerto Rican who complains is dirt. He can call John McCain a loser for getting shot down in Vietnam, but black athletes can’t exercise their First Amendment rights. Black athletes are sons of bitches, but the white shooter in Las Vegas is probably smart, according to Trump. This is a pattern that only the willfully ignorant can deny. And this isn’t just about Trump at home. Trump’s foreign policy it’s also rooted in white supremacy. He’s re-escalating the war in Afghanistan. He’s opened a criminal spigot to Saudi Arabia to keep the bombs dropping on Yemen. He has eased the restrictions for the U.S. military on killing civilians. He’s considering expanding CIA drone operations. And Trump is threatening to wipe North Korea, a country of 25 million people, off the map.
Part of the horrors emanating from Trump involves style, and some involve substance. President Obama was a belligerent war president. So was Bill Clinton. So is Donald Trump. Trump is not really taking the war positions he is because he’s Donald Trump. He’s doing what American presidents do, albeit with some tweaks and differences here and there. But Trump says things that are horrifying. He openly lies. He chooses to inflame situations. So how much of Trump is who he is and what he believes and how much of it is how he does it and how he speaks.
Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote an article about Trump that has sparked a lot of discussion and debate. The title alone is very provocative: “The First White President.” It’s a fascinating read and it addresses the ways in which the eight year presidency of the first black president, Barack Obama, was seized on by trying to make his way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the piece, Coates write, “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a ‘piece of ass.'”
Howard Stern: By the way, your daughter.
DJT: She’s beautiful.
HS: Can I say this — a piece of ass?
JS: Coates continues: “that is the point of white supremacy — to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible. Trump truly is something new — the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so, it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates has a new book that has just been released, it’s a collection of his writings, and it’s called, “We Were Eight Years in Power” and he joins me now. Ta-Nehisi, welcome to Intercepted.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Thanks for having me.
JS: I think a lot of the focus and I think a lot of people on social media, when your piece first came out, you know, on “The First White President,” I think there was a lot of people commenting on it that didn’t actually read it. That was the sense that I had in the kind of initial blast. I was just talking to Ai Wei Wei here, and he was saying that, that to him Donald Trump is, is only more of a kind of extroverted version of what we’ve seen from the United States presidency in general.
And I’m wondering if you see it that way or if you think that — I mean, clearly we have a guy who is saying things and emboldening people that it’s sort of become like, you don’t really do that publicly you know if you hold political office. You have the Roy Moores of the world —
TNC: But he’s a profane version of what a real American attitude to the rest of the world actually is.
JS: Right, and that was his perception. This is guy who hasn’t been in the United States for decades, he’s in China, he’s under assault there. That was his perception. I’m just wondering what you think of that analysis.
TNC: I am ill qualified, but that feels true. I would never have thought of it like that. I just — it’s funny, you know, even like, when um, the book ends, sort of with an international perspective. Because I think that one of the things like, when you’re in a group that’s oppressed, there’s a tendency sometimes to take comfort in that oppression. The idea that it makes you noble or exempts you from certain things, as opposed to seeing how maybe you’re tied to other folks’ oppression.
And, so like, you know, in this version of “The First White President,” there’s a part where I talk about, you know, to the rest of the world as Americans, maybe, you know black people are white too. Do you understand? Like, in the concept of whiteness, as, as power, as oppressive power. We are all, you know, actually kind part of this. You know? And so hearing that, I’m not shocked. I’m not shocked. That’s a fascinating concept. You just blew my mind.
JS: I mean, you’re writing the Obama presidency was you know, they say, “a prophet is not someone that that sees the future but understands the times in which we live.” And I always felt reading your writing about Obama that it was so unusual because it felt like the kind of analysis that you would get years removed from, you know, the reality that we’re in.
But the sort of flip side of Obama on a policy level was that when it came down to the brass tacks, this was a guy engaged in initiating new wars, sustaining old wars, you know, filled with contradictions. I think a lot of people projected onto Obama who they wanted him to be, when in reality a lot of his policies were sort of center or center-right in the context of American politics.
How do you reconcile that, the kind of minutia of what he did to build U.S. empire and the wars and all of that stuff, with his, sort of, you know, symbolic importance, but also who he was as president. It’s so different than for Trump. Does it matter?
TNC: Yeah, it does matter but I think you’re asking an important question. And I think, frankly, I am always called to that kind of reconciliation when I study any other president. How do I reconcile the fact that Lincoln, you know, ultimately led the war that emancipated four million enslaved African-Americans, and, at the same time, you know, very much held white supremacist attitudes, advocated the colonization of black people out of this country? How do I reconcile Lyndon Johnson, pioneer in terms of civil rights legislation and the Vietnam War? How do I reconcile Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his efforts in strengthening the social safety net yet doing that on the back of white supremacy in the south? It’s tough man, it’s tough.
You know, very interesting, I was in Chicago doing some reporting. Right? I was arguing with these guys you know, in the academy with a bunch of historians. I love arguing with historians.
And I said, “Obama is a great president.” And they go, “Ohhhh!” And they all get upset, right? And I said, “Well, you know, the question you have to ask is “by the scales of what the American presidency is, not he’s a great person, but in terms of what the American presidency is, he’s a great.” And, you know, we’re going back and forth, and I said, “Okay, so who’s a great president?” And one of the professors says, “Lyndon Johnson, without Vietnam.” (laughing) She was joking.
JS: She was trolling you. Real nice troll.
TNC: But one of the other guys said something really profound. I said, “Listen, you have to say what, you know, within an American context, given the populace we have given that we can’t elect a new people, what would be great.” And he said, guy said to me — he was a philosophy major, which I should I’ve known, he said, “I’m not invested in those categories. I reject the whole argument.” And I left thinking about that the whole night, like, maybe the presidency, and I haven’t fully fleshed this out, but maybe the presidency in terms of what it is, we shouldn’t think of people who have that job as great, ever. Like, it’s not possible to be great. Implicit in it are certain things that are not possible to salute. Are not possible to reconcile.
Obviously, I advocate participation in the democratic process, but maybe that should always be done with like, a kind of skepticism of any sort of, you know, rah rah rah, et cetera. It was actually sort of a profound point. I haven’t, as you can tell, fully decided what that meant. But it was a check. It definitely stopped me from calling him great. You know, it was an important check.
JS: I mean, it was interesting, when Obama was running first time, when he was running for president, you had to look for it because it wasn’t part of the stump speech. But Obama has had this incredible grasp of history in this country that generally is thought of like what Howard Zinn wrote about and not the kind of examples that a presidential candidate gives on the campaign trail.
He talked about, you know, the workers on trains in this country, the porters, and others and the strikes and the idea that some leaders were saying at the time in the 1940s, “you have to make me do it. You have to hold me accountable.”
And, you know, you always got this sense, I always got this sense that Obama.
TNC: Isn’t that myth, too? I think that quote is —
JS: Yes! But this is what I’m saying, this, the examples that Obama would give and this is what I’m getting at —
JS: The examples that Obama would give, had this kind of foundation to them that was different than, big mainstream political candidates typically would have had. But if you peel back the layers of them, they’re almost like a neo-liberal version of Howard Zinn, rather than like any attachment to a truly radical different idea.
TNC: Yeah, no I think in the book, the phrase I use, “conservative revolutionary,” by which I mean, the fact of a black president was revolutionary but he’s an establishmentarian. He’s conservative, clearly, you know, he believes in American institutions. He believes that, you know, America is, and he would just say this unadulterated, a force for good in the world. He probably would have more nuance making that argument than George Bush would have, if you sat down and had him talk about it. But he believes in — I’ll just say this — in the country in a way that I probably don’t.
The question I always have, though, is what is possible for an American president? And maybe that takes me back to the logic that I should have rejected in the first place, but where are our expectations for what it should be? And I’m not saying in terms of what should we protest and what should we not, which should we object to what should we not. But his foreign policy, specifically — were you surprised? I wasn’t really surprised.
JS: No, and, in fact, I mean I, but maybe. I mean you and I are from the same generation. I mean part of it was that I came of age or became an adult when Bill Clinton was president.
