'Shop Talk': Race, Ethics And The Jet Blue Quitter

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The guys in the ‘Barbershop’ talk about radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s incendiary diatribe about racial sensitivity, recent ethics charges against members of the Congressional Black Caucus and former Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater’s moment of fame after making a dramatic exit from his job. Joining the conversation this week: freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and Republican strategist Ron Christie.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

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 freelance writer Jimi Izrael, Republican strategist Ron Christie, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette.

Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How are we living?

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Republican Strategist): Doing good, man.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney, Editor): Doing pretty well.

Mr. IZRAEL: RC, first time in. What's up, bro?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I'm loving the shop. Hey, not too much, man. How are ya?

Mr. IZRAEL: Good, man. Welcome, welcome.

All right, well, let's jump right in, all right? Long-time talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger has apologized for her use of the N-word when an African-American called in to her show on Tuesday, Michel.

MARTIN: Yeah, she apologized on her blog. And I have to give a language note here. Just be forewarned. This is not something that everybody is going to appreciate hearing, but, you know, you have to know what it is that was actually said now. So what happened is on Tuesday, a caller who identified herself as Jade, so she is African-American. She's married to a white man, and she wanted some advice from Dr. Laura what to do about her husband's friends. She says her husband's friends make black jokes in her presence.

And Dr. Laura responded that she was hyper-sensitive. And here's some of the exchange, and the first voice you hear is the caller. We're playing this uncensored - the N-word will be heard. So here it is.

(Soundbite of radio show, "Dr. Laura")

JADE: I can't believe someone like you is on the radio spewing out the nigger word, and I hope everybody heard it.

Ms. LAURA SCHLESSINGER (Talk Radio Commentator): I didn't spew out the nigger word.

JADE: You said nigger, nigger, nigger.

Ms. SCHLESSINGER: Right. I said that's what you hear.

JADE: Everybody heard it.

Ms. SCHLESSINGER: Yes, they did.

JADE: I hope everybody heard it. So what makes...

Ms. SCHLESSINGER: They did, and I'll say it again: Nigger, nigger, nigger is what you hear on - why don't you let me finish a sentence?

JADE: Okay.

Ms. SCHLESSINGER: Don't take things out of context. Don't NAACP me.

JADE: I know what that means (unintelligible)...

Ms. SCHLESSINGER: Leave them in context.

JADE: I know what the N-word means, and I know it came from a white person. And I know the white person means(ph) that.

Ms. SCHLESSINGER: All right, thank you very much. Can't have this argument. If you're that hypersensitive about color and don't have a sense of humor, don't marry out of your race.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Wow.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. I don't know...

MARTIN: I'm not sure I thank me for that, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: We needed to hear it, right? But, Ruben...

MARTIN: I don't - well...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No, you have to, yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: Ruben, for me, I think the most offensive thing she said was, you know, if you're, you know, if you're that sensitive about race, don't marry outside your race.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right, right, right.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, well, why don't you weigh on this? We've heard racist comments before.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, here's what I - absolutely.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, old guy KKKramer, Michael Richards on one side, we got Don Imus on the other.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: Is this even newsworthy?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. Yeah. To that end, if that was all it was, it wouldn't be that newsworthy, frankly, because what you have is one person, you know, shame on this person. She said something inappropriate. She deserves to be condemned for it. But it's limited to the one person. It's not like coming on and doing a whole show about whether a university, an institution, a political party is racist. That's a lot broader.

And you're right, Michael Richards. I mean, Mel Gibson. Why, at some point, do we stop talking about these things, right? It just - it's about one messed up individual, and we tend to leave it at that. But the reason this is a story and the reason I think this is significant, the most offensive thing that Dr. Laura said was this whole business about hypersensitivity.

First rule of thumb: If you're not black, don't go telling black people what is or isn't racist about black people. And that was the whole conversation with this woman caller. Only this woman caller, as a black woman, is in a position to say what she considered racist when her friends - her husband's friends come over to the house. And it was supremely arrogant, irresponsible and inappropriate for a non-black person to lecture a black person about what is or isn't racist. It was like - it would be as if, you know, four straight guys in a barbershop started talking about what is or is not anti-gay or homophobic.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I mean, at some point you just have to take - you just have to sit back and be a little humble and realize that there's some experience out there you can't relate to, so shut up.

