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Transcript: The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, August 13, 2020

Guests: Mark Dimondstein, Isabel Wilkerson


Donald Trump is opposing congressional Democrats' request for more funding for the post office because that funding will help deliver a more accurate vote for president. According to "The Washington Post" ongoing official count of Trump lies, as of a month ago when "The Washington Post" released their last official total of Trump lies during his presidency, Donald Trump has told over 20,000 lies; and today in the White House press briefing room, Donald Trump was finally, finally asked how he feels about those lies. Donald Trump has now embarked on a presidential campaign in which he is promising to defund social security. He is now the damn politician that FDR anticipated. The book, "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent " is a grim history beginning with the introduction of slavery in the American colonies before there was a United States of America.



Your coverage of the Michael Cohen book, which I guess comes out in September at this point in the schedule, reminds us of one of the very big reasons Donald Trump is running for reelection, is that it's the way to stay out of federal court as individual 1, where he may very well end up being a charged defendant in the first week of the Biden presidency, in that Michael Cohen case.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: I mean, that case alone, we've spent all of this time covering all of these other investigations by the president, including like live stuff right now where we don't know the status of the investigation, like this Turnberry British Open. You know, pick a week, there's a new scandal for the president with real consequences. But even if you focus on that one alone, he is individual 1. And the statute of limitations is okay on that one. And the prosecutors have already laid it out in open court, his role in the crime. So yes, that kind of feels like -- some days that kind of feels like that's the story.

O'DONNELL: Yes, it really is. And Michael Cohen is going to be reminding us of that big time in September, I guess.

MADDOW: Yes, I would guess. Yes, sir. Thanks, Lawrence.

O'DONNELL: Thank you, Rachel.

Well, imagine the fortunes that are going to be made on a coronavirus vaccine. Those pharmaceutical fortunes are huge. Now, consider the fortune of the person who in effect invented vaccination, introduced vaccination to America in 1721. That has to be the biggest fortune in the history of medicine, right?

The pharmaceutical industry has produced many gigantic fortunes in this country, notably the fortune created by Robert Wood Johnson and his brothers in 1885 when they started the Johnson & Johnson company which has produced many products that have saved lives and led to the creation of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which has done many good deeds.

And that fortune has provided for generation upon generation of some members of the class that used to be known as the idle rich. Robert Wood Johnson IV is now Donald Trump's ambassador to the United Kingdom where he stands accused of having improperly and perhaps illegally used his office to try to enrich Donald Trump personally, financially, by urging that a golf tournament be brought to a Trump property in Scotland.

There have been inheritors of the Johnson & Johnson fortune who worked hard and there are inheritors of that fortune who have never worked a day in their lives, and those super rich people who never worked are never looked upon with a disdain that Republican politicians have for unemployed people in America today. Republican members of Congress and the president of the United States say that $600 a week will spoil those people who have lost their jobs because of a pandemic, but $6 million a week has never spoiled anyone if -- if it is inherited.

And what you see in that kind of thinking is the poison of the American caste system at work. The person who introduced immunizations in America was born into a caste that was not allowed to profit from his wisdom, from his genius, or even from his labor. He was a slave, owned by a minister in Boston. A slave who saved lives in Boston during the smallpox epidemic of 1721 when he described a procedure that he had undergone in Africa before his life was stolen from him on a slave ship.

Pulitzer prize winner Isabel Wilkerson tells this story in her new book, "Caste: The Origins of our Discontents." Quote: People in West Africa have discovered they could fend off contagions by inoculating themselves with a specimen of fluid from an infected person. That is the knowledge that that slave brought to Boston in 1721 where he saved dozens of lives because of one doctor who decided to try to that method that the slave described.

Thirty years later, vaccinations based on that method introduced by a slave became the standard practice in Massachusetts and eventually the rest of the country. There is no charitable foundation named for that slave. His descendants were not born into lives where work was optional. The life-saving gift he gave us did not even earn him his freedom.

Isabel Wilkerson will join our discussion at the end of this hour to explain how the caste system operates to this day in all of our lives.

Like Martin Luther King Jr. before her, Isabel Wilkerson has traveled the world to study the caste system and has returned to show us more clearly than ever before how caste is permanently embedded in the foundation and unseen structural beams of this old house called America. And she tells the story in prose that is so beautiful, the only reason to pause your reading is to catch your breath.

