The Illusion of Division
Monica Harris talks with Ben Klutsey about her decision to move from California to Montana, ‘the System,’ the misleading nature of labels and more
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Monica Harris, the executive director of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism, about her search for a life that’s grounded in reality, why we shouldn’t trust “the System,” how identity-based labels create division, why she is a long-term optimist and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today our conversation is with Monica Harris. She’s the executive director of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism. She spent more than a decade as a business and legal affairs executive at Walt Disney Television, NBCUniversal Media and Viacom Media Networks. In 2011, she abandoned corporate life and moved with her family to Montana. She’s a lawyer, activist, speaker and author. Her latest book is “The Illusion of Division,” which is the subject of our conversation today.
KLUTSEY: We’ll just delve right in. If you don’t mind, I’m going to read a small portion of your book and ask you to reflect on it a little bit for us. You said, “I lived in California most of my life, but I didn’t understand who I was until I left. Because there are things you simply can’t appreciate about yourself when you’re surrounded by people who think the same way you do.” I was wondering if you could give us a sense of what it was like for you growing up in California and the change you observed or felt that inspired you to leave.
MONICA HARRIS: Oh, OK. Very good question. I’m happy to start there. First of all, Ben, thank you so much for having me today. I so appreciate the opportunity to share my—
KLUTSEY: It’s an honor to have you.
HARRIS: Oh, thank you.
I’m going to take a step back and sort of lay the groundwork and say, for most of my life, I think that anyone looking at my experience on paper would think that I was a poster child for the American dream. I guess for 9, 10 years, I attended one of the top prep schools in Southern California. I graduated from Princeton University. I went to Harvard Law School. I was one of the editors of Harvard Law Review with former President Barack Obama. I graduated with Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
So when I returned to California and began a career in law, it led me to the entertainment industry. You just told your guests—for nearly 20 years, I was a senior executive at these large studios, so I’ve spent most of my life around some of the most powerful and wealthy people in the country. Believe it or not, for most of my life, I thought that I was on path to become one of those people, but 12 years ago, I just hit a wall. This is back, now—actually, it’s about 13 years ago. This is back in 2010.
It’s funny because, back then, think about where things were in 2010. For most Americans, the world was still making sense then. I think a lot of people now have the sense that things have gone off the rails on so many levels. But back in 2010, when I would talk to my friends and colleagues, even my family members, about what was happening and why the world didn’t make sense to me, they didn’t know what I was talking about.
I realized—like, sometimes when I was driving to work, I would think about what I had wanted my life to look like when I graduated from law school and what it actually looked like. I realized I was trying to make as much money as I possibly could, but I didn’t have any time to enjoy it. It was this weird paradox. I was always on my BlackBerry. See, back then (this is before the iPhone), I was always on my BlackBerry, always sending emails. Sitting at the traffic light, I would be sending emails in traffic. I’d get home late for dinner, still sending emails. My partner’s like, “What are we doing? This is crazy. You need boundaries.”
On the weekends, I’d get these last-minute requests from production crews because I was doing business affairs for unscripted or reality television for VH1 at the time. These self-obsessed actors with drug problems and egos. My partner and I had just adopted a baby, and I realized I was not even present enough to be part of the process of watching my son grow up. As I’m sitting there at work, I think, “Is he going to start walking today and I’m going to miss that?”
Again, what floors me is, this was back in 2010. I was making a lot of money. I was living really well. The other thing that seemed to hit me was that I was in the top 3%. I think I would call myself not a one-percenter but three-percenter. I was making a lot of money, but for whatever reason, every other week—I’d get paid on Friday; by Monday, it’s like so much of my check is gone. Like, how is this even happening? I’m a senior executive! Where’s this money going?
That’s when it started to hit me that whatever I was doing, it didn’t feel sustainable. I was living a life that I thought I should lead and the kind of life that everyone I knew and went to school with and was working with was leading, but it wasn’t a life that was making me feel happy inside.
Deciding To Simplify
HARRIS: My partner and I, like nine months after my son was born, we went to her family reunion. She’s white. (There’s not a lot of Black people in Montana.) We went to her family reunion in southeastern Montana, just north of Yellowstone. It was a pretty life-changing experience for me. I think John Steinbeck said he traveled all around the country and he’d seen a lot of places he liked, but Montana is the place he fell in love. There’s something very special about Big Sky Country. It’s a place where people come to clear their minds. It’s like this ancient place. It’s very simple. The simplicity is overwhelming.
One thing led to another, and I realized I had to make a radical change in my life and was inspired by that trip to Montana. I persuaded my partner, Lisa, to like, “You know what, would you consider just leaving California and starting over?” We talked about it for a few months, and she says, “Yes, why not? We’ve lived here all our lives. Let’s do it.”
I quit my job; we uprooted ourselves. We were living in Santa Barbara at the time, and we moved to this tiny, tiny town in northwestern Montana that, at the time (pre-pandemic, of course), 3,500 people. We bought this cute little—little by Montana’s terms—20 acres at the foot of the Rockies, and I basically retreated from the world into the woods, literally. I didn’t practice law; bought some chickens and goats, built a greenhouse, and we settled into a life where we just did less and wanted less.
I have to say I’m amazed by what happened when I fell into this life of simplicity. My head cleared. I started to focus, and that was probably the beginnings of me seeing my world in an entirely different way.
I think I mentioned this in the book: There was this aha moment I had. It was the year after we moved there, in the summer of 2011. I was watching CNN. The U.S. had just lost its AAA credit rating. Back then it was like we were falling from the gold standard, and all the financial experts were buzzing about, “Oh my God, is there going to be a collapse? What does this mean for the markets? How bad is it for the country?” I had no idea how it was going to play out; I’m just a lawyer. But I’m like, “This doesn’t look good.”
