Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate Justice, Equality

Eight Democratic hopefuls met in a historic debate at Howard University in Washington. They were questioned by journalists of color on issues such as HIV/AIDS and educational disparities within minority communities. Michel Martin, a questioner in the debate, is joined by the other panelists to analyze the highlights.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

HIV, Host:

Our usual Barbershop crew reviews the week in the news. But first, Thursday night, Howard University in Washington D.C. hosted the All-American Presidential Forum. The eight Democratic presidential hopefuls met at the historically black college to talk about issues of particular concern to their audience, ranging from HIV/AIDS to Darfur to crime and punishment. The forum was moderated by PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, formerly of NPR, and a panel was exclusively comprised of journalists of color, including me.

In the studio today to talk about last night's events are the two other panelists who questioned the candidates. Ruben Navarrette, a nationally syndicated columnist and member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune and DeWayne Wickham, syndicated columnist for U.S.A. Today and Gannett News Service columns. Thanks for joining me. Thanks for getting up early.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Good morning. Thanks.

WAYNE WICKHAM: Thank you.

MARTIN: That was fun, wasn't it?

NAVARRETTE: Oh, it was great. It was great. And, Michel, I can't let you off the hook, you know. I'm also - don't forget to mention - along my other things here, I am also a member of the Barbershop. I'm a...

MARTIN: I was going to - I was not going to forget you. I don't forget you.

NAVARRETTE: I got my chair and everything at the Barbershop.

MARTIN: Okay, I wasn't going to forget you.

NAVARRETTE: Don't give my chair away.

MARTIN: No, no, no, indeed.

NAVARRETTE: Okay.

MARTIN: Now after every debate, there's always a discussion about who the winner is - and I don't know if you find that a productive conversation, but I have to ask DeWayne, do you think there was a winner?

WICKHAM: Yeah. Yeah, I'm almost punting on this question. I frankly think the winner was the black community. I mean, to the extent that I was concerned and I think many people in the audience were concerned about the kind of issues that would be discussed of importance to African-Americans, I think African- Americans were the winner.

This was historic in terms of the context in which this forum was set. The discussion - the level of discussion, the kinds of questions and the issues, you know, this wasn't one question in a 90-minute debate that somehow was meant to cater to the interest of minorities. This was an evening in which eight presidential wannabes were put to the test, asking - being asked questions about things that interest people of color.

MARTIN: Okay. Ruben, what about you? Do you think there was a winner?

NAVARRETTE: I do. And I want to answer the question in more conventional way and actually give you a name. But before I do that, I want to talk to - I like DeWayne's answer as well, I think. But it's important to sort of differentiate something at the beginning. We sort of fall into the trap, I think all of us in America have sort of using terms interchangeably, like the minorities, people of color, journalists of color - it's true. In this regard, this was a forum that really excelled at catering to and speaking to the black community and presenting issues of concerns to the African-American community. That's not necessarily synonymous with, quote, "overall people of color."

So having said that, I would like to have seen more questions directed at Hispanics, about Hispanics incorporating them into the fold for sure, and certainly immigration issue, which could not have been more timely that very day. So that said, it's all good, though. It's all good. It needs to happen what last night - what happened last night needs to happen. It's just that other things need to happen, too, so it's a big picture.

In terms of the name that I would throw out as the winner, I think it's Hillary. I think Hillary - because I think Barack Obama walked in just at home field, at home base, and I think it became clear when you pulled up to the auditorium, so many Obama supporters out there with their placards. This was - there were very high expectations for Obama. I think he did very well, but I don't think he knocked it out the park. I think in order to knock it out the park, you have to take a look at what he said. At Selma, for instance, when he went and he gave that speech in the black church and he really, you know, raised the crowd, he really raised the roof on the place - I don't think that happened last night.

On the other hand, the person who did sort of raise the roof was Hillary Clinton. She's the one who got standing ovation for the comment on the AIDS question, and she did very well. I gave her credit for that. So I think the lesson I took away from last night is that the Clintons, both of them together, are not going to concede the black vote to Barack Obama.

