The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
Maya Wiley: Racial Justice
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I'm Chuck Rosenberg and I am honored to be your host for another compelling conversation with a fascinating person from the world of public service. My guest this week is Maya Wiley, a brilliant and compelling woman who has spent her professional life at the intersection of law, education, and policy. Maya was born into both privilege and poverty. The child of two prominent civil rights activists, she grew up in a loving and intact home and in a broken system. And if these things, privilege and poverty, intact and broken, seem to like they are contradictory, Maya will explain why they are not. Educated at Dartmouth and Columbia, Maya served in city government and in the federal government at the United States Department of Justice. Her most recent turn in public service put her in charge of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent oversight agency of the New York City Police Department, the largest police force in the nation. This gave Maya a unique perspective on policing in America, particularly what we need to do as a nation to address police misconduct to improve policing, which is in dramatic need of improvement in many parts of the nation, and to build bridges between police and the communities they are sworn to serve. Maya's moving story is one of struggling success, of love and tragedy, of friends and mentors, and always of the pursuit of justice, dignity, and equality. Maya Wiley, welcome to The Oath.
Maya Wiley: It's great to be here, Chuck.
Rosenberg: It's a real privilege to have you on the show. Thanks for spending some time with us. I know you were born in Syracuse, but you didn't live there very long, did you?
Wiley: No, we moved to Washington D.C. when I was two years old, so I really only remember Washington as a hometown, although we did visit Syracuse a couple of times.
Rosenberg: It was interesting to me: you've said elsewhere that you did not grow up in a disadvantaged family, but that you spent much of your childhood in a low-income neighborhood and inner city schools.
Wiley: Well, you know, honestly, the balance of my time was living the privilege I was born to, but the formative years, is how I would describe it, the formative years, my family lived in the DuPont Circle area of Washington, DC, which will shock people to say, well, what do you mean, you said you lived in a low income black neighborhood? Well, when we were living there, it was a low income black neighborhood. And that is the story of many cities where the downtown areas were heavily black and low-income until investments came without creating affordable housing and black folks got pushed out. So, it's a story we still see today, but I lived it firsthand because my parents, both in terms of their politics, and my, my father is an activist and an organizer, chose to live in a community amongst people that my father would be organizing. So, despite the fact that my parents were highly educated, graduate level, and therefore we had the privilege that came both from a high level of education and all that that brings in forms of privileges in society. And we were certainly privileged in our neighborhood. I was clear I had a lot more than my classmates. But my parents’ politics also meant they put me in the neighborhood public school. So, I was in a segregated, all black, public elementary school until fourth grade, until my father died. And that's when my mother transferred me to a private, predominantly white school and I saw both sides of the world at a very young age.
Rosenberg: You said in an interview once that though you were in the top of your class in your segregated school, you were still two years behind grade level.
Wiley: Yeah. You know, it's, it's a painful memory, not for myself--it's a painful memory because I was very aware when I was in elementary school that I had more than most of my classmates. I was very aware that I started school reading ready, I would not have used those words as a child, but I knew the alphabet. My mother used to read me from Bank Street schools, that book, you know, Bank Street school had these early reader books. And my mother would read to my brother and I and we had all those advantages that everyone says you need to be successful in school and I was successful in school. But my mother also recognized something could not be working and eventually had me tested. And that was because of the structure of the public school system. It wasn't--we personalize it, right? And we say it's somehow the fault of families, or it's a, you know, that the parents don't care enough about education or don't focus on it enough, but the truth is, I was at the top of my class with everything any parent was supposed to do, and with every privilege my family had and I was still two years behind. And that's about the structure of education, it's about the way in which we do not sufficiently invest in our public schools, it is absolutely about the way in which, if you were in a high poverty school, I don't care what your race is, I don't care what your color is, if the school is high poverty, it's overcrowded, it's under resourced. But I lived it as a personal experience. And then in transferring to private school and seeing the vast difference, I mean, teeny tiny little classes. They were so cute to compare to my big, overcrowded classroom and just the real struggles that kids had every single day that even a privileged kid like me didn't have and yet we all were behind because there just simply was not enough resources, support, there were teacher strikes, even the playgrounds, I got a lot of scars that MSNBC makeup has to cover up on my face because playgrounds were concrete, and we have very little play equipment. Now it's constantly being sent to the clinic to get some stitches. And you know, that was very much my reality until, until fourth grade.
Rosenberg: You know, the way you would put it. My you are not from a broken family. In fact, your family was very much intact and loving and highly educated. But you were embedded in a broken system.
Wiley: And it's a system that is still broken.
Rosenberg: You've already spoken quite a bit about your parents, but I wanted to ask you to speak a little bit more about them. Tell us about your mom. I know that she was born in Texas. And so, New York City and Washington DC must have seemed like very far from home for her.
Wiley: Yes, and I think it made her very happy. My mother was a remarkable woman in so many different ways, but one of the most notable being she was a white woman growing up in West Texas, in very much a conservative, Southern Baptist place, she was intelligent. She focused on her education. Her mother, who my grandmother, who was an elementary school teacher, as many women were who worked, was a bulldog ensuring that my mother had a clear path to education, but she used it, she used it to question everything around her. She became a debate champion--debate was one of the things that women in the 50s could do competitively and intellectually in West Texas and in Texas in general. She was confident, she called herself, at one point, an arrogant intellectual because she refused to debate on the women's team. She joined the men's team because the competition was better, she used to say--not because women weren't smart just because men were allowed to be really intellectually competitive, and she didn't shy away from it. But the most remarkable thing is she really used her incredible social intelligence, her incredible, natural, principled view that humans were humans. And she used her academic achievement to win a fellowship to Union Theological Seminary after college and she went to college in Abilene, Texas, her Southern Baptist University. She had never been to a black community. She hopped on that plane and she went to Harlem as she went straight, literally to Harlem--volunteering in East Harlem in young women's reproductive health and empowerment programs, and got herself immediately ensconced in the civil rights movement. And in the fight against the war in Vietnam--she just embodied something that was very much different from the way she was supposed to be based on where she was raised. And she did it without flinching, she did it without apology, she did it without looking back, and I don't think she ever regretted it. And I think she felt very much that the most important thing in the world was that it be a just and better one. And that's the way she lived her life.