I went outside to do my chores, and I saw this young white guy who was a carpenter we hired to fix our chicken coop after a bear had mauled it. I ask him, “Man, I just was watching CNN. Have you heard about what’s going on?” He’s looking at me, and he says, “Nope.” I was blown away. I’m like, “You haven’t heard about the AAA rating?” And he’s, “No.” “How can you not be concerned about what’s happening in the world and how it might affect you?” He said, “I got no control over it. Do you?”
I’m thinking, “OK, you’re probably right.” At the end of the day, however the credit drama is resolved, people like us didn’t have any power to fix it. That was the thing. No matter what we do, how hard we work, who we vote for, it seems our lives just keep going in the same direction. I’m an educated gay Black woman, and he’s a working-class white guy who never went to college, but our lives were basically heading in the same direction. We were working harder to maintain our lifestyle in a world that was growing increasingly precarious.
I said, “I get what you’re saying. I guess I moved here to lose myself in the woods because I wanted to leave the real world behind, just like you.” Then he looked at me and said something I’ll never forget. He’s like, “You call what’s going on out there the real world? Nothing’s real about any of that.” It was funny because, in a single sentence, he encapsulated what had driven me to quit my job, drop out and just disappear into the woods. That’s because the world has stopped making sense because it no longer felt real.
Our Common Problems
HARRIS: I started thinking more as I spent more time in Montana in that simplicity and looking more closely in my life and everything around me. And I started to ask myself how much of anything we’re seeing is real. I think I’d already come to terms with the fact in California that this American dream no longer really existed. It was really just an illusion. It’s this sort of fantasy I had in my mind of what my life should look like.
As time went on and I stayed sequestered in the woods—I was away from my old life in this small town without a lot of distractions—I started to think more about how much more I had in common with this working-class white guy. This carpenter on the surface seemed to have so little in common with me. Over the years, I realized there was a pattern to these conversations I was having with my neighbors who were really, with very few exceptions, all white. (Montana is majority white—88.7% according to the Census Bureau.) But I realized we were all struggling with the same fundamental problems.
We’re all trying to pay for food and gas. It’s getting so expensive because inflation was bad then, but it’s unbearable now. We’re all working harder to keep our roof over our head. Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable. We’re all thinking about how this climate catastrophe is affecting us. We’re frustrated by these politicians who ignore our welfare and cater to corporate interests and other private interests.
These are basically the problems that keep all of us up at night. Whether we’re Black, we’re white, Republican, Democrat, whatever our gender, whatever our sexual orientation, whatever god we do or don’t believe in—these are the problems that we’re all facing when you get right down to it, and they’re the ones we urgently need to solve. We can’t solve these problems if we don’t come together. That’s where the division comes in.
What is “the System,” and how does it keep us divided? And I think in the book you said your dad uses this term, “The Man.” I was wondering if you could unpack this for us. In your book, the System is doing a lot of work: fostering inequality, creating the illusion of division, distorting realities and so on. Would love for you to unpack what you mean by “the System.”
HARRIS: I think the System is comprised of these institutions that we all grow up slavishly believing in, trusting implicitly. The more educated we are, the more we believe in these institutions.
I was a person—I had a lot of education. I was tapped out with education, financially and otherwise. It’s funny because, growing up in a Black family—I don’t know if you can relate to this—folks are typically not encouraged to trust institutions. It started with slavery, continued with the Tuskegee experiment and just continued from there.
We call these institutions, I think just blanketly, whether it’s the media, the legal, the criminal justice system (which is just part of the legal system), our educational institutions, our financial institutions, the underpinnings of our economy—this is “the System,” and it’s controlled by what my father used to call “The Man.” My father’s this LA County Sheriff’s—he retired from the LA County Sheriff’s Department. He got an up close and personal view of what it was like to work for “The Man.” He was a bailiff in the court system. I used to come and sit in because we couldn’t afford summer camp. I would just come in and sit in the courtroom and watch legal proceedings. That’s probably how I ended up becoming a lawyer, actually.
My parents knew the System wasn’t fair. Most Black people know the System isn’t fair. I grew up being told it was rigged, not just for Black people, but anyone who wasn’t at the top tiers. My father would invite me to just sit in the courtroom and watch what was going on. Then afterwards, over dinner, he’d just unload on me—not unload in a bad way, but just download, I guess you could say. Like, “You saw what happened in there, right? If you’re a person who has money, the System works for you. If you’re poor and Black or Latino or any other person of color, the System doesn’t really work for you.” The System works for people who are armed with the tools to work within it. If you don’t have those tools, well, then the System is just—it’s something that seems nice on paper, but it’s really not something that works equally for everyone.
It was a bit of a conflict for me growing up, hearing this—the suspicion of the System when I was a kid—and then going to Princeton and graduating from Harvard Law School, which is a place we are conditioned, as future lawyers, to unwaveringly believe that our legal system is infallible. It’s funny. I think most of us who are awake and aware now, we know this isn’t the case.
Ditto for our media. When you learn that the White House has the power to use privately owned media companies to flag problematic content and perspectives and to use this as a loophole to end-run the First Amendment, you begin to appreciate that these three essential pillars of our system, these institutions—the executive branch, our media, the First Amendment—they’ve been fundamentally compromised, with disastrous consequences, in my opinion. Our academic institutions: that’s another fundamental pillar of the System that I was, especially as an educated person, taught to believe in implicitly.
The System in Education
HARRIS: I’m looking back now over the past five years, certainly the last year, and I can now see that this institution that I so slavishly embraced has become another source of division, one of the primary sources of division in this country. I’ll get to the media later. I wasn’t even aware of this until lately. I graduated from college and law school a couple of decades ago. I had no idea what was happening on these campuses.
In the wake of these horrific terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7, I think a growing number of people—I like to call them the silent and exhausted majority—they’re awakening to this dangerous mindset that’s been taking root in our institutions of higher learning, the place that breeds future leaders and educators. It’s not just happening at community colleges and at state colleges. It is more prevalent than ever at these Ivy League institutions.
