Guest Host: Cecilia Kang
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker grew up in an affluent suburb surrounded by a supportive family and limitless opportunities. But it was the troubled city of Newark he felt drawn to as a young adult. After law school, Booker began to pursue a career in public service and eventually moved into a low-income housing development in Newark. In 2006, Booker was elected mayor there and seven years later, he became New Jersey’s first African-American senator. Guest host Cecilia Kang talks with Sen. Cory Booker about his life in politics, criminal justice reform and why he says America needs to focus on compassion and solidarity.
- Cory Booker U.S. senator, New Jersey (D); former mayor of Newark
Read An Excerpt
MS. CECILIA KANGThanks for joining us. I'm Cecilia Kang of the New York Times sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on a book tour. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker once camped out at a public housing complex in Newark to highlight the problems of drugs and violence there. He was elected mayor of that city in 2006 and seven years later, he became New Jersey's first African American senator.
MS. CECILIA KANGIn a new memoir, Booker writes about his life in public service, what to do about housing segregation in America and confronting racial bias in policing. The book is titled, "United: Thoughts On Finding Common Ground And Advancing the Common Good." And Senator Cory Booker joins me in the studio. Hello, Senator Booker.
SEN. CORY BOOKERIt's so good to be here and on this show that I listen to and have been fortified by so often.
KANGOh, thank you for joining us again. We'll be taking your comments and questions throughout the hour. Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us your email at email@example.com and join us on Facebook or Twitter. And we'd like to say before we begin that Senator Booker has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and he has been campaigning on her behalf. Senator Booker, your memoir is titled, "United," and we are in a campaign season where the country seems really more divided than ever.
KANGAnd you're seeing partisanship particularly highlighted this week after the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia and seeing the reaction by both parties. Why did you write this book? And actually, do you think you have an audience now for this message?
BOOKERWell, I think that all of us in our country, I think that, you know, everywhere I go and amongst Republican audiences, Democratic audiences, urban, suburban, even rural places, people express frustration that, in many ways, what they see on TV, 24-hour cable, doesn't reflect the spirit of who we are and belies our history. We, as a country, have been greatest when we found ways to come together across the lines that divide us, understanding the ties that bind us are stronger to do great things.
BOOKERI always talk about the spirit of rugged individualism and self reliance, which are important themes and values in our country, but rugged individualism didn't get us to the moon. It didn't map the human genome. It didn't build our astounding infrastructure that was built by our grandparents in this country. Those things happened because we, as a country, came together, made common priorities and had a common sense of mission.
BOOKERAnd even our declaration of independence is actually within it, if you read the document, it's a declaration of interdependence when, at the end, they're pledging to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. So I think that we are all hungry because we don't believe that our politics, the way we see it played out often, reflects our better angels and are looking for ways to come together as a country.
KANGWe're seeing with really the jockeying, if you will, between both Republicans, Democrats on how to respond to the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, so much rancor. And you're seeing it really, a digging down, a digging in your heels, if you will, between the parties. You saw Obama yesterday saying there is no unwritten law that says it can only be done on off-years, that is to appoint a new justice. What do you think, Senator Booker, would be the best solution at this time for President Obama in the spirit of being united, as your book tries to espouse?
BOOKERWell, I think if we start thinking about issues of unity, of interdependence, of the things I call for in this book, a new courageous empathy for one another, I think if we start looking at the headlines of the day, we're not going to get there. I have no advice for President Obama. You know, this is something that he's fully capable of navigating as a leader. Whether he'll be successful or not, we'll see. I have a strong feeling as a senator. I read very clearly Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution. It says what the president not may do. It says he shall nominate a justice.
BOOKERAnd I believe that the not only Constitution, but the history of our country clearly shows, with the exception of the civil war, that we don't leave a vacancy on the Supreme Court for over a year, that this is an important position, as spelled out in the Constitution. So I have those strong feelings, but if we, as Americans, start there and we sit down next to somebody and say, hey, how do you feel about Trump, that's not necessarily the best way often to build bridges across our differences.
BOOKERI think that really starts with recognizing each other, truly seeing each other with having an understanding that patriotism isn't about pushing other people down to build yourself up, it's not to be wielded as a sword to cut up other Americans. Patriotism, love of country, mandates, necessitates a love of each other that you've got to love Americans and love is not an easy, soft word.
BOOKERAs I've learned in difficult ways and I try to talk about, love is really about being vulnerable, willing to be broken. The people I sort of celebrate in this book are people themselves who have been very broken and some of my experiences ripped me apart in ways that I would've never imagined. But it's worth it. Love is a more difficult way. And it bothers me in this country that we seem to hail tolerance as the end. We should tolerate each other.
BOOKERThat's really a cynical...
KANGI've always disliked that word, tolerance.
BOOKERYeah, it's like I stomach your right to be different.
BOOKERBut if you disappear off the face of the earth, I'm no better or worse off.
