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This is the TED Radio Hour. Each week, groundbreaking TED talks. Our job now is to dream big delivered at TED conferences to bring about the future we want to see around the world to understand who we are.
From those talks, we bring you speakers and ideas that will surprise you. You just don't know what you're going to find, challenge you, which we have to ask ourselves, like why is it noteworthy and even change you?
I literally feel like I'm a different person. Yes. Do you feel that way? Ideas worth spreading. From Ted and NPR. I'm a new summer roadie for most of us, the summer of 2020 has been overwhelming between a pandemic protests over systemic racism, the economic recession.
There's a barrage of information coming at us and it can be hard to know what's worth tuning into and what's worth tuning out. Over the past few months, we've covered all these topics and now with some hindsight, it's clear which segments demand another listen. And so today on the show, lessons from the summer of 20/20, ideas about the coronavirus, race and resistance, climate change with four speakers who can help us understand how the health of our planet, our species and our humanity are all connected.
Their ideas sum up where we've been and can help us get through the rest of the year and move forward.
I'm walking through the woods near my home just a few minutes walk away from the village that I live in in southern England.
In the midst of all the quarantines and social distancing, Tom Revett, Karnac has been spending a lot of time just walking. This is a beautiful heart. Early may see the light coming through the trees.
Tom is an expert in climate change policy back in 2015. He helped bring together nearly 200 countries to support the Paris Agreement, which was the U.N. deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But of course, right now Tom's been spending his time closer to home.
One of the amazing things about this forest over the last few weeks, of course, is that it's deserted. Now, there's no one here for many of us. The pandemic marks the first time the whole planet is having one shared experience. Maybe the first time we feel like we are one species. And Tom says this moment is an opportunity.
None of us who are alive right now have ever lived through anything like this. We are all facing one challenge, which is how we collectively going to deal with this moment.
Now, the best outcome of this is that we as humanity remember that we can no longer afford the luxury of feeling powerless like the rest of the world.
The TED stage is now happening remotely. So Tom Rorvik Karnac delivered his talk from those woods near his home.
Right now, we are coming through one of the most challenging periods in the lives of most of us. The global pandemic has been frightening whether personal tragedy has been involved or not. But it has also shaken our belief that we are powerless in the face of great change.
In the space of a few weeks, we mobilized to the point where half of humanity took drastic action to protect the most vulnerable.
Friday morning, the 20 year old. Since my shift yesterday, I came back to find the emergency department phone, just like a war room in the respiratory report room. So many people are trying to figure out what assignment to take. I'm tired. I have just been running around.
Unfortunately, it's not over. We're still going up. And so I'm still going back to work tomorrow.
These people are caregivers and nurses who have been helping humanity face the coronavirus covid-19. Now, that's interesting because it shows us that humans are capable of taking dedicated and sustained action even when they can't control the outcome.
But it leaves us with another challenge, the climate crisis, because make no mistake, the climate crisis will be orders of magnitude worse than the pandemic if we do not take the action that we can still take to avert the tragedy that we see coming towards us.
There's a line in your TED talk that kind of hit me like a brick wall where you warn us that the climate crisis will be worse than the pandemic.
Yeah, you know, we're just so in the pandemic right now that it's hard to take the longer view on that. Make the case for why we should.
Yeah, I mean, one simple answer to that question is that the climate crisis will be permanent. The pandemic is, you know, a major global emergency that we are right in the throes of right now. But we will find a vaccine. We are learning about this virus all the time. We are working on social measures to reduce its spread. We're working on vaccines. Those will take months or maybe years, but will come to that point and we'll come through it.
And world will return to some form of normality, although it will probably look quite different in the climate emergency, the climate crisis, if we allow ourselves to pass these tipping points after which we begin to lose control of the climate system itself, because certain things about the planet change like when the sea ice reduces, it exposes the dark water. Underneath that, dark water absorbs more sunlight, which leads to more sea ice loss. So you get these feedback loops where it becomes runaway, so you lose control of the climate system.
If we get to that point, we can't. Find a cure for that. That's just the planet flipping into a different, hotter state. You know, I think for a lot of us thinking about the climate crisis and the pandemic, it is really emotionally overwhelming.
