Deep Dive: Political Cruelty
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey, everybody, this is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Today, we are revisiting the very first Deep Dive here on The Takeaway. Now, we had this conversation back in 2021, and it was the first time that we brought this kind of extended conversation to The Takeaway. We've picked up a big topic, The Phenomenon of Political Cruelty. Listening back to this one just might get me a little sentimental because this was the first time my friend and colleague, Dorian Warren, joined me for our Deep Dive series.
Dorian is the co-president of Community Change, the co-chair of the Economic Security Project, and he and I have co-hosted multiple media projects over the years, and we really wanted to tackle this issue of political cruelty.
Cristina Beltran: I'm thinking of cruelty as an importantly civic phenomenon. One thing I was trying to get my head around was I was really interested in the pleasure happening at Trump rallies. The pleasure in saying outrageous things and the pleasure in cheering on these visions of causing physical violence or pain to different populations, particularly non-white populations.
Dorian Warren: That's Cristina Beltran, Associate Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. Melissa, as you know, she's the author of Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy. She helped us to think about cruelty differently than we're accustomed to thinking. Most of us most of the time tend to think of cruelty as individual actions motivated by personal hatreds, but Beltran offered us a definition of civic and political cruelty.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I got to say, I was so struck that Beltran's interest in cruelty was prompted by seeing and hearing what was happening at rallies for Donald Trump.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Back in 2016, when all that was first starting to happen and Trump was running for president, I was leading a bipartisan cohort of Wake Forest University students. It was a year-long program called Wake the Vote, and we traveled together to many of the early primary states. We worked for political campaigns and we went to public rallies and events for all the presidential candidates from both political parties, including rallies for Donald Trump.
Now to be clear, this was a diverse, multiracial, multifaith cohort of students. I talked with Zach Bynum, now he's The Takeaway's digital editor, but I first met him years ago when he was part of Wake the Vote. Zach is a queer Black man who identifies as politically progressive. We talked about his experiences in 2016.
Zach Bynum: I remember that there was a bit of an air of darkness, and I say that just as someone, because when I looked around, didn't see too many people who looked like me, didn't see too many people who were excited. It seemed like people were very, very angry, almost vengeful.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It wasn't just Trump rallies. See, Zach also vividly remembered a particular South Carolina primary rally for Senator Ted Cruz.
Zach Bynum: It was an uncomfortable environment. In my mind, I don't know how we all got through that moment, but I just remember there was a point in time where we were with one of our staff members who was a gay Muslim. Immediately we started talking about-- Ted Cruz started talking about how all the things that God ordained and all these things that the left is trying to do with gay marriage and abortion and this, this, and that, and then also still pivoting to that talking point about terrorism.
I just remember looking at the staff member and being like, "This is someone who in my heart has done nothing but shown us love, protection, and genuine empathy, and he knows that a lot of us are nothing alike." To see him get a moment of just scared and anxiety, it really hurt me. I remember that moment because that was powerful for me.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, Zachary's reflections here are, in many ways, a perfect illustration of this issue of civic cruelty. Zachary remembers seeing the fear in his kind, empathetic staff leader and realizing just how cruel this political space had become as they were standing there. This is exactly what Cristina Beltran told us about how cruelty operates as a system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thinking about the fact that these sort of descriptions and sometimes then real enactments of cruelty made people feel like they were free, it made people feel like they were powerful, and it made them feel like they were part of a community of people. This kind of cruelty and I think when you think about things like the history, I turn to Ida B. Wells and talk about early white riots and some of the different civic disturbances, lynch mobs, and not even lynch mobs, but simply public hangings that happened before we outlawed public hangings and those spectacles of violence.
Those spectacles were not just there to just be cruel, they were also there to tell us who we were as a people and what we stood for in our belief systems. I think when you start thinking about cruelty as something that's also civic, you start to realize that those enactments make people feel like they are defending their country, that they are fighting for a better future, that they are enacting the kind-- that because they believe so strongly in the law, they're able to be the law.
Dorian Warren: Cristina Beltran gives us two critical insights here. She reminds us that civic cruelty did not begin with President Trump. Cruel forced divisions are, of course, a marker of many eras of American history. Enslavement is a practice of intergenerational cruelty, and after the end of slavery, the brutality of lynch mobs and the policy violence of segregation together ensured that formally enslaved Black people could not join the body politic as full Americans.
I was especially interested that Beltran describes this cruelty as being definitive of the law itself. Even if using lynch mobs to keep Black people from voting or owning property might have been technically illegal, it was actually fully within another version of law that is a law of forced racial hierarchy. Melissa, all this got me thinking about another writer who has outlined this idea of cruelty, Adam Serwer.