KANGIt's not a generous word.
BOOKERNot at all. And we need to strive as a country and move beyond tolerance to love. Love recognizes that I need you, that you are part of my greatest hope, that you represent to me untold possibilities. Love understands that we share a common destiny. So I understand -- and I'm a senator and I have an obligation and I was on the phone with Senator Dick Durbin right before I walked in here discussing criminal justice reform, discussing the Supreme Court -- he's a leader in the Senate that I have a tremendous respect for.
BOOKERHe's been a mentor to me. And I know that that -- but that's not how I like to approach things. I was back in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday talking to high school kids who probably, many of them, are not focused on the Supreme Court justice, but they're focused on the fact that their mom is working a job and a half and still not being to afford a lot of the things that we think should be the basics for somebody who's willing to work, sacrifice and struggle and put in effort.
BOOKERThey're worried about -- these are high school seniors. They're worried about paying for college. They're worried about violence in their communities. And so I understand that, as a senator, it's a highly polarized environment, but even in the Senate -- I've only been here for two years -- I've found out that when you greet somebody first as a fellow American and not as a Republican or a Democrat or a Tea Partier, but if I try to work hard, as I have in going to the Senate gym, going to prayer breakfasts and Bible studies, anything I can, asking senators on the opposite party out to dinner, asking to come by their office, if I see them first, their humanity, their decency, you know, one of my first meetings that this senator graciously gave me a lot of his time when I first got there.
BOOKERIt was Senator John McCain. Now, Senator John McCain and I disagree on a lot of policy.
BOOKERAnd I could be one of those senators that just takes to the floor and bashes my colleagues or uses their positions to fortify my base, but I came here to get something done for America. So I went to him and had one of the more moving meetings, just asking him to talk to me about his life. Here's a guy that was a prisoner of war, could've been released, refused to go because he wasn't going to leave his comrades in torture camps. And just seeing him that way and then having him talk to me, not as a Democrat that could be opposing him on most votes, but to see that he had care and concern for the body, for the institution and wanted to talk to me about what kind of senator he believed I should strive to be.
BOOKERThese things create common ground for getting things done that have surprised me here, that I've been able to get passed or get amendments on bills that I know 100 percent of my heart they've come because of the relationships I've created, not because of the strength of my policy argument.
KANGWere you surprised to see, in the last two years since you've been in the Senate, that there is not enough of those sorts of gestures, the going out to dinner with Ted Cruz as you did or the meeting in Senator McCain's office? Those are the small but significant gestures that are relational and important. Do you think that there's enough of that going around?
BOOKERWell, there's a lot more that goes on than the public even knows. You know, one of my favorite moments was just Heidi Heitkamp, who is a senator from North Dakota, one of the more conservative people in the Democratic caucus, but one of my best friends in Washington, you know, she comes to me and says let's -- not only did she say let's invite over the new Republican senator class to dinner, but she's the kind of person that's like, let's invite the Pages to dinner of both Republicans and Democrats.
BOOKERSo I see, every day, senators like Senator Heitkamp, Senator McCain, showing common decency that's really encouraging. But I'll tell you this. I reject or at least I react against how we have a systemic problems that undermine what I think is the best interest of a cooperative legislature like the way we have our campaign finance system in this country structured, which I think works against our democracy, that undermines, often, the best interest of the whole.
KANGAnd do you have friends on the Republican side? Who would you count as your closest friends in the Senate?
BOOKERWell, I don't want to start naming individuals and make other individuals feel -- but I do have good friends on the other side of the Senate, people who I know their kids now, people who we share meals and time together and that we share an earnestness in our quiet conversations about let's find something to work on together.
KANGIndeed, you've even said you want to meet every single Republican. You want to meet with them and meet with all of the Republican colleagues. Have you done that so far?
BOOKERWell, that's been -- that was a Bill Bradley advice and I really want to give credit to him, who told me, you know, he's such a quality human being and he just said, a lot of advice. Not only meet with everyone, try to go out to a meal or sit in their office, but he also challenged me to not make presumptions about them because I think often what blocks empathy is that we make conclusions about people before we even know them.
KANGComing up, more of our conversation with Senator Cory Booker.
KANGWelcome back. I'm Cecilia Kang with the New York Times, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined by Cory Booker, who is a junior United States senator from New Jersey and the former mayor of Newark. He has written a book. It is titled "United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good." Senator Booker, you begin your memoir writing about joining a genealogy project with Henry Louis Gates. Tell us what you found and why it affected you so deeply.
BOOKERWell, I think the beginning of that chapter, the first line...
KANGThat was a good line.
BOOKERWas I hate Henry Louis Gates. Because he's a friend, and I love Henry Louis Gates, but he comes to me, and he gets me all pumped up that I'm going to be on this show, which I'd watched before, and I was so curious about my roots. But then he tells me he's going to partner me with John Lewis, which I say is like partnering Superman with Jimmy Olson.
