Roundtable: Living Wage, NYPD, 'Obama Osama'

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Topics for Friday's roundtable discussion: A new study gives insight into the concept of a "living wage"; the NYPD police academy has its most diverse group of graduates ever; and Rush Limbaugh calls Illinois Sen. Barak Obama "Obama Osama." Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Jeff Obafemi Carr, founding artistic director, Amun Ra Theatre; and Yvonne Bynoe, author of the book Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture.

ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, a livable wage may cost you your job, and the chief justice says he's here to stay. Joining us today: from NPR headquarters in Washington, DC, Yvonne Bynoe, author of the book "Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip-Hop Culture"; Jeff Obafemi Carr, founding artistic director of the Amun Ra Theatre in Nashville; and George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, and he joins us from Maryland.

All right, folks. Let me read you a quote: "I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement." That, of course, from Chief Justice William Rehnquist yesterday as he came out of the hospital, as he went in for treatment of--as he battles thyroid cancer. George, as we take a look at this, this signals what in your mind?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor in Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): It signals, one, that it was a spontaneous decision, because the chief justice didn't go through the usual procedure here of going through the press office. Late at night the family called Associated Press, and that's how the word got out. And the White House didn't even know about it. What it does is put the focus squarely back on the O'Connor vacancy, and that's where we're going to focus on now, because before there were all kind of scenarios about if you had two appointments, you could have one who was a little more center and then the other one who was really to the right. That all ends now. You even had speculation by--we actually had four senators, female senators, two Democrats, two Republicans, saying, `Oh, let's implore O'Connor to come back and maybe she should be the chief justice.' All that speculation ends now. Now we will focus on getting one person to replace O'Connor and not two replacements.

GORDON: Jeff.

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Founder and Artistic Director, Amun Ra Theatre): Yeah. I think definitely I would agree with George. That's what the focus needs to be now, and it really could have been a really ugly late summer with trying to have two appointments to the court. And there's been speculation for more than a while that Rehnquist would go. He's 80 years old and he's been on the court for 33 years. He's battling thyroid cancer. And you would think that anyone at this point would call an end. Rehnquist himself--I think on many levels his legacy is still left to be written in terms of his decision-making and some of the things that he's kind of voted for and the ways he swayed. A lot of people would say that he's been one of the judges that has been very, very centered on expanding the court's authority and not necessarily a fan of constitutional theory.

So I think those kind of debates will now be put on the back burner and we can focus on seeing who the nominee is actually going to be that will replace O'Connor.

GORDON: Yvonne, I don't want to give us too much weight--`us' being pundits and talk show hosts, journalists, etc. George suggested that this seemed to be a spontaneous decision by the chief justice. How much do you believe all of this talk about, to use his words, his `imminent retirement,' really kind of got his ire up and said, `Wait a minute. I'm going to leave when I want to leave'?

Ms. YVONNE BYNOE (Author, "Unfinished Business"): Though it's funny; as I was listening to the other comments, that's exactly what I was thinking. I really felt like in the last several days, particularly, there has been talk that has ranged from Rehnquist's death, frankly, because of his declining health, and his retirement. And frankly, for a lot of people who would be in his position, he would not want to be pushed out. He'll leave when he wants to leave. And certainly there was probably some consideration to the other potential nominee, but I think he was more concerned about himself that, `Look, I'll leave on my terms. Right now I might not be in the best of health, but my mind is going well and don't be--I don't want to be pushed out.'

GORDON: Let me try to put this on...

Mr. CURRY: He seems to be taunting the journalists, Ed--he seems to be taunting them. They were--they camped at the Mann House, which is typical here in Washington, DC, as you know, and they kept every day, like, `Oh, are you going to resign?' He would say, `That's for me to know and for you to find out.' He was basically saying, you know, `Go somewhere else. I'm not talking about you.'

