Shop Talk: Kids To Clean Schools If Gingrich Wins?

This week, the Barbershop guys discuss a series of comments by Newt Gingrich suggesting that underprivileged kids could improve their work ethic by cleaning school bathrooms. Also, after nearly 30 years and numerous appeals, Philadelphia prosecutors are no longer seeking the death penalty for convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and author Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and Johns Hopkins political science professor Lester Spence and author, also, too.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. Hey, fellows. Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

LESTER SPENCE: Hey, what's up?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Good, man. Great.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get started. Talking about the latest GOP presidential candidate to surge in the polls. Me. No, I'm just kidding. Newt Gingrich.

MARTIN: You're often confused.

NAVARRETTE: Why not?

IZRAEL: I mean, at this rate, it could be. Right?

MARTIN: It's that credit line at Tiffany's. That's what gets everybody all messed up.

IZRAEL: Okay. Well, like I said, anyway, but after a slow start, the former speaker of the House turned political consultant is moving up. But he's kind of gotten a lot of heat for his kind of Dickensian ideas about putting kids to work, Michel. Really?

MARTIN: Well, you're talking about...

IZRAEL: Oh, man. It's a hard knock life.

MARTIN: You're talking about some comments he made about kids needing better role models, particularly poor kids needing better role models. I'll just play a short clip. Here it is.

NEWT GINGRICH: Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they really have - they have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. There's no habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless it's illegal.

IZRAEL: Wow. Thanks for that, Michel. That Reaganesque kind of ode to poor people sleeping in watermelon patches, you know, chewing on straw. You know, but that's not all he's been saying, is it?

MARTIN: Well, I thought we could just let people know what he said before we gave our opinion about it, but that's okay, Jimi. But here. I'll just give you the second part of his argument, then you all can take it from there.

He said that schools should perhaps consider replacing their unionized janitors who he, I think, believes are overpaid and let underprivileged kids clean the buildings. And that ticked off a lot of people, including janitors, but here's Newt Gingrich explaining on that point of view. Here it is.

GINGRICH: So get into the janitor thing and I get these letters written that say janitorial work is really hard and really dangerous and it's this and that. I go, fine. So what if they became assistant janitors and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom?

IZRAEL: Wow.

MARTIN: There you go. Okay. There you go.

IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. You know what? Not for nothing. I take his point that, you know, kids today, you know, are kind of soft, but why stop with janitorial ideas?

NAVARRETTE: Kind of soft?

IZRAEL: Yeah. Well, why...

NAVARRETTE: Kind of soft?

IZRAEL: Why don't we put the kids back in the mines where they belong, where they can do some good? You know, I know you got a lot to say, Ruben, but Lester - Dr. Spence, you're the poli-sci guy in the house. Let's get you first in on here. What do you make of Newt Gingrich and his comments?

SPENCE: I am so thankful that he is so frank. This has been the GOP platform on a national level in a nutshell and it's time you kind of - statements like this allow you to kind of take the cover off and you can see it, really, for what it is. Everybody can see how distasteful - well, everybody with sense can see how kind of distasteful that is.

IZRAEL: Ruben, come on, man. You wrote a few columns.

NAVARRETTE: That sounds like my cue. Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I just have to reach over and see if I can find a face mask. Go ahead. Just go ahead, Ruben. Have at it.

NAVARRETTE: I think three things that Newt Gingrich talked about were in bad form and wrong and he shouldn't have gone there and he borrows a lot of trouble when he says it.

One is the bit about the janitors. I think that needs to be explained a lot better than he did, obviously. He should never have said, number two, that child labor laws were, quote, "truly stupid." I don't think that's accurate. No. He said that. He said that.

IZRAEL: Yeah. He did say that. Yeah.

NAVARRETTE: Okay. And so this is always the problem with Newt. He is a man of ideas and that's a good thing; he's a man of ideas and that's a bad thing. But wrapped up in all this, I've actually seen this bit about poor kids acting as assistant janitors before and I saw it at a charter school in Oakland, California, where the mostly minority population run by a bunch of lefties - because their view was from the left, that kids have become way too dependent on a number of things, including government assistance, and that they really did need to learn how to hold a broom again.

