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Margaret Huang: Fighting Hate and Protecting Democracy


Guy Kawasaki:
I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. Thank you very much for listening. We’re on a mission to make you remarkable. And today I’m very pleased to host Margaret Huang. She’s the president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Margaret is a long time human rights and racial justice advocate. She leads the SPLC in its mission to foster racial justice and white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance human rights.
Before joining the SPLC, Margaret was Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director. She led campaigns to protect migrants, refugees, torture survivors, gun violence victims and activists. Margaret led human rights missions to the U.S., Mexico border to advocate for asylum seekers and to document abuse.
Her work includes accompanying transgender youth seeking asylum and leading observer delegations to monitor U.S. police responses to civil and human rights protests. Margaret brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the fight for justice with a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University, and a bachelor’s in foreign service from Georgetown University.
I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. And now let’s explore Margaret’s remarkable journey from East Tennessee to the top of one of the most important organizations in the fight against injustice. How did your family end up in East Tennessee of all places?
Margaret Huang:
It’s a great question. What a good way to kick off. So, my father actually was born in mainland China. His family fled to Taiwan in 1949, as part of the Nationalist departure from China. They settled in Taiwan. They were very poor when they arrived, like all of the mainlanders who resettled in Taiwan.
And then he chose to study chemistry because he understood that was the best way to get a visa to come to the United States to study. And so, he came to East Tennessee to get his master’s degree in chemistry.
Guy Kawasaki:
Where?
Margaret Huang:
Johnson City, Tennessee, in the Appalachian Mountains.
Guy Kawasaki:
Did it not occur to him, he could have gone to Stanford?
Margaret Huang:
I really don’t know all the details of why that place, but he had a friend who had a connection to the university. And for him, it was just the chance to come and study in the U.S. He did his master’s degree there, so two years there.
And then he went to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to do his PhD where he met my mother who was doing her PhD in mathematics. And after they finished at that university, they ended up being offered a teaching job back in East Tennessee. So, that’s how we landed there.
Guy Kawasaki:
And how many Chinese people were in East Tennessee back then?
Margaret Huang:
Very few. Actually in a nearby town, so I grew up in Johnson City, in Kingsport there was the Kodak Eastman plant. And they actually did recruit a number of Chinese to come work there. So, I did grow up with Chinese school. You know about Chinese school?
Guy Kawasaki:
You grew up with Chinese school in East Tennessee?
Margaret Huang:
In East Tennessee. Yeah. The parents organized. They were the teachers. We learned calligraphy and mandarin. And sometimes if there was a really inspired parent, some tai chi or something. Every Saturday morning and afternoon for several years in middle school. It was pretty tough. Yeah.
Guy Kawasaki:
Did you play Mahjong and make dim sum?
Margaret Huang:
We didn’t do anything that fun, but yeah.
Guy Kawasaki:
And in East Tennessee, how much Chinese history did you get?
Margaret Huang:
None.
Guy Kawasaki:
None?
Margaret Huang:
None.
Guy Kawasaki:
Zero?
Margaret Huang:
Zero. In the public schools, you mean? None.
Guy Kawasaki:
At the same time, how much Black history did your classmates get?
Margaret Huang:
None.
Guy Kawasaki:
What was history? Columbus, the white guy came over and save the native Indians from peril and made them Christian and had happy Thanksgiving.
Margaret Huang:
Absolutely.
Guy Kawasaki:
That’s it?
Margaret Huang:
Yeah. It was what you’d expect, plus a lot of memorization of dates of wars. I seem to remember that was really important in history, was to remember when people were fighting.
Guy Kawasaki:
And if you studied World War II, did anybody mention the Japanese being interned?
Margaret Huang:
No.
Guy Kawasaki:
So this is, no pun intended, but history was completely whitewashed.
Margaret Huang:
Completely. In fact, do you know how I learned about the Japanese internment?
Guy Kawasaki:
I do. I read your bio.
Margaret Huang:
So, you know. So, I moved to Washington for college. I went to the National Museum for American History, and I visited the exhibit. And I sat down in the museum and I cried.
Guy Kawasaki:
Because you’d never heard of that before.
Margaret Huang:
Never heard of it before. And I couldn’t believe that had been left out of my history classes.
Guy Kawasaki:
This is slightly bizarre, but I grew up in Hawaii. And I swear to God, I learned about Japanese internment also in college. Because in Hawaii, even though it was one third Japanese American, there was very little internment in Hawaii. I think there was a couple hundred people.
I get to Stanford, and I meet a Japanese American from the mainland. There’s a derogatory term called Kotonk. So I meet all these Kotonks, and they’re all pissed off. I don’t know, what the hell are you talking about? Man, I’m from Hawaii, man. We own Hawaii. For different reasons, we both didn’t get that part of World War II.
Margaret Huang:
Yeah. Exactly.