Donald Trump is a beneficiary of the caste system who is trying to hold onto what people like him have always tried to hold on to. He's trying to hold on to power. The power Donald Trump currently has was given to him by a minority of voters who managed to give a majority of the Electoral College and the presidency to Donald Trump. Donald Trump is reading the same polls you are and so he knows that his voters are incapable of doing that again.

So he somehow has to stop you from voting. And he knows that you are more likely to vote by mail than his voters. And that's why he's trying to block your right to vote by mail.

This week, a Monmouth poll found that 72 percent of Democrats are very or somewhat likely to vote by mail compared to only 22 percent of Republicans. If those numbers were reversed, Donald Trump would, of course, be fighting for voting by mail. Donald Trump would be increasing funding for the post office to increase those Trump votes by mail and make sure that they all got delivered on time.

But instead, Donald Trump is opposing congressional Democrats' request for more funding for the post office because that funding will help deliver a more accurate vote for president. And Donald Trump said that very clearly today.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They want 3.5 trillion -- billion votes for mail-in ballots, OK, universal mail-in ballots. They want $25 billion, billion, for the post office. Now, they need that money in order to have the post office work so they can take all these millions and millions of ballots.

Now, in the meantime, they aren't getting there. By the way, those are just two items. But if they don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail-in voting because they're not equipped to have it.


O'DONNELL: After Donald Trump said that this morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, appearing on "MORNING JOE," said this.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): The postal service, an all-American institution. I heard you earlier talk about what it means in terms of connecting family. We're talking here about how it delivers medicine. And again, at the time of a pandemic, how necessary it is for us to have the mail so that the people don't have to choose between their health and their vote. They can vote absentee.

And by the way, the president's family was all out in California urging absentee ballot during the special election in the spring. So this is nonetheless yet again another, shall we say, contradiction.


O'DONNELL: And Joe Biden said this.


REPORTER: President Trump today said that he doesn't want increased funding for the postal service, tying it to mail-in voting. What do you think about that?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, guys, let's go. Let's go, come.

BIDEN: He doesn't want an election.


O'DONNELL: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 174 House Democrats are now demanding that Trump's postmaster general reverse operational changes he has ordered that would hamper mail-in voting for the presidential election. The Democrats write, the House is seriously concerned that you are implementing policies that accelerate the crisis at the Postal Service. If implemented now, as the election approaches, this policy will cause further delays to election mail that will disenfranchise voters.

Leading off our discussion tonight is Mark Dimondstein. He's the president of the American Postal Workers Union.

Thank you very much for joining us tonight.

What is your reaction to what you're seeing the president saying about the postal service and the funding needs that the service currently faces?


My immediate reaction to today's news is that it's truly shameful. And I think that people across the political spectrum who are fair-minded, would agree. But at least, the cat's out of the bag.

The president of the United States himself connected the dots, and basically said that he's willing to hold this national treasure that belongs to all of us, the United States Postal Service, older than the country itself, serving the people in so many ways. And here we are, in an epidemic, courageously out there, as front line essential workers, connecting the country in these challenging and dangerous times, that he's willing to hold the post office hostage, that needs COVID appropriated relief due to this economic crisis. That he's willing to hold back on that in order to either keep people from voting, because the people aren't going to have access to the ballot box this election, tens of millions of more people are going to have to vote by mail, or at least to raise this idea that somehow vote by mail is not going to work and your ballot is not going to get there on time and therefore don't bother voting at all.

So I think it's very dangerous. It's very disturbing to postal workers who are very dedicated to the people of the country, to provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services. That's what the law says, that's what we're dedicated to.

We call it our DNA. Never delay mail. We're not beholden to any individual candidate or political party. We're beholden to the rights of the American people to bind the country together. And what better way to do it than provide access to the ballot box.

O'DONNELL: The situation in Pennsylvania is critical. The postal service has notified the governor of Pennsylvania that the postal service cannot guarantee that they can deliver the ballots within the election rules of Pennsylvania. And so, Pennsylvania is now trying to establish a rule that will allow the ballots to be counted if they arrive three days after the Election Day.

Can someone, do you believe someone will be able to mail a ballot, get it postmarked in Pennsylvania on election day, and then have that ballot arrive within three days?

