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Hey, everyone, this is Josh Levine, I'm Slate's national editor and the host of Slow Burn Season four on the political rise of David Duke. I want to thank everyone who listened to this past season and who supported our show over the years. We're putting out this extra episode as a reward for our loyal listeners and also as an enticement. You've probably heard the seven main episodes we released during season four, but we also made five bonus episodes exclusively for Slate plus members.
Those bonus podcasts featured conversations between me and producer Christopher Johnson about how we made the show, plus extended interviews with people like and leave the Holocaust survivor who publicly confronted David Duke and Topher Grace, who played Duke and Spike Lee's black Klansmen. Now we're releasing a couple of excerpts from those bonus episodes. First, you're going to hear from Norman Robinson. Robinson is the New Orleans news anchor who exposed Duke during the final debate of the 1991 governor's race by calling out Duke's racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.
In our interview, I asked Robinson what he was thinking before the debate and what happened to him after. Then you'll hear a conversation with The Atlantic's Van Newkirk and the author, Clint Smith. Newkirk is the host of the podcast Flood Lines about the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. And Smith grew up in New Orleans and lived through Katrina and its aftermath. The three of us talked about what the Duke and Katrina stories have in common, how to tell those stories and what we can learn from them.
To hear these bonus episodes in full, you have to be a slate. Plus member members don't just get the bonus episodes from season four. There's amazing bonus material for every season of slow burn to sign up for Slate. Plus go to Slate Dotcom slow burn. OK, here's my interview with Norman Robinson and my conversation with Van Newkirk and Clint Smith, and please keep listening to the very end of this episode because I've got exciting announcements about slow burn season five and season six.
Did you know before it happened that this was going to be a really important moment in your life?
I had no idea. All I know is that I wanted to challenge the man. I wanted to challenge his ideals.
I wanted to get to the human part of him. I wanted to talk to him about his humanity as it relates to the people he was kind of denigrating. I was looking for some honesty and some some truth. I thought it was worth an effort. I mean, because remember, I talked to him in 1976. I'd already sized him up as a person who was kind of troubled in his thinking. And I wanted to investigate that. And in a setting that that required both of us to be honest about how he felt.
And I asked him questions in a way that he couldn't spin. He had to deal with me as a human being, asking a question. And I wasn't so much worried about me being a journalist. I was asking questions for the African-Americans and the Jewish people who had been excoriated by his actions. You know, I saw a man who was hell bent on doing everything that I and people like me have been able to accomplish along the way. And I just had to confront that and I couldn't leave it undone.
If he was going to be elected, he was going to be elected in spite of the fact that his humanity had been exposed or his lack thereof, what it came to Jews and blacks and minorities, because, you know, it's like he looked like something he was not. And what I mean is as the song goes, and that's it, James Baldwin quote yours is how can I believe what you say when I see what you do? Mm hmm.
I wanted to have a real conversation so that people would have an opportunity to make an informed decision when they went to the polling booth.
What did you do to prepare? I did research on him from morning to night. I looked at all of the television shows he'd been on. I looked at all of the documentaries that he managed to be a part of. I read transcripts about his statements, things that he wrote and things that he had said about Jews belonging in the ash bin of history and blacks never a contributed more to the the building of America than the black people. So things like that.
I didn't make up anything.
I just read back to him things that he had said and nobody that ever looked at your questions in advance, right?
No, no one. So you said that you were scared. Yeah, I was. And you made yourself vulnerable. Yeah, exactly.
Because I wanted to talk to him as a human being. I wanted him to see me as a human being and not as some journalist, not as some might stand or somebody holding a mic, you know, not as a suit and tie. I wanted to I wanted him to see me as a human being. Yeah, I was care. Absolutely, and I am yet fearful I am yet fearful for the country for the same reason that I was fearful then, because people are just absolutely nuts.