KANGCongressman John Lewis, that's right.
BOOKERAnd so what I say in the book, and I don't say it, I write it, but basically I say that by the time it got to the event, I was so humbled by this man, this giant, and I say that when they go through the bios of the different people on their show, they introduce John Lewis, and it might as well have been this, you know, John Lewis, hero of the civil rights movement, standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, staring down Alabama state troopers with love and peace in his heart. He's Billy-clubbed, tear-gassed. He literally bled the Southern soil red for freedom.
KANGThat is a good impression.
BOOKERThen it switches to me, and it's Cory Booker, riding his Big Wheel in suburban New Jersey. He takes a turn, he falls off, he cuts his knee, and he bleeds the Northern soil red for Big Wheel riders everywhere. And, you know, it's like come on, in my generation, we are so privileged. As difficult as we still have a nation, as many challenges as there are, as many savage injustices that still exist, we still stand on the shoulders of giants like him that still live amongst us that answered the call of courage that I have not lived up to, that we need to do more in living up to.
BOOKERAnd so for Henry Louis Gates, it was this gift he gave to me of discovering not just of my genealogy, but I think what was surprising to me was he gave me a blessing of seeing how we are far more interconnected as human beings than we realize. So discovering white families had no idea, I had no idea, that we were blood, my mom and her first cousin, because my grandfather never knew who his father was. He was obviously biracial, but Henry Louis Gates tracked them down.
BOOKERBut I think the best -- one of the best lessons from it, not that we could be walking past people who are literally our blood in this country and not realizing it, but we all are spiritual brothers and sisters more than we know. And the chapter really talks about when I tried to move, and my family tried to move in Herrington Park. They were denied housing there, not overtly, but they would show up at homes, and they would be told, oh, this one sold because the majority of the towns in that Northern New Jersey county, they wouldn't really allow black families in there. They would steer them away.
BOOKERAnd so my parents, thanks to activism of whites and blacks through the fair Housing Council, they set up a sting operation, and these lawyers just did an incredible job of setting up the sting, catching the real estate agent, who eventually attacked the real estate agent physically, but...
KANGThere was a fight, right, in that office?
BOOKERYeah, there was -- it's a really shocking part of the story, I think too many. But the reality is that we moved into this town, and I grew up with an incredible public school, with a nurturing community. But the thing that got me about that spiritual family that we are is that when that Edmund Pettus Bridge and John Lewis were walking across it, all those marchers probably didn't know that the action they did that day on Bloody Sunday in Alabama so shocked the consciousness of our country, so inspired the moral imagination of our nation, that a bunch of lawyers, who were just private lawyers at the time, saw that and were so inspired that when I interviewed Arthur Lessman (sp?) for this book, who I never knew before...
KANGAnd remind us who Arthur Lessman, he was the lawyer who helped your parents. Is that right?
BOOKERLawyer for the Fair Housing Council that got involved because he came to work on a Monday, told his partner Leo, hey, we've got to do, we've got to go to Alabama. And Leo said we can't afford it, we're struggling lawyers. And he said, okay, well what we can we do around New Jersey. And so they signed up for the Fair Housing Council, they get a file of Cary and Carolyn Book, my parents.
BOOKERAnd so one good deed, I don't know if those marchers on that bridge knew that they were going to change the destiny of my family, but I just believe that, you know, as I say in the book, we often get distracted by thinking that making change involves big actions. But I always say often the biggest thing you can do in any day, and it will always be a small act of kindness, decency or love, small actions reverberate in time and space far more than we imagine.
BOOKERMy father, born poor to a single mother, who really his destiny was written because of the traditions of poverty in my family, but it was broken by a whole bunch of people, I call it the conspiracy of love, who just did little, small things for him to turn his life around. And so here I am today benefitting from this conspiracy of love. I owe a spiritual debt to ancestors that I could never repay. But this book, doing the research of interviewing people and thanks to people like Henry Louis Gates or going back and talking to Arthur Lessman, now in his 80s, really jumped off the page to me about how nothing we do, however small..
KANGIs in isolation.
BOOKEROr lost is inconsequential. Everything we do, the smallest kind deed, you never know how that's going to affect the person or the person who witnesses it, and it tends to ripple out much more than we know. And unfortunately, negativity is the same way. I love Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning," where he talks about the greatest of all human freedoms, to choose your attitude in any given set of circumstances. And my dad was so focused on that with my brother and I, he says in the book, as I sort of quote him, that, you know, there's two ways to go through life, as a thermometer or a thermostat.
BOOKERAnd a thermostat just reflects -- excuse me, a thermometer just reflects the world around you. When you, something bad happens to you, you get -- you react a certain way. When things are hot, you go up, and you get hot, too. But we weren't born to be reflections of the world. We were born to impact the world. And so he challenged my brother and I to be thermostats, to set the temperature, to don't surrender to circumstance or the world around you, to activate that greatest power.
