Checking the Systems That Hold Us Back

Checking the Systems That Hold Us Back

Checking the Systems That Hold Us Back

On The Nation’s new podcast, System Check, hosts Melissa Harris-Perry and Dorian Warren set about diagnosing and repairing our malfunctioning democracy.


Lights are blinking. Alarms are blaring. The dashboard of our democracy is warning us that it is time to check our systems. That’s exactly what Melissa Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou presidential chair at Wake Forest University and a longtime Nation contributor, and Dorian Warren, the president of Community Change and a Nation board member, are setting out to do with their new Nation podcast, System Check.

Unapologetically rooted in Black culture, politics, and intellectual traditions, System Check is a weekly show that asks important questions, offers provocative commentary, and welcomes insights from unexpected sources. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts for new episodes every Friday.

MHP: Do you remember when we met?

DW: It was 1999, and we were both attending the American Political Science Association annual meeting in Atlanta. I was in the midst of my PhD at Yale, and you had just finished up at Duke. We had a heated discussion about whether it was possible to use the academic field of political science as a justice tool in Black communities.

MHP: That was 21 years ago, which means our friendship is now old enough to legally drink.

DW: We have been doing that since Day One!

MHP: True! We have been drinking and talking and writing and arguing for a very long time, which is what has made this friendship such an enjoyable journey. It is why I am thrilled to be cohosting a new podcast with you.

DW: There’s nobody else with whom I’d want to cohost System Check. It’s going to do what we do best: bring together layered political analysis, a unique roster of guests, and meaningful cultural connections—all with the freedom that comes with our own unfiltered podcast.

MHP: Of course, even this freedom is relative. Did we ever get final word about whether we can say “fucked up”? We are still part of systems with rules. And those systems are exactly what motivates this new project of ours. Checking the system is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s about how it feels to try to live and breathe and be and thrive inside of broken systems.

DW: Wait, are the systems broken? Or are they working exactly the way they were designed?

MHP: Fair point. We can say our system of criminal punishment accomplishes what it was designed to do: create a permanent Black underclass subject to constant surveillance and control.

DW: Right, and our systems of market-based health care and child care or segregated public schools or monopolistic labor markets are all designed in ways that deepen inequality and limit access. So if inequality is designed, we can reimagine and redesign systems of freedom. But this doesn’t just happen.

MHP: Right. We can’t forget the long history of these powerful systems being put in check by the very people they were designed to crush. Ida B. Wells checked the system of lynching, Fannie Lou Hamer checked the system of disenfranchisement. John Lewis checked the system of Jim Crow.

DW: The Movement for Black Lives is checking state violence. The Dreamers are checking an unjust immigration system. Mothers of color are checking an inadequate child care system. Young climate justice activists are checking the rapacious fossil fuel companies.

MHP: Not “rapacious”! You are still such a nerd. Are you going to use big words on the podcast, too?

DW: More important than big words, let’s commit to finding big ideas, the ideas that help us find a little more freedom, a little more space, a little more humanity within the systems and that allow us to dismantle and—dare I say it?—reconstruct them.

MHP: I feel like this is where we started 21 years ago—trying to find the big ideas that matter and can be useful. And the best part is, because we are having this conversation together, I know it will also be a lot of fun.

Subscribe to System Check on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts for new episode every Friday.

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