Congresswoman Barbara Lee on tackling systemic racism and speaking truth to power
Pete Buttigieg: Hi, I’m Pete Buttigieg and this is The Deciding Decade.
Throughout this summer, we’ve seen a reckoning about how to face one of our country’s deepest, harshest truths — how pervasive racism has dominated so much of our past and continues to shape so much of our present. We’ve seen George Floyd murdered, Jacob Blake shot, Breonna Taylor robbed of her life. We’ve seen communities of color disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. America is staring at our reality of discrimination and bias directly in the face, and it’s past time for all of us, especially white Americans, to address it.
So where do we go from here? The answer, of course, is complicated. But my guest today talks about how we need — really for the first time in this country — to take a step back and examine the effects that slavery, institutional racism and discrimination have had on Black Americans and still have on our country’s laws and policies. We need to do this as a way to heal, and as a catalyst for progress. I draw a lot of hope from the thought of what could happen if we were to do this together, over the decade ahead, with the leadership of people like my guest today.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a progressive leader and a path-breaking individual who has made an enormous difference in the United States Congress in the progressive movement, continuing to speak on issues that are going to shape our time. She’s been an effective public servant who has led on a number of issues — and she’s not afraid to take an unpopular position. In fact, she was the only member of congress to vote against the authorization of military force after the September 11 attacks. She’s also one of America’s most distinctive voices on racial justice and equity. Some of the answers we’re searching for right this moment, have to do with challenges she has been speaking to for a long time — how do we face our deepest, harshest truths? How do we heal? How can we move forward together?
Congresswoman Lee, thanks so much for joining us in what I know is a busy time.
Barbara Lee: Aw yeah no, I’m really happy to be with you. It’s nice seeing you again. It’s time I learn how to pronounce your last name. [laughs] Buttigieg, right?
Pete Buttigieg: That’s right. It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Lee, but you got it just right. Thanks for joining us.
Barbara Lee: It took a while, but I miss you on that stage. I thought you did great.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, thank you.
Barbara Lee: Can’t wait to hear what you have in the future.
Pete Buttigieg: Thank you. It almost feels like another lifetime ago, doesn’t it?
Barbara Lee: Doesn’t it though?
Pete Buttigieg: Just earlier this calendar year when we were all running for president, who could have guessed that the stakes would go up?
Barbara Lee: Oh gosh, yep. And November is the turning point, I think. I think either we go forward or we go backwards in this country on all issues. It’s just a very critical moment. It’s a defining moment, I think, for the United States.
Pete Buttigieg: I think so too.
Barbara Lee: We have to recognize that.
Pete Buttigieg: I think that’s right. Part of what we’re doing in this podcast is a series of conversations about exactly that, not just what do we need to do in this moment, but how does this moment shape the years that are coming ahead? And that’s one of the reasons why I was so eager to talk to you because your career, your activism, and your legislation has, I think, always taken that long view into account. It’s something I’m really eager to explore. But before we get into politics and policy, something else I wanted to ask you about. You were born in El Paso, Texas.
Barbara Lee: Yeah!
Pete Buttigieg: Very curious about what El Paso was like during your childhood.
Barbara Lee: Oh boy. Well, first of all, I love El Paso. The more I go there as an adult, the more I really recognize the beauty of the people, the grit and the toughness of the people, and the fact that we have so many challenges as African Americans. Quick story, my mother though was born in El Paso. My grandfather and his father were born in Galveston, Texas, and that was where two years later we learned that we were freed as slaves.
Pete Buttigieg: Juneteenth.
Barbara Lee: Yeah. That’s Juneteenth. So El Paso, my grandfather migrated to. He thought he could achieve a better opportunity there. He had finished college and he became the first Black letter carrier in El Paso, Texas, and he spoke fluent Spanish. So that’s why I’m so committed to the Postal Service and reserving the US Postal Service as a public entity because in addition to how important it is for the country in a general sense, it was the primary means to the middle class for African Americans. So we lived in El Paso, Texas, with my grandfather and grandmother, my mother, and my dad who was in the military. So my mother met him because she was working at Fort Bliss, the first African American woman to work there.
Pete Buttigieg: Is that right?
Barbara Lee: Yeah. She was one of the first 12 students to integrate the University of Texas at El Paso. But I got to tell you about when I was born. And this left a mark on me that I will never forget and really describes why I fight for justice and the women’s health. She went to the hospital. And she needed a C-section. They wouldn’t admit her because she was Black. My grandmother and again, going back to the Confederacy, Black women were raped by the heads of households.
