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Investigating Bias: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do

Web ExclusiveMarch 28, 2019
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In our extended interview with Stanford Psychology Professor Jennifer Eberhardt, she goes into detail about her investigation into how implicit bias impacts everything from hate crimes to microaggressions in the workplace, school and community, and what we can do about it. This is the topic of her new book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do. Eberhardt is a recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “genius” grant.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Friday, a white former police officer charged with killing unarmed African-American teenager Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh last year was acquitted. Video of the June 19th shooting shows officer Michael Rosfeld shot Rose in the back while the teenager was trying to flee a traffic stop. Rosfeld had been sworn in to the city’s police department just three hours before the shooting. At a vigil Sunday, Rose’s mother Michelle Kenney said she would continue to fight for justice for her son.

MICHELLE KENNEY: The problem is the law. The problem isn’t the individual. If we rewrite the law, then all individuals gotta abide by it. So that’s where we gotta start at. So, no, it’s not over for me. I got a long fight ahead of me. A long fight. We gotta rewrite the law. And one way or the other, Michael Rosfeld gotta answer for what he did to Antwon.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes after massive protests in Sacramento, California, earlier this month, after the county’s district attorney announced the two police officers who shot and killed 22-year-old unarmed African American Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard last year will not face criminal charges. Since the news broke, organizers have joined walkouts at local colleges, high schools, demonstrations at the Sacramento City Council, an ongoing occupation of a Sacramento police station, a die-in at UC Davis, University of California, Davis, and a protest in one of Sacramento’s wealthiest neighborhoods that led to 84 arrests.

To discuss these developments and more, we continue our conversation with Jennifer Eberhardt. She’s professor of psychology at Stanford University, recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “genius” grant. Her new book, just out this week, is titled Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do.

Thank you so much for staying with us.


AMY GOODMAN: So, we talk about what happened in Pittsburgh; right before that, not bringing charges against the officers in the killing of Stephon Clark. You’ve done a lot of work on killings of African Americans, police killings of African Americans. Talk about it.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: You know, I’ve done a lot of work with police departments. A lot of my work, though, focuses more on sort of routine interactions between police and community. And, I mean, these—you know, those routine interactions actually feed into what happens with the officer-involved shootings. And I think, in a way, when we have these encounters with the police, there’s a history there. There’s a history of either trust or mistrust, that can sort of feed into how these interactions unfold. But a lot of that is happening. There’s a background to it of just like regular, sort of routine contact with the public. And even with one of the shootings—right?—it was a traffic stop. And I’ve studied traffic stops a lot, to try to understand how these interactions unfold and how trust can be built or eroded inside, you know, this brief interaction, and looking at that across thousands of these interactions to try to analyze it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk to us specifically about that, yes.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yeah, well, this is work that I’m doing in collaboration with a number of researchers at Stanford. It’s an interdisciplinary collaboration with linguists and computer scientists and social psychologists. And together we’re using this machine learning approach to actually analyze footage from body-worn cameras. Those cameras allow us to see, you know, interactions as they’re unfolding in real time, and so we get a much better handle on what’s going on and how people might leave an interaction feeling either better about the police or worse about the police. It also allows us to see, you know, how police may respond differently to black drivers, say, in traffic stops as opposed to white drivers.

AMY GOODMAN: How do they?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, we find that there’s a difference of respect. We call it a respect deficit. And so we see officers speaking in more respectful ways to whites, from the beginning of the stop 'til the end. And so, if you look at how they greet white drivers, they will greet them with “sir” and “ma'am,” and they are more likely to greet black drivers with “bro” and “dude.” So, just at the beginning of the stop, there’s a difference. And then, also, throughout the stop they offer reassurance to white drivers more so than black drivers. So, for white drivers, they’ll kind of walk them through the procedure if they’re getting a ticket, what to do, offer them reassurance, say, you know, “It’ll be OK. Don’t worry.” Black drivers, you know, less so. And then, even towards the end of the stop, they’re expressing concern for the safety of the white driver a lot more than they do for the black driver. So, we’re in really different worlds here—you know, black drivers and white drivers—when they come into contact with the police.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you also write in the book about your own experience, just the day before you completed your Ph.D. or graduated with a Ph.D. from Harvard—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —at a traffic stop. What happened?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yes. So, we were—I was driving with a girlfriend. We were pulled over for a minor traffic violation, and the officer spoke to us in a really disrespectful tone, actually. And I ended up being body-slammed on the roof of my car, handcuffed and arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. Explain how it started. You have very good reason to make this the basis of your research.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yeah. I mean, this was way back when I was in my—I mean, this was like 25 years ago, this happened. But, yeah, I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain where you were and why this happened.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: I was in Boston. I was driving with a friend who lived in a housing complex that was kind of a mixed socioeconomic status, you know, and mixed race. And, you know, I think the location might have played a role there, too, just in how they typically treated people, and especially black people, who live there. So, it was kind of like, I think, the location and then also, I think, the point in time this was in the country. So, this was in the '90s, where, you know, crime was high, much higher than it is now. And, you know, police departments used these routine traffic stops for minor violations to kind of pull people over and check them out and sort of make sure they weren't up to any criminal activity. And it’s legal. It’s perfectly legal. But this was the strategy that they used to fight crime.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you end up getting body-slammed?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, I refused to get out of the car. So, the officer was just so rude to us, from the beginning to the end. He wouldn’t explain why he pulled us over. He just wouldn’t—you know, wouldn’t sort of speak to us about what was going on or inform us about what was about to happen. But I had expired tags. They were expired by, I think, six weeks, as I was working on my dissertation, to finish, to graduate from Harvard. And he called a tow truck, and we didn’t know what was happening.

