Roundtable: Park's Legacy, New Fed Chief

Tuesday's topics: Rosa Parks' legacy, retiring Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's successor, Homeland security funding and school admissions based on race. Guests: Eric Deggans, media critic for The St. Petersburg Times; Julianne Malveaux, economist and author; and Bob Meadows, writer for People magazine.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's roundtable, President Bush's choice for the new head of the Federal Reserve, and a Seattle school uses race as a factor for admissions. Joining us from our bureau in New York, Bob Meadows, a writer with People magazine, at NPR headquarters in Washington, DC, economist and author Julianne Malveaux, and Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, joins us from Florida at the Poynter Institute there.

Before we get into those other issues, we want to give our roundtable guests an opportunity to talk about the legacy and the woman we know as the mother of the civil rights movement and an iconic figure, Rosa Parks. But first, here's what former head of the SCLC, Joseph Lowery, had to say about it.

Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY (Former Head, SCLC): Rosa Parks decided on that day that she was not only physically tired, that she had been working and she wanted to rest and not get up, but she was also spiritually and emotionally tired of being relegated to the level of second-class citizen, so it was a moral and spiritual as well as a physical fatigue that she experienced, and all of them made themselves manifest in her refusal to move. And so her sitting down enabled a whole lot of folk to stand up. She is the queen mother of the movement.

GORDON: Julianne Malveaux, if ever there was a time for America to salute a true, authentic hero, this is one, is it not?

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (Economist): Absolutely. Rosa Parks galvanized the civil rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott and, Ed, one of the things that we should think about is the power of economic boycotts in bringing people to justice and accomplishing justice. But also, as Dr. Lowery said, there have been so many myths about Rosa Parks. She was just tired. She had been an activist and that was a galvanizing moment, and we have to pay tribute to her and to that moment and really ask ourselves what we're prepared to do to move the agenda.

GORDON: Bob Meadows, what is truly interesting about Rosa Parks is she is one of those figures in spite of it all, whether you be five or 105, you understood that there was something special about this woman when you were taught about Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, even in elementary school.

Mr. BOB MEADOWS (People Magazine): When I met her, Ed, back in 1996, it was down at a middle school in Charlotte, and what impressed me most was when she walked into the room, that entire auditorium rose as one and gave her a standing ovation, and when she was done speaking, she rushed the stage. She's the only person who I've ever met who I was so in awe of I couldn't even ask her questions when I was to go interview her, and when I would tell that story later on at other schools, every student was very interested in her more so than any other person I've ever met.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. Eric Deggans, one of the things that we heard from John Conyers is that he wants to make sure that the nation salutes this woman in an appropriate way, and ofttimes, particularly for African-Americans as we see George Lucas last week giving a million dollars in terms of trying to erect a fitting monument to Martin Luther King on the Mall in Washington, DC, we need to make sure that these iconic figures of black America are saluted appropriately in this country.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (St. Petersburg Times): Yeah, I don't--in Rosa Parks' case I don't think that's gonna be much of a problem. If you looked across the Internet this morning, newspapers across the country had front-page stories, and I think we're gonna be talking about this loss for a long time. Certainly throughout the week people are gonna be talking about their memories and sharing stories about her importance. One of the things I wanted to note, though, was, you know, at a time when even the runaway bride is running around trying to get a book deal and trying to get TV shows and all of this, this is a woman who was humble and down-to-Earth and took an important historic stand, and then tried to get back to her everyday life, making a difference where she could, you know, in her everyday life, and the lesson that she taught all of us was that we can all make a difference in our own everyday lives. We don't have to be a Martin Luther King to make a difference. We can take a simple stand in a bus seat and change the world.

GORDON: And we should note here, as we've been telling you, she moved to Detroit, my hometown, in 1957 and I have had the grand pleasure of knowing Rosa Parks for many, many years now, and I will say that as brave as she was during those times of the civil rights movement and certainly on that day, her bravery was surpassed greatly by her graciousness and class. She was a lovely, lovely woman and the world truly in a non-cliche way is far better for her.

So we will now turn our attention to certainly other issues in the news, and that is that President Bush named White House economic adviser Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board yesterday. He'll be replacing Alan Greenspan. And, Julianne Malveaux, this is your bailiwick, your backyard. Ofttimes we forget, we focus so much on Supreme Court and Circuit Court appointments, and while those are very important, here is a very, very, very important and key spot.

Ms. MALVEAUX: It absolutely is, and Bernanke was actually a classmate of mine at MIT, so it's interesting. Mr. Bush passed up the opportunity to appoint an African-American in Roger Ferguson, and that is also an interesting aspect of this, but Bernanke's a fairly safe pick. He could be called the John Roberts of the economics profession: extremely bright, brilliant really, distinguished academic career. Differences with Greenspan around this whole issue of sort of inflation targeting. That's gonna be a key difference and I expect that in his confirmation hearings they'll go into that. But there's no reason not to confirm him, and in the shortest run he's going to...