So my great-grandmother had been raped by the guy she worked for. Out of that came two girls, my granddaughter and my great-aunt. They looked like they were white. And so for my grandmother, she had to demand that my mother get in the hospital because she said that was her daughter. They looked at my mother and they looked at my grandma and they couldn’t quite figure it out. So they thought my grandmother was white. So they let her in and she needed a C-section. But they left her in the hall on the gurney. My mother became unconscious and she almost died. No one attended to her at all, nobody. Finally, someone came up and saw that she was delirious and really needed attention and they didn’t know what to do. They could not do a C-section then. It was just too dangerous. So they took her into the emergency room and they barely got me here because they had to use forceps to deliver me. My mother almost died and I almost didn’t get here. So that kind of tells you the story.
Pete Buttigieg: So when we talk about, years later, we talk about this maternal mortality gap that is clearly a consequence of systemic racism, this is not theoretical for you.
Barbara Lee: No. There’s nothing, but it’s a shame and disgrace that we have gone back, the reports have shown 25 years to where we were. So no, this is not new to me. That’s why when we decided to form our Black Maternal Health Caucus, I immediately joined because my life almost was taken from me or I almost was not granted life. That was because my mother was Black and because I was Black. But my mother and grandfather and dad decided that they weren’t going to participate in anything that was segregated anymore. So they sent us to Catholic school.
Pete Buttigieg: So the Catholic school was integrated and the public school was not?
Barbara Lee: Yeah, yeah. But integrated meant two Black students, me and my sister.
Pete Buttigieg: Wow. I want to ask you also about what I think was a formative experience, must have been, working on Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for president. I think many of us are aware that she was the first Black woman to run for president, but in researching for this podcast, I was not aware that she was the first Black candidate for a major party, man or woman, and the first woman, Black or white or otherwise, to run for president as a Democrat.
Barbara Lee: Yeah. I look back on that campaign. Shirley Chisholm… Now, context, I was a student at Mills College, an all-women’s college in Oakland, California, and I had a class in government. And we had a class assignment to work in a political campaign. Then, it was McGovern-Humphrey-Muskie. I told my teacher, “Flunk me.” Dr. Fran Mullins, I’ll never forget. I said, “I’ve never flunked a class before, but flunk me.”
I said, “These guys don’t reflect any of the issues and they don’t stand for anything that I care about or believe in for me as a young Black woman on welfare raising two single kids.”
Pete Buttigieg: That’s right. Because you were a single mother while attending college at Mills?
Barbara Lee: I was a single mother, yeah. But I was also president of the Black Student Union. At the same time, I invited Congresswoman Chisholm as the first African American woman elected to Congress to come speak to the student union. I had no idea she was running for president. So after she spoke, I met her and talked with her, big Afro, jeans, T-shirt, two little kids.
And she spoke fluent Spanish. She talked about immigrant rights. She talked about reducing and eliminating poverty. She was against the Vietnam War. She was an educator, talked about childcare. Every issue that I cared about, she talked about in her speech. I went up to her later and I said, “Mrs. Chisholm, I have this class I’m about to flunk. I’m supposed to be working on a campaign. Maybe I’ll reconsider.” So she took me to task and she said to me, and she always called me even till her last month of life on this earth, “Little girl, you have got to get on the inside and shake things up if you believe in what you’re pushing and saying.”
She said, “You’ve got to register to vote.” I said, “No way. I don’t believe,” just like many young people now. “I do not believe in this two-party system because the Democrats haven’t done anything and the Republicans haven’t. Why should I be party to that craziness that’s irrelevant?”
Pete Buttigieg: So what about that? Right now, a lot of advocates and activists are in the street protesting systemic racism, responding to police violence. And I’ve seen that tension that I think a lot of us are saying, “This is exactly why we need to vote.” A lot of advocates and activists are saying, “This isn’t just about elections,” which is, of course, true. But I think sometimes frustrated or impatient with the idea that this has to lead to a political process. How do you reconcile those things? It sounds like it’s not a new conversation from your perspective.
Barbara Lee: It’s not. I see me in them, I mean because I was exactly there. It was really passing this class. I mean I loved her and here’s a Black woman running for president. I mean I got to do something. So I went back and she told me though, “Register to vote. You’ve got to help me.” I said, “Well, who do I call? How do I get involved?” She said, “I don’t have a lot of national money and my local organizers who believe in me are doing something.”