JS: And the first war that I covered was under Clinton. I was in Iraq in the 90s. I was in Yugoslavia in the 90s. And I think maybe because I ended up becoming a reporter, I didn’t really view Bush as this epic departure from Clinton. I mean clearly Iraq was a, you know, a mass killing on a mass scale, but Clinton was, you know, Noam Chomsky called it “the new military humanism,” you know he wrapped everything in humanitarian — you know, these cruise missiles that were raining down, it was for humanitarian purposes. But when you look at it, it’s a pretty consistent — there’s never been some huge circuit breaker.
TNC: Well isn’t the difference that Bush, especially after 9/11, had a vision of remaking the world. Now, obviously Clinton would rain down bombs on people, but the idea, for instance, of remaking Yugoslavia, you know, wasn’t present.
I think also those guys, I mean not to get too off subject, but I think they were haunted by Rwanda. I think that that looms large in a lot of peoples’ minds and the price of not intervening and what that could look like.
JS: No doubt about that. And you had the neoconservatives, I mean people throw that around a lot right.
JS: But these were people that spent the eight dark years of the Clinton era preparing a game plan for the day they took power.
JS: I’m wondering what you think of the kind of recent embrace of George Bush, but also people like Bill Kristol and David Frum and others, by kind of liberals or Democrats, et cetera, because of the Trump-Russia stuff.
TNC: It makes me uneasy. You know, it makes me uneasy because, I mean I guess on one level, they are taking a somewhat courageous route in the sense that they’re not, simply — because there’s people who are clearly not doing this, like a Tucker Carlson or a Dan Nesters, who I actually believe know better. You know, and are just, you know, turning it into a complete racket. So, you know, we can at least say that.
But I don’t think it should obscure the fact that we have profound differences with folks. I just don’t think that that should be missed or forgotten. I certainly don’t forget it.
George W. Bush: States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.
JS: Yeah, I mean I struggle with this on a personal level, too. Like, is there any forgiveness that anyone should ever lend David Frum for writing the “axis of evil” speech?
TNC: Yeah, I mean, if, certainly, I mean, I probably could imagine some things he could — you know what it would require? “I was completely wrong about that. It led to a massive human humanitarian catastrophe and I just really, really shouldn’t have done it. And it will affect all the work I do going forward. I will always remember that.” I don’t think people should necessarily be banished from public life. But they need to be straight up, you know what I mean? They need to be really, really straight up about their mistakes and not act like this was some game of chess or something.
JS: I think you’re right on the money there. I hadn’t thought about it in the way you just put it, but I think that’s the biggest part of what I find offensive about the whole thing is that it’s like, “All is forgiven.” And it’s like a million people died in that war.
TNC: That’s right. That’s right.
JS: And it’s like, no I’m sorry, I’m not going to just retweet you talking about the latest Russia shit.
TNC: No, no, no, but we just don’t see it. I keep talking about this piece because it really bugged me out, but Evan Osnos did this piece on North Korea in the New Yorker. And I think one of most effective things he was able to show — obviously, you know, North Korea, totalitarian, authoritarian state — but they have a memory of the Korean War that Americans just have no idea about. You know Curtis Lemay raining down bombs. And that means something to them. And we just have no access to it. Do you know what I mean? And maybe to some extent it was always this way, but in terms of, you know, the notion that what is wrong with Iraq is the number of American soldiers who died, that’s what was actually wrong with Iraq. That sort of perspective, it’s scary. You know, it’s scary.
JS: Well and you see with the take a knee protests, and it’s now so far away from the original point that Colin Kaepernick and others were making. It’s been co-opted by some, or it’s been characterized as an attack on the troops by others.
But, it’s like, there’s a long history in this country of connecting the dots between what the American government says it is and what the American government does around the world. And we’re, nowadays, we’re called to some kind of bizarre superficial patriotism or else we’re against the troops. And it’s like: what’s wrong with saying what the troops did is criminal? Them being sent there was criminal.
TNC: You can’t say that.
JS: Right, and especially, black men can’t say that even more.
TNC: And here’s the worst part. There was nothing he could have done. So, initially, people don’t remember this, but he was actually sitting down on the bench, and that was thought to be disrespectful.
He went and talked to a veteran, who apparently had some politics, and said, “Listen, I get it, you want to protest one thing. What might make this go over better is if you took a knee.”
People forgot that taking a knee actually was the compromise. It was the attempt to show some level of respect, you know? There’s nothing he could have done differently that would have made this OK.
JS: We should have a split-screen, though, of Kaepernick or other people on their knee, although, I mean, Kaepernick is not on a team right now, and then like, any random white guys sitting on their couch with their feet up during the national anthem. Like, “That’s your respect for the national anthem.”
TNC: Right right right. That’s true.
JS: I think it’s in part, because they are black men doing that.
TNC: No, that’s definitely it. And then there’s the entire labor politics of the NFL, which I think play into this. People do not think of those guys as workers, despite the fact they basically play for free all through college, you know, bash their brains in, you know, subject themselves to all sorts of, you know, illness, and injury.
I mean, again, to the point of like your brain, like literally, your brain being affected, go into a league in which you have,workers, who are making millions, but, you know, effectively working for people who make billions. And then are told to be grateful. In a way where the owners, you know, are not told to, you know, be grateful. They have all sorts of problems in terms of health care and once they get out of the league, after basically preparing their entire lives to do one thing and transitioning out. It’s very hard for black men or black people in that position to make a case for themselves as actual workers. No one sees them that way. These are people who are lucky, who should be grateful. You know? I mean it’s obscene.
JS: Yeah and that is a lot of the pushback that’s written by, you know, the thought pieces and that’s basically the point: Why should we have sympathy for any of these, you know, multimillionaires?
TNC: But they have sympathy for the owners.
JS: Right. Of course.
TNC: You know, I mean if you’re a billionaire, you know, no one sees, you know, Donald Trump as lucky, you know? I mean no one perceives Donald Trump as lucky, you know? I mean people perceive him as, you know, a really smart businessman.
JS: I want to ask you about reparations, but something you said about North Korea I think is relevant to this. You know, you were talking about how North Koreans still live with that memory of the U.S. role in destroying Korea, and also in that war.
In the United States, when these shootings happen, like we saw in Las Vegas, immediately the Sean Hannity’s of the world go to, “Oh, well look at Chicago.” And they talk about the murder rates in Chicago and the guns that are in Chicago. What’s interesting about all of this is, no one ever raises the psychological and economic impact that slavery continues to have to this day. Do you do you think that there is ever a time that we could have in our lifetime, where the political discussion of reparations would ever be on the table?
TNC: The important thing is to say what that would look like and then, you know, we can answer the question that way.
Most of the time when people conceive of reparations, they conceive of like a judgment from the Supreme Court or like Congress, you know, passing a bill to decide by the president. But I think much more likely to happen if this were to happen, would be a wave of smaller individual acts of reparations. For instance, you know, there was a reparations bill in the City Council in Chicago for police brutality. There have been reparations; I think it was in North Carolina, where they were sterilizing women. I believe in Virginia, also, when they shut down the schools during a massive resistance to Brown vs. the Board.
I think what you would see is a growing consensus that in fact, government and private business on all levels of society, you know, colluded to put black people in certain situations. As far as I’m concerned, to pilfer and plunder wealth from those communities. And it would be a series of much, much smaller things. I don’t think it would be one federal act.
Could you get to that in our lifetime? I don’t think so. I think the work of this, and I encourage people to think about this like it’s a multi-generational struggle. I think the work of this lifetime is to get people to at least acknowledge the case. You know, for there to be no doubt — one of the things I took a lot of heat over for “The Case for Reparations” was not outlining an actual plan. But that’s because people don’t believe the case. I mean the first thing is to get, actually, people to admit, “Yes, you’re owed.” You know what I mean? And then maybe you can have a conversation about it, how do we actually, you know, remedy that debt?
But I think that’s this generation’s work. I mean if we get, by the end of my lifetime, for people to say, “Yeah, you know, we really screwed you all.” I mean that would be serious, serious progress.
