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Isabel Wilkerson on the U.S. Caste System & VP Pick Kamala Harris Breaking “Long-Standing Barriers”

Web ExclusiveAugust 12, 2020
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In Part 2 of our interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, she discusses her groundbreaking new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” about how America’s racial hierarchy should be thought of as a caste system, similar to the one in India; how Dr. Martin Luther King traveled to India to meet with so-called untouchables; and how Nazi Germany borrowed from U.S. Jim Crow laws. She also shares her own experiences with racism and responds to Senator Kamala Harris becoming the first woman of color to be nominated for national office by a major political party.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we bring you Part 2 of our interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson. Her new book grows out of her widely acclaimed book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the history of the Great Migration, when waves of African Americans moved out of the South to escape racism, terrorism and so much more, only to face it again in the North.

In this new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson argues that America’s racial hierarchy should be thought of as a caste system, similar to what she calls “the world’s most recognized caste system” in India. She also looks at Nazi Germany borrowing from Jim Crow laws of the United States.

But before we go into all of that, it is so fascinating that your book, where you look at the United States, you look at India, you look at this issue of caste, and you look at African Americans in this country, at this time, when Kamala Harris has just been chosen by Joe Biden to be the vice-presidential running mate. She has an unusual biography. She is the first African American woman to run on a major presidential ticket, but her mother is from India. She is African American and the first Indian American. In light of all this, could you talk about your response to the choice of Kamala Harris as vice-presidential candidate?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, this is truly a groundbreaking moment in American history. It has taken 244 years for a woman of color, a woman of African descent, a woman of Indian descent, to rise to the level of being a candidate on a major party ticket in the United States. So, this represents so much intersectionality in our own personal story, but also so many long-standing barriers that are being crossed today.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that brings us to, I mean, this joining together of these two issues. In your book, Caste, you write about Bhimrao Ambedkar, the intellectual leader of India’s Dalit movement, what people call the “untouchable” movement. He wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois in 1946, “There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America,” he wrote. Can you talk about who he was in relation to Gandhi in India, and then W. E. B. Du Bois’s response?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, Gandhi was from a family that was an upper-caste — one of the upper castes. And so, he was the leader in the effort toward independence for the entire country of India and is known, obviously, for his nonviolent approach to achieving independence and to protesting.

Dr. Ambedkar was a leader of the Dalit movement. He was born into what was then known or called as one of the “untouchables,” one of the groups that was viewed as untouchable. And he went on to achieve great heights, and in his education, he actually attended Columbia University, and he got many advanced degrees. And then he returned to lead the movement toward, first of all, the Indian Constitution, but then also continuing to advocate on behalf of his people.

And he is one of the — is an example of how people in India, particularly those who had been assigned to the lowest caste, had been looking and aware of what was going on across the oceans, across continents, of what was going on here in the United States, and made common cause or recognized the common cause between the plight of the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” and of African Americans here in this country.

So, Dr. Ambedkar reached out to W. E. B. Du Bois, who was at that time, obviously, one of the leaders of African American intellect and thought and philosophy — reached out to him in recognition of the connections between the two peoples and the two countries in terms of the hierarchies. Both of them recognized that hierarchy, the infrastructure of our divisions, that a caste system was an appropriate term to look at how both peoples were being treated in their respective societies, though the countries are very, very different. They share — somewhat, they share in the ways of subordinating the very lowest-caste people in their countries.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Isabel, I wanted to ask you — you write that just before the turn of the 21st century, that death rates among middle-aged white Americans, particularly those with less education, began to suddenly rise because of suicides, drug overdoses, liver disease from alcohol abuse. And you say that the political scientists have given it a name: “dominant group status threat.” I’m wondering if you could talk about that and how that informs our understanding of the Trump phenomena in the past few years. But also, to what degree was this sense of dominant group threat a result of the growing nonwhite populations of the United States, and to what degree maybe it was the economic crises that began to affect
working-class whites in this country as the wealth gap continued to grow?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, yes, this is a study that came out in late 2014 by esteemed economists, who identified these as deaths of despair. They seemed to be going against all other trajectories for all other groups of people in the United States, even in the Western world, where this one group of people, middle-aged, white, generally people of lesser education, were dying at higher rates than other people – I mean, in other words, that the rate of deaths were rising among them, while the rate of death was lowering or plateauing for other groups.