Someone just told me recently, they call them DEIvy League: DEI.
KLUTSEY: Never heard that. That’s interesting.
HARRIS: DEIvy League, yeah. There’s this diversity, equity and inclusion. On its surface, it seems like something that would create a more tolerant society and bring us together. The irony is, it’s actually pushing us further apart. It’s dividing us.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this, Ben, and I’ve been thinking more that the reason this is happening is because DEI emphasizes what divides us instead of what unites us. It casts all of our relationships into this oppressed/oppressor, victim/victimizer categories. It convinces us that if we’re not in an identity group, then we can’t relate to or understand the experiences of people in that identity group and that there will forever be these walls between us. It teaches us that white people are inherently racist and that racism is an intractable element in American society. It teaches our youth that fundamental American values like freedom of speech, academic freedom, meritocracy, punctuality—those are all tools of white supremacy.
I think that, in reflection, over the past 10 or 15 years, I can see now that my father, who had no education whatsoever, never went to college—he understood more about what this system, these institutions really are than I did after spending more than $100,000 in seven years of higher education.
KLUTSEY: Wow. That is really, really interesting, and I appreciate you going through that overview.
I wanted to come back to your journey. You unplugged and became “ideologically liberated,” as you put it in the book. What does it mean to be ideologically liberated? For our listeners and readers who are interested in maybe exploring this more, what does it mean to be really liberated from ideology?
HARRIS: I hate to use the term “identity politics” because it’s so hackneyed now, but I will just say that, when I lived in California, growing up as a Black woman in California—a very, very progressive state—and especially being gay, there’s a certain brand, a certain essence you’re expected to adopt. You’re expected to vote Democrat; you’re expected to see white people through a certain lens.
And that lens is: There are very bad white people, and most of them live in the middle of the country—what we call the flyover states. You’re taking a plane from LA to New York; you really don’t stop anywhere in between. They’re the people who throw rocks and bottles and whatever at abortion clinics. They’re the people who voted for George Bush and, later on, Donald Trump. They’re the low-information voters. They’re the people who despise people of color, who aren’t tolerant, who don’t respect our culture. They’re the people who hate gay people. They are the enemies of tolerance.
That is what I, as a gay Black woman in California, grew up believing, and I think was conditioned to believe. And I think that it’s easy—and I don’t want to say this is just on the left. This is a problem on the right as well, and I think it’s very important to understand that. It’s a problem when we live in bubbles. And when we don’t connect with people outside our bubbles, we tend to let our perceptions of the people outside our bubbles be defined by people we trust, whether they’re people in the media, politicians—I call them political hacks, but politicians we trust, who have our allegiance. We allow them to define our reality. When our reality is defined by these people, then our political choices and our political identity is defined by these people as well.
When I came to Montana, the first thing that hit me—I’ll step back. The day I announced, I did the walk-around in my office at VH1 and I told people, “I’m going to leave in two weeks.” They’re like, “Hey, what are you doing? Where are you going?” I’m like, “I’m leaving the state.” Everyone thought I was going to New York or Seattle or something. I’m like, “I’m going to Montana.” The looks on their faces were like—
HARRIS: “Say what?” “Why?” “Wait, what?”
A lot of people were actually—they were cool about it. I remember one colleague in particular: I went into her office, and she just looked at me like I had grown several heads or something. She’s like, “Why would you go to Montana?” I said, “Oh my God, have you been there? It’s beautiful. The air is fresh. It’s more affordable. It’s just clean. It’s no traffic.” She says, “Yeah, but aren’t they all Republican?” And I’m, “Yeah, they’re mostly Republican.” I’m like, “The people I’ve met there are cool.” She was looking at me like, “Well, who are you and what have you done with Monica?” Like, “Why would you be around so many Republicans?” That’s sort of what I was walking into when we moved to Montana.
Beyond Political Labels
HARRIS: It’s been enlightening to meet so many people. Most of the people, I’ll say the vast majority of people that we’ve met, are so accepting and welcoming. Now, they’re also very churchgoing—there’s a church on every corner of Montana. Weirdly enough, we didn’t even realize a lot of our friends sometimes would be going to church four and five times a week until we’d invite them someplace and they’re like, “Oh my God, sorry—I’d love to come. I’m going to be in church.” I’m like, “Oh, wow. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude on that.”
They weren’t hitting us on the head with their religion. It was very clear we were in an interracial gay relationship, my partner and I, and it wasn’t like they didn’t want to have anything to do with us so they wouldn’t invite us over their house, or they wouldn’t babysit our kid if we had an engagement. They were willing to be part of our lives. They wanted to be part of our lives. They would help us if we had emergencies or we had windstorms on our property. And they voted Republican. Most of these people voted Republican, and a lot of them were hardcore Trump supporters.
It became so obvious to me that these political labels really just didn’t apply. The folks that I was taught to fear or that I had taught myself to fear—they really were a lot like me, but I wouldn’t have known it unless and until I exposed myself, until I made them my neighbors, which was a risk. Let me be honest: I don’t think a lot of people these days, even back then when the country was less divided—so many people do not want to move outside their bubble.
I mentioned this in my book: I have a friend from college who, I think it was five years after I moved there, maybe less, I invited him up. He’s gay—gay Black man. I invited him up to come visit us. I’m like, “You seem really stressed.” He was living in LA. “I think if you just came up, maybe for a week with your family—do a little crafting, a little hiking—it’d be cool. This would be good for you.”
He says, “You want me to come to Montana? I’m a Black man, right? A gay Black man, you realize.” I’m like, “Of course, yes. It’s not an issue.” He says, “They have a lot of guns there, right?” “They do. I have some myself.” “You have guns?” I’m like, “Yes, I have guns. We live in a grizzly corridor.” He’s like, “I’m a gay Black man, and I’m not coming around a lot of white people with guns. End of story.” He still hasn’t visited, try as I might.