But at the same time, one of the benefits of all of this is that I think for the first time in my lifetime, we have started really thinking of ourselves as a species.
Yeah. And that has been really powerful. And I guess I wonder how do we carry that forward?
So the coronavirus and climate that there are many ways in which they're that connected, they're both global challenges that are coming at us at this moment. They both require us to step up as individuals and as a society. They require us to replenish our trust, our our faith and science. They require us to collaborate. And they make us realize that we are only as strong as the weakest member of our societies. And the other thing that they do is they require us to take strong action without being able to control the outcome.
No one individual can take action that can prevent the spread of coronavirus. And in my talk, I talk about some of these health care workers. And what was kind of instructive to me as I looked at it was I realized that as long as you feel like your your what you're doing has meaning and purpose, you'll take action even if you can't control the outcome.
That's why those nurses, you know, so in such an inspiring way, take such action, put themselves in such risks to do all these different things. That's also the story of transformation of the world going back generations in in times of great challenge and conflict and difficulty people can control. But they felt a sense of purpose and meaning in engaging with the issue. So let me give you a historical story to explain.
On September 1939, a German fall begins its ruthless march of conquest. In the late 1930s, the people of Britain would do anything to avoid facing the reality that Hitler would stop at nothing to conquer Europe on the road to the iron cross, in the evil wave, in the brief freedom of speech.
Now, that meant the concentration camp talks that. They were terrified of Nazi aggression and would do anything to avoid facing that reality, in the end, the reality broke through. Churchill is remembered for many things and not all of them positive. But what he did in those early days of the war was he changed the story. The people of Britain told themselves about what they were doing and what was to come go on to the end.
We shall defend our island, whatever the case may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight in the fields and in the street. We shall never surrender an island alone, a country that will fight them on the beaches, a country that would never surrender. He wasn't promising an easy ride. He wasn't promising victory. He was promising blood, toil, tears and sweat. That's literally what he said. But he was promising, meaning he was promising something that people could get engaged in and as a result be part of a great shared endeavor.
And that's what motivated people to action is not actually the sense of an easy victory. And I mean, I live in the west of England and dotted along the river right by my house is a series of little brick buildings. And they were constructed by the old men of the village during the war because they wanted to feel like they were part of this great shared endeavor. I mean, the Germans were never going to come up the River Froom to attack Britain.
Right. But they felt like they wanted to be part of this great shared endeavour. So they built these things to contribute and everybody felt that what they were doing was part of this shared mission. Now, that doesn't mean it was always easy, right? Or it doesn't mean that every day was filled with joy, but it does mean that it provided a North Star for them. Now, on climate, we've allowed ourselves to not feel purposeful, to not feel meaningful, to have the sense of if I can't control it all myself, therefore the meaning and the purpose drains away.
And that is a major mistake.
We can do big things together. It's not beyond our ability to cooperate, to have a shared objective, to, yes, have national interest, but also have international solidarity. And we can live enormously purposeful and meaningful lives right now by deciding to take action on these collective issues and thereby transforming the world through our own actions. I mean, it almost sounds like what you're saying is that we need a leader who can reframe the narrative around climate change, around things that are outside of our control.
I'm not actually saying that I can see why you would draw that conclusion from what I've said. I mean, I think what's needed is an animating story that we can get behind and that provides meaning for us. There's probably going to be multiple different stories for different people and different ages in different industries, in different countries. What I'm saying is we can choose what story that is and we can actually choose to have a more animating narrative that moves us towards action.
I mean, if you look at the components of this crisis, right, it is overwhelming odds. It is clock ticking down. It is great peril if we fail. It's all the ingredients of a great adventure story.
We're either going to do this or we're not, but no one else is going to do it. And if anyone's going to do it, it's going to be us. And to me, that's kind of the beginning of a really inspiring narrative. I want to do that. I want to be part of the generation that faced this challenge, decided it wasn't too much for us, and there will always be the generation that was able to do this. That's still a chance for us, right?
Yeah, but what do we need to be that generation like? How do we even start motivating ourselves to do this optimism?
Gritty, determined, stubborn optimism. I realize they don't seem like they go together being stubborn and being optimistic. But if you want to change a system, how you show up in that system matters. If you show up feeling like it's impossible, feel like you can't make progress, really focused on the challenges, then then that will be your reality. Really great breakthroughs. They don't lead to optimism. They are created by optimism.