GORDON: I don't want this to sound like ageism, because it really isn't, but I'm curious--and we all understand the importance of giving these people, quote, "lifetime appointments," so they can be--the idea is feel free to really, without being beholden to anyone or concerned about their job status, be able to really look at the law unfettered. That being said, it seems to me that often--I mean, when you look at this man, he still is very frail. He's having difficulty walking and all of the things that we can see. Obviously, we don't know the full diagnosis. But that being said, when we look at these justices for years, one almost assumes that they are devoid of the ravages that will hit all of us as age comes on: memory loss, etc. Do we at all have to rethink this idea of lifetime appointments, to some degree?

Ms. BYNOE: Well, I think one of the...

Mr. CURRY: I think about--go ahead.

Ms. BYNOE: Yeah. I don't--I think we run into some problems with that. I think the major issue that we would have to be concerned about--and it has to be some type of, I guess, standard to be thought of--is the mental capacity. As long as someone's mind is working and functioning at the level that is necessary to make sound decisions, I'm not sure whether their physical capabilities really play into it. They have clerks, they have other type of aides that can certainly help with it...

GORDON: Right, but, I mean, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

Ms. BYNOE: Yeah.

GORDON: How do you gauge that? Ofttimes the people that are closest to you who will see that are so loyal to you, they're not going to initially say anything.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, I mean, if you were a regular person in the general public, that would be adjudication. Someone would have to make the claim that you were incompetent and they would have to be evaluated and go through a regular process of that sort. So I don't know that we could make a different standard for these lifetime appointments. We should probably think about it but, again, I think it's the mental capacity. Until someone looks or proves or seems to be incompetent, I think that's going to be the prevailing wisdom.

Mr. CARR: And yet perhaps...

Mr. CURRY: Yeah, and you really do want to...

Mr. CARR: Go ahead.

Mr. CURRY: ...insulate them from the political pressures, and that's why you need to stick with that lifetime appointment. I think we ought to be careful when we talk about age, because I was with Joe Lowery yesterday, former president of Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He's 83 years old. He's as sharp as anybody else I know. I had a guidance counselor in high school who was in her 90s. So you just can't say that age alone--it has to do with how age affect that individual. And so far, Rehnquist still seems to be functioning well.

Mr. CARR: And I agree with George in that age is not a number, but I do believe that age sets the stage for complicating some things. When I was a kid, there was always Mr. A. Banks down the street. Mr. A. Banks said--at 80 years old could drive 70 miles an hour, and he could put the pedal to the metal and do it. Now he could do that on the left side of the road, and that was kind of scary when you were a kid riding with him. So I think that, at some point--we look at a person's skills, but I think when we talk about the Supreme Court, I think the court itself might need to look at some kind of peer judgment in being able to say, `Well, we've been together for a while and we see that this person's decisions are starting to change a little bit.' And I think the lifetime appointment needs to be revisited, because sometimes age--we have to realize we do get old, and some of us are going to hold on to and then some of us are going to lose a little bit. And I think a country shouldn't have to suffer something if nature just kicks it.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, then, that...

GORDON: All right. Well, listen, no--go ahead, real quickly here.

Ms. BYNOE: Real quick--I mean, that poses a big problem, because if I'm 79 and my opinions start changing, that may have nothing to do with, you know, diminished capacities. It just might be my opinion. So I think if we're going to...

Mr. CARR: That's true.

Ms. BYNOE: ...have a line, we would have to draw it at some age and everyone regularly would have to be examined and observed.

GORDON: Yeah. All right. Well, I said before I even raised the question it's not about ageism, and please, my mother is in her 80s. I can say that now 'cause she looks good, and she's still kicking my butt. So please, no e-mails, no calls.

Mr. CARR: Right. Right.

GORDON: I'm all for folks hanging around. All right. Let's take a look at something that's interesting and it's starting to raise a question of whether or not a program that's put in place to try to assist people who oftentimes are the lowest paid in America is, in fact, hurting them. There is something that is called the Living Wage ordinance, and companies with city contracts are forced to pay workers who live within the city limits above the traditional minimum wage. There is a study that shows that there is a 6 percent employment decline in cities that require the living wage, yet critics will suggest to you that that incorporates and encompasses the entire work force and not just those who are on this ordinance. That being said, George Curry, one has to believe that when this is put in place, there will be employers who will look at this and either move cities--or move jobs out of that city or, in fact, reduce its work force.