Adam Serwer: What I'm talking about really goes back to the founding of the country. You know you have a country where you say all are created equal, but you sever a tremendous amount of the people from the country to that ideal.
Dorian Warren: Adam is a staff writer for The Atlantic and he published an incredible new book titled The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump's America. Here's Adam on C-SPAN's Book TV in July.
Adam Serwer: It really applies to whiteman property, it doesn't apply to Black people, it doesn't apply to being enslaved. It doesn't really apply to women as they meant it at the time. To justify that, you have to come up with reasons for why these blessings that you say are the right of all humanity, why a certain segment of humanity is not entitled to them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, Dorian. I get it. I see the connection you've made here. One of the things he writes about is this spectacle of public cruelty that, God, for me, it remains one of the most painful that I've ever encountered. It's this famous photograph from 1930 Indiana. Two Black men, Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith have been lynched. We can see, in the photograph, their bodies still hanging from the trees, and there's a crowd milling around at their feet. They're young and old, men, women, and children, and I'm always so surprised because they're not ashamed, they're looking directly at the camera.
Maybe most shocking, the hardest to see is that in the foreground of the photo, there's this young couple, and they're kind of holding hands and smiling, and there's something about the way their fingertips meet that is such an intimate and familiar gesture. I remember reaching for my husband, James, for his hand in the same way the first time that we saw the Eiffel Tower together.
This couple in the photo, they're sharing this moment of awe and tenderness while witnessing the brutal murder of Black men. I've seen the photo dozens of times. I teach it sometimes in class. It's even the photo that inspired the song, Strange Fruit, but I do not know what to do with it, with how it makes me feel or even what it means about the depths of cruelty.
Cristina Beltran: White democracy is the idea that in the United States, our form of democracy allowed white citizens to rule themselves democratically while imposing tyranny on a non-white majority. I think that's important because what it tells us is that there's a mix of liberal and illiberal traditions enmeshed in our politics. When you think about the United States, you have to recognize the fact that we are a nation premised on native dispossession and settlement enriched through the stolen labor of human beings as property.
White democracy was legally sanctioned, and it was part of things like Indian removal, Black Codes, the Chinese Exclusion Act, segregated Mexican schools, Japanese internment, racially exclusive housing covenants, all these things. Jim Crow in the South, Juan Crow in the Southwest. That history is for the majority of our country's history, white supremacy was not just culturally-acceptable, but it was legally authorized. Racial discrimination was de facto in that way. They had the legal right to deny equal rights to non-white subjects.
I think that mix that white citizens had access to the key components of constitutional liberalism, that they themselves had the experience of the rule of law and civil and political rights and civil liberties, yet this form of liberalism was in a symbiotic relationship to white supremacy. I think that's the dynamic that we haven't thought nearly enough about in the legacies of that complicated dynamic.
Dorian Warren: Of course, in our current politics, this complicated dynamic of our national legacies, the self-governance on the one hand, and, of course, of oppression and exclusion on the other, become much less complicated and actually far more stark in one important place, and that's our southern border. Here again, is Cristina Beltran.
Cristina Beltran: We are a multiracial democracy by law, but migrants being non-citizens become a population where you can still enact and practice these extra-judicial as well as legally sanctioned violence against a population. That meeting of the extrajudicial and the legal is very potent and powerful, that you can dress up as a militia member and then go hunt migrants at the border as well as pursue very harsh deportation and immigration policies. That combination makes people feel like something is being done about immigration. It makes people feel efficacious and agentic and powerful.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That language, "Hunting migrants at the border." Dorian, the phrase made me think of those horrifying images we saw just last month, those of border patrol agents on horseback using riding crops against Haitian migrants at the border. In September, here on The Takeaway, we talked with Jenn Budd. Now Jenn is a former Border patrol agent who now works as an immigrants' rights advocate. Here's part of what she said.
Jenn Budd: The things that are done in the name of national security, which actually has nothing to do with national security, are human rights violations. They're brutal and they are cruel.
Dorian Warren: In July 2019, the New York Times dramatized the brutality and cruelty of the Trump-era policy of separating minor children from their parents at the border. They dramatized this with the video editorial of American children reading from the testimonies given by migrant children being held in customs in border protection facilities without their parents.
Child 1: "I'm so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. I'm too scared to ask the officials for any more food."
Child 2: "There isn't water or soap to wash our hands after we use the bathroom. We have to ask for toilet paper if we want any."