And he just appeared at my door and told me to exit the vehicle. The car was being towed. The tags were expired. And so I just said, “No. You know, I’m not getting out.” You know, this was—I was in my twenties. I was having my Rosa Parks moment, right? “I’m going to sit here.” And so, that decision just—you know, I didn’t realize the significance of that decision, I’ll say that, because he called for backup. There ended up being five cruisers surrounding our car, police cruisers. There was a crowd that gathered on the street. And so it went from—you know, for me, from defiance to fear, that that was really—

AMY GOODMAN: This reminds me of Sandra Bland.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yeah, maybe it was like that. I was—I don’t know if she became fearful. I mean, I think she was definitely defiant.

AMY GOODMAN: She was very fearful. She didn’t want to get out of her car. She got out of her car. He ended up body-slamming her to the ground.


AMY GOODMAN: And a few days later, after taken to jail—


AMY GOODMAN: —she was found dead in her cell.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you talk—



JENNIFER EBERHARDT: So, yeah. So I think the fear kept me in the car, you know, after I saw all what had—you know, what we were in the center of. But—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you’ve worked, Jennifer, with the Oakland Police Department. Can you talk about what kind of trainings, what you’ve learned about the implicit bias that police officers have that lead to this kind of behavior, and what kind of work you did with them?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Right. So, again, I mean, implicit bias is something that we’re all vulnerable to. It’s not something that is—you know, that police officers are exposed to.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, no, of course not. No.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yeah, but the issue with police officers is just the power that they have in their decision-making and, you know, the consequences of that bias. And so we want to be sort of especially attentive to them.

And so, I was called in to Oakland, California, to work with the police department on their reform efforts. They had some scandals and issues in the past, and I was called in to help them to analyze data that they were collecting on the race of people that they were stopping, either pedestrians or drivers. And I was to sort of analyze that stop data and to see if there were racial disparities in who they were stopping and searching and arresting and so forth. And we found that that was the case. But we also wanted to explore more, and so we used the footage that comes—the body-worn camera footage, that is—you know, that documents the stop. We analyzed that, as well, and found these big differences for traffic stops and how officers are speaking to black versus white drivers. So they’re professional overall, but there’s a respect difference there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you talk about this respect deficit. What do police officers say? I mean, you’re right in there. You’re right in the police stations—


AMY GOODMAN: —when you’re consulting with them. When you confront them on these issues, how do they respond?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, that depends. Sometimes in a defensive way, you know, sometimes in a way where they actually sort of acknowledge, you know, that—that, “Well, maybe this is something that we could work on.” And in this particular case, with the analysis of the body-worn camera footage, the department actually invited us to help them, assist them in developing a training on the traffic stop, and it focused on the language use of officers. And so, that was a good response.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, you’ve just spoken specifically about concerns about implicit bias. Of course, you say that everybody is—has an implicit bias of some kind. But with the police, it’s particularly, possibly, injurious because of the power that they have.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: And that presumably is true with all—both people as well as institutions, that have a lot of power. But what—I mean, in your book you also talk about just the quotidian, everyday—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —kind of violence that this kind of implicit bias can inflict. So can you talk about more everyday situations and what the impact of this kind of bias is or can be?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: I mean, so, it’s everywhere, in every sort of corner of life, really. I mean, I think, you know, there’s evidence for bias whether we’re like in our neighborhoods or in our workplaces or in our schools, in our criminal justice system, and not just with the police but in the courtroom, in the prisons. You know, so there isn’t like a corner that it can’t reach. And it has, like you say—you know, could have pretty negative consequences for the targets of that bias. So, for example, if we just want to look at neighborhoods, I’ve done studies with colleagues where we’ve shown that when a black family is selling their home, you know, that home is worth about $22,000 less than the identical home that’s being sold by a white family. And so there’s a way in which, you know, just living in that home for—

AMY GOODMAN: Do realtors say to black families, “When we’re showing this house, don’t be here. Take down your family pictures.”