That's climate activist and policy expert Tom Revett Karnac, from our episode Climate Mindset, you can learn more about him and listen to the full episode at Ted Unpeg.
When we come back, what it means to act for the greater good during a pandemic and how we balance our personal freedom with our collective responsibilities. I'm going to somebody and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
Everyone, just quick thanks to our sponsors who helped make this podcast possible, first to EPIK provisions, maker of Epic Bar Beef was nature's idea.
The epic bar was their idea. The new beef, sea salt and pepper bars have three grams total carbs. Why? It's in their nature. After all, they're made with 100 percent grass fed beef and nature's macro's, three grams, total carbs, 11 grams of protein. Find them in the bar aisle or at EPIK Bar Dotcom. Support for this podcast and the following message come from Pushkin Industries, presenting the last archive from Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, Lapore asks the question, who killed the truth?
She looks for clues in events across the 20th century from a brutal death in Vermont to the invention of the lie detector to the release of the polio vaccine. The last archive unfurls like a classic 1930s gumshoe mystery, but takes on the big issues of today. Subscribe in Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Friends, how many of us have them? So if you're lucky, you have friendships that are affirming and that are like a place for you to be a fuller version of yourself.
So why is it that so few of us have friends of different races? Listen now on the Coastwatch podcast from NPR. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm a Zamora. And on the show today, lessons from the summer of 20/20, looking back at crucial conversations we've had on the show.
A couple of months ago, we did an episode about how entire societies were responding to the pandemic, asking citizens to upend their lives still brings up big questions. Should businesses be forced to stay closed?
Should everyone be required to wear a mask? And what comes first, the rights of the individual or the collective safety of society? In other words, what is the greater good? We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. For philosopher and Harvard professor Danielle Allen, knowing the best way to respond in an emergency means going back to the fundamentals of a nation, in this case, American democracy.
Which is why Danielle kicked off our conversation by reciting the Declaration of Independence from memory form as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness. Now is the last clause and is the most important.
The point at our institutions is that the people, the whole people, not a part of the people, lay the foundation on principle and organizes the powers of government to deliver safety and happiness to the whole people.
Our decision making should always start from the premise that we do not abandon any subset of our population in a time of crisis. For me, that is just the bedrock. You start there. So Danielle says that acting for the greater good, especially when facing a crisis like a pandemic, means doing a better job living up to American ideals. And those ideals include preserving individual lives, individual rights and equality. When you face an existential threat, you're saving individual lives, but you're also trying to save the collective life of society and the society that we are is a constitutional democracy, which means the project of preserving lives, rights and liberties and non-discrimination and due process and equity and things like that.
So, you know, we want to survive as the kind of place we are. And that changes the question of what the path to survival consists of.
So Danielle and a group of experts across the country came up with a strategy called the Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience. It outlines the steps the US should take to suppress the coronavirus.
So how do you stop a viral virus from you? Break the chain of transmission?
One way to do that collective stay at home or do that, but to safely reopen the country, we need much more every time something test positive. You want to be finding twenty five other people to also test. So you want to find their contacts and test their contacts, test their contacts. And if you have those who test positive go into isolation with support, then you're also taking that virus out of circulation.
Contact tracing is happening in cities like New York, but it's a laborious process, even without all the ethical questions that it brings up.
How do you get people to go get tests? How do you find people's contacts or help people communicate with their contacts to provide them alerts and warnings about exposure? And then literally things like how do you collect all those samples and excession them and control the data and make sure you have privacy protections and so forth, and then get all those samples to labs that can do high throughput processing. So there's a whole supply chain that involves human organization, as well as the delivery of testing kits, all of that needed to be conceived and organized.
It's a doable thing. Asian countries like South Korea have done this. Taiwan have done this because they thought it through after SARS in 2003.
Can you give us some examples of when individuals have been asked to change their behavior to protect the greater good here in the US? And we have been successful?
Sure. I mean, there's a whole bunch of them. I mean, there's motorcycle helmets. You know, it's a law now. You wear a helmet, right? There is huge resistance. Or even Helmut's for playing ice hockey is the kind of thing where you actually have to have everybody do it in order to take away the stigma from having anybody wear a helmet, huh? And that's the kind of key point here. Seatbelts is another one of huge fights in this country about seatbelt laws and how few of us would really even think about not wearing our seatbelts in a car.