Getting back to your point, being ideologically liberated means being willing to shed your labels and your expectations of what other people act like, think like and think of you based on their immutable characteristics. Being willing to look at people and say, “OK, you’re a white guy, you got a buzz cut, but I’m not going to assume that because you’re a white guy with a buzz cut and carrying a gun, that you want to hurt me or that you think anything less of me.” Leaving yourself open and also being willing to cherry-pick issues that matter to you.
I wasn’t a big supporter of the Second Amendment when I lived in California. But after moving to Montana, I began to understand that there are other reasons that people want guns besides shooting people. Weirdly enough, after we finish this interview, my son is going to drive—with a bunch of white guys, OK?—four hours to Great Falls. And they’re hunting. All weekend. [laughter]
Who would think a 14-year-old Black boy would be doing that? My partner and I are like, “God, it’s going to be like 25 degrees outside. You sure you want to do this?” He’s like, “Uh, yeah, Mom.” I know. He’s a Montana boy now.
KLUTSEY: Yeah, absolutely.
HARRIS: Anyway, so—
KLUTSEY: That’s fascinating.
HARRIS: It is.
Questioning the Labels
KLUTSEY: You mentioned labels, and it got me thinking. In the book, you say it keeps us from learning who people really are: They place us in these “us versus them” categories, creating opportunities for us to dehumanize each other.
Do you get labeled sometimes? How does that affect your ability to get the message in your book across? Because I figured that there are certain stereotypes people will have, and they’ll get a label, and that might create some challenges in getting the book out.
HARRIS: It does. I find that I do want to go—there’s an anecdote I have about labels I want to get into. But the labels—it’s strange; I have probably faced the greatest difficulty convincing my progressive friends to abandon their labels of people on the other side than vice versa. And I’m not sure why that is. But I myself have had some challenges with some of the friends and colleagues and peers that I’ve had for many decades. I think they have some perceptions about me: that I’ve changed, that I’ve become a different person, that I’m not the Monica they once knew.
I’ve had some terse exchanges. I try to always be very civil and graceful. I pride myself on that. But I’ve had some difficult exchanges with some friends I’ve had for decades on Facebook. I’ve been called “an enabler of white supremacy.” One good friend even called me a white supremacist, and I thought, “That’s interesting,” yeah.
I ask him, “OK, this is interesting. So if I show up at the next KKK chapter meeting, do I just come with snacks and say, ‘Where’s my robe and pointy hat?’ Am I going to be embraced by them? Is that how it works when you’re a Black white supremacist?” I have encountered an unexpected amount of resistance trying to convince people to open their minds and sort of shed the labels they’re putting on other people.
Before we left LA, a good friend of mine I was working with at VH1 at the time, he sent me an article about this Baptist pastor. I mention this because it goes to labels. He’d moved from—the article, I forgot what magazine it was in, but it said this pastor moved from Florida to set up a church in a new home. My colleague sent it to me, and he says, “You better watch out for this guy. He thinks people of color are subhuman. He’s not wild about gay people either. He wants them to be shot on sight.” He’s understandably frightened that I’m going to move to this place in Montana that’s not far from this white supremacist.
Fast-forward a few years: I’m at the Verizon store buying a phone, and I strike up a conversation with this guy who’d relocated from Florida. We start talking. We realize we have a lot in common. We become friends. Then, a year later, my new friend from Verizon reads my blog, and he calls me and he says, “Hey, who’s that white supremacist pastor your friend was warning about?” I give him the pastor’s name. My friend—this is the last thing I’d expect. He starts laughing, and he says, “I know this guy.” I’m like, “You’re kidding.” I’m waiting for him to give me all the juicy, horrible details about this white supremacist, and he says, “He’s my pastor. My family and I followed him here from Florida a few years ago.” I’m like, “What?”
He says, “I’ve known this pastor all my life. He’s been my mentor, confidant. My family loves him.” And he blows my mind. But here’s what really blows my mind, Ben: My friend isn’t white; he’s Black. As you can imagine, I am super intrigued, and I’m thinking, “Wow, I am dying to know why my Black friend loves and respects a white supremacist.” So I asked the obvious question. Or maybe it’s not obvious to most, but I’m very curious by nature and kind of bold. So I’m like, “Can I meet this guy? Do you think your pastor will have lunch with me?”
I have no idea if he’s going to accept the invite. I’m thinking maybe he doesn’t have a problem with Black people, but maybe gay people—maybe that’s a bridge too far. My friend reaches out to the pastor, and a few days later, he calls me with a surprise. He’s like, “Hey, Pastor says he wants to meet you for lunch.” So, couple of weeks later, I’m driving over to meet him.
Confronting a ‘White Supremacist’ Label
HARRIS: I got to admit, I’m a little nervous because I’m thinking, “What if he doesn’t really want to meet me? What’s his game? Was this a mistake? Is this some kind of setup? Has my intuition failed me and I missed something?” All that’s going through my mind as I get to the restaurant. I walk in; I scan the room. As you can imagine, a sea of white faces, which is par for the course in Montana—a lot of white folks. Then I look in the back of the room, and I see this older man in his 70s sitting at a table, and our eyes locked.
I knew instantly, even though I’d never seen the pastor’s picture, that I was looking at the pastor—I knew it. I made my way over to him. As I’m walking towards him, he slowly stands up, and I couldn’t read his face. When I reached his table, he smiled and he opened his arms wide. And he said, “I am so glad that you wanted to meet me.” He pulled me close and we hugged. I almost cried, Ben. It’s hard for me to tell that story now, even, without tearing up, because it was such a powerful moment to embrace a man who a friend you trust had told you wanted to kill you if you were in proximity with them.
