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Roundtable: Black GOP Pols, Anti-War Sermons

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Roundtable: Black GOP Pols, Anti-War Sermons

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Roundtable: Black GOP Pols, Anti-War Sermons

Roundtable: Black GOP Pols, Anti-War Sermons

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Topics: Black Republicans in public office; anti-war sermons could cost a church its tax exempt status; and a school in Michigan stops singing a song about picking cotton after black parents complain. Guests: Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender; John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow in Public Policy; and Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's roundtable, an anti-war sermon could cost the church its tax-exempt status. We'll talk about that in just a moment. Joining us today from our Chicago bureau, Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender. And joining me here in New York, John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute. He's a senior fellow of public policy there. And in Washington, DC, headquarters, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

All right. Folks, I'm trying to get to something quickly which is why I'm rushing through these introductions. We just heard from Michael Steele, and I wanted to find out whether or not you can run today a viable, a viable black Republican for a national office. Let me give you some numbers here from polls recently taken. This is a CBS News poll, October 30, November 1st. The question was: Is your opinion of Condoleezza Rice favorable, not favorable, undecided? Or haven't you heard enough about Condoleezza Rice to have an opinion? We don't count those people. Luckily that was the 0 percent. Forty-one percent favorable. Nineteen percent not favorable. Twenty-four percent undecided. Move to a Marist Poll, a WCBS poll. If the 2008 Republican presidential primary were held today, whom would you support if the candidates are Condoleezza Rice--she received 21 percent, up from a couple of months before that, 14 percent. She leads all candidates including Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, etc., etc. John McWhorter, we understand polls are a snapshot in time, but after hearing about and hearing from Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, looking at this, how realistic is it to believe that viably in today's world you can see on a national stage a black Republican win?

Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute): Well, celebrity always matters, and there's a certain appeal about Condoleezza Rice, but to be honest, my perhaps idiosyncratic opinion is that it's a rather abstract topic because Condoleezza Rice is not only a Republican, but she doesn't happen to be the kind of person who thinks of segregation as having been the defining experience of her early life. She doesn't seem particularly interested in the black beat. She's a generalist. And she doesn't sound African-American when she talks. And so if she were elected...

GORDON: Whatever that means.

Mr. McWHORTER: Ed, it means a lot.

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Executive Director, Chicago Defender): Oh, whoo, whoo, hold it, John.

Mr. McWHORTER: If she were elected as president...

Mr. MARTIN: She doesn't sound African-American when she talks?

Mr. McWHORTER: ...it's a quick sentence--just like Bill Clinton...

Mr. MARTIN: And you sound like a brother?

Mr. McWHORTER: ...was thought often as--no, I get the same thing, but it's a point; I've got to finish the sentence--just like Bill Clinton was thought of as a black president, she would basically be thought of by a lot of the black community as a white president, for better or for worse.

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): Well, the question...

Mr. McWHORTER: So it would be an abstract point.

Dr. BERRY: ...but the point is abstract for another reason, which I will answer after saying quickly with Michael Steele, the question that he needs to be asked the next time you have him on is that the death penalty in Maryland--there was a big study done showing it was discriminatory, and he said that he was going to be the point man on making sure that the administration in Maryland took that up. And they didn't and they are still executing people...

GORDON: Well, as you heard, Mary...

Dr. BERRY: ...without ever looking at that.

GORDON: ...we're going to try to get he...

Dr. BERRY: All right. Well...

GORDON: ...and Kweisi Mfume on...

Dr. BERRY: All right. Well, about this...

GORDON: ...to deal with some of those issues specifically.

Dr. BERRY: ...poll, Ed, the abstraction is this. Forty-one percent were favorable, and I was shocked that that means that--What?--59 percent, if I can count, were either unfavorable, undecided. How could they be undecided or didn't know when they've seen her all over the place? But the other thing that was shocking was that in the other poll that showed her running against Hillary Clinton, she was the only one of the Republican candidates who had large numbers that lost to Hillary Clinton. McCain won going up against Clinton. Rudy Giuliani ran, won going up against Hillary Clinton. But she was the only one of those in that little group at the top that lost. I was surprised at that because she has gotten very favorable press. She has a lot of celebrity. She's everywhere. She's a very articulate African-American woman. And she expresses views that I think a lot of people agree with. So I was surprised that she didn't seem to carry that much weight, Ed, if she were a candidate.

