Sam Sanders on Reading, Race, and Covering Politics in America
In Conversation With Will Schwalbe On But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. Everywhere I go, I’m always asking people, what are you reading? It can be hard—especially these days—to keep ourselves from making snap judgments about people we come across. When you ask someone what they’re reading, what you’re really asking them is to tell you what makes them curious. What they want to know. Who they are and who they want to become.
A few years ago, I was on a bus between Jefferson City, Missouri and the St. Louis airport. I was sitting next to a conservatively dressed college student—he looked like an athlete wearing his travel suit, or someone interviewing for their first job at a big corporation. Towards the end of the trip, we started chatting. It turned out he was a business and econ major, and an athlete to boot. When I asked him if he was reading anything other than books for school, he lit up and reached into his bag. He wanted to show me. He pulled out two books on bugs—including one on mosquitos that I had actually worked on years before. It just goes to show: pull up a rock and you never know what you might find crawling around underneath. And that’s exactly the sort of surprise I got to talking about recently with today’s guest.
Sam Sanders: My name is Sam Sanders. I am a recovering political reporter who hosts an NPR radio show called It’s Been a Minute.
WS: If you regularly listen to the radio, it probably hasn’t been a minute since you’ve heard Sam’s voice. He first came to NPR in 2009, and was one of the original hosts of the NPR Politics podcast. His latest project, It’s Been a Minute, is a podcast about news, culture, and conversation. Ideas big and small. A voracious reader, he often has authors whose books he admires on his show. Last summer, that book was New People, by author Danzy Senna, which he says made him think differently about race.
SS: I’m black, and I think a lot about race and I talk a lot about race, and I’ve covered race for NPR over the course of several years. And I’ve never, ever, ever in my life thought about race that way. But since that book, it has totally upended the way that I look at something like race.
WS: But before we get to how that book found its way onto Sam’s desk at NPR, we have to find out how he got there. And while Sam says his path to radio was not a straight line, there’s no question where his story starts.
SS: I am from South Texas, from the San Antonio, Texas area, and I didn’t really leave Texas until I was 23.
WS: Sam learned to read early—his aunt Alta taught him and his brother with Dr. Seuss books—and from the beginning, he’s been the kind of reader who just can’t put a book down.
SS: I was a kid growing up who would get in trouble because he would stay up with with a flashlight under his sheets at night reading books, that was me. But save for the few reprimands that my mother would give me for staying up too late to read, I lived in a house of books, full of readers, and it was encouraged, and it’s a big part of who I am. I am a child of two educators. My mother was a middle school principal—in fact, my middle school principal, and that was as awkward as you might think.
She was a prankster. She would do this thing… where every now and then, she would purposefully forget to give me lunch money, and then in the middle of the school day, she would announce on the schoolwide intercom, “Sam Sanders, come to the front office, come to the principal’s office!” And everyone would be like, “Oh, Sam’s in trouble, his mom’s going to get him!” And I would go to the front office and she would just give me my lunch money. She was just funny in that way.
WS: That’s a riot. I love that. Were you drawn to books that were too old for you or that you weren’t supposed to read?
SS: Oh, totally. Yeah, because I mean, let’s be real. Once you learn how to read, kids’ books are boring. Like they’re a little boring!
I got really into some books I probably shouldn’t have been reading at too young of an age. I remember when I was in eighth grade, my history teacher, Mr. Wickerham, called my mom and said, “The… the Michael Crichton novel your son is reading here at school today, uh, handles some very adult themes. I’m not sure he should be reading it right now.”
WS: For Sam, books were a way to explore beyond the world he knew in Texas.
SS: I think for me, I was this kid living a pretty sheltered life in a pretty quiet part of the country. And if I could read about people doing really interesting stuff, I wanted to. Like I wanted to read about the folks that were living adventurous lives that still felt attainable and real, you know? So adults doing adult things. I was really into that.
WS: Though there was a particular sort of book that Sam was not especially into.
SS: Oh, gosh, all the classics. All the classics. And even in high school, like, I’ll never forget. We had a big unit on The Grapes of Wrath and a big unit on The Great Gatsby. I never read either of those books, I read the Cliffs Notes. Do not tell my English teacher, Ms. Donahue. Do not tell her.
WS: Classics aside, Sam loved learning—a self-described nerd. After finishing up college in San Antonio, he headed to grad school, studying public policy at Harvard. One summer, he interned with a community development organization in New Orleans.
