'Shop Talk': Philly Mayor Isn't Black Enough?

The Barbershop Guys discuss Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's views on a divide between the American civilian and the American soldier, and criticism that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is "not black enough" for some residents of the city. The guys also discuss NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb's return to Philadelphia as a member of the opposing Washington Redskins team. Host Michel Martin speaks with freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre and Marc Lamont Hill, associate professor of education and anthropology at Columbia University.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(Soundbite of music)

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 shapeup this week are; freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor, Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrator reporter Pablo Torre, and syndicated columnist Marc Lamont Hill, who's also an associate professor of education in African-American Studies at Columbia University.

Dr. MARC LAMONT HILL (Host, "Our World with Black Enterprise"): That's right.

MARTIN: Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Hey, thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

(Soundbite of salutations)

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney): Hey.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Journalist, Sports Illustrated): Hey.

Dr. HILL (African-American Studies, Columbia University): Good, man. What's going on, man?

Mr. IZRAEL: Hey, Dr. Hill, good to have you, man.

Dr. HILL: I know, good to hear your voice, man.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. P-Dog, what's good?

Mr. TORRE: What's up?

Mr. IZRAEL: Man, you know what? Let's jump right in and focus first on the U.S. military. Now in the same week, the writer, Bob Woodward, he released this book, "Obama Wars," about decision-making in war time Afghanistan. It hit the bookstores. Now, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates encouraged students to consider careers in the military. Hmm.

MARTIN: Yeah, it's really, it's an interesting week for him to be making that pitch. I mean there's a story also in the paper, a very grizzly account of a soldier who is alleged to have been killing Afghan civilians for sport in a very disturbing fashion.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm.

MARTIN: And, of course, and, you know, and, of course, there's this book, as you said, "Obama Wars," where essentially, kind of describes how military leaders essentially capture the decision-making process, so that's - there's that. And in then, in the middle of this, Secretary Gates gave a speech at Duke University and talked about the, what he said was the growing disconnect between the American civilian and the American soldier or fighting force.

Let me just play just a short clip of what he had to say.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): Today, in airports all over the country, troops returning or leaving for Afghanistan or Iraq receive standing ovations from other passengers,�welcome home parades, letters and care packages, free meals, drinks, and sports tickets. It is also true, though, that whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans, the wars remain an abstraction - a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.

Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.

MARTIN: Now Jimi, again, that was Defense Secretary Robert Gates. And I have to say that to me, this is a very heartfelt speech. But I do wonder how this came across, particularly, this week.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. Yeah, with the, you got the soldier talking about how he was killing civilian for fun. And I just think there's a, you know, when I was coming up, when people talked about going to the military, it wasn't something people were talking about doing all, it was like a C plan. It was like, if you're not smart enough to get in college and your parents don't have a business of their own, then, you know, you're going to the military. And I went to Shaker Heights High School, and it was always suspicious to me to see the recruiters, they always gravitated toward the young black men. They were never trying to recruit the AP students.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: You know? And for me, I looked at it as something because my grandfather served, so I got people in my family that have served and I looked at it as something kind of honorable. But more and more, it's something now that even when I was coming up and now especially, it's looked as something that's like, say it's not honorable necessarily anymore. It's something, it's the last resort. It's like your last entr�e into middle class life.

Mr. IZRAEL: Pablo...

MARTIN: Marc, do you buy that? Do you buy that? Marc?

Dr. HILL: Yeah. I mean it is, and I think the wars have always been particularly, you know, seductive or military has been particularly seductive to poor people, because there aren't that many options. I agree with Jimi on that. And then I think it's further exacerbated, this condition that Gates talks about, because over the last 10 years, we've become increasingly skeptical and cynical about the people who push us into war. You know, I don't concede Gates' point that this is a laudable thing. Most people don't find military service laudable after WMDs were found not to be in Iraq, after the Bush administration prosecuted unjust wars. And after Obama has taken from Iraq to Afghanistan in intense fashion, people just don't want to go to war.