And so, there was a question as to what could be causing this. And “dominant group status threat” is a term that’s used by political scientists to give us a window into what are the pressures that are facing people who have been born into a hierarchy — that we don’t really call it that, but they’ve been born into a hierarchy — many generations long, in which, through no fault of their own, no action on their part, were put in the position of inherited elevation, of inherited spaces in which things that were denied other people were accorded them without even realizing it, such things as just being able to get a mortgage, for example. During much of American history, African Americans were not permitted. They were denied mortgages in what we know as the redlining program, where the federal government would not back mortgages for African Americans. So, this is something that people could take for granted. They could take for granted if they fell into the category where a part of the dominant caste — again, with no action on their part — that accorded them the rights and stature that made life very different for them.

And when things began to — when the demographics of the country begins to change, when there are the rising up of people who had not been part of the dominant group, people who had been subjugated for much of American history began to get the opportunities that grew out of the civil rights movement, civil rights legislation. The idea of African Americans, I must say, being able to really enter into the mainstream of American life is a very new phenomenon in this country, when you think about the 400 years of people being — having been enslaved in this country, 400 years from the time of enslavement, the beginning of enslavement, 246 years of enslavement, followed by 100 years of Jim Crow. So, the idea of African Americans entering the mainstream and being able to participate fully as citizens is really a fairly new concept.

And so, with the changes and the opportunities that arose for people who had been subjugated for much of American history, entering the mainstream and putting — by their entering, changing the dynamics of what we even consider to be who can do what in our country, this puts tremendous pressure on people who had been, for generations, able to assume that certain things would be going certain ways in this country. There are tremendous impacts, impact that people experience as a result of this. These deaths of despair are really ones that could be avoidable. These are people who are succumbing to alcoholism, succumbing to drug abuse. The opioid crisis is all a part of these deaths of despair. And a lot of it, I am suggesting, grows out of the changing dynamics and the changing expectations of a hierarchy that seems to be in flux, when people who have been in a fixed place for so long begin to shift and move about and to move into spaces where they had not been before.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also raise the issue, that rarely gets talked about, is of the differences between native African Americans and Black immigrants, either from Africa or the West Indies, and how they are often, by this caste system, rewarded for distancing themselves from African Americans. One example that I came across often in covering public education in this country is that it seemed to me, from my observations, that immigrants from the West Indies or Africa were more prone to wanting to have their children go to charter schools versus regular public schools than native African Americans. I’m wondering: How does this work out, in your analysis?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, in an artificial, graded hierarchy, that ranks human value on the basis of one’s proximity to those who are dominant, those who are on top, it’s human nature to want to do whatever you can to survive in that hierarchy. People who arrive new to this country have to figure out how to navigate it, what will bear the most fruit, what will benefit them the most, how will they survive in a forbidding society, forbidding economy at times. And so, it’s very natural for people to want to do whatever they can to protect their children.

But one of the things that happens in a caste system, as it is evidenced in the United States, is that most every other group, if you’re coming in from Europe, for example, the eastern and southern Europeans were encouraged to quickly shed their originating ethnicity to — many people changed their names in the early decades of the 20th century in order to assimilate. They changed their names. They dropped the accents. They did everything they could to become Americanized, because that was going to be the way that they could blend in with the predominant group. That was what — they were being rewarded for blending in with the dominant group, which is human nature for someone to want to do.

