Preet Bharara: Sherrilyn Ifill, thank you so much for being on the show.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Thank you for having me. Can I call you Preet?
Preet Bharara: Yes. That’s my name!
Sherrilyn Ifill: Great. Okay. [Laughter]
Preet Bharara: And it’s easier to say than the last name. So, before we get to all this amazing work that you’ve spent your career doing, I want to talk about what it was like for you to be the youngest of ten kids, ‘cause that’s a lot of kids.
Sherrilyn Ifill: [Laughs] That’s a lot of kids.
Preet Bharara: I mean, I had enough fights with my brother. There were only two of us, so tell us what that was like.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah. Well, so, you know what? The fighting is—the fighting is less, because essentially, you know, if your parents are smart, as mine were, you essentially imposed martial law, because there’s no other way to maintain order and control. [Laughs] And so, I don’t recall fighting with my siblings actually at all. And I was the youngest.
Preet Bharara: But you were the baby, so no one—everyone loved you, right?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, you know, I mean, there’s love and there’s love, you know? [Laughs] So . . .
Preet Bharara: Do you think being in such a large family helped you deal with people later in life and be more sort of open?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Absolutely.
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah, absolutely. I definitely think that managing yourself around a lot of people, recognizing that people are very different, and people-watching. You know, we actually were a big people-watching family. And so, we watched people, and we learned how to see what you wouldn’t see if you’re moving too quickly. So yeah, I think it has been helpful to me. And I actually like people, which is the other thing.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: I like to be around people, I like a lot of people, and I enjoy, you know, just interacting and understanding what people are up to.
Preet Bharara: So, let’s talk about—you’re a lawyer.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And you went to the law school where I teach, NYU Law School.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Mm-hmm.
Preet Bharara: But the recent work that you have been doing at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, talk a little bit about what the overall mission of that place is and what you think about the work?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, in some ways, it’s not recent. This is my second tour of duty at LDF. You know, when I was that kid in that family, well, what I wanted to be, you know, since I was fairly young was a civil rights lawyer, and it happened. It happened for me. I was a young lawyer at LDF in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then went off to teach, and came back to lead the organization in 2013. This is the organization founded by Thurgood Marshall in 1940, an organization of at that time what—really almost entirely African American lawyers, which in 1940 was a very provocative enterprise to undertake.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: And those lawyers, despite having no blueprint, and despite not having seen a country that was committed to racial equality and justice, set about trying to make that happen here, and set about trying to make the words and the promises and the spirit of the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, enacted after the Civil War, and designed to ensure that African Americans had full citizenship and dignity in our society. They set about trying to make that true in the early part of the 20th century, mid-20th century, you know, when we were steeped in some of the worst excesses of Jim Crow, of legal apartheid. And they did it. They did it at least as a matter of law.
Preet Bharara: Do you have a civil rights or political hero?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Oh my gosh, I have so many.
Preet Bharara: Well, you gotta pick one.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Can I do three?
Preet Bharara: Three?
Sherrilyn Ifill: I’m gonna have to have three. I have to have three.
Preet Bharara: Just because you had nine siblings doesn’t mean you can defy the question.
Sherrilyn Ifill: So, I’m gonna say—I mean, obviously, Thurgood is one. Constance Baker Motley is another extraordinary LDF attorney, and responsible essentially for the litigation that challenged, successfully, litigation at almost every public university in the South. She was doing the same pioneering work as the men, but she was doing it as a woman at the time, when to see an African American woman lawyer in a Southern courtroom was unheard of.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: You know, she litigated cases where judges turned their seat and would not face her, gave her the back. And when she had to go down to America’s Georgia, into a fetid jail cell to try and get Martin Luther King out of jail, these are things that she had to do that she did, by the way, dressed perfectly, and in heels and pearls. But her brilliance and her unflappability and her dignity was extraordinary.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that Constance Baker Motely is underappreciated?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yes.
Preet Bharara: I know her. Obviously, she was a judge in the Southern District of New York.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And I’m a lawyer, and I know people who clerked for her. But she’s not as well known as some of the other people who get cited. Is that a shame?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah, it’s a shame, and it’s part of why I have to mention her, because when I was a young LDF lawyer, I had my oldest daughter. When I was pregnant with her, I went to go see Judge Motley, who had long left the Legal Defense Fund. But she was someone who had litigated with a family, with a child and a husband, and I sought her counsel and advice.