Mr. IZRAEL: RC.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I got to tell you, this is almost what you get when you call Dr. Laura Schlessinger looking for advice. Why would you call her looking for advice on something like this?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, it's true. It's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHRISTIE: But I agree with most of what Ruben had to say. But for me the most offensive thing that Schlessinger had to say was, well, if you're that upset, don't marry outside of your race. I mean, I think that we have made enormous strides in this country trying to look genuinely at the content of people's character rather than the color of their skin. And it shows perhaps that Schlessinger just can't get over looking at people as individuals when she looks at them as being black or white. Why can't we look at people as being people?

MARTIN: How about if a white woman had called up and said my white husband and his white friends make racial jokes, and I think that's morally wrong? So, what would she say then? Don't get married at all? I mean...

Mr. CHRISTIE: I think she probably would.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I mean, think about that. I mean, black people aren't the only people who are offended by racism. Let me just point this out.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Right.

MARTIN: And I'm just floored, that if someone calls you up and says I take your point, Christie, you know, because it would never in a million years occur to me to call her asking for advice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But she has this platform, and that's what gets me. She's in the public sphere, and people evidently think she has something credible to say. So tell me what you're saying...

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, yeah...

MARTIN: ...when a woman calls to you and says that her sense of dignity, propriety and morality is being violated in her own home, and what you're saying is not a big deal. So....

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know...

Mr. IZRAEL: And the idea that you need a sense of humor to marry outside your race is kind of - it's, like, wild.

MARTIN: Well, you need a sense of humor to be married, period. Let me just -let me share that with those who don't...

Mr. IZRAEL: I'll drink to that. I'll definitely drink to that.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Amen. Amen.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. IZRAEL: A-Train, go ahead.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, Dr. Laura was, you know, telling the caller that, you know, she's hypersensitive. Well, I'm going to tell her that she was hyper-ridonkculous in what she did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And this is a, you know, what I find the most interesting is the fact that, you know, she was talking about how, you know, you know, hip-hop stars and rappers drop the N word all the time. Well, Dr. Laura, you're not Jay-Z or Kanye West. So I have no - I mean, I'm just, I'm still baffled by what happened.

MARTIN: Well, there is that point, though.

Mr. IZRAEL: Is that a decent defense? Is that a decent defense? I hear that a lot.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, no, not from her. But it's a good point.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Exactly.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It's a very valid point. I mean, one of the shows I like to watch a lot, and it's a great show, very well-written, is "The Wire."

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It was on HBO for a while. And you drop the N word in that - I mean, you have, that whole show, you know, you have a lot of black folks throwing the N word back and forth at each other all the time. And it's something that I think white folks, non-African-Americans find confusing, because among yourselves, you can throw this word around, but the first lesson you have to learn is you're not black, you don't get to use that word.

I get to call it the N word, okay? I don't get to use it in long form. And for her to do what she did on the radio shows that she missed that. Again, the most offensive part, I think, this part about don't NAACP me. You know, the whole notion of that...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm. Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...is sort of like there's a lot white folks out - now, let's just get real. There's a lot of white folks out there who have spent -particularly if they're like 50, 60 years old, who spent their whole lifetime being told by black folks and by the NAACP that they're racist about this and they're racist about that. And I think many African-American leaders and leadership groups have overplayed that card. We've talked about this on this show.

Now there are times where it's appropriate to call somebody a racist. But when you overdo it, that's what got into her mind. That's why she made that comment about the NAACP. If you ask Dr. Laura, she would say that the NAACP makes a whole cottage industry out of accusing people of racism. That's how she sees it.

MARTIN: But here's my thing, though - but when you say make a cottage industry out of it, I mean, part of...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Jimi, that's what having power in society is about, which is having the power to stake a claim. And the argument that - what I find difficult is the idea that who gets to decide that? Or is it only gets - white people are the only people who get to decide what's racist? And it's a platform...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No, it's a case by case. It's a case by case.

MARTIN: But that's what discussion is about. And she said, she went - the conversation goes on much further, then. She says, well, she says hypersensitivity, okay, which is being bred by black activists. I really thought once we had a black president, the attempt demonize whites hating blacks would stop, but it seems to have grown. I don't get it. Yes, I do. It's all about power. I do get it.

You know what? It is about power. It's about people other than her being allowed to say what is on their minds. And frankly, that seems to be what this is about, is that she's the only person who gets to set the parameters? No, we don't get to talk about this? I mean, that's what I find disturbing.