MARTIN: But that's a different question, though, whether they feel service is laudable as opposed to whether they feel these particular wars are the right wars to fight.

Dr. HILL: Well, I think it turns people off to war. I think people are turned off to war, because they're like, you know, we keep fighting unjust wars. We don't necessary have the faith in the military - blind faith in the military that we may have had 50 years ago as a general body politic.

Mr. TORRE: And this is Pablo is jumping in. I agree with Marc on the one hand. But I also agree that there's also an empathy problem here. I think especially for people in their 20s, for example, I don't know how many college-educated kids have direct, strong ties to infantry men, for example.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. TORRE: I've got a friend - my friend really - who I met through a roommate, who's deployed to Afghanistan recently, and it was an existential thing for me. I sort of never actually identified myself with them and, you know, I think in everyday life, you think of "the troops," quote/unquote and it's kind of this construct almost along the lines of religious terms - this thing that's abstract and far away that we venerate but we never actually stop to think and sort of apply in a real sort of emotional genuine way.

MARTIN: Did anybody here ever consider going to the military?

Dr. HILL: No.

MARTIN: Nobody?

Mr. IZRAEL: Not seriously.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No.

Mr. TORRE: I mean the draft. I mean that's the way to get empathy is make the draft mandatory again and you'll have everybody caring about it.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, A-Train.

Dr. HILL: Care about running from it.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, one of the, I mean obviously, you know, piggy-backing off stuff that both Marc and Pablo said, war, you know, in society generally is an unpopular endeavor. And I think another thing that people tend to overlook in this debate is the economy. You know, you have people here who are, you know, Americans who are losing their jobs, can't put food on their tables and, you know, really, you know, have to worry about the, you know, hustle and flow of daily life here as opposed to, you know, the abstraction of two wars 17,000 miles away in Afghanistan and Iraq, you know, that have been protracted now almost nearly a decade. And so, you know, I think that a lot of the civilian soldiers divide has to do with economic issues here in the U.S. because people have to worry about putting food on their own table as opposed to, you know, dealing with issues abroad.

MARTIN: I don't think anybody's overlooking the economy, and I do have to tell you that, you know, I have family members who are serving and, in fact, we lost a family member in Afghanistan earlier this year, which I think I may have discussed with you.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: But I do think he raises an important question and I kind of wish, and again, I'm not a media hater. I'm not one of these people who is always pointing the finger and saying why isn't the media covering this? Why is the media, because I know perfectly well, you know, people have lots of things they could be covering at any point, but I do wish his speech had gotten more attention because I do think it's something that we have to talk about, which is if these men and women are offering themselves in our name...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...why isn't that sacrifice more broadly shared? It is a legitimate question to raise.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, and again this...

Mr. IZRAEL: I think we've lost kind of a sense of duty, you know?

MARTIN: Well, but, Marc raises a question, is it a question of service per se or is it a question of the service in the service of these particular conflicts?

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

Mr. IZRAEL: I think it's a question of service.

Dr. HILL: Yeah.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: It's not the first time it's happened. I mean, you know, look at Vietnam vets who, you know, the whole "Born on the 4th of July," syndrome. You know, there's an entire generation of Vietnam vets that we've forgotten also.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. I think to me it's a matter of ultimately, fundamentally, you're thinking economically and you're also thinking of self interest. And if you can't identify with the people who are serving, and they're so different from you demographically, then it's hard to really invest emotionally and mentally in. And I think actually movies do a great job. I mean movies like, what is, "Stop-Loss" or "The Hurt Locker," all these things. I mean that's a good way actually, as tired as it may seem, to communicate it to people, who never would really spend an hour literally, to think about this in one day.

MARTIN: But they're not removed from us demographically. I mean, they're not.

Mr. TORRE: Oh, I mean in terms of...

Mr. IZRAEL: In terms of class.

Mr. TORRE: In terms of class. That's what I mean. Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: That's what he's getting at and I agree with that.