I talked to this guy for like two and a half hours, and we could have literally spent the whole afternoon together. We were talking about the labor shortage in our valley. (This was right after the pandemic had ended.) How no one wants to work anymore. We were talking about inflation and the fentanyl crisis. It’s just ruining so many lives of young people in our state. The homelessness that we’re starting to see, even in Montana—as cold as it is here, people are in the streets. This homelessness is taking over the big cities. We talked about the billions we’re sending to Ukraine and the schools that are teaching our kids about sex before they’re old enough to read.
The one thing that struck me is that here I am on the same page about almost everything with this guy who is a racist white supremacist who voted for Trump. Now, I wasn’t ready to sign up for Bible school, and he wasn’t interested in attending a Pride parade. That’s not my point. But what kind of world are we living in when a gay Black woman can find so much common ground and even be physically embraced by a guy who’s supposed to be a white supremacist? I think it’s because we’re not as divided as we’re led to believe. It’s the labels. It’s the power of the labels that we’re using to define each other.
These labels are distorting our collective reality and convincing us we live in a world we don’t live in. It can convince my friend that someone who looks like me and has lived with my lived experience is a white supremacist, like David Duke. It’s crazy. We’re using these labels in just this broadest way possible. If we’re in the left and we believe in free-market capitalism but we have a problem with the gaping wealth divide, then we’re socialists. We’re on the right and we think people of all races should be treated equally but we have a problem with this anti-racism, then we’re white supremacists. One of my favorites is—because I get this a lot—if we just question a popular narrative or say, “I don’t know if I trust the experts on this,” then we’re a conspiracy theorist. That’s the label that shuts you up.
I think what’s happening is, when we use these inflammatory labels so recklessly, we dehumanize people. A wall goes up, we put them on the other side of the wall and the story ends. We don’t dig deeper. We don’t ask questions. We don’t take the time to say, “God, if I had an opportunity to meet that person who supposedly doesn’t like me, who’s a white supremacist, what would that be like? Might I be surprised?” We don’t ask that people might be misrepresented. It’s all so binary anyway.
Traveling to Idaho
I want to read a quote by Martin Luther King that you put in your book. I think it comes from a speech that he gave at Cornell College in Iowa in 1962. Then I’ll ask you to tell a story that you tell in the book, which I think is fascinating.
He says, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
I want that to sit for a little bit, but I also want you to tell the story towards the end of the book about a surprising encounter that you had with a man called Zeke in early 2018 while vacationing in Silver Mountain, a resort in Idaho. I’d love for you to talk about it in the context of this Martin Luther King quote and also in the context of labeling—the kinds of labels that we give to each other. It is about the Second Amendment. If you don’t mind telling me that story, that’d be great.
HARRIS: This was probably five years ago. My family and I were vacationing in Idaho, which was—that old Panhandle’s a few hours from us. I don’t know if you know much about Idaho. It is largely known to be one of the most racist states in the country. I think the Southern Poverty Law Center designated as—the largest number of hate crimes occur there. No, excuse me. The largest number of hate groups are in Idaho. It’s an unusual place.
At the time, it was in between gigs. (I’m a legal contractor.) I have to admit, we were running a little low on vacation funds that spring break, so we thought, “We’re not going to Hawaii. Let’s just take a nice local trip to—”
KLUTSEY: Close by.
HARRIS: Someplace close by. We go to Silver Mountain, and it has a very specific clientele. It’s in the mountains; working and middle-class white families. I remember the morning after we got there, we went to the water park. It’s an indoor water park. We were sitting by the pool, and we were catching up on the news on our phones. (Our son was in the pool with some kids he just met.) There’d just been a mass shooting somewhere.
I can’t remember where it was now because there have been so many, but I remember that, as we were scrolling through the news, the gun control debate was center stage again, and there was this renewed call for the ban on assault rifles. My partner and I were lamenting, “God, why does it seem impossible to stop these senseless killings without violating the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners? There’s got to be some balance here. There’s got to be a way to make it work.”
As a lawyer, I’m hardwired to respect the Bill of Rights. It’s something that I cherish like the Bible. If I were religious, it would be like my Bible. I believe fundamentally that all civil liberties are sacred, from the First Amendment to the Second on down, even if they potentially make others uncomfortable. Even if they potentially put people in harm’s way, to a limited extent. I believe these are sacrosanct. Lisa felt the same way even though she’s not a lawyer.
We’re sitting here talking about this and wondering—it seems like all of the government’s responses and solutions to our modern problems seem so extreme that we have to trade safety in exchange for liberty. Like after 9/11, if we want to keep ourselves safe from terrorism, we can’t bring liquids onto the plane. There’s no balance or nuance.
An Unexpected Encounter
HARRIS: At some point, we’re talking, and I noticed this white guy at a table nearby. He wasn’t staring at us, but every now and then I’d look over, and I’d see he was glancing at us and then he’d look away. You know, when you’re Black, you kind of get used to that look. You know what I’m talking about! Like, “Oh no, I’m not looking at anyone, I’m—yeah.” No, you were looking at me. And the look can be like, “Oh, you’re not someone I see around here often.” It can be totally innocuous. Or it could be like, “Get the heck out of here. You don’t belong here.” I couldn’t tell which look I was getting, which made me a little nervous.
As we’re chatting, I’m still trying to get a sense of who this guy is and why he keeps looking at us. What I did notice about him is that the optics weren’t good. He was in his 30s, completely bald, and he was wearing this grungy tank top, and he was totally sleeved up. Tattoos covering every inch of his arms. And underneath one of his eyes, there was a teardrop. The more I look at him, the more I’m thinking, “This guy—we’re in Idaho. This guy’s probably a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.” It’s got to be some neo-Nazi or other white supremacist. It all adds up, right?