Rosenberg: And if your mother was a daughter of West, Texas, your father was a son of the Northeast.
Wiley: Yes. And that was, of course, not as common a story for black people in America. But I'm very aware and our family is very aware that we have certain unique privileges multi-generationally on my father's side of the family. And what I mean by that is, my great grandfather worked on the railroad and being a porter on the railroad was a good job in the segregated South--it was a good job in the segregated North, and he was fortunate to have it relatively speaking to what most black people were able to do for work. And he moved my grandfather and my great aunt to the North after his wife died when my grandfather was only five years old. So, my grandfather grew up in the North. Now, that didn't stop them from experiencing racism and discrimination--I want to make that very clear. He was not able to afford college, he, my grandfather wanted to be a journalist and couldn't afford college. And of course, there were very few ways for black people to be journalists, but he was lucky enough to pass the Civil Service Exam and get a job in the post office as a mail clerk, which was also highly unusual for black people to be allowed to hand mail to white people--that was something that was unusual, but all those things meant that my father grew up in the North, and he grew up in a family that had what it needed, but a family that still had to work very hard, and he was one of six, but it enabled them to live in an all-white community, which means my father and his five siblings were able to get a decent education and go to college. Not without sacrifice, not without working very hard, but those were all things that were unusual stories for black people in America.
Rosenberg: So, it must have been remarkable, then, for your father to get a PhD in organic chemistry and become one of the very few black faculty members at Syracuse University.
Wiley: Absolutely. In fact, it was highly unusual because he was a black man getting a PhD in organic chemistry from Cornell University, which was one of the reasons he could be what he wanted to be, which was an organic chemist. And it was really a point of pride in the family, but also because his sister, my aunt, Lucille, she wanted to be a doctor and because of discrimination, she essentially became a pharmacist and she was a role model to him in the sciences, as he was coming along. But as you can imagine, black people struggle to be recognized in the sciences even today. So, it was truly a milestone and a point of family pride. And for my father, a very deep calling.
Rosenberg: Your father had another calling, though, in addition to his organic chemistry background. He started, he founded, while at Syracuse, the Syracuse chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, and later was the founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization. What is the National Welfare Rights Organization, and what led your father to that work?
Wiley: You know, I mean, Dad was a natural born leader, but the national Welfare Rights Organization was a national organizing group that was chapter based, it was made up of largely, not exclusively black women, but largely black women and other women of color in chapters and states around the country who are fighting for Welfare Rights: that was dignity and how they were treated in the welfare office, a recognition of what their needs were, ultimately a demand for a guaranteed minimum payment, welfare payment, because welfare benefits, even to this day, certainly back then, were not actually enough to meet your basic needs, you know, you were not able to have decent housing, you were not able to feed your family well through the end of the month. There were lots of ways in which the welfare office really bullied and humiliated people on welfare. And my father founded it really because as a civil rights activist, which he, I would say, was in many different respects informally, as someone who was black and American experiencing racism, cared about it very much, but as a faculty member, really got engaged in the civil rights movement, founded the Congress on Racial Equality chapter at Syracuse to show that racism in the North was as bad as the South. But you know, for my father, it was really the experience of what it really meant to be black and poor, what it really meant to be in a black ghetto, what the construct was that created that: housing discrimination, of failure of policy to create affordable housing, then urban renewal that decimated communities--part of it was seeing and knowing and understanding that's the black experience in America. It's not only the black experience, we know that too many people who are white, had that same experience, too many people were Latino or Native American--but the point was for the black community, that was a huge percentage of the community. So, for my father, civil rights wasn't just the issue of having the right to vote, although that was critical or the right to live where you want it or that although that was critical. It was a about those rights, translating into something that meant you could meet your family's basic needs, that the mores of the country were about measuring people's worth by wealth, that people's measure should be because they're people and because they have something to offer and something to be valued. And the failure to see value in black people because they were poor, was something he thought had to become a fundamental focus, and really was part of the more formal organized precursor to what we call the Economic Justice Movement today, which is a recognition of those intersections.
Rosenberg: I was struck Maya, when reading about the national Welfare Rights Organization to learn, one of the things that helped establish for welfare recipients was a right to privacy, which is really a right to dignity, which I think is exactly what you're talking about.
Wiley: The organizing principle was dignity. My father, because he was an academic, he did not shy away from meeting with academics who focused on political science, sociology, he actively embrace that and he didn't shy away from meeting with lawyers. And of course, the lawyer started organizing around the legal principles that would help advance this movement for economic justice, this movement that recognize dignity in people, even if they are poor.
Rosenberg: You lost your father tragically at a very early age. You were young, but so was he.
Wiley: Yeah, I was nine, my brother was 10, and my father was only 42. And you know, there's the statement that What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, is true when it's true, It's not always true. Sometimes it doesn't kill you, but it does destroy you psychologically. And my brother and I watched my father die. He drowned in a, I won't call it a freak accident, but it was sort of an everything that could go wrong went wrong, to result in his death, but we were alone with him on a boat. So it was the credible trauma of watching someone who for us was invincible, fearless, maybe a little too fearless, but he was fearless and he was confident and he was funny. And he moved through the world with passion and with humor and with an incredible sense of his and the ability of others to make major change happen and so to watch him die was both--it's shattering because your parents aren't supposed to die, it's shattering because that those things can't happen to your parents, and just the personal loss and then the experience of trying to get home you know, that moment of realizing, wait, we're two little kids on a boat out in the Chesapeake Bay, we're not supposed to be here alone. Luckily, he taught us how to drive the boat and he taught us how to drop the anchor because that's how my father was--that's how both my parents were. Everybody had to know how to do everything. And there was no such thing as being too young. So, we were able to drive the boat and anchor it and jump off of it and get to shore. And then, you know, have to say, part of the pain and, and some things that for me, you know, are still painful memories, is it was an all-white beach. And when my brother and I jumped off, and we were yelling for help, and people were looking at us kind of confused, and then they see the boat and we anchor it, you know, because people were swimming in the water. And then we make our way to shore and we're kind of yelling, yelling and people just kind of looking at us like this is strange, but no one asks us what's going on. Not one adult comes over to us. So, we go to the houses that are on the beach and start ringing doorbells and first one no one was home. The second one, someone answered and just looked at us and said “sorry, I can't help.” It was the third house and a gentleman answered who was lovely, absolutely lovely. And he just immediately was concerned. And he grabbed us. And he he, you know, he hugged us, called the police, you know, but you have that juxtaposition of experience of the people who will not help you. And it's very hard to understand a world in which any adult would look at a child. Even if they look different from the adult and not say, “I'm gonna help you.”