SS: I spent a lot of time in my dad’s old pickup, driving to and fro, picking up catering and tables and chairs and bottles of water and throwing the picnic in the park and getting the kids to the zoo and all these things. And I had my radio on much more than usual because of that. So I finished the summer just having consumed a ton of radio. And it was public radio, Top 40 radio, morning drive, things like the Tom Joyner Morning Show, all that stuff, and by the end of the summer, I said, you know what? All of these people that I hear on the radio, they seem to be having so much fun and they’re getting paid for it.
WS: And soon after graduating, Sam found himself getting paid for it too, when he started working as a field reporter and then producer at NPR.
SS: There was no moment when I was like, oh, this is what I’m meant to do. And when I came in, I was like, this is my first real job. You know, I—I didn’t know what I was doing, I just wanted to like, try to do good stuff.
WS: That drive eventually led him to political reporting, and in 2015, he helped launch the NPR Politics podcast as one of its original hosts. And for Sam, covering politics in the midst of a divisive election presented a challenge.
SS: There is such a tendency in political reporting to create characters that are not well rounded, you know? The Iowa voters like corn and the heartland. And the voters in Texas love cowboys. And the voters in California are hippies who like weed. And it’s like, no. People are more than that.
You know, I will never forget… the way and the times in which I was mistreated on the campaign trail surprised me.
When I was doing Trump rallies, people would always say, oh my God, Sam, do you feel unsafe, do you feel physically threatened, are you okay? And I would always say, no, I was fine. You know, there’d be the moment where the press would be in the press pen and Trump would tell the audience to boo us, and then they’d boo and then that would stop. And it was just performative. And there was one time when… I caught the eye of a man that was kind of saying, shame on the press and throwing up like, the middle finger. And I looked at him with this scowl, and then he looked back at me and he kind of whimpered and whispered, sorry! But like, that literally was the worst it ever got for me at a Trump rally.
WS: And Sam was surprised by a moment that he did feel threatened.
SS: The one time I felt unsafe, the one time I was really treated badly, it was in California, the night of the California primaries when Bernie Sanders lost California. And the Bernie supporters were just ready to fight, and really mean and hostile. And at one point, I had to step in to keep a relatively large man from like, physically threatening my photographer. It was crazy!
WS: But the end of the election did not make his job any easier.
SS: We entered the Trump administration and it was this tumultuous time for covering race and thinking about race and reporting on race, because race was a constant issue in the election and in the aftermath, whether we wanted to admit it or not. You know, you think about all the polling data that seems to indicate that a lot of Trump supporters were voting out of some sense of racial resentment. You think about the stark disparities in turnout and who people voted for, and all of this spoke to the racial undercurrent that underlied the entire election and its aftermath. And I think a lot of Americans still don’t want to… fess up to that.
WS: And Sam says he didn’t think much about where he fit into all of that either.
SS: I would look at the environment and look at our politics and say, ugh, all of these people are thinking about race the wrong way. And these people are racist, and those people don’t get it, and everything is wrong. But I would never question… how I as a black man fit into it, you know? I think there is a bit of a journalist remove and a distance that we try to keep between ourselves and the world because we want to cover it and not be a part of it. But we are a part of it, and the very systems that we critique, we’re a part of them.
WS: Sam Sanders had spent a year and a half covering the 2016 election for the NPR Politics podcast when the opportunity came up to host his own show. And while he was preparing for that, a book called New People by author Danzy Senna found its way onto his desk.
SS: I cannot take any personal credit for finding this book. One of NPR’s book editors, Barrie Hardymon, she said, Sam, I really think you’ll love this book. And I didn’t really ask so many questions. I just started reading it. And I didn’t know who Danzy Senna was before I read the book. I just knew that Barrie said it would be good, so I was like, alright, let’s check it out.
WS: The novel is part thriller, part satire. Set in Brooklyn, the story is about a young biracial woman, Maria, and the ways she finds herself grappling with race, class, and her identity in a world that can be quick to label her as white. And when Sam sat down with author Danzy Senna for his show, their conversation turned to their own experiences dealing with race.
SS: What made the book even more resonant with me after I had read it and made me really kind of look at the way I almost really see the world, she said when I asked her about Maria and the racial gymnastics she puts herself through over the course of the novel, she said, here’s the thing, Sam. When it comes to things like race or being who you are, I assume everybody is passing.