So I went back to class, I contacted some friends and we ended up organizing the Shirley Chisholm presidential northern California primary out of my class at Mills College. I got an A in the class and I went on to Miami as a Shirley Chisholm delegate and we took about 8% of the vote in Alameda County. And Shirley Chisholm became a close friend and I traveled with her. I didn’t work for her formally, but I was one of her key northern California fundraisers and volunteers. And I got to know her really well. And then I went on to work for my beloved Ron Dellums.
I got a chance to be with Shirley Chisholm here in Washington, DC, while working for Ron. I saw how she had to fight as a Black woman just to get on the Rules Committee. They put her on the Agriculture Committee and she wanted to get on Labor Aid. So she made a heck of a lot out of Ag for urban gardens and for food security and all and nutrition. I saw her take racism and sexism and turn it around and make it into something she wanted. Like she told me, she says, “You can’t go along to get along if you’re a Black woman.”
She said, “And you’ve got to get in and not go along with these rules.” She said, “They weren’t made for you. You’ve got to go in and change the rules of the game and shake things up.” That’s what she did every step of the way. She pushed back. I mean you had every member of Congress on her saying she was crazy, saying, “Why is Shirley doing this? She’s pushing the envelope. She’s not a team player.” She was very independent. I mean I remember when she went down to see George Wallace when he was shot in the hospital. I was so upset. I said, “I’m going to leave this campaign.” You know the segregationist?
Pete Buttigieg: Now, wait a minute. She went to visit George Wallace, the segregationist, who campaigned on segregation?
Barbara Lee: In the hospital, oh yeah. This is a story I’ve never really told to too many people, except Peggy Wallace Kennedy is a Democrat and we’ve become close friends. And Shirley took me to task about that. She said, “Barbara.” She said, “He’s going to be paralyzed. You’ve got to show some humanity. He is a segregationist, but you never know. You might be able to change someone’s heart.” She said, “So get off it.” And I was ready to leave the campaign.
She went down and saw George Wallace. Last year, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, when I was in Alabama with John Lewis told me. She says, “Barbara, I was there with Daddy when Shirley Chisholm came to visit him. I want you to know she was the one that convinced him to apologize.” Now, a little too late-
Pete Buttigieg: That’s extraordinary.
Barbara Lee: And so she said later he was able to call some Southern, I won’t call them what they are, guys and get them to vote for certain issues that Shirley Chisholm was championing. That was all because of that one visit. And that gives me hope.
Pete Buttigieg: Coming back to what you were saying earlier about the ethic in your Catholic education and you mentioned that this story came out in an event on faith and politics. A very important part of many faith traditions is this idea of redemption, this idea of conversion, this idea that it’s never too late and you can’t give up on anybody.
Do you think that idea is harder to make good on now, especially for progressives or anybody confronting what we’re up against as a country, the climate of hate, the resurgence of different forms of white nationalism and the awareness that many things that never went away in the first place, that we’re fighting some of the same fights that were fought 50 years ago? What has that done to your level of faith in the possibility of redemption and conversion and change?
Barbara Lee: Listen, I believe in redemption and conversion and change, but I also believe that white supremacy is driving this White House and this government and white nationalism. So if we don’t deal with it, I’m talking about my commission, the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation, if I don’t believe in that I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I get tired of, and a lot of my colleagues get tired of telling white folks what to do now. But I think when you look at systemic racism, this is the moment to make sure people understand that COVID-19 is not disproportionately impacting Black people just as … It just didn’t happen.
Health disparities have always been here. It didn’t just happen that African American men and women are disproportionately killed and murdered by police officers. It’s always been here. It didn’t just happen that the wealth gap and the wage gap and the lack of affordable housing and unequal education, all of that is connected to slavery, to 401 years ago. 40 countries after atrocities, human rights atrocities, after genocides, they all have a truth and sometimes reconciliation, sometimes truth, we’re calling ours racial healing and transformation because there’s nothing to reconcile in this country.
Pete Buttigieg: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about this. One of the best known examples for the kind of process you’re describing is famously the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that came together in South Africa responding to apartheid. But you’ve pointed out that this word reconciliation doesn’t apply in the same way here. I’d love to ask you to unpack that a little bit and explain why is reconciliation not the right word for what needs to happen or what needs to happen especially with regard to the Black perspective?
