Roundtable: When Minorities Become Majorities

Monday's topic: a shelter for undocumented day laborers and "minorities" who are now becoming the majority of the population. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington; and Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, can Ohio's governor weather a political and legal storm and the misnomer of minorities? Joining us from Chicago in our Chicago bureau is Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist. Joining us from Washington, DC, at NPR headquarters, Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post. And finally with us, George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. He joins us today from Maryland.

First, we want to get into something that we've been talking about over the course of the last couple of weeks, and that is Cindy Sheehan, the 24-year-old--or the mother of a 24-year-old son who died in Iraq. We should note that she has taken leave of absence from her post in Crawford, Texas, to tend to her ailing 74-year-old mother. But of course, as we know, over the course of the last couple of weeks, this has grown tremendously. George Curry, let me ask you, first and foremost, what, if anything, has this woman done to bring new attention to the war and the war effort?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor In Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): I think what she's done is humanized it. And just as every time you see a family mourn the loss of a son or a daughter, it brings it home. And it's one thing if you talk about in abstracts, but it's another thing when you humanize these people and say, `This is what we're losing among our young people,' and at the other end, the Reservists and National Guard at the other end. And I think that what she's done, she's personalized it.

GORDON: Joe Davidson, those who are against the war ofttimes look for this. And if we look back historically, we can sometimes see it, this spark, this galvanizing thing, if you will, to bring people together and to finally say, `Enough is enough.' Do you believe this to be the case?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (The Washington Post): Well, I think that if anything in recent days or months is to be that case, that this is it, although I think the jury is definitely still out. I think the jury is still out on that point largely because the Democratic Party still has not decided where it wants to be on this issue. Many Democrats and even, I think, an increasing number of Republicans, certainly have big, big problems with the war, but on the Democratic side, they have not seemed to coalesce around a particular message. The headline in today's Washington Post reads `Democrats split over position on Iraq War; activists more vocal as leaders decline to challenge Bush.' So I think that the Cindy Sheehan--I don't want to call it episode; movement it's really becoming--has the potential to galvanize that kind of opposition. But I do think in order to take it to the next level, the higher political level, that the Democrats will have to decide just what they want to do.

GORDON: Laura Washington, the one thing that I think most can agree on is that this movement, as Joe calls it, certainly has made the president take notice, and we are seeing, by virtue of his calendar, him going out now and speaking to more groups to try to shore up support for this war.

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Chicago Sun-Times): Well, as George pointed out earlier, this issue, the Sheehan moment, has humanized this issue. Bush has been running away from the human aspect of this issue. I think there's been a lot of frustration from military families about his and the administration's reluctance to acknowledge the sacrifice, the reluctance to do any public display of--in terms of tribute to the soldiers; there's been a lot of private things. So I think that this is a reaction to this, and I think that that is why there's such a powerful movement.

And Joe's right. You know, the folks in Washington are a little bit behind on this issue, but I think often with these kinds of movements, as we saw in Vietnam, as we've seen with any other movements, it's often the activists who lead. And when you've got these very visible, visceral demonstrations like you have in Texas, like you have--there's been more than 1,500 vigils around the country of folks participating in support of Sheehan's cause, I think that that's the beginning of a movement.

GORDON: It seems to me, George Curry, that one of the things politically--and we hit on it just momentarily--is that this is such a quagmire politically, particularly as we move into an election year. For both sides, quite frankly, you are really at a crossroads as to whether or not you are going to hunker down for the long term and support this war come hell or high water, or whether or not you risk the idea of people seeing you as, quote, "unpatriotic," by saying `Enough is enough. We've made some mistakes here. We need to look at, if not an exit strategy'--as some people were saying on the Sunday talk shows--`a better effort in explaining what we're doing.'

Mr. CURRY: I think people understand what we're doing. That's not the problem; the numbers are going down. I think what the problem is certainly that you have--you see it increasingly in the Republican ranks, that people are saying, `Look now, Bush, you got your two terms. I got to run for re-election, and I can't keep going back to my constituents and getting them to support this.' And that's where it becomes more of a problem, and I think the pressure will not be so much on Democrats as much on Republicans who have to face re-election, and I think that's the real problem.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think--yeah, I think that Republicans definitely are under pressure. And, in fact, Chuck Hagel, Republican US senator--he said, quote, "The White House is completely disconnected from reality, and," quote, "the reality is that we're losing in Iraq."

I think, though, that the problem is, even for those who are very much against this war, and who have been against it from the very beginning, they also--many of them at least don't see pulling out now or anytime soon as the solution, because what would that--in what state would that leave Iraq? And so not only is it a political issue within the United States, but I think many people are now concerned that once the United States did go in, did invade, did occupy, to withdraw at this point would leave the Iraqi people somewhat up a creek. And I think that's a view shared by folks who basically support the war and some who don't support the war.

