Colbert Went Too Far Or Viewers Can't Take A Joke?

Stephen Colbert is in hot water for his parody of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Now the #CancelColbert hashtag is trending. Did he go too far? The Barbershop guys weigh in.

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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 shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael, with us from Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor of The Islamic Monthly, with us from Chicago. From Boston, Neil Minkoff, he's a health care consultant and a contributor to National Review magazine. And in Washington, D.C., Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root. That's an online publication that focuses on issues of particular interest to African-Americans. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Hey, Michel, thank you. And how you doing?

MARTIN: Well, I'm fine. Thank you for asking.

IZRAEL: Good. And fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

NEIL MINKOFF: Hey, hey, hey.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey. What's cracking?

COREY DADE: What up, dog?

IZRAEL: Hey, hey, hey, man. Well, you know what? This could be words, Fat Albert, this could be a game changer for college football. This week, players at Northwestern University, they won the right to be classified as employees, meaning they can unionize, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it is a first step, but it's a big step because apparently it was quite unexpected. I mean, the regional chapter of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago made the ruling. The director concluded that players are in fact employees, as they had contended, because their scholarships are tied to football performance. The players commit a huge amount of time to that activity, and Northwestern collects a large amount of money in football revenue. And so they concluded it is in fact a commercial enterprise. So there it is.

IZRAEL: That's right.

MARTIN: Yeah.

IZRAEL: That's right. Thanks for that, Michel.

MARTIN: Yeah, so what do you think?

IZRAEL: I come from a union family, you know, so I'm all about that. And with all the wear and tear on the body, cash on the back and front end for everybody but the people on the field, I say giddy up. Corey Dade, now you played a little football, from what I understand, a lot of football, actually.

MARTIN: I was going to say. He said - when you said a little football, he's like, what are you trying to say? What are you trying to say?

IZRAEL: Right, right, right, right. No shots. No shots, C-Dade. No shots. You know, did you feel like an employee, bro?

DADE: Yeah, and I played a lot of football, but it was mainly in practice. I didn't see the field on Saturdays. But, you know, these - you know, when you're at a highly competitive football program, you're putting in anywhere from 30 to 50 hours a week on your team, whether it's rehab, film study, practice. And let me tell you something, the NCAA limits on how many hours you can practice per day, how many - how much time you can put together per week or per month or whatever, it's all blown every day.

They don't adhere to it. And to me, what's interesting is if this holds up - first of all, this is going to be debated before the NLRB in courts for years to come. OK? They're not going to go away quietly, Northwestern or the NCAA. But if this holds, this would fundamentally put a crack in the dam of the NCAA's exploitation of athletes. I mean, these athletes aren't getting a fair compensation. Many of them aren't even able to really pursue academics as aggressively as they may want. And once their eligibility runs out, they can't continue to get their education.

MARTIN: Let me clarify one thing. The thing about this that I found noteworthy is that they aren't - that the players who pursued this at Northwestern said they weren't necessarily pursuing compensation.

DADE: Right.

MARTIN: What they were pursuing is a seat at the table. They want to have some say in their working conditions.

DADE: Specifically, they want better medical coverage benefits. They want concussion specialists. They want better concussion testing. And they want a trust fund that allows them to get their education after their athletic eligibility runs out.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

IZRAEL: Dr. Neil, I know you've said before that you think this is a good move. Do you see any downside?

MINKOFF: Oh, there's unintended consequences to everything. I mean, I think that this was an interesting first step, but we're a really long way away from there being anything close to a true union or Players Association and that's for a whole bunch of reasons. So as already been mentioned, this has to go to the National Labor Relations Board for further vetting or it can be appealed to it. But is it just for Northwestern? Will other schools start to unionize? Would it have to be one collective division, one union, so that one union can't throw a game to another union? Would it be...

IZRAEL: Right.

MINKOFF: ...You know, there's a whole lot of downstream ramifications. Does it also apply to other sports where maybe, you know, I doubt that the track and field team is practicing as many hours a day at a lot of universities as the football team? Would it apply to those? And for the love of God, how would they strike? You know, how - would the school just be able to lock them out and kick them out of their dorm rooms? And what would the rules be about that? I mean, we're a long way away from this action being something - this decision being something actionable to actually protect student athletes.