But the idea of putting aside what is necessarily best for you or your immediate family and doing what's right for the greater good, that's what we're talking about right now. Has the American culture of individualism prepared us to do that? Because we certainly don't have a culture of collective compliance here. So I would put the questions and issues differently. So I don't think it's a question of compliance. I think it is a question of civic responsibility. We are very individualistic, oriented culture, but we are also a culture that understands concepts of civic responsibility and civic duty.
We are at the end of the day, a rights based society and rights come with responsibilities. All right. So in knowing what the status, you know, if you're exposed, go get a test and sharing that alert or warning with others, you're actually doing something that's good for yourself, for your family and for your community simultaneously. So the country has deep communitarian traditions. I mean, this is the country of Tocqueville and barn raising where people gather together to build each other's arms.
And so it's that sort of civic solidarity, civic responsibility that we need to tap into in order to have approaches to help that rest on citizen empowerment. So, in fact, what we argue for in our roadmap is not a national or federally run contact tracing program. We actually affirm the value of our federal structure and the importance of localizing contact tracing programs in support of a broad culture, of taking responsibility for our own health and health within our communities.
We still are a decentralized country in many ways, but in light of the protests about racial injustice, how do we balance our health with coming together to address the very real social problems that we have to?
It's a real question, right, because before the pandemic hit, fewer than 30 percent of Americans age 40 and under considered essential to live in a democracy. OK, before the pandemic hit, we all faced a legitimacy crisis, a silent one. And so I have a strong conviction that what a democracy promises is a much higher degree and of human flourishing than an authoritarian regime can ever offer for that reason, I think it's important in the face of an existential threat to preserve a democracy broadly, the broad foundation for the fullest possible pathway to human flourishing.
But that is, I think, a case that we have to start almost from scratch making again.
So do you think it would be fair to say then that the social contract between the state and its citizens has been, I guess, splintered here in the United States and maybe the pandemic and now this national conversation about race, could they actually be opportunities to patch it up in some way? So when I talk about the social contract, I'm talking about a relationship among the population of society. So the first social contract is the one that we all have with each other.
So that's where I really am interested in this question of who had an instinct when the crisis hit that we don't abandon anybody that was health care workers and who had an instinct that, oh, well, maybe we let this group go or maybe we left that group go. That is at a level of a contract amongst ourselves. That's what's broken.
Then there's a second kind of relationship, which is between the citizenry as a whole and the state. The state is just our vehicle we use for delivering the public goods that we have mutually committed to protecting with one another. And that's a different kind of breakage than the breakage of the social contract. So it goes back to that.
When I was making about not abandoning people, we're not actually committed to protecting our whole population and we do have to address that and face it squarely. If we can't recover that basic idea, then what we're doing isn't really democracy anyway. So we can lose if by slow death, then I have to lose a dramatically. But that's that's pretty fundamental. That's Danielle Allen. She's a political philosopher and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard.
You can find out more about Danielle at TED NPR.
Today on the show, lessons from the summer of 20/20, and right now teams of scientists are working feverishly around the globe to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. But even when it becomes available and it's thoroughly tested, there are people who will refuse to get it because they don't trust vaccines in general.
Opponents of vaccinations staged a protest today at the New York state capitol. Hundreds of parents and so-called anti vaccines rallied in Albany. There are pockets of the country where vaccines aren't happening and they're not happening because of religious beliefs or misinformation.
Health authorities blame misinformation for the outbreak.
A well-funded misinformation campaign in these campaigns continue despite what the science says.
The CDC says the measles vaccine is safe and effective. I think it's down to individual identity of people for whom it's important to believe they're smarter than the doctors. You have to tell them that the overwhelming scientific evidence over many, many years and decades indicate that this vaccine is very safe.
So how do you convince more people to get vaccinated? Well, it requires more than developing a way to fight the virus.
It requires finding ways to stop rumors, not tabloid gossip or the kind of rumors that are making stock markets crash, but the kind of rumors that affect your health and the world's health. That's Heidi Larson on the TEDMED stage recently.