However, for people who have been of African descent arriving to the United States, that this group alone — it shows you how a caste system works — would be encouraged to distance themselves from those who have been assigned to the bottom, which are people who have been descendants of enslaved people. They would be encouraged to do this. They would be rewarded for separating or creating a distance from themselves. And the way that society did this is to actually encourage people — they found — people could find — there are many studies about this — that people who are of African descent, but not native, not indigenous people who had been descended from enslavement, they actually were singular in being encouraged to retain their assets, to retain their connections or to emphasize that they were actually from some place other than from originating from the United States, so that this group alone is an indication of how a caste system can adjust or can influence people’s behavior in order to survive, by doing what is necessary to win the favor or to be in good favor of those who actually have been dominating, who are part of the dominant group. And so, these are the ways that a caste system can further divide.

I mean, the subtitle of this book, The Origins of Our Discontents, is there for a reason. It indicates how in some ways all of us are like players on a stage. You know, I think about the word “caste” in many ways, the word “caste” is used in our — in English, and one of them is a “cast” in a play. And so, everyone, if we are all characters in a play, you might say, with roles to play, roles to perform on the play — on the stage, there’s someone on stage left, stage right, someone in the front, someone in the back, and everyone knows where they’re supposed to be on the stage. Everyone knows their lines. And if you’re very, very invested in it, you know very well about it, you know everyone’s role. You know everyone’s — you know the entire script that everyone has to play in. So, whenever someone steps out of their place on that stage, it has an effect on everyone else.

This is an interconnected, interlocking ranking system in which everyone has to learn where everyone fits in order to survive in it. These are messages that we receive from very early in childhood, messages that everyone receives about who is expected to be where in the society and how they are expected to behave. Caste is often about boundaries and setting the boundaries and policing the boundaries.

And one way that we see that is where people who are in the dominant group have been often seen in recent years, these videos where they’re inserting themselves into the everyday lives of African Americans, for example, of Black people — for example, Black people sitting at a Starbucks waiting to be served, police called on them because they’re sitting there for too long; the police called in on people who were barbecuing in a park in Oakland; or the police called in many other
instances, a woman who was a graduate student just studying for her exams at Yale University. So, these are about the boundaries that are set, the enforcement of those boundaries, and how everyone ends up reacting or responding in order to survive in this caste system.

AMY GOODMAN: You pepper your book, Isabel Wilkerson, Caste, with your own personal stories. And I was wondering if you can share some of them. One of them is how your description of caste fits into the story about you being followed by DEA agents. And another is when you go to interview a prominent person as the national correspondent of The New York Times and what happened then. Begin with the DEA agents at the airport.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, this is a case in which I was just landing — both of these were when I was a national correspondent for The New York Times. And I landed in Detroit for a story. And upon landing, because it was a day trip, I didn’t have any luggage. I just was walking through the airport. And I noticed that there were these people who were walking alongside me, following me. I didn’t know why they were there. Eventually, I continued to walk and pay no attention to them, because I had to catch this shuttle bus.

And upon reaching the shuttle bus, they had followed me all the way there, and I asked them what — they were asking me questions as to where I was coming from, what I was doing there, where I was going to be staying, what I was doing, where I was working — all of these questions that didn’t — that were shocking to me because I was just another passenger, just another business flyer, another business traveler trying to get to the shuttle bus in order to get to to the work that I needed — that I was in the city to do. And they followed me all the way to the bus and said that they were DEA agents and they had to — they said that they were going to have to get on the bus with me and continue to follow me.

So they surveilled me, you know, through that situation, which is a very demoralizing, disruptive, heart-wrenching experience to be identified — or accused, essentially — just by their actions. And they stayed on that bus with me, following me, watching me, surveilling me, in front of all the other business travelers. I alone was the only African American on the bus, the only African American woman on the bus. So, it was a very, very painful experience to have that.

My response was to be what I was, which was to be the journalist that I was, so I began to take notes. It was the only way that I could protect myself. I began to take notes, to note everything that they were doing, made notes of what they looked like. I did this as best I could, working through my sense of both fear and frustration and terror, really, because I didn’t know what was going to happen, how far this would go.

Then, upon — when we reached the rental car lot, I rose to leave, and they allowed me to leave. They said, “Have a nice day.” There had never been any reason for them to stop me, to begin with.