GORDON: All right. But let me bring it back to what I asked first which John didn't necessarily deal with, and, Mary, you've taken up on his. Roland Martin, pick this up. Get away from the abstract. I generalized it specifically, though I use these two people as an example. I spoke of black candidates in general within the Republican Party. Do we believe that's possible on a national level?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, first of all, anything is possible. The problem is...

GORDON: OK. Probable, Roland Martin.

Mr. MARTIN: ...no--no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I gotcha. I gotcha. But no one has done it. Now what you do find, you have an increasing number of Republicans who have run statewide in various states as opposed to national. And so when they make that step up, then we'll see. For instance, in Texas, there are three African-Americans who have been elected statewide, in fact, in the history of the entire state, only one black Democrat has been elected statewide. And so can they make the transition?

You know, look, these same polls--remember, when Colin Powell was being--when he was--before he became secretary of State, he was polling major numbers on the Republican side and the Democratic side if he chose to run for president, and so I am hopeful that a black Republican will indeed run for, like, US Senate position or a national office because I will love to see if these same white Republicans who will say they've got a 41 percent favorable in a poll, if they will actually walk into the voting booth and actually vote the same. I will love to see.

Dr. BERRY: Could I just...

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, the Republicans...

Dr. BERRY: ...I put one pin in that, please, Ed. Yes, Colin Powell could win a general election. And, yes, a black Republican can win a general election if it's a Colin Powell-type Republican. The problem is getting the Republican Party to nominate someone...

GORDON: Precisely.

Dr. BERRY: ...like that in the primary. That's the problem.

Mr. McWHORTER: One thing that's interesting, though, is that given the fact that there's this increasing tendency for parties to focus their resources on particular races instead of spreading across all of them at any given time, Republicans have a certain vested interest in running black candidates, even though that may be more of certain types than others because they worry about the racist taint. And you can say that that's only for practical reasons, but if a certain kind of Republican came along, then one thing we know is that they might very well get a big push from behind.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, John, the issue is not Republicans running black candidates. The issue is whether or not Republican voters will actually elect them. I mean, you've only had--What?--two African-Americans go to the United States of Representatives who are Republicans, J.C. Watts as well as Gary Franks. That's it. Right now there are none. And so the issue is not--I mean, they've run--lots of black folks run as Republicans, but many of them had not been elected. That's the issue.

Mr. McWHORTER: Sure. Sure.

Mr. MARTIN: Were they elected?

Mr. McWHORTER: Right. And so the question is whether we're going to see a change in that trend, and I think a lot of that just has to do with what kind of push there is from behind and a lot of contingent events as we go through life these days.

GORDON: All right. We'll move to what is very interesting as it relates to the IRS. None of us like the IRS looking over our shoulders and our collective shoulders if you will, but we are now seeing the IRS do so when it comes to churches. All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena...

Mr. MARTIN: A liberal church.

GORDON: ...risks losing its tax-exempt status because of a former rector's remarks in 2004. The IRS has warned the church that it risks losing its tax-exempt status because of an anti-war sermon two days before the 2004 presidential election. Mary Frances Berry, this strikes you how?

Dr. BERRY: It strikes me as outrageous. It's another one of those examples of using the IRS for political purposes in churches all over this country, including my hometown of Nashville and the church that some of my family attend. Republicans came into church and ministers came into church two days and a day before the election preaching that they should vote for Mr. Bush because he was against same-sex marriage and he was a man of God and Jesus had chosen him and that if they went against that, they were violating their religion because of all of these things that were so moral. And I haven't seen the IRS go after any of those churches. When I see them do that, then I will think that there's some evenhandedness, although the whole thing is ridiculous. One ought to be able to preach the Gospel if one believes in it or whatever one believes in church and talk about peace or morality or whatever--Where else will we talk about it if not church?--without risking the loss of a tax exemption.