So after a few minutes, he gets to his feet and he makes his way over to our table. I see him coming and I’m looking at Lisa, and I’m like, “Oh jeez. Is this going to get weird? Just play it cool. Play it cool.” She’s looking at me like, “OK, I see it too. I see him. Everything’s going to be fine.” He draws beside our table. He’s got a can of beer in his hand. He’s like, “Afternoon.” We were saying our mumbled hello. Then he says, “So I heard you guys talking about guns.” I’m thinking, “Oh, crap. This guy looks like he has a good relationship with guns. A really intimate relationship, obviously, with a gun.” I’m wondering, “What am I—” This seems like an invitation to something that could turn really ugly.
I try to play it off really casually. Lisa said, “Yes. All these mass shootings lately, it’s just so crazy and so sad.” Then he’s like, “Mind if I sit down?” I mean, what are we going to say? “Don’t sit down”? It just didn’t seem like an invitation we could refuse. We’re like, “OK, please be our guest.” Then he leans over and he says, “So you think it’s OK for Americans to have guns, or not?”
You can imagine: Increasingly this situation is feeling more tense. It feels like he’s putting us into this box. He’s expecting us to hate guns because of what we look like, and we’re thinking he’s going to come at us because he loves guns. I’m like, “No. Here’s the deal. We believe in the Second Amendment, but we also believe in keeping people safe.” Then he’s like, “What does that mean, keeping people safe? What does that look like?”
I’m thinking, “OK, well, I look at it this way. We have free speech, but we have restrictions on free speech, right? We can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Hate speech is allowed, but we can’t incite violence. I think there should be the same commonsense restrictions on the Second Amendment. We should have guns, but we shouldn’t be selling them to kids. We should be doing thorough background checks. We shouldn’t be giving guns to people who have robbed banks or committed other felonies, or if there’s some demonstrated history of mental illness. Everyone else, keep any gun you like. That’s how I feel.”
Then he sits back, and he looks at us and he says, “Yes. That’s what I think too.” I never would have believed that a guy who looked like that would have the same perspective on the Second Amendment that I—and, by the way, not just me—most Americans have this view of the Second Amendment. There are very few Americans who just want to get rid of guns altogether. We just want commonsense restrictions. What I think a lot of these people like—this guy’s name is Zeke, by the way—labeled Zeke a pro-Trumper or just a neo-Nazi or whatever; they would have no idea that he shares their perspective on this very controversial issue.
Common Ground on Guns
HARRIS: I remember as we were closing it out, as he was getting ready to leave, he said, “I bet you thought when I came over here to talk to you that we were going to have an argument about guns.” I’m like, “Come on. No offense, but look at you. Yeah, that’s what I thought.” He’s like, “That’s why I wanted—” By the way, he was so articulate, too. He was such a soft-spoken guy. He’s just not what you would expect, looking at him.
He said, “That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I could hear what you were saying. I wondered if you knew that someone like me was thinking the same way you’re thinking.” He’s like, “I bet we’re on the same page about a lot of stuff, but we just wouldn’t know it because people like you and me, we’re not encouraged to talk. We don’t get a chance to talk much.” I thought about that, and I’m like, “You’re right. There’s this division. There’s this divide.” You look like this, you’re a certain way, you think a certain way. You’re on that side of the wall, I stay on this side of the wall, and never the twain shall meet.
As he’s walking away, he says something that just has always stuck with me. He said, “You know what they’re trying to do to us, don’t you?” I said, “Who?” He said, “The news media, the politicians—all of them. They don’t want people like you and me talking to each other. They want us divided.” Then he said, “You’re my sister and I’m your brother and we’re all Americans.” It was just so powerful.
I got to go tell you, Ben: The longer I’ve been on this journey, the more I respect what America is and what it represents. More so than when I was young, more so than when I was in law school. Our Founding Fathers: Yes, they were privileged old white guys, but they put together—America’s the greatest startup in human history, is what I like to call it. It may not be great, it was never great, but it’s always been special. That very special and unique experiment gives us the potential for greatness. Every day I look at what’s happening in the world, and I become more thankful for what America is and what it represents.
I look at all these people in all these different countries who are losing their fight for freedom. I look at what happened during the pandemic in Australia and Canada. I look at what’s happening in Israel and Gaza. I look at what’s happening to the Uyghurs in China. And I think, “God, America is truly the line in the sand.” If we lose the battle here, the whole world will become a very dark place, because these experiments only happen once. If it ends here, it’ll never happen again.
KLUTSEY: That is so powerful. When I go to colleges and universities and I speak to students across the board and I tell them about my perspective in America—I think I mentioned, before our conversation started and before we started recording, that I grew up in Ghana, West Africa. We had had a Marxist revolution.
When I was much, much younger—now we are in a much better place, and Ghana is a democratic society and all that. But when we were going through that, people like my father, who was an entrepreneur, was nearly thrown in jail. So much happened where my father would say, “Look, when you walk outside of these four walls, please don’t talk about politics. Please don’t share your views. Don’t challenge authority—the military, the government and so on.”
Coming to America and experiencing the ethos of free speech and how transformational that was for me and giving me a voice to do the things that I do now, I tell students, “You have something so powerful here. You ought to work so hard to ensure that you sustain it and you keep it.” I really appreciate what you just talked about—thinking more about the contrast that we see across the world.
The Illusion of Division
KLUTSEY: I wonder, how does your perspective about the illusion of division inform your work at FAIR [the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism]?
HARRIS: I think understanding the illusions that are keeping us apart, which are largely manufactured and artificial—they’re not organic, in my opinion. Humans innately, we are social creatures. Think about what that means: It means we’re drawn to each other. We have to be forcibly divided. I think it’s possible for us to recognize and appreciate our differences, to embrace our diversity, without allowing those differences to define us, who we are and how we relate to each other. That’s the perspective I’ve had for well over a decade now. That is what drives me, and it’s what attracted me to FAIR, and it’s why I accepted the opportunity to head the organization.