Guy Kawasaki:
Ah, it’s amazing. And did you experience racism as a kid?
Margaret Huang:
Of course. We grew up as children of color in the United States. Has anyone ever said no to that question?
Guy Kawasaki:
But you were the slant eye devil?
Margaret Huang:
Yes. Ching Chong, some other less polite words. Yeah.
Guy Kawasaki:
But then your Black schoolmates had it worse or the same?
Margaret Huang:
Different and probably worse.
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah.
Margaret Huang:
Yeah. And there were no Latinos in my school at the time.
Guy Kawasaki:
At all?
Margaret Huang:
It was Black, white, and a few of us Asian. That has changed over the years, but yeah.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow.
Margaret Huang:
Yeah, yeah.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. Now switching gears here, can you just explain what the Southern Poverty Law Center does?
Margaret Huang:
Sure.
Guy Kawasaki:
Because I’m fairly literate and I don’t know what it does.
Margaret Huang:
We are an organization that was founded in 1971 with a commitment to making the Civil Rights Movement a reality. So not just the laws that were being passed in the fifties and sixties, not just the Supreme Court wins that promised a new kind of United States.
But actually suing on behalf of people who were being denied equal opportunity, equal access, equal treatment under the law. Over time, that has evolved significantly, and that is because of what we learned along the way.
Our initial cases were representing women who were suing for discriminatory pay or unequal access to jobs. We also sued on behalf of Black families who were being denied access to the YMCA swimming pools. Or in some memorable cases, we represented women who were forcibly sterilized by the federal government as being people who should not have children.
So we did a lot of those cases and as we went along, we kept running into the open and ongoing discrimination of white supremacist groups in the deep south that were causing serious harm to Black communities, Black families. And in one terrible case, there was a young Black man who was lynched by the KKK.
And we decided to represent his mother in a civil suit against the KKK. And in that decision and that win, we did win the case. They were forced to compensate the family and they were then forced out of business. They had to give up all their property, all of their holdings as a chapter of the KKK. And they were put out of business.
Guy Kawasaki:
What city is this?
Margaret Huang:
This was in Alabama. I should remember the name of the city. And I’m sorry, I don’t.
Guy Kawasaki:
And this is in the seventies?
Margaret Huang:
This was in the early eighties. We were founded in 1971, so the beginning of the next decade, we took this case on. And it really changed. We became experts on the topic of extremism, on white supremacy, and on putting those people out of business.
Guy Kawasaki:
And if I were to go visit your office, is it just basically a bunch of lawyers and administrators?
Margaret Huang:
It would’ve been then. If you visited our offices in the eighties, that’s what it would look like. But as I said, over the last few decades, we’ve evolved. So first, we developed research in an analysis capacity. So we were studying, who are these groups and where do they come from? And what are their ways of operating and where does their funding come from?
Guy Kawasaki:
In a sociological sense?
Margaret Huang:
And a political sense. We’ve provided a lot of information over the years to law enforcement about groups who are planning bad acts. We at different points, have collaborated with law enforcement. We don’t do that anymore, but that has been part of our history.
We also then developed an entire educational arm. And this is where your questions about education are so important. What we saw is that when children don’t learn about our true history, they’re much more inclined to repeat it, or to not see the risks and the dangers of what’s surrounding them, because they don’t recognize apparel.
Guy Kawasaki:
And is that learning a language in the sense that, if you don’t get them by ten years old, it’s too late or something?
Margaret Huang:
I think you can reach them at different ages, but I think you also can’t avoid it in early ages. And so, we now have curriculum experts and training specialists who offer professional development to teachers and schools across the country on how to teach about the Civil Rights Movement, how to teach about slavery and genocide.
How to teach about some of the difficult periods of our life in the United States. And how to make sure that all students feel welcomed and included in the classroom. And that is a huge part of our work.
Guy Kawasaki:
And these people doing research and stuff, are they just pouring over books and data? Or are they like Leonardo DiCaprio and they’re out there in a field and packing heat? Is there going to be a movie, SPLC CIS or something?
Margaret Huang:
Definitely not. No movie. But when we started, it was a lot of human intelligence. So it was actually going and studying the groups in person, sometimes infiltrating, collecting information that way.
Guy Kawasaki:
When you say, infiltrating, you mean into the Ku Klux Klan?
Margaret Huang:
Yes.
Guy Kawasaki:
SPLC members were wearing sheets and being spies?
Margaret Huang:
I’m not going to comment on all the ways that was done, but just to say, that was the best way of getting information at earlier times. That is no longer the case. These groups aren’t meeting in person and these groups aren’t doing the activities the way that they always have.
Now, all of it has moved online. And so in order for us to track what’s happening, we have to use online, open source, and other sources of intelligence.
Guy Kawasaki:
So I understand that it’s worse in the sense that obviously digital communication is instant and free and far-reaching and all that. But it’s also more easily monitored, right?