All of who we are—even race—is performance. You’re performing blackness every day. You are performing whiteness every day. You are performing Latinoness every day. And it is—it is an act. And it is an act that we all take part in.
WS: That act that we all take part in also involves making assumptions about people—about strangers, about people we know, sometimes even about ourselves. And Sam says that reading New People has made him reexamine the assumptions he’s made.
SS: We are all complex and we all sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes we get the performance wrong. We can all let each other down. All of us can fail and all of us can fall into the same traps that we assume our enemies always fall into. We can be just as bad as those that we hate because we’re all so much alike. And… to me, that begs us to have more empathy and that begs us to understand that we’re all flawed and we all can screw up and we’re all just trying to pass and we’re all just performing and it’s all, like, none of us is better than the other. You know?
WS: It’s even made him reflect back on some of the other books he’s loved, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
SS: I don’t know, like reading this book and thinking back about it makes me look at so many of the books that I’ve loved and realize a thread that I really appreciate in so many of them is… books that point out that we’re all just trying. None of us really has it all figured out. And you really should never, ever think that you’re better than somebody else because you probably aren’t and you can screw up in the same way that they do.
Honestly, there’s something about the way that I’ve been thinking about race since this book that inherently makes… or attempts to make me, I think, a little more empathetic, because it kind of helps me understand that everyone at the end of the day is really just trying to be something. They’re just trying, you know? And like, you… it’s a bit harder to hate someone when you understand and realize that they’re trying kind of in the same ways that you are.
WS: And that’s had an effect on his work as a journalist.
SS: When I was Iowa covering the Iowa caucuses, I stopped at this house because when I was driving down the road, I saw hanging over the fence with lights on it, very visible from the street, this like, eight-by-eight-foot blown up image of Donald Trump’s face. It was so weird. So I literally just pulled off the road, and said, I don’t care how long it takes. I’m talking to this man. I’m going to talk to him. So, I waited for a few hours, he showed up, and we started talking. And I was just, I asked him why he liked Trump, what he wants in this election, and he said, I like Trump because of his views on immigration. And he said, well, America is a country that was built for the descendants of white Europeans. And I said, okay. And then I stopped. And I looked at him with this face that just clearly said, you do see you’re saying this to a black guy, right? And he gets what I’m trying to give him with my eyes, and he tries to course correct midstream. And he says, oh, well, you know, actually, what I—what I meant to say is, America is a country that was meant for the descendants of white Europeans and also Africans who came here as slaves. And now they’re here now, and everything’s great, and that’s kickass. He said, that’s kickass.
And he then surprised me. He wanted to keep talking, he started asking me questions, and he could tell that he had messed up. And he wanted to learn, and I wasn’t really there to teach him, but like… just having someone hear him out… allowed him to… surprise himself. Because these are things that he had been hearing and internalizing and thinking but never said out loud, and giving him the chance to just say it. I think I honestly fundamentally kind of say his worldview change that day. And gosh, probably about 20 minutes later, he invited me into his house for a beer.
I think those moments are what I want in my reporting and my storytelling. And those moments can happen so much more often when we allow people to surprise us. And we are in this really heated political climate right now where people feel the need on every single side of the aisle to stifle speech that disagrees with them. And it feels good to do that, but sometimes, the point of civil discourse is not just to have all of it be civil. What if the point of it is to let people get the uncivil stuff out of the way so we can get to some newer and deeper realities?
WS: Do you wish you’d read this book sooner? Or is there someone you would recommend it to?
SS: It’s funny, I ended up giving the book to the engineer in the studio when I was there for the interview. After the conversation was over, said “I really loved that chat, it felt like you and her just went way back and were friends for years and… I look forward to reading that book one day.” And I was like, well, here, take the book, you should read it. I just gave it to her right then and there. And if I had ten more copies, I would give it to the first ten people I saw. Everyone should have it. It’s a great book. I definitely wish I would have read this book sooner, and I, I wish I would have, liked, known Danzy Senna sooner, because all of her work seems to get at this theme. And I’m working through some other stuff of hers now and I want to read everything, you know? So… she’s one of those authors that I wish I would have been reading, gosh, as soon as I could.
But That’s Another Story is a production of Macmillan Podcasts. Thanks to Sam Sanders. If you want to hear more about New People, you can check out Sam’s conversation with Danzy Senna on his show, It’s Been a Minute. If you like the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the show. And be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at another story at Macmillan dot com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.