Dorian Warren

Law, Order, and Justice

Air Date: January 24, 2018

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren discusses the politics of inequality today.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. Anti-Constitutionalist Roy Moore advocated in 2011 the removal of the amendments after the 10th Amendment, asserting it would eliminate many problems. And people don’t understand how some of these amendments have completely tried to wreck the form of government that our forefathers intended. Indeed some of our slave-owning forefathers, as the Alabama Republican candidate revealed in his plainly un-American, racist and downright backwards campaign for the US Senate, the campaign to delegitimize contemporary American morality is no longer veiled. Its design is to take a sledgehammer to universal suffrage, confiscate the rights of non-white male landowners. To explore this with us is Roosevelt Institute fellow, Dorian Warren, president of the Center for Community Change Action, which works to build the power and capacity of low-income people and to change their communities for the better. Warren is coauthor of the recently published Cambridge University Press volume “The Hidden Rules of Race: Barriers to an Inclusive Economy.” “For more than two-thirds of US history, the majority of the domestic adult population was ineligible for full citizenship because of race, country of origin, or gender,” Warren and his coauthors write. “While we’ve made progress in rolling back explicit pre-Civil War exclusions, the rules of the electoral system continue to be racialized.” And Dorian, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Thanks for being here.

WARREN: It’s great to be here with you. It’s an honor, Alexander.

HEFFNER: Thank you, sir.

WARREN: To be on the show.

HEFFNER: Let’s start there. They- they have been racialized ever since- the formally enslaved people were not granted full-fledged rights.

WARREN: One way to think about it, I think of three numbers. 25, 10, and 5. Those refer to decades. So the first 25 decades of this country, if you go to the founding of 1619 was a system of racial rules that legalized slavery and obviously we know this history. Black people were property and therefore not deserving of fundamental, constitutional rights. First 250 years or 25 decades. Then the next ten decades, so the next hundred years, we fought a Civil War. We had this short period- of time called Reconstruction where we tried to reconstruct our Democracy and make it more inclusive. But shortly after that arose Jim Crow laws, and so for the next hundred years, we had a system of racial apartheid, particularly in the deep South. Of again, African-Americans without citizenship rights, second-class citizenship. And it’s only been fifty years or the last five decades where we’ve actually tried to wipe away that legacy of the first 250 years plus a hundred years [LAUGHS]. So you got three-hundred-fifty years, right, of a range of racially exclusionary rules and then only fifty years of attempts to make the rules more inclusive. So here I’m referring to the 1964 Civil Rights Act or especially the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which arguably was the first time African-Americans were fully enfranchised to vote. So it’s a short amount of time in the long sweep of history in terms of the racial rules around voting. And then of course recently we’ve had some attempts to, I would argue, roll back those gains from the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Voter ID laws, the Supreme Court has chipped away at the heart of the Voting Rights Act in a famous 2013 case. So this is the long struggle of our Democracy. We’re always fighting around who’s included or who’s excluded. And it’s always a struggle to make sure that people are included in the Democracy.

HEFFNER: How do you constructively respond to Roy Moore? I don’t mean engage him in his rhetoric. But this idea that we should revert back to what you and I would argue is a more antiquated idea of American morality? How do you respond to that?

WARREN: I think you respond to it first by lifting it up. I’m actually- I’m quite happy that that’s he’s saying this publicly, right? That is his public argument for why he should be the senator from Alabama. And I think it’s important to lift up that thinking and speech so that we can present an alternative, and have a forward-looking vision. That kind of rhetoric takes us back fifty years and it’s- you know it’s…

HEFFNER: A hundred and fifty years.

