Roundtable: Blacks in Mexico, 'Burn, Baby, Burn'

Tuesdays topics: Blacks in Mexico fight for recognition; a Republican senator with anti-gay beliefs has on staff a homosexual staff member; and the Black Panthers foundation is now marketing hot sauce. Joining the discussion: Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post; Rochelle Riley, a columnist with The Detroit Free Press; and actor and syndicated columnist Joseph C. Phillips.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's roundtable, blacks in Mexico speak up for recognition and a hot sauce called Burn Baby Burn. From our headquarters in Washington, DC, Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post. Joining us from the radio--no, I'm sorry. We have a replacement. That's George Curry. George Curry's joined us at the last minute and saved us. He joins us from Maryland. And finally actor and syndicated columnist Joseph C. Phillips joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. And those of you who listen to this program regularly know that George is the man at the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.

All right. Let's get into a conversation that we had just moments ago and that is the question of the labor woes that we see coming out of the convention, the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, but one of the peripheral worries comes from the Democratic Party. George Curry, for years, labor has been a great friend to Democrats. What does this mean to the future, if anything, for Democrats and this clout?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor in Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Labor is as about as reliable--not quite, but almost as reliable as far as African-American votes for the Democratic Party. So it's one of its main core constituents. I think that this has implications because part of the problem was the dispute among the different groups and different labor unions was that either they're putting too much or not enough money into electoral politics and that basically they had been backing losers, which is beyond labor's problem. It's the Democratic Party's problem. And so you'll see, I think, some of these unions go in a different direction. There have been some of them who already want to make more overtures to the Republican Party, and basically the Democratic Party basically said, `You know, we've got to go with people who support us,' and they have in the past not considered Republicans as doing that.

GORDON: Joseph C. Phillips, some are suggesting that this is an opening, if you will, for Republicans to make overtures to Democrats, where before--or I'm sorry, to labor unions, where before they had really written that off as a foregone conclusion that these unions and their workers would vote Democratic.

Mr. JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS (Actor/Syndicated Columnist): Yeah. My understanding is that Republicans, even during all of this commotion at the convention, have kind of been standing on the sidelines. And I think the reason ultimately is that, you know, workers are going to follow their best interests and their priorities, and that's what organized labor has been doing, I think, since its inception. Workers now, you know, are concerned with health care, concerned with job security, retirement, these kinds of issues, and to the extent that the Republican Party can address these issues, they'll get labor's support.

Mr. CURRY: Except--well, there's a problem with that, Joe. The problem is that the Republican Party is very much, very much pro-business, and that's the opposite of labor, and that's why I don't think they'll be able to do it.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, I don't agree with you that being pro-business is...

Mr. CURRY: You don't agree that Republicans are pro-labor?

Mr. PHILLIPS: No. I said I don't agree with you that being pro-labor is--I'm sorry, being pro-business is anti-labor. Business...

Mr. CURRY: You can't be both.

Mr. PHILLIPS: ...hires labor. Where are you going to get workers if you don't encourage people to be entrepreneurs and if you don't support business?

Mr. CURRY: You can't be pro-business. Let me give you an example.

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, The Washington Post): Let me jump in here. I think that...

Mr. CURRY: Wal-Mart is a perfect example.

GORDON: This brings up an interesting point, Joe Davidson.

Mr. CURRY: Either you're on the side of Wal-Mart and saying, `Look, I can limit whatever employers I want,' or you're on the part of labor saying, `We've got to unionize and pay these workers more money.' You can't serve both of them.

GORDON: All right. Hang on, guys. Joe Davidson, this brings up an interesting point and that's the catch-22 that often you find yourself at this crossroads and that is whether or not you can be, in the case of what Joseph Phillips is suggesting, pro-corporate America, pro-business and pro-labor. Do you see that as a possibility?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think there are probably some overlapping points of agreement, but clearly there are also wide gulfs between the two. I do agree with Joseph Phillips when he said that to the extent that the Republican Party can speak to the issues of the working man and woman on issues such as retirement and health security and the other issues, that they will draw labor's support. I think that the problem is, though, is that the Republican Party has not spoken to those issues to the extent that they can draw a large number of the labor vote, and that's why the labor vote goes to the Democratic Party by a margin of 3-to-2 in the last presidential election. So it's kind of a theoretical thing. If the Republican Party chooses to have programs that will pull the labor vote, then yes, they will get the labor vote, but if they don't have those programs, as apparently they have not to date, at least to a significant degree, then they won't get that vote. So I think it's the difference between the theoretical and the reality, and the reality is is that the labor, be it in a unified AFL-CIO or a split AFL-CIO, will continue to go to the Democratic candidates by and large.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well...

GORDON: George Curry, does it matter at all if the AFL-CIO splinters, if you will, and we don't see this large national umbrella union federation?