So I find a lot of the message - see, a lot of the message is wrapped up in who's giving it. And if you take Gingrich out of it and just look at the message, it is really hard to argue that people - hear me now - of all colors, not just black folks, not just brown folks, but of all colors - white kids too - have lost their work ethic. And this is not a black problem or a brown problem, it's an American problem, and I'll have that argument with anybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: Hold on, Jimi. Just a second. I just want to point out that Ruben wrote a couple of columns about this, where he further expanded on this point of view.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: I'll tell you one other thing. I went to boarding school. I think people know this. There was a work program that everybody had to participate in, not just scholarships students.

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

MARTIN: It started during World War I when a lot of the faculty members and staff people, caretakers, were drafted to serve, and so the students ran the boiler, the coal, everything.

NAVARRETTE: Right. Sure.

MARTIN: They shoveled coal. They did all that. Everybody had to do it, not just scholarship students. But I know Arsalan, you wanted to weighed in.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, you know, based on his statements that, you know, kids today, you know, have no work habits and quote, "nobody around them works," I'd like him to go to downtown Detroit or the South Side of Chicago at 4:45 in the morning on a work day and try to get on a city bus. And, you know, look at the people who are working three to four jobs, single-parent households, you know, trying to keep their families afloat, pay the rent and get the groceries.

I mean this was - to me it was the most patronizing statement from his lily-white ivory tower that Newt Gingrich could have ever given.

SPENCE: Yeah. Now...

IZRAEL: Okay. Well...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Lester.

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Lester. Go ahead.

SPENCE: So, here's the question.

NAVARRETTE: Okay.

SPENCE: There are also larger issues. So if we say everybody needs to work, that kids, it builds character, right, there are a number of different ways that we can imagine, for example, Southern Dixiecrats, right, administering a program like that as opposed to left-leaning urban folk who know how black people roll, right? So even if we were to say that maybe there are certain circumstances where kids should work, we, there's this still large structural conversation that we have to have about...

NAVARRETTE: Okay. Yeah.

SPENCE: ...how Jack, about how...

NAVARRETTE: I hear that.

SPENCE: ...the Republican Party and their ideas about black labor.

IZRAEL: And Lester...

NAVARRETTE: That's a good point.

IZRAEL: And Lester...

NAVARRETTE: But that get's you half the way, at least. We're having that conversation half the way to say that we do have a problem with our work ethic across the board, all colors. I was on a radio show yesterday defending this when somebody said, well, do you really want 13-year-olds cleaning toilets and things. And I said forget 13-year-olds. I can't get 19, 20, 22-year-olds to hold a job at Starbucks because they find it too taxing, too strenuous.

IZRAEL: But wait, wait - hold, hold, hold on, Ruben.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Wait a second. Just, you're talking about all of us, but wait, in your piece...

NAVARRETTE: Right. Very broad.

IZRAEL: ...you go out of your way to underscore the unemployment rate among young African-American teenagers...

NAVARRETTE: Right. 'Cause Newt did that - Newt did that.

IZRAEL: Okay. So...

NAVARRETTE: He brought that up. Right.

IZRAEL: But you're also saying that it may suggest that either the teenagers are unemployable because no one's ever taught them any skill about how to hold down a job.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

IZRAEL: And I don't know if you - I don't know if you've ever been poor, but poor people I've lived around, I mean they've all been working. And it's not that they don't know how to work, it's not that they're in the watermelon patch, you know, chewing on straws...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

IZRAEL: ...drinking mint juleps. They're working just hard enough to...

NAVARRETTE: Jimi, let me...

IZRAEL: ...pen(ph) these checks together to get through the next month. I mean the working poor...

NAVARRETTE: You've asked if I've ever been poor. Like Michel, she and I have both - have dads who used to be in her case a firefighter and a policeman. My dad was a cop, that's not exactly, you know, royalty. But beyond that, Michel's right. These kinds of boarding schools where she and I, we went to the Harvard. When I was at Harvard, my first job was in dorm crew cleaning up toilets and janitorial work and all that stuff.

MARTIN: Me too.

NAVARRETTE: And I'll tell you what that taught - I'll tell you, maybe Michel had the same experiences. What it taught me and her, when those folks later would come in and do those jobs - those so-called grownups, I never would've looked down on those people and I was afraid that some of my classmates might have. There's nothing wrong with getting your hands doing dirty and doing that kind of work. I just don't think we're doing it across the board with people of all colors.

MARTIN: Well, you know what?

IZRAEL: Okay.

MARTIN: I understand. Before we move on from this, I understand that you are - Ruben, you're actually talking to Mr. Gingrich later today. Do I have that right?

NAVARRETTE: I am going. Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: So Lester has got a question for him. We thought we'd help you.