WARREN: Well a hundred and fifty years too. But- Alabama is [LAUGHS] a state with a long history, you think of George Wallace and his role and opposing the Civil Rights movement and efforts at racial equity and racial justice. And Roy Moore, in some ways, comes out of that tradition and it’s important to lift up those I would argue, 19th or 18th century ideas again so we can say this is not what we want America to look like in the 21st century. We have an alternative vision and set of principles and values. And frankly, he cannot hold the mantel of moral values, there is another tradition around morality and values that a lot of us come from, that we think should be right of equal rights and dignity of all people that we are, we have separation of church and state in this country as the founders intended. And he, you know it’s not even that he wants to take us back to- 300 years. This is not even what the founders intended in terms of his imposition of certain- selective Christian values into, into our politics.

HEFFNER: The reality of the current American system though is that there is not a competing value system that necessarily can garner equal validity in the minds of Alabamans and the- in the minds of some Southerners in deeply concentrated, Republican states. How can you respond in these communities where there is a single thought process?

WARREN: I think there are alternatives actually in Alabama, so there’s a newly elected young African-American mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, who presented an alternative vision. He’s also as I understand it, comes from a faith tradition. But his interpretation of Christianity is radically different. He comes from the Dr. King tradition of Christianity that is about ethics and the least of these, and to providing a safety net for the least of these, for poor people in this country of advancing a system of values that adhere to what we would say is social justice and I think that the true teachings of Jesus that that haven’t been, I would argue deformed [LAUGHS] by Roy Moore. So there- there are local examples in the state of Alabama of an alternative not just morality, but an alternative politics.

HEFFNER: Well it’s basically like the liberator for 2017 now 2018.

WARREN: In terms of Alabama, I think and it’s, I think of Texas in the same way. So it is a contested state, and- and it is one of the- deeply conservative states and it has been, you know it was a strong part of the confederacy. It’s also deeply religious state, in terms of Evangelical Christians. But there is a moment of reckoning right now actually in 2017/2018, around the contradictions in the particular case of Roy Moore. Of his own so-called morality and the accusations in this case with him against him and, that go against Christian values. So on the one hand, there is a set of contradictions that I think especially Evangelicals are having to grapple with. At the other end there is an alternative set. There are progressive Christians in the state and around the country. I only think of or not only think but- it- re- reminds me of Reverend Barber from North Carolina and his work is actually related to this. He just a launched a poor people’s movement where he wants to resurrect the last thing Dr. King was working on when he was assassinated in 1968. And it’s wrapped around a broad set of morality and an alternative set of Christian values that Reverend Barber has- lifted up in the state of North Carolina that he’s taking national. Dignity, fairness, Democracy, justice, so they’re, within Christianity, I do think there is a, there is a- a tradition of, especially black liberation theology, that, from which Dr. King and many many others were part of that I think is being reborn in this moment.

HEFFNER: The local Alabama press, when they’re asked, why can’t a Democrat be competitive here? It always comes back to abortion. Is there a movement now to transcend the social issues like abortion to achieve a great economic freedom?

WARREN: There, there, yes. And there’s two ways to go at this. So when we talk to people in their communities, it’s with local leaders and organizers who are trusted members, who engage in conversations both in person and online, and we always start with shared values. The thing you don’t want to ever start with when you’re talking to people is here’s this problem because everybody has problems. You don’t wanna start selling other problems. So you’ve gotta start with shared values and a positive vision of this country right, so, we share a value around safety and fairness in the economy and good schools for our kids. And then you pivot to okay so what are the issues happening in your life. I think if you have conversations that way on the one hand, the whole pro-abortion, anti-abortion or it doesn’t seem to rise to be as salient for people when you actually get into real conversations with them. I think for lots of Democratic consultants, they come into places from DC often with a hammer, right? I mean what’s the old saying, When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so there’s all this advice to candidates around. Can you talk about abortion. Can you not talk about abortion. Can you talk about race. Can you not talk about race? There’s another model and that is when you actually are talking to people and- and it’s local leaders who are trusted messengers, and you start with shared values, you move to the problems in people’s lives, and then you get to solutions. And you and and it’s beyond a candidate. It’s about how do you empower people’s voices based on the shared values and offer a solution that are problems in their lives. So that’s the one, that’s one strategy around dealing with these issues. A second though is actually to start from a faith-based perspective and to take it head on. There are lots of different church traditions. And in, you know in the black community for instance, there are a lot of black folks that are pro-life based on their Christianity. But that’s not how they vote. And so what are the ways in which we can engage churches and faith institutions to offer up a different interpretation of Christianity and morality that focuses on people’s concerns in the here and now in terms of their economic concerns or their neighborhood concerns. How do you in some ways to put it bluntly, decrease the salience of social issues and increase the salience of economic or other, other material issues that are affecting people’s lives.