Rosenberg: It's hard to fathom sitting here, how the people in that second house could turn their backs on two young children in distress of any color. I'm struggling to even figure out how to respond to that, Maya, it just makes me sad.
Wiley: Well, you know, Chuck, I think that's the appropriate response: sad and also angry. I mean, I think about, you know, all that we're seeing in America today. My mother did something striking in the early 1980s: she apologized to me. She said, “I'm sorry.” And I thought, oh my god, what do you, you know, my mother and I were very close. And I could not imagine what she was apologizing to me for. She was an amazing mom. She was one of the reasons my brother and I overcame trauma. She was one of the most incredible people of my life, obviously. And she said, “I thought it would be better for you. We didn't make it better.” And, of course, in some ways, she didn't mean that in a blanket way. There are some things that are better. But I think she meant they really thought through all of the gains in the civil rights movement, to some of the victories in the economic justice movement, that the retrenchment from the victories that we were starting to see, the changes in society that were in some of the right directions, that we saw the sliding back from it starting in the 1980s. And she apologized to me because she was really recognizing, I think, that they hadn't done enough and I find myself apologizing to my kids today. I find myself apologizing as well.
Rosenberg: When your mom passed away in 2013, Barack Obama was in his second term as president. Did she have the same view?
Wiley: My mother was an optimist as a person, as a personality, but she grew up in West Texas, so she knew what we were up against. She was not disillusioned by it, nor was she a Pollyanna about deep seated racism and how entrenched, and how culturally entrenched it was. So, neither one of us believe Barack Obama could win, not because we didn't want him to, but because we didn't think enough Americans would vote for him. And obviously, when that was proven wrong, she definitely said, “You know, I don't think there was any question that that was hopeful.” My mom, however, I think was also very clear that it's, it's not the winning of the office, it's what you're able to do in it. And I think she understood that the retrenchment that had been underway will hopefully start to be reversed. I am, I am sad that she passed away, I am glad that she hasn't seen this.
Rosenberg: You have been exposed both to the most wonderful parents and sets of progressive ideals and struggles for dignity and equality and justice. And also, all that that entails confronting people who would deny you all of those things. I remember reading about your experience at Dartmouth, in one of the elite universities in our country, but in the 1980s, it was, I think, quite hostile to black students.
Wiley: When I showed up on campus at Dartmouth, that freshman fall, a publication called the Dartmouth Review, which was a notorious--it bore the Dartmouth name, although it was an unofficial publication--one of the title articles was “I Be’s a Black Student at Dartmouth,” and it was the title for, what essentially, was a racist tirade that suggested that black students were not qualified to be at Dartmouth, unless their SAT scores were above a certain score and that because many black students SAT scores were not at that level, that they were not intellectually deserving of attendance and admission, and I was one of those students that they were describing.
Rosenberg: And I trust you will make the point that sometimes SAT scores reflect the resources that somebody can put into preparing for an SAT exam, and not innate or raw intellectual ability.
Wiley: The science tells us that grades are much better predictor. SAT scores can be a predictor of some things, it's just that yes, resources--it's also because I had I came from a family of resources, but there's an additional thing that in psychology that it teaches us that is also not well understood by the general American public, which is a concept called “stereotype threat.” But what stereotype threat in social psychology has shown is where society bears deep, negative stereotypes or positive stereotypes about a group, that group will perform, or underperform as a result of that societal stereotype. So, just a really, really quick example, what's the stereotype for women and math? Women aren't that good at it for whatever reason. What's the stereotype for Asians and math--just naturally brilliant. So how does Asian women perform on standardized tests? What the social psychology shows, if you remind them they are women before the test, they will underperform and if you remind them they're Asian before the test, they will then perform to the stereotype of Asians. And for black people, the science says when you say, “this test is going to determine your life,” which is essentially what is true for the black community, right? You do well on tests, even if you come from a modest background, that can pave your way. And that actually impacts for black student’s performance on tests. And that's actually resource neutral. So, it's not to negate your point about resources, that absolutely can be a factor, but that raises its own factor, the stereotypes that we carry in society, including the fact that some of these stereotypes are highly beneficial to testing, right, for some groups. I didn't know all that research when I was in college, but I did become a psych major, which really set me on a path to constantly exploring these questions about what happens to people who think they will do the right thing, and don't, or to people who think they understand how to value or measure the ability of a person and then just be wrong.
Rosenberg: So, what is the disconnect between somebody who thinks they will do the right thing and the abstract, but who doesn't do the right thing in the moment?
Wiley: Yeah. You know, the, the disconnect is that when people think right, at a conscious level, what they miss is that over 90% of brain function is not conscious. And what they don't realize is for all their conscious thinking--and I think this is one of the victories of civil rights struggles and of landmark Supreme Court cases like Brown versus Board of Education--that it impacted the conscious thinking of the country. But what we haven't undone are all of the societal constructs that reinforce the stereotypes. So, the unconscious mind is what reacts in a moment, not the conscious mind and that is true for everyone. I mean, we all carry some form of that bias, right? I mean, it might be based on age, it might be based on gender, it might be based on sexuality, and it's certainly based on race. And the incredible impact of segregation, and we are still segregated in the society--we still have segregated schools, we still have segregated housing and communities. A lot of that is because people still bear this thought that I don't know why those people stay poor, it must be something they're doing wrong, not something society is doing wrong. You know, I grew up and became a lawyer, in part because those constructs are often driven by how we structure society and law structures society. You know, when we have challenged the structures and one of the key tools has been law, and where we had retrenchment. You know, one of the thing the Reagan years did so effectively, one of the reasons my mother was apologizing is because Reagan stacked the courts and we started losing, and they started chipping away at some of this precedent that we had won in the 50s 60s and 70s. It's certainly one of the things that is endangering our ability to get to a place where people's conscious thought becomes their unconscious thought.