But it was a terrifying experience, and in a kind of quiet, mundane way, an everyday way, the kind of thing that happens to people. So many things happen to people on the basis of just what they look like and the assumptions that accrue to what they look like, meaning race is the cue. What we look like is the cue, the signifier of where we fit, where we had been assigned in a caste system. And this is what they — these are the assumptions that they made about me. And it made for a disruption in the work that I was trying to do. And it’s something that takes a very long time to recover from.

AMY GOODMAN: And the story of going to interview someone as a New York Times national correspondent and what happened when you met him?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Yes. So, I had made arrangements to interview a range of people on one particular day for a fairly routine story. I called to make the appointments with all these people, and I had no trouble with anybody until I got to the last interview.

There, I had arrived at this retail establishment that was very quiet at that time of the day. There were no customers. And I got there early, so I got there ahead of time for the interview with the store manager. And the clerk who — directed me and said, “He’s not here. He should be here any minute, and you can just wait here.”

And so, eventually, a man comes in. He’s running very late. He’s frantic, he’s anxious. He’s, you know, taking his coat off. And I go up to him and introduce myself, because I know — the clerk said this is the man I was there to interview. And his response was, “I can’t talk with you right now. I’m getting ready for a very important interview.” And I said, “Well, I’m the interviewer. I’m Isabel Wilkerson with The New York Times.” And he said, “Well, how do I know that?” And I said, “Well, I’m here. This is the time we’re supposed to have our interview. In fact, we’re late, actually, for this interview. I’ve been here waiting.”

And he said, “Well, do you have a business card?” And it so happened that because it had been all day that I had been doing this, these interviews, I actually was out of them by that time. So I said, “No, I don’t have any with me. I don’t have a business card. But I am here to interview you. And you know that we have this appointment, and I talked with you over the phone.” And he said, “Well, do you have some kind of ID?” And I said, “I shouldn’t have to give you ID. You know, I shouldn’t have to give you ID, but I do have ID,” and I handed him my driver’s license. And he looked at the driver’s license, and he said, “You don’t have anything with The New York Times on it?”

And I said, “We should be interviewing right now. We’re already well into the time that we should be interviewing. This is a waste of time. We should be going ahead with our interview so that we can get this done.” And he said, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave, because The New York Times will be here any minute, and I’ve got to get ready for it.”

And so I left. There, The New York Times walked out the door. And he didn’t get included in the story because I couldn’t interview — he didn’t allow me to interview him.

And that was one of the other examples of how caste can intrude upon everyday moments, meaning these assumptions that go with the placement and location of people in a society, assumptions about where — who should be doing what, who would be in what positions, the assumptions of what the roles that we all have been assigned would be or should be or could be. And he made these assumptions on the basis of what is the cue or signifier of caste in our country.

And it hurts everyone in a situation like that, because this is something that — he was very excited to be interviewed, as evidenced by the fact that he wanted to make sure that he had the time to talk with the person that he was expecting to be The New York Times reporter. And he was very excited about it, but he did not get in there, obviously, because the reporter — he asked the reporter to leave.

And then, for me, I experienced the sense of wondering what is it that had happened here, trying to figure out what now am I going to do, how am I going to manage this, and then also just the sense of heartbreak, that, yet again, it’s happened again.

And this is something that affects, you know, not just one person or two people in one interaction, but magnify that or multiply this by millions of people who are just going about their day trying to do whatever they do in their work, and to get disrupted in this way. It has ramifications for the entire society, the entire economy. It affects productivity and ability to get things done. And in a very competitive world, we don’t have the time or the space to have people being disrupted in this way. It hurts everyone when we have these kinds of interactions that can be so fruitless for everyone.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Isabel Wilkerson, I wanted to ask you — we’ve seen this enormous, astonishing movement the past year in the wake of the killing of — the police killing of George Floyd, and we’re seeing Confederate monuments toppled all across the country. You can’t turn on the TV these days without seeing an advertisement by one major company or another extolling diversity and trumpeting that they support the Black Lives Matter movement. You have the NBA resuming its games now with the Black Lives Matter slogan painted on the hardwood of the basketball courts. Could you talk about these symbolic measures versus the lack of a real movement toward removing the structural caste system, the structures of the caste system that you write about?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, I do believe that in recent months there have been — there’s been such a rise in awareness. I think that we could hopefully be perhaps on the cusp of an awakening, an awakening particularly by those — by people who, because of how they’re situated in the caste system, again, through no action on their part — you’re born to the rankings that we have in this country — that people who are not affected by this on a day-to-day basis have in recent months and years been able to see — with the viral videos, with so much attention on this, to be able to see what they might not have been able to see otherwise.

