Roundtable: Iraq Coalition Forces, Blackface

Tuesday's topics: Iraq's president expresses frustration with coalition forces, and a blog site portrays Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in minstrel makeup. Guests: Glenn C. Loury, professor of economics at Brown University; Republican strategist Tara Setmayer; and Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, frustration over coalition forces in Iraq and stereotyping Maryland's lieutenant governor.

Joining us from our headquarters in Washington, DC, Republican strategist Tara Setmayer; at member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island, Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown University; and Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio program "Freestyle," is at Spotland Productions in Nashville, Tennessee.

All right, folks. One of the things I wanted to talk about--obviously, so many people paying attention to the legacy and the wonderful life of Rosa Parks over the last few days. I'm here in Detroit, and her body is being viewed today and will be funeralized on tomorrow in the Motor City, where she lived since 1957, we should note. But one of the things we found interesting: Mary Mitchell, who's been a guest on our Roundtable, columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote a column suggesting that perhaps black America didn't pay enough attention to Rosa Parks while she was alive, and while all of us praised what she did and gloried in the bravery and the outcome of what she started, some suggest, because she lived a fairly meager lifestyle here in Detroit, that perhaps we didn't do what we needed to as a community. The inference is that she should have been set up better economically, that we should have perhaps as a community bought a home and had all of the things that are day-to-day necessities taken care of for her.

The same thing has been raised, quite frankly, about Mrs. King. While that family has done fairly well, they are by no means rich. Certainly Mrs. King is not. When we look at George Lucas donating a million dollars for a proposed statue of Martin Luther King on the Mall, one has to question whether or not African-Americans are doing all they should for our icons. Glenn Loury, when you hear that suggestion--and I should note that you never know what people will say privately. I knew Mrs. Parks. She was a wonderful woman and was a humble woman. We don't know what was offered to her privately and may have been turned down. But that being said, should our community be doing more for our icons?

Professor GLENN LOURY (Brown University): Well, I read the piece in the Sun-Times, and it is disturbing. On the other hand, I'm also a little disturbed by the framing of this conversation, because Rosa Parks was an American icon. She was not only an African-American icon. At one level, I want to say yes, more should have been done, and it's horrid to imagine her staying in some apartment and being on the verge of eviction and having to go from one day to the next not knowing where the money was coming from. On the other hand, I want to say it's not only the black community's responsibility to honor a woman who helped to lead this nation out of the darkness of apartheid, this nation, which has many rich people and which has many more people than blacks. So I'm of two minds about it.

GORDON: Hm. Tara?

Ms. TARA SETMAYER (Republican Strategist): Well, I think it's interesting, because we in the black community were so quick to circle the wagons around our own during certain debates, but in a situation like this, why that didn't happen with someone as wonderful as Rosa Parks, who was such a pioneer, who--her contribution to our community is immeasurable, and yet she did live such a meager life. I think it's--it concerns me, but at the same time, I agree with the professor that I am of two minds with this. She was not only a hero in our community, she was an American hero, which is why she laid in honor in the Capitol, the first woman to ever have that honor. So I think it raises an interesting debate about whether--when is it appropriate for us to make sure our own are taken care of, and why that hasn't happened. I think that's an interesting discussion.

GORDON: Jeff, I want to take it away from Rosa Parks, because you can get too tied in to her situation, and again, we don't know what she suggested privately. I know for certain there were things that were offered and later on in life done for her by the dignitaries and others here in the city of Detroit. But that being said, let's take a look at the idea of iconic figures and what is due--again, we most notably heard recently George Lucas suggesting he's going to put up a million dollars for the long-proposed statue of Martin Luther King on the Mall.

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Host, "Freestyle"): Yes.

GORDON: We have heard throughout history, quite frankly, whether or not we here in the African-American community are doing enough, quote, "for our own."

Mr. CARR: Yeah, well, you know, there's something to be said in this whole discussion about the notion that we--the poem that we always hear at funerals. `Give us our flowers while we yet live.' I was thinking about--a couple of nights ago did a performance and had an opportunity to have my mother there, who's well into her 70s, and got an opportunity for the first time in my life to have a dance with her in public. And I was a little shy about it, but I ended up going out there and Mom ended up showing me up, and that was the highlight of the show. And I thought about all of the kids in the neighborhood and all the kids at the schools that I went to that my Mom assisted and gave rides home to and looked after, and although there was a communal responsibility to pay that back, it was my responsibility, and it's my responsibility to take care of my mom, because she's in my household. So I think that whether the mainstream buys into taking care of Rosa Parks or not, we have a spiritual responsibility as a people to look after our own, first and foremost, and then if anything else gets heaped on top of it, that's great, too.