But, you know what? Why are we talking about her?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why are we giving our show over to her? Excuse me. I'm sorry. I just saying 0 why are we giving her, that's just - I don't know. Sorry. That's just where I'm at right now.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's keep it in motion.

MARTIN: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: Because today may be Friday the 13th, but New York Congressman Charles Rangel, well, he says he's not shook by ethics charges or those who says he needs to leave office with his dignity intact.

Now, yesterday in Harlem, he vowed not to answer anymore ethics questions and to only focus on his campaign, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you want to hear what he said - a little bit about what he said?

Mr. IZRAEL: Absolutely. Yeah, why not?

MARTIN: You want to hear? Okay. Here's a short clip. Here it is.

Mr. IZRAEL: Bust it.

Representative CHARLES RANGEL (Democrat, New York): Hey, I'm 80 years old. All my life has been, from the beginning, public service. And all I'm saying is that if it is the judgment of people here, for whatever reason, that I resign, then heck, have the Ethics Committee expedite this. Don't leave me swinging in the wind until November. If this is an emergency, and I think it is, to help our local and state governments out, what about me? I don't want anyone to feel embarrassed, awkward. Hey, if I was you, I may want me to go away, too. I am not going away. I am here.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, that was from Tuesday, on the floor.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Thirty-one minutes.

MARTIN: He was on the House floor 31 minutes, as Arsalan said. You know, also, Maxine Waters was also heard from today. Would you like to hear a short clip from that? She's also a lawmaker from California. She's also facing ethics charges related to her alleged advocacy for a bank with which her husband was involved. And here's - this is what she had to say today.

Mr. IZRAEL: Drop it.

Representative MAXINE WATERS (Democrat, California): I have not violated any House rules. I fully disclosed all of my financial information, as requested by House rules and, in fact, went above and beyond what was required by repeatedly disclosing my and my husband's financial interests during Financial Services Committee hearings.�Neither my staff nor I engaged in any improper behavior, and we did not influence anyone and we did not gain any benefit. �

MARTIN: There you go. Okay, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, wow. Thanks, Michel. All right. Well, you know me. I mean, obviously, those cats went to the Marion Barry/John Shaft school of political science.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, and to some degree, I admire it.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's right. As we say, the blank(ph) set me up, right?

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. To some degree I admire it, but I, you know, there's something to be said for just quiet resilience.

Ruben, the R?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Let me just clarify that. I have to - I'm sorry, I feel I have to speak on it. First of all, there is a process to go through. These persons are innocent until proven guilty.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: That's right.

MARTIN: There was no videotape showing them smoking crack or anything else. I'm not sure the analogy holds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I just think it's - I think - I take your point, Jimi, but, you know, there's a process to go through here.

Mr. IZRAEL: No, I totally agree. I'm just saying, you know, there's something to be said for standing up and saying, you know, let me do this.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, but also, you know, quiet resilience, you know, as opposed to vociferous resilience.

MARTIN: Oh, you can explain it. Let me just jump in and say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Ruben Navarrette and Ron Christie.

Back to you, Jimi. I think you asked Ruben to weigh in on it.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. What do you make on that defiance?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, listen. It's unfortunate. If you take a look at the number of folks out there who have been looked at for ethical violations just in the last couple of years, there is - there are black and white folks on that list. There aren't just African-Americans on that list, and there aren't just white folks on that list. There's a mixture of folks on that list. So it's a fair point to say this is a scrutiny that applies to a lot of different folks. A lot of different folks have been looked at in this way - innocent until proven guilty, but accused of various improprieties. It's a multiracial thing.

But it is sad, I think, when you have African-American leaders who have been there for a long time who find themselves under this kind of scrutiny, because assuming that this is not just a politically motivated witch hunt, where you have - let's see now, the Democrats control the White House. They control the Justice Department. The Democrats control both houses of Congress. They sit on the majority committees that are going to be looking at these individuals. It's a little hard to make the argument that this is politically motivated if, in fact, you know, it's these same Democrats who are coming at other Democrats. I mean, how's that work?

I just think there are a lot of questions to be asked here, but it's unfortunate, it's lamentable that you have African-American leaders who have been there for so long who now find themselves, you know, in this very unfortunate position.

Mr. IZRAEL: RC?