The only thing that matters to them is their reality. And in their reality, a black person or anybody who is not white in their reality is capable of doing anything untoward. Lee. Not even worthy of breathing the same air, not even worthy of being in the same space. Did you have the sense that you were taking a risk?
Yeah, I did. Because of the letters I got and the phone calls that I got, I had changed my phone number. And obviously some of my friends on the police department felt that I was at risk because they would escort me to work and then escort me from work back home. And for like months, I didn't go anyplace but work at home. They gave me a pistol. This was the first time I had a pistol in my in my possession since I left the Marine Corps in November of 1973.
Yeah, I was concerned.
And there were lots of phone calls to the station.
There were so many phone calls to the station from Duke supporters that the phone line crashed. Receptionists couldn't handle any more phone calls and there were protests at the station. His supporters started calling and then my supporters start calling. So there was a dueling protest taking place from supporters and opponents.
There's a way in which I thought about this, that whether it's the district eighty one race or the Senate race or the governor's race, that they were much more than just elections, that it became this bigger movement and cultural phenomenon. And part of it is the signs and the hats and the shirts and the bumper stickers that they would be kind of everywhere. And it was inescapable. But it also just, I think, had generated the sorts of conflicts and made everybody angrier.
There is this kind of like air of dread and hostility that I can remember feeling. Again, I was just like more than an election or a political race. It just felt like a kind of like culture war or something. And I don't know if are specific ways in which you felt that or if you agree with that sentiment.
No, it was more of a culture war in the sense the scab was being pulled off the wound when blacks seek parity and it appears that they are making progress, then it ratchet up the anti black movement in the sense that, well, if blacks are getting parity, then that means we are getting less parity. That means that we're being pushed out. So we better do something to write this shit before we find ourselves under water.
So, yeah, there was a shift change in the sense of of how we approach this without seeming like we're anti black. How do we change the conversation? So, yeah, it's a movement that continues today.
You mentioned that a scab and a wound like what is the wound in your mind?
The wound in my mind is slavery. It was never reconciled. The great sin in America has never really been addressed. I mean, it's painful. I mean, you were asking me about the things that occurred during my childhood, like witnessing the bombing and the killing of the four girls and the torture and the mutilation of Emmett Till. The pictures I saw when I was four years old, getting beaten with a chain for drinking out of a white person water faucet.
I mean, those kind of things. I mean, there needs to be a healing. I'm going to quote James Baldwin again. You know, there are many ways of which to be despicable that would quite make the head spin. But for one, to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people's pain. And I think that, you know, when people say you ought to get over slavery, I mean, the 400 years of dehumanization, of 400 years of oppression, of subjugation, 400 years of doubting your own self-worth, can you imagine what it's like to walk into a room where you're the only African-American and wondering whether you're good enough to be in that room?
Or can you imagine looking in a mirror and saying to yourself, you know, but for this blackness, you know, I could be somewhere and be comfortable. I could go to a place and not worry about being confronted or I could drive my car and not worry about a police officer stopping me for some ridiculous reason and gunning me down and telling people that I resisted arrest or that I could just travel the world and just be left alone just to feel the freedom of just enjoying life, just enjoying the scenery, just watching nature.
And not be worried about being accosted because I'm somewhere that I'm not supposed to be and I just happened to be wearing the wrong color skin. I mean, give me a break. What human being can honestly say that that wouldn't grate on them from time to time? I'm Van Newkirk and I'm a senior editor at The Atlantic and host of the podcast Floodlight. My name is Kleinsmith. I'm a writer, teacher and poet, author of the poetry collection Counting Dissent and the forthcoming nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed.
Vanu in the first episode of Bloodlines by saying that Hurricane Katrina was not the disaster and the disaster was what happened after. What you show really powerfully in the series is that the disaster is also what happened before. It's the stuff that Katrina revealed that had been around for generations. And I think that's true about David Duke, too, that he exposed and inflamed what was already there. So I'd love to get your thoughts on learning about and spooling out this work of history where the prehistory is also so important.