IZRAEL: Wow. Arsalan Iftikhar, now you're the man with the plan and the law degree in the shop. Northwestern said it will appeal the decision. Do you think it will pass through the courts?

IFTIKHAR: Well, it's really interesting because the regional director here in Chicago of the NLRB, Peter Sung Ohr, who actually wrote the decision, actually wrote a really, really good and sound legal decision. So again, he based his conclusion primarily on the enormous revenue of about $235 million that Northwestern has gotten in the last 9 years, and the fact that students don't receive any - can't receive any credits for playing and they receive over $60,000 in scholarships. What's interesting to note, and I think has been lost in a lot of this debate, is that this decision, right now, because Northwestern is a private university, only applies to private universities...

MINKOFF: That's right.

IFTIKHAR: ...So for public universities, say like Ohio State or Nebraska, they're actually governed by their own state-specific laws on unions and public employees like teachers, firefighters, and police. So it's different in each state there. What's really interesting is that when the decision goes to Washington to the NLRB federal level, we have to remember that President Obama recently appointed three new members of the NLRB who are more pro-union in their leanings. And so it's unlikely that the national NLRB is going to overturn Peter Ohr's decision. What's going to be interesting is how it plays out in federal courts because as we know, even though this only applies to private universities right now, the NCAA's probably going to take some legal preemptive strikes in friendly federal court to try to get this struck down.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by commentator Arsalan Iftikhar, that's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Corey Dade - journalist, Corey Dade, health care consultant, Neil Minkoff, writer Jimi Izrael. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Well, hold on to your seats because comedian and rapper, Nick Cannon, he debuted an alter ego this week and I know you all were waiting. He donned a blonde wig, flannel shirt and whiteface to promote his upcoming album, "White People Party Music." And here's Cannon in character. Can we drop that please?

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

NICK CANNON: This guy's good, bro. He's going, like freestyle. Someone should sign this guy.

IZRAEL: Oh, wow. Not everyone likes the person that Cannon himself calls Connor Smallnut. Critics say Cannon is racist for mocking whites. You know, but I think we buried - I think we buried the lead here. You know, Nick Cannon got a job. Oh, my God.

IFTIKHAR: Another job.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: But you got a job, man, #scarfacereference. But yeah, I think it's brilliant and also schlocky. Obviously he's desperate. This actor turned rapper, turned house husband, turned I need to get a job to do something quick, turned, you know, schlock artist. Yeah, it's whatever. A-Train, Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir?

IZRAEL: What do you make of this?

IFTIKHAR: Well, Nick Cannon definitely gets the redonkulous award of the week in my books because of the fact that, you know, for millions of us who have been trying to get rid of blackface in American Zeitgeist culture, I think Nick Cannon actually only helps - he actually works against us. I think that for people who do blackface from now on, they're automatically going to say, well, you know, Nick Cannon did whiteface and so we're justified in doing blackface. I think Nick Cannon could have done the same thing just donning that blonde wig. I didn't think that he had to go as far as the schlocky, as you mentioned, whiteface that he did. I think that, again, people have unconscious biases in us. And I think that again, you know, whenever we see a fraternity party somewhere, you know, donning black face, you know, a lot of these people now are going to say, well, you know, if Nick Cannon can do whiteface, then we can do blackface. So I think it's a terrible move on his part.

MARTIN: It's an...

IZRAEL: I'm probably...

MARTIN: It's an interesting point, but the fact is people who want to don blackface don't need Nick Cannon's permission to do it and they don't really care.

IFTIKHAR: Right, but they can use that as justification or rationalization.

MARTIN: Yeah, but people have been using the justification of rappers for years about well, rappers use the N-word so therefore I'm going to use the N-word. And my attitude is, when you start consulting rappers about stock tips and other things that, you know, that you care about, then I'll be interested in you following their lead on stock...

IFTIKHAR: Wu-Tang Financial.

MARTIN: ...You know, on that question as well, but I don't know. Go ahead. Go ahead, Jimi.