MARTIN: See, I think, I would disagree of you only about the fact that Barack Obama had home court advantage, because I would argue that the Clintons had home - I think Senator Clinton had home court advantage. If you look at who was in that crowd, a lot of the old civil rights guard, as it were, many of whom are in her corner, who are supporting her, a lot of members of the caucus, the Black Caucus who are supporting her, I think a lot of the established black political leadership is supporting - a lot of cultural figures who are out there, too, like Harry Belafonte, Terry McMillan, I have no idea who they are supporting, but you have a sense that a lot of intellectuals are with Barack Obama. But - and now just talk a little - let's play the moment that you said that you referenced where Hillary Clinton was answering my question, if I may say, about...

NAVARRETTE: That's right.

MARTIN: ...the incidence of AIDS, particularly among black teenagers.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And this is the...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...the answer that got the crowd to its seat.

HILLARY CLINTON: If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: When I was trying to catch your eye when the people jumped to their feet, I was just wondering how did you interpret that?

NAVARRETTE: Let me say something about this, because I think there's an interesting subplot here to this whole discussion about winners and losers. I think Hillary came into the evening knowing that her polling members were slipping among African-Americans. Barack Obama has edged a little bit ahead of her. And Obama came into the evening understanding that he was a black - that he is a black man running for president who can't make too much of the fact that he's a black man and still appeal to a broad audience. So I think he was tempered by that consideration. And I think she understood she had to go for it. And she did so of gusto.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask - I was going ask if there are any - was there a loser in the debate? I don't know if you feel that's a fair question. But let me play what I think was a groan moment, you know, feels like kind of a - the standing ovation moment.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: There's also the growing moment, and this was supplied by Delaware Senator Joe Biden.

JOSEPH BIDEN: I spent last summer going through the black sections of my town, holding rallies in parks, trying to get black men to understand it's not unmanly to wear a condom, getting women to understand they can say no, getting people in the position where testing matters. I got tested for AIDS. I know Barack got tested for AIDS. There's no shame in being tested for AIDS.

MARTIN: And, of course, Barack Obama...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. There's a groan all right.

MARTIN: ...quickly clarifies that...

NAVARRETTE: I think for me, I groaned on that.

MARTIN: Did you really? What is up with the - what's going on in there, Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: You've got to take a look at that question in two parts. And I was already offended by the first part of it, okay? When he talks about, you know, I got tested for AIDS and Barack got tested AIDS. Well, then at that point, its sort of - you know, hits up to softball for Barack Obama to hit out of the park, which he did when he made - he made a joke later. And he said, I just want to make clear to everybody, I was in Kenya and I got tested with Michelle, my wife. We both got tested. Everybody knows this. And it became sort of a laugh moment. But...

MARTIN: I think he saved him, by the way.

NAVARRETTE: I think it was - I think he saved him. I think Barack - it was a great opportunity for Obama to hit out of the park, but I took offense to the first part of it. Okay, and here's why. I think African-Americans and Latinos - and this is one of the things that we have in common. We need to be much more sensitive when you hear that kind of patronizing, condescending rap from Democrats and liberals that I spent last summer in a black community trying to convince black folks that it's important to wear a condom. I mean, thank you, senator. Okay. You know?

And speaking for the Latino community, you know, we knew how to take care of our kids and wipe their noses before you came along and showed us how. And I think that's the problem that you have. I think that younger African-Americans and younger Latinos are just less likely to put up with that stuff. So frankly, I took offense to the first part of it. I think Biden's a fine guy. I like Biden fine. But I think it speaks to that old, kind of condescending liberalism that says...

MARTIN: And, of course, it's strike two for Biden, putting it...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...with another comment involving Barack Obama where he was on, I think it was the Jon Stewart's show, where he talked about how he's articulate and...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...you know, just how many editorials were written by articulate? What do you mean? He's a lawyer.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's his job to talk. Why is he articulate?

NAVARRETTE: Right. Condescending strike two.