AMY GOODMAN: “Don’t let them know”?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: I mean, they say that for everyone—

AMY GOODMAN: That you’re African-American.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: —but I think it’s especially important for African Americans. I think there’s a way—I mean, we think about bias as something that’s just about people—right?—that we can have—you know, we’re prejudiced against certain people, or we have stereotypes about those people. But it’s more than that. The bias can—the target of bias can actually be—you know, reach beyond people and go to places and things. And so, this is an example of that, where we can have a bias against—you know, we can express a bias against a house, right? Because you’re going to evaluate that house more negatively when a black person has lived in it. It’s as though their presence in that house—I mean, they’re not living in the house with you. I mean, they’re moving out, right? But the fact that they have once lived in that house can—you know, it taints it, and just because they’ve lived there.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a difference between—I mean, your book is called Biased—between biased and racism?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yes, yeah. Yeah, there’s a—I mean, so, you know, again, implicit bias is something that we’re all vulnerable to. I think when people think about racism or old-fashioned racism, they’re thinking, you know, this is a kind of a select group of people who are sort of hate-filled people, or they’re bad people. But for implicit bias, you don’t have to be a bad person to be affected by that kind of a bias, to hold it, to experience it. So, it’s more pervasive than this old-fashioned racism. But it could have, you know, effects that are just as bad. You could think about it as like old-fashioned racism being sort of this acute form of bias, whereas this implicit bias, being more chronic, it’s something that we live with, that can flare up, that we have to manage, but ultimately, when we don’t manage it, it can inflict a lot of damage.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go to one of the examples that you give in your book of the kind of imagery that informs some of this bias. The book includes a section on ape imagery and the issue of black-ape association. I want to look back at a few examples of this over the past few years. This is former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld in a 2014 appearance on Fox News when he said a trained ape could do a better job in Afghanistan than President Obama.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Our relationship with Karzai and with Afghanistan was absolutely first-rate in the Bush administration. It has gone downhill, like a toboggan, ever since the Obama administration came in. Now, take, for example, the fact that we have status of forces agreement probably with 100, 125 countries in the world. This administration, the White House and the State Department have failed to get a status of forces agreement. A trained ape could get a status of forces agreement. It does not take a genius.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Donald Rumsfeld speaking about Barack Obama in 2014.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: That is just five years ago. In 2016, a West Virginia government worker sparked outrage after calling Michelle Obama, quote, “an ape in heels.” Pamela Ramsey Taylor was the director of the Clay County Development Corporation. She made the comments in a social media post after Donald Trump’s election victory. The mayor of Clay, Beverly Whaley, resigned after responding to the post, quote, “Just made my day Pam,” end-quote. And last year, ABC canceled its hit show Roseanne after its star, Roseanne Barr, fired off a series of racist comments on Twitter. In one tweet, Roseanne wrote, quote, “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” unquote. It was a reference to Valerie Jarrett, an African American, who’s a longtime adviser to President Obama. So, Jennifer, can you respond to some of those extremely recent comments and the issues that you raise in your book—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —with respect to this black-ape imagery?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Right. I mean, so, that black-ape imagery is still with us. It’s interesting, because it brings up another conversation we were having about the role of social norms and the relationship between implicit bias and this more explicit bias.

I did some work, a little while ago now, around 2008 or so, with Phillip Goff, who’s a former graduate student at Stanford, now is a professor here in New York. And we worked together on a series of studies looking at this black-ape association and found, you know, evidence that it’s still present in everyday people. So, again, your clip’s suggesting that maybe it’s the few isolated people who are out there who hold these terrible views, but we were finding evidence for this association with just like everyday students and, you know, everyday sort of people who were out in the world, even though they didn’t know they had that association at the time. I mean, this was before—you know, we were conducting the studies before Barack Obama became president for the first time. And people weren’t—I mean, this was something that was in the past, and a lot of the young students hadn’t thought about it, didn’t know about it, this black-ape association, but they were showing evidence for it in our studies.