IZRAEL: And not for nothing, Michel. I've always - I've never been a critic of blackface in the spirit of performance. I mean, it is what it is. If it's satire and you're outraged, then it worked, duh. You know, so I've always been - I guess I'm probably the minority here. I've always been fairly OK with blackface. Neil Minkoff...

MARTIN: Well, that's interesting. On the satire question, well, that kind of leads logically to this other question...

IZRAEL: Sure.

MARTIN: ...But I do want to hear what Neil has to say about this. Where are you on...

MINKOFF: I'm actually in the same vein. I was going to point out that the problem is that it was done so poorly in a lot of ways. I mean, it doesn't - whiteface does not have the historical baggage that "Minstrel" shows or blackface have. And it's - I think it's silly to equate them, although I can understand the concern. But, you know, look at the brilliance of what Eddie Murphy did in whiteface with his short film, "White Like Me" back in the '80s that did it - it was really funny, but it also had a point. And it was brilliant and it wasn't this sort of like schlocky, back of the envelope, not really funny bit that Nick Cannon did. It can be done well, and when it's done well, it can be incredibly satirical.

MARTIN: Corey, what do you think?

IZRAEL: Corey Dade.

DADE: And I will add Dave Chappelle did it brilliantly too. I think...

IZRAEL: Yep.

DADE: ...Between Chappelle and Eddie Murphy, there was a profound social commentary that was actually accurate. At the end of the day, it talked about white men's entitlement, the sort of access that they have to better opportunities that blacks don't, and the surprise that these black men around them had at that level of access. In this case, you know, this character that Nick Cannon created is not doing that. And I think it is a false equivalence. I mean, at the end of the day, you know, to Jimi's point about satire, you know, blackface was meant to demean, but more importantly it was meant to perpetuate the dehumanization of blacks. If they could get white audiences to continue to see blacks as subhuman and comical, it justified the moral - it was a moral justification to continue to discriminate against them. So there's not any of that happening here. And there's no way anyone can...

MARTIN: But he is playing on a racial stereotype, a sexual racial stereotype.

DADE: Yeah, that part is demeaning.

MARTIN: So that's part of it, and you know...

DADE: But this is not an oppressive act.

MARTIN: OK. Well, speaking of, you know, the satire, let me - I'm dying to hear what you all think about this. I mean, Stephen Colbert was mocking the owner of Washington's football team who set up a charity to help Native Americans. This is something we talked about on the program yesterday with a columnist, Mike Wise, who's been covering this story. A lot of people consider the name of this team a racial slur and he set up this charity after a very, you know, lengthy letter describing what his motivation was and how he planned to be helpful in the future. Now, this is Stephen Colbert, this is how he spun it. So let's hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Folks, this move by Dan Snyder inspires me 'cause my show has frequently come under attack for having a so-called offensive mascot. My beloved character, Ching-Chong Ding-Dong. I love tea. It's so good for you. You so pretty American girl. You come here. You kiss my tea, make it all sweet. I no need no sugar when you around.

MARTIN: You know...

IZRAEL: Wow.

MARTIN: So where are we on this one? Jimi, you want to start?

IZRAEL: I'm OK with it. Yeah, again, it's satire. If you're not outraged, then it didn't do its job. So yeah, I'm fine with it. It works for me. Neil?

MINKOFF: I thought it was funny how there was a Twitter beef as to whether or not Stephen Colbert was responsible for the tweet or it came from Comedy Central and did he have anything to do with it, which I thought was very strange considering it had already been a bit on the show about satire of people who are OK with racism or who could find a racial stereotype offensive. I thought it was interesting that on Twitter, there seemed to be a little bit of a walk back.

MARTIN: OK. Arsalan, what do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah, it's interesting, you know, the people who created the Twitter hashtag #CancelColbert, I think didn't actually watch the bit. Again, he was, you know, satirizing the lame foundation that Dan Snyder set up, which is called, by the way, the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, which makes me want to vomit. But I think that Colbert was -again, he was enacting a parody against a racist elitist, you know, right-wing character that he is. And I think that he was actually poking fun at Dan Snyder. I didn't think that he was trying to actually, you know, dehumanize Asian-Americans. And I think that people who, you know, took to Twitter in this #CancelColbert were only getting half of the story right.