Barbara Lee: Well because when you have reconciliation, you have to have a process that as far as I won’t say compromise, but consensus, coming together. Both sides have a valid point. There’s no valid point to slavery. There’s no valid point to systemic racism and the genocide of the Native Americans. What’s the counterpoint to that? What do you reconcile when land was stolen from Native people? What do you reconcile when 250-some years of slavery of Africans on this… There’s nothing to reconcile. So we decided that once we have this truth-telling moment in a public way, because we don’t have a body, the historical context for systemic racism.
Then it’s a day of reckoning we have to have in this country, like other countries have. And then you cleanse. You move towards some form of process of healing. Then you look at the policies, programs, funding priorities, systems in the private and public sector that perpetuates systemic racism and you transform those out of the core and their DNA being systemic racism to one of justice. And I look at everything through a racial lens. Is this going to perpetuate systemic racism or is it going to help dismantle it? Well, the rest of the country and elected officials have to start doing that. They have to start looking at their votes. They have to know what systemic racism is.
Listen, I come from a very progressive community, Berkeley and Oakland. My friends and constituents called me up after they saw images of Black people dying of COVID disproportionately and didn’t quite understand it. How can this be? I said, “Man, don’t you know what systemic racism is?” “But I thought we had dealt with all the laws.” I said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” We have not dealt with 401 years because very few people were taught about the history of slavery, what happened.
And Mayor Pete, you then have lynching. You have a system of lynching. You have a system of Jim Crow. You have the Black code. You have segregation. Did you know it wasn’t until 1968 when Black people could buy a house and if they were discriminated against, they had no recourse until fair housing laws were passed? This is recent. I remember-
Pete Buttigieg: Right. This is not about a far-off historical story. This is something that’s living with us.
Barbara Lee: Yeah. These are chains of slavery that have to be broken.
Pete Buttigieg: You mentioned follow-up and I think this is so important because this is such a powerful model. There’s an article by Sisonke Msimang on some of the shortcomings of the South African experience. I just want to read you a couple of the things that the author said because I think they raise this question of how do you make sure we actually get to where we need to get? One of the comments in the article is, “23 years after the transition to democracy,” the author writes, “the wider systemic racial and economic inequalities that have kept most Black South Africans poor while preserving the wealth and privilege most white South Africans enjoyed under apartheid remain firmly in place.”
The article also went on to say, “A genuine truth and reconciliation process,” again, that’s the vocabulary they use for the South African commission, “genuine process would have aimed to address not just serious human rights violations, but also the socioeconomic effects of apartheid.” So what does it mean? How do these two things fit together, the conversation about some kind of truth and healing process and the conversation about whether we call it reparations, proactive economic change? How do those things fit together? And do we have to go through the truth process before we can get to the reckoning process?
Barbara Lee: You absolutely have to go through the truth-telling process, otherwise you’re tinkering around the edges when you set policies and make decisions for people. Oftentimes, it’s subconscious, that they end up being very racist decisions. So you have to have the truth-telling so people know, they’re aware of what they’re doing, especially those in leadership. But at the community level, there have been 35 of these. Dr. Gail Christopher has been doing this with the Kellogg Foundation for years.
It’s really powerful. What we have to do is make sure that whatever comes out of it, reparations, yes, addressing how you repair the damage in terms of, say, for instance home ownership. How do you do that? There’s some catch-upping we got to do. Right? How do you address equal education for African American and Black and brown students? Well, there’s a lot we have to do to shatter the unequal education barriers and the systems and build a new educational system. No one says it can be done overnight, but we got to start somewhere. So I think if there’s buy-in and that’s why the commission has to be a tight commission that’s going to listen to people from all around the country.
And what happened to their ancestors? Why were they not able to ever purchase a home? What were the barriers? What was it in the HUD regulations or the banking rules that kept them from acquiring wealth? So we start deconstructing all of that and you can only do that by telling the truth and not cover it up. So we have to learn from South Africa. We have to learn. There have been 40-some countries. Some of them have been very … We have to look at Rwanda. We have to look at a lot of what has taken place within the context of this country and do our own thing here because you have so many violations of human rights that are still with us.
Black people, and still we rise. I mean we’re still out there fighting for the soul of this country. It’s not only for African Americans. It’s for you. It’s for everybody to reckon with this what unfortunately we saw with the murder of Mr. Floyd. Everybody’s got to reckon with that.