BOOKERAnd remember, Alice Walker, another great author, says the most common way we give up our power is not realizing we have it. And my parents, they used power in a choice to make over and over again every day, which is to accept things as they are, or be a thermometer -- a thermostat and take responsibility for changing them.
KANGDid your parents tell you about that story about the fair housing problem that they had in getting into Harrington Park, or is that something that they told you later on? In other words, did your family try to create an environment, your parents, or they tried to create sort of an environment where you would become that thermostat instead of a thermometer?
BOOKERWell, this is what I love about my parents, and this is what the difference is between hope and optimism. Optimism would be to ignore things like racism, bigotry, to try to bear, whitewash our history from -- sanitize it from all the wretchedness and ugliness of American history and then say oh, everything's good and happy. But that's not what my parents did.
BOOKERThey wanted my brother and I, from the earliest of ages, to confront and see clearly, not just to be Pollyannaish optimistic, but to be what they viewed and friends of mine subsequently, teachers have taught me is real hope. Hope sees the wretchedness and the ugliness and the bigotry. Hope is a response. It is the conviction that awful things happen and exist, but I'm not going to let have the last word. Hope -- you can't have great hope without understanding great injustice or great despair.
BOOKERSo they told me these stories. Their story of America was unflinching about what they experienced, and my parents' stories themselves about experiencing racism and sexism and bias. But my parents told me those stories to also highlight to me, this is what happened to move you into Harrington Park. But then they would remind me of the blessings. Don't forget, son, that we both work and that when you come home sometimes, it's the neighbors who extend a meal to you or carpool you to work, that the small kindnesses, the class mother who treats you like their own child, or the other family neighbor we have that works a full day but then comes home and coaches you in soccer, teaching you things that are going to be valuable to you for the rest of your life.
BOOKERSee the ugliness, but also see the beauty and the capability for angelic behavior of humans. And so I don't want to ever have an America that doesn't understand how bad are things -- how much bad happened in our history, how ugly it's been. And I don't want an America where we don't see each other and understand right now, as we're doing this interview, there's a gay or lesbian teen being severely abused verbally, mentally, emotionally, in our school systems.
BOOKERThere is a senior citizen, five million of which living in poverty and fear of now knowing where their next meal might come from. We've got to -- we've got to confront that, but then we have to have the hope, the belief that we may not be able to solve all these problems, but we have tremendous power to do something about them.
KANGSenator Booker, you didn't see a lot of the ugly that you're referring to, the trouble, until you moved to Newark. Is that right? Because your upbringing was quite different. Can you talk a little bit about growing up in Harrington Park and what drew you to Newark?
BOOKERWell, it was my parents who kind of tried to let my brother and have a reality check, that as two black boys growing up in America, that we were growing up in circumstances that were, number one, born from a tremendous struggle but in no way represented this country achieving itself and that these blessings did not make us exceptional, that most people given what we were given, what would be exceptional would be for them not to have some degree of success and that -- you know, my father would look at me.
BOOKERImagine, I don't know if anybody listening to this has children that they think have teenage swagger, but there's few people I've met that...
KANGI've got one at home.
BOOKEROkay, well nobody has as much 18-year-old swagger as I did. I thought I was something special. I was a high school all-American football player, on my way to a football scholarship to Stanford, president of my class. But my father would look at me and say, boy, don't you dare walk around this house like you a hit a triple because you were born on third based.
BOOKERAnd you have a choice. You could just sit back and get fat, dumb and happy, consuming all these blessings for yourself, or you can understand where they come from and that you can't pay them back, but you've got to pay them forward. And so both my brother and I felt a real calling to be a part of the struggle for America. But I tell you, when I moved to Newark, I got my comeuppance. And one of the best gifts that Newark has given me is hard, though lessons in humility and grace by incredible leaders because I moved on to Newark -- I had worked everywhere from East Palo Alto to East Harlem. So I'd spent since 18 really working in inner-city communities.
BOOKERBut when I moved to Newark, I tried to pick the toughest neighborhood I can find, and it was, in the mid- to late '90s, the south end of Martin Luther King Boulevard in Newark was really rough. I pulled past police reports. I mean, it was lots of violence, unrelenting drug dealing. I moved next to a crack house, abandoned building being used for drugs.
KANGYou in fact moved into public housing. Is that right?
BOOKERWell, I eventually would move into the low-income housing that became public housing, but in the beginning you have to understand that I was this guy that, as I was moving in, stuff got stolen from me. My best friend and I from Harrington Park, a guy named Chris McGuaro (sp?) from fourth grade, he's been with me for a long time, we moved my stuff in and came back to the car, and stuff had been stolen.