Rosenberg: I was going to ask you why you became a lawyer, but I think I now understand it. I was struck by the fact that at Columbia Law School, one of your mentors was Jack Greenberg. And for those who don't know who he is, he succeeded Thurgood Marshall as the director, counsel of the NAACP, Legal Defense Fund. Marshall and Greenberg, and many others, of course, were instrumental in a number of remarkably important civil rights cases, as you say, in the 50s 60s and 70s, including the seminal case of Brown versus Board of Education. I mean, that's how things changed in this country at that time, albeit very slowly and very late because of lawyers.
Wiley: Absolutely, because of lawyers and because of organizers, you're absolutely right about why I became a lawyer. But I also should say the very personal side of it is, and I tell the story often is, as a really young girl, I probably was only four or five and these mothers who were welfare recipients who were also the leaders of the National Welfare Rights Organization, came home, you know, meetings were often happening in our house, but if it was after our bedtime, we still had to be up in bed. It was very, very late, and we woke up because of the noise and we wanted to know what was happening and my brother and I shared a room. We hopped out of beds and snuck out and kind of peek down the stairs and everybody was sitting around on the floor. And you know, we started trying to listen in and we started moving closer, a little bit closer. When they realized we were there, they invited us to come sit down, which was highly unusual. And it was because they were so upset, they weren't thinking about sending us back to bed, and they were upset because they'd had a demonstration, and like all demonstrations, they were arrested for disorderly conduct. And that was the plan, was to be arrested for disorderly conduct. And like any disorderly conduct, it's a very low charge, and you go to court, and then you get released. The judge was politically opposed and offended by their organizing and their position, and frankly, with absolutely no understanding about what their lives were like, but he thought he knew and understood that they were just lazy, that they were scamming off the system, they were asking for handouts, and now they were breaking the law and wasting public resources. And so, he used, and I would argue, abused his power as a judge to keep them for hours, which was not ordinarily what would happen, and to humiliate them, to call on them individually, and ask them scathing questions and force them to reveal things about themselves in open court. So, what they were upset about is, you know, the very thing they were organizing for was dignity. And the justice system was just taking it away. And I was a little kid, so I didn't understand all the aspects of this, right. But little kids have a very strong sense of right and wrong, and a very strong sense of power, because you don't have much as a little kid. And all I saw were these extremely powerful black women who were like aunties to me, and I just couldn't believe it. And I thought, “Okay, I'm going to be a judge because somebody has to sit in that seat that won't treat people that way.” Now then, I went through a long hiatus of thinking the last thing I wanted to do is be a judge because my mother broke it to me that you had to go to law school. I did not know what that meant, and I decided to sounded very bad. So, it took me a long time to come back around to it, and nd it really wasn't until college it really wasn't until Dartmouth, that I did. And I actually wanted speaking of mentors, one of the unexpected, completely unanticipated mentors I had was a deeply conservative psychology professor who taught a course called “Psychology and Law.” And I took the course because I just was interested in the subject matter, like cross racial identification, and it just had racial content in the course. And as I was, that's why I was studying psychology. I took that course and one, I was immediately hooked. And two, he and I fought every class, but he loved it. He loved it. And by the end of the semester, I was convinced I was going to law school, and he announced to me, he didn't ask me, he announced to me, “I'm writing one of your law school recommendations.” And that was so important for me because we disagreed because we disagreed and he loved the challenge of the debate. And he respected me for it and he reinforced me for it. And unlike the all of those, unfortunately, all of those experiences I had with those strange white people who would not help that little girl, here I had this conservative who was telling me he was gonna help me and give me help I wasn't asking him for.
Rosenberg: Did this professor end up writing a letter of recommendation for you?
Wiley: This professor wrote a glowing recommendation for me.
Rosenberg: Which you deserved.
Wiley: I hope so. But I--he certainly made me feel as if I did. And that was important.
Rosenberg: You have spent most of your professional life at the intersection of education, politics, policy, and the law. It's been a fascinating path, at least as I read about you. But tell me: did you enjoy being a lawyer, and you prefer sort of living in the world of education and policy?
Wiley: That's a very good question. And I think I have a very complicated answer. I loved being a litigator when I was litigating on issues I cared about--I found it very painful to be a litigator when I was litigating on cases I did not care about. In other words, for me, the law has always been an incredibly important tool to shaping society. And I loved to use that tool. And I loved to have clients that I could, you know, work with and partner with to help them get what they needed or vindicate you know, injustice or try to reshape an institution--those are the things that I loved, and I loved the way the law enabled me to do it. And I loved the and I still do, I love all these things still, I love the way the law enabled me to do two things: stay grounded--stay connected to the experience of real people who have experiences different from my own, and to develop the analytic skills necessary for thinking about how society can be reshaped successfully. What I have learned about the law is I went to law school to be a litigator, I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer. And I, as I said, I loved being a trial lawyer in many ways, as long as I could do what was mission driven for me. But you know, what I really realized because, again, we were facing Reagan courts, we were losing cases that we sometimes should not lose. Some cases were hard, some we shouldn't have lost. But you know, I really realized that for me, it was the outcomes that I was fighting for. And the tools of the lawyer--there's so many tools lawyers have, even if they're not litigating or representing clients, right, the analytic skills, the negotiating skills, the ability to see and understand systems, the ability to learn how to work with experts who have expertise you don't have, to use of that expertise to use it and advocacy. I loved all of that. And so, for me, that intersection of litigating and policy and politics, and teaching has always essentially been doing all those things. And I realized that the great privilege and benefit of law school was not just the years I spent in court, it's the abilities that it gave me to hone skills, essentially to do those things no matter what job I was in. And I feel like I've been extremely privileged to have jobs that have enabled me to use those skills.
Rosenberg: One of those jobs, Maya, was as an Assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York in its Civil Division. You told me once that you didn't particularly like that job. What was good about it and what wasn't so good about it?
Wiley: Well, let me start by saying similar to attending Dartmouth College, being an assistant US Attorney was a great privilege and a great trial. I was the only black attorney in the Civil Division, the division of 50 attorneys in New York City--and I thought that was a scandal.
