Award-winning broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien has hosted projects and series before, including American Injustice, a one-hour special about criminal justice reform, and Black in America, CNN’s pivotal docu-series about racial disparities in the U.S. But with her new BET mini-series, Disrupt and Dismantle, O’Brien had a specific aim: to contextualize systemic injustices — and offer solutions. Along with highlighting the people working to fight issues like environmental racism and infant mortality, she prompts viewers to do their own research and explains how we can take action in our own communities.
Filming the series in 2020 brought upon unique challenges, too. “We shot the whole series in the middle of the pandemic,” O’Brien told Refinery29. It wasn’t easy. “But I think we felt it was very important to do it while we were also dealing with the effect of COVID-19, because it’s part of the story.”
Over the phone, I spoke to O’Brien about the widespread issues she explores in Disrupt and Dismantle, how those issues have been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the role of social media in journalism in 2021.
Something that I love about Disrupt and Dismantle is the focus on concrete steps that viewers can take to help tackle these systemic problems and injustices.
"Thank you so much. It was such an interesting part of our discussion. I had done a series about a dozen years ago called Black in America and that was really successful at CNN, and when we would go back and look at it, it was always like, God, I just sometimes feel like we teed people up and we talked about some challenging stuff and you’re just like, ‘Okay, onto the next thing!’ Like, okay, well, what do we do? What should we be thinking about?
And so I did think as we went into this one, this concept of one, explaining the history better, really connecting the dots for people. Don’t just say, ‘No, it was all about redlining,’ and then move on. You have to literally, tangibly connect the dots. And then number two, so what do you do and how do you think about it? How do we update this in a way that’s meaningful and worthwhile?"
What were some of the things that really astonished you when you were looking into these stories?
"When I was told that I’d be driving out to see Shingle Mountain, I thought it was probably an exaggeration. A pile of shingles, right? I’m sure it’s not a mountain. It’s probably just a very large pile. And then you pull up and you think, Holy cow. It literally is a mountain. It’s a hundred thousand tons. It’s massive, massive. And it was so interesting because it was such an overt example of something that’s just ridiculously unfair and, frankly, would not have happened if the woman who was at the center of the story had lived in a middle-class, mostly white neighborhood. It just would not have happened. That just does not happen.
"It was just a very good example of, ‘This is just obviously, completely unfair,’ but I think one of my bigger surprises was I just didn’t believe the mountain was a mountain. I thought it would be a large pile, and it was insane how big it was."
I was shocked to learn that, in just one year, 59 elementary school children were arrested in Nashville.
"And arrested with handcuffs. To cuff a five- or six-year-old is just a complete failure. To take a small child and put that child in a police car is just a complete failure of a society. Some of these kids are kindergarteners, six years old — it’s insane. So I think people were so outraged and we really felt like we had to address this issue and, again, understand it. Like, how is this even possible? And then when you sort of understand the explanation and the history, it does make a lot of sense. It’s obviously horrific and has to change, but it makes sense why it has become this, and also makes sense why it has to change."
How have some of these major systemic problems been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic?
"I think we know with COVID-19, Black and brown communities over-indexed people who got sick, over-indexed people who died, over-indexed people who were frontline workers who had to go on the job and couldn’t do their job from home. There’s a whole bunch of people who were able to continue on with their jobs from home and didn’t miss a step, and there’s a whole bunch of people who were able to continue on with their jobs but had to leave their home and they had to travel and do all these things that were quite risky, especially at the early stages when exact transmission were unknown. And so all of those groups, those groups are all people who are people of color and people who are in difficult economic circumstances — poor people, essentially.
"And so you look at all of these issues, and they’re only going to be exacerbated. And education, learning loss this past year. I have four kids who are all in some stage of education. It’s been hard, but in a place where you’re already struggling in education, where the inequities are already so deep, this year has been a disaster for many of these students. Certainly when you’re talking about redlining and people’s home values and the ability to keep your home, it’s really, really challenging, and again, it over-impacts people of color.
"There’s that old saying: When America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia. And I think that’s really true, although I might expand it to say Black and brown America, poor America get pneumonia because they just aren’t as protected. They don’t have the wealth, they don’t have the ability to live off six months of savings, they don’t have the ability to move out to their other house. They don’t have the ability to have great broadband so the kids can still do their schoolwork. I mean, all of these things were essential during this pandemic. And if you were middle class or above, you probably said, ‘Well, this is annoying, it’s terrible, but here’s how we’re going to get through it.’"
I really want to ask about the topic of environmental racism, which you discuss in your series, as it relates to what happened recently in Texas. How would you say these inequalities came into play in the aftermath of the recent storm and power outages and negligence from the state’s leadership?
"Some of it is just deregulation. When people decided they didn’t want to spend money and they wanted to deregulate that system, then they realized, ‘Well, I guess at the end you’re going to pay a lot of money when it fails,’ which is what they’ve realized. But of course, it doesn’t fail equally for everybody. That’s the problem. And there are people who have a cushion. I just had [a friend say they have] a $20,000 power bill. And she’s like, ‘I’m not paying this. I’m going to call the power company and tell them they’re insane.’ And of course she’s not going to pay it, and guess what? The company’s not going to make her pay it.
