White House Beer Summit: One Year Later

It has been a year since the 'Beer Summit' in the Rose Garden, when President Obama sat down with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the police officer who arrested him. Now with all the furor over the Shirley Sherrod firing, some are calling for a 'Chardonnay Summit' and a 'national conversation on race.' Host Michel Martin talks with Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree and the Vice Chair of the Civil Rights Commission, Abigail Thernstrom, a George W. Bush appointee, about the notion of a 'conversation on race' and whether it could produce any lasting effect.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today: race, rights, and where we are right now. We'll be asking, what is a civil rights issue right now? A top official in one of this country's biggest foundations says it is having an effective teacher in the classroom. We'll hear from him in a few minutes.

And the debate over legalizing marijuana in California. We'll find out why people on both sides of that question say that is one of the civil rights issues of our time.

But first, does anybody remember the beer summit? A year ago this Friday, four men sat down in a garden and shared a beer. Nothing big, right? Well, the foursome included the president and vice president of the United States, one of this country's best-known African-American scholars, and the white police officer who had arrested him in his own home after a call from a concerned neighbor suggested a break-in might be in progress.

That all resulted in the much-ballyhooed beer summit and somehow or another, it was supposed to address the lingering questions around American race relations -over a couple of pints of brew. Here's what President Obama had to say right after the beer summit.

President BARACK OBAMA: These are people involved - including myself - all of whom are imperfect. And you know, hopefully, instead of ginning up anger and hyperbole, you know, everybody can just spend a little bit of time with some self-reflection, and recognizing that other people have different points of view.

MARTIN: Now, that conversation was featured live, though out of earshot. On the cable channels, it was much talked about; on the editorial pages. And now, just a year later, there's talk of a chardonnay summit - or maybe a sweet tea summit -with Shirley Sherrod, the African-American Department of Agriculture employee who was forced out of her job after a speech she gave was heavily edited to make it appear she harbored anti-white sentiments, which she does not. And once again, there are calls for a national conversation on race.

So we wanted to ask, are we ready to have one now? Is it even necessary? Or is that just another way to get the issue off the front pages so we can get back to our summer crime novels?

We decided to call two people who think deeply about race, and have written widely about it and what it means in this country. Charles Ogletree is a professor at Harvard Law School. He's the author of many books, the most recent being "The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America."

You might remember that he was the first person Professor Gates contacted upon his arrest. He's with us now from his office at Harvard. Welcome back, thanks for joining us.

Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Harvard Law School; Author, "The Presumption of Guilt"): Glad to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio is Abigail Thernstrom. She is the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She was appointed by President George W. Bush. She has also written many books, the most recent being "Voting Rights and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections." Welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. ABIGAIL THERNSTROM (Vice Chair, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights): And thank you for inviting me, and hi, Charles.

Mr. OGLETREE: Hey, Abigail. I'm not that old for the Supreme Court. I'm only 57.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OGLETREE: That's a side joke, Michel.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, let us in later on that.

Mr. OGLETREE: All right.

MARTIN: Let's try to be inclusive here, not exclusive. So the first question I wanted to ask each of you is, did the beer summit accomplish anything? And do we need another some kind of conversation now? Professor Ogletree?

Mr. OGLETREE: Well, yeah, the three of the guys that really enjoyed the beer, I think people forgot that Joe Biden doesn't drink, not even non-alcoholic beer. So the beer was good, I'm told. But I think the idea is that there are broader issues. No one expects them to be solved in a beer summit at the White House. And it's not just the White House. We have to take some personal responsibility to talk about these issues of race.

Abigail and I have been writing about them for decades now, and we disagree on some issues; we agree on a lot of issues. I think we have to have a difficult conversation about race, not about tangential or irrelevant things, but about -how do we come together as a nation?

The president talked about that as a senator, when he had the March 18th, 2008, speech in Philadelphia. And I think we need to talk about it in a way that we can agree to disagree, but talk about how do we make racial progress.

MARTIN: Why do we have to? There are some who argue that we've already talked plenty.

Mr. OGLETREE: Well, we haven't we've talked at each other, right? And we've talked past each other, but we really haven't engaged. President Clinton started it with John Hope Franklin.

MARTIN: We're having difficulty with go ahead, Professor Ogletree, let's try to finish your thought. We're having some trouble with your line. Go ahead.

Mr. OGLETREE: Yeah. Well, President Clinton started with John Hope Franklin. There was a very important effort, but it wasn't - it was, again, talking at each other and not to each other, and listening more than talking. So I think we need to do that, but not expect the White House to convene a summit. But all of us - clergy; business; people in the legal, medical, every other profession; folks on the ground - to have a conversation about why are we so different? Why are we looking at things in red and blue, and why are we divided rather than united?

And I think it's a hard conversation. But if we ignore it, we'll keep coming back with Shirley Sherrod, with the beer summit, with every time there Reverend Jeremiah Wright - every time there is a the New Black Panther Party, we will make it a race issue, which is a singular issue as opposed to thinking about how we can get along as a nation and as a people.

MARTIN: I'm going to bring Abigail Thernstrom into the conversation, but I'm going to press you, Professor Ogletree, when I come back to you, about why we have to, because there are many people who would argue: With a Barack Obama in the White House, many people of color and positions of authority in this country, why do we need to have this conversation at all? So I'm going to press you on that point.