Margaret Huang:
Yeah. But you know this, there are hundreds, thousands of platforms out there that have no restrictions or rules about the kind of content you can post. And it can be very challenging identifying and tracking all of those. But that’s what our researchers do today.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. So every once in a while, I read that such and such organization has been labeled a hate group. What does that mean when you guys label something a hate group?
Margaret Huang:
So we have a definition, you can find it on our website. It is a group that actually designates community of people, either by the words of their leaders, by their official statements, or by the association, the activities that they do around those groups that malign or attack a group of people based on their immutable characteristics.
So forms of identity, race, gender, religion, immigration status, a whole host of things. And that’s a hate group. We also track anti-government extremist groups which can be different.
Guy Kawasaki:
I was going to ask you about that.
Margaret Huang:
So sometimes they share some of that ideological hatred of groups, but sometimes they really just want to overthrow a government.
Guy Kawasaki:
Walk me through the mechanisms. Okay, every Monday we meet at eight. And this Monday, we’re going to decide on QAnon. How do you say, “We’re declaring you a hate group.”?
Margaret Huang:
So in our annual Year in Hate Report, we start the slate clean in January. So even if you’ve been on a report in the past, it doesn’t mean that you’re continued automatically. Everybody’s wiped clean in January. And we start the year by monitoring, what are groups across the country saying, doing? What are their leaders saying? How are they using their platforms to talk about other communities?
And if we see evidence, then you can be added to the hate list, but it’s not an automatic. We’ve had groups that have been on the hate list one year and then they’re not the next year, because they no longer embrace that ideology or because they’ve become defunct.
Guy Kawasaki:
But I’m really interested in the tactics. Is there a person who stands up at a meeting and says, “Okay, this is why I think this should be designated a hate group.”? And there’s a devil’s advocate who argues against. How’s the decision made? You pull your members?
Margaret Huang:
No, not at all. It’s databased, it’s a rigorous analysis by trained researchers and data folks, and they’re looking at a whole range of things. It can’t just be that you stood up at a meeting and said something. That’s not the way to designate. It has to be a track record. You have to be publishing things that malign a group of people.
You have to have your leader go out and criticize a group of people. Maybe you’re involved in things like flyering, where you’re dropping off pamphlets in a neighborhood, criticizing a group of people. Those are all activities that will get you listed. But not one person affiliated loosely with somebody who stands up in a meeting and says something.
Guy Kawasaki:
No, I meant someone on your staff.
Margaret Huang:
No. We have researchers who backstop one another. So when one person comes and says, “I’ve been researching this group, I think they might need to go on the list.”, there are other researchers who then go back and check all of the facts and determine whether that designation is appropriate.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay, so let’s say this group makes this hate list. What’s the impact on that group?
Margaret Huang:
It really varies. I don’t think the Ku Klux Klan ever minded that they were on our hate list. Some groups consider it a badge of honor. Other groups very much resent the designation. We do get sued on a somewhat frequent basis, I would say, by groups who do not appreciate the designation and want to have it removed.
But the other thing to remember is this is the opinion of the SPLC. We ground it in data and analysis, we don’t think it’s frivolous in any way. We’re ready to stand by our research, but it’s our opinion, just like you can have an opinion about the Southern Poverty Law Center. If we think that you’re a hater extremist groups, we actually are allowed under the Constitution, to say that.
Guy Kawasaki:
In a sense, you’re the opposite of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. You’re like a bad housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Margaret Huang:
I’ve never thought of it that way.
Guy Kawasaki:
So every year it resets, and so in one month, QAnon might not be, Moms for Liberty, might not be, or they might be or who knows.
Margaret Huang:
Or their actions could change. Their activities, their leaders could change and the way they talk about things. It would be really unusual to see that degree of change. In our experience, that doesn’t happen often, but we create the opportunity every January. We start again.
And that’s the thing about the Year in Hate Report. It’s a snapshot of the year that we’re reporting on. For example, the year 2023, our new report will come out in March and it will cover who was actively engaged in hateful or anti-government activity in 2023. It’s not who’s doing it in 2024. That will be the next year.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. But is there someplace that even you would not go, like you, SPLC? Take an extreme example. March 2024, you guys say the Republican Party is a hate group. The qualities you’ve listed seems to me that it’s based on race. The qualities, you can check the box for the GOP. Is that even conceivable?
Margaret Huang:
It’s not necessarily the case. We haven’t typically watched political parties for that.
Guy Kawasaki:
You have not?
Margaret Huang:
No.
Guy Kawasaki:
Huh.
Margaret Huang:
And remember, we only look in the United States. We’re not designating groups outside of the United States. We have identified individual candidates running for a political office as extremist candidates. And that is something that the SPLC Action Fund does. That’s our C4.
Guy Kawasaki:
So, there’s a bad boys list and that comes out once a year or?