DIMONDSTEIN: Well, under normal conditions I think that's certainly doable. But this new postmaster general has put in some policies that are doing nothing but slowing down the mail. And our union and the people that we represent in the postal service are adamant that these are wrong policies, they need to be fixed, they need to be reversed. We've said that loud and clear to the new postmaster general privately and publicly.

But vote by mail in general is nothing new for postal workers. We've been doing it for generations.

We've got military personnel and their families have been voting by mail back to the civil war. It's tried and true. It's more and more popular. One in four voters in 2016 voted by mail, and virtually, despite the claims of this White House, and those who don't want people to vote, it virtually is free of fraud.

So it's not new. The post office can certainly handle the workload. But they have to have policies that are in place. And Congress needs to help. And I would like to get into that if we have time.

O'DONNELL: Well, for the moment let's just go with the assumption that there will be absolutely no help. The Senate has left town. This Congress is deadlocked. If there is no help, if this is the situation as we face the election, what would you advise voters to do? Can you guarantee that their ballots will be delivered if they mail them as early as they possibly can?

DIMONDSTEIN: As much as the postal system is tried and true, I can speak for postal workers who give ballots priority treatment, who move heaven and earth to make sure those ballots get to the jurisdiction that are counting the votes. If nothing changes, and don't forget the post office doesn't run elections, the states and the local jurisdictions do, then they're going to have to mail ballots maybe a few days more in advance and the voters are going to have to vote quickly.

Also, there are many states that with mail voting you get the ballot in the mail and fill it out at home but if you are short of time, there are drop off points. It avoids the lines. It avoids the COVID problems and the safety of voting.

But it can be actually dropped off in person even though the ballot comes in the mail and the person has voted at home. And that may be one alternative if people feel there is not enough time to get the ballot back through the mail.

But the best thing would be the post office to make sure that it's running smoothly and that there is the support from Congress to make sure the funding is there to make up for the COVID economic crisis that's affecting us all, but deeply affecting the United States postal service.

O'DONNELL: Mark Dimondstein, thank you very much for starting us off tonight. And we're going to need you to come back and help guide us through this story because this will be the story of the election every night, between now and election night. Thank you very much for joining us.

DIMONDSTEIN: Anytime. We're very proud as postal workers to make sure that the people have their right to vote and to vote safely.

O'DONNELL: Thank you. Appreciate it.

And when we come back, today at the Trump campaign event at the White House, because those are all campaign events, Donald Trump was asked the question that no other president has ever been asked ever and we have all been waiting for this question for years. That's next.


O'DONNELL: According to "The Washington Post" ongoing official count of Trump lies, as of a month ago when "The Washington Post" released their last official total of Trump lies during his presidency, Donald Trump has told over 20,000 lies.

And today in the White House press briefing room, Donald Trump was finally, finally asked how he feels about those lies.


TRUMP: Please?

REPORTER: Mr. President, for three and a half years, do you regret at all, all the lying you have done to the American people.

TRUMP: All the what?

REPORTER: All the lying, all the dishonesties.

TRUMP: That who has done?

REPORTER: You have done.

TRUMP: Yes, go ahead, please. Please.


O'DONNELL: That was S.V. Date of "The Huffington Post" who later tweeted for five years I have been waiting to ask him that. Unfortunately the next reporter to ask Donald Trump a question did Donald Trump a favor of completely changing the subject to the payroll tax.

But what you saw there was Donald Trump's complete and utter inability to respond in any way to the accusation that he has been lying from that podium for three and a half years. Donald Trump did not even deny that he has been lying for three and a half years.

As high speed a liar as he is, Donald Trump could not come up with a lie to justify his over 20,000 lies. S.V. Date cornered Donald Trump with that question and left Donald Trump as you just saw, utterly speechless.

And because we've all been waiting years for that question to be asked, it's worth watching Donald Trump's brain freeze one more time in the face of that question.


TRUMP: Please?

REPORTER: Mr. President, for three and a half years, do you regret at all, all the lying you have done to the American people.

TRUMP: All the what?

REPORTER: All the lying, all the dishonesties.

TRUMP: That who has done?

REPORTER: You have done.

TRUMP: Yes, go ahead, please. Please.


O'DONNELL: Joining our discussion now, Maria Teresa Kumar, the president and CEO of Voto Latino. She's an MSNBC contributor.

And Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. is with us. He's the chair of the African American studies department at Princeton University and the author of the brilliant new book, "Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own".

And, Professor Glaude, Isabel Wilkerson and I are going to be discussing a couple lines from James Baldwin later in the hour, so stick with us and watch that.

Maria Teresa, there is Donald Trump finally, finally asked about his great contribution to American politics, which is a level of lying unseen before at any point in our history. And he's frozen. He doesn't have a defense for it. He's utterly speechless. Absolutely nothing he could say.

MARIA TERESA KUMAR, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the reason that was remarkable is that one of our mythologies in American politics is the fact that George Washington always told the truth, and that is something that has been a steadfast piece of America, the idea of whoever you are, whether you are rich, poor, have nothing from a background, that what we expect in our integrity and our ability to stand as our own people is to speak the truth.

And Donald Trump not only fumbled, but he is the juxtaposition of what we deeply believe is honorable in our country. And that is why this was so difficult for him. And I think that he -- that that reporter what he did was expose a fundamental juxtaposition of what we believe as Americans as honorable and as religious as Donald Trump likes to pretend that he is and wiped it away.

So the only follow-up question that I would have liked to have heard from him today was, are you sending your children and your grandchildren to school in the fall? Because that would, again, expose this inability of Donald Trump not only to speak the truth but his fundamental hypocrisy with the American people.

O'DONNELL: Professor Glaude, one of the things I noticed was he didn't even call it a nasty question. When you think of the questions Yamiche Alcindor and others have asked in that room for which they get slammed by Donald Trump as asking a nasty questions, he was so flattened by it, it's like he couldn't believe what he had just heard.

EDDIE GLAUDE, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Right. The image that came to my mind, Lawrence, is someone getting popped in the mouth and just, you know, touching your lip trying to figure out what's going on.

O'DONNELL: Uh-huh, yes, yes.

GLAUDE: This was an amazing moment, the fact that we had been trying to treat Donald Trump's presidency as if it's normal, trying to normalize what can't be normalized. And so, the fact that someone from the press actually asked the question and then followed up with clarification when he was asked what exactly did he say, this is precisely what the fourth estate should be doing as a critical component of our democracy because Donald Trump's lying has not only diminished the White House, it has diminished, we see it in the data, Lawrence, the broad trust that the every day people have in the government.

We're seeing that decline precipitously, precisely because he lies through his teeth every single day.

So, hear, hear to the reporter from the "Huffington Post."

O'DONNELL: Part of the briefing we won't bother to show is Donald Trump making fun of what Joe Biden said about wearing masks today and lying actually about the way Joe Biden said it. Let's listen to what Joe Biden actually said about wearing masks.


BIDEN: Every single American should be wearing a mask when they're outside for the next three months at the minimum. Every governor should mandate, every governor should mandate mandatory mask wearing, and it's not about your rights. It's about your responsibilities as an American.


O'DONNELL: And since he has a teammate now, let's take a look at what Kamala Harris said about that.


SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESUMPTIVE VICE-PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: That's what real leadership looks like. We just witnessed real leadership, which is Joe Biden said that as a nation, we should all be wearing a mask for the next three months because it will save lives.


O'DONNELL: And, Maria Teresa, the Fox News poll just out today, 74 percent in the Fox poll favor wearing masks. Donald Trump is representing the 21 percent who oppose wearing masks. And that is the Fox poll that's up on the screen right now showing what the race looks like where Joe Biden is still holding on to that lead. That poll was begun before Kamala Harris was selected as the running made but included some of the time when she was already announced at the running mate.

But, Maria Teresa, on that mask issue, Donald Trump is with 20 percent of the public.

KUMAR: If we were to follow science and the recommendations of the CDC, we know that if 95 percent of Americans wore masks, we could save up to 50,000 lives, 50,000 moms, dads, grandparents and kids. That is where we should be leading with. We should be leading with science.

And I think that with the selection of Kamala Harris, we have a unique opportunity to expose the fundamental hypocrisy of this administration, the hypocrisy of Pence when he stands next to a man who at the end of the day Americans have to ask will he keep your family safe? Is he acting in the best interest of your children and of your family?

O'DONNELL: Maria Teresa Kumar and Professor Eddie Glaude, thank you both for joining our discussion tonight. We really appreciate it.

