GENE DEMBY, HOST:
Just a heads-up, y'all, this episode contains strong language and depictions of violence.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH.
MERAJI: From NPR. And like all of you, we are still trying to make sense of Wednesday, January 6, 2021.
DEMBY: Because somehow, even after these last four years, there are still new iterations of what the - WTF.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to walk down to the Capitol.
TRUMP: And we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women - and we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them - because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.
MERAJI: We know Donald Trump urged hundreds of his supporters to go to the Capitol, a directive that came after months of dodging questions about whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election, which he did, and weeks of not conceding said election. So his supporters who marched on the Capitol were angry, and some were armed.
DEMBY: When that crowd got to the Capitol, they quickly overran the unusually small number of police there and their security barriers.
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DEMBY: It was surreal - people with United States flags, Trump 2020 flags, thin blue line flags waved supposedly in support of the police attacking the police while breaking into the Capitol building. Inside the Capitol building, it was chaos. Members of Congress and staffers there were being ushered by officers to secure locations. Some people barricaded themselves in Senate offices as the mob tore through the building looking for them.
MERAJI: And five people died as a result of all that chaos. And it could have been even worse. Two pipe bombs were recovered not far from the Capitol grounds and a cooler full of Molotov cocktails.
DEMBY: But Donald Trump's bid for the presidency began by way of a racist conspiracy theory.
MERAJI: That it did.
DEMBY: Yes. Remember, he kept beating the drum on the lie that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus was not a legitimate president of the United States. So maybe it was always going to be like this. His administration was probably always going to go out, whenever it did go out, in a paroxysm of white grievance from the conspiracy-minded.
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MERAJI: Watching Wednesday's events unfold, it was a lot to take in. There were all sorts of signs and symbols. It was this visual distillation of the racism, discontent and anti-establishment attitude that has been turned up to 11 by Donald Trump and his administration. So on this episode, we're going to get into some of that.
DEMBY: Yes, we're going to talk about what was up with the police. We're going to talk about "terrorism." I'm doing air quotes 'cause we're talking about the literal word terrorism. But first, something that jumped out to a lot of us here on the CODE SWITCH team were, you know, all those signs and all those flags. There were just so many of them, and people watching may not have recognized all of them, aside from, like, you know, the giant MAGA flags. We all know what those are. But they seem to be winking to insiders, so I called up Susie Neilson and Morgan McFall-Johnsen of Business Insider, who reported on some of the iconography of the violence from last week. And what they found was kind of a vexillology of the American far-right.
MERAJI: Vexillology? Definition, please.
DEMBY: OK, yes. Vexillology is the study of flags. I don't get a lot of occasions, as you might imagine, to use that word in a sentence, so I'm going to avail myself of it today. Here's Susie.
SUSIE NEILSON: The first and most obvious flag is, of course, the Confederate flag, which appeared within the grounds of the Capitol for, I believe, the first time in U.S. history. The Confederate flag never actually appeared in the Capitol building during the Civil War period, so this is really unprecedented.
DEMBY: And Susie is basically right. I mean, the Mississippi flag, like all state flags, flies in the Capitol. And up until last year, that Mississippi flag had a big-ass Confederate flag on it.
MERAJI: Flags on flags.
DEMBY: But this, obviously, is something else.
NEILSON: A photographer within the Capitol took this startling picture inside of the building of this man brandishing the Confederate flag between two historical figures from the Civil War period. So it was between Charles Sumner, who was an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts. He was savagely beaten on the floor of the Senate. And then across from him, John C. Calhoun, who was a very notorious proslavery politician who basically helped engineer secession. So it was a really stark and startling picture that was taken inside of the Capitol building.
DEMBY: Shereen, of course, there were also a lot of people holding the Gadsden flag.
NEILSON: The don't tread on me flag...
MERAJI: Oh, you all know that one. That has the curled-up snake on it. It's yellow.
DEMBY: Yeah. It's, like, not to be confused with the other yellow flag with the snake on it - you know what I mean? - with this cutting of the 13 pieces. There's a lot of - I don't know - like, patriotic snake flags. Anyway, the Gadsden flag.