And so, if we sat them in front of a computer screen and we flashed African-American faces at them at a really quick rate so they couldn’t sort of consciously pick up what we were flashing at them, and then we showed them images of various animals, blurry images of those animals, they were able to pick out the ape imagery a lot faster, after being exposed to black faces as opposed to white faces. Right? So the black faces facilitated their ability to pick out these apes. And we’ve also shown—we had other studies that we’ve done where we’ve exposed them to words associated with apes—right?—chimpanzees and apes and gorillas and words like that, right?—again, flashed the words on the computer screen, such a rapid rate they can’t consciously read what they’re being exposed to, but this is a way that we can get them to think about this concept of apes. And then we put two faces on the computer screen simultaneously, a black face and a white face, and we simply look at which face they look at. If they’ve been exposed to the ape imagery, their eyes go straight for the black face. So their eyes are directed away from the white face and towards the black face.

We also were showing that this ape imagery can actually matter outside of the laboratory, you know, in police departments, for example. So, what we did was we had people look at a video of a police altercation where they had a suspect on the ground and they were beating the suspect with a baton. But you couldn’t see the suspect. You couldn’t see the suspect’s face. So that allowed us to manipulate what the subjects thought they saw, right? So we gave them a mug shot, and we said, “Hey, this is the suspect.” Either the mug shot was of a white person or the mug shot was of a black person. And what we found was, is when the mug shot was of a black person and we exposed them to this ape imagery beforehand and they looked at this video, they thought that black person deserved what he got, that, you know, he brought that kind of beating onto himself and so forth. And so, the ape imagery served this function of kind of endorsing, you know, police use of force against African Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: But even if you hadn’t shown the ape, if you had just said this person there that’s getting beaten on the ground, they can’t see the color, but you say it’s white or you say the person is black, would they be more likely to say the black person on the ground deserved the beating?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: In this case, they weren’t. But the thing that—so, they were—I mean, I think, you know, sometimes—I mean, it kind of depends on who your participants are and so forth. But in this case, in this particular case, we didn’t see a race difference there without the ape. It was the ape imagery that produced this huge difference in what they thought was appropriate in terms of police behavior. So that’s the other thing. I mean, sometimes we just sort of talk about, you know, the police and that they could have this potential bias and so forth, and there’s something going on with them, but sometimes it’s what’s going on with us. You know, sometimes it’s sort of, you know, them acting on what they sort of think the people want and what role they think that people want them to serve in the community.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what comes of that? You do that research. So what do you think is the answer coming out of that research?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, I mean, it’s showing us that things that we think we’ve dealt with, we have not. And again, this work was done before Barack Obama became president. Once he became president, all of that lifted—I mean, that was brought to the surface, and we were seeing things and hearing things, comments about black people looking like apes and so forth, that we didn’t hear before.

AMY GOODMAN: You were even surprised—doing all that research, you, still, when you watched that Donald Rumsfeld comment on Fox—


AMY GOODMAN: —talking about Obama as an ape.


AMY GOODMAN: Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, talking about to President Obama, comparing him to an ape. You were surprised. You just—you uttered a shock when you saw that.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, it’s hard to witness. I mean, knowing this, as a social scientist, and dealing with the data and, you know, writing up the studies is— that’s what I do, and I kind of remove myself in order to be able to observe that and to document it and so forth and think about it and theorize about it. But this, it’s different. I mean, there’s a visceral—there was a visceral reaction to hearing that comment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And it’s especially—I mean, it’s already horrific that the association is made at all.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: But, in fact, he compares him unfavorably to Obama, saying that—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —an ape would have done a better job than Obama does.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go now to Stacey Abrams, whose narrow loss in the race for Georgia governor earned her widespread praise, and she’s now considering a run for president or a seat in the Senate. This is MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell speaking with Abrams Wednesday.

ANDREA MITCHELL: You and Andrew Gillum came way closer to winning your races than Beto O’Rourke did. How do you feel about all of the publicity the campaign that Beto O’Rourke has gained by the listening tour, you know, cooking at home, going to the dentist, his online presence, his fundraising? Why Beto O’Rourke and not Andrew Gillum and not Stacey Abrams as, you know, the darling of the media?

