Roundtable: Mexican Workers, Cheating, Harvard Diversity

Topics on Tuesday's roundtable include Mexico's President Vicente Fox's controversial comments about Mexican workers in the United States; teachers who helped students cheat; and Harvard's $50-million dollar diversity pledge. Guests: Joseph C. Phillips, syndicated columnist; Bev Smith, host of The Bev Smith Show on American Urban Radio Network; and Jeff Obafemi Carr, co-host of the radio show Freestyle in Nashville, Tenn.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable: Mexico's president stirs up controversy on both sides of the border; and teachers helping students to cheat. Joining us from NPR studios in Culver City, California, is syndicated columnist Joseph C. Phillips. At member station WQED in Pittsburgh, Bev Smith, host of "The Bev Smith Show" on American Urban Radio Network. And Jeff Obafemi Carr, co-host of the radio show "Freestyle" in Nashville, Tennessee. He joins us from Spotland Productions.

All right, folks, let's talk quickly about Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has tried to convince the United States government to ease up on immigration controls for Mexican workers. Instead he's stirred up a controversy by saying that there is no doubt that Mexicans, filled with dignity, willingness and ability to work, are doing jobs that not even blacks want to do in the United States. Well, obviously Mr. Fox stirred up a lot of controversy, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton among others, who've demanded an apology. Initially President Fox had refused to back away from his statement but then certainly saw that just the juxtaposition of words there and clearly the use of `not even blacks' was obviously offensive to many. Jeff, your thoughts.

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Host, "Freestyle"): Well, I think this has stirred up some--excuse me--controversy, and Reverend Al Sharpton particularly is involved asking for apologies, and I hate to sound kind of strange on this, but I really would like to know if Sharpton's going to ask my barber, several preachers I know and most old black men on street corners in my neighborhood the same thing, because I'm kind of sorry, but President Fox is about 10 years behind the underground black American grapevine on that statement. I've heard this over and over, and if you talk to many of our esteemed elders, they will confirm that blacks used to dominate in certain industries, and I won't even get into the whole maid/hotel stereotype, but say, for instance, in masonry and stonework and construction, honorable, dignified professions, trades.

I don't know how it is in New York, since I move to Pennsylvania or California, but all over the South, you just don't see blacks doing that much work anymore. You see a lot of people, particularly Mexicans, doing that kind of work. And as is the case in a big construction project in my neighborhood, there were a lot of brothers standing on the corner watching those guys work, saying the same kind of statements, and I think that's the greater shame. I think Sharpton and Jesse should redirect their energy on this one and start working toward making sure our brothers can take up some of those trades and look up ...(unintelligible). This has all mattered before.

GORDON: That being said, though, Bev, the inference of `not even blacks,' meaning that it would possibly be even below them, I think, is what most people took offense to.

Ms. BEV SMITH (Host, "The Bev Smith Show"): Well, I didn't, and I'm in total agreement with Jeff. I think on this one, that we can redirect our energy. I think it's too easy to just look at this as a racism issue. It's multifaceted. It's what--the issue that Jeff just mentioned about jobs. I also see it as an issue of...

GORDON: Would you feel the same way had Trent Lott said this?

Ms. SMITH: Maybe so. If the debate involved an ethnic--Trent Lott is a very rich, white man in America who may not even be involved in this debate. This debate centers around opportunity. This debate centers around opportunity, and what I think the--if you look at what he said before and after the statement, what he was saying is there are certain jobs that blacks no longer will take. For example, in Maryland, you have Mexicans and people who speak Spanish, because not all of them are Mexicans, doing jobs in poultry factories where they do not get breaks, where their fingers are cut off. You have young African-Americans in Maryland--I've heard them say it--have them on the show say, `We won't do those types of jobs anymore.'

The issue should be the kinds of jobs that we're talking about, and there ought to be someone raising the issue of Spanish-speaking people and black people talking about opportunities, talking about the jobs and talking about a clever way of using those people who are disenfranchised against each other in very low-paying, unworthy jobs.

