Roundtable: RNC Apology, Military Interrogations

Ed Gordon tackles the issues of note in communities of color. Monday's guests; George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Jeff Obafemi Carr, founding artistic director of the Amun Ra Theatre in Nashville; and Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. Topics include: Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman's apology for racial politics, interrogation tactics by the U.S. military and schools trying to attract more male teachers.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, a pattern of abuse emerges among US military interrogators, and Republican Ken Mehlman offers an apology to the NAACP. Joining us here in our New York bureau: Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Jeff Obafemi Carr, founding artistic director of the Amun Ra Theatre in Nashville joins us; and George Curry, editor in chief of The National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service joins us. He joins us from Maryland.

All right, gentlemen. Let's talk a little bit about something that happened last week that is most interesting coming off the heels of our conversation with the two Congress folks, Maxine Waters and Mel Watt. And that is that last week, during the NAACP convention, Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman suggested that Republicans had not done enough to court blacks in the past and had exploited racial strife to court white voters, particularly in the South. He said, quote, "I'm here today as a Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong," end quote.

Jeff, when you hear that and juxtapose that to the concern and anger, quite frankly, that the NAACP has had with the administration, with the president five times in a row turning down an invitation to speak to the group, what does this say?

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Founding Director, Amun Ra Theatre): Well, Ed, you usually catch every pop culture reference I make down to the artist and the song. But you probably remember that song "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late (To Ever Try Again)." And I think that on many levels this is the case here. What's really needed as opposed to just an apology and an acknowledgement of what everybody knows, is some tangible action that will reverse the lasting effects of the so-called `southern strategy' that was birthed during the Nixon administration that wooed white voters by blaming civil rights on the Democrats. And when you have a wife beater--and I mean the human being, not the shirt--it doesn't matter that if after each successive beating, he says `Oh, baby, I'm sorry. I'm here to tell you as your husband I was wrong,' if he keeps beating the wife. And, of course, the Republicans want to reach out to black voters. Why? Because we're a sleeping giant of potential. And if we become politically awake, we can determine the outcome of almost any election. In a country where less--or half or less of its population will participate in a democratic elections, we're the X factor and we can X you in or X you out. And I think Republicans are really realizing that and that want us to help them with their long-term success.

GORDON: That being said, George Curry, not since the days of Lee Atwater have the Republicans seen black America as fertile ground. They are clearly going after black Americans like they have not done in decades.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor In chief of The National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Yeah, and yo--I mean, where the apology was well stated. I read the entire speech. You're--still is not offering anything different. You know, how can a president not go there? Snub them and go to the Black Expo? And you've still got this whole idea of the president also coming out against both of the affirmative action cases coming out of the University of Michigan. And you have the NAACP report card where only one Republican in the House and Senate got a C. Everybody else got an F, not even a D. So it's that record of theirs that people are dealing with, not the rhetoric.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, George mentions the president snubbing the NAACP, yet going and readying himself for the Black Expo. Do you have to speak to the NAACP, or can you, as the president is suggesting, feel that that's too hostile of an audience and I'm still talking to black folks at a Black Expo?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Well, the NAACP is a hostile audience. The NAACP is probably also an irrelevant audience. I think if the NAACP were a powerful organization, institution, the president would be beating a path to the NAACP as opposed to the NAACP begging for an audience with the president.

But with respect to your previous question, the central question, about the apology, this is an age of apology and is--I think these gestures are just that. They're empty. It's empty rhetoric. I mean, if they're going to apologize for racial history, then it's a form of racial pandering, so to speak, to go to a black audience to say `Oh, we apologize.' Where's the apology for the Democrats like--from the Democrats, like Joe Biden, who rode the anti-busing issue--the anti-forced--so-called forced busing issue all the way to Congress? Where's the apology for putting Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court as a replacement for Thurgood Marshall? This is another form of racial pandering. Where's the apology from Bill Clinton for his Sister Souljah remarks? If you're going to have apologies, apologies all the way around. I see this as nothing more than window dressing, racial pandering, which is, I think, another form of racism.

GORDON: What of the idea, Jeff, that Democrats are making this far too easy for Republicans to apologize and, to some degree, put the glitter back on even the possibility of changing party?

Mr. CARR: Yeah, I think the Democrats do make it easy. And I think both political parties in the United States on some levels take advantage of African-Americans. Bush got this first time around about 9 percent of the African-American vote. I think in the last election he got about 11 percent. A small jump, but a gain nonetheless.

There's also this use of the term--now you'll hear this probably a lot--it was in Mehlman's speech--but the `party of Lincoln,' which is a psychological reference to the freedom of the slaves. All of this is manipulation on both sides and many of our artists today in hip-hop claim that they're pimps and our leaders are on the other end. We sh--we have to be the pimp if we're going to play this political game, not the ones who end up on our backs with our resources going to somebody else. And I think...

GORDON: George...

Mr. CARR: ...we have to look at both parties in that way.

GORDON: ...you and I have traveled together quite a bit throughout the country and often during political campaigns. When you hear this, the `party of Lincoln,' when you hear Democrats on the other hand talking about how `we're there for you,' particularly with social programs and the like, this kind of, quote, "pandering," seems to have gone on again for years and years with no new message from either side.