Pete Buttigieg: I want to ask you about that idea of everybody, because I think part of what I’ve been reflecting on a lot as somebody who’s a political figure who’s white, who thinks of myself as progressive, is I think there’s a lot of us who are involved in the different systems, whether it’s in a role in government or in the economy or some other way, think of racism as something that is over there, that there is some people, the George Wallaces, the kind of nakedly, openly racist people that we see, that’s where all the racism is.
And it makes it a lot easier for anybody else who is white to say, “Well, obviously I’m against that and I’m against them. They have to change.” But it’s very easy to skip over why I have to change. So I wonder, as somebody who’s from a progressive district who engages with a lot of well-intentioned white progressives who probably started calling you more than usual after the murder of George Floyd, who are trying to be part of the solution but have maybe up until now thought of racism as something that could only be part of the heart of an altogether bad person.
What thoughts do you have on the right way to come to terms with how even very progressive people who would say we detest racism are still mixed up, have inhaled it, precisely because it is, as you said, systemic?
Barbara Lee: Yeah. A lot of white people don’t really understand it. My district is very progressive and I have worked with progressive organizations. I am a progressive African American woman. Racial equity is never seen as an issue. I have to beat the drum every time I’m in these meetings of white progressives talking about economic inequality. I said, “Well, you got to add racial inequality.” I’ve beat the drum on that in the progressive caucus. I’ve had to do that for 21 years and it’s beginning now to resonate.
We have to all do that. That’s why this commission, going back to that, forming them even at local levels before the national one is put into place is so important because you got to deconstruct this stuff. White supremacy is embedded in everything. Look at gentrification. I mean people engaged in displacement, good people. They may not think what they’re doing is racist, but it is because it’s disproportionately impacting African Americans and people of color. People who are saying, “You got to go to SBA and have a relationship with SBA before you can come to this bank to get a loan to get your PPP,” that’s systemic racism because Black people don’t have those relationships with SBA nor with the bank.
So come on. These are the most liberal people sometimes saying, “Why can’t you get that loan?” You know what I mean? I can give you chapter and verse of how this economic system is filled with barriers. And good people don’t even recognize it. So now I’m dealing with trying to get these Confederate statues out of the capital and a lot of my colleagues don’t even know that these Confederate leaders were trying to preserve slavery, committing acts of treason, and didn’t want to see my ancestors free. They don’t even know that. I have to explain. I mean members of the Black Caucus all know it, but we have to deconstruct this for people.
Pete Buttigieg: As a veteran, I’ve been marveling at the process of many people thinking for the first time about the fact that military installations are named after men who took up arms against the United States of America.
Barbara Lee: Traitors. They’re traitors.
Pete Buttigieg: I mean people who fought against the United States. You know being from a military family what that means.
Barbara Lee: So how many people know that? I’m saying, we have to … It’s massive and you can help tremendously in your community and throughout the country with people who don’t quite get it. They need to understand this and how deep it goes and how it’s reflected. It’s nothing personal. I always try to say, “Don’t take this as I’m calling you a racist.” Understand that slavery was a government-sanctioned institution. It’s the government policies. Yeah, and probably your ancestors were involved in some of that. But that’s not about us trying to get anything out of you. This is about deconstructing those policies and join us to do that.
Pete Buttigieg: And a collective responsibility to fix things that were created by policy, right?
Barbara Lee: That’s right. That’s right.
Pete Buttigieg: We’re having a conversation right now about what it means to love America. And I wonder if you could take us back to what it must have felt like when many would, I think, question the patriotism of anyone who was not onboard with where the Bush Administration was at the time, to be the lone vote against the authorization for the use of force after 9/11.
And then this year the bill to repeal that very same authorization for military force passed with 236 votes.
Barbara Lee: That’s right.
Pete Buttigieg: At the time, you didn’t say that the United States shouldn’t have any kind of option for a military response. But what you said was, “In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.” And I was thinking about how in 2001, I’m not sure I could have guessed that I would have wound up serving in Afghanistan 13 years later, but I certainly could not have guessed that almost 20 years later our country would be debating still how to get out of that conflict and that very authorization that you were the lone vote against in 2001 would pass by a House majority in 2020. More than anything, I wonder what watching that 20-year arc of change has done for your view of how change happens and how people shift in their perspective. And I wonder as we think about how 20 years from now might be different or even how 10 years from now might be different from now, what lessons do you think that has to teach us about how change happens?