MARTIN: But you don't think it - I mean, it's interesting because you thought the whiteface went too far. There are a lot of people who feel like they don't need to hear that - I don't really want to say it, the name of this character, I don't really want to say it because I know that a lot of people just find it upsetting to hear. And so was that really necessary, I think is the question that - could he have gotten his point across without that?

DADE: Yeah, I don't think it is necessary...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Corey.

DADE: ...But, you know, you have to ask yourself, is comedy necessary, period? I mean, Colbert's whole shtick, his whole image is to be the faux conservative. And by being the faux conservative, it gives him access to lampoon all conservative ideals, and by extension, racism etc., and that's what he was doing here. In order to do it, he often has sort of a, almost a sacrificial lamb. In this case, it's Asians. And whether fairly or not, his goal is to actually use that to turn the criticism, and - excuse me, turn hypocrisy and racism on it's head.

MARTIN: So you think it's OK? You don't think it's racist?

DADE: No, I don't think his - you know, I think it's offensive to Asian-Americans. I think it is. But at the end of the day, you know, his goal wasn't to offend. He actually - it was a successful effort.

MARTIN: OK, we have one more topic we want to get to. And to set the mood, here's a little Wu-Tang Clan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")

MARTIN: Well, this is a classic. And they - so Wu-Tang may be coming into some more cash soon. They say they're going to release just one copy of their next album. It will come with a multimillion dollar price tag, but they will, you know, let people listen to it. And they say part of the argument here is that music is art just like, you know, a painting is art and this is the way people access it. They go on tours. It'll be on display in museums and galleries where people can pay to view it and listen. And then they'll auction it off. And they want to make a point about this. So, Arsalan, I know you suggested we should take up a collection here in the shop to see how we could do. And I mentioned that once you pay for my kids' college education, I'll be more than glad to participate and to chip in. But what about it? Arsalan, what do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Well, first of all, I think it's important to note that I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side and staying alive was no jive. But I think that...

(LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: ...I think, first of all, I think that the album should be called the "37th Chamber." But, you know, I am thrilled. I can't wait to hear RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, ODB rest in peace, Masta Killa, Method Man, Redman. In this - I think it would be owning like - owning one copy would be like owning the sword of Excalibur. I think it's a brilliant, brilliant move.

MARTIN: Corey, what are you doing? Are you chipping in?

DADE: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, well, first off, Redman, you know, Arsalan, Redman is not part of the Wu, but that's all right. The Wu coming through, baby. You know, they have always been, especially, you know, especially their leaders, especially RZA and GZA in particular, they've always been artists willing to push to new frontiers. And what's unique about them, they've always had like a cultish following among rap fans. So it's no surprise that they're doing this. I think it's the natural evolution from what Jay-Z did, trying to bring - you know, this is the older generation of hip-hop artists trying to bring the art and the culture back into hip-hop, kind of the answer to the Drakes of the world.

MARTIN: Step light now on that older thing. All right. Step light. Step light.

DADE: I own it.

MARTIN: OK, we got to give one person one last word. Neil, you want it? You want the last word?

MINKOFF: Yeah, I would love to have it.

MARTIN: Quick.

MINKOFF: In the old days, I remember loving to get a record and put it on the turntable and hold that jacket and look at the art and pull out the sleeve and read the lyrics and the liner notes. And I miss that. I miss the...

MARTIN: And then you jumped into your horse and buggy, right?

MINKOFF: ...I miss that multidimensional layer of experiencing music. And this takes it to a whole new level. I love this idea.

MARTIN: All right. OK. Neil Minkoff is a health care consultant and contributor to National Review, with us from Boston. Jimi Izrael is a writer, you can find his blog at JimiIzrael.com, with us from Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar, founder of themuslimguy.com, a senior editor for Islamic Monthly with us from Chicago. Corey Dade is a contributing editor for The Root, author of their politics blog "The Take," with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much.

DADE: Peace.

MINKOFF: Yes, sir.

IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

IZRAEL: Yep.

MARTIN: And if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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