JS: Why don’t we talk more in this country about why certain areas of this country are the way that they are, with housing, with economics —
TNC: So, there’s a way that people see the Civil War. And the historian James McPherson calls it the violent football game theory of the Civil War, where there actually are no real principles at stake, where, you know Southern people acted honorably, Northern people acted honorably, they just had some sort of disagreement and then you know there was reunion. And, that was for the better, we’re sorry we had the Civil War.
And slavery is not included in that. Part of the period after Reconstruction, and real reunification of the United States, was telling a story. Telling, that story actually, telling the story of the violent football game. The South didn’t have to feel bad about doing anything; the North didn’t have to feel bad about doing anything, and expunging black people from the historical record. It is only within that generation of historians that came up in the 1960s, and a tradition of black historians who were basically completely ignored, it’s only, within, you know, the lifetime, you know, of historians who are still living right now, that people begin to see Reconstruction and Redemption after the Civil War for what it actually was.
And so I think, if I can be an optimistic and hopeful, that the case has not yet filtered down. You know what I mean? It took a long time to build that myth. Immediately afterwards, you know, the generals who fought with Robert E. Lee begin building this lost cause mythology, you know, and it, you know, crescendos with, you know, “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” And people believe it.
Such to the point that HBO is announcing this show “Confederate,” and they still don’t understand what’s wrong. They just don’t, they don’t get it. They don’t get why that’s wrong. And to some extent, unforgiving.
It’s like, when I heard Hillary Clinton during the campaign, you know, talk about you know, how bad Reconstruction was and if Lincoln was alive, and — and, the thing I had to remember, as wrong as that was, was that was probably the logic when she went to school. That was, you know, probably — and I’m talking about like, in the college, into her college years. That was probably what she was taught because that was, what the theory was. We just haven’t, we haven’t come out of the haze yet, man.
Hillary Clinton: You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive, and I don’t what our country might have been like had he not been murdered. But I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together, more quickly.
JS: We were just talking with, the other day, the historian Jeanne Theoharis, she has a book coming out in January about the sanitizing of the legacies of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and she also wrote a biography of Rosa Parks, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” that’s phenomenal.
You write about Malcolm X and I’m wondering what your assessment is of how Malcolm X appears in our discourse today and the way that he’s sort of referenced. He’s not often referenced in American politics, but in American culture Malcolm X is often referenced. What’s your analysis of how of how he is generally remembered these days?
TNC: Obviously he’s been softened and made accessible to broad groups of people. The question I wonder is, like, well, I mean, you know, I feel like I’m always asking this question. It goes back to the question about you know Barack Obama and the presidency: What is like the alternative? Does this ultimately happen to any, you know, sort of, revolutionary figure. I mean you really could make the same case about Martin Luther King. I mean people have forgotten that from the highest, at the highest levels of government, King was harassed until the end of his days. They think like, you know, him and Johnson and Kennedy were all great friends, and you know, they forget that they authorized the bugging, and the harassment. And so he’s been softened, too.
But if you’re going to have a national holiday for King, is this what societies do? Like, do they turn, you know, these revolutionary figures — like, do they have to soften them in order for them to gain the kind of acceptance that, you know, the people who follow him, black folks seeing him, actually want?
JS: Well in a bizarro world that’s sort of what happened with Obama at the beginning of his run. A lot of people projected onto him what they wanted him to be and I think that 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention was a very sophisticated piece of propaganda.
TNC: I hated that speech.
JS: No but it was a sophisticated piece of propaganda.
TNC: No, it was, it was. It really was.
Barack Obama: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America. There’s the United States of America.
JS: Even, his October 2002, speaking against the war, but I do think both black and white people.
TNC: “I’m not against all wars.”
JS: Right, right.
TNC: I’m only against stupid wars, yeah.
Barack Obama: I don’t oppose war in all circumstances, and when I look out over this crowd today, I know there is no shortage of patriots or patriotism. What I do oppose is a dumb war.
JS: But people would project on to him, “Oh, he’s the antiwar candidate.” But it’s a similar phenomenon that we’re — that’s happening with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but in a different realm. Right? Sanitizing them later. But with Obama, it was like, making him what we want him to be.
TNC: You know, my greatest failure, as a journalist is that I think I’ve gone pretty deep on American society, but I don’t have comparisons across, in other societies. Are there other places where people have a realistic apprehension of their heroes? You know, where this is kind of sanitization does not happen or is myth, and all of the problems of myth, like a necessary element, in order to make a society cohere in some sort of way, in order, you know, so that we aren’t all like out in the streets killing each other?
JS: What’s your answer thus far to your own question?
TNC: I hope that it’s not necessary. My intuition is that it is. But then I’m, you know, I guess I’m conflicted on that, because, I think, like, you know, this is a country that you know says that holds itself as the light of the world in terms of democracy, that believes that it’s ahead. And so I don’t know that the standard of — if that’s your logic, if that’s what you’re saying, you’re not just saying “We’re just one among.” You believe that you’re touched by God, if that’s what you believe, then I don’t know if that standard works. And certainly there’s a history of ideas, so it doesn’t mean that because all societies are this way, that society necessarily has to be this way.
So, I don’t know. But I know in my work, it’s, in fact, even in the times interviewing Obama like, you know, when I would go and I would talk to him, I would always have to come home and face myself on that question: Okay, Ta-Nehisi, but you have to articulate some other way within the constraints of what the American populace is, within the constraints of what America itself is. You have to articulate some other vision. And they weren’t policy points where I could say, or things he did, specifically, like, “You could’ve done this, you could’ve done that.” But in a broader sense, in terms of what you’re talking about. I think you’re talking about something more, you know, global you know in terms of his policies. I don’t know man, I’ve got to tell you — I always had trouble with that. I always had trouble with that.
JS: What’s your impression in general of Bernie Sanders?
TNC: I think his race in 2016 was really, really important. I think actually having somebody in the race, in the primary, saying things that ten years ago people thought were unsayable in the Democratic party. Someone, you know, out and out, you know, especially you know in the wake of everything that happened in terms of you know, you know, the economy and the collapse and everything. Somebody out and out saying, “You know, these guys are villainous and they got away with something.” Somebody, you know, really saying that, somebody not just retreat to, you know, “too big to jail”.
I think, and I believe in that, even if you know, as a critique, we shouldn’t say, “Unless you have a plan.” I actually, I don’t believe that. I think ideas are actually important.
So, I was, encouraged and incredibly heartened that he was in the race. I voted for him in the primary. In terms of my politics, I’m certainly much closer to him than I was, to Hillary Clinton. I think he should have more black and brown people around him. Maybe he’s fixed that, I don’t know. But certainly in the things I heard after the election, it’s —
And I just want to be clear: I don’t think he’s alone in this, right? I think this is actually across the liberal left spectrum. But you can’t say you’re ashamed of the Democratic Party’s ability to speak to the white working class and talk about how you’re from the white working class and then get on some kid who is talking about being a Latino, you’ve got to pick one. You’ve got to pick one. You can’t say it’s identity politics when these people do it, and not, when you do it.
I don’t even think we should adopt that language, which is really, as far as I’m concerned, conservative, right-wing language. I know there’s a critique on that in terms of leftists, but I don’t think we should even be in the business of adopting that language.
I don’t know what’s in conflict about being in favor of single-payer health care. Being in favor of a much, much more robust social safety net. Being aggressively anti-war.
And frankly, saying you’re for reparations.
Now, I understand why he might not say that. Like, I got that! In terms of what I wrote, what bugged me was the complete hand-wavy, you know, aspect of it. From somebody who was so imaginative. You know, if we’re going to be imaginative about those things, you know, be imaginative about these things, too!
In the 1970s, the incarceration rate in this country was roughly about the same as it was in all other, you know, westernized democracies. I guess somewhere between 100 or 200 per 100,000. The last time I checked we were at about 700 per 100,000.
How are we going to get back to normal? You’re going to have to say some things that are not sayable right now. You know what I mean? You are going to have to think in some sort of imaginative way. And when you say those things, it will not be missed that a lot of those people are black. That just won’t be missed. It’s not even missed when you make what looks like, you know, sort of race-less or colorless or identity-less points without identity, that in fact a lot of black people, you know, will be helped. That is — there’s a reason why the ACA, you know, in Glenn Beck’s mouth became reparations. People see it. People see it! And so, I don’t think it’s a fight that can be gotten away from.
