Roundtable

Tuesday's guests include Kevin Powell, author of Who's Gonna Take the Weight? Manhood, Race, and Power in America; The Manhattan Institute's John McWhorter; and Callie Crossley, commentator for the television show Beat the Press.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Continuing the discussion, we're joined by our roundtable. From our New York bureau, Kevin Powell, author of "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?: Manhood, Race and Power in America." Also at the bureau, John McWhorter, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy, and in Boston, Callie Crossley, social cultural commentator on the television show, "Beat the Press."

Thank you all for joining us, and John, let me start with you. We just heard from Reverend Jesse Jackson, who advised Michael Jackson. We also heard earlier in the show from Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who was essentially saying that Michael Jackson is yet another example of an African-American who is being vigorously pursued by the criminal justice system. Do you believe that Michael Jackson is essentially a civil rights case, another African-American man being targeted for prosecution, or is he something totally different?

Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (Manhattan Institute): Well, it's a good story to say that he's one more black man that the white man's trying to bring down. But the question is, I'm not sure how we would know whether that was or wasn't the case. He's an extremely peculiar person who was accused of doing some things that we all consider morally reprehensible and it seems to me that if a white celebrity had done the exact same thing and had the same complex of traits, then we might have somebody who was trying very hard to call him before the courts as well.

To say that this is a black issue is a certain story that we like to tell. That's not to say that this has never happened in the past, but with Michael Jackson, the whole issue of his race and even his gender is kind of ambiguous. This is not somebody who has had a particular concern with the black community, and I'm not sure whether we're dealing with reality or whether we're just hitting a certain note that makes for a good story, that sells books, that's fun to talk about on the radio but may not actually apply in the America that we're living in right now with as unusual a figure as him. I'm not quite sure why we necessarily need to talk about Michael Jackson on this show, which is about African-American people which I don't really consider him to be.

CHIDEYA: Callie, that's throwing down the gauntlet right there. Why are we talking about Michael Jackson on an African-American themed show? Should we be?

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY ("Beat the Press"): Well, yes, I think so, though I have to say that I agree with much of what he just said, what your guest just said, and I heard Jay Leno say this morning that had Michael Jackson been black, then he would have been convicted right away, which, you know, lets you know that a lot of folks don't think that he's African-American. However, I think what's interesting, and one other writer has pointed this out, is that in the case of Michael Jackson, with all of the weirdness and everything else that we have to take into consideration, it was a black man involved with white kids. And I just wonder what that dynamic has to do with, you know, putting a layer of race into the situation that might not be there if we were talking about a white celebrity and white kids in the exact same situation, except there's just this race dynamic that continues to be a part of the kinds of conversations that we have about it, and that's why we talk about it, because I think you have to look at it in this way. Yes, he's weird, yes, a white celebrity may have gotten this attention, but there's something about the black man and the white kids that adds something, I think, to the picture.

CHIDEYA: Kevin, what about the support of the black community? You've got Reverend Jesse Jackson, you've got all sorts of people coming to the defense of Michael before they knew whether or not the courts were going to convict him. Is he someone who the black community, through institutional means or civil rights organizations should really be supporting?

Mr. KEVIN POWELL (Author, "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?"): Well, you know, it's interesting. I'm listening to all the comments over the last couple days. I mean, do I think Michael Jackson's a black man who's deeply self-hating and has whitened his skin and done certain things to his natural appearance? Absolutely. Do I understand the psychic need of black America to symbolically plug into cases where we feel that a black person is being unfairly attacked by the power structure? Absolutely I understand that, because I do think when we look at pop culture history, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Elvis Presley, Roman Polanski to Woody Allen--I can list at least 25, 30 white males who've been involved with young people, people under age, at some point and never come under the kind of scrutiny that Michael Jackson has.

But by the same token, and I put this out as a challenge to Reverend Jesse Jackson and to Reverend Al Sharpton and all the black folks who are dancing around this victory, we need to say to Michael Jackson very strongly that you need to have a level of accountability for your actions and you need to change the course of your behavior, because clearly you have admitted at least that you sleep in a bed with children, and you don't think anything's wrong with that. I think we need to talk about that kind of accountability and responsibility, particularly if you're a public figure in our community, regardless if we think he's black or not.

He is a black person, in my opinion. He has been for his entire life and the fact that he found himself back with Reverend Jackson and the Nation of Islam security and, you know, honestly, around a lot of black folks. It's something--it's a pattern that you see with a lot of black folks. You have celebrities who get in trouble, who may have distanced themselves from the black community as they became more famous, more embraced by white America, and then when they get in trouble, they go back to black America. And I'm saying these black Americans have got to say you've got to have some sort of moral standard for yourself, because this is unacceptable.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me transition, as we got a lot of topics on the table today, and Kevin, I'm going to continue with you. You have on the one hand Michael Jackson, who has a lot of resources to pursue his defense in a legal case. The Supreme Court just ruled, in a very different case, that Thomas Joe Miller-El was guilty of murder, he was sentenced to death in Texas, but that prosecutors wrongfully kept African-Americans off the jury that found him guilty. This is widely seen as a victory for people who are questioning whether or not the death penalty is racially targeted. How important to you is this kind of decision by the Supreme Court?

Mr. POWELL: Well, it is important, and we need to say first off, if anyone is guilty of committing any kind of crime, they should be convicted, but they also in the first place are entitled to a fair trial. I spent a significant amount of time in the state of Texas last year doing a lot of work around prisoner issues, and I'm here to tell you that there are a number people--there was one gentleman in particular, I remember, who was convicted around the same time as Thomas Joe Miller-El, who did not get a fair trial and spent 15, 16 years of his life in jail, was eventually released, so this is a pattern that's been going on in this country.