NEILSON: ...Which is, like, a very common symbol for kind of anti-government libertarian folks. And then there were the flag of the Three Percenters.
DEMBY: The Three Percenters' flag is like the Betsy Ross flag - you know what I mean? - but with the Roman numeral III inside the 13 stars.
NEILSON: The Three Percenters specifically get their name from this disproven historical statement that said that only 3% of Americans participated in the Revolutionary War.
MERAJI: So these Three Percenters think they're inheritors of the mantle of the people who fought for American liberty from England.
DEMBY: Yeah, something like that. I mean, so this group - they apparently popped up in 2008, you know, in the U.S. and in Canada after the election of Barack Obama. And they had this feeling that he and his administration were going to take away all their guns.
MERAJI: And I'm sure that the fact that he was Black had nothing to do with it.
DEMBY: Who can say, Shereen?
NEILSON: The other flag that I wanted to note that's, like, very kind of more explicitly white nationalist and anti-Semitic is the flag of Kek.
DEMBY: So the Kek flag is green. And it has these, like, two intersecting bars on it.
MERAJI: If you see it, it's very clear that the design of this flag is alluding to the Nazi war flag. There are some differences. Like you said, the Kek flag is green. The Nazi war flag is red. And instead of a swastika, you have the letters K-E-K.
NEILSON: So this flag is the purported flag of a fictional country created by alt-right 4chan users. It's called Kekistan, and it's based around this idea of this Egyptian god named Kek, who is the purveyor of chaos and darkness and has the head of a frog. And that's why, you know, if you've ever seen the meme Pepe the Frog, you've seen who they believe is Kek. He's, like, the god of all memes or something.
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MERAJI: So I know we're discussing flags here, but, Gene, did you happen to ask Susie what was up with that dude wearing horns and a fur hat?
DEMBY: Oh, that dude.
MERAJI: That one.
DEMBY: Yeah. So Susie's colleague, Morgan McFall-Johnsen, said this cat - like, this is kind of his shtick. He pops up at a lot of these events. He's kind of a regular. His name is Jake Angeli. He goes by the moniker the Q Shaman. And if you peep his tattoos, Morgan said these are allusions to, like, Old Norse and old Viking symbols that are often appropriated by neo-Nazis and that type.
MERAJI: The Q Shaman, as in the QAnon conspiracy? I think we need to do a completely batshit explanatory comma right now, just in case.
DEMBY: Oh, no.
MERAJI: OK, QAnon, in case you all haven't heard of it, maintains that Donald Trump is being undermined by people within the government who participate in satanic ritual child abuse.
DEMBY: And reasonable people can disagree. Who's to say, Shereen? Who's to say? But, you know, it's worth noting that a big part of what these Internet alt-right groups try to do is they get all these symbols, all these memes out into the world and make it seem like there are signs of far-right white supremacy, like, everywhere.
MERAJI: They tried to make New Balances the shoes of white supremacy. They tried to make milk the drink of white supremacy.
DEMBY: I mean...
MERAJI: Taylor Swift, the pop star of white supremacy. So suddenly, you know, you see someone wearing New Balances, and you wonder, oh, my gosh, are they a part of this whole white supremacist thing?
DEMBY: All that muddying of the waters means that it can be really hard to know, like, what is trolling, you know, what is more real, what's, like, a sinister threat that we need to take seriously. But one symbol that showed up on the Capitol that was a little harder to dismiss and was really obviously menacing was the noose and the gallows.
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DEMBY: Here's Morgan.
MORGAN MCFALL-JOHNSEN: You know, it's just telling that there was a noose prominently set up at the Capitol building. There were a couple of different sightings of nooses on Wednesday. And just this morning, a Reuters photographer said that he heard at least three pro-Trump insurrectionists at the Capitol saying that they wanted to find Mike Pence and hang him.
MERAJI: Because Donald Trump went after Vice President Mike Pence on Twitter.
DEMBY: Right, for not agreeing to overturn the election results.
MERAJI: Which he didn't have any power to do.