Mr. CURRY: To the extent that it will not speak with one voice and, therefore, will not have the same clout, so I think that's one of the problems. But as I said earlier--I believe it was Monday--that basically what we see is a shrinking number of workers who have been represented by unions, and that's their larger problem.

GORDON: All right. Let's turn our attention to something that happened over the course of the last couple of days, and that is President Bush is suggesting that he's going to continue to seek more funding from faith-based charities. The interesting point here is he made this pledge to a group of 17 black ministers and civic leaders who visited the White House, this being a second meeting of such since January, which is unique in and of itself. Some people are leery a bit, Joe Davidson, of this, suggesting that this group of ministers and civic leaders that the president has embraced and others as this circle grows are being--Forgive the analogy here--but pimped by promised money in return for backing his policies.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think it makes total sense for the president to reach out to whatever number or whatever group of black people he can find who are supportive of his policies. He wants to promote that image. I think it makes perfect sense from his point of view and the Republican Party's point of view. But again, it's something similar to the discussion we had about labor. The fact of the matter is that even with an increase in support in the last presidential election, he still only got around 11 percent of the black vote. So you still have a situation where about 90 percent of the black voters do not support his policies. I think that if he, by reaching out to this group of black ministers, if he thinks he can increase his support, well, more power to him, but the fact of the matter is, it's really going to come down to how his programs are viewed by the masses of black voters. And, of course, he doesn't have to run again--cannot run again, but I don't think that to reach out to these 17 black ministers would substantially increase his percentage of the black vote if the election were held tomorrow.

GORDON: So, Joseph Phillips, take the other side of that coin that will suggest that if, in fact, these 17 ministers are strategic enough not to give him clearly an overwhelming number of black supporters but enough to shore up what Republicans may see as a close vote, can this be looked at with a jaundiced eye with the idea that promised money going to initiative-based charities and programs that will help these churches is perhaps wrong?

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, Ed, I'm sorry. I just--I think that that's kind of a really negative view of all of this. Look, the Republican Party, President Bush in particular, is reaching out to the black community. You walk through the community and people have said for years and years, `They don't come talk to us, they don't address issues that are important to us.' So now here you have a president who's saying--and a chairman of a party that's saying, `We are going to come. We are going to talk. We are going to begin addressing issues of importance to your community,' and then the response is, `Well, you're just pimping us.' And I think that that's unfair.

More specifically, when you talk about trying to increase money for faith-based programs, to me this is not about reaching out and trying to promise some money to a few ministers. What it's doing is it's saying, `Look, in a lot of these communities, the programs that are working, the programs that are impacting people's lives are run through these institutions, and if we'--see, this is ultimately the point: Are we going to impact people's lives, or are we going to play political games? And I think that Bush is saying, `I would rather impact people's lives. I'd rather help people on drugs. I'd rather help people in poverty. I'd rather help, and this is a way of helping.'

GORDON: All right. George Curry, pick up on that point.

Mr. PHILLIPS: And encouraging corporate dollars to come to programs that work I think is a good thing.

GORDON: George Curry, pick up on that point, that here is possibly a man who is now, as Joseph C. Phillips suggested, rather than giving rhetoric walking the walk and perhaps black America, those that are critical of this, just aren't used to this coming from Republicans, perhaps even Democrats, and are just surprised by it.

Mr. CURRY: That's a smoke screen. Look, this question is not whether you address the issues of importance to African-Americans. The question is how you address them. You don't go and oppose affirmative action in the Supreme Court, the University of Michigan case. You don't oppose--you don't nominate Judge Roberts and then say, `Oh, I'm now addressing your issues.' You're not addressing their issues when you're doing things that are hostile and antithetical to the black community. In this case...

Mr. PHILLIPS: Oh, come on.

Mr. CURRY: Hold on, Joe.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Appointing Judge Roberts is hostile to the black community?

Mr. CURRY: In this case...

GORDON: Hang on, Joe. Hang on, Joe. Let him finish.

Mr. CURRY: I didn't interrupt you. I want to finish my point. In this case, you're politicizing this whole process. Catholic Charities and a lot of these groups have been doing tremendous work. They don't need the federal government to come in and tell them how to do things or need the involvement. This has been a politicized issue, and Bush is not really reaching out to these black ministers. He's reaching out more so to his right-wing evangelical base, and nobody should be confused about that.

GORDON: Joe, you wanted to say?

Mr. PHILLIPS: No, well, I clearly disagree.

Mr. CURRY: Well, of course, you would. You can't ...(unintelligible)

GORDON: Hang on, George. Let him finish. Go ahead, Joe.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I lost my train of thought.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I just clearly disagree, and I think that George is spouting a lot of Democratic talking points. Judge Roberts is hostile to the black community? I'd like to see some proof of that. Encouraging groups that are actually doing work in the community is hostile to the black community?

GORDON: All right. Let me see if I can keep this on point.

Mr. PHILLIPS: That doesn't make any sense.

