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Talking about the power of the Black vote with Trymaine Lee: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with 'Into America' host Trymaine Lee about his team’s “Power of the Black Vote” HBCU tour and more.

With less than two months to the midterms, a lot is at stake for the future of American democracy. Understanding the political mood of the country is something that’s been on Chris’ mind. The past few years have been filled with immense disruption, social reckoning and intense political debate. At the same time, conservative activists have gone out of their way to pass laws banning the teaching of critical race theory. There’s a lot going on. Unpacking everything that’s been happening, and how people, particularly young folks are feeling, is the focus of an HBCU tour hosted by “Into America” host, Emmy award and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Trymaine Lee. Trymaine returns to WITHpod to talk about what he’s learned from college students during his team’s “Power of the Black Vote” tour, to share what he’s paying attention to in the midterm elections and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Trymaine Lee: There has been great beauty along this journey, right? And I've been filled with hope. Sometimes you do get a little hopeless, like everything is just crumbling. And to be in these communities, these campus communities, with such rich history and tradition and mission, and some of our best and brightest attending these schools, I personally am already feeling optimistic because these kids, even though they've had to face all these barriers, and they see the world kind of crumbling around them, they've never been blinded to the reality of what this system does to black people in particular.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me your host, Chris Hayes.

We are less than two months in midterms, lots of variables, a lot of things up the air. One of the things that I've been really thinking a lot about is the kind of like political mood of the country, like the ambiance, the vibes, if you will, which are hard to quantify. But here's how I think of it. I mean, 2020 was one of the strangest years in American life. I mean, certainly my life, like everyone inside.

There were two major things. There was a presidential election. There was a once in a century pandemic, and there were the largest civil rights, racial justice protests of my lifetime. I mean, across the country, in big cities and small towns and all across in the wake of George Floyd's murder. That was 2020.

2021 felt like a very reactionary year. 2021 felt like a year of backlash, and you saw a backlash against COVID protocols, backlash against masks, backlash against vaccines, backlash against remote schooling, backlash against Black Lives Matter, against critical race theory and the 1619 Project, backlash against trans rights.

Like, that year felt very backlashy. You saw sort of an ascendancy to a lot of right-wing movements, right-wing organizing on the ground. You saw all these critical race theory laws being passed in states. You saw states that had not gone out of their way to target and marginalized trans kids, go out of their way to target the marginalized trans kids. So that was 2021.

And now, we're in 2022 and it's the first time that people are going go to the polls in mass since the craziness of 2020. And I can't quite fix where we are. Like, I remember 2010, right. You could just feel the sense of backlash and reaction that year. That was just like the tea party. Just like we were still coming out from the Great Recession so people were pissed off and angry. And there was all this anger, there was also a huge counter mobilization against the first black president ever being elected. That year, I could fix the vibes. Like, I felt like I knew what the vibes were.

And this year, I don't. They're kind of all over the place. That's particularly true on these deep questions of racial justice, racial solidarity, pluralism, and diversity, where it was pretty clear to me what was happening at the top line in 2020, pretty clear what was happening at the top line in 2021, and this year much less clear about where we are.

And I thought a great person to check in about that is my cherished colleague, Trymaine Lee, Pulitzer and Emmy award-winning journalist, that Emmy which was a collaboration that we did together that I'm very proud of about violence in Chicago and trauma.

He's also the host of the fantastic podcast “Into America,” which is a podcast all about being black in America. And he's doing this special program in the run up to the midterms called “Into America, The Power of the Black Vote,” in which he's going around the country. He's particularly going to historically black colleges and universities, having like big town halls and discussions about issues facing black America in the run up to the midterms. The latest one which takes place at Texas Southern is fantastic and I recommend it to you. Trymaine, it's great to have you in the program.

Trymaine Lee: Chris, thank you so much for having me back. Man, I really, really appreciate it.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I've been loving the podcast. Let's start at that like 30,000-foot view because I feel like you're a great person to talk to you because you're a great reporter, and you've been reporting on this. That's what your podcast is, different angles and slices of black life, black struggle, black politics in America, right? Where do you see things now? Like, when you think about this trajectory of what 2020 look like with Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, and what 2021 looked like with the like anti-CRT laws, where things are right now?

Trymaine Lee: I love the way you describe the kind of momentum and the backlash and everything that we have been going through. And I couldn't help but envision like this mountain you're climbing up and you're fighting along the way, and there's all the thorns in the bushes and everything in the way, all the barriers.

And I feel like we're in a valley now, where we look around and we see the detritus of everything we've been through, right? We see the political wounding. We see the racial wounding. We see everything that we've lost. We see the fatigue, and we're just trudging along in this valley of everything we've been through.

And I think for black people in this country in particular, were before George Floyd and after George Floyd, and certainly in this moment, it feels like an attack on all fronts, right? Not different than being black in America on any given year, but in this year, in particular, when we think about the attack on critical race theory, which is really an attack on our place in the society, our citizenship, our role in this place at all, and we think about coming through COVID, the disproportionate death rates among black people, the physical wounding of our communities.