HEFFNER: Dorian, you just described the blueprint. Are the Democrats doing that in 2018, around their messaging, or not successfully yet?

WARREN: I think it’s hard to say. It depends on the place. I think- you know in the case of the Alabama race, and Doug Jones has a legacy and reputation as being a strong Civil Rights fighter. You know he brought the perpetrators from the Birmingham church bombing to justice many decades later. Not, you know in a way that was very explicit, so in terms of his record on racial justice, and talking about the issues that matter to people’s lives in Alabama, I think he’s actually doing a really, really good job. Is that the case for Democrats across the country? It’s hard to say. I mean I think the Virginia race that took place in November is a little bit different and it was really locally focused on the concerns and the issues in that state. The challenge they had there was, in essence the Republican candidate using the same racial dog whistles that Donald Trump used to get elected. Strategic racism in elections actually works, as we’ve learned. And so that, in that case, it was an attempt to explicitly take on what were, essentially racist and racially coded messages to the Virginia electorate, which that electorate rejected in that case.

HEFFNER: I was gonna say, the Virginians said not here, not now, not ever. At least at this particular moment. And we’re recording this prior to the outcome of the Alabama race, so you viewers know what’s transpired. But all I have to say with respect to Jones is, if you want to talk about a profile in courage and a model for Democrats, he’s it. For law and order. Painting the, the- conservative brush actually, he’s the conservative if you wanna talk about disorder and lawlessness … you talked about his opponent in that race. So without, our viewers know better now than us, but- moving forward, Dorian, you said something that reminded me of an exchange we had hear with Thomas Frank. I think the two of you would be best advising these [LAUGHS] candidates honestly because it requires the fresh energy and forward thinking that you describe, but it also, it requires a reality check about what the Obama years represented and what they did not in terms of the injury caused to, or the improvement of the lives of- the poorest Americans. And the reality is that the Obama presidency brought record gains to Wall Street and not Main Street.

WARREN: That’s absolutely right. Although it depends on where you look. So if you take the Affordable Care Act for instance and the expansion of health care, and especially in the states that accepted expansion of Medicaid to poor and working class folks, on some dimensions there were some gains for poor and working class people in this country. Or, you know we’re in the midst of a huge debate about immigration and immigrant rights right now. Huge gains made especially for undocumented kids, in terms of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Most of those folks are working class, many are poor. So you know you’ve got to kinda look deliberately at each issue-area.

HEFFNER: Right. Universally though, Dorian, the question of the concentration of wealth, that really is the most salient area of criticism that you and I might harbor, collectively.

WARREN: For sure and Wall Street is do…and corporate America, highest profits in decades right now. Wage stagnation has still been the case for the last forty years. It didn’t change much under the Obama administration. Changes in the overall work force, was something that the administration couldn’t quite tackle. And it’s, it’s, I’m not sure it’s that despite the efforts of the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board, more contingent work, work I was- [LAUGHS]- jobs that don’t pay enough, we’ve been having a debate about the minimum wage. There has been a movement that was birthed under Obama’s presidency, in terms of the Fight for Fifteen movement. So, there’s still been activity, even in the midst of a Democrat reign of two terms that didn’t quite catch on at the highest levels, but in local places around the country, people have been energized around economic issues.

HEFFNER: So how do you, in effect, federalize the moral values voter of 2018?

WARREN: Oh boy. That’s a tough question.