Preet Bharara: So, what advice did she give you?
Sherrilyn Ifill: [Laughs] Truthfully, she said, “Get a nanny.” [Laughter]
Preet Bharara: She’s a very pragmatic woman.
Sherrilyn Ifill: She was extremely pragmatic. I admired her greatly.
Preet Bharara: Yes.
Sherrilyn Ifill: And then just because the Lynching Museum Memorial opened in Montgomery, Alabama, I’m gonna say Ida B. Wells, who was a journalist and who documented lynchings in the South at great peril to herself. In fact, she had to leave Memphis, Tennessee because of her work and because three of her friends were lynched in that town. And she also, like Constance Baker Motley, was a pioneer. Faced so many challenges as a woman. She challenged segregated trains long before Rosa Parks sat down on the bus. And she owned newspapers. She co-owned two newspapers in the South, and then owned a newspaper, black newspaper in Chicago once she fled the South. She was an early pioneer in the NAACP, a very unsung one, by the way.
And she was a very staunch and vocal feminist. She went on also to have a family and was insistent on traveling with her children and nursing her children, even as she was on her speaking tours, and creating daycares in places where she worked. I mean, much of what we knew about lynching, particularly in the early years, we know because of the meticulous documentation and journalistic dedication of Ida B. Wells.
Preet Bharara: Right. You have fought all of your adult life for civil rights, and have taught law and about civil rights. Were there personal experiences that you had with racism, bigotry, discrimination that animate your work?
Sherrilyn Ifill: It’s an interesting question. I actually have taken a very particular position on this. When I first was a young lawyer at LDF, I think maybe my second week, the then Director Counsel, the brilliant, extraordinary, and also unsung civil rights hero Julius Chambers sent me to Texas to investigate a potential voting rights claim. People were calling us and they wanted us to come down and look at judicial elections and the method of electing judges there. And I had actually never spent time in the South before. And I was an extremely green young lawyer. And I went down and was scared to death, and began to work with this group of African Americans in Harris County, Texas who wanted to challenge the way judges were elected, and worked with them on that case, and litigated that case over five years, and it went up to the Supreme Court and back down, and so forth.
That was the beginning. And obviously, I litigated many more cases in Oklahoma, and in Louisiana, and in Arkansas, traveling through the Delta. And the experiences that I had convinced me that one of the things that was important was that I not put myself in the center of the story. And so, I’m an African American person, and so yes, of course, I can tell you, for example, that the recent experience of what happened to the two young men in the Starbucks resonated powerfully for me and resonates, I think, for almost every African America, because most of us have had this experience in the public space, of being treated as though we don’t belong there, of being treated suspiciously, of being treated as thought we were criminals. And it is deeply humiliating. It is an ongoing reminder that we are not regarded as full citizens in many ways, particularly in the public face.
And I think many people who are not black don’t understand how the public space is fraught for us, because we are always mindful of how we will be treated, and that an essential part of the civil rights struggle has been about how African Americans are treated in the public space, and the relationship between that and our citizenship. And so, yes, I could tell you countless stories of personal discrimination that I have experienced. But my view is that as a civil rights lawyer, my platform is to be used to tell the stories of my clients and not my own.
Preet Bharara: So, let’s talk about Starbucks that you mentioned. You’re not just an observer of that. You’re involved in a certain way, which we’ll talk about in a second. But just remind folks what happened. So, a few weeks ago, there were two African American men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. What happened?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, according to the men, they came into the Starbucks. They were there about two minutes. The supervisor came over to them, and because they hadn’t ordered anything, she said, asked them to leave. And when they said they would not leave, and they wouldn’t leave because they were preparing to have a meeting. They hadn’t ordered anything because they had another colleague who was coming to the Starbucks to meet them there, and they were going to order once he arrived, as many people do at the Starbucks. And she proceeded to call the police to have them removed. And the police arrived and arrested these two completely peaceful young men who were using the Starbucks for the purpose that Starbucks presents itself, as a place of community where people can come together. And these two men were arrested, and they were held for nine hours by the police.