BOOKERAnd so it was a very intimidating place, but I'm a big believer that when you come to the end of all the light you know, and you're about to step into the darkness of something new or challenging, that faith is knowing that you'll find solid ground underneath you, or the universe will send you people who will teach you how to fly. And this when -- I think my favorite chapters of the book, about some of these heroes that appeared in me, appeared that really, I would say I got my B.A. from Stanford but my Ph.D. from the streets of Newark, some of the greatest professors I've ever met started appearing and being tough with me but really breaking me down and building me back up.
KANGI'm Cecilia Kang with the New York Times. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. If you'd like to join us, call 800-433-8850. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. In fact I see Senator Booker right now looking at his Twitter feed. You are quite active there. I thought it was really interesting how, I've been following your Twitter feed, how somebody asked you, are you running for VP, and you responded, if you are referring to vegan person, because I believe you're a vegan. Is that right?
KANGThen you're correct, or something like that. Well, let me just ask you. People typically write, politicians typically write memoirs when they are campaigning for something, and your name has been bandied about for both a running mate with Senator -- with Secretary Hillary Clinton, and you've been campaigning with her. And more recently your name has been mentioned in conversation as people talk about possible replacements for Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Why write your memoir now? Are you running for something?
BOOKERWell, I tried to write a book that people would finish and say this is not a politician's book. And it is very much a discussion of a lot of my mistakes, a lot of -- sometimes I was a jerk, and really celebrating others, not necessarily myself, really showing all that I had to learn the hard way and then talking about a lot of other heroes. So this was a book that -- this was the time to write it because I felt like when I was campaigning to become a United States senator, amazingly the question I got asked the most is is our country too divided, or I'm frustrated with gridlock, or -- and it made me keep thinking about just the lessons of my parents, that you can't expect the world to change unless you do.
BOOKERAnd when you ask a question, you've got to always be a part of the answer. And so I just felt that we needed more voices to the chorus of our country calling us to see each other for who we are, which again is interrelated in an intimate way in this one destiny that we have and that we are so weak as a nation when we're divided, we're -- we accentuate our weaknesses, and we expand them when we focus on differences of race, religion, politics, the whole thing.
BOOKERBut if -- we add to our strength when we recognize our bonds between each other and how much we really need each other. You know, there's an old African saying that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.
BOOKERI have hope -- you know, I have hope for this country that we will go far, but we're not going to get there unless we more and more finds way to connect with each other.
KANGWe have a tweet from James Land, (sp?) who tweeted us, please ask Senator Booker about his relationship with Governor Chris Christie. How was he to work with as a mayor and then senator? Meaning when you were a mayor and then senator.
BOOKERYes, yes. Look, you know, the governor and I have -- disagree on so much. I could write a dissertation on my disagreements with him. But I was the mayor of the largest city in the state, and he was the governor of the state. And I had Democrats get mad at me for my friendship with him, and I could made a lot of base folks often happy by holding press conferences and criticizing him and becoming the biggest champion of attacking the governor or criticizing the governor and speaking out.
BOOKERBut, you know, as I was saying, I was a mayor of Newark during one of its toughest times, when it was in an economic freefall because when the country's in a recession, inner cities often face Depression-level problems. And when he was elected in 2009, the urgency was not for me to politically bash him, but it was to find things that we could do to help people in my city.
BOOKERAnd right now Newark is experiencing its biggest economic development boom since the 1960s, creating jobs, apprenticeship programs for my kids in Newark, union, good union jobs, new hotels where we're, because of our first source legislation, which are hiring my residents to work there. It's just so many good things are happening that could not have happened unless I had a partnership with him.
BOOKERAnd so it was just a style that I decided -- and, you know, the best vignette I can give you is that when I was mayor, I was strident in my frustration about a nation that didn't treat everyone equal under the law, and one area they didn't do that, and I'll let you go for the break, but was marriage equality, something Chris Christie and I disagreed on.
BOOKERAnd we had what I consider a showdown that wasn't on the day that the legislature passed. But I can finish that story, if you'd like, later.
KANGThank you. Coming up, your calls and questions for Senator Cory Booker, the junior United States senator from New Jersey and the former mayor of Newark. We'll be right back.
KANGWelcome back. I'm Cecilia Kang with the New York Times, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm with Senator Cory Booker, who has written a book, "United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good." We left off, Senator, talking a little about some of your work in New Jersey.
KANGAnd one thing that was actually absent from your book, and I was so curious about, is what happened with the education reform effort that you, along with Republican governor Chris Christie and actually Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced in, I believe it was 2011, on Oprah. It was one of the first things that got my attention about you and about the city of Newark. And I haven't heard much sense. What has happened to that effort?
BOOKERWell, it's something I'm really proud of, is the public education efforts in Newark and the changes that have happened. We -- well, Mark Zuckerberg, who was incredibly generous and gave $100 million over five years to a school system that spends about a billion dollars a year, was, we thought, strategic philanthropy. But when I came into office Newark had no local control over their schools. I was mayor. I had no influence whatsoever and couldn't find ways through the traditional mean with which to influence change.