Child 3: "My sister and I hold a blanket up for one another so no one can see us go to the bathroom."
Child 4: "Agents separated me from my dad. I have not seen my father again."
Dorian Warren: The stories from these children are absolutely heartbreaking. This is not just about emotion alone because at the center of our conversation today is our longtime friend, professor Cristina Beltran. Like the two of us, Melissa, Professor Beltran is a political scientist, and she recently authored Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy. While, Melissa, she has us thinking about the many ways that cruelty is used to define American citizenship and mark boundaries that are both figurative and literal, nowhere is this more obvious than in US policy in practice at our southern border.
Cristina Beltran: In 2019, ProPublica exposed a secret Facebook group where there were current and former border patrol agents, about somehow around 9,500 members, were sharing all these xenophobic and sexist memes and making fun of migrant death. It really speaks to the fact that the border patrol in terms of both who they recruit, the limited training, the broad-based recruitment they do, they don't do a lot of vetting in order to grow the border patrol.
This organization was founded on a certain assumption about how you were supposed to keep both Mexican migrants, but Mexican Americans in their place in states like Texas. In the same way as we trace out the history of policing in the United States. You can tie that history of policing to the Black Codes. You can start to see that our carceral practices actually have this long history tied to earlier moments that we often don't really want to look directly at.
We need to think about the fact that who is it recruiting, who is it drawing in, who is being drawn into the politics of domination? One of those elements that I think is so interesting are two things. One is that, something like over half of border patrol are themselves Latinx. That is a very interesting fact. The fact that people are being drawn to these-- in the same way that the police in this country are a multiracial population as well.
We have a lot of non-white police officers, and that doesn't stop policing from being a violent practice. One thing the book is trying to really do is to not just think about whiteness as white people, but think about whiteness itself as a practice of domination, and that that is something that other non-white populations can also find pleasure in. There's pleasure and a feeling of being powerful in that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to pause for just a second here, because when Cristina said that, I found it really provocative and challenging. I did what we do on Deep Dive. I went to see if there's any data. It turns out that in 2020, the Political Research Quarterly published a scholarly article by Professor David Cortez. He is actually writing here about the fact that 30% of ICE officers and nearly half of all border patrol agents are Latinx. What Professor Cortez did was a series of in-depth interviews with dozens of Latinx workers in these jobs.
His data show pretty clearly that "Agents overwhelmingly cited money, a stable good job, and benefits as their primary motivations for seeking out and accepting jobs at immigration." I just thought that was really important to put here because I know that part of what Cristina's doing is suggesting for us the ways that being in the border patrol or in immigration might be about domination, about cruelty.
I also want to point out that there's at least some evidence here that it may also be simply about economic self-interest and survival, rather than about a desire to dominate or exclude, but honestly, maybe there's some cruelty in a system that forces people to make their living by being cruel. We're going to talk more about that right after this break.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. I'm back along with my co-host Dorian Warren, revisiting a conversation we had about two years ago. Now, this was when we introduced The Takeaway Deep Dive series. We did it with an extended exploration of political cruelty. Before the break, I was suggesting maybe it's cruel that people have to work in border patrol simply to have economic security.
Dorian Warren: Yes. At the same time, Melissa, it's worth remembering that regardless of the reasons a person takes a job, the job itself can make people more cruel. Let me just say that again. The job itself can make people more cruel. Institutions built on a foundation of cruelty, guess what? They reproduce cruelty. The most famous example in social science is the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yo, I totally remember that.
Dorian Warren: We learned about it in grad school. We taught this for years. It was supposed to be a two-week study to understand how situational factors affect human behavior. Now, there were 24 students in the study, all of them whites, all of them male, all of them enrolled at Stanford University. The researchers randomly assigned some to be guards and some to be prisoners. They set up a fake jail in the basement of the psychology building.
Prisoners were subjected to a variety of humiliating procedures, like late-night awakenings, forced punishments, including pushups or solitary confinement in a small empty broom closet. The key takeaway is this that on the fifth day of the experiment, the so-called guards became so abusive, and the so-called prisoners became so traumatized that researchers had to shut down the whole study. Now, here's what one of the guards in the study said two months after the experiment concluded.