Margaret Huang:
It’s come out around election times every year. And we haven’t been doing it that long. Our C4 has only been around for six years.
Guy Kawasaki:
Who’s been on the list recent?
Margaret Huang:
Some names you might recognize, but there are also some folks who are running for local or state office who might not be familiar. But you can find those on our website as well.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. But just throw a name out now though.
Margaret Huang:
Sure. So Marjorie Taylor Greene’s made it on the list. This is not a surprise.
Guy Kawasaki:
No.
Margaret Huang:
Yeah. There are a few others. We actually just recently uncovered that Congresswoman Greene has a white nationalist working for her who has formal affiliations with extremist organizations. I think that he no longer now works there.
Guy Kawasaki:
What’s the trend line look, because it’s hard to judge from reading media? I just read this article and I think the American public is under the impression that electric cars are always catching on fire.
But then I just read this article from the IEEE, and it says, “Electric cars catch on fire 120th, the frequency of internal combustion.” I tell you that story because everybody thinks the U.S. is going to shit. But maybe you can tell me that it’s just that we hear more, it’s not that it’s happening more. It is worse?
Margaret Huang:
It is worse in some ways. So, let me explain. There has always been hate and extremism in this country, since before it was founded. And the organization of that hate and extremism has never been as open, as coordinated, as well funded, and as tied to political leaders as it is now.
These groups have traditionally been more on the extremes. Now, of course, in the deep South during Jim Crow, there were political leaders, law enforcement leaders who were part of the KKK. So, that’s familiar.
Guy Kawasaki:
Is it the George Wallace days?
Margaret Huang:
But we haven’t seen that since the end of Jim Crow. Right?
Guy Kawasaki:
We’re getting close.
Margaret Huang:
And what I’m trying to say is, it’s a return. So it’s not new, we’ve seen it before. But we are going back to a moment where it is inextricably tied to people in power and seeking to return to power in ways that we have not seen for decades.
Guy Kawasaki:
And do you this as a last gasp, desperate play for survival and the trend is not their friend? Or this is just how it’s going to be forever?
Margaret Huang:
It’s not inevitable. No, it’s not. The key here is that this is coming as part of a backlash. They’re recognizing the changes that are happening in the country.
Guy Kawasaki:
Demographically.
Margaret Huang:
Demographically, the values and morals of the younger generations who are growing up and coming into power, they’re not aligned with this way of thinking. And it is a bit of a last gasp, but only if we stay organized and aware and push back.
If we don’t turn out in record numbers to reject this in 2024, we may lose the opportunity to have our democracy pushback. Because our opponents have been very clear that they’re going to take away all of the powers of participatory democracy. This will become much more of an autocracy, of a fascist state. And that is when we are really in trouble, because we won’t be able to organize at that stage.
Guy Kawasaki:
And it would be very difficult to dig yourself out of that hole?
Margaret Huang:
Very difficult. Not impossible, but it will be much more difficult and likely much more violent.
Guy Kawasaki:
Even with people of color becoming the majority, it still will be hard?
Margaret Huang:
Absolutely, because they’re suppressing the vote now, Guy. If you look at the states where the Southern Poverty Law Center has offices, work, staff, we are seeing hundreds of bills to suppress the vote in each of our states, every year. They’re going after people of color, they’re going after people with disabilities, they’re going after women.
They’re going after young people, they’re going after senior folks. There’s not a constituency that they haven’t identified ways to suppress their vote. And the more that we let them do that, who will be voting in the end? That’s when we lose our power.
Guy Kawasaki:
And call me naive or stupid, but how can you believe that is going to be a winning strategy in the long run?
Margaret Huang:
For some of them, I don’t think they care about the long run. If they did, we wouldn’t be seeing the crisis and climate issues, right? They’re really only thinking about themselves at this moment. Maybe their kids, probably not. So, I don’t think these are people who care about the long term.
I think they’re people who are in it for their own benefit right now. I think for the rest of us who are worried about the future, who have to think about what happens next, it’s a very different calculation.
Guy Kawasaki:
And how do you think they came to have this kind of mentality?
Margaret Huang:
I think people like having power. I think once they’ve had it, they’re unwilling to share or give it up.
Guy Kawasaki:
This is a depressing interview.
Margaret Huang:
I don’t mean it to be, because I’m not actually demoralized by this. If anything, I feel strongly motivated. And I’ll tell you, we see stories all the time, even in the deep South where some of these challenges are the biggest, I think, there are communities that are organizing and fighting back. The organization that happened in Georgia over the last decade.
Guy Kawasaki:
The Stacey Abrams Movement?
Margaret Huang:
Stacey Abrams Movement, and the movement of so many other strong Black women who led the organizing effort in Georgia has transformed the way that people in that state feel about their relationship to government, and the accountability that they expect elected officials to have.