HEFFNER: Well let me give you one idea. Thomas Frank and I were discussing this. To go back to your earlier points about the role of faith in the public square… a lot of folks would dispute this but I have made the contention here on this show and out in… the countryside that we have alienated people of faith for far too long who wanted prayer in…


HEFFNER: …Or at least theology to be informing the way that their children were educated. And that that… in effect bankrupted any potential they could offer to the overall civic good. Now I’m not sitting here single-handedly suggesting we overturn… a long-standing Supreme Court precedent that bans prayer in public school.


HEFFNER: But we have to be honest about the consequence of that, and the fact that, to use President Obama’s words, when he did… in the gaff moment,


HEFFNER: Clinging to guns and religion, it epitomized the, the reality which is, well, if we’re not gonna be able to inform our young people with the goodness and knowledge shepherded through both…


HEFFNER: Religious and secular good, then we damn well right are going to cling to our religion and our guns. So it seems to me that’s the test in McCaskill’s Missouri or Tester’s Montana, or Heitkamp’s North Dakota.

WARREN: Yes, and I would say, [LAUGHS] I, I think it’s actually less of a faith question and more of a race question. Because if you look at the data and you look at religiosity levels, black and white Americans and especially black and white church goers, the numbers are almost equivalent. But the political behavior is very different. So the question then for me becomes, what is it about African Americans who are strongly rooted in faith traditions, and how they come out in terms of a range of issues and how they vote, versus whites who are rooted in a faith tradition. What is happening?

HEFFNER: What is happening?

WARREN: What is that, Dr. King once said, the most segregated hour in America is Sunday at 10 AM right?


WARREN: So we still have segregation in terms of our civil institutions and our churches. And I would argue that, that the interpretation of values and morality that takes place in those two very different institutions but seemingly the same in terms of Christian institutions, what happens inside is very, very different. And so I think unless we have an honest conversation about what are those racial differences, why is it when black people and white people go to church, black people come out with this set of values and white people come out [LAUGHS] with this set of values, and I’m talking specifically about white evangelicals. There is something else going on that’s beyond faith.

HEFFNER: What’s going on?

WARREN: There is a racial [LAUGHS] element to

HEFFNER: Can you expand on that for us?

WARREN: Our, our faith traditions… well partly it’s, I think, you know, as we started this interview, it is the decades of discrimination and exclusion from the democracy, from institutions, from the economy, that frankly, I think black faith traditions are clo…I would argue [LAUGHS] closer to the true meaning of Jesus’s teachings right, and his disciples, in terms of, you know, Jesus was pretty radical if you really, really want to dive into his teachings. And so I would argue that the black faith tradition, a tradition of black liberation theology has taken to account the circumstances of black people in this country and have related them in amazing storytelling over many, many decades, even centuries of storytelling in black churches, into a liberation and forward looking notion of what does freedom look like at the end of the day. I think in white evangelical churches there’s, something very different is happening. And I’m not, I’m not a religion expert, so I can’t really delve deeply into what, what the teachings are. But I’ll just say, there is a generational difference, and there is movement even among white evangelicals, especially on issues of climate change and on, especially on issues of immigration. So what’s, there is a struggle still about how we interpret our faith traditions, and especially Christianity. But I think it’s overlaid in a complicated way with race, and, and, but there’s a, there’s a struggle there. There’s a struggle. I think a newer generation is gonna re-interpret Christianity especially in white churches going forward that I think will be more forward looking and truer frankly to the, the true meaning of Jesus’s teachings.

HEFFNER: It’s certainly happening in Catholicism.

WARREN: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: With Pope Francis.

WARREN: Absolutely. Well that’s a, that’s a, that’s, that’s both a global change and it’s an incredible change in the US. The Catholic church has been one of the biggest supporters around immigrant rights and around the dignity of the undocumented here…

HEFFNER: Which leads us to…


HEFFNER: What you said was Dr. King’s unfulfilled wish or promise. I want you to expound on that before we have to go. And also, to go back to FDR, the economic bill of rights, which was never…


HEFFNER: Satisfied to him or accommodated in any way.