Barbara Lee: Well, the arc of justice, it may be long but it bends towards justice. This is a marathon we’re in. I mean this is our lap of the race and we have to run it with vigor because we have to ultimately pass the baton, right? That’s how I view it. So I knew it then that that was setting the stage for perpetual war. It was 60 words and all it did was give any president, and I’ve dealt with Barack Obama around this, every president that’s been there. It was a blank check to use force in perpetuity without coming to Congress and that’s what has happened.
I mean it was hard because of the moment. I mean my chief of staff, his cousin was Wanda Green in Flight 93, coming into the Capitol. I’m sitting at the Capitol and I had to evacuate. So believe you me, it was heavy-duty. The people who died and who now are ill and have disabilities as a result of that, that’s what stays on my mind. So that was the hard part, people suffering and dying as a result of these terrible attacks. For me, as a person of faith, I had to say my prayers and just do it and stand. There’s a scripture in Ephesians that you just stand. I mean I’m paraphrasing. When all hell breaks out around you, you put on the full armor of God and you just stand. Well, that’s what I had to do.
I knew one of these days if I kept being persistent, my dad was in the military. First person called me, said, “That was the right vote. Do not send out troops in harm’s way unless you know what the heck you’re doing with the exit strategy, where they’re going.” I mean if you read that 60-word authorization, it was so broad it was crazy.
Pete Buttigieg: In fact, one of the reasons the repeal was so important was because it seemed that same authorization could be interpreted to allow for war against Iran as well.
Barbara Lee: Oh yeah. Let me tell you, it’s been used in about 19 countries. It’s been used everywhere in the world. It’s used for even domestic spying in our own country. So it’s overly broad. We got to get it off the books. So it was really hard-
Pete Buttigieg: I’ll bet.
Barbara Lee: … because I had to have security. You talk about being called a traitor. I said, “I thought peace was patriotic,” first of all. And then secondly, it was scary to me to see how many people came out with attacks trying to kill me. I mean it was awful.
Pete Buttigieg: Really? There were threats on your life at the time?
Barbara Lee: Oh yeah. I had to have security 24/7, even flying back and forth, at my house in California, here in DC. Some people have been prosecuted. I mean it was bad. So the thing is, the right to dissent is central to our democracy, whether you agree or not. People have that right and should if they think their government is not doing the right thing. But to me, when I saw it, there were 60,000 emails and they’re at Mills College now, and phone calls and letters. So I have them archived if anyone wants to see them. You can go to Mills.
But you know what? On the other hand, there was so many from like Bishop Tutu and Coretta Scott King, people from all around the world who sent me notes and told me, “That was the right vote,” that they stood with me and so, “Just don’t back down.” So that was, on the other hand, so many people whose names who I will never meet. And then another woman, well, she was right outside of my district. She wrote me a letter and she said, “I hated you. I was one of those that called you all kinds of names and boom boom boom.” She said, “Look, it’s not a lot, but I’m sending you a check for $15.” She said, “Because now I understand it. I have kids and this has been going on for 20 years.” So she just went on-
Pete Buttigieg: From a hater to a campaign contributor.
Barbara Lee: That’s right. Those kind of moments really warm my heart because I know people now really get it and understand. You just have to stand and just wait and be strong and be solid in your position. Constitutionally, I knew I was right. It was just that the world, everybody wanted to be unified with George Bush to retaliate right away. I mean it was like, “Take a moment.” This was three days after. The country was in mourning. And I’m a psychiatric social worker by profession. Psychology 101 says you don’t make these hard decisions when you’re grieving. I mean come on.
So I had to pull from every bit of my being to be able to do that and stand and debate whoever came up to me to try to criticize about that.
Pete Buttigieg: You could say the nation’s grieving now-
Barbara Lee: It is.
Pete Buttigieg: Grieving over police killings, grieving of course over the mounting death toll of COVID-19. And yet, we also have decisions that have to be made soon. What do you think is important for the moral compass of the country right now? We’re making decisions that, in my view, are probably going to decide what the rest of this decade and maybe the rest of this century looks like.
Barbara Lee: Yeah. One thing you do is focus on voting, registering people to vote. Beat back all the voter suppression that’s taking place and organize and mobilize to get people to the polls. We have to do that. Everybody can be part of this transformation and getting rid of this occupant of the White House. That has to happen. This white supremacy agenda has been promoted by Steve Bannon and Steve Miller and Gorka. They’re living up to the white supremacist agenda.