GORDON: And talk to laymen about inflation targeting, and that is the more aggressive move and stance to keep it down, eliminate, but play that out for us.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Basically what he would do is to say that the desirable rate of inflation would be about 2 percent, 1 to 2 percent--right now it's about 4 1/2 percent, primarily because of gas prices--and then would adjust the money supply to meet that. So inflation stability would be a greater priority than growth, and by and large the Fed has tended to place inflation stability over growth, but as you see Mr. Greenspan in the past three or four years has really managed by keeping interest rates low to deal with growth as opposed to inflation. Inflation targeting gives the Fed a lot less flexibility than they have now, so in other words we would have to artificially inflate or conflate the money supply based on those targets. And a lot of people think that's dangerous. I happen to think it's dangerous. I think that infl--I don't necessarily prioritize inflation over growth because as you know for our community, we gain more when there's growth, when there's robust growth.

GORDON: Eric Deggans, when you look at the missteps that this administration has had certainly over the last 30, 45 days in particular that have remained in the headlines, as Julianne Malveaux says, it seems--now here is a man with an impressive educational resume and certainly someone who is well-respected in his field, it seems as though this may give the White House a bit of relief, a chance to breathe.

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah, certainly. Whoever was out of the room when they picked Harriet Miers must have stepped back when they were talking about Ben Bernanke because he--this makes a lot of sense. He has tenure teaching at Princeton, which I think, you know, Eastern liberals will like. He's someone who hasn't expressed a lot of strong political views, as opposed to Alan Greenspan, which I think also Democrats will have a hard time sort of picking apart his political agenda. And he's a friend of Bush and he has impeccable credentials. While this question of inflation targeting may come up during his confirmation hearings, I have the sense that even the legislators who are gonna be questioning him aren't really gonna understand it, so I have a feeling...

Ms. MALVEAUX: You mean I didn't make it clear to you?

Mr. DEGGANS: No, you made it very clear, but I have a feeling they're not gonna do as good a job. But--so I have a feeling his confirmation is gonna go well, mostly because there's--it's hard to find anything to criticize this appointee on.

GORDON: Bob Meadows, we should say, though, like stepping in the ring after Muhammad Ali or following in Jordan's shoes, Alan Greenspan, though, leaves a large shadow, he casts a large shadow that will remain. So Mr. Bernanke will have to, in fact, live up to what people have become used to.

Mr. MEADOWS: Greenspan led us--or he was the chairman during a great period of financial, economic growth in the United States. He brought us through, of course, 1987's Black Tuesday and through September 11th, the aftermath of that, and right now as he leaves, the economy is relatively stable. I don't know how--I don't think it's exactly trickled down to everybody yet, but the economy is relatively stable, though we do have, of course, this staggering deficit, energy prices are rising. Bernanke faces quite a bit as he comes in now.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, it's interesting...

GORDON: Let me ask you this, Julianne--and then pick up on your point--but let me ask you this, you mentioned Mr. Ferguson earlier. There are a lot of people who assumed that we were going to see, quite frankly, our first African-American chair of the Federal Reserve. He, too, a man of impeccable talent and background and pedigree. Does this say anything other than, you know, you had two equal candidates and you gave the nod to one over the other for no other reason than perhaps a closer affinity or association to the president?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Also a closer affinity and association with Greenspan in that in recent months the president and Mr. Greenspan have clashed on one or two occasions. Greenspan in 2001 seemed quite enthusiastic about the tax cuts, but if you notice in the past year he's really backpedaled the notion that these tax cuts were good because he's seen the deficit grow. Ferguson is closely aligned with Greenspan and, in fact, Greenspan had suggested that the president choose Ferguson, who was a Clinton appointee. And so the notion that Mr. Bush would pick a Clinton appointee, you know, that would have been hard. He could have made the kind of history that he loves to make, and Roger Ferguson certainly is no flaming liberal. I don't think that any of these economists that we're talking about, to someone else's point, is a flaming liberal. In fact, Mr. Bernanke is a Republican, a very moderate Republican, but a Republican nonetheless. So while we may have all crossed our fingers and hoped for Ferguson just for its historical import, the fact is that it's very unlikely that this president will pick a Democrat.