BOOKERAnd so I started thinking very strategically how could I try to leverage soft power to drive rapid change. And so the Zuckerberg involvement helped to create some of the more dramatic change in a school system. And I'll give you some of the data. You know, we've had a school system now that has -- Brookings has put us in the top three for parental choice. That means parents who have quality public school choices, to choose from.
BOOKERWe, well, recently we ranked number one in America now for schools that beat the odds, schools that have high poverty, high performance. And in fact, during the time that I was mayor, because of this expansion of new schools ranging from non-traditional district public schools to charter schools, we now have a city that -- which is majority black, 85 percent minority, that has had -- if you were an African-American kid in Newark during my time as mayor your chances of going to a school that met the state averages or exceeded them went up about 200 percent.
BOOKERAnd so that short period of time, to have that expansion of high quality schools, changing opportunities for thousands of kids was something I'm very proud of. Now, it happened with a lot of consternation. Anytime you jump into the school reform phase…
KANGRight. It was actually quite controversial. And I think there's been some criticism afterwards that it hasn't really lived up to being the national model that you all hoped it would be.
BOOKERWell, I challenge that because often when people say that I say, well, what data are you looking at to measure that? And I'm -- when I was mayor I used to have this saying, 'cause I saw not only controversy in this space, but in a lot of space. I used to always say to my team, okay, in God we trust, but everybody else bring me data. I want to see really what's going on with the numbers. 'Cause you can tell me how much you love your children, but unless you're providing substantive opportunity for them that's measurable, that we can see that we're giving them the tools to succeed.
BOOKERAnd so in the education space, incontrovertibly, Newark kids have a tremendously greater chance of being in a high-performing school, particularly African Americans in our city, who are often in the most challenging schools and the highest poverty areas, now have tremendously more choices, more high-quality choices and a much higher chance now of being in a school that's gonna put them on a track towards college.
KANGThank you. Well, I'd like to go to some phone calls now. We have Brian, in Grand Rapids, Mich. Hello, Brian, you're on the air.
BRIANGood morning. What a privilege. I look forward to reading your book, Sen. Booker.
BOOKERThank you very much.
BRIANMy comment, there's another Corey who would make a wonderful Supreme Court justice. She works for the federal court. My question is what advice would you give us Americans to rid this country of institutional racism? And (unintelligible) hiring where a guy named Sam might get hired before a Jamar or something like that.
BOOKERYou know, I've -- number one, I think it's important when we start talking about issues of race that we look at the facts. Again, this is another time, bring me the data. And there's incredible studies now that are coming out that indeed, you take the same resume and you put a typically African-American sounding name on it, to, versus somebody that doesn't have such a name or they've done pictures with the same resumes, but swapping out pictures to see how they're received.
BOOKERAnd you begin to see the evidence of implicit racial bias. And that's, by the way, everybody, you and I are two minorities, but we have implicit racial bias. You see it manifesting in policing, where you now you have the head of the FBI, Comey, talking about that not only implicit racial bias exists, but that we can do something about it in training and preparing people. So there's often conversations about race where people fall into their camps and get very defensive or get -- sort of have a lot of preconceived notions right away.
BOOKERBut I simply appeal to our common values as a country. We don't want a nation, for example, where there's two different criminal justice systems. We now know from longitudinal data that if you're -- there's no difference between blacks and whites, for example, in using drugs. None whatsoever. No difference between blacks and whites in using -- in selling drugs. In fact, some studies will show a slight, slight -- more likely if you're white male to sell drugs than a black male.
BOOKERBut unfortunately we live in a country where if you're African American, you're 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for using those drugs. And then for blacks and whites that are arrested for the same crime, an African America -- again, this is data you can't -- we can argue about what to do about it. We can't argue about the facts -- that you're gonna get about a 20 percent longer sentence just based on the color of your skin.
BOOKERAnd so we've got to say that that's not reflective of us as a country, nor does it help us as a nation. Because when a young black man has got a job and is doing great things, they actually add to the strength of a whole. If they don't have those opportunities -- I'll tell you, one of the greatest wastes of taxpayer dollars every year is this exploded criminal justice system…
BOOKER…that's gone up on the federal level since 1980, 800 percent. One of the most massively expanding bureaucracies. In fact, at a time when we were stopped investing as we should in roads and the quality of our bridges and broadband expansion, like other countries were doing, whose rail lines are moving faster than us.
BOOKERThe globe was investing in infrastructure better than we were, or many countries in the globe I should say, in terms of percentage of GDP. Now, many countries spend much more than us, except for in one area. Where Americas have been investing like crazy, a tax on all of us, which we were building about a new prison every 12 days in the United States of America.
KANGIt's astonishing that figure. In fact, you have a whole chapter titled, "Incarceration Nation." And you talk a little bit about -- you talk quite a bit about how mass incarceration really uniquely affects the lives of African Americans. And can you talk a bit more about that? You say, actually, if you're born in America today and you are white, you have 1 in 17 chance of spending time in jail. If you are Latino, 1 in 6. If you are black, 1 in 3. Talk a bit about what you're doing in the Senate to address this. Where does your criminal justice reform bill stand?