And it feels now where there was so much hope, that when Joe Biden came into office and he said, “There won't be any place in my administration that will not censor equity and inclusion, right?” And then here we are, and very little has changed. And the stakes are much higher. Before, there was the fear of another Donald Trump presidency. But here we are on the precipice of seeing this kind of wounding being endemic.

But again, I will say talking to young people around the country, who had once feel indifferent, but they have this spirit about them, young black people in particular who are old enough to have witnessed all the mass killings and the end of the Donald Trump administration and are voting sometimes, for the very first time, they do feel like they can change things, right. They don't necessarily know how and they're not even clear of politics. If we got politics, our way out of the issues we're in. But they're like amped up to do something about it.

Chris Hayes: Your most recent episode was about education. The last two episodes are about education. You looked at a school in San Antonio, called Essence Prep, which is a fascinating place and then went down to Texas Southern. Why do you think education has become such a focal point for the backlash, like specifically zeroed in?

Right away, the two big things were bail reform like criminal justice stuff, and education. Those seem the two ways that politicians operationalize this sort of backlash sentiment in reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. Why is education such a focal point?

Trymaine Lee: When you think about some of the deepest white supremacist impulses of our country, and we think about how in so many ways, that system of being pushed into a corner, especially after George Floyd when we saw not just the largest mass movement we've ever seen, but we saw people participating who had never participated before, masses of white people.

This idea of wokeness has become a great threat. And what better way to protect the future of white supremacy than shielding the children from the truth and doubling down on the propaganda of white supremacy. And so I don't think in this fight around CRT and this wokeness, I don't think they care about what black people are teaching to black people. What's happening is in these white schools, what their children will be learning and how they'll be embracing or like grappling with the browning and blackening of this country.

Think about what happened with South Lake, our colleagues did an amazing job. That wasn't a story about blackness. That was a story about whiteness in conflict with itself, where some white parents were saying, “Hey, things are changing. I want to arm my kid with some understanding about who we've always been and who we are, and how we get out of this.” And then you have that backlash. And so I think what we're seeing is the white supremacist’s infrastructure being challenged in a way, and the only way you double down is to miseducate and reeducate folks.

Chris Hayes: Florida passed one of these laws. And there was a line in it which you guys talked about in the Texas Southern conversation, which I thought was usefully clarifying because this stuff can get very abstract. So it's like, well, what does this mean on the ground? And they actually gave an example.

They said, “Yes, this was to teachers. This was like a guiding template.” They said, “You can talk about Jim Crow. Jim Crow created racially mandated segregation for black people and white people, and black people had to go to inferior schools.” What you can't say is white people passed Jim Crow, or white people created Jim Crow.

And I just thought it was actually quite revelatory. Like, it was a useful example to me about what exactly you're trying to do here, because obviously it's just a historical fact that white people did that. It's not a question of who did it. They were the ones with power and agency. They're the ones that put it into place. Black people didn't put segregation into place. But that to me said something about what the project is in terms of like this weird protectiveness for what white children are going to learn.

Trymaine Lee: The craziest thing about that, and I'm glad you brought this up and it kind of drives me crazy all the time, but the idea that Jim Crow is somehow black history. Like, we were there by ourselves, subjugating ourselves. White people were always there. They’re the one who instituted it. That's the entire point. The entire point was to subjugate black people, to maintain white supremacy in this country.

And so the idea that you can't mention white, right? But even before this battle over CRT, the framing that these are black issues and not white issues, that this is an American issue has always been mind-boggling. But as long as you keep it segmented like that, then you don't have to confront it. As long as you take white out of it, then it's just as a byproduct of something, but we're never getting to the root of the issue and I think that's clearly intentional obviously.

Chris Hayes: You just said something interesting about the South Lake. So this is a school district that was sort of having a very pitch battle over all these issues, how they're going to teach this curriculum around race and there's Black Lives Matter protests, and sort of a commitment for diversity and equity in the curriculum, and then a backlash against that.

And you said an interesting thing, I'd love for you to expound on more, which is, I think there's a certain kind of critique of, quote-unquote, “wokeness,” which I hate to use that word and the appropriation of it. When the critique lands to me is when it manages to find examples of what feel like a kind of white performativity meant to curry favor with other kind of right-minded white people, or engage in some beef with other white people, in which it feels like sometimes it can get removed from like the actual tangible material stakes.

And I'm curious like how you think about this discourse at the kind of national level, because sometimes the critiques of a certain kind of white performance of black solidarity, like they can sting a little bit. They could definitely cast some skin. But I'm curious what you think as we now are two years past the sort of George Floyd moment, how you think about that.

Trymaine Lee: I think some of that is kind of legitimate, right? We think about back to the civil rights era, there's that the bad guy, the boogeyman of the Deep South, the white racist who wants to burn your house down and wants to lynch and murder you.

And then the kind of white supremacy we see in the north with our so-called allies, who will march and will push for policy change, or change on a moral or ethical basis, but they really don't want you living next door to them. If too many black people come into your school district, they will be moving. They’re going to maintain their gifted talented programs at any cost, right?