Preet Bharara: And as they’re being arrested, their colleague actually showed up, right?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Their colleague, who was white, actually shows up and says like, “What are you doing?” And now there’s a complete explanation also that should have been apparent to the police officers, but they still arrest the two young men. Now, I will say I’m of two minds about the colleague showing up and vouching for them, because I just will tell you, as an African American, the idea that I need a white person to come and vouch for my—
Preet Bharara: It shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: It shouldn’t matter. But it certainly adds to the idea that at that moment, the police had the discretion to decide how they were gonna handle that situation. And they handled it in the way that unfortunately, too often it is handled when it involves young African American men whose liberty is seen as not valuable to them, that arresting them is just something that can be done as a matter of course.
Preet Bharara: And do you see that incident at Starbucks as an example of blatant racism, or of bias, or of something else?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah, I think it has multiple levels. I think there’s bias in the Starbucks employee who called the police. It’s astonishing to me that the reaction to the two men being there would be to call the police. I sometimes wonder about the willingness of people, and in those kinds of circumstances, whites in particular to call the police, as though the police are a private security force. The police, they represent the state. And the state has given them the power, given them a shield, and given them a badge, and given them a taser and pepper spray and a gun, and the power to take human life with the imprimatur of the state. And so, when an individual calls the police on these two young men in this way, absolutely I think it’s biased.
But I also think it’s biased when the police, who are also imbued, along with the badge and the gun and the pepper spray and the taser, with discretion. And they have the discretion to determine how they’re going to manage a particular situation, whether they think they should go away for a while and say, “Listen, if your friend’s not here in a half hour, we’re coming back through, and you’re gonna have to leave.” Whether they decide if they really think a trespass, an illegal trespass happened, whether they’re gonna issue a summons or some kind of desk appearance ticket. They have many options available to them, of which arrest is only one and the most severe. And I often think about what would have happened if those men who were wrongly being arrested were not as calm as they were. They were calm because they understand that in a moment like that, that if they react in a different way, that their life can be in danger. And there’s a heartbreak in just seeing that in that video as well.
Preet Bharara: Were you satisfied with how the police department reacted and how Starbucks reacted in the initial aftermath?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah, I was very disappointed in the first statement of the police commissioner, in which he simply said his officers did nothing wrong. And it took five days for the police commissioner to walk that back. I am gratified that the commissioner changed his mind and made a different public statement days later, but the first public statement I thought was actually quite harmful. There were statements by the district attorney and by the city council president and by the mayor almost immediately that I thought were laudatory. And I think that the reaction of Starbucks certainly, later that evening, was really important. And to have the CEO and to have the leadership of the company make the kinds of statements that they made very early on I think is really, really important.
Preet Bharara: But do you think they did those things, and maybe it doesn’t matter, because they saw that it was gonna be a business problem for them, or because they understood as a matter of conscience that their employees had done something wrong and it needed to be rectified?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, I hope and suspect it’s a mixture of both things. I mean, this is not Starbucks’s first attempt to address issues of race. And even their unsuccessful attempts a few years ago was an attempt to start a conversation on race. And the CEO did start that conversation within his company. That’s one of the reasons why I frankly was willing, when I was asked to help advise Starbucks on this matter, is because I know that the company does have that concern and commitment. But I also certainly hope that people think and that companies think that it’s good business to address issues like this forthrightly. Starbucks exists in 8,000 communities around this country, and I don’t know of another corporate actor, certainly in my adult lifetime, that is as ubiquitous, in as many locations, that has articulated their intention to directly and forthrightly confront racism. Haven’t heard it. And so, that is impressive to me. But now the real work starts.
Preet Bharara: What was the intent a couple of years ago?
Sherrilyn Ifill: You may recall that Howard Schultz, the CEO, started—wanted to have a conversation, to provoke conversations about race, and I think it was called Race Together, and there were statements—
Preet Bharara: On the cups.
Sherrilyn Ifill: —on the coffee cups, yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Preet Bharara: My recollection of that was that some people poked fun at that a little bit.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Oh, absolutely. It was unsuccessful.
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Sherrilyn Ifill: I don’t think anyone would say it was successful. But I think even an attempt and a failure is better than not having attempted at all.
Preet Bharara: Do you believe in boycotts?