MARTIN: All right. Well, if you're just joining us, you're listening to - this is why I asked. I guess I wanted to know what you all had to say, even if it's different from what I would say. But I appreciate that. I apologize for my voice, by the way. Jimi, you might have to step in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But, 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, and we're talking to Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Pablo Torre and Marc Lamont Hill.

Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Okay, let's switch gears and go to Philadelphia. This week...

Dr. HILL: Woo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HILL: I get happy, you know.

Mr. IZRAEL: Represent. All right. Well, this week, former Mayor John Street has taken to the local airwaves to personally - personally, call out current Mayor Michael Nutter, saying that he's not black enough for Philadelphia's black residents. Really?

Dr. HILL: You know, what, let me say something about Michael, and I know Michael Nutter and I know John Street and I like both of them. I think that from the time he started on the campaign trial, people have either implicitly or very explicitly said Michael Nutter is not black enough. Michael Nutter appeals to the white voters in a way that black mayors in Philadelphia never have. I don't think it's an issue of whether he's black enough; I think it's a silly conversation to have. I do think though, that many of his policies and many of his public positions aren't in the interest of black people and it turns people off. For example, he supported stop and frisk, and when people challenge the constitutionality of just stopping random black people on the street, he said well, I have a constitutional right not to get shot. Well, that's a good soundbite, but really, it just justifies oppressing black folk on the ground, and those are the type of things that turn voters off and turns Mayor Street off to Michael Nutter.

MARTIN: Do you want to hear the clip? Do you want to hear what Street has to say?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Sure. Drop it.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Here it is.

Mayor JOHN STREET (Democrat, Philadelphia): The Republican Party can't challenge Mayor Nutter, and if he's going to get challenged, it will be in a Democratic primary. People in the African-American community don't really see him as a black mayor, in the sense that they feel that he represents the hopes, the aspirations, the needs of a minority community that is very poor and very dependent upon critical services from the government, and that really believes that its problems are very different than the problems of many, many other parts and segments of the community.

MARTIN: You know - that - he was speaking to the local Fox affiliate. You know, I have to say, who gets to...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Right.

MARTIN: Who gets to decide who speaks on behalf of the black community or not?

Mr. IZRAEL: Spike Lee? No?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I mean what is up with that, that somebody gets to claim - who gets to put on the jacket and say, I'm the man? I speak for the black community? What is...

MARTIN: You know what? Michel, you know...

MARTIN: But, why do we still tolerate this is what I'm asking?

Mr. IZRAEL: This is the plantation conversation we've been having since Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. You know, it's this blackness thing is a red herring. It doesn't map to anything constructive, you know what I mean? It's just something to say to distract from the issues.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, and that's...

Dr. HILL: No, I disagree.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead.

Dr. HILL: I think in this instance John Street actually pointed to issues. He didn't say he's not black enough, you know, because he speaks wrong and because he looks wrong. He's saying he's not speaking to black issues. Black people in Philadelphia are economically desperate and his policies don't speak to them.

MARTIN: Well, who...

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, who isn't economically desperate?

MARTIN: Well who says there's one - wait a minute, who says there's one black issue? Who says that?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Dr. HILL: I think he's speaking to a - I mean for example, police brutality is disproportionately affecting black people. Black men in Philadelphia are dying at a record rate. Those are black issues. I mean it's not the only black issue but it's an issue.

MARTIN: Yeah, but it implies that there's one way to address that problem. Right?

Dr. HILL: But he's not addressing it at all, is Street's point.

MARTIN: Okay. Arsalan, what do you think?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, I think that, you know, for me, it's more of a microcosm of national politics. You know, you have people here in the Beltway, you know, saying that, you know, certain candidates aren't Christian enough, you know, deciding and being arbiters of, you know, religious tests and thing like that. And let's not forget, you know, you know, when elected politicians are elected, they represent all people. And so, you know, the whole notion of Barack Obama is not black enough or, you know, he's not, you know, dealing with the issues of, you know, African-Americans, he's trying to deal with the issues of all Americans.