GORDON: John McWhorter, Mary Frances Berry brings up an interesting point. This juxtaposed with the troubles that the NAACP has had recently with the IRS looking into books and the like. One may believe that this is politically motivated.

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, yeah, it's definitely possible. And I find it hard to imagine that this sort of thing is remotely done to the extent that it seems to be done against leftists. See, obviously there's a bias here and really it shouldn't be done at all because the overlap between morality and religion and how one is to vote and how one is to feel about the issues of the day is so enormous that there's a line that has to be drawn here. Politics is one thing, but what exactly is church supposed to be about except for exhorting your flock to think in certain ways. So, yes, it might surprise you, but in this case, I agree completely with Mary Frances Berry.

Dr. BERRY: My gosh.

Mr. MARTIN: And, Ed, what is offensive, though, is the problem is that churches speak truth to power. I mean, so when David sinned with Bathsheba, it was a prophet who spoke to him as the king regardless of him being the king. And so they have a prophetic voice to speak on issues of war, issues of morality. And so for the IRS to suggest that, well, because someone gave an anti-war speech, somehow that's crossing the line, that's offensive, and there's no doubt if you look at these number of patriot pastors, these Republican, the mainly white evangelicals, who are lining themselves across the country--it was the Bush-Cheney campaign that asked churches for their membership roles in order to send them information on the campaign. And so, therefore, how can they make this kind of silly decision. The role of the church is to speak truth to power regardless of who is sitting in the White House.

GORDON: All right. Let's move our attention to a song that has caused the ire of some to raise in the Detroit area. Angie, play this for me and then we'll talk about it.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singers: You've got to jump down and turn around and pick a bale of hay. You've got to jump down and turn around and pick a bale of cotton. You've got to jump down and turn around and pick a bale a day. Well, oh, Lordy, pick a bale of cotton. Oh, Lordy, pick a bale a day. Oh, Lordy, pick a bale of cotton. Oh, Lordy, pick a bale a day.

GORDON: Oh, Lordy, now you know when you hear that, we're going to have some problems. So here we go.

Mr. MARTIN: I'm gone. I'm sorry. I'm gone.

GORDON: This is the song that was to be sung at a middle school concert in suburban Detroit, and after a black parent complained that it glorifies slavery, the superintendent of, I believe it was, the Berkeley School District in Michigan decided to remove the song from the program. Roland Martin, when you hear a song like "Pick a Bale of Cotton," some will argue that it is part of the historical context of this country and we should be able to sing it and celebrate it.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, in the words of Whitney Houston, `Hail to the null(ph).' That's why I was cracking at that pussh. You know, that was the whip at the same time. Clearly, the moment I heard the song, I said, `No, there's no way in the world you will sing that.' It reminded me when I was in college and we had to read a story called "Nigger Joe." And I said, `Oh, I'm sorry, brother not reading that story. I mean, you can--in all the stories you want to pick, you pick that one? No, no, no. I'm not reading that story.' And so for someone to listen to it and not think that it's offensive, I'm trying to figure out what world they're operating in.

Dr. BERRY: Well, I--my reaction to it personally was much like yours, Roland, but I see these matters as the opportunity for what we call a teachable moment. Instead of taking it out of the school, what I would require these people to do in all these cases is to use it to teach the people in the school system--the superintendent should have put out something saying, `Look, here's why we picked this, because we were either ignorant or we don't know anything about history or we need more history in these schools, and here's the history of that. It comes from the Jim Crow period. There's a whole minstrel show period in which this song comes out of and it does harken back to slavery and you children should know that this is the case.' Now if you want to sing it, that's what that song was about, and whoever picked it should have been thinking about that in the first place. Use moments like this not just to take things away so that people don't have to deal with it, but use it as a mandatory teachable moment. That's what I would do.

Mr. McWHORTER: That's interesting. I have a similar but different take on it which is one thing the fact that they would even use it. Really, it sounds like something out of an episode of "In Living Color." I mean, it's just--it's absurd. But what is significant about it is that the parents said, `Please pull that,' and they did. And I think to myself, `Suppose that happened in 1963 when there would have been a very snippy superintendent who basically would not have been open to it. There's a certain progress in it. Teaching them about minstrel shows is one thing, but then they're all going to go see the new 50 Cent movie and see another one. And so the culture is so complicated now that I'm beginning to worry about what those lessons have to teach. But unfortunately the whole thing is rather comedic, but in a way, there's a little bit of hope in it because the parent can get the song pulled.