Sherrilyn Ifill: They have their place. I don’t tell people when to boycott and when not to boycott. I’m a civil rights lawyer, so my job is to do what as, for example, LDF did during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was to represent the boycotters. But I think, you know, civil rights activism has many forms. Some of the work is litigation, which is principally what we do. Some of it is legislative advocacy. Some of it is grassroots organizing. Some of it is boycotts. Some of it is economic pressure. So, these are all tools. Boycotting is not my tool. But there are activists for whom that is their tool, and I would never seek to prevent anyone doing the work of trying to push forward justice to not use a tool that they think is the appropriate and effective tool for them to use that is nonviolent and that seeks to raise attention to an important issue.
Preet Bharara: So, can you explain what your involvement now is in the Starbucks issue, and how you have been enlisted to try to help people deal with bias at that company?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah. So, Starbucks asked me and several other civil rights leaders to advise them in how to move forward with first initially, a company-wide training that’s planned for May 29th, when all Starbucks stores will be closed, and to help them see their blind spots; to help them think about what they need to correct and what kinds of protocols they need to put in place. We were very clear that training cannot be a one-off, that the one day is actually really a kickoff; that it’s critical for the executive team to be trained, in fact, even before the staff. We think it’s important that there be an anti-bias training that’s part of the onboarding of every Starbucks employee, because this is a business with significant turnover. So, it’s a complex matrix that has to be created, and then training only is effective if there is an opportunity for monitoring that training and evaluating the effectiveness of it.
Preet Bharara: Can we talk about what that training looks like? And people who watch the news and get fleeting bits of information, you hear that there’s an incident somewhere, and people say, well, the answer to that is training, whether it’s sexual harassment training, or bias training, or anger management, or whatever the case may be—not to equate all of those things.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Mm-hmm.
Preet Bharara: But I don’t know that people have an understanding of, well, what does that mean? Is it people sitting around having a discussion? Do they get a lecture? Do they do simulations? Do they watch videos?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: What does it look like, and what’s effective?
Sherrilyn Ifill: So, first, let me talk about the purpose of training. The purpose of training is to help us see what we don’t see, help us to see our biases—and we all have them—then help us to understand the effect of those biases, and then to give us the tools to manage our biases and prejudices. And that’s an affirmative thing that people have to do. And this is what I think is so important. People think that because they’re nice people or good people, or because they believe in racial equality, or because they don’t feel that they are prejudiced against anyone, that they are not biased. And that is simply not true, because biases, particularly racial bias in this country, is the product not just of personal feelings, but it’s the product of practices and structures and messages and policies that have been part of our country for hundreds of years, and that are still delivered to us every day, and that we all take in.
Preet Bharara: So, how do you prove to people that truth, that they have bias? Do you administer tests?
Sherrilyn Ifill: And so, you show them. And so—yeah. And so, there are a lot of ways to do it, right? So, there are electronic ways to do it. People can take online test that show them bias. There are scenarios that you can walk people through in which bias is revealed. There are story circles in which people can talk candidly about situations and circumstances of bias that may not have been recognized by others. There are lots of ways that you expose it. But then when you expose it, the question is, what do you do with it? How do you recognize it yourself, and how do you manage it?
Well, we’ve learned some things. You said, you know, what works? One of the things that’s most important is having a set of policies and practices that employees adhere to, because at the end of the day, a work culture is the product of the policies of that work culture. And if the policies of that work culture ignore the reality of these biases I just talked about, then they go unchecked, and they’re almost like air, that people don’t recognize that they exist. And the people who then complain about bias are seen as disturbing the environment or disturbing the atmosphere rather than responding to the unspoken that is in the culture.
Preet Bharara: Would it be part of the training or practice or policy to make sure employees at Starbucks ask themselves the question, if you’re gonna call the cops on people who haven’t yet bought something, would you have done that if they were two white patrons as opposed to two African American patrons, and stop for a moment and ask yourself that question; if the answer is no, then don’t do it? Or is that a silly way of looking at it?
Sherrilyn Ifill: It’s not silly, it’s just that I don’t think that many people are prepared to honestly answer that question.