Rosenberg: Were you surprised?
Wiley: I was. You're wondering what's going on with the culture of this office. If this is the case, in a city like New York City, in the 1990s. And the other challenge was addressing the perception about whether I was ready for some of the litigation, I felt I was ready for including civil rights litigation. I made the mistake of thinking I was by myself. And I had a very important lesson one day of having had a very hard time and a very tough meeting advocating for myself for civil rights cases. I was getting title seven defense cases.
Rosenberg: Explain what that is.
Wiley: Title Seven is the federal civil rights law that prohibits employment discrimination. The Civil Division of the US Attorney's office does both affirmative litigation and defensive litigation. And what that means is the office functioned as the lawyers for agencies being sued, that means defending them. And affirmative cases when the federal government uses its sword instead of its shield and says, we have to vindicate justice now. So, we had both sides of that work in the Southern District. So, I was arguing for the affirmative cases and sort of being told I wasn't ready two years in a federal clerkship and three years that included the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. So, I was having a very hard day, let's put it that way. And I haven't come out of a family I came out of in, also having my personality, I don't suffer in silence, but I was I was suffering out loud in my office. And I was certainly friendly with a lot of attorneys. I don't I don't want to suggest I wasn't but I would have never thought I could draw them in my white colleagues into a conversation about about how I was feeling treated in the office as a black attorney, I talked to the paralegals who are all black about how I feel. And we all shared how we felt treated. But now with the white attorneys and what I learned that day, and I thought I was getting ready to either quit or be fired, right? I mean, I was not being quiet. And I was preparing myself for that. And my colleague to the office on one side, comes in my office and shuts my door and says, “What's going on?” And I was so angry that I just blurted it all out, because I didn't care anymore, right? I was gonna, I was gonna be fired, I was going to quit. And then knock, knock knock, the colleague of mine on the other side of my office, walks in and sits down says “what's going on?” And, you know, we kind of start over again and then a third knock on my door and the colleague two doors down, knocks on my door and comes in and closes it now is standing because I have no more chairs in my office. So now I have three colleagues all standing there. And one of them says, “I'm asking you to second seat my trial.” And the other one said, “yeah. And I'm going to ask you to second seat my trial.” And then the third one says, “I don't have a trial coming up. But I'm going to go and say…” and you know, like all these great things about you to the supervisor, it had never occurred to me that I had been suffering in silence for a year, when I had these colleagues, that were going to totally get my back and not just do it out of some feeling of, you know, obligation--I mean, just outraged. They couldn't believe what they were hearing. They thought it was deeply unfair. They thought I was a better lawyer than that. And it changed everything for me in the office. I mean, it didn't change that didn't like all the cases and that some of the cases did not feed me, but, but it absolutely changed because, they, my peers, drove the perception. It shifted my experience with the supervisors and it shifted my experience in the office dramatically, and I'm still friends with them to this day. And it helped me appreciate that sometimes the mistake is to believe that you do have to suffer in silence when you don't, and that there are people who won't get your back when they will. And I found that an incredibly important life lesson, but I also learned how to be a heck of a good trial lawyer by working in that office.
Rosenberg: When you left the US Attorney's office after your three-year commitment, you went back into civil rights work on behalf of communities, particularly low income communities of color, looking for ways to create inclusion and opportunity, extraordinarily interesting work, extraordinarily important work. I know that you founded the Center for Social Inclusion, and that you also work for the Open Society Institute. I don't want to give that short shrift, but I did want to ask you about going back into government work in 2014, for the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, can you talk a little bit about that?
Wiley: I was so fortunate, and it was such a privilege and unexpected privilege. Yeah, I had gone from the US Attorney's office, I was deeply burnt out. Because, you know, Assistant United States Attorneys carry huge caseloads, and so I was exhausted, and trying to figure out what to do next. I was fortunate enough that I had friends in the private sector. I ended up being there for three years. But what it gave me was a vantage point into what was going on at the intersection of race and poverty and the policy were met. I had more connections inside the political world. And I had come to the attention of this newly elected mayor, Bill de blasio, who, you know, we knew some people in common but I didn't know personally and he asked me to come in and speak to him about working for him, an unspecified you know, just working for the administration. And I went in not thinking that I could think of a role that would make sense for me and city government, but deeply believing that city government had the power to really reshape cities in extremely important and productive ways. And that would be mirrors to the nation for what should happen at a national level and that New York City was suddenly poised to do this right with a progressive mayor, big Ideas, total new agenda and energy around ending income inequality around ending stop and frisk practices by police, universal pre-kindergarten. It was just too exciting to say no. And he was offering me a job that was going to enable me to use all the parts of myself because he wanted me to be his counsel. And what he said to me, which was so--it was such an honor to, to have him reflect this back to me, he said, “I don't want you to be a general counsel, I want you to be the person who helps keep the administration on mission.” So, it was an incredible opportunity to work with an amazing group of people at trying to solve some really big problems.
Rosenberg: One of the guests on my podcast in season two is Tony Williams, the former mayor of Washington, DC, my friend and classmate from graduate school. He's been a dear friend for almost 35 years now. But what you learn from listening to Tony, and others, Maya, who have been in big city government, is how complicated a city is: schools and transportation and sewers and jails and housing and policing, which is something I want to talk to you about, but they're remarkably complex organisms.
Wiley: They are remarkably complex organisms. And you, you may know it intellectually before you go into government, and then you quickly realize you don't really know it until you're in it.
Rosenberg: New York perhaps more complex than any other city in the world.
Wiley: 350,000 employees of the New York City Government, I mean, the size of most cities is just the government, not to mention the 8.6 million people. another indication of its complexity.
Rosenberg: The New York City Police Department is about three times larger than the FBI in terms of law enforcement officers FBI has 13,000 or so men and women are special agents of the FBI, who carry a badge. The New York City Police Department has about 36,000 men and women as uniformed officers. That's an extraordinary force.
Wiley: It's massive, and it's not even the full headcount of the department when you add the close-to 20,000 people who are not wearing uniforms who worked for the police department. It's a huge operation.