I believe FAIR is dedicated to healing the divide and celebrating our shared humanity by acknowledging that perspective I just mentioned. We in FAIR are committed to the idea that what we have in common is more important than what separates us. I think it’s such an extremely powerful concept. I think it’s one that appeals to that silent and exhausted majority that I was referring to earlier, the people who are increasingly rejecting these regressive and toxic ideologies that are dividing us. I think empowering people to overcome these divisive forces is part and parcel of the work we do at FAIR.
We educate our educators about the dangers of regressive ideology. We give parents and heterodox, courageous teachers the tools to push back against it. Whenever possible, we advocate on their behalf through legal means. For example, right now we’re working with Dr. Tabia Lee: She was terminated from De Anza College in Cupertino, California, because she was accused of “whitesplaining.” She’s Black, by the way; the head of a DEI program. But she was accused of whitesplaining. She was trying to set meeting agendas that allowed for more inclusive voices and more diverse perspectives. She was told that those attempts were efforts to perpetuate white supremacy because they were validating punctuality and engaging in strategic planning.
FAIR is also representing Zack De Piero; he’s a professor at Penn State University. He was subjected to a race-essentialist environment that he felt was harmful to his students, most of whom were, ironically, from minority backgrounds and ethnicities. Dr. De Piero was required to attend these professional development meetings and watch videos like, my favorite title was—one of them was “White Teachers Are a Problem.” He was told to assure students that white supremacy manifests in language and writing and, anyway, that there’s a problem with the white race. He had to attend anti-racist workshops until he “got it.” Eventually, it just became so untenable that he had to leave.
We represent courageous academic thinkers, people who believe in freedom of speech, like Dr. Tabia Lee and Dr. De Piero. That’s the work we do at FAIR. I’m extremely proud of it. I don’t know of any other organization that is standing up so vigorously to protect the 14th Amendment rights of Americans on so many fronts. It’s work that’s always been important, but it’s more important now than ever.
KLUTSEY: If you don’t mind me asking, there’s a question that was in my mind as I was reading your book. And you talk about your experience going through Princeton and Harvard and the lens that it gave you or the ways in which it formed you. I kept thinking: Does Monica regret going to Princeton and Harvard?
HARRIS: Oh, no. I think it gave me such an informed perspective on what’s happening now. I think too many people still hold these institutions and the people who graduate from them in esteem, extremely high regard. I think we’re still conditioned in this country to think that people who graduate from elite institutions are the brightest minds in the world, the greatest thinkers, and that these are the people we should be listening to. They’re running our government. They’re running our medical institutions, our academic institutions. They’re running the Federal Reserve.
Going to school with these people, working with them, swimming in the same waters with them has helped me understand that they’re just people and they have flaws. One of the emerging flaws, the big emerging flaw now, is that many of them have become—and I’m going to use a term that I didn’t coin, but I think it’s extremely apt. It was coined by Yale professor William Deresiewicz. They’ve become excellent sheep. They’ve become high-achieving followers who regurgitate narratives that they’re expected to follow and that they want others to follow, who don’t think critically about how to solve problems. They don’t even think outside the box.
They don’t ask why the box is there. Forget about thinking outside the box. We need to ask, “Do we even need a box to begin with?” They don’t ask these really pressing questions as our country faces, I think, the most critical problems we’ve faced in our entire history. If I hadn’t gone to the schools that I’ve gone to, I probably would trust that what these people are telling us now, the ideologies that they’re espousing and that they’re pushing into society—I would trust them. I would say, “You know what? They’re smart. They know what they’re doing.” But I know better. I’ve seen from the inside that most of the people, sadly, who are experts and who have been groomed to lead us at these elite institutions, I really don’t think they’re qualified to do it. I don’t.
I think more and more—I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I was just discussing this with my partner this morning: There seems to be an inverse relationship now between people with common sense and people with education. Almost the more education you receive, the more money you spend to get that education, the less common sense you have.
I feel like I’ve had the best of both worlds. I’ve swum in waters with some very, very educated people, but now I’ve come to a place where I’m with a lot of people who just have common sense, and it’s a lovely balance.
KLUTSEY: That’s fascinating.
How do we address the problem at these elite institutions? How do we introduce more diversity of thought? How do we introduce more risk-taking? I think that’s a point that you make in the book—that they’re not taking risks and asking these questions about why do we have this box in the first place. How do we do that?
HARRIS: This problem didn’t happen overnight. This has been decades in the making, I think, and we’re not going to be able to unwind these problems overnight. I noticed that the University of California campuses, now that they’ve seen the toxicity that some of the DEI ideology has engendered on campus in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks, they’re spending millions of dollars on mental health and, I don’t know, other miscellaneous programs that—is this a problem you can throw money at? I don’t think so. I think we really just need to go back to—we need to go back to what our institutions of higher learning used to be.
When I was on campus, diversity meant something entirely different than it does now. Diversity meant appreciating people for their mutable and immutable characteristics. The fact that they were Black and Latino, and the fact that they may have come from rural Appalachia. The fact that they’re from different classes, the fact that they might be libertarian as opposed to Democrat. It was a holistic sort of diversity, and it was one that I felt really comfortable with. That embraced all of me as a gay Black woman. I felt it was a type of diversity that was moving society forward.
In the ’90s, when I came of age, America really felt like it was going in a positive direction, a truly progressive direction. I think that we can get back there if we just—I don’t know if this is going to take the power of donors, who are already becoming very vocal and active, by the way (thank God). Or alumni—I’ve talked with some of my Harvard alumni about what we can do to start putting pressure on administrators and faculty. We don’t need to create something anew. We just need to look back at where we were. We just need to take a few steps back and shed what we’ve brought to our curricula for the past 20 years.