We think of iconic figures in our community. I say that we do have a responsibility to take care of people, only because we demonstrate it in other ways. How many people go to a church where the pastor is taken care of in a house, a big car and nice clothes? We have these huge figures that are supported by African-American congregations in our community, and they are taken care of and are very, very wealthy. But here's a woman who stood up and sacrificed herself for the lives of, yeah, sure, every American, but by and large it was African-Americans who were being discriminated against, and she put her life and her welfare on the line. I think it's a shame that we didn't step up and do more for her.

GORDON: We should note, too, that a woman who spoke at the ceremonies in Washington yesterday, Oprah Winfrey, when talking about giving people their salutes while they're still alive, their flowers, if you will, Ms. Winfrey has done quite a bit in moving that case, including assisting Mrs. King at times. And certainly, during her Legends Ball, which I had the pleasure of attending, she did, in fact, salute many icons of our community.

We move our attention now to something that's very interesting, and again, it goes back to a question of how black America looks and deals with itself, and that is a blogger, a liberal blogger, we should note, posted a doctored photograph of Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele in minstrel makeup. Steele, of course, is running for the Senate seat in--the Republican Senate seat in Maryland, and we should suggest that the blogger said that he did this because Steele did not, in fact, step out and denounce his, as he called it, `political partner'--that's the governor of Maryland--who held a fund-raiser this year at a country club that has never admitted a black member in its 127-year history. And we talked about that, in fact, when that went on, on the Roundtable.

The question here is, here's Michael Steele, a Republican, someone who has, in fact, had a long career, often has been ridiculed by black America, quite frankly, called an Uncle Tom. He even talked about how Democrats, during a 2002 debate, tossed Oreo cookies at him. We don't have to explain that, for those who know, know. So that being said, Tara, when you look at this kind of thing that goes on in 2005--and I know you yourself, being a Republican strategist, have faced the question of whether or not you are really dealing with issues that are of import to black America.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, just to address myself personally, that has been one of the focuses of my career, that I make sure as a Republican that we--when I'm called upon to discuss strategy, that we do focus on those issues, and that we make sure that we establish relationships and rapport. That has been the frustration I've had with the national party over these some years, that sometimes they just don't get that.

But there are plenty of individuals like Michael Steele who do get it, and this is an individual who does not deserve the title of being an Uncle Tom or being ridiculed to the point of--it disgusts me, because here's a man who lived the American Dream, who grew up--his mother adopted him. She worked minimum-wage jobs her entire life to send him to private school, never took a dime of public assistance. He chose to go into ministry--he was in seminary school for some time--and he is--and for him to be painted as a minstrel, as a mouthpiece or be called a puppet master, like Julian Bond referred to all--to black Republicans, it takes away from the discourse that we need to have about real issues. And it--and unfortunately, when you let--when you throw bombs like this--Aaron McGruder did the same thing last year in his cartoon, The Boondocks, where he disrespected Condoleezza Rice, and he called her a murderer on "America's Black Forum" when he was a panelist with me. I was there. I witnessed it. And that type of language does us no good. It takes away from the healthy debate we should be having about issues that affect our communities.

Prof. LOURY: Can I get in here just to say this? I don't know Michael White--I'm sorry, Michael Steele. I'm sure he's a very fine man. But--and the but here is that, in my view, the issue is how the authority of the experience of African-Americans in this country gets used, gets deployed in our current politics, because when a person, man or woman, stands up and is black, and is to some degree, by a Republican president, let's say, advertised as black, it is said, `See? I'm this kind of president because I have black people near me.' That's a deploying of the moral authority of the experience of African-Americans. Now if the policies of the administration with which that person is associated cut against the interest and the moral witness of African-Americans, as I believe clearly the policies of this Bush administration do, then it's fair enough to point out, `Hey, you're using blackness in order to counter black Americans' interest,' just like President George Bush the first did when he appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. It's no ad hominem against Thomas to say that that was a cynical, manipulative use of the history of African-Americans in order to pursue a right-wing agenda, and that's what's at stake here.

GORDON: Jeff, let me ask you...

Ms. SETMAYER: Do you honestly believe there's not ad hominem attack involved here? It's absolutely an ad hominem attack.

Prof. LOURY: No, no, no, no. I'm saying people have engaged in ad hominem attack.

Ms. SETMAYER: OK.

Prof. LOURY: But what I'm saying is, it's a fair question to say, `Hey, you're standing up telling everybody you're black, but you're associated with a government that is hell-bent on countering the interests of black people.' That's a fair argument to make about somebody.

Ms. SETMAYER: That's a discussion for another day.

GORDON: Jeff, let me ask you this as relates to the idea of name-calling, the idea of placing an Uncle Tom tag on someone, the minstrel white-face on someone. Black America, to a great degree, still is stinging politically by all of what we've had to face throughout the years, and there is, while we don't want to paint ourselves with a monolithic brush, there seems to be, to a great degree, if just political affiliation is to be believed, a certain monolith politically within our community. If you are against the grain, you are often, quite frankly, particularly in private, called some of these names, sometimes in jest, sometimes in fun. But there is a sense of you just don't get it. You just aren't black enough, as Billy Paul would ask the question musically.