Is it sustainable? We’ve got to keep working on that. But they’ve shown us how to do it. And we are trying to replicate that incredible model across all of our states in the South to really build strong leadership, strong communities who understand what their priorities are and what they’re going to stand for.
Guy Kawasaki:
I interviewed Stacy for this, which took me two years of groveling to get there, but it was worth it. Funny, it’s just a coincidence, but I asked her for a blurb from my book today. I’m such a dumbass though. I sent the wrong attachment, so she sent back an email that says, “Where’s it Guy?” So anyway, yeah, she’s a powerhouse.
Margaret Huang:
She is. She has a vision. She has a vision for what people-led democracy should be.
Guy Kawasaki:
Now you are also Amnesty International.
Margaret Huang:
That’s right.
Guy Kawasaki:
Another organization I think very few people understand. So, what does Amnesty International do?
Margaret Huang:
Amnesty is actually a movement for human rights. It is member organized and driven, it is international in scope. And the theory is that by individual people paying attention, taking action on behalf of human rights defenders, that we can make change happen, that we can hold autocrats and dictators to account.
The original founder of Amnesty International was somebody who wrote a letter to a newspaper about some political prisoners in Portugal. He was in the UK. And after he wrote his letter, other people around the world started sending in letters. And ultimately, the prison officials decided to release those detainees rather than continue to have the scrutiny and attention from the international community.
So, it’s premised on a few things. It’s premised on the idea that individual actions matter. It’s premised on the idea that you can shame government officials into changing their behavior. And it’s premised on the idea that the international community can work coherently and coordinating their efforts to push for human rights.
All of those are premises that have certainly been challenged in the last few years. But it’s a powerful message when people from around the world are all demanding the release of a prisoner or the change in policy that’s harming a particular group of people.
Guy Kawasaki:
Now to get really tactical, at the U.S., Mexico border, what does amnesty mean? I mean, is amnesty a certain kind of person trying to get into America or is it just people trying to find a better economic situation for the family? What divides that group from the other groups?
Margaret Huang:
Sometimes Amnesty advocates on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees, but that’s not where the name came from.
Guy Kawasaki:
So, it’s fundamentally trying to reverse false imprisonment?
Margaret Huang:
Amnesty?
Guy Kawasaki:
Yes.
Margaret Huang:
Amnesty really believed that people were being arrested and detained because of political belief or because of identity. And the idea of Amnesty was to seek their release, to seek amnesty on behalf of those prisoners.
Guy Kawasaki:
But it’s only political. It’s not someone wrongly accused of murder?
Margaret Huang:
Over the years, it’s evolved quite a bit. And now it’s not even necessarily about people who are being detained. Now, Amnesty campaigns on behalf of, for example, women human rights defenders in Iran who may or may not have been arrested. But who are being mistreated, maligned by political leadership. So they’re campaigning on a whole host of issues, not just those who are being detained.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. I keep forgetting to ask you this, but how is it that a Chinese American from East Tennessee is running the Southern Poverty Law Center? You’re not exactly Black.
Margaret Huang:
No, I’m not. Of course, they’ve never had a Black leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Guy Kawasaki:
Never?
Margaret Huang:
No. So, I’m only the third president and CEO of the SPLC. And the first two were white men.
Guy Kawasaki:
Really? And is that just an interesting factoid or is there some deeper meaning to draw from that?
Margaret Huang:
I think it’s an interesting factoid. But what I’ll say is this, the person who leads the SPLC has to have a fundamental belief in the priority of serving Black communities of the South, which I do.
Guy Kawasaki:
Why?
Margaret Huang:
Because I truly believe that none of us will be free and able to exercise all of our rights until we prioritize the equality and the equal treatment of African American communities in the South.
Guy Kawasaki:
So, we’re only as good as our weakest link.
Margaret Huang:
African American communities have always suffered, and in fairness, so have Indigenous communities in this country. And until we prioritize those communities, the rest of us are competing for breadcrumbs. It doesn’t do me any good to worry about the treatment of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, if I’m not willing to put it all on the line for African American communities or Indigenous populations.
It has to be in all of us. And in the South, particularly because of the legacy of slavery, because of the legacy of Jim Crow, it has to be a priority.
So for my organization, I may be the leader, but my organization is deeply committed to prioritizing Black communities in the South for everything we can do to ensure they can exercise all of their rights moving forward.
And focusing on the South, that was easy because I grew up in Tennessee. And that knowledge of the South, that awareness of the history that being in community in the South really helps when confronted by the realities of the day-to-day lives of my neighbors and fellow residents.
Guy Kawasaki:
What’s your reaction when you hear politicians say something so stupid, “Help teach Black people new skills.”? How do you wrap their mind around someone saying something like that?
Margaret Huang:
I actually am not sure that person even believes it. I think that person is merely trying to make a political point. And if they do believe it, I feel really sorry for them. But I think we’re in a real battle at the moment.