MARTIN: But when you hear that, and as not being African-American yourself, Arsalan, but as an American.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: How do you respond to that? Like if you were a voter, how would you respond to that? Would you say...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, I would, again, I would respond very negatively. Again, I go back to the whole thing of not being Christian enough. You know, when I hear so-called Christians saying that this so and so, you know, Barack Obama is not Christian enough or, you know, that he is a crypto-Muslim or something like that, you know, I, you know, I think again, it's taking away from the substantive issues and getting into red herrings, like Jimi said.

Mr. IZRAEL: Dr. Hill, help me out her, brother. You know, who's the paradigm? Who is black enough? I mean I didn't get that. I didn't get that in the list serve. You know, that list serve we get?

Dr. HILL: The black people meeting?

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, I haven't gotten the memo, man. Who is black enough? Please.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Michael Vick?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HILL: Oh, that was hurtful, man.

MARTIN: No, he did not go there.

Dr. HILL: I thought we were about to go here, man. No, I mean again, I think there's a difference between being a black mayor and a mayor that's black and I think that all Michael Nutter is saying is that he's not coming in with a black agenda. He's mayor who is trying to govern, and that's not, I don't think it's an honor...

Mr. IZRAEL: It's that then, you know, what I mean?

Dr. HILL: That's what he said. He said he's not a black mayor in that he's not speaking to the particular policies and issues and aspirations of black...

MARTIN: But, well, all right, I take your point. You're saying that he doesn't have any policy prescriptions per se. But when I hear that, what I very often feel is what are you saying in terms of the method for addressing these issues, okay? Like on this whole issue around education, like the whole charter school versus traditional public schools, people say that's not a black - well, it is. In a city like Washington, D.C., 40 percent of the students are in charter schools, okay, which means that that's mostly African-American kids.

Dr. HILL: Right.

MARTIN: So they've already, so is that not a black issue. Is that a black issue or is it not a black issue?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, and John Street specifically said that he happen - he's a mayor who happens to have dark skin again, you know, he was challenging the blackness of Michael Nutter. He wasn't just talking about policies prescriptions; he took a direct pot shot at him.

Dr. HILL: No, that's not a pot shot.

Mr. IZRAEL: It just seems personal to me. You know, I mean saying somebody's not black enough, is like saying somebody's not woman or man enough.

Mr. TORRE: Well, it's also the question of whether...

Mr. IZRAEL: Pablo.

Mr. TORRE: ...being a true anything, a true African-American, Asian-American, Latino, automatically means prescribing to all the policies that would automatically seemly blunting favor that. I think, I mean the problem for me is that it loses so much nuance and it's just a rhetorical blunt instrument that yes, will generate headlines and I don't know if that was intended or not, certainly, the debate has been stirred for better and for worse about the issues involved so...

MARTIN: Sorry, Pablo, forgive me for, I don't want to make you the like the Latino spokesman, but did you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you hear Latino politicians calling each other like that? Are they...

Mr. TORRE: Well, no and I think...

MARTIN: They're not Latino enough? I just don't remember hearing that.

Mr. TORRE: Not to the same degree, certainly not, and it's certainly a stigmatized term that, and I think Street...

MARTIN: Maybe it's too many vowels in it.

Mr. TORRE: Well, that could be too. But I think Street knows, I mean the power of a phrase like that. I don't think it's, I mean if it's tossed out causally, that would be news to me. I think there is some intent to stir up something here and that's the effect that it was intended for.

Dr. HILL: I think it was incredible nuanced. I completely disagree. He's making a distinction between being a - electing black people into office and having people who run on a race-based platform, a race targeted platform. I think historically, when we've had black candidates, whether it's Jesse Jackson or whether it's whoever, they've run on a race platform, whereas now people might - may elevate themselves and become black presidents, black governors, black mayors, but they don't necessarily operate from a race-based agenda, and he's simply saying let's not confuse the two. Michael Nutter is a mayor who is black; he's not running as a black mayor in any sort of quotes, as a traditional kind of grassroots politician.