People have to understand that. And so the one thing they can do right now in the midst of our grieving and anger and so many people say they are exhausted behind this is please vote. Please organize. Please don’t let people stay at home. If they can vote absentee, stay at home. But I mean we’ve got to get our voting system such where the choice is there to either vote in a safe place with the proper health protocols or vote at home. Don’t let this election go by. That’s the one thing I’m encouraging and urging people to do to regain the soul of this country. We’ve got to do that.
Pete Buttigieg: Amen. There’s one more question that I wanted to put to you that’s about the subject of trust. I’ve been thinking about trust. I’ve been writing about trust. Certainly, the democratic process depends on trusting that we can make change. You’ve spoken about the incredible faith, in particular, that Black activists have had in the capacity of this system we live in and the country that we live in to change.
I’m wondering at a moment when Americans more than ever say they don’t trust the government to do the right thing, when Americans don’t necessarily trust each other to do the right thing, and yet we are going to need a level of trust in each other and in our ability to get things done with good government if we want any chance of dealing with these issues that confront our country. What do you think are the most important things that make it possible for people to trust each other and for that social and political trust to grow? Is there any advice that you have for those who are maybe a little skeptical of whether the inside, so to speak, the process, the political process is really a place to make change?
Barbara Lee: Well, I’m one of those persons who have a hard time with trust, so I’m glad you’re writing about it. I always have because so often people … You go into relationships or into activities based on trust and they’ll blow it every time. I get to the point where, oh boy, I’m not going to trust this. So trust is extremely important on a personal level and I struggle with that. Everyone will tell you. I don’t get too close because of that trust factor. So we’ve got to get through that though because we don’t have to agree with each other, but you have to be honest.
I think honesty is key in developing trust. And that’s why, going back to my commission, truth. It’s truth-telling time. You’ve got to be truthful to people. And at the government level, all of what Trump does I don’t trust in terms of what’s going to happen to people. People who don’t trust their government, I mean look at COINTELPRO. I was part of that FBI J. Edgar Hoover vamping on Black activists. I mean you should have seen my file. It’s this thick.
Pete Buttigieg: COINTELPRO, the FBI files that were built up about Black activists.
Barbara Lee: Yeah. To cause confusion with Black groups, cause people to kill each other, have FBI agents posing as party members. I mean it was awful. I see that possibility now, so I don’t trust this Department of Justice. So I have to watch what they’re doing. They have this unit called Black extremist activists or something where they’re … And we’ve met with them many times. It’s scary what I know about what they’re doing. We’re trying to stop that. But I don’t trust the Department of Justice.
So skepticism is good because there’s so many things that are going on that aren’t honest. So you have to get in there and work hard to change those institutions to build that trust, otherwise you’re going to keep distrusting and you may have good reason to distrust your government because, under this administration especially, they’re doing bad things. So get in there, vote. Let’s change it. That’s how we do that.
Pete Buttigieg: Now’s our chance, right, like never before. It is the decision that are-
Barbara Lee: Yeah. This is a hard time for everybody. But let’s take this time and use it in a way to bring people together and to talk about ideas and how we move forward in this country. I think we should seize the moment.
Pete Buttigieg: Just by way of conclusion, if a little girl is born in a hospital in El Paso today, if we get this right, what’s the biggest way her life will be different from ours? What do we have to make sure of for her to live a better life?
Barbara Lee: Yeah. We have to make sure that girls have equal opportunity to every part of this society and to the world’s blessings and benefits. We have to make sure that girls are treated equally because I don’t want any little girl to have to go through what I went through. So for little girls, I want to make sure that the playing field not only is level, but that they are able to soar. That’s our job is to create a life and a world where they can soar, where they have access to technology and to engineering and to math and to everything that this world and this country offers them. Right now, they don’t, especially if you’re poor and if you’re a person of color, you don’t have those opportunities because the system is rigged and it’s stacked against you. So I want the system to be such that it supports little girls who are born today to be who they want to be. It’s not like that right now.
Pete Buttigieg: That was such a powerful conversation — I hope you found Congresswoman Barbara Lee as captivating as I did, learning about her story, from growing up in segregated El Paso to leading in the United States Congress. She has spent a lifetime facing issues that are newly central to how America is thinking about our future. And her idea for a truth commission here in the United States is one I think we’ll be talking and hearing about more and more in the months to come.