DEMBY: Right. So they were shouting, traitor. They were shouting, murder the media. And Morgan said there were quite a few, you know, direct and indirect references to this book called "The Turner Diaries." And, Shereen, this is kind of where this all gets, like, darker and more unsettling.
MERAJI: Is that even possible?
KATHLEEN BELEW: "The Turner Diaries" is a book that is deeply important to the white power movement.
DEMBY: That is Kathleen Belew. She's a historian at the University of Chicago, and she's also the author of "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." In this book, white supremacists imagine violently overthrowing the U.S. government, which it posits is controlled by Jews, 'cause that's how white supremacists get down. And then in the book, this new white ethnostate that they put in place carries out the worldwide annihilation of all nonwhite people.
MERAJI: "The Turner Diaries" sounds like absolute trash.
DEMBY: It is. Actually, if you actually read the details of the book, like, more of a synopsis, it's somehow more racist than that...
DEMBY: ...Little summary I just gave you. It is - it's a lot. Anyway, "The Turner Diaries" is, like, widely, widely circulated among the racist far-right.
BELEW: Not because it is a good novel, but because it answers a really important imaginative question for this movement. And that question is, how could a small fringe movement hope to achieve what it set out to do in the 1980s and has been trying to do ever since, which is to violently overthrow the United States, the most militarized superstate in the history of the world? In the novel, I think they talk about this as the problem of a gnat trying to assassinate an elephant.
MERAJI: That's quite an image.
DEMBY: Yes. Kathleen said the book's answer is that the people in this white supremacist movement should carry out mass-casualty attacks where one person could do a lot of damage, you know, and destabilize the government. And she said this book has popped up in raids of white supremacist compounds. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, used to sell this book when he was out on the gun show circuit.
And in the lead-up to everything that happened last week, there was all sorts of direct, direct references on sites like Parler, like Gab to this fictional event called the Day of the Rope. So the Day of the Rope is a mass lynching of all the people that white supremacists consider their enemies.
BELEW: That means everyone in interracial relationships, Jewish people, everyone who is a traitor to the cause or a race traitor, journalists, communists and, importantly, legislators and congresspeople. So that's what was in my mind when I saw that these activists had erected a gallows in front of the Capitol building, and several people were taking selfies there. That's what was on my mind when I saw that they had smashed a journalist's camera and made a noose out of the cord. And, I mean, that's even what was on my mind when I was looking at the pictures of some of these people in the Capitol buildings with materials like zip ties that make us wonder whether they had planned to abduct and possibly also do violence to legislators.
DEMBY: So, yeah, a lot of people have been talking about Wednesday's madness like, OK, it wasn't as bad as it could've been.
MERAJI: Although just a reminder five people did die in connection with all this.
DEMBY: It was pretty bad. But people have been saying, you know, if this was a coup attempt, though, it was a pretty bootleg-ass coup attempt.
BELEW: OK, the bombs didn't detonate. The Molotov cocktails didn't ignite. It was not a massacre. It was not a bombing.
DEMBY: But Kathleen says that this whole thing - right? - it might have been successful in a very different way because in "The Turner Diaries," there's also a scene of an attack on the Capitol in which, you know, not that many people are hurt. But she says the point of that scene...
BELEW: It's supposed to be not to augment the biggest body count it can. It's supposed to be a show of force that awakens other white people to the cause so that they can be recruited.
DEMBY: In the book, that attack is supposed to demonstrate to other white supremacists just how easy it would be to attack the seat of government, to demonstrate how vulnerable the U.S. institutions are when it's time for the eventual white supremacist revolution.
MERAJI: Which is horrifying. And obviously, we're focusing in right here on scary-ass violent white supremacists. And we keep hearing, well, not everyone who was on the Mall last week was a white nationalist or a white supremacist. So what do we make of the run-of-the-mill Trump-loving, MAGA hat people in light of everything we're talking about here?
DEMBY: Yeah, and I asked Kathleen that very question. Like, how adjacent are these people to each other? How should we think about their relationship to each other?