We have a battle of worldviews, of people who think that it is only by hiding the parts of our history and pretending that they weren’t bad, that we can be a society comfortable with one another. And then those of us who recognize that will never happen, unless we reckon with the past and we make amends to those that we owe.
Guy Kawasaki:
In that sense, do you view Germany dealing with its Nazi past? When you go to Germany, there’s that place where there’s all those blocks. That’s Berlin, right?
Margaret Huang:
Yes.
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah. So, there’s that. It’s not like they’re hiding anything. This is the wall and there’s a lot of Nazi stuff there, right?
Margaret Huang:
Oh, yeah.
Guy Kawasaki:
And it’s not hidden. You think Germany is reconciling with its past better than we are?
Margaret Huang:
I think they’re a model in seeking to address the past. Did they get it all right? No. And there are still a lot of extremists in Germany, so it’s not like you can end the problem. But the distinctions are really important, Guy.
In Germany, they teach the history of the Nazis in school. When you grow up in Germany, you understand that your neighbors, your family participated in that process. You’re not exempt from that history. It is part of your history, as a German.
And they have museums and they’re openly acknowledging that history. And the concentration camps are open for tour groups and school groups and others to go learn. It is a deep commitment to both honoring and refusing to look away from the past. And we have nothing like that.
If you look at our home state of Alabama for the Southern Poverty Law Center, that’s where we’re headquartered, the state legislature of Alabama funds only one museum in the entire state. And it’s a museum to the Confederacy.
There is a statue on the grounds of the state legislature in Alabama to the man who liked to call himself the Father of Gynecology, J. Marion Sims. And the way he developed his tools and his procedures as a gynecologist, was by operating on enslaved women without anesthesia. And there’s a statue to this man on the grounds of the Alabama state legislature.
This is a society that refuses to acknowledge past harms, never mind seek to make amends or apologize for the past. And in that context, it’s not a surprise that they don’t want the younger generation to know about those terrible things. They want to pretend that everything has been fine. Young people are not fooled by this.
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, how come Germany has that attitude and we have this attitude? What happened?
Margaret Huang:
I’m sorry to say, it’s not just the United States. There are many other societies that don’t do it. Japan is one, Italy is one, Austria is one. They do not teach about their honest history in the conduct of World War II or any other wars, for that matter. So it’s not unique to the United States that we are unwilling to look at our past in that way.
But there’s something very compelling about Germany’s model. And as I said, if we just started with the premise that it is our obligation to look at our history and to reckon with it, we are not going to get it all right.
There are going to be times when we make a mistake and don’t acknowledge something or miss a community who was in fact harmed in the past. But by seeking to do it, we actually invite a very different world and a very different democracy as we move forward.
Guy Kawasaki:
Are we doing irreparable harm by not teaching this history?
Margaret Huang:
I believe so. And our educational materials seek to make that point. We want teachers and schools and communities to understand that it is only when you recognize the problem and the history, that you’re able to make it better and to move past it.
Guy Kawasaki:
What’s education’s role in this? What are the tools you have or we have at our disposal?
Margaret Huang:
Yeah. So, the Southern Poverty Law Center has an educational initiative called Learning for Justice. We produce curriculum, teachers guides, articles and resources for children, for communities who care about learning about our civil rights history and our inclusive history. And we have curricula on a whole host of issues.
So if you’re a teacher who wants to know, “How do I talk about the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the United States?”, we have materials that can help you. If you’re a teacher who has students of diverse backgrounds in your classroom.
And you want to teach about the history of immigration, good and bad in U.S. history, we have resources for you on how to talk about that and offer an inclusive way to make everyone in the classroom feel represented and heard. So that’s our goal, is to give teachers, schools, and communities the tools they need so that they’re not concerned about how to handle those questions that come up from young people.
Guy Kawasaki:
But wouldn’t a teacher from Florida or Texas be in deep shit if they used any of those materials?
Margaret Huang:
Sometimes. Depends on the district. We do have teachers from both of those states and from many other states, most states in the country. We have folks on our mailing list, teachers who’ve come through our training and professional development.
And we have teachers who teach, for example, African American History in Florida who’ve come through our programs. So they’re there and the question is, are they allowed to teach what they want to teach, what they’re helping them to teach? Not everybody can.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you think that’s getting worse?
Margaret Huang:
Yes. There’s no question. We’re actually suing on behalf of a teacher who was fired in Georgia for reading a book called My Shadow is Purple.
Guy Kawasaki:
My Shadow is Purple?
Margaret Huang:
Yeah. The book is about a young person who talks about how their father has a blue shadow, their mother has a pink shadow, and their shadow is purple. And the idea is that everyone might have a different identity and way of seeing the world or wanting to be seen in the world, and that’s welcome.
Guy Kawasaki:
And she was fired for that?