I think this is why you saw the former governor of Illinois release all of those inmates a couple of years ago, because as long as we live in this country, we have not dealt with the issue of racism in this country, systemic racism. You're going to have people who are going to become judges and jurors who are going to unfairly do these peremptory strikes and as the case hear in Texas, 10 out of 11 eligible blacks were excluded from the jury, which I think is completely unfair. He didn't have a jury of his peers.

Mr. McWHORTER: Kevin is...

CHIDEYA: John, let--oh, go ahead.

Mr. McWHORTER: Kevin is right, except glass half empty and glass half full. If you're just going to exclude all, or virtually all, black people from a jury for a reason like that, then clearly it's absolutely wrong. But we have to remember that there is also a such thing as a black American person who wouldn't be good for a jury like that, because of the reasons of history, they are so set against the criminal justice system, and this could be, for good reasons of experience, that they couldn't be an unbiased juror, and that's the root of that practice. Now when it's overdone then something has to be done about it. But as for systemic racism, rulings like Batson vs. Kentucky are part of getting rid of systemic racism. And what's interesting about this case is that it ended up having teeth and working. None of this is to say that the problem that Kevin referred to isn't a real one, but I see good in this as well as bad.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, I think...

Ms. CROSSLEY: I...

CHIDEYA: Let me just follow up with John briefly. The dissent was written by Clarence Thomas, Justice Thomas. Is the fact that Thomas is so often one of the dissenting members in cases like this around race going to complicate the Supreme Court's decision-making in the future, or is this something that people are going to sort of ignore that he's a black man and that his vote is consistently going in the other direction from a lot of the civil rights cases?

Mr. McWHORTER: It's very complicated, but I think that Justice Thomas' tendency to be so constructionist, so to speak, tends to take place kind of outside of history, in a way, and I think that it's pretty clear that the justices and most people who are looking at his decisions don't really think of him--this kind of goes back to the Michael Jackson--if you don't really think of them necessarily as racial. I mean, I think it's obvious that his views are quite different from those of most thinking African-Americans. I also say he has a right to them. But I wouldn't worry too much about him in that way.

CHIDEYA: Callie, you were going to jump in?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, first, I was going to say `kind of outside of history.' My God, he's always outside of history. That's the thing that just--well, anyway. The point I wanted to make here is that to make very clear to people is that this is not just a case of numbers. In other words, if there were more African-Americans on the case then maybe--in the jury pool, it would have been OK. This was a systemic pattern of using some techniques to keep black folks off the jury, and that's what was at issue here, and people need to understand that, because I hate to see, you know, the conversation evolves into, `Well, all they want is just more black people on the jury,' and yes, that would actually, I think, help. But it needs to be clear that in this case, the government was using tactics to make certain that black folks didn't get on the jury.

CHIDEYA: Callie, let me transition to yet another topic, black history in schools. We've been talking a lot about African-Americans in the legal system. Certainly when you talk about things like the criminal justice system and African-Americans, those are things that don't always get taught in mainstream American history texts, so the city of Philadelphia is now requiring that in September, all students have to take a year-long African-American history class to graduate. Do you believe that this is a good idea, or that this is some form of educational segregation, Callie?

Ms. CROSSLEY: I think it's a good idea, because for so long, all of the contributions of African-Americans have been outside of the history books. I mean, people just don't know it. One of the persons voting in favor of this pointed out that the population of the schools was two-thirds black and that it would be helpful for these students to understand their own personal history. But beyond that, for the one-third that aren't African-American, it's information that they ought to have, and it's pertinent to American history.

Now having said that, there is a way, I think, to present this information in the context of everybody's history, because it is American history. So often what happened with African-Americans and the path that they made, made the path for all of the other groups coming behind. And I think if it's set in that context, then you'd have perhaps a lot less controversy about why African-American? Why not Latino history? Why not Asian-American history? It ought to be set in the context of persons of color and their history. But definitely I think what's wrong with it? I think it's a good idea.

CHIDEYA: John?

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, I understand that point of view, but the fact is that it's hardly rare these days for mainstream textbooks to acknowledge the role of African-Americans in history. They're not all about it, but this is a debate that I think we've been having for about 30 years, and there was some effective action on this. But more to the point, there's nothing wrong with teaching black history to black kids, to white kids, to purple kids, but I think the important thing is that there's no evidence that any of that has much to with teaching Johnny, or shall we say Jamaal(ph), how to read. What I'm interested in is reading programs that have been shown to work with disadvantaged kids of color, and the slave ships and Emmett Till and Benjamin Bannaker and the clock and George Washington Carver, all that, is good. It gives us a good feeling inside. I'm not against it, but it has not a thing to do with the educational crisis with black kids that we're all so concerned about.

CHIDEYA: Kevin, you get the last word.

Mr. POWELL: Well, as someone who's worked with young people for the last 25 years or so in various capacities including teaching, I know for a fact not just black youth, your Latino youth, Jewish youth, you have to present education in a way that's relevant, and part of the piece around African-American history is that it does raise the self-esteem of children. I deal with a lot of young people in library programs and literacy programs in the prisons who because the history that represents them--and when I say history I mean the math, the science, across the board, not just the history or social studies class--don't see that their particular people contributed to this world family that we're talking about. They don't feel that they can actually compete, and so it's actually tremendously important, and I disagree that this debate is not relevant, and the reason why it's still going on 30 years after civil rights is because the job's never completed 30 years ago. That's the facts.

CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to leave it there.

From our New York bureau, Kevin Powell; he's author of "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?: Manhood, Race and Power in America." Also John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy, and from Boston, Callie Crossley, social cultural commentator on the television show, "Beat the Press."

Thank you all very much.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

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

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