BOOKERWell, right now, that even -- that white statistic alone is unconscionable.
BOOKERIt's unconscionable that we now have a country where 1 in 3 adults, period, are gonna be arrested in their lifetime. Unconscionable that we are the land of the free, but yet we have only 5 percent of the globe's population, but 1 in 4 imprisoned people on the planet Earth are in the United States. And so this should be shocking to the consciousness of us all. That we -- and this hasn't been the whole American history. And I don't believe Americans have a higher proclivity of crime than other countries, but this has just about since the 1970s, accelerated by the decisions made by Congresses and legislatures all over our country.
BOOKERAnd these wild racial dynamics of it -- because the people we tend to incarcerate are the most vulnerable Americans, the mentally ill, the drug-addicted, especially the poor and minorities, disproportionally. And so for me it's a mission because it hurts every American in ways that they don't understand, draining their taxpayer dollars, making all of us less safe. Because when somebody comes out of prison, as the American Bar Association has said, they have thousands and thousands of what's called collateral consequences.
BOOKERHard to get a job. Can't get business loans. Can't get many business licenses if they want to be entrepreneurs. Can't get public housing. Can't get food stamps. They have so many bars on what they can do that we get -- we shouldn't be shocked that recidivism rates are upwards around 75 percent. And so that now costs us more and drives more people, not towards hey I got a job, when we now know data shows people who come out of prison and get a job are far less likely to recidivate.
BOOKERAnd so now we're making ourselves less safe because when somebody recidivates it means they do more crime. So I can tell you how it hurts every American, all of us in some way. But what are we doing about, which is I think the important part of the question -- is the first policy conversation I had, I raised my hand, swore my oath on that auspicious day of Halloween in 2013. And then shaking hands with senators. And Rand Paul comes over to me and I grab his hand and shake it. And we start talking about, hey, we got to do something about this.
BOOKERAnd so I've introduced legislation on what I consider so many of the aspects of this problem, many of them ridiculous. Like we do things in this country that other countries, human rights organizations call torture. Like putting children in solitary confinement, which there's a near consensus of psychologists and others who talk about the traumatizing affect, how it can stimulate and create mental illness, a majority of suicides of young people in prison are those who are in solitary confinement or have come out of solitary confinement.
BOOKERAnd so this is something that I've gone full assault on because in my New Jersey residence, I want them to stop wasting taxpayer dollars. I want us to do what other states have done, which have shown that you can lower your prison population and lower crime. There's a pathway to doing that. I want to elevate human potential and I want to stop poverty. Vanderbilt has a study that says we'd have 20 percent less poverty in America, one-fifth of poverty would be cut out if we just had incarceration rates that were similar to our industrial peers.
KANGAnd this is bipartisan, you have said. This is something that Republicans and Democrats embrace?
BOOKERIf you had told me when I was a mayor that one of my friends and allies…
KANGSenator Paul, Rand Paul.
BOOKER…will not, no, the Koch brothers. You know, the Koch brothers. Mark Holden, who's the Koch brothers' counsel. His wife is amazing. She was in my office recently. I've become friends with that -- them because of their passion and part of that larger coalition that involves Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, a raft of Republican senators, friends of mine, like Mike Lee, Rand Paul and others. So this is something that, as I said, I was talking to Dick Durbin, who's one of the leaders on this larger piece of legislation we're working on.
BOOKERAnd I've got bipartisan, bicameral legislation with Darrell Issa, Representative Johnson, as well as Pat Leahy and others, to do things like ban the box, with the biggest employer in our country, which is government and government contractors. I've got legislation, as I said, on solitary confinement, on medical marijuana. Why should the federal government right now, when states have decided to legalize medical marijuana…
BOOKER…why should the federal government be infringing on those states? And there are horrible things come -- going about in states because the federal government is still trying to enforce those laws or it's still threatening to have the potential to do so. So I'm in the scrum right now of people that are trying to make this happen. But I'm getting increasingly impatient. And -- but I'm determined to see us reverse the trend of mass incarceration in our country.
KANGI'm Cecilia Kang with The New York Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to a caller in -- Billy, in Greensboro, N.C. Hello, Billy, you're on the air.
BILLYHello. Thank you for taking my call. And Sen. Booker, let me say, it's an honor to speak with you. I have been following your career for quite a while. And I love the work that you did as a mayor in Newark. And I seen how you embraced Gov. Chris Christie while you were working with him. My question to you are -- is that do you have any further political aspirations?
BILLYYou may not want to speak about them, but it's a just a question. And also, just to get any -- how would you bring together the Parties? I know you spoke upon it briefly. But how do you bring together the two Republican and Democratic Parties that are so polarized right now in this political climate? How would you just start to bring together those two Parties with your legislation?