Margaret Huang:
She was fired for reading the book to her class. The class chose the book out of a book fair, and asked her to read it to them. She did, and she was fired. So we’re now representing her in a lawsuit against the school board.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay, walk me through this. Some kid went home and said, “Mommy, we read a story where people have different colors.”, or I don’t know, whatever. And mommy or daddy went crazy, and they called the school board.
Margaret Huang:
Called the school.
Guy Kawasaki:
School.
Margaret Huang:
Wanted the school to fire the teacher. Raised a big ruckus. The school did fire. The teacher appealed that decision to the school board and the school board rule that she had to be fired. So we’re now suing on her behalf. Yes, it’s getting worse, Guy.
Guy Kawasaki:
But purely on just intellectual basis. How do you go from, “We should fire this person for doing such a heinous thing as reading this book.”? What’s the logic that these people have of terminating this person for doing this?
Margaret Huang:
Well, this is why we listed a number of groups on our extremist list last year. We call them the Anti-Student Inclusion groups. And they’re people who don’t want books about LGBTQ characters, books about people who see the world differently or have different identities, books about somebody with parents who are the same sex.
The book about the two male penguins in the New York City Zoo who raised a baby penguin, they’re all offended by these books, groups like Moms for Liberty. And so, they’re organizing remove those books from libraries.
And the truth is, I didn’t have books like that when I was growing up. And many people that I grew up with probably would have felt so much more welcome and included in our classroom, if they felt that they could see themselves in books that were available.
I think over the years we’ve seen such a beautiful explosion of themes and identities shared in children’s books that really make children feel seen and heard in ways that I could only dream of in my little East Tennessee public school.
I think it’s incredible and a huge gift. And the notion of banning those books is truly bizarre. It’s strange that parents think that you would read a book and that would change who you are. I think reading a book helps you understand who you are. And that is a gift always, for any of us. So, it’s a huge challenge for us to not let parents attack people’s identities in ways that are harmful.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you think these people have you even read those books, or do they just cherry-pick one paragraph?
Margaret Huang:
I think they have. I think they’re children’s books, so they’re pretty easy to review. But I also believe, Guy, very strongly that ultimately these folks are not actually doing any of this because of books. I think these are people who want to destroy public education.
Guy Kawasaki:
Why?
Margaret Huang:
Because they see it as the cornerstone of our democracy. Because people who are educated participate in democracy, because they expect things from their elected officials because they vote based on their knowledge and understanding of things. And that’s not what these people want.
Guy Kawasaki:
But what I don’t understand about this thinking, is what’s the end game? We’re going to do this to the educational system and then our kids will be better off for it. I just shake my head. I do not understand what the end game here is.
Margaret Huang:
The people who are pushing this agenda are the same people who’ve been trying to remove public funding from public schools. They’re the ones fighting for vouchers to be used for private and parochial schools. The more you defund public schools, the less capacity those schools have to serve those with the least. We’ve been seeing that onslaught for decades.
Now, this is the next level where not only are they attacking funding, which is already a huge problem. But they’re now trying to prevent these schools from actually offering quality education to young people. So, it’s part of a larger strategy. And this is all being funded by the same people who fund the voucher systems and who fund the parochial and private schools.
Guy Kawasaki:
You mean like the Koch Network?
Margaret Huang:
And the Betsy DeVos Foundation.
Guy Kawasaki:
Every time I read a new story that says somebody a billionaire, a tune up, there’s like billionaires disease. Something goes wrong. I hope I find out if I can withstand this someday. But what is with these billionaires? I don’t get it. They’re on another planet. They’re like up is down and down is up. I don’t get it. And listen, we’re in Silicon Valley.
Margaret Huang:
There’s a lot of them here.
Guy Kawasaki:
There’s a lot of them here. Anyway, so somebody listening to this, and they agree, what do they do?
Margaret Huang:
They should definitely check out our website to learn more. The website is splcenter.org. There’s lots to learn. There’s different ways to get involved. We always welcome donations, but even more importantly, we need partners and people who want to do this work with us.
Maybe that means sharing our curricula and resources with educators or community members who they know might be interested. Maybe it’s talking about the concerns about voter suppression with their elected officials. Maybe it’s participating in Get Out the Vote drives in their local community. There are many ways for people to get involved.
Guy Kawasaki:
And what’s the prognosis here? Let’s take the worst case, Donald Trump gets elected. What happens?
Margaret Huang:
We get up the next day and we get ready for a serious fight.
Guy Kawasaki:
A serious fight in the court system or serious fight with AR-15s?
Margaret Huang:
No, we never advocate violence, ever. But a serious fight in the courts, a serious fight in the legislatures, a serious fight at all levels of democratic governance, a serious fight for democracy. We want to champion the institutions of democracy that protect all of us with the rule of law.
And we’re going to have our hands full, but we have them pretty full now. So we just need to figure out the best ways to organize, to mobilize, and to bring people together. Because none of us can do this individually, organizationally. We need all of us participating to win this.
