S2 E4: On Crazy We Built a Nation

March 30, 2017

“All men are created equal.” Those words, from the Declaration of Independence, are central to the story that Americans tell about ourselves and our history. But what did those words mean to the man who actually wrote them? By John Biewen, with guest Chenjerai Kumanyika.


Image: Bronze Statue of Thomas Jefferson being erected in Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1947. Photo credit: National Park Service.

Download a transcript of the episode.

Key sources for this episode:

Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People

Ibram Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning

The Racial Equity Institute

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

30 comments on “S2 E4: On Crazy We Built a Nation

  1. Carol McClain Apr 7, 2017

    This series is great. Love the conversations and the references. I’ve listened to each episode three times (at least). Sharing with everyone I think is willing to learn. Thank you.

  2. Shelly Musgrove May 4, 2017


  3. Jefferson didn’t make a promise, yet he spoke a truth that transcends who he was and all that here did that was counter to that truth. I believe Dr. King pointed you the truth of Jefferson’s words.

    • Shelley Merritt Jun 15, 2020

      Thank you, Venson. I love what you have said here. It wasn’t a promise. It was a statement of Truth, and it transcended Jefferson and all our founding fathers. Yes.

  4. In this episode, the opening excerpt of Suzanne Plihcik’s overview of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 illuminates one fork of the many twisting paths our forefathers took to define privilege based on race. “Is this crazy or what?” She says. “It get’s crazier. And we need to understand that. Because, folks, on crazy we built a nation. We did. We did.”

    Plihcik’s voice is like a bell-ring that births a fairy: each time I hear it, one more simple contradiction of our past is knocked over — and from where it fell, the pixie dust clears to reveal a maze of power in the background that has historically served to deprive and enable, deprive and enable, over and over again. Like a mechanical function or a Ford-factory-line, the decisions systematically governing race in this country have been on repeat: “yes” to us; “no” to them, “yes” to us; “no” to them, over and over and over again. Until you see it, you don’t see it. Plihcik does a good job of speaking plainly to this complexity. I love her contribution to this podcast series. Thank you.

  5. Wendy Nov 29, 2017

    This is a wonderful series.

  6. David Machemer Dec 18, 2017

    Sadly, this all rings very true, and in the process offers a coherent narrative to my long-ingrained revulsion to flag waving patriotism or pledges of allegiance. Ironic that I, a privileged white man have never shared the optimism and admiration of Barack Obama, a man with blood “tainted” so that the lofty ideas of this country were never meant for him.

  7. Sharon Lowe Jan 7, 2018

    Surprisingly good. I hope you get to feelings of superiority by white people based on their concepts of inferiority of blacks. And also how people of color have become the scapegoat for whites and how dependent whites are on this notion that they are free of thinking and doing anything wrong. It is a serious social pathology that needs to be irraticated and exposed. Thank you for doing this! It’s very important.

  8. Sven Dubie Feb 18, 2018

    This series is amazing! So much good history, and presented by authorities in their fields with clarity and simple precision. I will be sharing this with my student in a high school class I teach on the construction of race. Thank you for such an invaluable resource.

  9. Solange Cote Aug 1, 2018

    Amazing podcast/documentary. It is so good to get a different perspective on what it means to be “white”. I’m Canadian but let’s face it, our history has very similarities. When I dig deep into our country’s past and read about the reasons and motivations for Residential Schools, the 60’s Scoop etc…, it is frankly appalling. Racism has many different shades of color. Can we see them?

  10. Henry Perry May 19, 2020

    this podcast was an amazing form of education for me. and as a kid, I think it is drilling some very good notions into my head, and making me grow up more aware about racism and what it means.

  11. Brian K Freeland May 21, 2020

    Excellent critical conservation on historical American thinkers thought to oppose human oppression, and those thinkers like John Woolman who actually opposed human degradation.

  12. Sandy May 30, 2020

    I stumbled onto this series in the wake of the recent George Floyd murder and riots and am so grateful to learn more about troubling questions around the role of race and social justice. Thank you!

  13. David Jun 2, 2020

    This is a tremendous series, but not a wonderful one. This has brought a sense and recognition of shame to me. I don’t believe I’m racist, but I’ve benefited from it. I was unaware of my personal complicity by remaining sated and silent. I don’t know where this will lead me, but it will lead me.

  14. Dan Harris recommended this series and I could not be more grateful! What a smart, and captivating series think gives so much food for thought.