Mr. CURRY: Well, I agree somewhat, but I will disagree with an earlier comment about how you characterize the NAACP. I don't think they're irrelevant or they're hostile. First of all, Reagan had spoken--I was there when Reagan spoke there. Bush spoke there before. They got a polite reception. If you--whether you agree or not, if you dis--if there's a legitimate organization that represents the masses of black people, you should go there. But you can't just dismiss them by going to an expo. That's a major insult.

And so--but to your question, though. Yeah, I mean, this--what could be a wonderful opportunity for the Republican Party, I mean, because people are disgusted with the Democratic Party. They don't really stand for--you don't know what they stand for these days. But you don't do it by not having a change in your policy. You don't do it by being hostile to civil rights. You don't do it by being opposed to affirmative action. It's the record there and the rhetoric won't get it. Sure, the Republican Party is nothing like it was when it was the party of Lincoln and nor is the Democratic Party.

GORDON: All right. Let's move on to another headline. This talking about a forced detainee--being forced, I should say--a detainee being forced to wear women's underwear on his head, confronted with snarling military dogs attached by a leash and chain. This is not Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but this Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. This comes from a newly released military investigation that shows that these tactics were employed there months before by military police before we heard about the Abu Ghraib situation. And these techniques were, according to this, approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. So this being said, clearly we're starting to see a pattern here, Jeff, and we're starting to see the tentacles touching Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Many people now concerned with this and other situations, i.e. the war in Iraq most specifically, and starting to call--the whispers are becoming shouts for this man's resignation.

Mr. CARR: Yes. I think you mentioned that--you really hit the nail on the head when you used the word `pattern.' Because as the US goes, so does the rest of the world. In terms of modern, so-called warfare and its kind of spotty rules, we're seeing that Guantanamo Bay is fast becoming the standard bearer and the pace setter, if you will, for wanton human rights abuse under the flag of interrogation.

Now I'm going to be honest, gentlemen. In the world of interrogation, there aren't many niceties. I think back to when I got booted from high school for a senior prank, and even in the principal's office, I promise you, they worked me over so hard, I thought they were going to pull out the wet towel and the phone book next. So I can't even imagine what it's like for prisoners in Cuba.

However, the US should either be frank and say, `Hey, we get you over here, give your heart to God, we're going to feast on the rest,' or they should practice what they preach. The cycle of denial here is clear. There are two things the old folks say are particularly appropriate. One, where there's smoke, there's fire. And two, you can't do wrong for long. So sending the Tiger teams as trainers in 2003 that the FBI, who actually made 26 allegations--these are the FBI who are doing this investigation--made saying that the Tiger teams that were sent over to Iraq were authorized. And this is not the first time Donald Rumsfeld's involvement in the issues of national defense and security has been called into question.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, could we perhaps say that this is coming out of the Neanderthal age for many people who are now hearing about this? One has to believe, as Jeff intimated, that this kind of thing, quite frankly, despite what you hear about the Geneva Convention rules and--that you need to be nice and humane to prisoners--does it often happen?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, one doesn't have to believe that at all. I believe that in context, you had what they called a 20th hijacker. And I would have--be--much more have concerned--had you taken the 20th so-called alleged 20th hijacker from the September 11th, 2001, to a country where they really practice torture. That's torture. ...(Unintelligible) here that the military probers did not use the word `torture' in describing the kind of, what I call cultural abuses towards this person who was detained. The military probers characterized the tactics as aggressive and creative. They did not characterize them as illegal.

So if you're going to have a, quote, unquote, "pattern," you also have to connect the dots. You have to say that the practices that have been ongoing in these prisons or detention centers have been illegal, have been torture and they have been authorized. And if they've been authorized, if you have a public official authorizing illegal practices, illegal torture, then the call is for resignation. And there's only two ways of removing a public official, or three ways of removing a public official: hounding him out of office and getting his resignation, which Secretary Rumsfeld has indicated he's not going to do; getting the president to fire him, which the president has indicated he will not do because he has confidence in Donald Rumsfeld; and the third is impeachment and removal from office by the Congress, and the Congress has indicated they're not ha--they're--too many wimps. There is no illegality here and they're not going to do it. So Rumsfeld stays in office.

GORDON: George?

Mr. CURRY: You still have the military investigating itself, and that's like asking Frank James to investigate Jesse James. You know, you know what you're going to get in terms of an outcome.

I think it's a serious allegation when you say that people are threatening--and this is one of the things it did document--threatening to kill a detainee's family, shackle him to the floor in an awkward position and using duct tape to put over his mouth and then using the sexual--they call it gender coercion, knowing that it's going to go against a person's religious beliefs and standing. And so I think these are serious charges, and I'm not surprised that they'd be characterized in a rather soft way.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I agree with George there. I will say that the notion of the military investigating the military is something that I disagree with, too. You need an independent prosecutor to look at the real facts.