Rosenberg: In fact, after serving as Mayor de Blasio as counsel and chief legal advisor, you actually became the chairwoman of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is a New York City's independent oversight agency for the police department. You know a lot about big city policing. I was going to ask you to do a couple of things for us, Maya, to talk about the New York City Police Department, specifically, and then to talk about policing generally.
Wiley: When I was leaving the office, the mayor asked me if I would share the Civilian Complaint Review Board, to which I immediately said “yes,” but the Civilian Complaint Review Board receives complaints from anyone who has a complaint of officer misconduct, not corruption--that's handled by internal affairs, but any misconduct that could include excessive for sick, abusive behavior, sexual harassment. I, not only was responsible for the agency and its budget staff, but as a board, we sat on the investigations of those complaints meaning that after the investigators in the office finished investigating, they brought all the evidence to us, and we reviewed it and made a decision about whether we could substantiate that there had been a violation and send it over back to the police department with recommendations for discipline. We had a huge responsibility both to try to make sure residents brought cases if they thought there was abuse, but also a complicated relationship to the police department because we were independent oversight. But we didn't have the power to demand discipline, we could only recommend it. We had the power to try serious cases, but it was still always up to the commissioner whether or not the commissioner agreed with us and whether or not the commissioner would impose discipline. The board is appointed by the mayor, by city council members, and by the police commissioner. So, the police commissioner has three former police officers who sit on the board, which meant it was an incredibly powerful opportunity to understand better how the police department was functioning. It was a symbiotic relationship with a lot of tension in it and a lot of need to try to work cooperatively. I was the mayor's Council the first year of the administration when Eric Gardner was killed by Officer Pantaleo in a chokehold that violated police policy and training.
Rosenberg: That was July of 2014 on Staten Island.
Wiley: Correct. I was sitting in City Hall when that video first went viral and that's how I learned about it. One of the police officers, we always have police officers all around city hall for our own protection and for the mayor's protection one of the police officers sitting not far from me. He saw my face when I was watching the video. And he came over after played and we started talking. And he told me about an experience he had had. Now, he clearly was very upset that I was upset because he didn't want me to prejudge the officers in that case, because I was already at misconduct, I stayed at misconduct, but it was an important conversation, because he started sharing with me his experiences including one time
when someone had a knife and he was almost killed by this person with a knife. And in fact, to the point where he thought he had a gun, he had pulled the gun, he thought, out of his holster as the person was coming at him with a knife. And it turned out he only had his hand he actually didn't even have his gun in his hand and his mind didn't register that he wasn't holding his gun. So, he would have been killed had other officers not killed the person coming at him with a knife. Now, he was telling me the story, in part, to say how complex the immediate experience of a situation can be, and in part to say, this is a really dangerous job for us, and that informs how we do it. Now, from that day on, I had several really honest open conversations with police officers at City Hall. This is not knowing that I was ever going to end up on the civilian complaint review board or making a decision about the Eric Gardner case. And I had heard stories all over the map, including from police officers who were telling me just how bad the culture was inside the police department. One police officer told me about how he had been punished, lost vacation days for playing basketball with kids on his beat, doing exactly the kind of thing we would hope police officers would do humanize themselves to the community get to know members of the community. And the other thing I already knew was that there is an informal saying in the New York City Police Department, it is better to be tried by 12 than carried by six. Meaning you'd rather go before a jury, having been accused of excessive force, then be dead and being carried in a casket. That was a mentality that was, and still is a phrase that is used informally inside the New York City Police Department. So, I had a better understanding, though of the psychology you know, of the feeling of I'm in danger all the time and for some police officers, because I'm not suggesting all police officers use excessive force or believe in excessive force because I talked to officers who didn't, I talked to officers told me how bad it could be sometimes, when you dissented from bad behavior. I say that because there is still and continues to be a culture of fear that drives a rational that defends things that you and I would look at and say, “absolutely not. No, you will not. And yes, you will lose your job for that.” And it doesn't play out that way necessarily inside the department. But I also was fortunate because of all those conversations, I was viewed as fair. I was viewed as someone who would be fair. And that was a huge advantage for me. Because when it came down to some of these hard decisions, and some of these debates with the police department about some of the cases, I felt I could be fair, and we certainly did in a number of instances where my heart wanted to say, let's recommend discipline, say it's not illegal. We can't send it over for discipline, it's not illegal, or we don't have enough evidence, even if we believe that it was misconduct, we don't have sufficient evidence to find it. And that was part of the complexity.
Rosenberg: I worry about a bunch of things. But one of the things I worry about whether it's Eric Garner, which was six years ago, or more recent incidents in Georgia and Minnesota and Kentucky, is that--there is a very dangerous disconnect between police and community. I think many cops, most cops, the overwhelming majority of cops, are the type who would play basketball with a kid and try and build those bridges, but there are undoubtedly unquestionably bad cops who use bad judgment and excessive force. And I worry that we only learn of it when somebody happens to have a video. And when we see the video, the reaction is understandable, it's disgust and dismay. Some of what I've seen recently is absolutely reprehensible. How do we address that divide between police and the community that they are sworn to protect?