And so I think some of that stuff is legitimate. And all of that puts us, as black people, in a really tricky bind because do we have any true allies, political or otherwise, right? Do we have any people who will not only get it, but are willing to put skin in the game? And I think that's sometime we get into the South Lake nature of this, where it's a white family problem. This is white on white violence here, right? And it sounds like it’s a good example because that school district is only like 2% black, right? So black people were kind of caught in the crossfire of this.

But this is whiteness wrestling with itself, one pushing back against that performative nature of your projection of values. But also, I think at the very root of this, and this is next level stuff that we don't have to get into, but this really is about resources, every step of the way. And this flimsy kind of system that we're operating in, is only as good as the value, I mean, the violence you’re going to reinforce it with. And so there's the rhetorical violence and it's real violence. And here we are as black folks looking for a friend, looking for a legitimate friend, and we have found few.

Chris Hayes: Well, let's talk about real violence because it's something that you've reported on a lot, and you and I have reported on together in various incarnations. I mean, you've reported a lot about violence, the physical kind, particularly gun violence, reported on for us about gun violence. I don't want to be too pessimistic here, but I want to express something that I sometimes feel and I want to hear what you think of it, which is that sometimes I look around and I feel like two years after George Floyd's death, we've kind of ended up with like the worst of both worlds.

And what I mean by it is this, it seems pretty clear to me that in many cities and many places police like functionally went on strike after the protests around George Floyd’s death. And you and I've seen this before, I mean, I've seen it in Baltimore, up close, where like after Freddie Gray, just unquestionably the police basically didn't announce they were going on strike, but they basically went on strike. And you saw police activity plummet.

Now, one level, for a lot of communities, the police were harassing them all the time. And so the plummeting of the police activity was good. But also when you stop running down leads and trying to stop people from getting shot, reprisal shootings happen and the cycle of violence gets worse and worse. And we saw this in Baltimore after Freddie Gray like, huge, huge fight, right? So I feel like in many cities we've seen this post George Floyd, it was like, “Okay, you want to take us for granted? You want to come out and protest? Fine. Okay.”

But then at the same time, it's also like no police budgets really got cut. There's not any real like more accountability for a police officer that shoots someone. It's hard to point to something that feels like a tangible improvement in terms of police accountability. So it feels like it’s weird. Two years later. It's like we have more violence in all directions and no more accountability. And I'm just kind of like looking around for like what the way out is. That's how I feel. But you've been reporting on this so I'm curious how you feel.

Trymaine Lee: Yeah. Yeah. I think we're in the moments where we're journalists because we believe in the power of journalism and storytelling, and holding truth to power, and trying to understand the ways in which we live and die. And this is one that just hurts my feelings every single day because there's so many young people who are dying by the bullet, right, let alone those who survive. And people in communities have to witness this. And we know that trauma that folks inherit and carry and pass down.

And the combination of the police saying, “You know what, you don't like us? How about let’s show you something.” The intentionality and energy and spirit behind that is already kind of evil. But then you add on top of that, through the Trump administration, the flimsy nature of government and systems and nothing matters. Nothing is as we thought. You could just do things and change things, and there's no accountability.

And I think one of the biggest things is coming through COVID, the economic despair of communities that were already suffering, the psychological despair of communities that were already suffering under the weight of it, the actual death.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Trymaine Lee: You see death all around you, death and suffering. Think about the early days of the pandemic, when we saw in New York and Brooklyn, the trailers full of bodies, those were mostly black bodies and brown bodies, right? And so I think that what we're seeing is we're seeing these young people without the tools, without the resources.

They don't trust or any faith in the systems. Politicians will say what they want, but nothing tangibly changes in their day to day lives. And so they're going to get it, how they live it, and they're responding in a way because they don't have any healthy ways to respond. I mean, it's going to be getting younger and younger to where we're noticing things. I guess it was last fall when I was at Harvard doing the fellowship.

Two 16-year-olds got shot on my block. One was killed, on my block. I wasn't there. My wife and daughter just got home. Bullets are flying around. A bullet went downstairs on neighbor's window. And we're right on the border of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill. Nothing has ever happened on this block.

You see the behavior of packs of kids at Atlantic Terminal walking down a block, and something has shifted. And I think that they're looking for someone to let them know it's going to be okay, for someone to build structures that protect them. And we're not doing that at all, right. So I think it's terribly sad because on one hand, it's like we have those systems that we know created the environment, and then we don't have any tools to help them.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that point about trauma I want to just stay on just a second because this is something that you've really thought a lot about and reported on. Like, I do think we, as a society, just generally speaking, across a bunch of different lines of difference just generally, right, at the most top level, like, I think we all have a moment.

I don't know if you have this and I've said this on the podcast before, where like when we entered in COVID and then everyone started learning about the great flu pandemic, right, the influenza and Spanish flu at the close of World War I, it's like, wow, it's crazy, I didn't learn about this. And crazy, no one ever talked about this. And this was kind of this memory whole thing.

And then as we come out of COVID, you understand it. No one wants to talk, like you just want it to be behind you. You don't want to talk about it. But what it also means is there's just a tremendous amount of untreated trauma. And you can talk a little bit, I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about this, I mean, you have reported on the relationship between trauma and violence, right?