GORDON: Joe Davidson, let me ask you this. As relates to the argument here, can you have, as we debated just a moment ago, a way to be pro-business and pro-labor? In this instance, can you have one political view, as George Curry is suggesting, yet have a different social agenda and make the two--or meld the two, if you will?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think that there are significant gaps between, like, the business and labor side of the political spectrum. I mean, we can talk about trying to seek agreement on broad issues of health care, for example, but I think that with corporations cutting back on health-care plans for those who are employed and for retirees, then once you get below kind of the superficial level of, `Yes, we can agree that there needs to be a better health-care program in the United States,' it's like the saying `The devil's in the details,' but they're not really details. It's just kind of one step below some sort of thematic approach and a very general thematic approach at that. So I think there is a pretty significant gap between business and labor in many cases, and I think that's one of the things that is fueling the split that we talked about earlier, the frustration with many working people with the decline in benefits and a decline in union membership which also, obviously in many cases, is fueled by business tactics. I mean, look at Wal-Mart, for example. And so I think that that gap is significant and it can be hard to be papered over.

GORDON: All right. Let me turn our attention to something with just a few more minutes to go, but we've been promising this story, and often it gets bumped by virtue of interesting conversation like we're having right now, but I want to make sure we get to it. And it kind of speaks to the changing of the times and certainly the graying of the baby boom generation. Former Black Panthers are now hoping that the phrase, `Burn, baby, burn,' will help their non-profit organization. They're using it as a marketing tool. They're marketing hot sauce. The money would go to the Huey P. Newton Foundation; Mr. Newton, of course, co-founder of the '60s group that became famous throughout the world. And, of course, the `Burn, baby, burn' slogan was touted during that time in terms of fighting against the establishment. Now we see, in fact, this group being part of the establishment, but, George Curry, those of us that know the history of the Black Panther Party know that they were always economically savvy. Is this a surprise at all?

Mr. CURRY: Not really a surprise, and I think people are probably reading too much into it because the slogan certainly was not associated with anything flavorful when you're talking about eating. You've been basically talking about urban rebellion. And, you know, you can take this stuff too seriously or you can say, `Well, they shouldn't be doing it.' My question is, I don't think they'll be able to have the legal rights to just use that title themselves. I mean, I think they have a long way to go on trying to obtain that.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, it's interesting that the Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized on this last Friday, and they said that there might be other slogans that come into use, such as `crazy love' could be used to market one of those prescription drugs for sexual dysfunction. `Hell no, we won't go' might work to promote a new children's potty chair. And `Let it all hang out' is the ideal catchphrase for clothespins.

GORDON: But does this speak to just the idea that no matter who you are, no matter what you do when you're young, you become your parents ultimately, Joseph C. Phillips?

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, that was exactly what I was thinking. Some years ago, I think it was--I couldn't remember. It was Eldridge Cleaver was selling...

Mr. DAVIDSON: Oh, the pants or something.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah.

Mr. PHILLIPS: ...the pants with no pockets and then another former Panther was selling barbecue sauce.

Mr. DAVIDSON: No pockets was the significant feature of those pants.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yes, showing it all. And then there was some barbecue sauce being sold by someone else, and they had become a stockbroker. And I can't remember the names, but that was exactly--they had suddenly found themselves becoming part of the establishment instead of being anti-establishment.

I read this article last week I think it was, and I just burst out laughing. I thought it was incredibly funny. I couldn't really decide how I felt about it. Part of me--I thought of The Beatles songs, the "Revolution" and all of that, being used to sell jeans, and there was kind of a lot of grumbling about that because it was so anti what the music was about during that time, and that was--a part of me felt the same way about this hot sauce and `Burn, baby, burn,' and now we're going to make money, even though it's for a good cause. But...

GORDON: And, George...

Mr. DAVIDSON: Here's one more slogan that I have to credit the Inquirer for. It's `black power' could serve as a promotion for minority-owned utility companies. So that could unite, you know, the Republicans who want to emphasize business along with those on the left who want to exercise black power. So maybe there's something here.

GORDON: But, George, the one thing that we...

Mr. CURRY: The question is dealing with trademarks.

GORDON: ...might want to look at as relates to this is that is this could be the impetus for young people finding out more about the Panther Party beyond the violent aspect of it that is often brought up. They, for instance, had breakfast programs and were the forerunners to a lot of community programs that helped African-Americans at the time.

Mr. CURRY: But if we've got to wait to get a barbecue sauce to learn about the Panthers, we're in bad shape, Ed. But also my concern is, though, whether they can trademark this phrase. I mean, even talking what Joe was talking about a while ago--Joe Davidson--you know, is still a problem with--these are popular phrases that have been used by the public. Can one group get a trademark on it and be restrictive? And I have questions about that.

GORDON: All right. Joe Davidson and Joseph C. Phillips and George Curry, thank you, gentlemen. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

Mr. PHILLIPS: All right.

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

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