I know some folks feel like I’m either/or. I’m not either or, to the extent that I stress race. It’s because I think it’s the missing thing in that platform that’s got to be picked up and directly engaged.
JS: Do you think, though, that the Democratic Party has outgrown its value at all? If Bernie had, of course he would’ve gone down as the man who gave us Trump, either way, but he already he is blamed that way by a lot of Hillary’s people.
TNC: I don’t see him that way.
JS: I know you don’t. I’m saying, that’s how Team Hillary presents it.
TNC: She says it in the book.
JS: Yeah, yeah, of course. But if Bernie Sanders had said, “You know what, this is too corporate of an agenda for me, it’s too soft on all of these things, I’m going to run an independent campaign,” it would’ve shattered the Democratic Party.
TNC: It would’ve. It would’ve.
JS: But would it have been a bad thing?
JS: You think so?
TNC: I do, I do, I do.
JS: Trump won anyway, so.
TNC: Yeah, Trump won anyway. As I understand it, what happened was he realized too late that he could actually win. I think that’s what happened. I think initially, you know, there was some sense, “Listen, I don’t want to, you know,” to the country, I think his sense was, “I don’t want to injure anybody, I don’t want a Republican to win.” And then it became clear he actually had quite a bit of appeal. And that people were, you know, a lot of people actually holding their nose voting for Hillary.
I think that, like our system of government, in general, is limited. There was a great column about a week ago in The Times from Michelle Goldberg on the possibility of minority rule and, man, that scares the hell out of me. I mean, I just the very — take the Electoral College, take the ability, take the fact that we don’t have a national voting system, you know, which you have in other countries, that States can, you know, make their own laws and, you know, mess around with the districts. What scares me is — you know, I guess we’re already here! I mean, what am I saying? You know, what scares me is if we’re going to get there. Where, you know, on a presidential level, you know, and I guess to some degree on a Senate level right now, you don’t really have the will of people actually being represented.
That is a bad, bad scenario. That’s a really, really, really bad place to be. What I’m trying to say is I think the whole set-up is really problematic and will increasingly become so, especially as the demographics of the country change. You combine that with the systemic problems that were already there: I don’t know. I see trouble.
JS: Last two questions. First, what are you reading these days? I know you’re on tour. What are you reading, and what are you listening to?
TNC: I am reading Ron Chernow’s great Ulysses Grant biography. It’s excellent. Exceptional. I highly, highly recommend. It’s long, but that don’t even feel like, I think it’s one of the —
See, it’s interesting, you were just talking about reconciling? And Grant is an interesting guy because he was born into an abolitionist family. He marries, you know, into a slaveholding family. He goes off, you know, and serves in the Mexican War, comes home, he’s dirt broke, can’t do anything, can’t make a living. And through his wife’s family, he inherits an enslaved African-American, and within a relatively brief period, I don’t know when, he goes to the courthouse and he says, you know, he emancipates the slave.
And I was thinking the other day, this is like maybe the most heroic thing like I’ve seen somebody do in their private life, who, you know went on to become president. Because he was dirt broke and that was a lot of money he just sort of he — like, he didn’t say, “I want to be rid of this, so I’m going to sell it. I’m going to sell this person.” He parted with that, and, despite what I said about greatness, I love that dude. I love how he was completely underestimated. I love how people thought he was stupid when, in fact, he was a great, you know, reader and ended up being a great writer, wrote arguably the best presidential memoirs. So, I’m really loving that book.
In terms of what I’m listening to, I’m listening to a ton of Marvin Gaye right now. I know that’s old but I’m listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye.
JS: All right, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
TNC: Thanks for having me.
JS: Ta Nehisi-Coates is the author of the new book, “We Were Eight Years in Power.” We’re going to post the full interview I did with Ta Nehisi-Coates later in the week. We also talked about his Black Panther comic books, the Democratic Party, and much more. That will be on theintercept.com
And you are listening to Intercepted. When we come back, we’re going to talk about “The Color of Money” and the ongoing impact of slavery on black communities in the United States.
And the Egyptian government has launched a series of attacks on the already oppressed gay community in Egypt. The Egyptian government, it seems, is afraid of the influence of the Arab-American band, Mashrou’ Leila. We’re going to speak with the group’s lead singer and listen to the music that dictators seem to fear. Stay with us.
JS: Hey, this is Jeremy.
I just snuck away from our show to once again thank you to all of those people who have become sustaining members of Intercepted, they did so by going to theintercept.com/join. I would encourage anyone listening now who wants to keep this show growing, to keep it strong, to help support us in our mission to expose injustice and hold the powerful accountable to join the more than thousand people who have already become sustaining members of Intercepted by going to theintercept.com/join We have a lot of great thank-you gifts that we’re offering in return for your support of this program. We can’t do it without the community of people that have risen up around this program. When I say we can’t do it, I mean we can’t grow this show without your support. We are so grateful for all of you who have already offered your sustaining donations to Intercepted. If you’re one of the people that hasn’t yet contributed, join the more than 1,000 others, who have said, “Yes, we want this show to continue. We want it to grow.”
Once again, thank you, thank you, thank you on behalf of everyone here at Intercepted. Now back to the show.
JS: Okay. We are back here on Intercepted. And if you really want to talk about violence in Chicago and you want to be honest, then you need to talk about economics, white supremacy, housing, jobs and the ongoing impact of slavery on modern-day black communities. Abraham Lincoln was from Illinois and when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the black community in the United States owned less than one percent of the country’s wealth. Oh, but that was a long time ago! We had the civil rights movement and a black president! That’s in the past. Wrong.
Today, 153 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the percentage of black ownership of wealth in the United States has barely budged. Now, there’s a lot of academic debate and discussion about why this is. But in the mainstream of American discourse, particularly when we are looking at shootings in places like Chicago, we almost never discuss the historical roots of why things are the way that they are. We never really take on that question why. American presidents, politicians, activists, others — they’ve all offered up plans to change this, ideas to change this. And it often revolves around supporting black entrepreneurs or black businesses or black capitalism.
In the years following the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson and other killings that spurred uprisings from people, the hashtag #blackbank has spread fast. Its aim is to advocate that black people take their money to black banks, spend their money in the community, keep their money in the community. Here’s hip hop artist Killer Mike:
Killer Mike: You can go tomorrow, and you can say, “Until you as a corporation start to speak on our behalf, I want all my money, and I’m taking all my money to Citizen’s Trust, and I will deal with the inconvenience of an ATM charge.” In fact, we can sit down Citizen’s Trust, and we can tell them some of those smaller banks, we gonna get you to waive your ATM charges, if we move this amount of money to your bank, then what we’re going to do is to start, to divert money away from the system. And this works. I’m saying: “Take your money out of this dog’s hands, out of their paws, take your money.”
JS: Now what Killer Mike is saying sounds like a sound idea. But is it? An incredible new book offers an enlightening look at the history of black banks and their complicated position in the U.S. And it raises profound questions about the enduring legacy of slavery reconstruction and whether the deck is already stacked so heavily against black-owned banks, that they may actually reinforce the economic apartheid that has defined American society from the very beginning.
That book is called “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap” by Mehrsa Baradaran. She’s a professor of law at the University of Georgia. I will also say that this book is about so much more than black banks. It’s really an exhaustive investigation into the history of economic racism in the United States.
Mehrsa Baradaran joins us now. Mehrsa, welcome to Intercepted.
Mehrsa Baradaran: Thank you so much for having me.
JS: Start at the beginning and sort of talk about the economic conditions of black people in the United States.
MB: Yes, so blacks came as a labor, but they were also capital. I mean they were owned and they were sort of liquid property. Right? You could have a, I call the slave-backed securities. They were collateral for loans, they were used, they were bought and then they were, you could get credit on your slaves. So, this was, you know, this was property like we dealt with any kind of property. And they built tremendous fortunes for those who own the slaves. And so not only could you extract the labor, but you could also use it as, you know, anyone would accrue wealth, sort of intergenerational wealth, you would pass it on to your children and you would have this asset that would accrue.