And when we come back from this break, Steve Schmidt will join us. We'll get Steve Schmidt's view of Donald Trump's attack on the Post Office.


O'DONNELL: You will be hearing this quote from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt next week at the Democratic convention. After creating social security and funding it with a dedicated tax withheld from our paychecks which has come to be known as the payroll tax, President Franklin Roosevelt said, "We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program."

And now comes Donald Trump saying this.


TRUMP: At the end of the year, the assumption that I win, I'm going to terminate the payroll tax.


O'DONNELL: Donald Trump has now embarked on a presidential campaign in which he is promising to defund social security. He is now the damn politician that FDR anticipated. But in order to defund social security, Donald Trump is trying to defund the post office's ability to process what is sure to be an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots this year.


TRUMP: There is nothing wrong with getting out and voting. You get out and vote. They voted during World War I and World War II.


O'DONNELL: Joining our discussion now Steve Schmidt, former Republican strategist and an MSNBC political analyst. Steve, could you explain to Donald Trump what the difference is between voting, going out to vote in 2020 and going out to vote in 1944 during World War II?

STEVE SCHMIDT, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, going out to vote in 1944 Lawrence, wouldn't necessarily cost you your life like it could in the COVID epidemic, the pandemic that Donald Trump has so profoundly mismanaged. We're the epicenter of coronavirus death and suffering and all the world, 165,000 dead Americans.

That number will move north of 200,000 before much longer. We have a shattered economy. Donald Trump is falling apart. I think that you saw him up there behind the podium slurring his words today, lost, confused at times.

And I don't think that the President looks well, and he is being defeated politically. His Trump coalition is in retreat. His attacks are more outlandish by the day. And we have the spectacle in the United States of America that an American president who knows he's losing trying to disrupt the free and fair election for the President of the United States that has gone on uninterpreted in this country since 1789.

It's just a remarkable moment and a real threat to liberal democracy from this president. And we see also the huge suffering that will be caused by the delays in veterans getting their prescriptions delivered, people getting things that they need for their lives in the mail.

It's just an appalling moment to see Donald Trump launching the type of assault he's launching on the delivery of mail in this country for the purposes of trying to advantage himself in the election by making it harder and harder to count the votes of the majority of this country of people who want him out of there because they know he's wrecking the country.

O'DONNELL: Steve, the numbers in the Fox poll, about Democrats -- about you know, more than 70 percent of Democrats likely to vote by mail, down around a very low number in the 20s of Republicans. That seems like a new phenomenon to me. In your experience in presidential campaigning was there ever a very big difference between voting by mail by parties?

SCHMIDT: Well, Republicans are sustained by their vote by mail programs. And so Donald Trump has gone out there. You imagine yourself as one of these Republican senators in a tight race, Susan Collins for example, you know, Donald Trump is undermining your campaign and it's working in the same way that he politicized so recklessly the coronavirus pandemic. Whether it's masks, whether it's hydroxychloroquine. It's the same thing with regard to -- with regard to the mail.

It's self-defeating. It's injurious. He's getting advice that makes the problem worse. And the problem right now for Donald Trump politically is he's behind, he doesn't have enough votes, and the people he's most deterring from voting by mail are the people that will vote for him.

Now the fact of the matter is Donald Trump can slow the mail down. He can do a lot of things. But if the Democrats are organized, he can't stop people from voting. He lacks the power to stop people from voting.

The only person who can stop someone from voting is you. If you are committed to going to vote, get those ballots in the first day you can get them in. Your vote is going to count.

But Donald Trump is doing everything he can to play games with the integrity of the system, but the integrity of the system will hold so long as people participate in it. So long as people understand what the rules are.

Donald Trump is trying to sow confusion and chaos and the mail slowdown is one of the ways he's doing it. Unfortunately, we have a billion prescriptions in this country that are delivered primarily to our veterans and senior citizens by the mail. So we have millions of Americans who aren't getting their prescription medicine because of this nonsense. And some of them will probably die also and we can add them to the list of casualties because of Donald Trump's malice, incompetence and ineptitude.

O'DONNELL: Steve Schmidt, thank you very much for joining us once again tonight. Always appreciate it.

SCHMIDT: Thank you, Lawrence.