Mr. CURRY: Well, I mean--I don't know if you can--one is necessarily tied to the other. There are about a hundred cities in the United States that have what they call living wage, and typically, that's about 2 to $3 more per hour over minimum wage. So that guarantees people--the lowest rung of society will be better paid. I think the study, as you intimated, is flawed from the beginning, because instead of just comparing the exact workers who are affected, they apply citywide rates. And, to me, that's flawed and I don't put a whole lot of credence in the study.

Mr. CARR: The--one of the things that you have to look at is in a situation where you have living wage ordinances that can apply 50 to a hundred percent more than what the federal minimum wage is to a worker's salary. Is--the bottom line is, we live in America right now, and America is about making money. It's about capitalism and it's about the bottom line. And I think you'll find that more employers are going to be concerned about the bottom line. If that means that I'm being forced, through a city contract or eventually possibly a federal contract in the future, to pay people more, then I'm simply going to hire a fewer number of employees so that I can keep the bottom line in my pocket.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, I think also, too, we have to really think long term. A lot of cities are having problems because their crucial or essential employees can't afford to live in those cities. So I think there has to be a balance between--certainly, there will be some employers, some contractors, who will decide that, `Hey, I'm going to hire less people because I have to pay them more.' But I think as a long-term strategy, we cannot continue to have essential employees, particularly, who can't afford to live in the cities. I think, especially when we start talking about police and firemen--I think that we've seen incidences where there have been complaints because these people are not part of the community, and there have been allegations that their attention and their care to the citizens suffers because of that. So I think...

GORDON: So what do you do there, Yvonne? Do you--are you talking about eliminating the residential rule that exists in many cities? And if you do, you go back to the Catch-22 of what you're talking about.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, frankly, I'm not oppo--I'm not in favor, rather, of doing that. I think that we should be looking at essential personnel, and I think there have to be some kind of concessions made so that they can live in a city. I don't know that they need to live in a standard that's better than the average citizen, but--and in Montgomery County, for instance, their prices of houses are extraordinarily high. So if you are a fireman, a policeman, a lot of these people are living in Frederick County, way out in the exurbs. So I think that we have to balance the loss of some jobs with the practicality that we need...

GORDON: And for those who don't know...

Ms. BYNOE: ...to have certain people in the...

GORDON: Forgive me, Yvonne.

Ms. BYNOE: Yeah.

GORDON: For those that don't know, those are Maryland suburban counties outside of the Washington, DC, area.

Ms. BYNOE: Yeah, but it could be New York. They--out on an island; it could be any major city...

GORDON: Right. I see.

Ms. BYNOE: ...where you have a lot of people who are commuting two or three hours a day because they just simply cannot afford to live in these cities.

Mr. CURRY: But we need to get back to...

Mr. CARR: But...

Mr. CURRY: ...what--really the real core issue. The core issue here--you're talking about people at the lowest level getting livable wages, the wages they can live on, and then people in America always say...

GORDON: But isn't that a misnomer, George Curry? Isn't that a...

Mr. CURRY: They always say--what?

GORDON: Isn't that a misnomer, the idea of livable wages? When you look at the poverty line, what the government calls the poverty line here, the poverty index and what people have to live at, it really isn't a livable wage...

Mr. CURRY: You're right.

GORDON: ...to a great degree, for many.

Mr. CURRY: You're right. It's extremely low. It's not livable. But it's more livable than the minimum wage, and that's the real issue here.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. OK.