Preet Bharara: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Sherrilyn Ifill: You know? So, going back to the policies, the question is, what is the policy about calling the police? Because the place where bias flourishes—you know, we say discretion is the fertile soil of bias, right?
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Every place that you have discretion; every place you as an individual can decide whether to call the police or not is a place where bias can seep in. Now, we’re not trying to turn everybody into robots, of course. Discretion exists in any job. But to the extent you can have policies that direct people about what to do in certain circumstances, you are lessening the opportunity for individual biases to drive decision-making. But it comes with the recognition that being a supervisor or a manager, right? Having the power to call the police, to close the shop, to decide not to serve someone—all the things that people who are in a supervisory role get to do comes with the responsibility to recognize this reality of bias, particularly in the public space and in customer service in this country. You have to understand the history of it. You have to understand that it exists. You have to understand that is exists in you. And you have to be prepared to be trained to manage it, and then to recognize that as part of the skillset that you have to have as a supervisor.
Preet Bharara: So, we’ve been talking about bias in systems and in practices in places like Starbucks, but there’s this new phenomenon that some people are greeting excitedly and some people are greeting with trepidation because they don’t know where it will lead. And that’s something called AI, artificial intelligence.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Mm-hmm.
Preet Bharara: Which opens up a whole host of new problems and issues with respect to bias and discrimination. And you have focused on this a little bit. Tell folks what your concern is, separate and apart from lots of other concerns that people have raised about AI. What’s your concern?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, the concern is that—it begins with what we think AI is. We treat AI as though—artificial intelligence—as though it is not at all touched or tainted by human flaw, right? It is regarded as quintessentially neutral.
Preet Bharara: And scientific.
Sherrilyn Ifill: And scientific, impartial, and therefore untouched by things like the kind of conversation we’ve just been having. Untouched by things like bias. Untouched by history, right? Except that the people who program and create and code and manage artificial intelligence are human beings who themselves are touched by all of those things. And our presumption that we are not embedding into AI the very prejudices that come from human beings, and then dipping them in the imprimatur of neutrality and impartiality that comes with AI is the danger spot for me. And so, we just make presumptions that once it’s in the technology, it’s now been purged of issues like bias. And yet, if you look at some of the recent articles, for example, about the way in which face recognition technology has difficulty recognizing the difference between African American or Asian American faces, right?
Preet Bharara: And that’s a product of lack of diversity in the people who are designing that software?
Sherrilyn Ifill: That’s right.
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Sherrilyn Ifill: That’s right. That’s right. What is the phrase? Garbage in, garbage out. You know, we should just recognize that the people who are creating these systems are people, and the systems will reflect what people created. And these are profound ethical issues. And so, that’s why 40 civil rights organizations sent a letter to the ethics board of Axon, which creates a whole tranche of products that they sell to law enforcement, that law enforcement then uses to do surveillance and investigation and arrest. And our argument has been that there has to be, within the AI community, an ethical engagement with the issues that you and I have just described. And it’s important, Preet, because this is a societal issue that we’re grappling with. And you don’t get to offload your responsibility for addressing issues of race and bias simply by coding it and then passing it along and selling the product.
Look, we’ve been very engaged at LDF around issues of police violence and police misconduct, and that is a real and very present problem. But it also is true that the introduction of these products may be allowing manufacturers to offload their own biases onto law enforcement.
Preet Bharara: Right. And it becomes dangerous because it’s hard to then unpack.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah. And who’s responsible? Look, I mean, we have difficulty getting people to understand implicit bias. We don’t even yet have legal standards for how in a court of law, we present issues of implicit bias and the recognition of implicit bias. But that at least suggests that it’s implicit bias that lives within human beings. How would we then unpack the bias that lives within a program, right? It’s almost creating a framework for bias in which no one is responsible.
Preet Bharara: So, who is responsible ultimately then for making sure that this is done right? Is it the companies or government?
Sherrilyn Ifill: It begins at the beginning. And it’s a shared responsibility. Government, because the government has the power to regulate and should regulate. And to the extent any of these companies are receiving government benefits, which many of them are, they should be bound by Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says that the federal government should not provide funds to any program that engages in discrimination. Then there’s the companies themselves that can, as a matter of civic responsibility and perhaps good business, as we were discussing earlier when we talked about Starbucks, decide to take some of this on. But we also think as a matter of ethics, you and I are in a profession that is governed by ethics. And some of those ethics tell us what we can and what we can’t do. I’m sure you, like me, Preet, you have reactions to things that happen in our country. You have reactions to things that are said.