You know what? It shouldn’t be that hard. In theory, it’s relatively easy. Look, just go back to a course catalog in 1995. [laughter] The difficulty is that once anything becomes entrenched in society, once the mindset has taken root, it takes time to pull up those roots. I think there is a blueprint for doing this. We’ve been there before. We were on the right path. We just took a detour. Now we just have to find our way back. I believe we can do it.
A Long-Term Optimist
KLUTSEY: So you’re optimistic.
HARRIS: You know what, Ben? You’ll hear this from me a million times: I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist.
KLUTSEY: I like that. I think I’ll steal that.
HARRIS: Yes–no, steal it!
This is something that I like to ask people to do. Anyone listening now, I’d ask you to close your eyes and imagine we’re in a dark room. (This is why I’m optimistic, by the way.) You’re in a dark room and your eyes are closed, and after a while your eyes will adapt to the darkness, right? You can’t see much, but imagine you open your eyes now and someone lights a single candle. What happens? The entire room changes. That single point of light allows us to see so much. That single point of light pushes back so much of the darkness, and each time we add another candle, the darkness retreats a little further.
The point is that it doesn’t take much light to defeat the darkness. That’s how powerful light is, and that’s how powerful each and every one of us is. The reason I’m a long-term optimist—Ben, if we were the only people in the country thinking the way I’m thinking and who are seeing what I’m seeing, I would be a short- and long-term pessimist. I see every day that there are more points of light, more people who are waking up to what’s happening to our country at all levels, and they want to reclaim America—for all its flaws! They want to put our country back on course.
And it’s a plurality. You understand the importance—it’s not a minority. It’s a plurality of Americans. By the way, it doesn’t even have to be a majority, because I remind everyone that it wasn’t a majority of Americans who brought us to this place. We are where we are now because the fringes, a vocal and strident minority, have taken us off course. The silent and exhausted majority, we’ve just been too busy keeping our heads down, sending our kids to school, paying bills, keeping a roof over our heads. We’re like, “OK, this is a phase. Everything’s going to get back to normal. Let’s just let them scream it out.” It’s not going back to normal. It’s time for us to stand up.
HARRIS: But a lot of people aren’t willing to stand up. As long as a sizable plurality—and I think it was a sizable plurality that pulled off the American Revolution, by the way. Most people don’t realize that the majority of colonists didn’t take up arms to fight against the crown. It was a really dedicated plurality. I think that’s what we have now. We probably have more people now who are awake and aware and are willing to take action than there were during the American Revolution. We have the numbers.
I believe with all my heart that the tide is turning. I sense it. I see it. I know it’s coming. That’s why I remain optimistic.
Contemporary Race Relations
KLUTSEY: Now, as we bring this to a close, I wanted to ask you about—and it’s come up a number of times in this conversation. When it comes to issues of race relations and racial tensions, where do you think we are? I think in your book, what you try to highlight is that it’s not as though everything is perfect, but we’ve come a long way from, say, the 1950s and ’60s.
I actually often highlight how the surveys on interracial marriage has changed over the years. I think in the 1950s or so, if you asked Americans’ sentiments about interracial marriage, only about 5% of whites will say yes, they would endorse it, right? Now that’s about 98% or so. We’ve come a very long way. What are your thoughts on race relations?
HARRIS: I would be the last person to claim that race is no longer an issue in this country and that racism is no longer an issue. I’m not naive. Of course it’s an issue. It’s very closely tied to class, to be honest. As a Black woman in the middle to upper-middle class, I face far less racism than a Black person in inner-city Los Angeles or Compton. That’s just a reality.
To your point, I would also say that America—the systemic racism that we’ve been laser-focused on, particularly ever since the death of George Floyd, I do think it’s been exaggerated. I think that we’re looking at our collective experience more from a glass-half-empty rather than glass-half-full perspective. In my book, I use the analogy of, we’re driving a car as a society and we’re looking at, “Oh my God, we’ve got miles and miles to go before we reach nirvana,” or wherever our ultimate destination is where all races are treated equally. We’re not looking in the rearview mirror at all the obstacles we overcame and how far we’ve come.
I was at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which is the site of where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at the Lorraine Motel. If your listeners have never been there, before you die, you’ve got to go there. It is a five-hour immersive experience. You’re just in tears at the end. It takes you on a journey from slavery through the death of Martin Luther King Jr. You realize exactly how far we’ve come from Jim Crow to the point where today we’ve had a Black director of the National Security Agency, Black secretary of state, two Black members of the Supreme Court—the highest court of the land—and a Black man who was elected president of the United States, not once but twice. I would tell people, “Yes, we do have a problem with racism, but how racist can America really be when you look at that data?”
Truly, in a country that is intractably racist, this wouldn’t even be possible. Another statistic that people don’t realize: We like to put people in buckets of Black, white, Latino, Latina (or Latino or Latinx)—whatever, however we want to refer to ourselves, but the single largest and fastest-growing demographic in this country of children is multiracial children. How do they define themselves? That’s one of the biggest problems with this anti-racist ideology and all these other regressive ideologies, is that they’re so binary. They never contemplate kids like my son, who has a white mom and a Black mom. He’s being trained to think of his white mom as an oppressor and his Black mom as a member of the oppressed group.
I don’t want to oversimplify the issue, but I do think we’ve made much more progress than we’re allowed to admit or than we tell ourselves. Again, I’m optimistic that the more we begin to reject these labels and we open ourselves up to exposing ourselves to other people, other cultures, other communities, people of different perspectives, to people of different political beliefs, the more we will begin to realize that the level of racism in this country, while it does exist, it has been exaggerated. That’s what I believe.
KLUTSEY: Well, Monica, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. I really appreciate it.
HARRIS: Oh, it’s been a pleasure too. Thank you, Ben. I really appreciate it.
KLUTSEY: Thank you.