I mean, one of the reasons why caste is such a powerful phenomenon is it’s the kind of thing that you cannot see. I often describe caste as like — it’s like a building. It’s like, you know, our country, like an old house, where the pillars and the joists and the beams, we had nothing to do with the building of those things, but we now have inherited this old building known as America. And we now have to figure out what do we do with the beams that may be askew or the cracks in the foundation. Then what do we do? And I think that now people are able to better see what they had not been able to see before. If you think about the joists and the pillars and the beams in a building, you can’t see those. By definition, you don’t see those. You see the walls, and you see what’s inside the building, but you don’t see the structure of it.

If there’s an awareness of what the structure is, if there’s an awareness of what we have inherited as a people, as a country, then perhaps there would be a way that people can finally come to begin to address these issues, to look deeper than they otherwise have been called upon to do, and to recognize that this is something that not one person, not one politician, not even one election, is enough to deal with. It takes everyone.

If you think of this as an old house, and, you know, when there’s rains in the basement, you don’t want to go in the basement, because you don’t want to know — you don’t want to face what’s going on in the basement after the rain. You don’t go into that basement, but it’s at your own peril. You will have to deal with what’s in that basement, whether you look or not. Not looking does not protect you from whatever is going on.

And so, what I’m hoping is that all that has happened — and the effort of this book is just to shed light, to illuminate the divisions, to illuminate the origins of the divisions that we’ve inherited, that if we can see these things finally, perhaps we can collectively come together to figure out how to push through them. And it would take everyone, because this has been going on for 400 years, and it will take everyone to address it — not one thing to address it, but everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, Isabel Wilkerson, “Try as it may to entice newcomers to take sides in upholding the hierarchy, the caste system fails to reach some people. Some children of immigrants from the Caribbean, people like Eric Holder, Colin Powell, Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm, and Stokely Carmichael, among many others have shared in the common plight of those in the lowest caste, become advocates for justice, and transcended these divisions for the greater good.” Joe Biden’s choice for running mate, Kamala Harris, is the daughter of an Indian woman and a Jamaican man. Do you see her as one of those people whom the caste system has failed to reach? Is that possible?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, I feel that the way that a caste system ascribes identity to you means that when you have multiple identities, that offers the opportunity to be a bridge builder. It offers the opportunity to be able to transcend.

You know, one of the — when I think about transcendence of caste, I often think about Albert Einstein, who arrived in this country just before the Nazis took over. He arrived here just in the nick of time. And upon arrival, he himself recognized that he had left one brewing, terrifying hierarchy, but then also could see manifestations in the new country that he — his new adopted home.

And he took it upon himself to identify with and feel empathy for and feel a connection for the people who had been assigned to the bottom of the caste system in the United States, in his new adopted home. And here was a man who was the smartest man, perhaps, who ever lived, who was rejecting the messaging that people who had been assigned to the lowest caste in the United States — he was rejecting the message that they were beneath him. He was rejecting the message that they were inferior to him, that they were less intelligent than he was.

And when Marian Anderson came to deliver a concert that she did in Princeton, she was not permitted to stay in the Nassau Inn after the concert, a magnificent concert. And he heard about this and invited her to stay with him.

He did everything that he could to transcend the barriers that he discovered existed, the walls of division that existed in his adopted country. And he made a point in his life where he did not have to deliver commencement addresses anymore, or he refused to do that anymore because he no longer needed to, but he made an exception for Lincoln University, a historically Black college, where he delivered a commencement address and actually taught students there physics. I mean, he made the effort to transcend the boundaries that had been the messaging that society sends to all of us.