"But there are people who are poor, who don’t have the resources to be able to fight it, who don’t have the ability to call up the power company and say, ‘There’s no way I’m paying this,’ and who also lost power and in some cases, it seemed like those rolling blackouts hit them early and often and more frequently. And so, sure, is that a stark example of environmental racism? I think it’s an example of a couple other things, but I don’t think these examples live independently only. Because these certain communities constantly get the brunt whenever there’s a disaster. What happened in Texas was a disaster."
And now, with Texas lifting COVID restrictions, we’re seeing the same issue. My first thought was, Who’s going to be hit the hardest by this, given who we have working on the frontlines? And given who has access to the vaccine.
"Who’s going to be hit the hardest, and see all the resources, even in vaccines. In New York, it was amazing to see communities, very diverse communities, but you’d see where people were getting the vaccine, right? People would drive in, and it wasn’t the local people who would get access to the vaccine. It was people driving in and taking advantage of it. That’s kind of the story of America, unfortunately, and it’s unfair, and I think there have to be systems in place that say, we need to make sure that the people who are most impacted and the people who are most vulnerable, the people who are going to die if they get this, let’s take care of them first."
So many people have been using social media for good — I find it really important that you use your platform on Twitter to spread so much information and articles and resources — but then we’ve also seen people abuse the app, share misinformation, even incite violence. What role do you think social media, particularly Twitter, plays or should play in our current social and political landscape?
"You know, it’s hard because I do like social media — I love it, actually. And I love it because I feel like I have access to a lot of things that, if I were waiting for a publicist to call me or waiting to get access to a person... a lot of the people that I follow are not famous. They’re people who are working in public health in the state of whatever, and so I like when I get to elevate them, because I like that I get to find them and say, ‘This is interesting. This is important, you should be watching this or seeing this.’
"The good news is it’s a great place for like-minded people to gather, and it’s a bad place because people who are like-minded around crazy conspiracy theories or around hate or around racist, crazy, Confederate flag-waving, Nazi-wearing, marching craziness can all get together and become more powerful and more violent, if that’s what they want to do. So I think it is really problematic.
"I think one other issue that’s problematic is I think the media has looked to social media and thought it was competing with social media. And maybe it is, for eyeballs. But this idea of everything has to be snappy and hits and the headline has to be a headline that’s really going to move people to click, versus is it accurate? Is it thoughtful? Does it make sense? And I think that’s been a real disappointment to me in some ways, to see how media really is desperately competing to be social media. Watching someone who’s older, my age, trying to be hip — just be you. Stop with whatever this is you’re trying to be."
You also often call out outlets and networks that soften or misrepresent Donald Trump’s behavior in the name of being “unbiased,” like publications that call his outright lies “myths,” or give his cohorts a platform without questioning or challenging their rhetoric. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on why this is so harmful.
"You know, I think media often kind of — to avoid doing the tough work of journalism — sort of presents everything. ‘Well, he says the earth is flat, but he says the earth is round. We’ll let you decide!’ It’s like, no! No, actually, it doesn’t work like that. There are some things called facts, and part of our job is to be heavily based in those things and to make sure, to the best of our ability, that we’re validating people and their thoughts and their things and not allowing some version of crazy to be seen competing with some other, more thoughtful conversation. And shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, you know, everybody has an opinion.’ That’s not the job."
What are some steps that you think the Biden Administration can and should take to address issues like environmental racism and the school-to-prison pipeline?
"I think it’s been really interesting how they’ve started talking about it very overtly, which is good. It matches, when you look at polling around Democrats certainly, that there’s this new sort of recognition about structural racism, so I think what they’re doing is really reflecting this learning that’s come out in the past year for a lot of people who would consider themselves very liberal folks. They would email me and say — you know, the George Floyd video happened and they’d say, ‘I can’t believe it, I always thought people like that were just guilty of something.’ That they weren’t Girl Scouts, that the police stopped them and were pinning them down and something happened, it was an accident and that the person they were pinning down was guilty of something. They were just blown away. They just could not wrap their head around the killing of George Floyd."
"And I was like, ‘First of all, you obviously have not watched all of my documentaries,’ [laughs] but also, that’s such a different conversation than what Black people are saying. White people are literally saying, ‘I just cannot believe what I’m seeing.’ And Black people are like, ‘Oh, another video. Should I bother to retweet this? Because it probably is pretty traumatizing for people to watch a person getting killed again.’ So I think that the conversation has changed, and I think that the Biden Administration has done a good job of putting that front and center and not talking around things. I think that’s important.
"But you know, I don’t think these are things that change right away. I think you have to make sure that you strengthen those laws that bring equity and equality to people, that we have to make sure that this is a country where we are equal, all of us are equal in the eyes of the law. That’s the thing… We’re not there, so I think the main thing to do is really focus on the law and making sure that when it comes to what police are able to do, that communities have a say in that. Most of the complaints I get when one of our segments of the special was run was policing. Communities are like, ‘But technically, they work for us but they don’t think they work for us. Literally, our taxes pay their salaries. Their job is to protect and serve us, all of us, everybody here in this community, and yet we’re not treated like that.’ And so, I think, rethinking the conversation about what justice looks like at all levels. Economic justice, social justice, justice in policing, justice in the eyes of the law, all those things, I think, we’re reexamining. Are we really doing what we say we do?"