  15. Jennifer Jun 13, 2020

    Thank you for clarifying so much. I resonate with Mr. Kendi’s closing that “we are trying to become something this country has never been”. This is why what we hope to achieve is such an undertaking. Please keep educating. I am thankful for all of the info.

  16. Rochelle Jun 13, 2020

    So well done. Thank you for so much illumination. We are a nation built on myths and fantasies.

  17. Parker Jun 13, 2020

    Love this episode and the series, but a note on language. “Crazy” and “insane” are words rooted deeply in ableism, and it may feel trivial to neurotypical folks but it does not feel trivial to everyone. Just something to check.

  18. kathy douglas Jun 25, 2020

    Excellent unpacking and opening the history with new lenses. “Who’s voice is not being heard” seems like such a good question for every discussion

  19. Taiyoko Jun 30, 2020

    These episodes are amazing. So condensed and so enlightening. Its good to learn the truth. We are ready for it actually. Perhaps not all of us.

    I see the roots of this as the same as the assault on Mother Earth. They seem intertwined with the same theme: exploitation of people and resources. We must stop contributing to all of this. Give us more truth.


  20. Jessica Oakes Jul 1, 2020

    This should be required education for our youth. This is so informative. I am grateful for this information. America let’s wake up.

  21. Rachael Cavegn Jul 2, 2020

    Phenomenal series. Eye opening for even the most self proclaiming social justice warriors.

  22. Another amazing episode. Thank you so very much for this pod cast. “We are trying to become something that we’ve never been before…”

  23. Nermine Salama Jul 14, 2020

    This episode is amazing, presenting the history in a great conversation simple way to understand as this helps in growing up more aware about racism and what it means
    thank you.

  24. Edith Costanza Jul 25, 2020

    I am so appreciative to hear these podcasts and a truth about our history I never learned.

  25. Patrick Aug 19, 2020

    It is amazing how people can so easily edit history and turn a blind eye to what really happened. Almost like selective amnesia.

  26. Adam Hall Aug 27, 2020

    An absolute must listen for anyone with an open mind and heart!

  27. David Smith Sep 9, 2020

    The idea of whiteness is built on the craziness of the idea of race. How can you see racism if you can’t see race someone asks in a later podcast. The answer is simple, racism is the crazy idea that race exists and racists are people, like the author of this podcast, who act as if race exists.

    The author does well in the first podcast exploring the science behind the fact that race doesn’t exist and then reveals his racist nature by simply stating, without evidence that somehow race does exist. His reliance on a clearly racist organisation like the racial equity institute undermines his assertion of a quality he and they call ‘whiteness’ which is supposed to be embodied by people with ‘white’ skin. As far as the author has described it whiteness doesn’t define anything exclusive to white people and inclusive of white people. The term is racist and goes against MLK’s dream of a world where we are not judged by the colour of our skin. Perhaps in recognition of his own racism the author makes what looks like a vague attempt to excuse it by claiming racism is about power. One of the speakers invokes the excuse of racism = prejudice + power. This is clearly self serving and wrong, the dictionary definition is that it’s prejudice based on race. Assuming some white skinned person you don’t know possesses this nebulous quality of whiteness, demonstrates that you believe in race and are prejudice by that belief. Race does exist in the minds of racists and real anti racists rail against this without making exceptions based on skin colour.

  28. salvador carrillo Oct 4, 2020

    I resist to the name “America”
    I feel like it alienates half of billion peoples. Even in the same context of the United States of North America I am still a Mexican. Even if my ancestors came here more than 30 thousand years ago I am still an alien in my own land.

  29. David Reich Nov 4, 2020

    Thomas Jefferson. Ralph Waldo Emerson. In my mind, these two Americans have always been great; one dimensional, yes, but great. So, now you’re proposing we question our beliefs, probably greatly based on condition, “constructs” as you say. Well, I agree. So where does that put us? Pretty low. We are, us whites, fundamentally deeply subconsciously prejudice. You’re also saying it was our choice. And, if we want to be honest with ourselves, it was our error. Not because we consciously chose to be prejudice, but we followed a fundamental historical human-created immoral belief. And that belief didn’t start with wrong ideas, they started with actual boots on the ground physical relationships based on race (which in itself you say is a construct), unequal roles, the most notorious being slavery, and continuing today in institutional racism. Ugh. That’s a lot to take in. But take it in I will.