But Abigail Thernstrom, I'm going to ask you this question. First, did the beer summit accomplish anything? And do we need to have another one?

Ms. THERNSTROM: No. The beer summit didn't accomplish anything. And I don't know why anybody expected it to. And in fact, I was appalled that the president and the vice president got involved in that whole incident, and we had a policeman who had been running diversity classes, and so forth. I mean, he wasn't a wrongdoer. It was an unfortunate incident. A neighbor calls when Skip Gates is trying to break into his own house.

But you know, there should not have been the brouhaha that there was. Do we need to have a conversation at all? I would say no, that conversations are potentially dangerous. We do have a conversation, in a way. The last time I saw Charles Ogletree was in an airport. We gave each other a hug, and then we ran to our gates.

Giving each other a hug is a conversation. That is living life together. And when you look at the polling data on black and white friendships, friendships across other ethnic groups, even dating - the black-white marriage rate is going up very slowly, but still, you know, it's a little bit encouraging.

People are playing their kids are playing baseball on baseball teams together. And their mothers are chatting about who's going to win, and so forth. That's the kind of conversation we need to have, just living together. And I think that's happening, and I think America has come such a long way in my lifetime.

MARTIN: I don't know that - Professor Thernstrom, I'm going to press you on this point - that there are those who argue that it's, you know, the world of elites may be very pleasant for many, but there are grossly disproportionate numbers of young African-Americans and now, young Latinos who are incarcerated and under criminal-justice supervision compared to their counterparts - their white peers. That there is still this ongoing achievement gap in education, which we will discuss a little bit later in the program with another guest, and that people look at that and they say that clearly, there is something wrong.

I mean, if you look at the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Latinos who were given - or targeted for, it seems to be, subprime loans, when they were eligible for and had the financial wherewithal to have other loans - putting them at risk. So people say, well, there's something wrong here. What do you say to that?

Ms. THERNSTROM: Well, of course, there are huge disparities in this between blacks and whites in terms of wealth, in terms of the achievement gap. I've written a whole book on the achievement gap called "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap and Learning." And the no excuses was there's no excuse for the kind of disparities we see, which mean that black 12th graders on average, who are -talking here about averages - are graduating from high school with junior high skills. And I argued no excuses for that.

But that is I would not say that is racism. I would say that is a - education system that is wrong from so many points of view, including the absence of educational choice. I'm appalled that President Obama killed the voucher program in D.C. But also including the messages that schools send to young black kids. The messages have to be, you got to be at school on time. You've got to learn. Very...

MARTIN: Okay. Let's let Professor Ogletree respond to that. And Professor Ogletree, you wrote a piece about this for the Washington Post. We'll link to it on our website so that people can read where you advance your argument about why there needs to be further conversation about race.

So in the minute or so that we have left with you, I'd like to ask, what role you think President Obama should play in this - if any.

Mr. OGLETREE: I think he played a great role in apologizing to Shirley Sherrod, number one. And if you look at the transcript for what he had to say about, we all need to talk about this and all need to think, and not be driven by the 24-hour news cycle, that's number two. Number three, Abigail Thernstrom was absolutely right in terms of some of the dialogue. She has been one of the people on the Civil Rights Commission who has opposed the idea of new folks in the New Black Panther Party. She's just been right on point on it.

That's why we need to have the conversation. Abigail and I agree on more than we disagree. But only she and I know that. And she's right, it's not just about incarceration rates, it's about other issues. It's about failed educational systems. We need to talk about that. Not one conversation.

And I think the president has raised the issue, but I think it takes hardworking people who are left out, who don't have jobs, who've lost health care, who have their mortgages on their houses, their houses being refinanced and being lost. They are scared to death and they don't know, is it the president, is it Congress, is it them? And they are looking for some leadership.

And I think part of what we have to do is that people stand up and say, we're willing to I'm not talking about one conversation over tea, over a beer, or over chardonnay. I'm talking about the long, painful conversation: Can we do what Dr. King did? Bring every element of the community out to talk about one America, and remove some of these highly charged and divisive issues that have made it impossible for us to get along since his triumphant days of the 1960s.

MARTIN: Well, we need to leave it there for now. Perhaps we'll get together over chardonnay or tea, and talk more about this question - about exactly what kinds of conversations would be productive...

Mr. OGLETREE: And not chamomile tea. That will put us all to sleep.

Ms. THERNSTROM: Yeah, thank you, Charles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Abigail Thernstrom is the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She's written many, many books, the most recent being "Voting Rights and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections." She was here with me in Washington.

Charles Ogletree is a professor at Harvard Law School. His latest book is "The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Race and Class and Crime in America." He joined us from his office. Thank you both so much.

Ms. THERNSTROM: Thank you.

Mr. OGLETREE: And I'll call you, Abigail.

Ms. THERNSTROM: Good, Charles. You know, I live in McLean now.

Mr. OGLETREE: I do know.

Ms. THERNSTROM: In McLean, Virginia.

MARTIN: All right, well, we'll get together later. We'll help you get together.

Mr. OGLETREE: All right.

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