BOOKERSo I -- the first question I don't want to dodge in any way. Look, I've come to conclude that life is about purpose and not position. And, you know, I, in my book, I talk about having this master plan for my life.
KANGThat's right. You were fastidious in your childhood, with the white board.
KANGAnd in college, writing down your goal, coming up with a five-year plan. That's why, quite frankly, it makes me a little bit -- it makes me wonder what your plan is, your next five-year plan.
BOOKERYeah, and I just, you know, I hope people read the book and see that about -- I just think -- I'm one of these people that things for ambitious people, if you don't have a certainty of purpose, if you don't have goals, if you don't take time to reimagine your life on a regular basis, and have a clear focus, how can you get to a destination if you don't have a focus on where you're going? And so -- but right now, you know, there's -- 44 people that have been president of the United States. There's only been a little bit more of that have been governor.
BOOKERBut I just think it's distracting to politicians when they get into an office and they start thinking about the next office. And often what I see happening, and I don't want to point fingers, but they often do things that are not in the best interest of where they are or the people that they're serving, but to try to craft themselves so that they'll be more appealing to other folks. Look, I'll give you a funny example of this.
BOOKERMy grandmother's from Des Moines, Iowa. And I went back there to campaign for Sen. Clinton and landed. And I was brought right to a party, like 40 family members, a house full of black folks. One of the people joked to me, I was like is this all the black people in Iowa? But I have policy views that are -- on big Ag that are very contrary to what the general themes are often, and interests are of big agriculture in Iowa. And I don't ever want to compromise those views because I'm thinking about some presidential run.
BOOKERI think we have serious problems in our country with big Ag, what we're subsidizing. I see my kids could walk into a Bodega and the Twinkie is cheaper than the apple because we, as taxpayers, are subsidizing the very things that then we have to pay for 'cause we're giving kids diabetes at rates -- so I don't want to ever have to watch my mouth as a senator because I'm thinking about some presidential campaign.
BOOKERI want to be able to speak my mind, tell my truth and remain authentic. And I don't want to compromise that. So I'm very happy where I am. I've got the job of my dreams. New Jersey has given me a shot. My mom would not let me forget when I walked into the Senate and I talk about that very embarrassing sort of mother moment you have, where my mom I felt like was sending me off to summer camp and just keeps telling me, remember, you know, the office doesn't make the man, the man's got to make the office.
BOOKERRemember who sent you here. Don't compromise your values, your core values, your moral compass. And I don't want to do that. So I -- it's nice and flattering to be talked about, but I'm a United States senator. I'm the fourth elected African American in the history of our country. A lot of Americans, black, white, Latino and others sacrificed for the opportunities I'm enjoying right now. And I'm gonna spend the next four years of my life being the greatest senator I can be.
KANGWe have another call from Taylor in Washington, D.C. Hello, Taylor, you're on the air.
TAYLORHello. Hello, Sen. Booker. I think you might remember me from the Alicia Keys event with Van Jones.
BOOKERYes, thank you for being in the Capitol. And Alicia Keys…
TAYLORWell, I also can't make your book event tonight because I'm being honored as a returning Citizen of the Year.
TAYLORBut you know how I am about my numbers. And you like numbers. And so the conversation has been moving forward, but again, we're not talking about African American women. So I wanted to ask you -- congratulate you on your book and I -- someone bought me a copy, so I will be reading it. But some -- I've been wanting the conversation to focus on African American women.
TAYLORAnd I know that Van Jones and Alicia Keys and you have been working on #Cut50. President Obama, at the Congressional Black Caucus, talked about the sexual abuse to prison pipeline for women. And I call it the trauma to prison pipeline for women. And as I said to you at the event, 90 percent of women who are incarcerated have been victims of domestic violence, 75 percent have been victim of sexual violence.
KANGThank you, Taylor. We're gonna have to ask you, Sen. Booker, what about African American women who are incarcerated?
BOOKERWell, the woman who called is such a great voice for this issue. And the numbers are stunning about what we do to women who are victims, often, of trauma and abuse and how we criminalize that. And it's one of the biggest growing populations in our prisons right now. And that's the frustrating thing about this system, is we now know there are better ways to deal with trauma, abuse, addiction then putting people in prison, which often aggravates the abuse as opposed to elevating people, which would not only lower their chances of doing crime, but actually elevate them in terms of their wholeness and their productivity.
BOOKERAnd so this is -- the question about who we gonna be -- who are we gonna be as a country. Are we gonna be a nation of love and compassion, of redemption or are we gonna be a country of -- a victimizing nation? There's -- Nelson Mandela, I don't have quote right, but he said if you want to see the truth of a nation, don't go into their halls of power Congress, go to their prisons and see who's there.
KANGI'm Cecilia Kang with The New York Times sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm so grateful for Cory Booker, senator from New Jersey for joining me today to talk about his book, "United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good." Thank you all for listening.