Wiley: That's the question that we all should be asking. And I do have some answers from my vantage point. There are two different kinds of officers, I'm oversimplifying, but who get into misconduct trouble. One, are officers who are just scared. They're going into communities that are totally foreign to them. I walk into some of these communities, I grew up in some of the committees that were like some of these communities, so they don't seem foreign to me, they don't seem scary to me. I know there's some bad stuff that happens, but I know how to differentiate or I feel more confident about differentiating, I feel more confident about the fact that most of the people in the community are not the people that might do harm. One of the biggest problems that we have is that there's not always a well-organized process for inculcating police officers into the community. And that has started to shift in the de Blasio administration. They recreated some community policing police officers specifically trained to be community policing police officers. That's very helpful because that's essentially their role in their job and they're more experienced police officers. But the cadet comes into a precinct and he's either enculturated into a precinct that may have a lot of bad views and practices in the community. And so, there's been some interesting little experiments with, in fact, in the Bronx in here in New York, which is one of the highest poverty rates in the country, high crime rates, lots of public housing, and where we, at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, received a huge amount of our complaints about police abuse, but it was partnering with churches and local leaders to create a people's Academy for police officers. And part of that was to understand the history of the community, why it looks the way it looks, understand what the conditions are and what they produce. Also then, more proactive policing around where the problem spots are in a community because it's not all over the community. You know, that's the myth. It's--there are specific spots and specific people who can be better identified, so that the policing is happening in the right ways and the right parts of the community, and with a better relationship than the other parts. So that's actually thinking very differently about onboarding new cadets, but also about the relationship between the precinct and the community and then evaluating performance based on that, you know, police officers are not evaluated by whether and how they have relationship with the community. That's not how they're evaluated. Why not? You and I would be evaluated by that in any of our jobs if we had clients who were having bad experiences with us as attorneys. That would be an evaluation metric for us. It would be for most of us in most jobs, why not in policing? The other is not just training police differently, which is starting to happen in a number of precincts. Part of the evaluation is to provide carrots, not just not getting in trouble, but being rewarded for being that kind of police officer. But then there has to be real discipline for the officers who don't, who won't. And the one thing that is not sufficiently acknowledged, honestly, is that there are police officers in police precincts around this country who are overtly and publicly racist. I mean, their views are overtly and out loud racist. Are they the majority? No. But you know what, how many Klansmen do you need in an institution for it to be a problem if they have power?
Rosenberg: I was about to say, Maya may be a minority of the department, but it certainly can set the tone for a city or a community. It doesn't take a lot of bad cops to make for a very, very bad environment.
Wiley: Including for the good cops.
Rosenberg: Particularly for the good cops, because the good cops are working in that very same community, the community might not, nor should it be required to distinguish between good cops and bad cops, they just see cops. And to your point, and this only makes it I think, much harder for police departments to recruit, training, evaluating and onboarding are all incredibly important, but so is recruiting. And if we don't trust the cops, and sometimes with good reason, we don't trust the cops. Doesn't recruiting become that much more difficult?
Wiley: Yes. And you know, in New York City, there used to be a program where kids who lived in public housing, would get scholarship support to college as a recruitment tool to get kids who actually grew up in public housing into the police force. Now, that, we don't do anymore, but we should be doing it all over the country, right as a recruitment tool. The other thing we have to do and this bigger thinking, the things I'm talking about are things that we could do immediately. But bigger thinking is we have to think differently about what policing is. You know, one of the things that demonstrators were calling for, not just after George Floyd's murder, every time we have someone die in a police-involved shooting or strangling or other incident, people ask for the same thing and we have never answered the call. It's to rethink what police are. Police were created out of slavery, to police and keep slaves on plantations. And police in the 1800s in New York City, quite literally beat people up as a policing tool before arresting them was formalized. And that history has shaped, even as the rules have shifted, the notion that policing is to mete out punishment when we're in a society that has seen radical drops in crime rates, radical drops in crime rates. But we haven't shifted how police are policing. And we haven't invested in the same thing that public school teachers say, which is, they're being asked to solve all of society's problems in schools. And police would say they're being asked to solve all of society's problems in the streets. And they're both right, actually. But one thing we can do is recognize what problem-solving policing would look like. What does it look like when police are part of a team that identifies that problems are happening, that they're happening in cycles, and that they're social services that could be strategically deployed? And who better to know where to deploy that than police officers who think of their role as identifying underlying problems and helping to direct resources to them? And then, thinking about what the appropriate role for policing around those problems and where is there an opportunity to back off and enable others to take over.
Rosenberg: To your earlier point, Maya, if officers aren't evaluated on that basis, and they aren't rewarded on that basis, why are they going to do that?
Wiley: Exactly. So, you have to change those things to what we learned in Brown v board. If we took this full circle, the reason that Brown v Board ushered in a culture shift in the United States wasn't because suddenly people weren't racist anymore, because the Supreme Court said segregated schools are unconstitutional. And it wasn't because people accepted the opinion after the Supreme Court handed down. In fact, the reaction was in some instances violent to the opinion and the vast majority of the American public thought it was a wrong opinion, that it was dead wrong and that school shouldn't be integrated, but it forced, through consent decrees, a set of rules and requirement of behavior. It was shifting the behavior that shifted the attitudes, which is why I say law is such a powerful tool for constructing society. And we don't do that in the police department because we have not set out very clear boundaries and not set out very clear rewards for what we really want. And that we can change.
Rosenberg: Perhaps, and one structural problem is that we have 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, from very big and sophisticated and reasonably well-resourced departments, to very small and underfunded departments. And so, it'd be one thing to talk about reforming a federal agency, it's quite another to talk about reforming law enforcement because it looks and behaves so differently in different places.
Wiley: Yes, to your point, we need a multi-level response. There has to be a federal response. And we saw this in the Obama administration when the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice used every tool at its disposal, from directing prosecutors about how to think about sentencing to reduce incarceration, which has an impact on state and local law enforcement. They do look to the federal practices as guides, but also to use their investigatory power to analyze police departments where there had been serious cases and make recommendations around systemic change that was necessary. And of course, now, we do have some discussion about what federal legislative proposals could be. Grants are powerful tools too, right, the federal government, the Department of Justice, gives out grants to law enforcement. New York City has a huge anti-terrorism grant out of the Department of Justice. That's a lot of influence. But you also need state laws to change, and so state legislators and governors have a role to play. And absolutely at the local level, since it's local government that directly controls their police departments, there has to be leadership and will for a vision of this kind of police department, or else the calls to not have police are going to continue from communities of color. There's a growing chant around defunding the police. And I think there are a lot of people who, if that scares them, they should take that as an incredible vote of lack of confidence in reform, and they should use it as a challenge to show that reform is possible.
Rosenberg: I understand the impetus for that. I don't think it's a wise direction for us to travel. But I'm sure that when you and I looked at the Floyd video out of Minneapolis, we both have the same visceral reaction: it's sickening, it's disgusting, it's absolutely reprehensible. It's hard to process and I grew up in law enforcement, at least professionally. And the agents and officers I know that I've spoken with are disgusted by what they see, but it keeps happening. And it becomes very difficult to explain to people, even though I believe it's true, that the overwhelming majority of cops are good, and would never condone that type of behavior. And it's particularly difficult to explain to people when there are other officers around Mr. Floyd, one other with a knee on him, two standing by. Mr. Floyd is obviously in distress and obviously in need of help, and nobody helped them.