MARTIN: Yeah. It's also strike two. Do I look - Ruben was talking about this earlier. Is there a question you really wish you had gotten to that you didn't get to ask? And, of course, you know, Tavis likes him better than us, Ruben. You know, he got three questions. I only got two (unintelligible).

NAVARRETTE: That's right. We knew about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So apparently, he liked you best, DeWayne, but other than that...

NAVARRETTE: Well, I didn't get to ask the affirmative action question. And I think there is one to be asked about what next? Where do we go from here? We had the Supreme Court ruling handed down yesterday. But we also have this inching forward that's taking place at the state level where states, Washington State, California, now Michigan, are rolling back affirmative action.

It's not enough to say we're going to stand up against this tidal wave, because this tidal wave is actually sweeping the country. A majority of the Americans are comfortable after nearly 250 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow law, and just about 35 or 40 years of efforts to roll back the devastation that those things brought upon us. Most American now are tired of the effort. What next? Do we have a new idea? Is there a new approach, a new way to tackle this issue?

Americans all say they - I should say not all, but the vast majority of Americans support equality of opportunity. But when you start talking about how that good phrase translate into action, to bring about a reduction of inequality, people were stumped. Political leaders need to begin and bring us new ideas. I wanted to talk to the candidates about that.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Ruben, you want to talk more about that?

NAVARRETTE: I do, I do. I think I have mixed feelings about what the Supreme Court did yesterday, and for the following reasons. Let me just state to the first part of it - I agree and I'm sympathetic to concerns that Roberts and Alito do not - and the conservative majority now in the court do not have the best interest of certain folks at heart or in mind. And I have often written to the point of ridicule about this notion of - I just going to get in trouble, and I'm going to warn you right now, okay? I'm going to warn you right now.

MARTIN: That's okay. I'll steer the mail to you.

NAVARRETTE: I have written to the point of ridicule, making fun of the idea of white male victims, that white men are somehow categorically, systematically being discriminated against in our society to a point where they are now a new protected class. I make fun of that because in your world and DeWayne's world and my world, I just don't see that. I see plenty of white men who are doing just fine, thank you very much.

However, having said that, I'm interested in what I'm hearing from places like Louisville, Kentucky, which was one of the case - one of the cities impacted by this decision, where black parents - and now, I'm perking up now, I'm listening - black parents are saying that they're glad that this decision went this way because they don't feel that the desegregation plan in Louisville has served them well over these last decades and they want to try something new.

Now here's what I think needs to happen. If African-Americans are in a room together and Latinos are in a room together and there are no white folks in the room, I think they can have a conversation about whether it's time to move off of these kinds of desegregation plans and affirmative action plans for the good of the community - not for the reasons that Roberts and Alito want to do it, which is to sort of liberate, emancipate the suppressed white male. Do you get it? There's a difference. That the strongest and most compelling arguments I find for doing away with this stuff is that they are not the remedies that they were sold to us.

MARTIN: Well, the irony, of course, is that 50 years - after 53 years after Brown v. Board of Ed, most kids go to segregated schools. I mean, they're not segregated by law...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...but they're segregated in fact. And Latino students, as I understand it, are the most likely to go to predominantly Latino schools. I mean, white students, you know, 80 percent of white students are in predominantly white schools, 60 percent of black students are in predominantly black schools. So...

WICKHAM: And the truth be told, Michelle, that's as we would have it. You - you know, the truth of the matter is, this whole push for the Brown decision wasn't really about bringing about integration to public education. We were trying to end separate but equal, because they were separate and unequal.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

WICKHAM: We wanted to equalize educational opportunity. And we thought that - I say we, but I think the black community thought as we pushed for integration, whites would resist that by giving you equality. They'd make our schools as good as their schools. They pay our teachers as well as their teachers.

MARTIN: Interesting. So you would have liked to have heard more conversation about what's the post-Brown strategy.

NAVARRETTE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What's the post Brown...

NAVARRETTE: Definitely.

MARTIN: I know that was one of the questions I didn't get to ask about the graduation rates. Some of the candidates brought it up anyway...