Yet the point that I want to make to an earlier point about fulfilling Greenspan's shoes, 18 years ago Alan Greenspan was not the large and in charge Alan Greenspan that we know today. He grew into that role and then Bernanke will have that opportunity as well. The Fed is very much like an academic economics department ...(unintelligible) economics departments, these folks are pretty low key. You know, you don't get a lot of playboys. Greenspan through necessity and through 1987, other things, we went to that. And I think if Bernanke is faced with challenges, he will, too. I do hope that he maintains some notion of sensitivity around some issues of race and distribution with the money supply, issues of credit. I think those issues are going to be important, you know. We have more consumer bankruptcy than we've had in a very long time, and also issues of data collection. There have been moves not to collect data based on race, which we need to document things like mortgage discrimination. So one hopes that he'll maintain a sensitivity around those issues.

GORDON: Point well taken. Coming out of the shadow of Volcker that we saw Greenspan make his own way through the court and give his legacy.

Talking about legacy, here is one that may be impactful through states throughout the country, I should note. A federal appeals court upheld a Seattle school district's decision to use race as a tie-breaking factor in high school admissions. The court stated that the district has a compelling interest to secure the educational and social benefits of racial and ethnic diversity. That coming from the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, a 7-to-4 ruling there. Eric Deggans, when you hear that and you look at the fight for affirmative action and the question in higher learning of race as an admission policy, is this a fore-runner of what we may see, in your thought?

Mr. DEGGANS: It definitely is a fore-runner of what we're already seeing in communities across the country, including here in St. Petersburg, I must say. We're struggling with what to do to continue to integrate our schools, mostly because we continue to live in segregated communities. How do you ensure that schools have a relevant mix of ethnicities when everybody's living in different neighborhoods? One of the things that I found interesting about this case is that the Seattle school district is only 40 percent white, so I'm not quite sure what these tie-breaking decisions are about, and how do they serve to better integrate the schools if, you know, more than half the school system is already black. So I would need to know a little bit more about this situation to really know whether this is a step forward or a step backward. But these are the questions that school districts across the country are struggling with because people live in segregated communities, but they want their schools to be integrated.

GORDON: Interesting, Bob Meadows. We should note that a group of parents, to kick this off, sued in the year 2000 arguing that it was unfair for the school district to consider race and Seattle halted the tie-breaking factor of race during the 2002-2003 school year and made its case through the courts. Of course, ofttimes we see whites who suggest that race should never be used as a factor in the tie-breaking decision because in their minds that is--it unevens the playing field, so to speak.

Mr. MEADOWS: Right, there were--the parents--the girl apparently didn't get into her neighborhood school and, of course, the parents were upset and now she had to go to a school far away, which truth be told, you can really see why somebody would be particularly upset about that. This is one of those situations where this is a voluntary desegregation plan, courts have been upholding these all across the country, but there remains a question to see whether, with this decision, whether or not Seattle's actually gonna go back and reimpliment this policy. It's actually up in the air right now, so it might not come back into play anyway.

GORDON: Julianne Malveaux, the interesting point here is whether or not we will see this as some type of bellwether, if you will, as we continue, particularly as this new court, the higher court--the high court, I should say, starts to form itself because one has to believe that we will see affirmative action before this court again.

Ms. MALVEAUX: We will, but I'm not sure that this is a case that I'd call bellwether. The Seattle school district is not 60 percent black. It's 40 percent white, but then you have Latinos, you have a large Asian population in Seattle. The African-American population is actually quite small there, so it's a very diverse kind of district compared to some of the others. The issue here is the desirability of schools, people wanting to go especially to the competitive schools, and race is the second tie-breaker. There are two, Ed. The first is whether your sibling attends a school or not. So this is not quite...

GORDON: Well, but as we saw, Julianne, we should note at the University of Michigan there were a number of factors that can be looked at as admission and, of course, race tends to be the fire starter for many.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Oh, absolutely. But I would just not look at this particular high school case in this very interesting district that is atypical as a bellwether for affirmative action. I do think that it's an interesting case. I do think that when you look at what's happening in Seattle and with some of the schools, it's appropriate that race be used as a tie-breaker, but it's not the--this is not Detroit. This is not DC. This is not a city that's quite as black and white as some of the others.

GORDON: And while that is the case, I think you and I can agree on this much: affirmative action is going to be such a political football...

Ms. MALVEAUX: Oh, absolutely.

GORDON: ...for Republicans and Democrats, and I think that they are going to find any obscure gain of momentum that they can, and whether it be a school in, you know, Podunk or a school in Seattle that has said any little bit to move their point forward, we're going to see that.

Bob Meadows joins us from New York today, writer with People magazine; Julianne Malveaux, an economist, joins us from Washington, DC; and Eric Deggans, a columnist there in St. Petersburg, Florida.

We thank you all for joining us today. Greatly appreciate it.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you, Ed.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you.

Mr. MEADOWS: Thank you.

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

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