Even after the Civil War you have a system set up, you know, through convict-leasing, through sharecropping, through the black codes, all sorts of you know Jim Crow-era laws. Pre-Jim Crow, through Jim Crow, to extract labor from blacks without giving them rights, and especially without giving them the ability to own capital, to own property.
Because if blacks are, you know, they own property and they own capital, then they become self-sufficient and become, you know, they can have self-determination in their communities and you can’t extract the labor. So, a lot of the law of the legal codes of the South and then the North were built on this idea of keeping blacks as labor.
JS: Just briefly explain Reconstruction.
MB: So, Reconstruction is, you know, we freed the slaves and now, you know, they need to be integrated into the American capitalist society. And it was very much about, you know, land, really. I mean the premise was that you worked and there’s just been this huge injustice and now we’re going to give them land they can cultivate themselves and plant and be self-sufficient.
So, Reconstruction was, you know, there was a Freedmen’s Bureau, there was a job training, there was, you know, schools and all of that. And, and it was you know violently overthrown by the South. It was, you know, first through just you know lynch mobs and things like that and then through politics you know that white supremacists got control of the state houses and you know you would get lynched for being a Republican, for voting Republican in the South.
And the question of land was what really divided and radicalized the southern terrorist, I guess you’d call them, right? Who overthrew this new institution, so Reconstruction was meant to encompass a bunch of these different things. What ended up happening, Johnson vetoes it. Andrew Johnson, and the one thing that he doesn’t veto is the Freedman Savings Bank. That remains and this is the story that I start the book off with.
The Freeman Savings Bank was this philanthropic, charitable venture. It was supposed to be, you know, instead of getting land, we’ll give you a savings account. I mean they weren’t getting paid fair wages, but you work and save up your money and you’ll buy land yourself. And what happens is you’ve got this huge pool of capital and the freed slaves really were attracted to this bank because they assumed that it was backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government. And the reason assumed it was because the bank notes came with the flag draped all over them, and Abraham Lincoln signed it into law, the bank was created by Congress and the stated purpose of it was to safeguard the deposits of the Freedmen.
And, and so they brought in these deposits, and then it was this big pool of capital the owners were white, that managers and there was a broad railroad speculation happening. Henry Cook was the manager of the bank, of the deposits and he, his cousin, Jake Cook was a railroad speculator. And so, he put all the money, the deposits into railroad bonds. And they were all lost.
So, half the deposits were lost and as the bank is sort of you know fumbling, they bring in Frederick Douglas to save the bank and restore morale and get the freed slaves to keep their deposits in the bank. And Frederick Douglas lends the bank tens of thousand dollars of his own money. And he’s like, “No, something’s wrong here.” Right? And so, he tells Congress — he’s not a banker, right, Frederick Douglass — he tells Congress, “You’ve got to shut it down. So that we can save what deposits we can.”
Congress shuts it down. No one’s ever prosecuted. I mean there’s a huge financial theft, looting, really, of these savings funds and it never goes prosecuted.
JS: Who had their money in the Freedman’s Bank?
MB: It was hundreds of thousands of free slaves. I mean it was millions of dollars. In today’s money, I think is something like $1.5 billion dollars of money. And this is — imagine how hard it was to get that savings at the time and so you know it really sows distrust of institutions, of banks. But it also, you know, through the propaganda campaign, sows the seeds of banking in the black community
So it’s not — you know, within the decade, blacks are like, “Hey forget, forget the federal government. No one’s going to help us. We’re going to help ourselves.” And so, these other black banks start popping up during the Jim Crow era, usually you know linked to a church or fraternal society. Some, you know, social or cultural or religious organization the black community that is developed to meet the needs of the freed slaves. And so, a huge slew of black banks are created during this era and that shifts the focus of the community inwards.
And this is, the, you know, the height of black banking then is after that Great Migration. You know, 1910, 6 million blacks move from the South to the North, they move into the cities, and they’re segregated immediately. Right? So, they say, you know, welcome to New York. Go to Harlem and stay put. You know, through violence and then through zoning and through racial covenants and all sorts of stuff there.
And that is also another blossoming of black-owned banks, because, you know, these are vibrant communities, at least before the Great Depression, they’re making tons of money and so they need a place to put them. And so, there’s hundreds of black banks formed during this time. And the Great Depression wipes those all out.
JS: What happened during the crash in the early part of the 1900s and the subsequent Great Depression with black banks and black communities?
MB: Yeah, so I mean, they say, you know, when Wall Street catches a cold, Harlem gets pneumonia. And essentially, it is that. Because these communities are segregated and there’s concentrated poverty. And so, when you have concentrated poverty and the shot goes through the system, it is felt much more acutely.
So, you know during the era of heavy crashes, black banks are, of course, failing much more so than white banks.
MB: Why? Because they’re, it’s not that technical but a little bit. So, the banks have liabilities that are deposits and they have assets that are loans and then they participate in this money multiplier effect. So, you know, in order to have a good healthy bank, you have really good assets, pretty good deposits. And so, the way black banks, the reason why they’re so much weaker than white banks is because of the concentrated poverty of the community. Their liabilities, their deposits are small and they’re volatile.
So, if someone is poor, they only have a couple hundred dollars to put in a bank. That is good for the person, they can save it. But for the bank, that’s costly. For a bank to be run with a bunch of small deposits, they have to hold a lot more in reserves. That means they can lend less, that means they’re more likely to be run. So, black banks are, you know, there’s more runs on black banks. There are more failures.
And then, on the asset side, you lend on a home. And so, the way that this, you know, to be profitable is, you want to lend a lot. Black banks can’t lend a lot because of that deposit weakness, but they also, when they do lend on a black property, black properties historically, even to today don’t rise in value because they are black properties. Right? People, once a neighborhood sort of flips into becoming a black neighborhood, those houses decline. So, the first few families that buy into a white neighborhood have to pay premium, the black families, and then their house declines.
And so, these banks are holding these loans that are frozen on their balance sheets and they’re underwater, essentially. So, they can never offload them. So, black banks become almost like a sieve through which the money leaves the community, so they can’t hold this money. And that was the premise of the whole system.
But, you know, as I say in the book: you can segregate people, you can’t segregate their money. And, so, you know, really becomes frustrating for these institutions, they cannot make a profit.
JS: You write about several very prominent historical figures: Booker T. Washington Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, up till today, the hip hop artist Killer Mike from Run the Jewels, who were big advocates of black banking and keeping your money in black banks and this idea of black capitalism as a way of kind of uplifting the community. What’s your critique of that? Like, what has been flawed about it?
Because I think this is one of the most fascinating parts of your book, you don’t paint it as, “These were all stooges for, you know, for the white man.” It’s much more nuanced than that and was based in ideas that had, at their heart, some sense of actually wanting to collectively lift up the community. I want you to talk about those figures and sort of some of the analysis you did on that.
MB: Right, so, Booker T. Washington was like, “We will get wealthy and we get respectable and then we will get political power.” We don’t need to vote, you know, you don’t need to give us anything, just, you know, blacks are going to do this ourselves and then we will achieve the status and then you will accept us.
That never happened. So, he has kind of a naive sense, in a way, of doing this but he’s also the leader that’s chosen by these capitalists? Carnegie, Rockefeller, they fund his organization the Tuskegee Institute so I don’t think he is a cynical person. I think he actually — I have read his biography, his autobiography. Where he, I think does, is very optimistic and very naive about what it is. But also — he is the leader that the South could tolerate at the time. I am sure there were other leaders pushing for other stuff that never made it to a pulpit, right?
He’s the leader that gets selected to you know bring voice, but I think this whole theory that you know we will get economic power first and then political power, that remains through other leaders and the thing that I’m saying in this book is you can’t get economic power without political power. Because the way that wealth is created in America is through policy, is through credit, usually, that the government insures and passes out, through these laws. So, I think there is this misunderstanding.
JS: Yeah. Donald Trump is the living embodiment of that. I mean no, I mean really.
JS: And he’s been remarkably idiotic with his money and is just constantly failing upwards but, you know, if you were to give a huge lump sum of money to a business school grad who is African-American, I mean odds are they probably would do better with this than Donald Trump in terms of the decisions they make, but Donald Trump also has the added benefit of being a white man from a very wealthy family.