Dr. BERRY: And there's a little bit of...

Mr. MARTIN: Well, John, maybe the issue is if they use that teachable moment, then you won't see things like that.

Dr. BERRY: And--that's right, Roland.

Mr. McWHORTER: That's be nice.

Mr. MARTIN: Well...

Dr. BERRY: And because the sad thing, the sad thing, it's a very sad thing to know that people would do this and not even understand. I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt that they didn't do it deliberately.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, there's no content.

Dr. BERRY: They didn't understand what they were doing and gave no context.

Mr. MARTIN: There's no context.

Dr. BERRY: Right.

Mr. MARTIN: And that is part of our issue when it comes to our education system, is that if we want to overlook that, and so when we see these photos, and so when kids today see Spike Lee's movie "Bamboozled" and anybody who actually saw it--I mean, I loved it--when they see that, they happen to think that...

Mr. McWHORTER: Seven or eight people saw it, yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, again--and, hopefully, there are seven or eight more people who are educated. So when they seen these folks in blackface and the big lips and all the different--they have no understanding that that was a major part of advertising. That was a major part of television. And so in many ways, we do have a society, adult as well as children, who are ignorant of those issues that define America and explain many of the things that we see today.

Dr. BERRY: Ed...

GORDON: But, Mary, isn't it an interesting juxtaposition to see this and then see what Michael Steele has gone through by virtue of African Americans throwing Oreo cookies on stage and calling him an Uncle Tom in public, etc.?

Dr. BERRY: Well, the people who are doing that to Michael Steele, I think many of them, from following the press in Maryland, are doing it because they're made at him about not doing anything about the death penalty issue. I said that was one of his campaign promises, that he was going to take that up first, and yet, you still have these executions. Not doing anything with...

Mr. MARTIN: Do you think that people throwing these...

Dr. BERRY: Right. Well...

Mr. MARTIN: ...are really thinking of something that specific?

Dr. BERRY: ...that's--I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt just as I'm giving these folks out in Berkeley, Michigan, the benefit of the doubt. And so maybe they're concerned, but the symbolism and the idea of being ignorant about context is the same. What we need in this world and in this country is more education and more understanding about history and about the context of things. Otherwise, all we do on all sides is to continue to perpetuate racism, sometimes unconsciously, some consciously, but all we're doing is perpetuating racism.

Mr. McWHORTER: It'd also be nice to teach some people that the faith-based initiatives and No Child Left Behind had African Americans in mind in a major way so that we can get rid of the idea that a black Republican is suspect. It'd be a present day issue as a historical...

Dr. BERRY: Well...

Mr. MARTIN: You know what, John? You know what, John? John, if you're going to bring the faith-base initiative, keep in mind that we've always had that. The only difference was on President Bush did not have to abide by the civil rights statutes. That's the only difference between that and the present and that of the past. But, see, many of these black pastors who supported were ignorant of that reality as well.

Dr. BERRY: And also...

Mr. McWHORTER: Helping inner-city people help themselves is something that you should support.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, but they were ignorant of that because, again, they did not abide by the civil rights statutes and that was the chief difference...

GORDON: Well...

Mr. MARTIN: ...and President Bush admitted that to the National Urban League when he spoke there in 2001.

Dr. BERRY: And...

GORDON: Well, let me do this. As my friends in the field would say, `Oh, Lordy, we done run out of time.'

Dr. BERRY: No, Ed. No.

GORDON: So--and since I hacked up your introduction...

Mr. MARTIN: Let's just sing "Pick a Bale of Cotton."

GORDON: ...let me thank Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute. He's a senior fellow there.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you.

GORDON: I thank you all for joining us. Appreciate it.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you, Ed.

Mr. MARTIN: "Pick a Bale of Cotton." Thanks, Ed.

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

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