BELEW: That is a great question because that interchange between fringe and mainstream is something that is not very well understood, and it's something that will be really important to what happens next. If you think about membership in a social movement like the white power movement, it's helpful to think about a set of concentric circles.
DEMBY: She said in the centermost circle, you have your violent, you know, radical white supremacists. They homeschool their kids with white power curricula. They go to white power churches. They marry people in the movement. They drink milk - all that. Their whole social life is in the white power universe.
BELEW: And then outside of that is a bigger circle of people who are still very active, but less politicized. So those are people who might go to a Klan rally or regularly read Klan newspapers and who make financial contributions. Outside of that is a more diffuse circle of people who don't themselves give money and might not go to a rally but who regularly consume ideas and materials. And that circle, I would guess, is even more populous because it's very easy to consume this content online now without being directly tied into the movement.
MERAJI: Yeah, to consume this material on certain very large and very powerful social media platforms.
DEMBY: She said outside of that circle is a circle we should really, really be paying attention to because it's that outermost circle...
BELEW: Where somebody might not read something that's marked as a conspiracist theory or, here comes some content brought to you by your local Ku Klux Klan chapter, but they might agree with some of the ideas that are in those texts, especially if those texts are not presented in a straightforward way or if they come to them through family relationships or social relationships. That outer circle is really important because things can very easily move into the mainstream, and those people in that outer circle can be located and pulled toward that radical center of action.
MERAJI: It sounds like that's what the people who were at the center of Wednesday's insurrection were really trying to do - pull that outer circle toward the center.
DEMBY: Kathleen said that it's really important to remember that President Trump may have been able to, you know, rile everybody up and get them to storm the Capitol, but he can't really call them off, even if he wanted to. He catalyzed a movement that existed long before he was in office, but he is not the leader of that movement. But it's because of him, though, that that movement is much closer to the mainstream of American life, and it probably will be for a long time after he leaves, which is what a lot of people in that movement wanted all along.
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MERAJI: After the break, a lot of us wondered, why didn't the police in D.C. respond to last Wednesday in the same numbers and with the same force they use when there's a big BLM protest? But then again, is that even the right question to ask?
DEMBY: Stay with us.
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DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.
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MERAJI: We're talking about January 6, 2021.
MELINA ABDULLAH: It was astounding. It was troubling. The double standard was overwhelming.
MERAJI: Gene, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles lives just a couple of miles from my house, so I hit her up not long after we all saw what we saw.
ABDULLAH: I'm Melina Abdullah, co-director of Black Lives Matter Grassroots and professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and a mom.
MERAJI: Not necessarily in that order (laughter)?
ABDULLAH: Right. Probably momma first, (laughter) right?
DEMBY: So we just heard Melina call what happened astounding and troubling.
MERAJI: Notice she didn't use the word surprising, Gene. Melina told me BLM organizers were monitoring extremist groups and their plans online. And this dissent on D.C. was no secret. People were openly planning to wreak havoc on the day of the election certification for weeks. But the stark difference in the police response, Melina said, now, that was something to behold.
ABDULLAH: Like, just the deference that was given to white supremacist terrorists as opposed to the brutality that we regularly have to endure as people who are standing up for Black life. That difference is just striking.
MERAJI: Melina said that while she was watching the news and watching this angry mob scale walls and break into the Capitol, she found herself thinking about a BLM protest that she helped organize about a month before.
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ABDULLAH: Where are we headed, Kalela (ph)?
KALELA: To Mayor Garcetti's house.
MERAJI: It took place on Sunday, December 6, in front of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti's house.
ABDULLAH: And we called it a Black brunch. We actually had food.
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ABDULLAH: We got orange juice. We got energy. We got music.
ABDULLAH: Children were leading.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: It is our duty to fight for freedom.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: It is our duty to fight for freedom.
ABDULLAH: And the police, LAPD, were sicced on us...
ABDULLAH: ...For attempting to have brunch across the street from the mayor's mansion - not storming it, not charging it, not trying to stage a coup.