Mr. CHRISTIE: These people have put themselves in the situation that they're in. You know, I had the honor and privilege to work on Capitol Hill for almost nine years, and I can tell you, maintaining the public trust is one of the most important things that you can do, whether you're a member of Congress or whether you're a staffer who's in the privilege to serve them and to serve the American people. And Charlie Rangel, a very, very nice guy, very affable individual, but if you're the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the committee that is charged with writing our tax laws, if you are allegedly not even disclosing your income or hiding or shielding your income from the scrutiny of others while we're in a very difficult economic time and people are putting their pennies together to pay their taxes, you shouldn't be above the law.

And I think that there's a certain entitlement that members of the Congress that they think that they are better than the law, better than the rest of us, and that they don't have to abide by the same rules. And I think, unfortunately, this could be a case where two senior African-American members -while they're innocent until proven guilty - might find themselves in front of a trial of their peers in the American people for forgetting who they serve, which is us, the American people.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, speaking...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Good stuff. Good stuff.

Mr. IZRAEL: Hold on. We're going to keep it in motion, because, you know, I mean, Rangel, you know, let's let it play out and then let's see what happens. So let's keep it in motion.

Michel, let's talk a little bit about Steve Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant. You know, he's riding this wave of attention and support all over the blogosphere. Now, on Monday, Slater was allegedly pushed to his limits. He got on the plane intercom system, cussed out a few people, and then exited the plane by sliding down the emergency shoot, but not before grabbing a couple brewskies.

MARTIN: Now what is up with that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow. Yeah, that's a bug out.

MARTIN: Arsalan, okay, you know, Arsalan, you got to help me out here, because, you know, everybody here flies a lot. I think you guys probably fly more than I do at the moment, but - I'm grounded.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Okay.

MARTIN: But Arsalan, what is up with that? The guy's become like a folk hero. What is up with that?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I have no idea. I mean, this is...

Mr. IZRAEL: And if he was any other color, he'd be in the joint with a seven-figure bail. Quote me on that. Quote me on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But he was arrested. He was arrested. He is facing criminal charges, including criminal mischief...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...reckless endangerment and trespassing.

Mr. IZRAEL: He would've never got out of jail if he was any other color. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, that's one point.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Jimi, don't NAACP me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, no. Oh-oh.

Mr. IZRAEL: Hey Ruben, I NAACP you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I had to go there. Sorry, Dr. Laura.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead A-Train. Go A-Train.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Dr. Laura, I got nothing but love for you, girl. Nothing. Sorry.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, A-Train. Go ahead.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, for me, you know, this story is kind of like the Balloon Boy story, these sort of just like way-out-of-left-field, conjured-up media stories. I mean, apparently, the guy just went a little squirrely and did his thing on the intercom, and he's like peace him out. I...

MARTIN: You know, I have to say that what bothers me about this is is I think this guy engaged in an abuse of power. Now, I don't know whether he needs to have been handcuffed and paraded before the cameras.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: I don't know. I mean that's a whole other thing.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But the fact is you are, as a flight attendant, in the position of power, okay? And I think its an abuse of power to jump on a public address system and just curse people out because one person was rude to you. And I think that part of it, I find - that I don't understand why people don't get how vulnerable you are when you're a passenger on a plane and these people, you know, they have the uniforms. They're the ones - they can kick you off a plane for nothing.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: Okay? I just don't, I don't know.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, no, I agree. And I think that that's why it should've been a, you know, an internal company matter. I don't know why it had to make it to, you know, the media and global headlines around the world.

MARTIN: I don't know. Jimi, what do you think?

Mr. IZRAEL: I think, like I said, if he was any other color, he'd be in the joint, seven-figure bail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Let's not forget that somebody on the ground could've been killed, and what this guy did was reckless and - I don't know. In any other context, we'd be checking his credentials to see if he was, you know, a pseudo-terrorist or something. Nah, you know, this guy needs to be thrown up under the jail. Let's make an example of him.

MARTIN: Oh, dear. Okay.

Mr. IZRAEL: Forget about it.

MARTIN: Jimi, hard line. Talk about - that's why they call it the hard line, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: That's right. Hard and fair, baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All right. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book, "The Denzel Principle." He's joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. He also writes for CNN.com. He was with us from San Diego. Ron Christie heads Christie Strategies. He's a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, and deputy assistant to Vice President Cheney. He joined us from our studios in New York. And Arsalan Iftikhar was with us in Washington. He's the founder of the muslimguy.com. He's a legal fellow for the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding.

Thank you all.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. CHRISTIE: (unintelligible)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

Mr. 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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