Rumors have a bad reputation. They're seen as not fact wrong. But I've studied rumors for years. And one thing I've learned is that they all have a story.
In 2003, while working on a vaccine strategy for UNICEF. Heidi traveled to northern Nigeria, where a rumor about the polio vaccine was fueling a national health crisis.
The rumors were suspecting that the polio vaccine was actually a contraceptive. It was controlling populations. Maybe it caused AIDS.
Maybe it's the CIA spying on them or counting them. I mean, why else would they have people knocking on their door again and again with the same polio vaccine? This wasn't about getting the facts right. This was about trust, was about broken trust.
And by broken trust, Heidi, means between Nigeria and the West. This program was perceived as being imposed by Western governments, and it was two years after 9/11. And that heightened the distrust of particularly American supported interventions.
So what happened, like, how did people react? Well, the governor of the state boycotted the polio vaccination campaign. The mothers were not the ones that were refusing the vaccines. It was the governor who had declared the boycott. It was religious leaders who were discouraging the vaccination. And it was the fathers who decided. And the fathers were influenced by the religious leaders. And even though some of the mothers really would have been happy to vaccinate, they said, I don't decide there was no adverse event following a vaccine.
There was no specific problem. It was just a rumor and suspicions that this was funded by the West, you know, questioning the motives that led to over 20 countries being reinfected with polio that had been declared polio free. And, of course, the global polio program. Five hundred million dollars. Oh, wow. Just to regain the progress lost because of the 11 month boycott and how far that Nigerian strain of the polio virus traveled just in 2003 and the years after between July 2003 and the following summer, 11 months later, that 11 month boycott caused that much damage to the program.
And that's just one example, presumably. Absolutely. The Nigeria episode was one of many episodes that I investigated when I was with UNICEF. At that point, I realized I never really had enough time to understand what was driving, not just the individual episodes, but why was there an epidemic of these happening around the world? I left UNICEF and I set up in 2010 what I called the Vaccine Confidence Project. In 2015, we developed a vaccine confidence index.
It's a survey trying to get our finger on the pulse of confidence and trust, but also more importantly, looking at when that trust goes up or down. And one of the things we've learned is in our global monitoring that Europe is the most skeptical region in the world. France won the prize actually, by far. I thought the U.S. was really had some of the most skepticism. But, boy, I was wrong. So how exactly does this confidence index you've developed measure public trust in vaccines?
Well, we've come down to four core questions from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Vaccines are important. They're safe, they're effective, and they're compatible with my religious beliefs. So we get those metrics and we track it over time. And and the whole objective of our group is to basically be more anticipatory because I felt like with the Nigeria situation, we kept brushing it off as rumors and we weren't really listening to people and understanding what were really the grudges at a point before it had become so damaging.
And, you know, I really feel like I do understand why some Nigerians were suspicious, but I cannot help but feel frustrated at people who don't vaccinate their children, frankly, because it puts my children at risk. And even though we don't have a vaccine for covid-19 now, when we do have one, we will have to take collective action for everyone to stay safe. Right. And that is something we don't always think about enough, I think, especially in Western countries.
Absolutely. And I think this cooperative sentiment that you're talking about, kind of altruism is going to be fundamental to how we handle this current pandemic, because it is requiring more than ever that we can cooperate with each other. We don't have a vaccine. We don't have a cure. I mean, all we have is human behavior right now. I mean, aside from the treatments for the serious implications. But it's going to be a real test for us and will have huge implications for things like vaccines and and other areas.
Do you think it's possible? I mean, look, who knows where things are going to go with the covid-19 vaccine, but in terms of eradicating or inoculating the world against some of the more old school viruses and diseases out there like polio, can we do it? Can we inoculate the world? Can we get rid of those things?
Well, inoculating and getting rid of her got to different degrees. I think we should be able to get enough people vaccinated that we can keep most of these diseases under control. There are a number. Of people in the world who can't be vaccinated because of underlying health conditions and which makes it even more important that people who can be vaccinated are, but it's going to take a planet that wants to cooperate. I think, you know, we need to remind people how vulnerable we are.