Wiley: Nobody helped them. And I think your point is, we are creatures who are driven by experience. And there are, I think the statistic is 74%, at least in 2019 poll, 74% of Americans who say, police do a good job and don't lie. Well, if you are in the other 26% is probably because you've experienced it, you've experienced the misconduct and you've experienced lying, so you no longer see police that way. And if it happens to you over and over and over again, and if you never see it punished, if you rarely see it disciplined, and if only in the most egregious cases, which I think, you know, Mr. Floyd's murder is egregious, then even in those circumstances, you find yourself having to protest for prosecutors to bring charges, or at least that's the perception, right? Ahmaud Arbery, very similar, you had to protest to get charges brought against people committing violence against people who are black or Latino or Native American. If that is your experience, you become extremely cynical about reform. And you also become extremely cynical about whether there are police officers out there who aren't like that. It was Maya Angelou, who said “You know, I've learned that people may forget what I say, people may forget what I did, but people never forget how I made them feel.” And that is true. And I had both experiences. So, for me, I understand that that's real. But when police officers are not protected by their superiors, when they come out and tell the truth about misconduct of other officers, that creates a culture of silence that makes them accessories. And unfortunately, that's what's rewarded in a context of a job where you need people to get your back. And that is one of the things we have to change.
Rosenberg: If on one side, you have cynicism among members of the community, and particularly communities of color, and on the other side, you have cops who are incentivized to remain silent, including good cops, then it seems like you have a gulf that's going to be very difficult to bridge.
Wiley: All of our struggles in this country: they've been marathons, they haven't been sprints. There's simply no institution that we've changed quickly. Heck, we're still trying to make public schools work, right? We're still trying to desegregate public schools. We're still trying to make sure everybody can see a doctor when they're sick. We're now facing whether or how people can afford to stay in their neighborhoods where they live because housing is becoming so expensive all over the country. We have major issues, and in communities of color, all those things come to play in even more dire ways, but one of the things we're seeing is that the mobilization of public will happens and it matters. The education of public happens and it matters. There are police officers who came forward and took a knee and kneeled down when communities asked them if they would take knee, which was really a symbol of I recognize that something has to change. It was a powerful symbolic moment, is symbolism enough? No. And one of the things we've started to see, and we need to see more, and I hope to push for more, is for leaders to say what it is that they will demand of the police department as an institution, in the way of immediate change, because several of the things you and I have talked about are things that either can be grown, that exist and can be grown and taken to a greater scale, they are things that can be done with will by strong leaders who are principled, and who understand their power as leaders to make some of these changes happen. And when people feel change, they will have more hope that change is possible.
Rosenberg: Maya, you were blessed with many wonderful mentors throughout your life to incredible parents, but an additional mentor we haven't mentioned but should is a woman named Elaine Jones, who had graduated from Howard University, served in the Peace Corps, became the first African American woman to enroll in the University of Virginia School of Law and to graduate from it, and who was the director of counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She gave you some great advice. In fact, she gave you lots of great advice. And before we go, I was hoping that you would share some of the things that you learned from her.
Wiley: Oh, I wish we had more time. Elaine deserves her whole own segment. Elaine Jones was, in my professional career as a lawyer, the first woman who was my mentor and boss, and she made me, in many ways, many of the things that I became, she is an incredible strategic mind, she's an incredible coalition builder, she's an incredible lawyer. But the thing about Elaine that really stays with me every single day, is that she always understands her obligation to the greater good and always understands the importance and privilege of that. And the thing she used to say to us all the time, and to everybody who would listen is “to those who have been given much, much as expected,” meaning we're the lucky ones, so we have to go out there and perform, no matter how hard, no matter what it takes, because we are the ones to whom much has been given. And so, we are the ones who owe. And that is a very, very different vantage point from people who feel entitled because of their privilege. Her point was, you're not entitled because you're privileged, you owe people for your privilege, so you got to pay that back. You know, I think we were all at the legal defense fund because we agreed. But you know, it's really important for someone to remind you and to demonstrate it. And she demonstrated it as a leader every single day.
Rosenberg: Maya, you spent a professional lifetime paying it back. mobilization of public well happens, as you say, and it matters but it doesn't happen on its own. It happens because of people like you, you’ve dedicated your life to this. You have a remarkable story, Maya Wiley, thank you for that. And thank you for spending some time with us on The Oath--it was a real pleasure and privilege to get a chance to talk to you.
Wiley: Well, Chuck, you know, the privilege really is mine. You are one of the most, both intelligent and accomplished, but humble and giving people I've ever met. And I thank you for that. I think that mobilization happens, not because of me, but because there's so many of us, including you, who are principled and who care, and including the people who experienced the injustice every day, who get up and get out and say “no more” and who want it done peacefully, and who care about it being done right and done well. And I think this moment, as hard as this--as hard as this year has been as hard as the past several years have been, I have also seen the mounting demand for democracy being exercised in a democratic way and that gives me great hope.
Thanks to Maya Wiley for being my guest on The Oath. Following in the footsteps of her remarkable parents, leaders in the civil rights movement, Maya has dedicated her professional life to the pursuit of racial justice and civil rights. Her work, at the intersection of law, education, and policy, has given her a unique and important perspective on issues of fairness and equality and racial and justices that continue to plague our nation. Her work for the city of New York, first as legal counsel to the mayor, and later as the head of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent oversight agency of the New York City Police Department, makes her an important and compelling voice on issues of policing and community relations. If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a five-star rating on whatever app you use to listen and ask your friends to subscribe. We are available on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Tune In and every major listening app as well as at msnbc.com/theoath. If you're listening on a smartphone, tap or swipe over the cover art of this podcast, you'll find the episode Notes, including some details you might have missed. If you have any thoughtful criticism, feedback, or questions about this episode or others, please email us at the oath firstname.lastname@example.org that's all one word: email@example.com. And though I cannot personally respond to every email, please know that I read each one and that I appreciate it. The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by FannieCo. With Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon, and Rob Hebert. They are a wonderful team and I am fortunate to work with them. Olivia Cruiser provided excellent production support, as always, our associate producer is Allison Bailey. And Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.