O'DONNELL: And when we come back after this break, Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson is joining us tonight to discuss here important new book entitled, "Caste". And I will ask her about how the selection of Kamala Harris as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States fits in the story of the caste system in America that she tells in her book.


O'DONNELL: The Nazis studied American segregation as a model for how they should try to purify German society and isolate Jews and others. I didn't know that until I read Isabel Wilkerson's brilliant new book, "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent".

Like her previous book "The Warmth of Other Suns", Isabel Wilkerson's new book is filled with important information delivered in such exquisitely crafted prose that you don't feel the passage of time with this book in our hands, just the constant surge of discovery from line to line.

It is a grim history beginning with the introduction of slavery in the American colonies before there was a United States of America. But like a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, this book leaves room for hope and leads to a final sentence full of hope. "A world without caste would set everyone free."

Yesterday, we saw perhaps a personification of that kind of hope.


HARRIS: My mother and father, they came from opposite sides of the world to arrive in America, one from India and the other from Jamaica, in search of a world class education.

But what brought them together was the civil rights movement of the 1960s.Aand that's how they met as students in the streets of Oakland marching and shouting for this thing called "justice" in a struggle that continues today.


O'DONNELL: And joining us once again is Isabel Wilkerson. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of the new book "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent".

Isabel is joining us by phone. Isabel, could you give us your reaction to what you were seeing yesterday? I couldn't help but think of you, having read the book, when I was watching Kamala Harris telling that story and telling that story of her family including, of course, her mother who came to this country from a country that had formalized the caste system.

ISABEL WILKERSON, AUTHOR (via telephone): Yes. It's a groundbreaking moment in U.S. history. I mean it has taken 244 years for us to actually have a woman of African descent, a woman of Indian descent, of South Asian, on a major party ticket for the President.

It is just an astonishing moment. It also is showing the long-standing barriers that have been crossed this week. I mean she carries within herself the identity of potential bridge building across the divides that are part of the hierarchy that I have spoken about in this book.

O'DONNELL: You -- one of the principles of the caste system as you've observed and identified it in the United States is that it invisible. You make the point that it is, as you say, just as the studs and joists and beams that form the infrastructure of a building are not visible to those who live in it.

WILKERSON: Yes. I describe our country as like an old, old house in which anyone who owns an old house knows that the work is never done. There is always something yet to do. And after a rain you don't want to go into the basement, but if you don't go into the basement it is at your own peril.

It is something that you have to deal with whether you wish to or not. And even though we did not build this house ourselves, there's no one alive who built this house, we still live with the manifestation of the challenges that may have been built into the original structure. And it is on all of us to manage and to address these things.

O'DONNELL: You were kind of literally following in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s footsteps on this tour of the world that you did, studying this in India and in Germany. And you tell the story of Martin Luther King in 1957 going to India. And he's with some high school students and the principal introduces him this way.

The way you write it is, "The principal made the introduction saying, young people, he said, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America. What was Dr. King's reaction to that?

WILKRSON: Well, it first landed a little oddly on his ear. I mean he was a bit peeved because he had been received there as a visiting dignitary, had dinner with the prime minister and here he was being equated with the untouchables -- the people who were lowest ranked in the hierarchy in Indian.

And then he thought about it. He recalled obviously the work that the he was doing to help to liberate the African-Americans, the black people of his country and he thought about the challenges that they were facing, the restrictions at every turn, not being able to vote and he realized to himself, yes, I am an untouchable. And every black person in America is an untouchable.

And so he recognized, he himself, Dr. King recognized the connection between the caste system in India and what he had experienced, that his people had experienced in the United States.

O'DONNELL: And talk about your research in Germany and what that taught you about the American caste system.

WILKERSON: Well, what brought me to the awareness of Germany was Charlottesville. I mean that's what propelled me to Germany in the first place.

You know, the contention over statues, the confederate and Nazi symbolism that's used among the ralliers there. It was a battle over memory -- memory of the civil war and the role and the reality of slavery -- all of those things came together -- together in that tableau that we all witnessed.

And so the goal was not initially to be looking at the Nazis but to how Germany had worked in the decades after World War II to reconcile its history. But then the deeper that I looked and searched, I discovered these connections that I would never, ever have imagined.