NAVARRETTE: yeah.

MARTIN: ...sort of the graduation rates. Ruben, you wanted to talk about immigration. I was sorry that we didn't get into more. As you were saying earlier, that I think we conflate, you know, minority as a metaphor when it's not really accurate. Sometimes there are competing and distinct interests.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: And that's something I would have liked to have heard, particularly the Democrats talked about it.

NAVARRETTE: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: The interests of African-American workers and Latino...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...migrants are not identical.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: And I think that that would have been interesting to lift out.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: How would you have raised that?

NAVARRETTE: I would have...

MARTIN: Now, don't give us away all your powder in case you get the question to the Republicans. But...

NAVARRETTE: I wrote a column...

MARTIN: Let's hear it.

NAVARRETTE: ...I wrote a column this morning about the question I wouldn't have asked - other things I talked about it in the column, certainly. But I - one of the things I think that would have been interesting to do with a group like this is you try to put them in a box. You try to put them between a rock and a hard place, where they - that's the - that's a hardball question. It's not the softball.

It sort of says, okay, now you've got to choose. Do you want to say something in your comments that pander to African-Americans? Do you want to pander to Latinos? But I'm going to frame of a question where it's impossible to do both, you see. And I think that that's an interesting challenge for them. And I would have phrased it something like this.

You know, you have a strain running through a current debate in the immigration debate, an argument that African-Americans are hurt by illegal immigration, being displaced from neighborhoods or being displaced from jobs and the like. And African-Americans have been talking about this for sometime. There's actually African-American groups that have sprouted out to fight illegal immigration.

And recently, in Los Angeles, an activist there, a black media activist, Ted Hayes - who is you know, people feel differently about him in Los Angeles - said something just outrageous. He said that African-Americans are facing now the biggest threat since slavery in the form of illegal immigration. And to their credit, other African-Americans in Los Angeles like Earl Ofari Hutchinson and others blasted him for it, blasted him for it. And I say, good for them. I'm glad they did.

So I think there's a lot in there to talk about, and the candidates could have talked about that and said, well, what do you all come down on this? You know, are you sympathetic to one group or another?

MARTIN: And that's - and we have only, a couple sort of minutes left. I wanted to talk about the fact that the debate kind of focused on a number of issues raised by a book that Tavis Smiley edited and compiled called "The Covenant with Black America."

Ruben, you had an interesting point that we've kind of been dancing around, which is on the one hand, the debates were described as the all-American presidential forums. And you've said yes, but it focused mainly on the issues of particular concern to African-Americans.

It was kind of ironic that there was that particular focus from the day that the Supreme Court said, you know what? We need to move beyond racial awarenesses and, you know. And so I just wondered, do you feel that - I'm wondering, do you think that this kind of debate that focuses on issues of particular interest will set a precedent, or do you think it's a kind of thing that in this whole conversation about colorblindedness, other people will look askance at in the years ahead. DeWayne?

WICKHAM: Well, yeah, I want to jump in here before Ruben takes this on. I think it was fitting. I think it was appropriate that, you know, despite our numbers - and they're nearly as approximate as those of the Hispanics. We don't have the outlets. We don't own the television stations. Hispanics have television stations that give them the outlets that will allow them to have those kinds of discussions and raise those issues. We don't have that opportunity. Tavis gave it to us last night, and I think it was appropriate.

MARTIN: Okay. Okay. We'll have to leave you there. Ruben, you'll have to write a column about it, or you can talk about it next week.

NAVARRETTE: No problem.

MARTIN: DeWayne Wickham is a syndicated columnist for USA Today and Gannet News Service. And Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist, member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune. He's also a commentator for CNN.com and a regular on our Friday roundtable, the BARBERSHOP.

NAVARRETTE: Yes.

MARTIN: It was great working with you both. And I so enjoyed it. I hope we get to do it again. We're all panelists on the all-American presidential forum on PBS last night. And thanks for joining us here in the studio today.

WICKHAM: Good to be with you.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

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