NAVARRETTE: I love it. I need the help. I need some. I need some.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCE: Ask him what Dickens got wrong. Ask him Dickens got wrong. Dickens' critique about child labor is one of the most powerful critiques of the 20th century. Ask him what he got wrong.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: Arsalan has a question too.

IFTIKHAR: Ask him...

IZRAEL: (Unintelligible) working hard enough.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. And Ruben, for me, ask him if I can borrow the latest catalog from Tiffany and Company.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE...

NAVARRETTE: Not on our wages.

MARTIN: ...from Nā€“ not, exactly. Not over here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop. We're joined by author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and political science professor and author Lester Spence. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Okay, a new development in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He's the former Black Panther who was convicted of killing a white police officer, Daniel Faulkner, in 1981. For nearly 30 years he's appealed his death penalty sentence. And this week prosecutors said, you know, they're not seeking it anymore. That that's all done and said, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, he will serve a life sentence. Prosecutors said they dropped the death penalty because witnesses who might be called for appeals are either dying or not available. And Officer Daniel Faulkner's widow said she's tired of these constant reminders of her husband's death. So I'm just fascinated what all of you think of this.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, this is Arsalan.

It's quite interesting because, you know, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal is more than one person. It's sort of become the poster child for the anti-death penalty, you know, movement here in the United States. You know, Mumia has become an honorary citizen in over 25 cities in the world, including Paris, Montreal, Palermo and Copenhagen. But it speaks more to our own lack or inability to abolish the death penalty, which has been done by over half of the world. The UK abolished it in '71, France and '81, Canada and '76, 24 other countries between '89 and '95; we're the only Western industrialized nations on Earth to still have the death penalty. And so I think it is a significant marker in the anti-death penalty movement in the U.S.

IZRAEL: Thank you, Arsalan. Lester, jump in here.

SPENCE: Yeah, I agree. I think that what's, there are a number of people who are still asking the question of whether he is innocent or guilty.

MARTIN: Well, isn't that an important question?

SPENCE: I think it...

NAVARRETTE: Absolutely.

SPENCE: I think it is an important question. But I think for me, given that I'm anti-death penalty, I think we are, I think that it should be abolished. I think the more important question is: what does the movement look like after its most celebrated member gets what he wants, right? That's really the question because there are literally dozens of people on death row who aren't as articulate as Mumia was, who don't have his politics, who we may not like if they were in the room with us but who deserve that same type of political movement.

IFTIKHAR: Troy Davis.

MARTIN: Well...

IZRAEL: Ruben.

MARTIN: Ruben.

IZRAEL: Ruben, I know your father was a police officer.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I mean this issue is really vexing to me and should be to a lot of Americans. And I think it always should be vexing. It's one of the most critical issues out there - the idea that the state could take a human life. And I like those polls that I see that show a lot of nuance and, you know, ambivalence about this and depending on the circumstances. And I like reading stories where you have conservatives, in some cases conservative Republican governors who, you know, put moratoriums on the death penalty because of DNA evidence and the like. And it shouldn't be this sort of bloodthirsty rush to, you know, to execute people. And having spent six years, almost six years in Texas, I can tell you that's real life. They're some people out there, politicians and others, who still use that unfortunately as a political tool to get elected, you know, to show everybody how tough, quote, "tough" they are on crime.

So I think it's another moment to give us pause. We should take cases like this and just, you know, take advantage of them and think about this long and hard and come down on a nuanced position in terms of, you know, maybe we're not totally against the death penalty in all cases ā€“ hello, Timothy McVeigh. There may be cases where it's justified and there may be cases where it's not, but you got to be able to split the baby and really get through the complexity of it.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think? I hate that metaphor, by the way. Just thought I'd mention it.

NAVARRETTE: Sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: But Jimi, what do you think, before we move on.

IZRAEL: Well, I'm a real...

MARTIN: I know you want to talk about the big sports stories, but what do you think?

IZRAEL: I'm a real crime and punishment kind of guy. You know, don't do the crime if you can't do the time or whatever comes with it. You know, you bought the ticket, so I don't know. In this case I don't know. Since college I've been kind of split on it. You know, I wrote a piece famously in the Cleveland State Vindicator that maybe they should just go ahead and gas Mumia already and that had the kind of reaction...

SPENCE: Ooh. Ooh. Ouch. Yeah.

IZRAEL: Yeah. That had the kind of reaction you would expect it to.