MB: Right. Yeah. And this is especially becomes true post-New Deal. So, post-New Deal. In this century, the 20th Century, to the extent that any one in the middle class or blue collar class — right, whatever we’re calling that now — gained intergenerational wealth, it was through the FHA through the VA through the GI bill. Those institutions, those credit policies were created post-New Deal. They undergirded the American middle class. They ensured mortgages. You got student loans from it. All of this stuff. And it only went to whites.
After those New Deal-era things are created, white banks blossom. I mean the golden era of American banking is from 1934 to 1970. You had hundreds of thousands of new banks created to peddle these FHA mortgages. I mean there were, your loans were risk-free, because FHA was guaranteeing them. These suburbs were being built. There’s, you know, wide economic prosperity, except when one looks at the ghetto: where these loans didn’t go. So, you have two credit systems that diverged drastically during this time.
And it’s not just home loans, it’s not that the blacks in the ghetto, not only can they not buy in the ghetto because the redlined maps, the FHA says you may not lend to into the ghetto and get these this insurance, but they can’t move out because our racial covenants.
And, so you’re putting people, you know, locking them up. And I call it ghetto because it, you know, it’s not a black community. They didn’t choose that place; it was chosen for them. And then, within that community, there’s a different credit market. So, whites are now with the home loans, we have credit cards. Revolving credit, low-risk, low-interest essentially.
And blacks are still on installment credit, installment credit is incredibly costly. It comes with, you know, repo men and cops, so you’re getting your refrigerator and you’ve got to pay monthly and you’re paying way more for that refrigerator than someone who buys it on credit in the white suburbs will pay for it. Right? And then you have to deal with like, it getting collected and the hustle that’s going on around that. And so, this builds and the tension is — comes to a boiling point during, after the civil rights laws. And this is what’s — what’s a real sort of ironic was after 1964, 1965, and you know, these big monumental civil rights laws are passed, you have urban rioting, Congress meets to discuss what’s happening, and one of the things that they come up with is, well, that they realize as they’re looking at the rioting and the testimony, is that these protesters were going after the lenders. And they were saying things like, “Burn the books.” Right? They would go to their lenders, who were, they saw them as their exploiters. These were the oppressors, right? Everything I’m buying is through these loans and it was an oppressive debt. And so, they’re going at these stores.
The other thing they realized is they’re leaving out black businesses. So, they’re not, you know rioting and looting there. And so, the response, the legislative, sort of, policy response is: let’s just throw more black businesses into the ghetto, that’ll be the solution.
Let’s have black banks lend because black banks surely won’t exploit. Right? But the point is that there is a different credit market and it was created by federal policy.
JS: The specific challenges rooted in the history of black people in this country also applied to black banks. That, that it’s, they’re not starting from a level playing field with other banks and maybe you can explain, you know, why you draw the comparison between the individual and the bank, and what you mean by it.
MB: Yeah, I mean, the same circumstances that create the need for these banks which is segregation, racism, and concentrated poverty, that’s why we have black banks. Those same forces cripple these banks. Right? These banks cannot overcome these forces because banks, it’s a misunderstanding of what banks do for us to expect them to create this wealth.
Now, banks do create wealth. Right? But you need that money multiplier to work and this is what Hamilton understood early on, is banks and the government work together. And he calls, you know, banks allow silver and gold, which was that money at the time, to acquire life. Right? So, banks do, you know, augment money and he talks about that, and that is true, but it doesn’t work in a segregated economy.
And I contrast this with the Italians and so, I get this, well, why did it work for Italian banks and Jewish banks and German banks? And it only worked for them once they became white. You know Italians assimilated first, and then their banks came.
So, one example is the Bank of Italy. The Bank of Italy starts in San Francisco and it’s lending to talents who are also discriminated against and somewhat segregated, never to the extent of blacks, blacks were the most segregated population, historically. But they then get FHA loans and GI Bills, right? The Italians become white for the sake of credit, which is all that matters in my opinion, right?
They become white and the Bank of Italy branches all across California and Bank of Italy becomes Bank of America, the biggest sort of bank in the country. That starts out as an Italian bank. And so, you know, I use that as an example of, “Sure, you can do it. But first you need that credit and Bank of Italy expands through the FHA consumer credit market, which is enabled by this policy.” It’s only post-New Deal that any of these immigrant groups have a chance.
To me, the most interesting part of the research was what happened with the Nixon era. And so, Nixon is the one who adopts the black banking framework and institutionalizes it into the federal government. So, back to the riots, right? You’ve got riots, you’ve got real violence, and then you started to get a white backlash to civil rights where whites are now saying, “That’s enough. We’ve done enough. You’re on your own.”
And then there’s, you know, some communism abroad and so we’re fighting that. Nixon rides this white backlash into office and there are two proposals on the table, right? The civil rights leaders are saying integrate or give reparations. And a lot of the leaders are saying, “Give us reparations. Like, we will just do it ourselves.” And reparations is — I’m using broadly, to say either capital or some way to just infuse capital or credit into the black community.
JS: Was the argument at that time, when people were advocating and I realize you’re using a broad definition of reparations, were they linking it to the economic conditions that you’re describing that go all the way back to slavery? Was that the political argument that they were making?
MB: Yes. Absolutely. Yeah. You know, you’ve got Martin Luther King and Carmichael and others saying: “This is white welfare that’s been happening, and we need to remedy this.” So, that there is that conversation happening.
And Nixon even backs an initial plan that would include, actually, federally funded financial institutions in the ghetto. And Nixon backs that as a candidate, and then, so he’s got to decide: what does he do? He’s not about to propose integration because he’s got the Southern strategy, and the South is, just, there’s no way.
JS: He essentially the adopts black power. You have a direct quote of Nixon using the phrase.
MB: Yes! Yes. Right. So, he links his civil rights agenda to the black power cause.
Richard Nixon: Aspects of black power are very disturbing to us, because it means revolution, it means violence. But other aspects of black power are very constructive, because it means that black people, they want to stand on their own feet. That they want to have black banks, and not just go to white banks. They want to have black businesses and now just go to the white businesses.
MB: What he means is: You own the problem now. We’re going to do anything for you. So, when he means, like, black ownership, he means ownership of the poverty.
And so, he really comes into power with black capitalism as his, you know, institution, so he creates this government apparatus. And he’s half-hearted about this. I mean George Romney is his HUD adviser. I think this is a story that needs to be told about what happens to the GOP from George to Mitt.
But George is, you know, Nixon calls him Mr. Integrationist.
JS: Was governor in Michigan.
MB: Governor in Michigan and becomes Nixon’s HUD advisor, head of HUD.
JS: Housing and Urban Development.
MB: Housing and Urban Development. And Johnson, right before leaving office, like days after Martin Luther King’s death has been trying to put in this housing bill. Right? To equalize housing and to allow for integration. 1968, his parting sort of gift gets this bill passed, so there’s this window, where we could really have, you know, equal housing and George Romney is pushing this. So, he tries to do this open communities thing in Warren, Michigan, where we’re going to put black projects in white communities, so we can integrate. We can have schools that are sharing resources, we can have community resources that are the same. And Nixon pushes him out. I mean Nixon, you see these memos, and he’s like, “Stop this guy. Right?” Like, just get him out.
And he tries to get him to resign several times and so once he’s out, no other HUD administrator has had an integration plan since Romney. So, that’s off the table.
Then we have reparations, that’s off the table. And so, what they give is black capitalism and what this essentially means is they create the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, all these little agencies, and really what it turns out is they just want stories of successful businesses.
And in within the black community, there’s also this business revival as well.
JS: And that’s also rooted in the mythology, I mean Horatio Alger, but also the mythology of the around, surrounding Booker T. Washington’s ideas too.
MB: Exactly. Yeah. I will say, one critic at this times, Andrew Brimmer, Andrew Brimmer is the first black Federal Reserve chairperson. He’s an economist, very smart guy, Harvard educated, son of a sharecropper. And he calls black capitalism “snake oil” he says this is a hoax, don’t fall for it. You, know he’s not heeded. Nobody has heard of Andrew Brimmer, probably because he’s just not, doesn’t become this black leader. Right? But he’s an economist. He knows how banks work. And he tries to spell it out: this is not going to work. Right?