And I think he offers a way to see how we can transcend these things. One of the quotes that I use as an epigraph is one in which he says, if the white people — if the dominant group, in other words — could begin to see what is happening in the country, this would not long last, he said. And I think that his words have tremendous power for us, both at the time he said them in the 20th century and for us in our current era.

AMY GOODMAN: And as you quote in that book of Albert Einstein in that speech, he said, “The separation of the races is not a disease of the colored people, but a disease of the white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.” Finally, Isabel Wilkerson, how does capitalism fit into this whole structure of caste?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, I am not an expert on capitalism, but what I can say is that the origins of a caste system grew out of the imperative that the colonists felt they had to build a country rapidly, as cheaply as they possibly could. And that’s what was the origins of the divisions that we now have. The hierarchy that we now — under whose shadow we now live originated with this imperative to bring in people to work the land for free, to build the country for free, and thus creating this hierarchy that we now live with.

That has been the — it has created a bottom tier of people, that we have seen evidence in COVID-19, where the descendants of enslavement, and people who look like them, Brown and Black people, were the ones who were most likely to be at risk for COVID-19 because they were the ones who were doing the frontline work. They were the ones doing the work, the work that meant stacking the shelves at a convenience store or supermarket, driving buses, being out in the public in the very early going of this pandemic, and thus putting themselves at risk, and feeling the need to do this, because that is the way the economy had been set up, and thus were the ones to suffer the most from contracting the virus and often dying from the virus.

So, this is one example of how the structure of the country, the infrastructure that we often cannot see but lays bare in much of the behaviors and circumstances of people that we are seeing today — this is how it’s had this long shadow that still hangs over us even now.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to just end with a date. In Part 1 of our conversation, you talked about 2042 being, according to the census, for the first time in American history, whites will no longer be in the majority in this country. You also talk about the year 2022. Why don’t you end by describing the significance of this year, in just two years?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Yes. So, we will be coming upon a time when — well, let me say that no one will be alive at the point at which African Americans will have been free for as long as they had been enslaved. So, I want to make sure that we’re aware of just how long this history is, how long it has been that we have been living with this, with the shadow of this caste system, and how long it may take for us yet to still recover from it.

We are in a space where there are projections that say that African Americans, if we continue at the rate that we are, that the gap in wealth between Black African Americans and their white counterparts is 10 to one at this point, and that the way that we have currently — if we continue on the path, it will take another 228 years before African Americans, who had been legally held back and excluded from the economy for much of their existence in this country, will reach parity with their white counterparts.

So, there are many, many ways of looking at this. And I would hope that the way that we — what we take from this, hopefully, would be a recognition that we all have a stake in one another, that our future depends on recognizing our common humanity, and not just for our country, but for our species and the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to underscore, you say 2022 will be the first year the United States will have been an independent nation for as long as slavery lasted on its soil.

ISABEL WILKERSON: In two years, yes. That’s how long enslavement lasted.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe in reparations of some sort?

ISABEL WILKERSON: I do. I believe that when you learn the history of what happened to African Americans in this country, when you know and learn about what Jim Crow actually meant, this rigid caste system in which everything that you could and could not do was based upon what you look like, and any breach of that caste system could mean your very life, that African Americans held back, excluded by law from much of what we — for much of American history — in fact, most of American history — then African Americans fall clearly in the category of being accorded worthy of reparations, as have other groups, in this country and elsewhere, who have suffered and endured exclusion and, in fact, atrocities at the hands of the state.

And so, I believe that there should be reparations — emphasis on repairing, on repairing — and also, necessarily and importantly, alongside it, education, education to make sure that all Americans know the true history of our country, truly know what has come before us, truly go into the basement, you know, to inspect it, no matter — even though how difficult it may be. We may not want to see it, but it’s necessary for our success and for our survival, not just of ourselves as a country, but also as a species.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Wilkerson, I want to say thank you so much for spending this time, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, winner of the National Humanities Medal, her latest book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

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

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