Preet Bharara: I do. I do indeed.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Yes, said, but that are said by our leaders, or you have reactions to decisions that are issued by judges. I do too. But you and I know that we can’t say anything we want. We can say some things, and we do say some things. But we also have ethical rules that bind us in terms of what we can say and how we can say it, and that’s a good thing.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Because we’re upholding a professional standard. And what we’re suggesting is that there are also ethics that have to govern the manufacture, creation, and dissemination of artificial intelligence. And they have to also be bound by a code, just as judges are bound by a code, as lawyers are bound by a code, they should be bound by codes that confront these issues. These are issues that are endemic to this country. We fought a civil war over these issues. We endured the blood, sweat, and tears that were shed in a civil rights movement over these issues. And they resulted in civil rights statutes like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And I think that companies have to understand that they are responsible for the network that undergirds us being true to the spirit of those statutes, and we should not presume that simply because you operate in the tech space that you’re somehow divorced from the obligation to engage this critical question.
Preet Bharara: Let’s talk about democracy for a minute.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Okay.
Preet Bharara: You know, for a minute or so. How unfair is voting in America?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Embarrassingly unfair, in that the effort that it takes to vote, the navigation that it takes to vote, the ways in which people who are poor, who are a minority, are burdened, and the way in which states have been engaged in the practice of deliberately seeking to suppress the votes of racial minorities. I mean, when you look at the last five years and you look at these cases coming from these federal circuit courts and coming from federal trial courts in Texas and North Carolina, and you have federal judges—some of them not from conservative courts, right?—recognizing that voter ID laws—that Texas’s original voter ID law, SB-14, that we challenged, violated the Voting Rights Act, and the trial court finding that it was intentionally created to discriminate against African American and Latino voters; or the Fourth Circuit finding that North Carolina’s Omnibus Voting Bill—you know, ending soles to the polls, and ending 16 and 17-year-olds preregistering and so forth—was enacted and created and written with surgical precision to suppress African American voting strength. That is a shame and a stain on our democracy. And those laws, the passage of those laws, I want to be clear, predated the election of President Trump.
Preet Bharara: Right. What about the disenfranchisement of convicted felons?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, this is one of the most important voting issues in this country, I think, and citizenship issues in this country, that people who have committed crimes or been convicted of committing crimes have served their time, and come out of jail, and prepare to reenter society, and we have the expectation that they are going to behave and comport themselves as good citizens. We expect them to work. We expect them to have a place to live.
Preet Bharara: Pay taxes.
Sherrilyn Ifill: We expect them to pay taxes. We expect them to obey the laws. And yet in states all over this country, we strip them forever of the right to vote. The Supreme Court in the 1880s in Yick Wo vs. Hopkins said that the right to vote is preservative. It’s fundamental and preservative of all rights. So, if the right to vote, if that ability to cast that ballot lies at the heart of citizenship, we have essentially branded those who have served their time as literally second class citizens for life. The racial consequences of this are extraordinary, and result in things like 13% of the black voting population in Alabama being disenfranchised. So, it’s a huge issue, it’s an embarrassment, and it is yet again, particularly when understood in the context of race, yet another way in which African Americans continue to be burdened by laws that keep them from full participation in the political process.
Preet Bharara: I agree with you. I spent, as you know, much of my adult life and career as a prosecutor, and the consequence of that kind of work is that people end up going to prison for long periods of time. But I don’t understand why that means it’s a life sentence that prohibits you from voting. It doesn’t make sense to me for all the reasons you described, and we’ll have more to say about that, I think, on the show and elsewhere. Do you care to weigh in at all, and I think you have, on Kanye West’s embrace of Donald Trump?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, I think we’ve even gone beyond that at this point. I honestly think that artists are playing a really powerful role in this country at this moment that I think is largely really positive, and I really have been excited to see so many artists stepping up and being unafraid to use their voices as citizens, whether it’s in Time’s Up, or whether it’s around issues of bail reform or racial inequality, I think it’s been extraordinary to see and really important. Because I think it’s important to recognize that being an artist, even having an artistic level that is regarded by some as genius, does not remove you from the obligation to be a knowledgeable, educated citizen, and does not give you license, frankly, to elevate your personal journey above the truth and the truth of the flaws in our democracy, historical flaws and contemporary flaws.