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, you could build the case that unintended consequence, for example, of gerrymandering and voter suppression. You think you’ve solved the problem by suppressing votes, but you’ve exacerbated the problem because there’s, well, I don’t know if there’s no one, but very few Gen Z are going to say, “Yeah, let’s suppress votes. That’s a good thing.” Right?
So, you wiped out one generation there. I don’t understand the logic here that the demographics, the trend is not your friend. And instead of gerrymandering and suppressing votes, why don’t you just do what’s right for people? Maybe you’ll get reelected that way. What am I missing?
Margaret Huang:
It defies logic.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay, two last questions.
Margaret Huang:
Sure.
Guy Kawasaki:
You’ve mentioned democracy several times, and one of the arguments that just makes my head explode is whenever you get into an argument with some people about preserving democracy and all that. And they come back with, “You know that the American system is not a democracy, it’s a republic. And were the elected officials and not necessarily majority rules, and blah, blah, blah.”
It’s as if when they say that that bit of sophistry, it means, “Oh, it’s okay to gerrymander and suppress votes because we’re not a democracy, we’re a republic.” So, what should I say when somebody says that to me?
Margaret Huang:
There’s a famous line, that democracy is the worst form of government, except for every other form. And I actually think that’s the right line. It’s not that democracy is perfect. Certainly a republic has different angles than a pure democracy.
But democracy can really help a society to make better decisions. You pool the talents and expertise and ideas and commitments of an entire community of people to make the best decisions you can. And you can make mistakes, but you can learn from those mistakes and get better.
And when I look at American history, that’s what I see. I see plenty of mistakes, don’t get me wrong. It has not been a great form of government, except that no other form has been better. We take democracy to be the best chance we have of ensuring that we all feel a stake in the outcome. And that’s why it’s so important to me, it’s why it’s so important to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
For a long time, communities of color in the deep South have not been part of the democracy. They were intentionally excluded in the past. They’re now facing a whole host of obstacles seeking to suppress their vote and participation. But they also championed and led a movement to win the vote for their communities that has inspired progressive movements around the world.
Everywhere I have traveled around the world, people have talked about the Civil Rights Movement of the US as something that fundamentally gave them hope that they could be part of making change happen. So, I believe that. I believe that the South can demonstrate how we bring that change about.
Guy Kawasaki:
I used to make a lot of money with speeches and now I will not speak in the state of Texas and Florida. Oh, just to be transparent, I am going to South by Southwest, but I don’t consider Austin part of Texas. Okay?
Margaret Huang:
They probably don’t either.
Guy Kawasaki:
So now, I just declined something in Florida. I decline Florida all the time because I don’t want to support in any way, manner, or form Florida, whether it’s my hotel bill, my food, whatever. What I’m asking you is a better attitude would be, you go to Florida, and you show them there is a better way. So instead of boycotting Florida, you should go and educate Florida.
So, you should accept those speeches and go to be a little bit of light. I’m asking you, what’s your advice? Should I decline Florida and make a statement, or should I go there and try to be part of the solution, not the problem?
Margaret Huang:
It’s a fair question because we have offices and staff in Florida too. And we’ve had internal discussions about whether our presence contributes in ways that are unintended to supporting or enabling the government that is doing so much harm.
But I’ll tell you that there are extraordinary organizations in Florida who are not giving up, who are fighting hard for their communities to be heard, to be represented, to have a voice. And I think they’re going to win. They have young people, they have a diverse constituency that is truly outraged and ready to fight. And I feel an obligation to stand alongside and support them.
And so, that’s the question. Can your presence help lift up that effort? I think you can look at each request to you individually and say, “Is this going to give me an opportunity to speak to people who need to hear my message about what’s important? Is this going to give me a chance to connect with people in Florida who are fighting that good fight and lift up their work? If it is, I should go. And if it isn’t, I’m happy to decline.”
Guy Kawasaki:
It’s not the NRA asking me to come to Florida, just to be clear.
Margaret Huang:
That’s good.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. So, I may have to go to Florida?
Margaret Huang:
You don’t have to, but it is worth asking, because there are people who will welcome your support and desperately need it on the ground.
Guy Kawasaki:
I guess I’ll be accepting more speaking engagements in Florida, per the advice of Margaret Huang. She’s the remarkable person who runs the Southern Poverty Law Center. I hope you enjoyed this interview. I hope it gives you hope about the future of our country. I’m Guy Kawasaki, this is Remarkable People.
The Remarkable People team is Shannon Hernandez and Jeff Sieh, Tessa and Madisun Nuismer, Luis Magaña, Alexis Nishimura, and Fallon Yates. And don’t forget, Madisun and I have a new book out. It’s called, Think Remarkable. And if you want eighty-eight methods to make a difference and change the World and make the world a better place, please read, Think Remarkable. Mahalo and Aloha.



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