Jamila Michener is an associate professor of government at Cornell University, and is co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity. Her research focuses on poverty, racial inequality and public policy in the United States, and she is author of Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism and Unequal Politics. Before speaking at a Zócalo/Center for Social Innovation UC Riverside event titled “Are American States Better at Protecting Human Rights than the Federal Government?,” she talked in the virtual green room about why democracy is always a work in process, being mindful about how to engage in the world, and dreaming of really well-done jerk chicken with plantains.
What was the last book you read?
Short Circuiting Policy by Leah Stokes, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara. The book is about clean energy and climate policy in the states.
It’s really interesting. She does case studies in different states like Texas, Arizona, Kansas. She looks at efforts by advocates to drive clean energy use and initiatives and policy, and outlines how states can really make progress on environmental policy in response to climate change.
To which book do you most often return?
I have different phases. So it’s a different book, depending on what phase I’m going through. Recently, I’ve been going to a book by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. It’s called Race for Profit. It’s about banks and the real estate industry and the ways that they have exploited Black communities and low-income Black homeowners and potential homeowners.
I’ve been doing a lot of work on housing in the last months, and I’ve been going to that book a lot because there are some concepts I’ve been drawing on in my work. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor talks about the idea of predatory inclusion; people who have been excluded from homeownership are included under the auspices of equity, but the details are really exploitative.
What’s the most important thing for people to understand about Medicaid?
That it matters fundamentally for people’s ability to live and to live with dignity. When we think about Medicaid in an abstract way, as a policy where we might quibble over the costs, or quibble over who has access or who is eligible, those policy-wonkish debates get disconnected from the reality that Medicaid has a profound impact on people’s ability to live with dignity. I want everyone to have access to health care universally—because health care and human dignity are inextricably linked.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
Thinking—really taking the time to think—about how you are engaging the world, that thinking feels like more and more of a fleeting practice.
I see it in the students I teach. They are brilliant in many ways. Still, they haven’t really spent time thinking about what matters to them, what important to them, what’s their footprint in the world, why they’re doing what they’re doing. There is something about the pace of American life that leaves little space for thinking.
Sometimes my children, who are young, say things to me, and I say, ‘Take a time out, and go think.’ We have to build this practice of actually being thoughtful people. We’re trending down as a democratic polity.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about democracy in America?
That democracy is a finished outcome. People here say democracy is a thing that we have. But it’s actually something that is always becoming. It always has to be a thing we’re in the process of trying to obtain. We can be moving forward to a more advanced democracy or we can be regressing. We have done both in this country. If we think of democracy as something we’ve achieved, we’re never going to get there.
In what ways is poverty in the United States different than poverty in other countries?
Poverty is an economic condition, but it’s also a social and political experience. Poverty in all three of those dimensions—economic, social, and political—is a function of not just some absolute standard but also a relative experience of exclusion. It is a function of what’s going on around you. Because the U.S., in so many ways, is wealthy, it’s very hard to experience deprivation in a context where there is abundance.
It’s odd that a lot of my students say it’s not as bad as India, it’s not as bad as Africa… because people are not starving on the streets. And I say, first of all, many poor people are very hungry. Second of all, look at the levels of social and political exclusion poor people experience.
What question do your students most ask you?
They most often ask: “How did you become a professor?” Because I don’t look like one to some. Maybe that’s because I’m a Black woman. Sometimes they say it’s because I look young.
What’s your favorite meal?
My family is from the Caribbean. I would have to say really well-done jerk chicken with plantains. I haven’t had that in a while. When I’m able to visit my family in New York City, that’s the first thing we get.
What place on Earth where you haven’t been would you most like to go?
It’s pretty random. But I would say Greece. I’ve seen lots of pictures of it. It’s just so beautiful looking. I just want to be there. Wow.