Trymaine Lee: That’s right.

Chris Hayes: That there is a cycle there when we really feel unsafe. By trauma, you feel easily triggered when you have untreated trauma. And those lead to cycles of violence and recrimination, which create their own trauma, which then create more violence. And I think that understanding the trauma of the pandemic actually is a pretty key part of understanding where we're at in terms of the gun violence situation.

Trymaine Lee: You're left to hold this kind of unbearable weight that seems to be yours alone. And you try to find ways to heal it, but there is no salve or no balm. And so you try to heal it through your body's response systems. Are you a little more aggravated aggressive? Are you hypervigilant? And that goes whether it's again the violence of the bullet or violence of a community, racked with the pain of a pandemic.

And again, there's nothing coming to save you. And I think those things are intertwined, because then you also have communities that were already suffering from great hunger like literal hunger, which I think is one of the most underreported, undercovered plagues that we suffer in this country.

So we have communities that are already hungry. They don't have the tools or the resources to really engage and unpack that trauma. It's become so ubiquitous. The violence of the bullet has become ubiquitous. But then the general pain from folks that are suffering from COVID, who are already suffering with sky-high diabetes and high blood pressure from all the stress, and food deserts and all the garbage we were forced to put in our bodies.

I think those things, at the very least, I think about it in terms of those projectors sheets where you lay one on top of the other on top of the other and you see the picture. Clearly, the trauma is the trauma is the trauma.

Chris Hayes: And then also the disruption too, which I think we're all dealing with in different ways. But it's particularly, I think, acute in poor communities and black communities and marginalized communities. Like, it tends to focus intensely and almost laser like way on the schooling situation, like remote schooling and whether remote schooling was the right or wrong call.

But there's a million institutions in a neighborhood, if it's the church, if it's the after school, if it's the why, that are part of what it means for the community be functioning, where there might be an adult who's doing mentorship. I mean, it's not just like the school. It's like just all got stripped away. All of it got disrupted.

Trymaine Lee: Yeah. I mean, this is sad we have to think in terms of this. The way our system is set up, there are going to be thousands and thousands and thousands of children who are lost, right? Sometimes literally lost. Check your local school district every year in a big city, they've lost about a thousand kids. They don't know where they are, right? There are kids who we will lose through violence and health issues.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Trymaine Lee: And then there's a whole ribbon of kids who are right there on the cusp. Like, these are the kids that have some potential, who are going to after school programs, who are trying their hardest in the schools, with access to gifted talented --

Chris Hayes: Yeah, it's great point.

Trymaine Lee: People are taking an interest in. And now, all of that is stripped away, right? The luck it takes, the fortitude it takes, the hard work it takes, the love it takes, the luck and everything it takes to get out, and then that is snatched from you. And what happens to those kids? Not that you should be forgetting about the kids who were losing every year, that's a huge stretch of kids we're losing. But what about those just hanging by that fragile thread, and now we cut that thread?

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: One of the great things about this project you're doing is you're talking to young folks, young black folks in these HBCUs. I'm curious what you're learning from them. Again, I started this conversation with a conversation about vibes, but like what the vibe is like right now as the country is again in a very strange place, very disrupted, everyone finding their way after the pandemic in different ways and trying to sort of put things back together. But there's no going back in some ways. Like, we're on the other side of this huge, this seismic disruption. And I'm curious about what you're hearing from people that are 19, 20 and 21.

Trymaine Lee: Yeah, there's been great beauty along this journey, right. And I've been filled with hope. Sometimes you do get little hopeless. Like, everything is just crumbling. And to be in these communities, these campus communities, with such rich history and tradition and mission, and some of our best and brightest attending these schools, I personally am already feeling optimistic because these kids, even though they've had to face all these barriers, and they see the world kind of crumbling around them, they've never been blinded to the reality of what the system does to black people in particular.

They've never been blind to the political foolishness because we've been at the whim of this political foolishness. And so what I'm seeing from them is a kind of optimism. And I think we got them in this great space. They're 19 to 23, right. So they're thinking about ways to solve some of these problems. They're thinking about ways to plug in. They're having conversations with their friends and family about how to make things better.

And so there is this kind of, it's not naivety, but it's that kind of naivety that like gives you sight, right? It gives you sight. So these kids, they understand what the issues are and they're doing something about it, man. It's amazing. It's like I'm walking away feeling really inspired because they're just so smart.

Chris Hayes: A thing I love about people that age, young adults that age, I shouldn't call them kids. And when I think about myself, this was true. It's like you can take yourself way seriously, I think.

Trymaine Lee: Right.

Chris Hayes: Like, in this way that is because I've been out in the adult world and you had gotten fired and gotten whatever. It feels like there's this sort of boundlessness to the vision that at one level, it feels like I always see it now and I think there's a split of mind where like one level, I'm like, “Ah, that's so young.”