GORDON: How much of it...

Mr. CURRY: I agree with you on that, Joe. I agree with you. But there's still--but I think there's increasing pressure at home from people saying, `Look, I'm not as much concerned about Iraq as I am at home,' and you always have that friction.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Right.

GORDON: Laura, how much of it is a continuing growing concern for America in terms of the face of the political muscle we have wielded for years? If you look over the course of the last 30 years or so, we haven't always fared as well as we would want to believe in entering into military combat.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, we've lost our credibility on this one, you're right. We have always been the leader. We've had the standing to be able to go into wars and bring our allies behind us hell or high water. Because of the way this war was started, because of all the doubts from the very beginning, we haven't had that kind of credibility and standing, and I think that erodes our credibility now.

I think this whole issue of withdrawal would--I think Bush could solve the problem about withdrawal if he came forward and said, `Look, we may be there another five or 10 years, but I'm talking and I'm looking and I'm thinking about a credible long-range plan to get us out,' and--excuse me--and he's not willing to do that, which, again, continues to erode our standing in the world.

GORDON: All right. Well, we'll continue, as the world does, to watch this situation.

I want to turn our attention now to the state of Ohio, where the governor there, Bob Taft, is under a bit of a cloud himself. He's been convicted of state ethics violations for failing to report 52 gifts worth $5,800, including 47 golf outings. Now some will suggest that this is one of those things that we don't like to admit that politicians, quote, "do all the time," and `What's wrong with taking, you know, a golf trip here or there?' Other will say, obviously, it's buying influence. Joe Davidson, isn't this the tried-and-true method of politics in this country?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, unfortunately, there are many, many cases of politicians doing things they're not supposed to, getting caught and then either getting indicted or convicted. And what's unusual in this case, though, is that the governor has chosen to stay in office. In many cases, people resign just under heavy accusation or certainly by the time they are indicted. And if not then, almost without fail when they're convicted. In many cases, they are required to resign. But he has chosen to stay in office, and there are many Republicans in the state of Ohio, and probably around the country, who fear that this will give ammunition to the Democrats, because he cannot run again and that this might hurt the Republican chances in Ohio, which, of course, was narrowly won by President Bush last time. And this could make it even more difficult for the Republicans to take the state in the future.

GORDON: Laura Washington, he says that, you know, `Don't change at the end of the stream now. I need to continue the work that I've been doing. And all be them serious, the mistakes I made were unintentional.' Should not the people of Ohio listen to that?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, you know, this strains anyone's--any reasonable person's credi--credulity to believe that--these were 47 golf outings that he did not report on his ethics form. It just strains credibility to believe that he didn't understand that that was an important thing to do. And, yes, golf items may be small things, but if you look in the dictionary for golf outings, you should see synonyms like `influence,' `clout,' `access.' That's what these things are about in politics, so no one really believes that.

I think, though, that Joe makes a good point in that he may be a better weapon for the Democratic Party in office than out of office because, obviously, he's a big target. There may be continuing investigations; more things may surface. I think the real question is: Will the voters tolerate it? I'm sure there's an opportunity for recall. There's an opportunity for future criticism. And he has admitted to breaking the law, so I think the voters have a lot to say about this.

GORDON: George Curry, call me cynical if you will, but Connecticut governor--or former governor now, John Rowland, had to do the same thing in terms of resigning after accepting tens of thousands of dollars of gifts and etc. on his watch. But again, George, I go back to perhaps we're a community, a society, that scrutinizes more, but as long as and as far back as I can remember, and even reading in the history books, this has been going on a long, long time; not justifying, just suggesting.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah. Well, I will call you cynical. So you feel better now, Ed?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURRY: No. Yeah, it does go back, but that's why we had campaign reform laws supposedly and these different movements to try to create some distance between the people who are lobbying government and the people elected. And you're right, it has gone on. I mean, the case you talk about in Connecticut, that was last year, and when they were going about to impeach him, when the governor stepped down there. Then you had the governor in New Jersey quit because of his sexual orientation. I mean, is anybody going to be left after a while? Certainly the problem remains, and despite the laws we've passed supposedly to reform campaigns and to put some distance there, it is still this influence peddling that exists at the state, local and national level.

GORDON: Joe...

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know...

GORDON: ...it just seems to me that the people that I talk to in the barbershop and as we go about our day and talk politics is they kind of have that same cynical feeling of, `Yeah? You know what? That's what these guys do.'