Well, one thing that I've come to appreciate about researching Katrina and also thinking about folks like David Duke about modern moments in white supremacy and racism is we have a tendency towards this disaster thinking that like that thinks of catastrophes, saying that just sort of happened, right?
Oh, my God. This is this is a wild thing that is occurring. But we're not really good at institutionally as a country, as commentators, often at understanding how disasters are less, you know, new things that come out of nowhere than exclamation marks at the end of the sentence. I think that's true of Hurricane Katrina.
It was clear to people who were watching in New Orleans that a hurricane could and would at some point cause untold devastation in the city. And that was just something that lots of people knew, but not all people did a whole lot of stuff about before it came. It's understood that poverty and concentrated poverty and racism are things that will always contribute to disasters. But nobody really seems to think about those things until it actually happens. And that's one thing we hopefully shed some light on with flat lines.
Is that deep history? We keep saying history repeats itself. That's only because we allow it to. Clarence, you grew up in New Orleans, like me, we went to the same high school, shout out, shout out to Ben Franklin, you're eight years younger than me. So I was between eight and 11 during Dukes Rise to Power. You're too young. I'm guessing to remember that time. And I was twenty five and living in DC when Katrina hit and you were in high school.
So I'm curious how you think about these events as being in your past and present and in Louisiana's past and present, given how they've intersected with your life.
So for Katrina specifically, I was 17 years old when the storm arrived and I was three days into my senior high school. And so my family and I evacuated. Our home was destroyed, you know, eight, nine feet of water. I finished high school in Houston living with my aunt and uncle in a suburb of Houston in Missouri City, Texas. And and it's been this interesting thing for me in which I've only begun to understand the sort of emotional and psychological implications that Katrina had on my own life as I've gotten older.
I'm thirty one years old now, and I think I'm only beginning the process of engaging with the sort of trauma and in many ways that that moment enacted. And, you know, in my life and obviously in the lives of so many other people. But I think for a long time I sort of swept it aside because I was like I wasn't in the Superdome or I wasn't in the convention center. Like we were so much more fortunate than so many others, which is true.
But I think as a result, I minimized the impact that it had on my own life and tried to make it seem as if it didn't have an impact. When I think being uprooted from the only home I had ever lived in, at what was I had imagined, as many seniors do, would be the culmination of your, you know, your childhood with all of the people who you spent it with. And so, you know, even going back home to New Orleans for me now is a strange sort of cognitive dissonance in the sense that I go back home to a home that I never lived in as a child.
We're back in New Orleans, but live in a different part of the city now. Different house. And so much of the landscape of my childhood looks different than it did like so many of the homes on my block. Didn't look like Katrina hit a month ago, much less 14 years ago, you know. And so it is a sort of interesting thing to go back to a place that is my home, but that in many ways feels so distant from the home that I knew as a kid.
And then the politics of David Duke, I think, and we can talk about this more sort of animated my childhood in a way that that similarly I didn't fully understand when I was a kid. And then looking back, I was like, oh, this was the same sort of sentiment that made it so that David Duke won with 60 percent of the white vote in 1990 when he ran for Senate and fifty five percent of the white vote when he ran for governor in 91.
Those same sort of animating features were all around me, you know, in school or when I played soccer in so many of the spaces that I was a part of in ways that I, looking back, sort of retrospectively, am able to identify in ways that I wasn't able to as a kid.
Yeah, I mean, that resonates with me really deeply and thinking about how the Duke story stayed with me in ways I didn't really fully understand until I started taking on this project. And it stuck with me more in the realm of kind of emotion and feeling than in specific events. Like I can remember feeling scared and confused more than I can remember what happened specifically during the governor's race or during the Senate race. And so I'm wondering with you than one of the things that I really wanted to convey and the season of Slow Burn was that kind of sense of feeling and emotion along with the kind of plot.
And so how did you think about that as you were working on your series?