SPENCE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: But with some years of perspective and a little bit of wisdom, I don't know, I'm still perplexed about it. You know, we don't know if he's guilty or innocent. But I don't know, again, you know, if you don't want to do the time then don't do the crime. Don't be in the proximity of crime, you know what I'm saying?

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

IZRAEL: Be in a classroom. Be doing something else.

NAVARRETTE: Be in the library..

IZRAEL: You know, and have a good alibi. Be pushing a broom or...

IFTIKHAR: Clean some toilets.

IZRAEL: ...at Newt's house or something. You know, have a good alibi.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Okay. I think it's time to move on. I think we've all been heard on this. But, you know, we always want to talk about the big sports stories of the week. And there are a couple to talk about. But the one I wanted to ask you all about was that first baseman Albert Pujols just got a smoking deal from the Los Angeles Angels, about $250 million for 10 years. Now, I know he's a three-time National League Most Valuable Player, but whoa...

IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Snap. I mean I don't know, Arsalan, what do you - what?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I went to college and law school in St. Louis and Albert Pujols was a shining light there. But, you know, a 10-year $254 million deal, that's a quarter of quarter of a billion dollars, yo, for a 31-year-old player, so he's going to be making this as he enters into his 40s. But, you know, this was a huge sports day for Los Angeles and the Anaheim Angels. But leave it to the Los Angeles Lakers to one up them by trying to bring Chris Paul in and have that whole fiasco where David Stern and the 29 NBA owners essentially rescinded the deal and now we're just waiting to see what happens next.

MARTIN: So quickly, so quickly, do you think Pujols is worth it? And do you think that the Chris Paul thing - and where are you on the Chris Paul thing?

IFTIKHAR: I think Pujols is worth it because two other teams were offering in the ballpark of $200 million. And I think that Chris Paul will ultimately go to the Lakers after New Orleans gets an additional first or second round draft pick.

MARTIN: What does everybody else think?

NAVARRETTE: People are always worth it if others are willing to pay it, and that's always the, you know, if he can earn it, if they think it's worth it, then you're always dealing with millionaires stealing money from billionaires so you know, don't cry me a river.

MARTIN: Yeah, how about, so you think, yeah, so the market sets the price, that's it. End of story.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: Don't hate the player. Hate the game.

SPENCE: Yeah. I think with the Pujols case I think that a case can be made that at the end of that 10 years people are going to wish that drugs were legal because there's no way he's going to be able to play all 10 with the body, with the wear and tear that's going to have on his body. As far as Chris Paul, I think people should be able to go where they want to go.

MARTIN: Well, what about that? Yeah, Ruben, what about that?

NAVARRETTE: What, the second one?

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

NAVARRETTE: The NBA trade?

MARTIN: Yeah. How is that possible that they can reject the trade, that the NBA can reject the trade?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah, you heard what I heard. I mean it was basically about the tension between small markets and larger markets and this idea of Lamar Odem going to New Orleans and all that. I don't know the dynamic between the smaller and larger markets enough to ā€“ well, to understand it, but they apparently I think under, as long as it happens under the auspices of the NBA, they have enormous power...

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: Well, they say the owners didn't kill the deal.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: Go ahead. The owners say they did not kill the deal.

IFTIKHAR: The New Orleans Hornets is the only team that is owned by the NBA. And so therefore legally they're owned by the 29 other owners who can then decide because they actually own a share of that team. And so that's why everybody is saying the New Orleans Hornets need to be sold like yesterday to another private buyer so that this sort of debacle will never happen again.

MARTIN: Okay, guy, let's check your pockets. See if we have enough. Put it together. Come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCE: Do they take food stamps?

MARTIN: I don't know. Oh, funny.

IFTIKHAR: I clean toilets so, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think?

NAVARRETTE: If this is going to be after Tiffany's I'm tapped out.

MARTIN: Exactly. Jimi, what's your final thought on that?

IZRAEL: I think these sports players make millions. Teachers barely make 40 K. I wish we all could get paid what we're worth. That's what I wish.

IFTIKHAR: Amen.

MARTIN: I guess that means you're not chipping into our Hornets fund. Okay.

IZRAEL: I guess not.

MARTIN: Well, we might invite you to a game or two. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for The Washington Post Writers Group, Latino magazine and PJ Media. He was with us from San Diego. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics." And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney. He's author of the newly-released book "Islamic Pacificism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." And Arsalan and Lester were here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

SPENCE: Peace.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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