But then I'm also like admiring of it, and wishing that I could recapture that feeling of boundlessness in that particular age. Like, there's a reason that like the student uprising, that it was like students leading the uprising in Tiananmen Square, right? That like this is a through line throughout societies in rebellion or revolt against unjust regimes, right, that students doing it, because there's something about that age that does give you a kind of conviction and vision that is really particular.

Trymaine Lee: They believe in a way that a lot of us have lost belief.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Trymaine Lee: And where they're clear eyed, they also have that fire in their bellies, right? We wonder when we're sending kids to Vietnam, they're 18, 19. They're willing to fight and die. These kids are fighting, and they're fighting not only for their lives in their communities, but this country.

I've had these conversations, there was one conversation I had at Florida A&M with a young environmental scientist. And we went out with this group of young people, out into the bay, and there's this buoy that they made. And they're like gathering data on the water quality and how it affects oyster. Oyster, as they say, are like the bees of the sea. So they're on it.

And to hear them talk about how the environment is connected directly to the future of black people and black life. And we're frontline communities and we're not only trying to save the world, we're trying to save our communities and our children and our future generations in a very intentional way. And their eyes are lit up, and they're using of words, I don't know the words, I'm just a journalist. I ain't a scientist, I don't know. What do I know?

But to hear them talk the way they talk, and they believe that they can save the planet. They truly believe it. And I sit there wondering, so where do you see this probably in five years? It's like I want you to be able to access this data. I want your neighbors to have access and understand what you're reading. And just the way we're talking about it, where I'm like mad at pandemic and the stress and the trauma, and we're losing kids. And she's like, “But there is hope, and you have to invest.” And so it's been inspiring.

The one thing that I've heard time and again, though, they've kind of resigned themselves to the fact that they have to engage with this political system we have, right. Things are as they are and not really as we want them to be. To a person, they're like, “Democrats, they're not doing enough for us. They're not doing enough. It's all talk.”

And that's the part where their imagination will hit the actual pillar of this as I'm saying, there might be need for a third party, but you're not getting one. You might need the share to power. We're not getting one anytime soon. And as we know, these two parties are actually more closely aligned than many of us think, right? So we're here. So as much as is they’re clear eyed, I think there are limitations on their hopes and aspirations when it comes politically.

Chris Hayes: I'm curious if you talk to people about the student loan cancellation news. And I know that people that I know in that demographic, a lot of them made a big deal to them. There was also frustration about it not being more. I mean, there's all sorts of views. People have a muscle, a little worried about the court challenging, but I'm wondering if that has been part of the conversations you've had,

Trymaine Lee: It's definitely been part of the conversation. At North Carolina Central University, that was the entire focus. And talking to young people who not only have debt themselves, but their parents have debt. And now their parents have more debt because they've been signing these Parent Plus loans. And so it's like a generational thing. And the real ways in which this kind of debt obstructs their everyday life, because 90% of black college students have some sort of debt. We disproportionately have more debt than our white counterparts.

And the idea to them that there are people out there who have zero debt because their parents were like, “Here's 50,000 this year. Here's 50,000 next year,” is like a world away. Almost all of them said that it's certainly not enough. I should be cancel it all.

But I also loved and it's kind of funny, but kind of seriously, they're like, “You can't take my education away. So this bill come in, it's a piece of paper, right? So I'm going to keep pushing, and there's no other choice for us. If the system is set up, even if it's rigged, this is what you have to do to go to college. We're trying to do the right thing.”

This is how much it costs. And we're also going to give you this kind of predatory loan. They're going to take it 12 times out of 10. Because for them, it's not just an intellectual pursuit, this is changing the generation. This is changing families. And so almost to a person he said, “You know what, Joe Biden ran on promising on cutting it all. So cut it all.”

Chris Hayes: That's interesting. Yeah. I mean, it's interesting how it sort of came about. It was very clear to me throughout that campaign, and it was interesting like Jim Clyburn was the sort of key figure in this, of course, one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the House from South Carolina, who was pushing very hard for it, that there was an enormous racial equity, part of this conversation and part of the effects, and people have written a lot about this.

But when you look at the data, it is so striking, the difference between black and white college students and how much debt they're carrying. And I know that that was an enormous point of focus for those that were advocating for the policy,

Trymaine Lee: Because for many, many black people, education is the only way out. No one is passing you down hundreds of thousands of dollars in inheritance. So when we're growing up, they say, “You got to go to college. Be twice as good. Educate your way out of the situation we're in.” And then you get there, and then you wonder why.

Even as black people are doing everything to educate themselves, right. We still have less than a tenth of the wealth as the average black family, that even a black college graduate will live in a more unhealthy neighborhood than some poor white folks who are uneducated, right?

And part of this is, this is the only way out. So it matters because unless we take very intentional steps to remedy all the systemic stuff that came before us, that led us to this moment, then nothing will change. And so that's why it matters to black people because again, imagine how many kids and I've talked to a bunch of them, where friends and family who tried to do everything, gotten college and had to leave because they couldn't afford it.

You're in your second year, and you're in the (inaudible) office and the registrar's office, and you're just like, “I have to go home and what's waiting at home?” Are there jobs waiting at home? Is there a rich uncle waiting? No, no, there's struggle and hunger oftentimes at home.