And Nixon’s half-hearted about it anyway. But by the time.
JS: Who was he saying that, who was he telling?
MB: To the black community.
JS: How was he telling the black community that it was snake oil.
MB: He writes in Ebony. You know, he goes to the black community. He also tells Congress. He tries really hard to do this. But it’s sort of out of their hands by this point. By the end of the decade, no one wants to push civil rights any longer. And then so this black capitalism framework lasts, and it is, you know, the SBA loans, it’s, affirmative action comes out of black capitalism and Nixon, money to the black banks, this whole structure that he creates.
And then something odd happens to it. It becomes about — it starts as a remedy to poverty, to this unequal system to segregation. It starts as a response to these ghetto riots. And it becomes about diversity. So, it quickly gets watered down into this colorblind, you know, myth that we’ve been living. We rewrote quickly the history of Martin Luther King and the one, sort of, sentence we took out of the speech was, “I have a dream that you can’t judge me by the color of my skin.”
So now you have John Roberts in 2004 saying the way to stop discriminating based on race is to stop discriminating based on race. In other words, don’t worry about people’s race. Like, we don’t care anymore. We don’t see it. So, then this black capitalism framework turns into minority businesses, and female-owned businesses, and now we’ve got this infrastructure and it still lives on. Right?
Clinton bolsters this. Obama bolsters this. Trump! His new deal with black America: credit to black businesses. So, it’s the same framework: no integration, no reparations, you know, a nice soft response about Martin Luther King. Every president has done this, including Trump. “Oh, Martin Luther King’s a great guy. Frederick Douglass, he’s starting to be noticed more and more, blah blah blah.”
So, you know, pat the old leaders on the head, and do this black business framework. And so, we have this infrastructure now and black banks get you know technical assistance from their regulators. And, and really what started out as a response to economic inequality and poverty has become this, “We need representation and we need, you know, black banks and women banks and Asian banks.” And not to say that we don’t, we certainly do. But it got, the message got watered down. And the way we talk about it now is not the way it was talked about initially.
JS: It’s interesting because your book is, the title of it is: “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.” This last part of it, the racial wealth gap, I think is one of the most fascinating strands of the book. To me, this was kind of jarring when I read it. I knew it was horrendous — I didn’t know how bad it was though. I mean, it’s extreme, like sickening to the nth degree, of percentage of wealth owned by black Americans versus white Americans. The housing statistics that you give, the lack of any progress even in just basic percentages over the course of like a couple hundred years in some cases.
So maybe you can lay out some of the statistics that you uncovered or that you cite.
MB: Yeah, so, something like a third of black families are negative wealth, so no wealth at all. Whites on average, 13 times the amount of wealth. I mean some have even 20 times, I’m being conservative here.
The most staggering statistic is after the Emancipation Proclamation is signed, blacks own .5 percent of the nation’s wealth. This is obvious, right? They were capital and they can’t own it now. Today it’s like 1.5, 2 percent. So there really hasn’t been that much progress. But that makes sense if you understand how other people make wealth.
And the way any of us have wealth is through property. Property ownership that is appreciated and then we can then build that into stock ownership. And yes, income, but income also is related to wealth. So, I think it’s stems from wealth if you grow up in a wealthy community, you can go to a good school, you can go to a good college you can make a good income. If you grow up in a community where the schools are crap, you have no social capital, you don’t know people who know people who have jobs. Right?
All of that stuff is interrelated: crime, debt collection, prison, bail. All of that stuff gets entangled in this lack of wealth. Blacks are four times more likely to get sued for debt, right? They’re more likely than whites to get pushed into this awful bankruptcy regime that is not the more debtor friendly one. There’s all of these statistics and I’m trying to get at the root of it. The root of it is they they’ve never had this buffer of wealth. This buffer of wealth, and we don’t think about it because it is that. It’s a buffer, you don’t face it. But at the end of the day, like, you go to your mom’s house, you can get, get ten thousand dollars from a relative.
And the thing with being in a community of poor people from generations of poor people is you don’t have that. You don’t even have that person that you can call for a couple thousand dollars to get you out of a bind. So where do you go? You get a payday loan. And what does that do? That deprives the wealth that you already — whatever little wealth you had, right?
JS: Mehrsa Baradaran, thank for joining us on Intercepted.
MB: Thank you so much for having me. This is great.
JS: Mehrsa Baradaran is the author of the new book, “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.”
JS: Well, Donald Trump has made clear that he has a very deep affinity for the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And the events of the past few weeks in Egypt have likely solidified that adoration. Egypt is, right now, in the midst of a violent campaign targeting LGBTQ people. And the country is considering new laws that could result in fifteen-year prison sentences for “homosexuality.”
In recent weeks, there have been raids, arrests and surveillance targeting gay Egyptians and it seems to have been sparked by a concert of the Lebanese-American musical group Mashrou’ Leila. The group’s lead singer Hamed Sinno identifies as queer. And the band’s songs play with themes of gender, sexuality and identity.
Mashrou’ Leila has been banned in Jordan, and when they performed in front of a massive crowd in Egypt late last month, rainbow flags were out in force. As video clips of that concert spread online, loyalist Egyptian media outlets began attacking the concert, began attacking Mashrou’ Leila, and began attacking the very existence of gay people.
A primetime TV host in Egypt said, “homosexuality is a crime that’s as terrible as terrorism.” Others in media called for psychiatric investigations into people who defend gay people. And Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation has now banned discussion of LGTBQ issues. Oh, and they also called homosexuality a “shameful disease.”
Now, clearly, the Egyptian regime doesn’t need a concert by Mashrou’ Leila to implement it’s attack plan on gay people. But it does show you the power that music can have against fragile dictatorships.
I recently spoke to Hamed Sinno, the group’s lead singer — by the way, he’s an American. And we talked about what it’s like being a queer Arab in the Middle East and in Trump’s America.
Hamed Sinno: So, I am a second generation Arab-American with North African descent and Hijazi descent. I am half-Lebanese, half-Jordanian. I’m queer and probably not typically gender conformant, I think, for the most part, especially by Middle Eastern standards of what masculinity is. I don’t think these things function in a way where you’re one thing in the Middle East and then you’re another thing in the States. I think the nature of, I don’t want to say identity, because I’m not really a big proponent of that discourse in general, but as just being anything, right?
I think when I was growing up I always had this sort of like romanticized idea of, “Oh, well, I’ll move back to the States once I’m done with college, or once my mother doesn’t need me, or whatever it is,” and that I could just move back here and have this sort of flah-zi-dah life where I can just be myself.” And then the moment we started touring here and just seeing the amount of homophobia, let alone Islamaphobia, it’s kind of crazy.
[Mashrou’ Leila — “Roman”]
JS: When it became clear that Donald Trump was going to be president, I’m wondering if it affected the writing of new songs for you at all, or if you managed to separate your art and your work as a musical artist from what’s happening in this country and who’s going to be in charge of it?
HS: Right. To be honest we haven’t really been writing since the election. We’ve been really busy touring with the last album.
The last album we wrote during the two years after my father died. So, a lot of the content on there was about, sort of, being in clubs and just really trying to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. But, at the same time clubs in Lebanon are, well clubs anywhere I guess, are necessarily a very political space. I think if anything, unfortunately Orlando is testament to that.
A lot of the content on the album was stuff that I assumed was going to be too personal for audiences to relate to. But we did it anyway. But it’s just a lot of stuff about masculinity, and the necessary violence that comes from masculinity and just being in clubs and doing a lot of drugs and trying navigate your social life and trying to operate outside of language, falling into the pitfalls of language being necessarily gendered, when you’re trying to interact with anyone. Trying to dance and what that means and how therapeutic that can be, but also how destructive that can be.
And, you know, I really, really thought that was going to be too personal for anyone to relate to. And then we were on tour here and Pulse happens and then suddenly this really weird, almost perverse thing happens, where you realize that you’ve written these songs with one particular intention but you have no control over what an audience does with that. And that what an audience reads into your work is as valid as what you intended for it to mean, and what people make of it is, in a lot of cases, I think even more valuable and more important.