I mean, reminding people of the risk of not vaccinating and that it's worth having a second thought before you turn it down. That's Heidi Larson. She runs the Vaccine Confidence Project in London. You can check out her full talk at TEDMED Dotcom on the show today. Lessons from the summer of 20/20. I'm a new Zamara and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
Oh. Support for this podcast and the following message come from Pushkin Industries, presenting the last archive from Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lapore, Lapore asks the question, who killed the truth? She looks for clues and events across the 20th century from a brutal death in Vermont to the invention of the lie detector to the release of the polio vaccine. The last archive unfurls like a classic 1930s gumshoe mystery, but takes on the big issues of today. Subscribe in Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
Hey, I'm Sam Sanders, host of It's Been a Minute on my show, we catch you up on all the things in news and culture, the space force. I totally missed this. What is the space for? Stop it. I don't know about space for you know what? I've been in my apartment for four months.
Oh, man. Crushing it to make you feel good news without the despair.
Listen now to the it's been a minute podcast from NPR. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR, I'm a new psalmody, and today on the show, Lessons and Wisdom from this Summer.
I guess I was just. In Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, Los Angeles and hundreds of cities across the country, people took to the streets and protested, expressing their pain, their anger and their frustration with racism in America.
I want my son and my daughter to live in peace in America. They are Americans. We demand change in the system itself. The real issue is institutional racism and injustice that's been going on in America against black people and minority people for why should we ever, ever stop fighting? We can't stop fighting. We don't need a fire. We need protection. Me peace.
If you won't stand for this and don't stand for the role of organizers like myself is to continue to beat the drum when think no one's listening because they're always planting seeds for hope for another world and for people to become a part of it before the chanting and marching and demands for change. Before police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse even the most peaceful crowds.
Ahmad Aubury was killed by two white men while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. Brianna Taylor was killed by police in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On May 25th, George Floyd was killed by an officer who put a knee to his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
I don't remember exactly where I was, but I do remember it was the first video in years that I thought I decided I couldn't watch.
This is Clint Smith.
He writes about race and injustice in the U.S. My name is Clint Smith and I'm a writer, poet and teacher.
Back in June, I talked to Clint for a full hour of the show, and we are so grateful to him for sharing what he was processing in that moment as a scholar, as a father, as a black man in America.
I think I've I've watched, like so many people over the past several years, endless loops of videos of black people being assaulted, being beaten, being killed at the hands of police, at the hands of vigilante. And I had not ever I know many people had come to moments long before this in which they felt like they didn't want to consume black death in that way. And that is 100 percent an acceptable decision, because as I talk often about, there's a tension where the very thing that creates a certain level of awareness of phenomena for people who are not proximate to the black community already is the very thing that can sort of re traumatize black people as we're forced to inundate this content that seems to feel unique to to our community.
So I do remember that this was the first one that I felt like I couldn't watch. And I think that that's because a confluence of factors. I think it's you know, I've been quarantined in my home with my family. And I think the fatigue of this moment made it incredibly difficult to add anything else to the plate. And I think I just I didn't need to see something. I just didn't need to see another one of us dying. Yeah.
And and, you know, it's interesting that word confluence that you used, there's so much going on in the world right now.
And I guess I wonder if there was something different about the death of George Floyd in light of the coronavirus which has laid so bare, the inequality between white and black Americans in terms of who gets the virus and who doesn't and whether this was kind of the final straw, so to speak.
Oh, absolutely. It has been revealed through the data that black people are being disproportionately killed by coronavirus in the United States. And what what often takes place in these moments in which black people are disproportionately impacted by something harmful in this country is that we have to go about convincing people that it is not our fault. Because what can happen is that you can have the surgeon general, who himself is a black man, come out and say that black people have to make better decisions.
Black people need to be responsible about what they're eating or drinking or consuming without saying anything about the sort of larger systemic and structural realities that underlie the disparities in health outcomes in our community. Right. What does it mean to to talk about the disparities in health without also talking about the history of segregation that makes it so that black people are living in confined communities saturated by poverty and violence, as is the case for any community that experienced hyper segregation anywhere in the world.
What does it mean that black people have lack of access to health care or are are disproportionately represented in the essential jobs that force people to leave their homes and get on public transportation? And so any conversation around coronavirus that is not taking into account the larger systemic and structural realities that make it so that black people are more exposed and more vulnerable to this virus, make it sound as if black people are somehow doing something themselves that are contributing to the disparities.