WARREN: So as you know, that, Alex, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee with sanitation workers who were on strike and striking for better wages and safer and better working conditions. And it was on the cusp of the launch of the Poor People’s Movement. The poor people’s campaign. And the idea was to bring together a multi-racial group of Americans who were all living in poverty and, or… close to poverty, and create a new kind of politics and a new coalition for economic and racial justice in this country. That idea of a poor people’s campaign and movement unfortunately died with the assassination of Dr. King. There are many other organizations and leaders that tried to keep the flame going, and in fact my own organization, the Center for Community Change Action, was in some ways born out of that moment. We were the first project of the Bobby Kennedy, The Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, to advance in some ways the efforts at ending poverty in this country. So it’s, we’re very much linked to that legacy that Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy left off on way too soon. Dr. Barber has now launched a new poor people’s movement that comes out of, directly from the Dr. King tradition. He’s started to do this. He ran the North Carolina NAACP. And he wants to now take some of the lessons he’s learned from Moral Mondays, which was the weekly and the monthly gathering of people of good faith and social justice values in North Carolina around a range of issues: gay and straight, white, black, Latino, Asian, women trying to create a new moral majority so to speak. That comes directly from Dr. King. So this idea of a poor people’s movement I think goes to your question about what didn’t happen under the Obama administration in terms of the economy and the plight of poor and working class people.

HEFFNER: To give folks some encouragement, who look, and I’ve had conversations with these people, and they’re in the Democratic party and of course people who are alien to the party now because it hasn’t realized it’s goals or its stated goals. Folks say, we’ll never go, get back to FDR’s economic bill of rights.


HEFFNER: We’ll never get back to Dr. King’s emphasis on poor people. And let’s not stigmatize for a second poor people,


HEFFNER: Because poor people are the majority of this country right now.

WARREN: Mhm. We will get back but in fact we have to start with, and I would add to FDR’s economic bill of rights, I would add his Four Freedoms speech.

HEFFNER: I knew you would. Ha!

WARREN: Which includes, you know, freedom from want. Freedom of religion.

HEFFNER: Most decisively.

WARREN: Right? So I think those are the cornerstone American values. We have to start there, but then reimagine them for the 21st century because many of the elements of the economic bill of rights pertained to the 20th century industrial economy.

HEFFNER: To peak people’s,

WARREN: Right,

HEFFNER: Curiosity about this, what is a realistic, practical application of economic rights today?

WARREN: So it would be: No one lives in poverty. It would be, everyone has the right to a job, and a good job. It would be the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively, a range of economic secure, basically economic security. No one through accident of birth should have to live in poverty in this country, and we should demand that as being part of a member of this political community. On the,that, now, there, there are some threats coming down,


WARREN: The, the road, right? So our economy has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. It’s gonna change even more drastically going forward, if you think about technology, automation, robots. Artificial intelligence. We have a range of deep challenges. Not to mention, right, the jobs that we’re creating now are really crappy jobs. They’re low wage jobs that people can work full time and still live in poverty. That should be, in terms of moral indignation, we should all be fired up about that. How could you possibly work?

HEFFNER: Hoarse, hoarse, right?

WARREN: I know, I know. How could you possibly work full time and still live in poverty? That is, that is where Dr. King left off. That was a part of FDR’s economic bill of rights, and his Four Freedoms, right? Freedom from want. No one should live in poverty in the richest country in the history of the world. We, especially when the corporate sector [LAUGHS] has record profits right now. We can structure our economy and our society very differently, and so we need to take those values from the 20th century, the best of our leaders, and refashion them for the 21st century.

HEFFNER: Dorian, we’ve run out of time, but I urge our viewers to research your work and to look up the Universal Income Project as well, in partnership with Chris Hughes. Thank you for being with me today.

WARREN: Thank you Alexander.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the Audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.