So I think it became clear really early on. No one that like, you know, we like to think of ourselves going in the projects, a lot of projects as tabula rasa. I know this is probably not true for you on this project, and it definitely didn't end up being true for me on this project, although, you know, I only watched Hurricane Katrina on TV. The reason why I was interested in the project in the first place is the flood destroyed my own hometown.
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit eastern North Carolina. And so I brought with me my own emotional context, subtext, whatever you want to call it. And it was very clear to me when I was kind of resonating with people who I was talking to when, you know, Clint just had a great rumination on the Stoljar and how. This kind of disaster really disrupts it in a real way and how it also amplifies it and also like in the act of destroying sacred spaces and meeting places, can really short circuit the comfort places of our brains.
And so when people got to talking about stuff like that, about how I mean, we took LeAnn back to her old neighborhood where now it's, you know, mostly folks who don't look like her anymore, who make a lot more money live there. Now, that moment, that emotion, it's I don't even know what you describe that emotion as is this mix of longing and feeling sort of swept aside? We want one of that to be the bed of the show.
And it's interesting because I could not have written an article that portrayed that emotion. I don't know what to call it. I don't know how to describe them clearly. I'm clearly struggling right now, but it's something I think comes through.
So I want to talk about the similarities that I see between these stories and big ways and then maybe in a couple of specific ways. So the parallels, I think, are pretty obvious, some of them, and that they're both, I think, fundamentally about racism and anti blackness and the potency of that, about institutional failures, about, you know, individual heroism and a lot of different ways. But there are just some specifics that are so striking to me, you know, than you talk about the ways in which Katrina was spun that the victims were made into the perpetrators and the powerless were demonized.
And that's what David Duke was trying to do.
It was one of the you know, the sources that we were looking at in terms of the ways the more legitimate media spin and mischaracterization of looting and things like that in the city, how those affected real people was David Duke's blog. And, you know, at the time, he was like using those reports from news sources on the ground to say that New Orleans was in the middle of a race war. He was telling white folks to pick up arms and actually I think there is some evidence that folks like the people out in Algiers Point who were going and arming themselves and shooting black passers by may have at least had some of that information coming back towards them from those sources.
Yes, you mentioned the barricade, the barricades. You know, I talk in the first episode of Slow Burn about Jefferson Parish building this barricade in 1987 to keep black people from New Orleans out. And it got torn down. The city of New Orleans tore it down, but it was there. That was the impulse. And during Katrina, which is this extraordinary time and moment, there wasn't anybody there to tear that barricade down. It just went up and it stayed up.
Yeah, I think you look at the underpinnings of barricades, you know, of the impetus to put one up of what I think David Duke knew was a kind of latent fear. I mean, it's not just it's not specific to Louisiana and the communities surrounding New Orleans. I think you see some of stuff in Atlanta, Georgia, where the name of the city becomes almost a dog whistle for certain things. Right, to people in the suburbs, the people who are living outside who don't want those folks coming to where they live.
I mean, of course, you know, like David Duke comes along in the layers of white flight in the middle of the, you know, the heyday of white flight. And that's his his introduction to the scene. Right. So, like, I think these are not separate stories at all. And you wrote a piece, Cleanin 2015, about what it was like to go back to your flooded house after Katrina and how you found it so difficult to capture what you saw that day and words.
And you also wrote in that piece about the psychological toll exacted on black journalists who are constantly forced to report on black death at the hands of police and who find themselves writing the same story merely with different victims. And that last phrase really stuck with me, the same story merely with different victims. And it made me think, you know, the context in which you wrote that was about the burden of that and the feeling, I think, of where writing these stories, you know, black journalists like yourselves are writing these stories and as anything changing as anything is making a difference.
And so in talking about these stories, these two very big stories where so many commonalities, you know, are there and makes me wonder about the efficacy of telling these stories and about what we're able to accomplish and what we're trying to accomplish.