Mr. JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS (Syndicated Columnist): Well, it's not an issue that black people will not do these jobs. It's an issue of Americans will not do these jobs at that price. But I think that Jesse and Al have completely missed the point on this. I'm not offended by what President Fox said. What offends me more is that he feels the freedom to be so involved in our domestic policy discussions. Listen. Illegals are coming across the borders of--our Southern borders primarily is what we're talking about--being exploited by coyotes who stuff them into trucks in the beds and sneaking them across the border.

Ms. SMITH: No, Joe.

Mr. PHILLIPS: And the reason is because the economy in Mexico is a mess, the government there is corrupt, the people are impoverished. I think that President Fox should spent a little less time being involved in what we are doing here, spend a little more time fixing the problems down there, then we wouldn't be having this discussion at all.

Ms. SMITH: But don't you think that's hypocritical? Because the United States...

Mr. PHILLIPS: It's not hypocritical at all.

Ms. SMITH: ...is involved--it is hypocritical because the United States is involved in telling everyone what to do around the world. That is the controversy of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. That is the controversy of China, Russia. We're in everyone's business.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Bev...

Ms. SMITH: And our house is not clean. So I think that's awfully hypocritical.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, your house does not have to be clean in order to speak to certain issues. But the fact of the matter is is that Fox is involved in what we're talking about because a large part of his economy is supported and driven by American dollars being sent back to Mexico. Illegals coming...

Ms. SMITH: Well, some of that is because of our trade agreements. And some of them...

Mr. CARR: ...(Unintelligible) to do with that.

Mr. PHILLIPS: No, no, no, no. I'm not talking about trade agreements. I'm talking about illegals coming here, working and sending dollars back.

Ms. SMITH: Well, when you start worrying about European illegals who come here, dancers from Russia, and we give them opportunities, when you look at that issue of opportunities of jobs around the world and the way the Seven Sisters and the political giants have made this a have-not...

Mr. PHILLIPS: Bev, 500,000 Ukrainians dancers are not streaming into our cities...

Ms. SMITH: Because of geographics.

Mr. PHILLIPS: ...and into California.

Ms. SMITH: They're being--many of them aren't being invited in.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Europeans are not costing the state of California five to $10 billion a year.

Ms. SMITH: This is not the issue.

Mr. PHILLIPS: It absolutely is the issue.

Ms. SMITH: This is the issue of fairness.

Mr. CARR: In all fairness, you've got a huge--you've got a big ocean between Europe and America.

Ms. SMITH: Hello.

Mr. CARR: You don't just step across the border. So there is kind of a difference in the issue. And if you kind of eliminated that ocean, I think you'd have the same kind of problems.

Ms. SMITH: Absolutely.

Mr. CARR: But that's neither here nor there. He's got 10 to 12 million illegal people in the United States.

Mr. PHILLIPS: We're going to eliminate the ocean? What--What?

Mr. CARR: What I'm saying is geographically, as Bev was saying, if we were next to Ukraine and they could step over into the United States...

Ms. SMITH: They would.

Mr. CARR: ...you might face the same kind of situation.

Ms. SMITH: They would. They would.

Mr. CARR: So it's not necessarily Mexico's fault.

Mr. PHILLIPS: And maybe the moon is made of green cheese.

Mr. CARR: He's got a lot of people in this country. He's got a stake.

Mr. PHILLIPS: The point is...

Mr. CARR: Right.

Mr. PHILLIPS: ...that Mexicans and--it's our Southern border, Hispanic-speaking Mexicans, and we're talking about--listen, no one is talking about objecting to legal immigration into our country. What we're talking about is the fact that we are a sovereign nation and we are allowed to dictate the terms of who comes into our country and when.

Ms. SMITH: Joe, when are you going to get back to the issue of work? When are--you know, it's a real interesting thing, the way you have taken the issue of whether or not the people who are in this country are treated fairly on the job, and that's an issue that we as African-Americans and those who speak Spanish in this country, those who are Asian in this country, those who are Native American should be united on culturally. That's what Jesse and Al Sharpton should be talking about.

I don't think that Mr. Fox made a mistake at all. He said, as Jeff pointed out earlier, what all of us know. And our young people are saying, `We don't want those jobs. We don't want to work'...

Mr. CARR: That's right.

Mr. PHILLIPS: At that price.

Ms. SMITH: ...`in chicken factories.' We don't...