STACEY ABRAMS: I don’t think that success is zero-sum, so I don’t want to disparage or take away from the reaction and the legitimate response people had to his campaign. But I do want to take—to call the question. There is no difference with the—there’s no distinction with the difference between what he accomplished and what Andrew and I accomplished. And I would challenge people to consider why we were not lifted up in the same way. I think race plays a part. I think region plays a part. I also think phenotype plays a part. My responsibility then is to credibly investigate running for president, because I want people to understand that I may not look like the typical candidate, but that does not diminish my capacity to possibly run for this job. And the same would be true for Andrew, if that was something he was interested in.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Stacey Abrams speaking on Wednesday to MSNBC.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: And she asked the question: Why were we not lifted up in the same way, Andrew Gillum and her versus Beto O’Rourke?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Right. And she points to race, she points to phenotype, and she points to location, right? So, those are the kinds of things. So it’s hard to know, in any one case—right?—how much race is playing a role or whether it’s playing a role. But the beauty of science is that we can actually create studies where we can isolate those different factors. We can present people with the same situation, the same case, where we vary the race of the actor, or we can vary the phenotype of a black person, who looks more stereotypically black or less stereotypically black, and look at the impact of that on the decisions that get made about that person, or we can change the location, too. And, you know, so we’ve done all of these things. We have the capacity to actually look for answers, to explore that scientifically, so that we can see whether—you know, the extent to which race is playing a causal role in all of these cases.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in the stereotypical way that you’re indicating, what does a black person look like? What are stereotypical black features as they are perceived in the popular imagination?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, I mean, I think—when we’ve done studies, we’ve asked people to rate faces, say, on how stereotypically black they are. And people can do this, even when you don’t give them any instruction. We tell them, “Use whatever features you want. We want you to rate these faces from sort of low to high in stereotypicality.” And there’s huge agreement on that. And I think what people are using is the skin shade, the darkness of the skin, the broadness of the nose, the thickness of the lips. They’re looking at the hair texture. So people have, you know, high agreement on what it means to be stereotypically black or less so.

And it matters a lot. It matters for assumptions of criminality. So we’ve done studies before with police officers, where we just showed them a series of faces of black people that varied on how stereotypically black they were, and found that they judged more of the faces that were highly stereotypically black to be criminal than those that were less stereotypical. We’ve also looked at this in the courtroom with death-sentencing cases, and we found that the more black you looked, the more likely you were to get a death sentence, at least if your victim was white. And for that study, we used an archival database of, you know, many different cases of crimes that were committed in Philadelphia over a 20-year period, and so these were actual cases that had actual verdicts with actual jury members. And we were able to get the photographs of the people in that database who committed or were accused of, found guilty of committing those crimes. And so, we gave those faces to raters to have them judge them on how stereotypically black the faces were. And these raters had no idea who these people were, where we got the faces, what the study was about. They just looked at the face and rated it. And we were able to use their ratings to predict whether someone got a death sentence or a life sentence. And, in fact, you know, looking more black more than doubled the defendant’s chance of getting a death sentence.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Eberhardt, as you head off on your book tour, your book Biased just out this week, you’ve been doing this work for many years.


AMY GOODMAN: What surprised you most in your research?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: I think the most surprising finding—well, two, actually. One was the study we did about the death penalty and looking at the role that the stereotypicality of a defendant’s face can play, you know, in the outcome, or at least there’s an association there: The more black you are, the more likely you are to be sentenced to death, at least if your victims are white. I mean, the fact that that seemed—that doubled your chances of getting a death penalty was—you know, just the magnitude of the effect was big for us, and I didn’t expect that.

I think the work that we’ve done on the ape imagery was also surprising—not surprising in a sense that, you know, I was surprised to find it there. I mean, we thought there would be something like it there, but what we weren’t prepared for was just how strong it was. You know, that association, that black-ape association, is even stronger than the black-crime association, even though when we were conducting the studies, people weren’t talking about this, people never never said anything about black people looking like apes. But, you know, so that was surprising.

And then, with the election of Barack Obama for the first time to the presidency, you know, people—you know, I think that did bring things to the surface. So, by the time we finished the studies and the studies were out and we would talk about the studies at scientific conferences and so forth, what surprised me was people’s reactions. So, I thought that we would have to do lots of studies to be able to really, like, show that this was the case, that there still was this black-ape association and that it was a strong association.

And what I found instead was that people were—it was almost as though they thought that was a given, that blacks were associated with apes. And I would get questions about, “Well, what else would you expect?” and that, you know, black people just look more similar to apes than whites. And I just—yeah, I didn’t expect that. So that reaction was probably—it was surprising, but also—yeah, it was shocking, actually, for scientists to sit in a room and just feel like those associations are natural and normal, that there’s nothing to even study there, because there’s such a connection, an obvious visual connection, between blackness and this ape image.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Eberhardt, we want to thank you so much for spending this time with us, professor of psychology at Stanford University, recipient of the 2014 MacArthur “genius” grant. Her new book, just out this week, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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