Chris Hayes: Where did you go to college, Trymaine?

Chris Hayes: I went to a couple so I took the loan. So at first, I got a football scholarship to play at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

Chris Hayes: That's right. I had a vague recollection of the football part of it.

Trymaine Lee: I had some issues, went back to Camden County. Then I came home. I went to Camden County Community College, so big shout to community colleges and Dr. Biden for the support. For a number of years, again, I worked and paid for it myself. I took out loans myself. My parents didn’t do anything. Worked hard to get through community college, and finally went to Rowan University in South Jersey, and graduated after two years, two long years, where I packed basically like three years of education in two years.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Trymaine Lee: It was a struggle. But to begin with, what are the stakes here, right? There was nothing to turn back to. So if this ain't work, I don't know what I would have been doing.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because so much of this sort of maddening feature of the discourse about colleges and higher education in America tends to just focus on a very tiny group of extremely elite colleges that basically might as well be on another planet compared to like the median experience of college in America. I mean, which is much closer to what you experienced than, frankly, what I experienced it. I went to Brown University four years and it's like a Disney.

Trymaine Lee: Right.

Chris Hayes: But it’s great. I got a great education, but it's like not a real place. But so much and particularly when you see these backlash politics about like, “They're going crazy on campus,” and like what will the Libs think of next? And this professor is like, it tends to focus so excessively on those kinds of institutions, as opposed to community colleges in Camden, or the kind of schools that you're doing this tour.

Trymaine Lee: It's amazing when I talked to friends who went to like big state schools, or this school or that school, and I'm like, man, nobody from where I'm from is going anywhere. Maybe Rutgers, you get to Rutgers, maybe you got Rowan and state schools. You're stuck in a bunch of South Jersey school.

Chris Hayes: That's right. Yeah.

Trymaine Lee: But I think most of us are going to these places. So I think that speaks to we don't know each other.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Trymaine Lee: Like, we're so separated. And so a lot of times we're throwing these rhetorical points into the ecosystem. But has anybody been to South Jersey, and to Camden County, or down by Atlantic City? Spending time in these places, where to get out of there, you're going to trade school, or you're going to one of these state schools, and you're doing what you can.

Chris Hayes: Right. And it's also like when discussion starts happening about like the wokeness on campus, like, they're not talking about Camden County Community College. You know what I mean? Again, like, that's where people are getting educated in just a raw numerical sense, right? Like, that's where it's actually happening in like small Bible colleges throughout the south.

HBCUs, like, all of these sorts of institutions are the place where higher education actually happens in America, where the tangible like classroom experience is so remote from the discussion that is being had all the time about the scourges of like the worst excesses and like some tiny little microscopic dollop of the most elite schools in America.

Trymaine Lee: But I mean, in the end, the truth is, though, that those schools have a disproportionate amount of the power, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Trymaine Lee: When I was at Harvard, as part of the Institute of Politics fellowship, and you start looking at the endowment for Harvard, $52 billion, and you look at who's graduated from there. And so on one hand, that's not where most of this is happening.

Chris Hayes: That’s true.

Trymaine Lee: But then this school actually do have a disproportion amount of the power and I think that's not lost to anybody. They pretend otherwise, but, no, you’re certainly right.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: I want to talk to you about another sort of generational sort of dividing line and it's something that you did a great episode about having to do with climate. The other thing that I really notice in conversations with people who are in high school or college is there's two big things in us. One is the way they are, and again fairly self-selecting people I'm talking to, but the way they are about gender, LGBTQ issues is just so much better than 25 years ago, when I was their age.

Trymaine Lee: When you think about how far along they are, even compared to when we were kids, it is extraordinarily dramatic.

Chris Hayes: It's so dramatic. I mean, I remember being in like progressive spaces where people were just like throwing around the F word and like calling people that's gay. And I'm just completely like it was nothing, like constant. And that in the spaces that I've been around kids now, it's just like there's none of that as far as I can tell. Now, obviously, it's a big country and that's not true in all sorts of subcultures. But even in cultures that are ostensibly progressive, where that was like way, way, way common, I've been struck by how much better and more enlightened they are on that stuff.

Trymaine Lee: Now, this is going back a little younger, right? But I remember when I was a kid, I'm not proud of this, but this is what it was. We had a game that was called kill the man with the ball or smear the queer, right? Where it's like it's a tough kid game, where the ball gets tackled, you try to get through it, but then we would actually say those words.

Well, I have a daughter now who's 10 years old and if anything in front of TV Well, “Well, what? What's wrong with them being there” And it's like baby, my daughter is like seriously about it, their language around these issues, and that they're willing to fight for it.

Again, my daughter will stand up and say, “Dad, it's a little off. Dad, that’s not right.” And I'm like, “No, I was just saying,” and they'll check you about it. And that is completely different than the way we were growing up. And now, that it's 2022, those kids have been growing in that way for the last 10 or 12 years. So now there are in these colleges, having completely different conversations, even the so-called allies, right?