Mr. PHILLIPS: `We don't want those jobs at that price.'

Ms. SMITH: And you wouldn't want it at that price either. It's interesting that the corporate presidents who say that they can't afford that price get their bonuses every year. This is an issue that should not be treated so simplistic, my newly political friend.

Mr. CARR: And it's--yeah, and it's not always...

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, I think...

Mr. CARR: OK. Go ahead.

Mr. PHILLIPS: ...that the talking about Ukrainian dancers is a more simplistic...

GORDON: Hang on, Joe.

Mr. PHILLIPS: ...analysis of this than talking about illegal immigration and its impact on our cities here in California, the crowded highways, the impact on our schools, the impact on our budgets and the taxpayers.

GORDON: All right, Joe, hang on. Jeff, go in and then we're going to move on another subject.

Mr. CARR: Yeah. OK.

GORDON: You guys have made my job easy today. Thank you. It's a lot of fun.

Mr. CARR: Jeff, go ahead.

GORDON: I enjoy you guys so much.

Mr. CARR: When we look at the systemic kind of issues here, there's a huge organization here in town in Nashville, Tennessee, that--it runs one of the three largest hotels in the world, and they have an entertainment industry. What they did a few years ago was they bought a strip of motels in a depressed area of Nashville. They renovated the motels. Why did they renovate the motels? So that they could ship workers in from Mexico to actually work in the hotels. So this is an issue of labor. Now you can say...

Ms. SMITH: It's bigger than...

Mr. CARR: ...`Well, Vicente Fox doesn't have anything to say,' but he has a stake in saying something about his people, who are being shipped.

Ms. SMITH: Absolutely.

Mr. CARR: And these are legal people who are being shipped over by corporate America to take these jobs and to work in these positions that frankly, like my barber says, black folks don't want to do anymore.

Mr. PHILLIPS: If Vicente Fox...

Ms. SMITH: Absolutely.

Mr. CARR: And that's what the issue is.

Ms. SMITH: Absolutely.

Mr. PHILLIPS: If Vicente Fox...

GORDON: All right.

Mr. PHILLIPS: ...took care of business south of the border, we wouldn't be having this discussion right now.

Ms. SMITH: If we would get out of his business south of the border, he might be able to do that.

GORDON: All right, guys. We're going to move on.

Mr. PHILLIPS: What?

Mr. CARR: And if ...(unintelligible) was a fifth, we'd all be drunk.

GORDON: And it seems to me that one hand washes the other, and both, frankly, are in each other's business. And I don't know how you divorce the two.

All right. Moving on, in Houston, an international investigation--or an internal--Forgive me--investigation has found that teachers in four public schools helped students cheat on statewide mandate tests. Houston Independent School Districts, which is the largest of the Lone Star State, sent teams of investigators into 23 schools that had suspiciously large swings in standardized test scores. And what we are seeing here, quite frankly, because these test scores are ofttimes married to dollars, is the idea that principals, students--I'm sorry--principals, teachers and administrators are suggesting that they need to raise these test scores by any means necessary, obviously, to get and secure this money. Bev?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I think that that's part of the problem. I think that they're being forced by the system, the No Child Left Behind and the pressure, to make people who may not have been trained right earlier, who may not have been educated properly earlier, come up to par so that they keep the grade, they keep the job, and their school doesn't lose valuable tax dollars. But it's also an issue of the values, or lack of values, in this country that cheating is almost acceptable. We had it in the Navy, we lied to the American public. This is a moral issue as well as an issue of what is happening to education across the board.

I keep saying that these issues are not simplistic, that they're multifaceted, and you have to look at them that way: the teacher and the pressure on the administrator and the school, the pressure on that student who has not been--and by and large, is poor and African, or poor and white, or poor and Spanish-speaking--who's not been educated properly in the schools and the pressure to get those dollars. And then the issue of what is happening to our morality, that cheating around this country in many forms is acceptable.

GORDON: We should note that all of those who've been accused of cheating have denied to this point doing so. Jeff, pick up.