And I think that that is a battle that black Americans have had to fight for a long time and, you know, convincing this kind. I read that the conditions that we live in are not simply because of our own doing, but are instead because of much larger historical forces. And so what I think you add what has happened to George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and so many others recently, something is added on top of what is already a sense of profound exhaustion, of having to convince this country that this is not our fault, even though this country consistently tells us either implicitly or explicitly that it is it's hard and it's exhausting.
And I think I and so many others feel a different level of fatigue that that I don't think I've experienced in my lifetime.
You mentioned the surgeon general and how much is being left unsaid. And a lot of your research and writing is about how the U.S. has failed to address and talk about and reckon with its past, whether it's slavery or Jim Crow.
Systemic discrimination, as you just described, there has been no national conversation here, like in Germany about Nazism in World War two.
I used to live there or how South Africa addressed its history of apartheid with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Why? Why has there been no conversation?
Yeah, it's it's something that is that feel specifically unique to this country in this way. And so, for example, you brought up Germany. If we were to go to Germany and there was a prison on top of a former concentration camp in which the majority of the people in prison there were disproportionately Jewish, it would very clearly be an affront to our moral sensibilities that people would be protesting outside of that place every day. And yet in the United States, the largest maximum security prison in the country, Angola Prison in southern Louisiana, is on top of a former plantation in which 80 some odd percent of the people there are black are black men.
And part of what I'm interested in exploring is the ways of white supremacy, both in acts violence against black people, but also numbs this country to sorts of violence that should otherwise be outrageous. Like there should be no reason that a prison is on top of former plantation, especially a prison in which the vast majority of the people there are black. And so what is it that allows for this to happen? What is it that allows for so many Confederate statues to exist across this country?
What is it that allows for, you know, plantations to be sites of weddings, sites of parties and celebrations when they are the site of so much historical trauma and pain for so many others? And how can what does it mean for a site to be a place of celebration for someone and to be a site of a violence for another? And how can those two people experience the same place in such such different ways? And part of what I'm asking when I go to all of these places is I'm asking like, to what extent are people who are responsible for these places?
To what extent are they reckoning with what has happened on this land and to what extent are they not? And I think that the question of how places reckon with slavery is is reflective and is in many ways a microcosm of how willing America is to reckon with its myriad of manifestations of systemic racism.
And I think that we're seeing that now in terms of what's been going on right now. You've been processing all of this as a black man in America, multiple roles, Black Man in America scholar. My understanding is you're also the grandson of a man who was born in Monticello, Mississippi, in 1930 when there were lynchings of black people going on and that the Klan would ride by. And now you have your own children.
And you recently wrote that having children has raised the stakes of this fight while also shifting the calculus of how we move within it. What did you mean by that?
Yeah, you know, like so many parents having children, it changes so much. And it's almost a cliche, you know, the way that people say like, oh, so much changes in your life after you have kids and you're like, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, my mom used to always say, it's like watching your heart walk around outside of your body. And and when I was a kid, I was like, oh, mom, you're so cheesy.
Like, you know, I was my mom's mom's attempt to be a poet. But, you know, I have had my own kids now a three year old boy, one year old girl.
And and it's so true. You know it.
You don't know your capacity for love. You don't fully understand your capacity for love until at least for me, until I had kids.
It's interesting to me, though, because you were even thinking about this before you became a father, right? In 2015, you published a letter that you'd written to your future son describing your own childhood.
And and. Well, why don't you tell us what what did you tell him? Do you mind reading a bit of it for us?
Yeah, I'd be happy to. My hopes, dreams, fears for my future black son.
Son, I want to tell you how difficult it is to tell someone they're both beautiful and endangered, so worthy of life, yet so despised for living. I do not intend to scare you. My father, your grandfather taught me how to follow a certain set of rules before I even knew their purpose. He told me that these rules would not apply to everyone, that they would not even apply to all my own friends.
But there were rules to abide by.
Nonetheless, too many black boys are killed for doing what others give. No second thought. Playing our music too loud, wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up, playing with a toy in the park, my father knew these things. He knew that there was no room for error.
He knew it was not fair.
But he loved me too much not to teach me not to protect me.
I've told you the story before, but it is worth revisiting.