So, when I see what Kanye’s doing, I want to salute, first of all, artists like John Legend, who have been taking the time to try and educate him. Nothing that he’s saying is new. These are all arguments that have been made before, and that’s part of what’s, I think, somewhat embarrassing about it. He described these as new ideas. These are not new ideas. But once you get to the point of saying things like, “Slavery was a choice”—
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: I’m pretty checked out, because I’ve got—I have work to do, and I can’t—
Preet Bharara: Right. But what about when he says something like, “African Americans don’t have to be Democrats”?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, nobody said African Americans do have to be Democrats.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: I run a nonpartisan organization, and when we litigate and fight for the voting rights of African Americans, we don’t fight for the party that they join or the person that they vote for. In fact, I’m old enough—I won’t reveal my age too much, but when I was a young voting rights lawyer, we were still suing Democratic governors who were in the South.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, of course.
Sherrilyn Ifill: So, we recognize that these things can change, and so, no, they don’t have to be. But I do think that we would be ridiculous to pretend that one party has not aligned itself with issues like voter suppression; that the current Attorney General, Attorney General Sessions, has not actually switched positions in civil rights cases. This is the person who is the chief enforcer of the nation’s civil rights laws, and he has abandoned that. And so, I don’t have any compunction about being honest about that. We sued the Trump administration for the Election Integrity Commission on race discrimination grounds.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: I think one of the most shameful things that the president has done was the pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio, an unrepentant racist. These are things that are just facts, that you don’t have to be partisan—
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: —to say that those were actions that were taken that are contrary to the full citizenship and strength of African Americans, and that’s what I fight for. And whichever party is engaged in that, we’re going to be fighting against the activities that they’re engaged in. But that’s never been a question, of whether all African Americans have to be Democrats.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: African Americans should be aligning themselves with the party that they feel has their greatest interests at heart and that promotes the kinds of policies, economic, educational, political, and so forth policies that support the strength of African American families and communities.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Sherrilyn Ifill: And I think African American voters do make that calculation.
Preet Bharara: So, here’s my last question to you. If you could just briefly tell people who are listening who are young and might care about civil rights and about increasing tolerance and diversity in the country, what’s your advice to them about how they can make a difference and make things better?
Sherrilyn Ifill: I think the first thing is that when I was a young kid, Preet, I saw these old films about the Civil Rights Movement, and it was so exciting to me. It was what made me want to become a civil rights lawyer. These people all seemed, however, larger than life. And I think one of the things we have to debunk is the idea that you are—have to be a larger than life figure to engage in the work of civil rights—that in fact, most of the most important breakthroughs in civil rights work were advanced by ordinary people. And so, everyone has a role to play.
And I would encourage young people to figure out what you can do where you are, and to imagine yourself as taking on responsibility for creating a space around you, whether it’s a space in your work, in your family, in your community, in your church, in your temple, that that space, what people say, the policies that you pursue, the issues that you prioritize will be ones that advance the idea of equality and justice and openness. And I think that when people take responsibility for that themselves and their work and in their civic lives, you begin to develop the civil rights muscle, right? Then you can decide whether this is something you want to pursue as your life’s work. But it really begins with people deciding that it’s going to be part of themselves.
And then, I would just—since you raised the issue of Mr. West, educating yourself. Educate yourself about the challenges that LGBTQ communities and individuals have faced and continue to face in this country. Educate yourself about the kinds of challenges that people who speak English as a second language in school face. Educate yourselves about race and class. And that’s important, because you have to operate from a base of knowledge. We all have feelings, and feelings are important, but feelings can often lead us astray, and they’re not incredibly good platforms upon which to build all policy. Policy has to have heart, but it also has to be grounded in what is true, especially at this moment. When truth itself is under attack, young people have to be aggressive and disciplined enough to seek out truth.
Preet Bharara: That’s great advice. Sherrilyn Ifill, thank you so much for being on the show.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Thank you, Preet. I really enjoyed it.
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