Mr. CARR: Yes. I think, that it's a travesty in education. Right here in Robertson County, there's an investigation that got launched yesterday into the Gateway exams. And the Gateway exams decide whether you're going to graduate from high school. They also determine teacher pay and incentives. And we live in a world now where if you can't beat them, cheat them. And one of the local debates here is whether the current school superintendent should be judged by test scores alone and the success there. And what that makes the way for is a shift of focus in the school system, not on comprehension but learning the materials needed to boost the scores. And I taught high school for a while, and I know that value is in comprehension and the application of knowledge, not simply the test scores. And ultimately, test scores end up in this situation helping the superintendent and the principals get raises, and it makes way for corruption.

Mr. PHILLIPS: It also doesn't do anything for the...

Ms. SMITH: And there's...

Mr. PHILLIPS: ...kids, who, as you point out, are not learning anything...

Mr. CARR: No.

Mr. PHILLIPS: ...particularly when the professors or teachers are helping them cheat. I found fascinating in this story the fact that two of the students with the help of the teachers still got two of the questions wrong. So that, you know...

Ms. SMITH: So maybe we ought to be talking about educating the teachers also.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Educating the teachers, actually.

Ms. SMITH: Yes. Absolutely.

GORDON: But Joe brings up an interesting point, and it seems to me, lost in all of what we see on the educational front today is a growing generation that is being--and as Bev so astutely pointed out, these are typically minority and poor, but poor and white fall into this category--that are being left behind by an ever-moving, ever-educated group of folks who don't have to deal with the same pressures. What are we doing for this generation?

Ms. SMITH: Well, we're showing them that cheating is OK. I mean, we have skaters who no longer want to be competitive with the other person; they want to break their legs. We have people who pump chemicals into their bodies so they can be better than the other, not by skill alone. We have this all the time. We have people in the Navy who cheat. And we have a television show, gentlemen--and I do mean gentlemen--we have a television show that is called "The Cheaters" where somebody runs around with a camera.

Mr. CARR: Right.

Ms. SMITH: This way of thinking is all right in America. We must also make this a discussion about values and morals and ethics, gentlemen.

Mr. CARR: Yeah.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, and I think that certainly when it comes to those questions, they transcend the economic stations in people's lives because, as you point out, the cheating in the Naval Academy and such, they're not done by poor kids. I'd want to make that point. But you're absolutely right. And I think it's also important to point out that all these teachers have been fired. So the response to the cheating is also important and how hard we come down on this kind of thing.

Ms. SMITH: Absolutely, because I'm not so sure that that would--Joe, I actually agree with you on that. I'm not so sure...

Mr. PHILLIPS: Write it down.

Ms. SMITH: Write that down. I actually...

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah. We're going to be trading e-mails very soon.

Ms. SMITH: Pretty soon.

GORDON: All right. All right, guys, we've got about a minute left. Let's stay with it. Go ahead, Bev.

Ms. SMITH: I actually agree with you. I do not believe that to resolve this dilemma is to come down hard on the teachers, because it's bigger than that. But I see that as a cop-out: Fire the teachers, and we move on, and that...

Mr. CARR: And you move on without...

Ms. SMITH: ...concluded the issue.

Mr. CARR: Yeah, without changing things.

GORDON: ...(Unintelligible)

Ms. SMITH: And you move on without it, right. Right.

Mr. CARR: Yeah. If you don't change the culture and the mentality of the thing, then you will continue to have that behavior. One of the things that is sad about the situation in Robertson County here that's--same thing in the public school district in Houston--is that now teachers will not be able to administer the tests to their own students, because there's too much--they're looking out for themselves. I think that's pretty sad. I think it's a trust issue. When I was coming up, we trusted certain teachers to look out for us, and they didn't help us cheat, but they prepared us because they cared about us. I think that that has changed in the culture of education in America, and unless we do something about it, we're going to continue to have a number of reality shows that encourage us to continue to cheat to get whatever we need.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CARR: By hook or by crook.

GORDON: Joe Phillips, Bev Smith and Jeff Obafemi Carr, thank you very much. We were in so deep with the Vicente Fox conversation, we didn't get to two of our issues today, and that is that Harvard will spent over $50 million to make its faculty more diverse; more controversy there with Lawrence Summers. And then a look at the new X-raying devices that see a little bit more than you may want them to.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

GORDON: We'll talk about those in the days to come.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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