Chris Hayes: Yeah. My kids are the same way. The other thing that I really sense in 20 something, college kids, high school students, even younger, is just a real palpable front of mind, constant sense of the climate and the climate crisis, as an ordering part of their life. And you did a great episode on sort of climate, climate change and racial equity.

It's striking how this really cuts across different lines of difference among this generation, wealthy and affluent kids, kids who are not wealthy and affluent, white, black, whatever. It really feels like so generationally present. I'm curious how you've seen that in your reporting.

Trymaine Lee: The one thing that I see is the clear distinction from what we're seeing now, compared to younger generations, right? I think they don't see any separation between the exploits of capitalism, and what we're seeing with the environment, where for a very long time, there was somewhat legitimate debate, illegitimate but legitimate debate around is it manmade, is the warming of the planet kind of cyclical, it's something that would happen anyway. And now, they're connecting it, right? Instead of we're going to endanger our entire planet to show deference to billionaires and those in power. And that is the biggest difference.

And then when you talk to black young people in this space, they're saying, like, “You know what, there's no way that you get the exploits of us as humans without the exploitation of the land, right.” And we continue to see the vestiges of that, right? Like, this is a racial justice issue. And I think they're speaking about in a way, with such clarity, there's no disconnect between the exploits of capitalism and the environmental degradation. Now, I don't think we were there.

Chris Hayes: I remember when you’re reporting, I remember these photos you sent from Blacks for Trump rally, was it in Atlanta?

Trymaine Lee: It was Atlanta. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: I remember you and I having a conversation afterwards that’s really interesting. And one of the things that struck me was you spend some time talking to people. It was funny because a bunch of the images are like white people in Black for Trump shirts. It's just very funny.

Trymaine Lee: It's crazy, insanity.

Chris Hayes: And there was like a lot of them. But I'm curious also what you encounter in the diversity of viewpoint among young people. Obviously, like, I think that people are complicated. And any subgroup of people has a variety of views, I think you encounter. It's very easy to stereotype people's views.

Trymaine Lee: Right.

Chris Hayes: One of the great things about reporting is when you interview people, you realize how complicated, sometimes self-contradictory. That like there's a lot of people who are conservatives in the inner city, for instance, like not conservative in the way it's coded in American politics, but like there's definitely a lot of conservatives in the Bronx. They're not voting for Trump or Republicans. But they're conservatives for sure.

Trymaine Lee: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And I'm curious how you found in this college conversation, like the diversity of views.

Trymaine Lee: One thing that’s interesting, there is such diversity. And we try to always avoid any projection that there's his one monolithic block of black people, right, black conservative. They are super progressive. They are in the middle. They are Christian conservatives. But I think what often happens from engaging with these young people, is that there feels to be this consistent existential attack on black people. So you have to fall in formation, and get in line.

But the one thing that I have seen the distinction that's probably most clearest and we saw this in some of the results between the two elections with Donald Trump is the number of black men and young black people, young black men who are lining up behind the Republican Party.

And I think there's this interesting dynamic in, I think, our broad political effort to make sure that we center the hard work of black women, that we are open to thinking about LGBTQ and trans rights. In doing so, there are a lot of black men, younger black men, especially who feel marginalized from these conversations, that were being marginalized and ostracized from one side of the political aisle as thugs and criminals and gangsters and all that.

And then we're over this side and it's like we don't matter, right? So while we're bearing the brunt of that one party, at least it’s arriving with albeit toxic kind of masculinity and manhood and tough guy stuff and pushing back on some of those forces that these young black men feel marginalized by, right?

And often in these spaces, these college spaces, these professional spaces, that young black men will be in the minority to black women. And so it's like there's still not many of them out there. And so I think that is one of the clear divides.

But typically what happens, even when they have these political differences, and one might care about the environment, one might care about criminal justice, is that there seems to be this attack on the franchise of black law generally. So they usually fall in line because they have to, right, out of self-preservation. But that's the big one that I don't think we found a great way to talk about.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I think the version of masculinity that Trump and the sort of MAGA Movement promotes, I mean, at one level, it's like preposterous because there's no universe in which like even by the, to me, bad standards of like traditional masculinity that like Donald Trump (inaudible) them. So like it's so ludicrous at some level.

Trymaine Lee: The least manly, he's the least manly.

Chris Hayes: Right. Yeah. Yeah. even by like those standards, which like to me are not the ones that I worry about or think about, or try to model myself after. But it's not Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s something that's like he's this model of like manly, this virulent virtue. But I do think the appeal of certain kind of masculinity politics really does cut across a bunch of lines and you see that. And I'm also curious about this, did you grow up in a church? Like, what was your religious upbringing?

Trymaine Lee: So we weren't church-church folks, but my grandmother was and grandmother and my aunts were super church. So I would go to Bible study every once in a while. I will go to church relatively often. But it was never the kind of fire and brimstone, it wasn't like beat into our heads. But it was more of a general way of life and really community and fellowship.

It represented like the good in the community, because everyone there was either family or neighbors. And in the church I grew up in, you hug your neighbors. I always hate this part. Like, why are you making me hug? Why do I have to hug this person? You got to look to your neighbor and hug them. You're welcoming strangers.