Mr. TORRE: Right.

Dr. HILL: I think it's important a nuance.

Mr. TORRE: You know what, I just think that when you boil it down to how it's going to be disseminated into the media, I think it's so dangerous to even toss up a phrase like that, even if it's bundled in all the nuance and discussion afterwards. But, you know, the headlines is going to be that and I think it's a dangerous thing to say.

Dr. HILL: But it also reflects a sentiment of the people.

Mr. IZRAEL: Okay.

Mr. TORRE: Sure. Sure. That could be true.

MARTIN: Well, all right. Well, speaking of tossing...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HILL: Hey.

MARTIN: How is that figure, right?

Mr. IZRAEL: So, I know you all want to talk about what many are calling the marquee game of the week in the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles against the Washington Redskins. What's up?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HILL: Woo, more Philly talk. I love Philly talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Donovan McNabb returns to Philadelphia where he played 11 years, and he has virtually all the passing records there. Here is McNabb talking about playing with his old team, Michel. We got that tape, right?

MARTIN: Yeah, we do. Okay, here it is.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Drop it.

Mr. DONOVAN MCNABB (Pro NFL football player): You know, we all know each other on a personal level, we know each other just by the way we play or the, you know, how they may call the game, but things happen differently. You know, they are obviously going to try to attack me a lot differently than they've done than some other quarterbacks; I expect that. You know, but they have some tendencies that I've seen and they know that. So, you know, it's going to be a game and it's going to go back and forth and hopefully, we can come out on top.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right. There's that, right?

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

Mr. TORRE: Oh, come on.

MARTIN: What a big game. Wow, powerful insight.

Dr. HILL: Yeah.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. IZRAEL: So what's the bigger redemption story here, Pablo, Michael Vick or Donovan McNabb?

Mr. TORRE: You know, it's Donovan McNabb and I say that with all the gravity associated with a dog fighting ring and all the things that Michael Vick has been through. But I spent a little bit of time, luckily, with Donovan in training camp in D.C., and yes, I mean that interview is representative of his kind of polished media image at this point. But I remember one point I asked him just point blank, in the middle of a conversation, so how much are you looking forward to that game, and he said oh, I'm looking forward to it a lot and then kind of caught himself before like that fire in his eyes could burn any brighter. And I think it is because Donovan McNabb is so vastly under-appreciated. And there is this tangle of race also obviously. He was Rush Limbaugh's favorite target, you remember back then, and I think Philadelphia and Marc, I'll speak to this also, I'm sure never embraced him in the way that it should have, at least in my mind.

Dr. HILL: I disagree again.

Mr. TORRE: Oh, come one.

Mr. IZRAEL: Dr. Hill, quickly. Quickly.

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

Mr. TORRE: Man, let's talk to Dr. Hill. Let's start this.

Dr. HILL: I am a Philadelphia fan so I boo, right? So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: Oh, I forgot, right. Right.

Dr. HILL: I mean he's not a bum but come on, I hope - put it like this, I hope Donovan McNabb sees this as a big game because whenever he sees a big game he starts throwing the ball on the ground, throwing up his Chunky Soup all over the field.

Mr. TORRE: Oh, that's right.

MARTIN: All right. All right.

Mr. TORRE: As long as his mom doesn't get involved.

MARTIN: Arsalan, settle it. You think the Eagles or Redskins.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Eagles, Michael Vick.

MARTIN: Oh, man, you rough.

Dr. HILL: Eagles.

MARTIN: All right. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book, "The Denzel Principle." Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of muslimguy.com. They were both here in our D.C. studios. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated, and Marc Lamont Hill is host of the nationally syndicated TV show, "Our World with Black Enterprise," they were both in New York.

Thank you so much.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Dr. HILL: Yeah.

Mr. TORRE: Peace.

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.

(Soundbite of music)

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