Mr. CARR: Yeah. And it's kind of tough to develop a federal standard for that. It does go city by city. I mean, it's incredibly expensive to live in a city like San Francisco, as opposed to, say, Cookeville, Tennessee. And so I think that there are a lot of complex factors that go into determining what a living wage is, and even--I would concur with George that a living wage is still barely making it.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. All right. Let's turn our attention to an interesting question that really touches on all of the issues that we've just talked about, and that's whether or not policemen are receiving, in comparison to the job they do, a, quote, "livable wage," the whole question of whether police have to live in the city they, in fact, police, etc. The New York City Police Department graduated what they are calling its most diverse class ever over the course of this week. Less than half of the class is white; 25 percent of the graduates are Hispanic, 18 percent of them African-American and 6 percent Asian. Now this was highly touted by the NYPD, and clearly most people are going to believe that this is going to be a help in the streets as you do shoe-leather policing. But one has to question whether or not this helps if the ranks, the higher ranks, aren't as diverse as what we're seeing here. George?

Mr. CURRY: That's always a challenge. It's kind of the same challenge we have in our industry when you have--we're losing numbers and don't have the diversity, and yet we criticize other industries. It still is an improvement, though. I mean, the force is still largely white, but it's an improvement when you get more and you start at the academy level and, of course, the idea is that they'll move up, you hope. But this certainly is an improvement in a department that's been really, really under a lot of fire in recent years.

Ms. BYNOE: But also, too, one of the things...

Mr. CARR: One...

Ms. BYNOE: ...that has not been talked about greatly--you know, on one hand, this certainly is an improvement that you're seeing a force that's more representative of New York City, but at $25,000 a year as a starting salary, that is really not a lot of money to put your life on the line, and there are going to be a lot of people who are going to not look at becoming a police officer. So I think there has been some concern about, you know, who is actually applying and whether the standards--are they the same standards that they were before, or are the standards having to slip because of the low salary and the type of candidates who are applying?

Mr. CARR: Well, I thought...

Mr. CURRY: You're talking about an actual pay cut here in this case, right, Yvonne? They actually cutting the salaries.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, I mean, yeah.

Mr. CURRY: They're cutting the salaries.

Mr. CARR: Yeah.

Ms. BYNOE: That's what it appears to be, yeah. It appears to be a pay cut. And, you know, for every--as I said, that's just not a lot of money--the same way we pay teachers a pittance compared to other industries; policemen, the same deal. They are really expected to do a lot on a little.

Mr. CARR: And I'm most concerned...

GORDON: Jeff, quick final thought for us.

Mr. CARR: ...about the economic issue and more concerned about the whole notion of this diversity being touted. And a lot of times I say I'm called on to do diversity training, and the first thing you have to do is establish a definition of diversity. The problem when a black man felt that extra anxiety when he saw flashing blue lights in his rearview mirror used to be that he'd be treated like a criminal by a white cop, and the difference now is that he can be treated like a criminal by a black or Latino or other race cop. See, diversity isn't a mental paradigm, and if the paradigm perception is that black men are criminals, it doesn't matter what the color of the cop is. And I think that's what I'm most concerned about.

Carter G. Woodson once postulated that if you train a man that his place is at the back door, he'll go there without being told. And it's a good thing that we have diverse people...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. CARR: ...in terms of their skin color in blue, but if the paradigm doesn't shift in terms of the way they're doing things and the way they perceive particularly black men and women as criminals, then it really doesn't do much good.

GORDON: So a shift of mind-set.

Ms. BYNOE: I think that's a key point.

GORDON: A shift of mind-set...

Mr. CARR: Indeed.

GORDON: ...and environment needed as well. All right, Jeff Obafemi Carr, George Curry and Yvonne Bynoe, thank you all for joining us. Greatly appreciate it. We didn't get an opportunity to get to the question of whether warning labels should be placed on soft drinks because of all the sugar that's in those cans, and I must say I fall victim to drinking those deadly things far too often. Maybe we'll get to that next week. Have a good weekend, guys.

Mr. CARR: Have a good one.

Mr. CURRY: Hey, thank you.

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

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