Mr. CARR: Right, exactly. I think we do--as a people in this country right now, I think we do try to hold on to what small dignity we have, and at least some kind of collective notion of collective consciousness, and because of that, we look for opportunities to find pride in accomplishment of African-Americans. We look at people like Tiger Woods, we look at sports figures like the Williams sisters and we look at people who become icons for us even politically, and we look for them as a source of pride. We still have the notion that if a person is considered a first, even in the year 2005, then they are something to be proud of. It's the first secretary of State, it's the first person to win this many golf tournaments, etc. And then when they do something that we feel does not support our community, whether that's dating a white woman or hanging around with a party that most black people have not been attached to in recent years, good or bad, right or wrong, we see that as a violation of the trust. And so the words do come out, and it's Uncle Tom.

And that's what I struggle with sometimes, because I think the remark was made that it's an unfair designation. I've not known of one person that has been considered an Uncle Tom by any group of people that has righteously stood up and admitted, `Yes, you're right. I am an Uncle Tom.' So I don't think anybody has been proud of that title. But this is America. Now either we have a right to express ourselves freely or not.

GORDON: But the...

Mr. CARR: Gilliard's blog, I didn't get to see the image. I went to see it and it was already gone. They changed the picture. But it wasn't politically correct. But isn't that what a lot of people, including people on both sides, Democrats and Republicans, claim to want? They want honesty and straightforwardness and people to be able to express themselves. You can't have it both ways.

GORDON: Well, which comes first? Which comes first, the racial pride or the political fervor? Because let's be honest; one would believe, if Condoleezza Rice, who was the first African-American secretary of State--had she been Democrat and perhaps a little bit further left than right, she would be, quite frankly, more embraced publicly by African-Americans.

Ms. SETMAYER: Absolutely.

Mr. CARR: Yeah. I think it's...

Prof. LOURY: Yeah, but...

Mr. CARR: I think it's safer--yeah, you could say that's safer because that--but that's partly to blame because African-Americans sit on their laurels and just kind of let the Democratic Party get away with whatever they want to. The Democratic Party does take them for granted, and we just kind of act in our own way. What I'd like to think is possible is that African-Americans can start to judge people as individuals and look beyond these party affiliations and see who's going to be on our side, and who, quite frankly, would be an Uncle Tom or an Oreo.

GORDON: And, Glenn, to a great degree that's what you were saying in the sense of looking at where they stand politically. Perhaps the African-American community has, in fact, done that with Condoleezza Rice and looked at--deciphered where she stands politically.

Prof. LOURY: Precisely. I would say, you know, civility first, OK? The way we should talk to each other, with each other, about each other in our politics ought to be civil and respecting the person. But these are hard issues. Republicans, Karl Rovians, violate the civility constraint every bit as much as Democrats do. These are hard issues, so we have to decide as a group of people, African-Americans, do we have interests? And if we have interests, we have to have ways of policing ourselves, of holding each other to account, around those interests. Let a Jewish financier stand up and start giving money to the Palestinian Liberation Organization and start talking about how the state of Israel is oppressing people on the West Bank, and see what happens to him within his community.

Ms. SETMAYER: Oh...

Prof. LOURY: They have interests, they know what they are and they enforce them.

GORDON: Tara, you're literally--I got...

Ms. SETMAYER: There is...

Prof. LOURY: That's all I'm talking about here. Holding...

Ms. SETMAYER: There is absolutely no...

Prof. LOURY: Hold people accountable for what they do.

GORDON: Tara...

Prof. LOURY: Hold them accountable for what they do.

GORDON: Tara, you got 30 seconds.

Ms. SETMAYER: You can hold people accountable, and I'm in full agreement of that, but to compare the Republican Party and a black conservative to a Jewish individual giving money to the Palestinians, who want to see the Jewish state eradicated off the planet, is just irresponsible. And you know, Michael Steele, who--he was president of the NAACP chapter in Prince George's County.

GORDON: Real quick, Tara.

Ms. SETMAYER: He's fought for access for women and minority businesses and contracts in Maryland.

GORDON: All right.

Ms. SETMAYER: He is absolutely fostering the interest of blacks in Maryland.

GORDON: All right. Let me note this, and I apologize, Tara, I got to stop you there.

Ms. SETMAYER: That's OK.

GORDON: But we have invited Michael Steele on the program and we are hoping in the next week to have him on. I hope he will accept the invitation. And Michael, if you're listening I'm going to call the office, in fact, myself this week. So we hope to have him on next week.

All right. Thank you, folks, for joining us. A spirited Roundtable today.

Coming up, one of America's greatest historians gets personal; a conversation with John Hope Franklin. And we'll step into the gospel music world of BET's Bobby Jones.

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

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