GORDON: All right, gentleman, let's turn our attention now to an issue that many people have perhaps overlooked by virtue of the stereotypical nature of what this country thinks of as teachers, and that, of course, is the idea of having a female in the classroom, particularly in the early stages of education. According to the National Education Association, and that's the country's largest teachers union, only 21 percent of the teachers in the United States--the public school system now we're talking--are men. And in earlier grades, as I noted with the stereotypical thought of teacher, the gender ratio is even greater; it's about 9 percent of all elementary school teachers are men. Jeff, many people see this as problematic by virtue of needing the image of a man, particularly when you think about African-American young people in this country.

Mr. CARR: Yeah, it's definitely problematic. I remember--and I think maybe if we reach deep inside, all of us can remember the first male teacher we had, and particularly the first male black teacher we had. And I can remember the great teachers, but I particularly remember seventh grade because that was the first time, at 12 years old, that I actually had a black male teacher. It was a kind of negative experience because the kids really used to talk about the guy. They felt that he was a little bit effeminate. That goes into the psychology of the notion of teaching, and one of the problems that we're having getting men into teaching these days, according to what the NEA says and other people say. But I can't stress how important it is for kids of all races to have more males, particularly black males, involved in their early matriculation. And I say `early' because sometimes by the time we get in high school--by then, they're ceremoniously black males in the classroom to walk through six periods before they can do their real job which, in many cases, is coaching one of the athletic teams.

Now as you said, according to the NEA, there's 21 percent of men that are out there teaching, and I shutter to think the small number of black men that might be out there. And with the reasons being given being low salaries, the perception that teaching isn't masculine and the public fears that they might actually be in a position to physically harm the kids, you know, let's just be frank. The role models that you have usually happen at an early age, and many of our kids are getting their role models from sports figures, and I definitely think we have got come up with some kind of program...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. CARR: ...that can get more men in the classroom, and that will, in turn, replicate more men in the next generation in the teaching field.

GORDON: Michael.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I think there's a danger of stereotype here, and not only the stereotype of black males being effeminate who teach, or black students who le--who love learning to be effeminate. These stereotypes must be attacked, and particularly at the teaching level and the teaching profession.

Yes, there's a shortage. There's a shortage of males in the classroom, but there's also a shortage of teachers. And I think you need to have more teachers and qualified--people qualified to teach and to reach children.

My response to Jeff's comment about the black male role model is: Come on, please. What we need is effective teachers. We need people who are women, who are men, who are of all colors who can reach and teach our children. And I don't really care about the skin color of the teacher in the classroom as long as that teacher is motivating and educating and teaching. And the role model is itself the fact that the person is reaching the child. That's the role model, not their skin color and not their gender. So we have to be careful not to stereotype and be careful not to discriminate against female teachers in the classroom, because once you have stereotypes for men, I predict that you will have--they will get plum assignments, they will get certain assignments, you'll want to have the--match the black male to the black male classroom. This is all racial nonsense.

GORDON: George.

Mr. CURRY: When I was growing up, I never had any male teacher that we would even consider effeminate. That was never an issue. And I think the problem is, though, that we just don't pay teachers enough and we, in the past--would go into teaching, but now we have so many other options. That's part of the problem, and the problem is particularly acute at the elementary school level. Yeah, they say that--reports say 21 percent of men in total, but there was like 9 percent in the elementary school. And I think that's crucial, and I think it is important that you have people who look like their students, that it is important that they also be people of color and representative, as well. That is an important signal. They need to see them in those kind of positions.

Mr. MEYERS: But not matched. Inclusi--included, but not matched.

Mr. CURRY: No, I agree with that. Oh, I agree with you on that, Mike.

Mr. MEYERS; OK.

GORDON: Well, Jeff...

Mr. CARR: Yes, I agree that the models that they don't really have to--color does not really matter on some levels. But it's kind of like the debate that people have religiously over Christ. They said, `Well, if the color of Christ doesn't matter, why is he always painted white?' I mean, it's interesting when we never...

Mr. MEYERS: In your church, too?

Mr. CARR: ...we look at these things--hello?

Mr. MEYERS: In your church, too?

Mr. CARR: Oh, say it again. I didn't hear you.

GORDON: No. You know what?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I'm just...

GORDON: We're out of time and that was the Michael Meyers quip for the day. He said, `In your church, too?'

Mr. CARR: Oh, yeah. Well, you see...

GORDON: All right. Listen...

Mr. CARR: ...with, Mike. What I was saying is...

GORDON: ...not to let you down, Jeff...

Mr. CARR: ...I agree with you. But I think proactively...

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CARR: ...from the black perspective, we can't deny that we're models. There are people who are listening, kids who are listening to the radio who are saying now, `My gosh, there are three intelligent African-American men,' and they may never have heard that before.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CARR: And they will say, `Wow, I can do that, too.'

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CARR: And I think that's the power of having one in the classroom.

GORDON: Jeff, George and Michael, thank you very much. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. MEYERS: There were four.

GORDON: Coming up, a look at...

Mr. CARR: Four. Oh, yeah...

GORDON: ...Botswana through the eyes of its former president. And jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard finds inspiration in the next generation.

(Soundbite of music)

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

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