Experiment Participant: I had really thought that I was incapable of this kind of behavior. I was surprised-- no, I was dismayed that I could act in a so absolutely unaccustomed to anything I would even really dream of doing. While I was doing it, I didn't feel any regret. I didn't feel any guilt. It was only afterwards when I began to reflect on what I had done that this behavior began to dawn on me and I realized that this was part of me I hadn't really noticed before.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's wild. We're talking about five days, and this is an institution that's not really an institution. It's just a shadow or projection of a real system of cruelty. Dorian, you bringing up this Stanford Prison study and its results, it makes me think back to where we began with Cristina Beltran when she was talking about the displays of public cruelty at rallies for Donald Trump.
Donald Trump: This is an invasion. When you see these caravans starting out with 20,000 people, that's an invasion. A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Certainly, there's something here about this shared pleasure and cruelty. I'm thinking, isn't it also possible that institutional cruelty has done the same thing to us as a nation that part of what we're seeing at these rallies has to be understood in that context of political and economic systems that have persisted for decades, even centuries with cruelty at their foundation?
Dorian Warren: Yes, Melissa, we have to remember that walls and cruelly police borders are just one part of our national civic cruelty towards immigrants. Consider continued deportations, particularly of Haitian migrants, or consider barbaric conditions in immigrant detention centers, or continued separation of migrant kids from their parents, or, frankly, the use of an obscure public health order called Title 42 that, frankly, both the Trump and Biden administrations have used to deport over 1 million migrants since start of COVID-19.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm starting to feel a little low. Instead of going on, let's take a quick break. We're going to be back with my deep-diving partner, Dorian Warren in just a moment, and we will continue our discussion of political cruelty. We're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we're here with Dorian Warren. He's been with me this whole hour, and we've been talking about political cruelty. Dorian, especially at the end, as you were really laying out this particular form of policy cruelty, I'm just wondering, how are you feeling in this brutal space we've made here?
Dorian Warren: It's a lot. Melissa, if you're just a human being or you're anyone who has been marginalized or excluded or bullied in some way or you just take a minute to tap into your own well of empathy for the suffering of others brought on-- let me be clear, not by individual, but by collective cruelty through our policies, then it's really hard to not feel completely overwhelmed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet, I don't want us or our listeners to feel completely overwhelmed. I don't want to leave this deep dive with all of us feeling so far beneath the surface drowning in cruelty that we feel unable to breathe. Let's look for a little bit of a lifeline back up to some sense of hope in the midst of all this meanness. I will say that Professor Cristina Beltran did offer us a little bit of that glimpse during our conversation with her.
Cristina Beltran: This is not a perfect situation, we still have dynamics of race and racism to grapple with but you're seeing more and more white Americans becoming appalled and aware of white democracy and wanting to reject and move away from it and claim something better. To me, I think that's actually one reason why things feel so divided and partisan right now is because the overall majority consensus around the acceptance of whiteness and white democracy has collapsed.
White Nativists can't even trust other white people to support them. That frustration, that feeling that whiteness itself isn't holding is partly the rage. Think about the rage, they are going after other white citizens, other white political officials in their rage. This is about a changing dynamic of how we identify, how we imagine ourselves as a collective and that means it can change. The 2020 election, I think, showed us that we're the majority, that there are more of us, more people who believe in some sort of future of democracy.
It's a popular front. It's a coalition of people with lots of different views but it is a group that can grow. I think going forward, we all have to fight for a multiracial democracy. We have to understand the history of white democracy and why people are attached to it, but then we have to fight like hell and organize together and build a larger, multiracial majority. I think the work ahead of us is hard but it's also exciting because I think that it means that I can go into any community and make a case for why we could build something better and more beautiful. I think that's the work of this moment.
Dorian Warren: The work of this moment, how do you not despair on the face of cruelty and especially civic and political cruelty? Melissa, how do you ensure that in the darkest moments that hope dies last in the words of Studs Terkel? Professor Beltran reminds us of the north stars of imagination, what some would call freedom dreams, and of course, of collective action. Resistance to the cruelty and organizing to build a just multiracial democracy. It's a freedom dream expressed so powerfully by Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet from this year in her piece, This Hill We Climb.
Amanda Goman: Even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we'll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Dorian Warren: Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again--
Amanda Gorman: Sow division.
Dorian Warren: Woo. This Hill We Climb, Melissa, requires a really robust notion of let's call it linked fate, how all of our fates are linked together. I think of the terms the concepts of mutuality and solidarity towards our future. That's how we keep hope alive.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Empathy, mutuality, solidarity, linked fate, and never again sowing division. Dorian Warren is co-president of Community Change, co-chair of the Economic Security Project, and he is my partner and co-host for the Deep Dives here on The Takeaway. Thank you for joining us, Dorian.
Dorian Warren: Always, always great to be with you, Melissa.
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