JS: How do you play with words, with what you’re talking about, with gender conformity and masculinity and feminism, as you describe it? How do you play with words in Arabic in your music?
HS: Look there’s this thing with Arabic that’s quite special, which is that every word you use in Arabic is necessarily gendered. So, you can’t sort of say “person” without automatically saying whether or not that person is male or female. You can’t say good without “good” also being male or female.
But there’s a lot of fun to be had in sort of messing with these things and messing with certain things that are assumed to be extensions of feminine or masculine subjectivities. Right? Like the role of the housewife, which, unfortunately, is still assumed to be a necessarily feminine thing in the Middle East.
You know, there’s this thing that’s quite funny also with Arabic, which is historically the way the music has worked is that when men have sung love songs, they’ve always addressed other men, at least in the way that they conjugate things. Because of this horrible, horrible assumption that implicating a woman in some sort of public romantic expression is shameful, right? That it would bring that woman shame. So, men have always sung to other men without that being assumed to be queer. So, I think just being able to mess around with these things when you’re obviously doing the same thing, you know, you’re using that same canon but you’re also explicitly saying that this is coming out of a queer body and a queer vocality, kind of messes with things.
[“Tayf” by Mashrou’ Leila plays]
HS: I really, really, really like the lyrics for Tayf. The English translation for that is Ghost. So that the law in Lebanon criminalizing homosexuality, which is law 354, is actually a law that criminalizes “all sex against nature.” Right, so obviously you can tell from the fact that nature is used, that this was a law that was instituted by the French, given that we were colonized at the time, that Europeans, you know sort of post-Enlightenment, were starting to replace God with nature as though that were less of a subjective rubric.
So the fun-zies in that song is that I was trying to use anthropomorphization as a linguistic tool to try and challenge the idea that anything can or can’t be natural.
[“Tayf” by Mashrou’ Leila plays]
HS: The first verse of the song is about someone sort of navigating the street and trying to, actually, like suck the marrow out of life by sort of naturalizing a lot of things that are necessarily urban, which is just how we live, like traffic lights and neon signage and electricity and all these things that are obviously, you know, sort of “unnatural” but that don’t seem to be problematic for a lot of people. So suddenly, you have someone crying neon and sucking electricity and as though you know, sort of an electric pole were a bone.
[“Tayf” by Mashrou’ Leila plays]
HS: And then for the chorus, I found this incredible text by Sylvia Plath called “Mushrooms.”
Sylvia Plath: We are shells, we are tables, we are meek, we are edible. We are nudgers and shovers in spite of ourselves. Our kind multiplies. We shall, by morning, inherit the earth. Our foot’s in the door.
HS: And she obviously is using mushrooms, which are sort of a natural phenomenon, right, as a sign for what woman can accomplish under horrible conditions. Because, you know they grow in the dark, off of humidity and dirt. And they, you know, sort of grow and fester.
[“Tayf” by Mashrou’ Leila plays]
JS: It’s interesting when you hear political figures in the context of talking about ISIS, they say you know, “this is a group —”
HS: Right, they kill the gays, but then at the same time, they’re trying to pass policy that is the most oppressive shit I’ve heard of in my life. Right? That goes, sort of unnoticed by the Right.
I mean, really, the people in power. The right-wing people in power are, on a daily basis, doing so much stuff to try and pull back, right, any progress that the queer community has made over the last 20 years. But then all these things are conveniently sort of problematized those same people when looking at the other. And you know what?
I’m so tempted to make it sound like this is sort of an event, right? Or that there’s anything special about this but historically. That’s just been the way we have done things. The way US foreign policy has operated as far back as, you know, US foreign policy has existed, has been to throw stuff on the other to try and buttress this idea that we are better as Americans.
It’s ridiculous. I mean, just looking at the numbers of what has been happening on the ground in the States for the last, I mean it doesn’t even go that far back, for the last year. The amount of suicides within the trans community.
JS: Well, and murders.
HS: And murders. The amount, I was going to say, the amount of hate crime in general, when it comes to people who are non-normatively gendered or non-normatively identified sexually or who are racially underprivileged and, to add to all of that, you get like neoliberal economics going haywire. And this perverse sort of intersection of politics and economics, in a way that really resembles what has historically happened in Lebanon, actually, surprisingly enough, to have sort of this big capital actually govern this explicitly.
But all of that is sort of ignored when we’re looking at ISIS. We’re going to say we have a problem with ISIS. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I obviously have all sorts of problems with ISIS. Right? And all sorts of problems with ISIS killing queer people. But we’re going to ignore the fact that this is happening on sort of American soil, when we’re talking about ISIS and say, “This is why we’re attacking them”?
I mean listen, let’s not bullshit ourselves, we’re attacking the Middle East because of oil and because of money and because it’s great for the economy. And, because, yeah I mean it could go on forever.
JS: Well, and I do think that there is a radical crusader mentality that permeates some parts of the right, and Islam is used as a prop to make a point about something unrelated and they don’t give a flying fuck about what happens to gay people in the Middle East, unless it’s consistent with their agenda.
They don’t care about women’s rights unless it can be used to justify their agenda.
HS: Of course. Look, I mean the epitome of this, I think like this iconic moment was I think a couple years ago. Israel had these pink fighter jets in support of, I think, it was breast cancer month or something like that. And I’m looking at this stuff like, literally Palestinian woman have zero access to medical care. They don’t care if they’re woman or not. So, this idea that suddenly you have this colonial entity that is using some sort of feminist agenda to make itself look like they care, like they’re liberal, and democratic and they care about identities and the variant struggles that we have and blah blah blah blah blah, when on the ground that’s obviously not what’s happening.
The thing that gets really messy with the way the U.S. uses Islam, in particular, as a discourse, is that it reinforces this idea that there is such a thing as one Islam, which is disastrous. Right? Because even right now with the different Islamic communities that are acknowledged by each other, right? There’s Shia Islam, there’s Sunni Islam within each of those there is a bajillion different kind of, like several different denominations with very different discourses, but there’s also an entire history of the Islamic institutions silencing a lot of Islamic movements that have split from what the institution has said is Islam.
So then, when you get this sort of global superpower saying, “well, this is what Islam is,” they end up allowing those Islamic institutions to silence people on the ground as being less legitimate. When, you know, historically we know there have been schools of Islamic thought that have been very radically feminist. That have, we know that, at the moment, there are a bunch of mosques that allow for gay marriage. That there are people that have called for a separation, within Islam, of state and religion. That there are people who have said, “Well the Qur’an is one thing but Sharia is a whole other ballgame, and we don’t need to follow that.” It’s called Qur’anism.
All these things get ignored, and it just ends up reinforcing the idea that there is one monolithic version of Islam which historically is the way the institution has maintained its own power, which is essentially a power given to privileged men.
JS: When you get up every day, what keeps you going and what gives you a broader sense of hope? Or do you have hope?
HS: I think every now and then we get these, sort of, messages from kids, essentially. Getting messages from kids saying, “Thank you for being out.” Or “thank you for talking about X or Y” or whatever it is, I mean, it’s not always gender stuff. But I mean I know when I was growing up I had a really rough time sort of feeling like I belonged to anything because there was very little cultural production in Arabic, be that music or film or whatever, that addressed the things that I was struggling with, like my sexuality, like my gender expression, like my political viewpoint, like my feeling like I can’t belong to a country that’s that elitist, and racist, and money-driven. And I guess every now and then you get these messages from kids that make you feel like you are doing that for them and that makes a lot of the bullshit okay.
JS: Amen to that. Hamed Sinno, thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted.
HS: Thank you so much for having me.
[Mashrou’ Leila — “Maghawir”]
JS: Hamed Sinno is the lead singer of the band Mashrou’ Leila.
Before we go, I want to let you know that we are doing a live taping of Intercepted this Friday, the 13th, in Toronto, Canada at the Hot Docs Festival. My guests for that show include Naomi Klein, Desmond Cole, and the hip hop artist Narcy. It’s going to be a really great show. There are still some tickets available. We’re going to post a link on our episode page for information on how you can get tickets. If you are in Toronto, I hope to see some of you there at our live show.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro. And our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our production assistant and graphic designer. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.