German eugenicists were in continuing dialogue with American eugenicists. There were books by American eugenicists that were big sellers in Germany in the years leading up to The Third Reich. And then, you know, of course the Nazis needed no one to teach them how to hate. They needed no one to teach them how to hate.

But what they did do was that the Nazis sent researchers to study America's Jim Crow laws and to see how Americans had subjugated and surrogated (ph) African-Americans. And the Nazis actually debated and consulted American law as they devised what would ultimately become The Nuremberg Laws. This is just wrenching, wrenching to discover.

O'DONNELL: I was also stunned that some of the Nazi scholars who would try to put this together thought that the Americans went too far with some of their ideas.

We have to squeeze in a break here, Isabel. Please stay with us.

When we come back, here going to hear more from Isabel Wilkerson, who is joining us by phone. Her new book is called "Caste".


O'DONNELL: James Baldwin once said no one was white before he/she came to America. Isabel Wilkerson quotes line in her book when she explains the origins of racial identification in this country.

Isabel Wilkerson is back with us, joining us by phone. Isabel, what did James Baldwin mean by that?

WILKERSON: What he meant was that the idea of race is, first of all, a social construct. It's a creation that came out of the experiences of starting a new country and having people from different parts of the world, primarily from Europe and from Africa brought in as enslaved people.

The impulse to rank, the impulse to create an artificial, arbitrary graded ranking of human value, and the metric for that was race which is a social construct. And there was no need for recognition or identification of white or black as long as you were around people who were just like you.

If you were in Hungary or in Poland or Ireland, there was no need to describe yourself as white, but only when coming to the United States to create this new -- this new country and as Europeans spread around the world, there became the need or the impulse to rank and to divide. And it could have been any number of physical manifestations or characteristics. But it turned out to be race as the measure of value in the hierarchy that was created here in this country. Race becomes essentially the tool, the signifier, the signal of one's place in the hierarchy.

O'DONNELL: There are so many excuses that were made for people back in the days of slavery. You describe Robert E. Lee torturing his slaves in this book. But also in 1849, Massachusetts' Charles Sumner is quoted in your book saying, "The separation of children in the public schools of Boston on account of color or race," he wrote, "is in the nature of caste. And on this account, is a violation of equality." He quoted a fellow humanitarian, saying, "Caste makes distinctions where God has made none."

What do you make of those various levels of moral evolution that existed in the same society?

WILKERSON: That is one of the big conundrums that we face as a society and as a country with our history, is that we proclaim ourselves and are very proud to present ourselves as a place of liberty and of democracy and of openness for all people.

And yet beneath all of this is this infrastructure that we have all inherited, that no one in life created, but that encases us and encloses us in ways that we may not always realize. You know, we're not dealing with the same classical open racism of our forefathers' era necessarily. But the idea of caste as a reminder of the hierarchies that have existed and that we have received and that have passed down to the generations with an idea that everyone seems to know.

If you think about a play, you think about the people who are the characters in a play and you think about the word "cast" used for a play. And in a play, everyone knows where they're supposed to be -- stage left, stage right, in the front, on the back.

And people even know their lines. They know the lines of maybe other people in the play. In fact, if they're really invested in it, they know the entire script. And that in some ways is what we have inherited, an infrastructure in which each of us has been, based upon where we were born into the hierarchy, this bipolar hierarchy of dominant versus subordinated that we all have absorbed, unconscious bias, however we have absorbed this, that we all have been told the places that we belong.

Caste is about policing of boundaries, setting boundaries and policing and enforcing them. And so in some ways, even the videos that we're seeing where people are African-Americans, for example, are being -- police called on them for routine things that they're doing in their day, sitting in a Starbucks waiting for a friend, barbecuing in Oakland for example, or just trying to get into one's condo building.

The idea of the automatic impulse to begin to police, to surveil, and to keep people in their place, keep people in a fixed place so everyone knows their place on the stage.

O'DONNELL: I knew this discussion was going to feel like the tip of the iceberg. All I can do is beg people listening to this discussion to get their hands on this book somehow. "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent" by Isabel Wilkerson.

Isabel, a friend of mine told me today he's reading it for the second time, and he's only owned it for two weeks.

Isabel Wilkerson gets tonight's LAST WORD once again.

Thank you Isabel. Really appreciate it.

WILKERSON: Thank you so much.

O'DONNELL: Thanks you.



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