Many a Saturday morning, my friends and I would ride bikes through the neighborhood together, the wind chiseled our faces into euphoric naivete. The scent of breakfast being prepared seeped out from beneath the cracked windows of the shotgun homes that lined our streets. All that we deemed worthy of our attention were the endless possibilities that lay atop our handlebars, which is to say we were children. We were a motley crew, an interracial assemblage of young boys who would have made the Disney Channel proud, we dreamed of building tree houses with secret passwords of fighting dragons, effortlessly, sidestepping the perilous fiery breath of hitting the game winning shot in stadiums of thousands of people chanting our names.
Our ambitions were as far reaching as the galaxy we had been born into. We were small planets attempting to find our orbit. On one afternoon, we went to the field where we saw often played football tackle, of course, as we were set on replicating the brawn and bravado that we watched each Sunday on our televisions. This time, however, the field was closed, the fence bolted by a lock that could not be snapped. One friend whose long blond hair dangled gently over his ears, tossed the football to me and immediately began to climb the fence.
I watched him the ease with which he lifted one foot over the other. The indifference of his disposition to the fact that this was an area we were quite clearly not supposed to enter. I remember hearing the soft, distant echo of a police siren, perhaps a few blocks away, perhaps headed in a different direction. I couldn't be sure, but I knew better than to ignore it. He reached the other side and looked back, beckoning the rest of us to join him.
I held the football in my hand looking at him through the chain link fence between us. It was at this moment I realized how different he and I were before I had the words to explain them to either him or myself, how he could break a rule without a second thought, whereas for me, any mistake might have the most dire of consequences. I hope to teach you so much of what my father taught me, but I pray that you live in a radically different world than the one he and I have inherited.
I do not envy his task, one that might become my own. I tell you these things because I know how strong and resilient you will be, how you will take the fear and make a fool out of the skin and turn it into a bastion of love against unwarranted inhumanity. I want you to realize that sometimes it will not be the things the world tells you, but the things it does not tell you. It will be the emissions rather than the direct affronts that often do the most damage.
Your textbooks will likely not tell you how Thomas Jefferson that blacks were, quote, inferior to the whites in endowments of both body and mind. How Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal left a whole just wide enough for black families to fall through while lifting the rest of the country into the middle class. They will not tell you how the federal government actively prevented black families from purchasing homes and cities across the country. It will not tell you how police departments across this nation are incentivized to see you as problem.
They will not tell you these things, and because of that, they will expect you to believe that the contemporary reality of our community is of our own doing that we simply did not work hard enough that things would be different if we simply changed our attitudes or the way we speak, the way we dress.
With that said, do not for a moment think you cannot change what exist. This world is a social construction. It can be reconstructed. This world was built. It can be rebuilt. Use everything that you accrue to reimagine the world. You are not a mistake. You are not a deficit. You are not something to be eradicated or rendered obsolete. You exist beyond pathology. You come from a lineage of those who built this country. You come from my grandfathers, one who toiled tobacco fields amid the ever expanding pastures of Mississippi throughout his adolescence, the other who fought a war for our country that was spit at his feet as soon as he put down his gun.
You come from grandmothers who dedicated their lives to teaching in communities where the quality of one's education is subject to the whims of the state. You come from my parents, who both protected me from violence and made me feel whole. You are the manifestation of their unyielding commitment to overcome. I hope the world you inherit is one in which you may love whomever you choose. I hope you read and write and laugh and sing and dance and build and cry and to all of the things a child should do.
I pray that you never have to stand on the other side of a fence and know that it is a world you cannot enter simply because of your skin.
That's writer, poet, scholar and Ted Speaker Clint Smith to learn more about Clint and hear our full conversation, go to Ted Unpeg and to see hundreds more TED talks.
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Thank you so much for being here and reflecting with me on some of the important and painful lessons that we have learned from the summer of 2020. May we all be wiser as we face more challenges in the months to come? Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Mushkin, poor Rachel Falkiner, Deba Motegi, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Montalbán, Maria Porres Gutierrez, Christina Kaliya and Matthew Kutya with help from Daniel Shukan. Our theme music was written by Ramtane Arab Louis, our partners at Ted, our Chris Anderson, Colin Helmes and a felon, and Michelle Quent.
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