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MERAJI: Gene, you know this. You might have been part of these. (Laughter) I know I was. On January 6, there were tweets and text threads and group chats all across the country filled with versions of, where the hell are the police? And why aren't they doing anything? You know, why aren't they cracking down on these violent white people trying to break into the Capitol, especially when we've seen them be so rough on peaceful BLM protesters? But then - I'm going to use one of your sayings here, because there was something about that conversation that just made my antenna twitch a little bit.
DEMBY: Yes. Mine, too.
ALEX VITALE: The United States has become a gigantic revenge factor.
MERAJI: That's Alex Vitale. He helps run the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. He's the author of that book, "The End Of Policing."
DEMBY: And in that book, "The End Of Policing," Alex makes the case that, you know, as a country, we need to dial back our reliance on the police.
MERAJI: He says, too often, the knee-jerk reaction to righting a wrong involves using jail time or police aggression.
VITALE: People are falling back on these impulses and imagining justice as a question of punishment. Even if we had the perfect police deployment and the Capitol was protected, let's say, that would've required high levels of force by police that would have just played into these existing polarizing narratives. It would've done nothing to resolve the underlying political problems and might just have inflamed, you know, additional resentments, et cetera, which then just means police have more work to do.
DEMBY: But - OK. But people feel like, you know, this is the justice system we have right now, for, you know, all of its considerable flaws and shortcomings. So people seem to want the justice - I'm doing air quotes - possible with the mechanisms that we have available to us.
MERAJI: I asked Melina about this, you know. Yes, there is an obvious double standard. But what exactly does she want to see from the police?
Is it to be treated deferentially or for white people to be treated like Black and brown people?
ABDULLAH: Well, I'm really, really glad you asked that because this morning I just was talking to folks about that. We know if Black Lives Matter had stormed the Capitol, there would be a tremendous body count, right? If we were trying to scale walls, we'd have been shot in the back. I don't think any of us are asking for that. I'm not. Black Lives Matter is not. We're not looking for brutality to be meted out evenly and everybody to be brutalized and dehumanized and killed. What we're saying is if police can exercise restraint when a group of white supremacist terrorists is attempting to stage a coup, if they can exercise restraint then, then I don't want to hear anything about why you had to kill a Black momma like Redel Jones.
MERAJI: And for people who aren't familiar with Redel Jones' story, she was shot and killed by the LAPD in 2015. And the DA here declined to prosecute because there was evidence that she had a knife. And she had threatened the officers on the scene who were there because someone who fit her description was accused of robbing a store at knifepoint.
DEMBY: Jesus, I did not know the story.
MERAJI: Yeah. It made headlines here in LA, especially in 2017 when the DA announced that the officer who shot Redel wouldn't face charges.
DEMBY: All right, Shereen, so - you know, since we're allegedly going on a little bit of a tangent here anyway, there's something that sort of caught my attention about what Melina was saying as I was listening to her talk to you.
MERAJI: Say more. What do you mean?
DEMBY: So a couple of times, we just heard Melina describe that pro-Trump mob as white supremacist terrorists.
MERAJI: That's right.
DEMBY: And I didn't want to let that pass without us at least mentioning that a lot of people were debating the use of that label, terrorist, like, how useful it is. People who don't like it say that, OK, calling these people terrorists does more harm than it does good.
MERAJI: Yeah. And I'm familiar with that debate you're talking about. I saw pushback to the use of the word terrorist after activists demanded that the media call Anthony Warner, who was the Nashville Christmas bomber, a terrorist.
MERAJI: So I did ask Melina why she used that word.
ABDULLAH: Yeah. I mean, what they're attempting to do is terrorize, right? What they're attempting to do is elicit a response that comes out of fear. Muslims, Black folks - that's what terrorism has been confined to. And when you begin to expand it out, it really starts to dismantle that process. And so the use of the term white supremacist terrorism, I think helps us to unpack, what does it mean to be a threat to the state?
MERAJI: But I also spoke to someone who's been a vocal critic of the terrorist label across the board. His name is Ramzi Kassem. He's the director of CLEAR, which is Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility. It's a legal clinic at CUNY Law School. And Ramzi's law students and his colleagues, they work with people who find themselves on the receiving end of what Ramzi calls the U.S.'s sprawling security state.