Yeah, it's tricky, you know. I mean, I think that we are in a moment now that certainly to me feels like something very different than certainly than I've experienced in my my adult life or my entire life. And certainly feels like a potential inflection point in the history of how this country reckons with its relationship to the history of race and racism that brought us to this moment. I think it remains to be seen what sort of momentum exists moving forward.
I think it remains to be seen to what extent it is a moment versus an ongoing reckoning. And, you know, it's interesting because this is a conversation Van and I and other friends have had around, you know, the anti-racist reading list or the antiracist podcast lists or the antiracist, you name it list. And what are the potential benefits and what are the potential limits of that sort of phenomenon? And for me, you know, and then can happen here and share what he thinks.
But I think for me, I think I've been thinking differently about the language of humanises, because in my own writing of this book about slavery, I was really struck by an essay written by Walter Johnson and the way he talks about how we you know, our efforts to talk about slavery being dehumanizing actually rejects the notion that the institution of slavery was inherently something that relied on the humanity of enslaved people. And I think, you know, this is not to say slavery is the same as Katrina, but I think that that sentiment is relevant in the way that we think about historically marginalized communities and the way that stories lift up the sort of granular aspects of what it means to be a person.
And you know what what does it mean to call that humanizing versus to, you know, to think that it is that a process that has to happen? Are. Have they already always been human?
I mean, just like that point you raised about the function of storytelling and what people, you know, this story or that humanize people, I really think, you know, hopefully we were successful in doing this. There's a bit of a savior complex in storytelling that I don't enjoy. I really believe the best way to use audio storytelling, to use the written word in the service of people, of toppling systems of power, et cetera, is to amplify, you know, document, collect, curate, amplify.
And that's what we try to do with minds. And that's why we have a voice like the ends. Right. She carries so many things and says so many things. And the key to the show is just letting her say.
And I think that the point around amplification is important because I think that amplification creates a level of proximity. Like I think that that's something unique to audio for me, is that I think about, for example, here saw the podcast from San Quentin Prison. And I think for many people, that is the first time they have heard the voices of people who are currently incarcerated for flood lines. I think it might be the first time that a lot of people have heard the story directly from the mouths of people who were impacted by Katrina at all or in a specific way that is shaped and animated by by poverty.
Because, you know, what is also true is that like my Katrina story and Joshes Katrina story is different than Liane's Katrina story. Right. And they all reflect a very real set of experiences. But but I think the stories that people are more likely to have heard are from those who maybe they share a socioeconomic background with or approximate to in a different sort of way because of their profession, because their education know there are limits to proximity as well.
Like you can go on and on about a history of people who were proximate to other people and still did terrible things to them, maybe did terrible things to them because of their proximity. But I do think at its best, proximity can be a catalyst for empathy. Right. And thinking differently or more holistically or reconsidering some of the ways that you might have thought about a phenomenon and the people entrenched in that phenomenon.
To hear the rest of these interviews and all of our bonus episodes from this season, you need to sign up for Slate. Plus, we couldn't make slow burn without the support of our Slate plus members to become one. Go to Slate dotcom, slow burn. And now, as promised, some news about upcoming seasons of slow burn. Earlier this year, we announced that Noreen Malone would be hosting Season five, which will cover the run up to the Iraq war.
I'm happy to report you'll get to hear that season in the spring of twenty twenty one. And trust me, it's going to be great. So that slow burn season five, I've also got an announcement about Season six, it's going to be hosted by my friend Joel Anderson, who, you know, from our season on the creative lives and tragic deaths of Tupac Shakur and the notorious big. This time around, Joel will focus on another pivotal moment in American history, the 1992 L.A. riots.
Look out for season six of slow burn on the L.A. riots later in twenty twenty one. Season four was produced by me and Christopher Johnson. This episode was produced by Chow to editorial direction by Lowe and Lou and Gabriel Roth. Madeleine Ducharme is Laverne's production assistant and Sophie Summer grad as our assistant producer. David Gross composed our theme song. Thanks for listening.