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I guess that is what some of these guys do, but the point is that an active citizenry is not supposed to stand for it.

Mr. CURRY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, as George pointed out, there have been various campaign finance reform laws and other things such as that to kind of stop this kind of thing.

And let me add just one interesting note, and that is that this scandal involving Taft could also have an impact on Ken Blackwell, who is the black secretary of State in Ohio and who was really criticized for the way he handled the voting procedures in Ohio's presidential race last year. Well, he wants to be the next Republican governor of Ohio, so if this situation with Taft hurts the Republicans generally beyond Taft, that is to say, then someone like Ken Blackwell might feel the brunt of that.

Mr. CURRY: But you also got the Columbus mayor, Michael Coleman, also running on the Democratic side. So that's going to be interesting all around.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's right.

GORDON: All right. Let's turn our attention now to something that we've been looking at, quite frankly, over the course of the last few years, and that is the term `minority' and how it's used in this country. We have, for a decade or so now, been hearing in the media the reference to the browning of America, and that is the idea as, quote, "minorities" grow--Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, that population--in a true sense combined, we are no longer the minority. Laura Washington, is there a need to reconfigure the idea of what the minority is in this country?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Absolutely. Minority comes out of--in the distant past, minority was connected to the definition of a status as a minor before the eyes of the law, which basically categorized people of color, so-called minority groups, in the light of having less-than-equal status. More recently, it's been perceived as a term that means less than. There are a lot of terms like this out there. You know, there's terms like, you know, `non-white,' `underprivileged,' `disadvantaged.' These terms are all very negative, and they basically, I think, reinforce, in our minds and in society, the status of less than, the status of less than equal.

So then, you know, I don't know what the answer is. Language is a very funny thing, but it's also a very powerful thing. Many people like the term `people of color.' I like it because it basically reminds us that many people have less-than-equal status because of their race, because of their ethnicity, because of their appearance. But we're a jargon-laden society, and a lot of this is determined by what's the easiest thing to say.

Mr. CURRY: Well, we've gone through so many name changes, though. We've gone from being colored people to people of color, Laura. I don't know what we'll be next.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CURRY: But the main thing here is that even now people don't want to get rid of the term. They say, `Well, let's call them majority-minority,' which is even more confusing. If you're the majority, you're majority; in the minority, you're minority. And I haven't used this language in more than a decade. I always say people of color because I never liked it. I never liked it, and particularly never liked the term `non-whites.' It's almost like you're non-existent.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And also, we have--you know, as journalists, we also have a duty to be accurate. Now I edit a publication that circulates within the boundaries of Washington, DC. If I were to call black people `minority' or edit stories in which that term was used to refer to black people who are 60 percent of the population in Washington, DC, then it wouldn't be accurate. So we definitely have a responsibility to accurately reflect what the demographic change is in our society.

GORDON: How do you go about erasing...

Mr. CURRY: You know, we already have four states already...

GORDON: How do you go about erasing the stigma, though, of what is attached to that, too? Because to a great degree, with a wink and a nod, you can utilize it as a slight, obviously, as Laura suggested.

Mr. CURRY: Well, I mean, you know, I don't think we have to be as concerned about using it because it's not what you are increasingly as a group, if you're looking at African-Americans and certainly Latinos combined. If you're talking about in the next 50 years, whites will be a minority in this country. They're already a minority in Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii, the district, and in five other states by 2010. So you got, you know, increasingly, you know, cities--in a lot of our major cities we see it already. So it's just an obsolete term and we'll just have to come up with something else.

Ms. WASHINGTON: I think it's really important to educate ourselves about different groups. I think one reason why we're evolving away--or some people are arguing that we should evolve away from this term, is because this country is so much more diverse and has been much more diverse than people have acknowledged for a long time. And I think that if you look at any racial and ethnic group, if you look at Latinos--and in some parts of the country, we call them Hispanic, and in some parts of the country, we call them Chicanos--that's a very large, diverse group of people. But the average person who doesn't watch this closely, people who are not like us, who don't pay close attention to these differences, don't know the difference between a Mexican-American or a Puerto Rican or a Cuban-American. And I think it's important to be as specific as possible, because that's an educational tool.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And also, when you look at it...

GORDON: Joe, final word.

Mr. DAVIDSON: When you look at it like in a microview, as I just did, just looking at the city limits of Washington, DC, that's one issue. But you can take a global view and it turns out it's the same issue, because white people are not the majority in the world's population.

GORDON: All right. Laura Washington of the Chicago Sun-Times, Joe Davidson of The Washington Post and George Curry of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, I thank you all for joining us today. Appreciate it.

Mr. CURRY: All right. Thank you, Ed.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

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