So it wasn't more conservative. Actually, Pastor Ingram, so that was pastor we've grown up. I remember there being a big issue because he did lean on the conservative side and was like, “No Halloween, right. It's evil. No kind of out of wedlock living with each other.” There was this strain there. I thought the congregation, you kind of take that and you do what you want with it. It wasn't that kind of thing. But those conservative black things or church things were always there, though.

Chris Hayes: It's interesting because, to me, one of the most profound changes in American life that I think is, in some ways, the least covered is the mass secularization that's happening in America. I mean, just the church attendance and the amount of people that describe themselves as religious, just declining, declining.

This is happening among black folks too, which has traditionally been one of the most religiously observant demographics in all of America. And I'm curious like, to me, it's a really interesting thing to see how it plays out, particularly as younger generations, like what this more secular country looks like, and particularly what a more secular black America looks like, because the black church has been such a corner institution for black life basically since the time slavery.

Trymaine Lee: I think it depends on where you're talking about. You’re reporting in South Carolina and you talk about young voters, they're still either going to church, or the church is still the center of the community in many ways.

What I've seen is when you start getting further north, where there is this more individualistic kind of sense, where people just got there to the north relatively recently in the last two or three generations, I think it's different. But when you talk about the Clyburn communities across the country, there's still locked in because the HBCU is feeding black folks in all kinds of professional spaces.

Chris Hayes: Right, right. That's the pipeline.

Trymaine Lee: That's right. It's the pipeline. I grew up in New Jersey, but I remember having to memorize Bible verses. You all go up in front of the church, and you all read the thing, and it's reinforced, and there's applause and everybody loves you. And it's the church lady, and it's the deacons. And there's the gospel songs and everything that is part of your world.

And I think what we've seen is, as black people have pushed some aspirationally to be more included in the mainstream and go to brunch and wear those T-shirts that say, “I'm not my grandmother, you catch these hands.” It was like your grandmother fought, right? Your grandmother, grandfather, were not laying down and being beaten abuse.

And so I think that's the thing we're seeing culturally is that the further black people disconnect themselves and young people distance themselves from this, what has always been the source of our strength and our power and our facility, I think you will feel like you're out there in islands, which we've seen.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that's interesting. And you wonder, too, like, there's just a lot of alienation in American life like to return back to this point. And that alienation, I think, is particularly American. And there's different versions in different places. Obviously, I think it can be particularly profound in places that are really material wanting or subject of racism and white supremacy, who have been sort of put in areas that are far from institutional centers and things like that.

But American life can be very alienating in lots of ways. And there's been huge parts of black life that have created these institutions of community against the sort of deprivation of alienation, and racism and oppression. And yeah, you wonder what that looks like in the more secularized and urbanized version of American life.

Trymaine Lee: And when a generation that isn't in the spirit that kiss the rings, right? They don't want to go to the old pastor who runs the local NAACP, right? They don't want to have to ask anyone from the generation who they believe got it wrong and may have failed them for anything, right? It's version of SoundCloud rappers. You don't have to go to distribution anymore. You don't have to go to digital gatekeepers. You can do it yourself. And I think we're seeing that that happening in so many ways.

Chris Hayes: So tell me about the power of the black vote campus sort of tour you're doing and what's on the agenda for that.

Trymaine Lee: Yeah. So we're calling it the “Into America, Power of the Black Vote Tour.” And it's really this amazing opportunity, right, to engage with young people on campuses all across the south. And so Jackson State in Mississippi, Morehouse and Spelman in Atlanta, North Carolina Central, FAMU, right, Texas Southern University.

And in each space, we're engaging with an issue that matters most to them, right? So whether it's student loan debt, whether it's the environment, to get a sense of how they're grappling with all these issues, but also how it filters into how they're approaching the midterms, and politics more broadly.

And so we're doing a combination of one special that's already out now in Texas Southern University. You could watch it on Peacock, and also a series of podcasts that kind of reflect what we've been reporting on. But it's really an amazing opportunity to remind folks of these amazing institutions, but also these amazing, brilliantly bright plugged-in minds on these campuses. And so it's been a lot of fun so far. It's been a bit of a grind because we're traveling the entire south. But it's been illuminating. I'll say that, it's been illuminating.

Chris Hayes: Trymaine Lee is the host of the “Into America” podcast, all about being black in America. It's a fantastic podcast. You should definitely check out. As you can hear, they're doing a special series in the run up to the midterms called “Into America, The Power of the Black Vote.” Trymaine is my colleague at MSNBC. He’s a Pulitzer and Emmy award-winning journalist, and also just a fantastic, fantastic guy. Trymaine, thank you so much.

Trymaine Lee: My man, Chris, thank you.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to my colleague, MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee. You can check out his podcast “Into America,” which is a fantastic podcast wherever you get your podcasts. I should also say that NBC Universal is the parent company of Peacock and be sure to check out this new series of “Into America: The Power of the Black Vote,” which is special streaming on Peacock.

As always, we'd love to hear your feedback. Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email And be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory, and featuring music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to