RAMZI KASSEM: If the FBI shows up at your home asking you questions about your organizing circle or what's being said at your mosques, CLEAR will represent you free of charge. We represent people who are watch-listed.
MERAJI: Ramzi told me he understands the urge to call last week's mob terrorists. But instead of addressing an inequity, it could easily create the opposite effect.
KASSEM: It only serves to further empower those who are already in power. And it helps them expand their budgets to spy on, overpolice and overprosecute people of color. And there are historical examples of this, right? Like, so you think back to like 1995, Oklahoma City - no dispute about who was responsible for that - Timothy McVeigh, you know, far-right actors, white, American, all that. The very next year, there is a legislative response, and there are two laws that are passed - the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and an immigration law called IIRAIRA. Those laws have been used predominantly against Black and Muslim folks and immigrants in this country.
DEMBY: Yeah, I'm just thinking about what he's saying, right? Like, so the evening everything popped off that Wednesday, I was walking down the street here in D.C., and I was talking to my mom on the phone. And she was worried about, you know, whether I was going to get back in the house before the 6 p.m. curfew. And I was like, chill. Look, I'm nowhere near the Capitol. Like, relax, relax. But her thing was, you know, the cops don't need an excuse on a regular day to stop a Black man walking down the street in a hoodie. So a curfew would just give them - the police - even more leeway to do what they already do, even if that curfew was ostensibly, you know, put in place because of the MAGA people down at The Mall. You know what I mean?
MERAJI: Yeah. And it gets back to Ramzi's point about how broadening the terrorist label will just lead to more bad policing.
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ABDULLAH: I'm flexible. If somebody comes up with a term better than terrorism, you know, great.
MERAJI: Here's BLM activist Melina Abdullah again.
ABDULLAH: We can be creative.
MERAJI: Until then, Melina says she's going to continue to use white supremacist terrorism to refer to what happened on January 6, 2021, 'cause to her, that's still the most precise language we have to describe what we saw that day. She says words do matter, but that's not where she wants to leave this.
ABDULLAH: The primary point is what we saw is how pervasive white supremacy is in this country. If we don't come up with our own systems and our own solutions and our own reimagined future and begin building towards that - I don't know if everybody heard this newly elected congresswoman who saw fit to quote Hitler.
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MARY MILLER: Hitler was right on one thing. He said, whoever has youth has the future.
ABDULLAH: That's going to be what's ushered in.
DEMBY: The youth are the future - I mean, Whitney Houston was right there. But she chose to go with Hitler?
MERAJI: She did. Jokes aside, we are talking about the newly elected Republican congresswoman Mary Miller from Illinois. She has since apologized for that Hitler comment. She did that at a rally, though, where there was another newly elected Republican from Georgia speaking, Marjorie Taylor Greene. And if you don't know Marjorie Taylor Greene, she's a QAnon supporter. These are politicians elected to the U.S. House of Representatives - a callback to that outer circle getting pulled toward that center circle.
DEMBY: Since we're talking about circles overlapping, we know that there were quite a few off-duty cops who have been identified as part of that mob last Wednesday. Some Capitol Police officers have been suspended for expressing support for the mob - you know what I mean? - taking pictures with them. The Washington Post reported that law enforcement agencies around the country are looking into whether any of their officers might have been part of that mess. So yeah, white supremacy has been baked into American institutions since the beginning. But this more extreme movement white supremacy, that seems to be getting more mainstream expression within our institutions, and that isn't just going to go away on January 20.
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MERAJI: That's our show. You can follow us on Twitter and IG. We're at @NPRCodeSwitch and subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/newsletters.
DEMBY: And OnlyFans. All right. This episode was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry, Kumari Devarajan and Jess Kung. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond. And it was fact-checked by Natalie Escobar.
MERAJI: And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Karen Grigsby Bates and LA Johnson. And a big welcome to our new intern Summer Thomad.
DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.
MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.
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