Roundtable: NOLA Levees, Poor College Students

Topics: charges that federal engineers are taking dangerous shortcuts to repair the levees in New Orleans, and an elite Northeast U.S. college tries to level the playing field between rich and poor students. Guests: Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender; and radio host Jeff Obafemi Carr.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is news at noontime on today's Roundtable Repairing New Orleans' broken levees on the cheap, and elite schools try to bridge the gap between rich and poor students. Joining us today to discuss these topics and more from our Washington DC Bureau, Mary Francis Berry, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. From Spot line Productions in Nashville, Tennessee Jeff Obafemi Carr, he is the radio host of the show Freesytle, and joining us from Chicago Roland Martin, Executive Editor of the Chicago Defender. I thank you all for joining us. And Roland I hear that you feel about as good as I do today.

We'll try and play hurt, and go through this. One of the stories we want to take a look at that is going to down the road really have a lot of reverberation is that we saw in South Dakota, Governor Mike Rounds assign legislation banning almost all abortions in that state. Many people see this as a direct challenge to Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion and Mary Frances-Berry, some are suggesting that we are going to see obviously opposition to this, and this finally make its way to the Supreme Court. Do you see this as the beginning of the road.

MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor, University of Pennsylvania): Well, what I see is that in South Dakota and other states they believe that now that Alito and Roberts are on the Supreme Court that they can get a slam dunk decision getting rid of Roe vs. Wade. Those are the singles that they have been getting and that is what they think and so the decided to up the ante and pass a bill and be confrontational about. I think eventually the court will review the decision and the court will have to reevaluate Roe vs. Wade and there will be a lot of angst about it. I don't know where the court will come out.

Whether the hopes of the people who want to get rid of abortion all together will be real, but I think that eventually the court will consider it and they may come up with some new guidelines, which will say something like abortions in the first trimester are between a woman and her physician, but then after that given what we know technologically about sustaining life now for fetus that young, that after the first trimester there are limitations, but I do not believe that they will simply throughout any right for anyone, for any reason whether rape, incest or medical reasons to have an abortion, but we will just have to see.

GORDON: Jeff Obafemi Carr, there are a lot of people who are seen as Supreme Court watchers and they try to guess where the courts decisions will come based on obviously decisions prior. We have seen this year including an equal rights case in the workplace, a decision that most people probably found surprising based on the "political makeup of the court," has that given you any belief that some of what we have heard about the court being too far right may not in fact be true.

JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Freestyle Radio host): Yeah, I don't know if it is true or not. I think it is a little bit too early to tell and especially when we talk about this whole abortion band notion and trying to reverse a woman's right to do what she wants to with her own body. I think you are going to start seeing casing like this pop up in states where there is a more conservative flare. They want to test the waters and South Dakota in essence is attempting to play a bit of a chicken game with the Supreme Court here and see what happens. I don't think personally it is going to reach up that high. I don't think it is going to get to the courts.

I don't think it is going to make its way to that high court. There are too many opportunities between there and now to affirm that woman's right to do what she wants to with her own body. I don't think the court is going to be...

Ms. FRANCES BERRY: There's too many chances to appeal also Jeff.

Ms. OBAFEMI CARR: Yeah, you're right, but I really don't think... I think in the end I think that this might have a reverse effect that these states are thinking. I think that the Supreme Court is not going to be bullied into making a decision that they have already held up for so long.

GORDON: Here is the interesting point Roland Martin--and Mary touched on it earlier--the idea that people like Governor Mike Rounds of South Dakota are really anticipating the idea of laying the foundation, laying the freeway, to drive this point through.

ROLAND MARTIN (Executive Editor of the Chicago Defender): Well, absolutely. What they want to do is utilize the state and setup a federal rights vs. state rights argument as it relates to abortion. And so that is one of the things they want to do in this case. Also by having such a strict Bill then you put the Supreme Court in a position to establish parameters. So if they are able to establish parameters in terms of limiting abortions, then they can go back and create additional laws based upon those parameters. And so absolutely by pushing the envelop as far as possible you want to say that hey we may not get complete explosion of abortion, but we could have some severe limits.

Ms. FRANCES BERRY: But the important thing to remember is that they wouldn't even be pushing the envelop, but for the fact that they see the political wind blowing in their direction and the court is going in their direction.

GORDON: Alright lets turn our attention to something we just heard Farai talk with Walter Isaacson, one of the main forces behind the resurrection of New Orleans and that's the levees. We have heard so much about the levees. There is concern now from an independent team of experts monitoring the reconstruction project of these levees, that large sections of the rebuilt levees will be substantially weaker in their words than before the hurricane hit. We heard Walter Isaacson suggest that we are not going to see category five levees built--what he called these heavy-duty, category three levees are being put up. Is this again yet a mistake, Roland Martin, by government being far too short-sided with what may come down the road.

Mr. MARTIN: Well not necessarily because that I see is that you have a very short window and hurricane season begins June 1. So the problem they are facing is how do you shore up as quickly as possible anticipating a hurricane? And so, could you have the ability to shore the levees up the way we want to, based upon the shortened time. And so again whether you like it or not when you are dealing with construction there is a certain period of time that you have to use, so to expect 3,4,5 or 6 months to be it, when you really need 2-3 years, this is what you can expect.

But Jeff, if in fact these experts are correct, there suggestion is that to meet these deadlines as Roland said, that they are taking shortcuts that will clearly compromise the construction of these levees.

Ms. OBAFEMI CARR: Oh they are definitely taking shortcuts, but I would agree with Roland in the old adage, in life you get what you inspect and not what expect. So that you would expect that you have enough time to build this thing, but when you look in front of you, you have what you have what you have. And I think court spokesman, Jim Taylor said it, the people of New Orleans need to get back to at least a level of hurricane protection we had before Katrina. We are authorized to do it quickly. It is up to Congress to decided take it to a higher level. And so they are doing what they can, but the flip side is that something does have to be done in the interim and I am terrified at prospect of the levee issue getting trapped into the standard American way of doing things. The twilightzonian state of inactivity that were call the paralysis of analysis.

GORDON: Mary Frances Berry we also have to look at this economically when you talk about 1.6 billion dollar in terms of funds being put forth for this reconstruction project one has to hope and pray that we will not see the same kind of hurricane season that we saw last year that may in fact knock many of these levees down.

Ms. FRANCES BERRY: And we had, you know, hurricanes elsewhere too in Florida damage, all of it expensive, but you know all of that optimism that Isaacson was expressing which is what he is supposed to do as Vice-Chair of that commission won't come to anything if the levees fail and we have a big hurricane again. But here is my take on it: the administration says that the levees are going to be fine. They put out a new story that came out today and that clay is being brought to use instead of the dirt that is there that is weakening it, although some of the experts say they were standing there and saw people putting in dirt that wasn't clay.

So we don't know the answer to that, but what I think is that the people in New Orleans should go ahead and build and do what they have to do hoping that the levees will not break, but if a hurricane warning comes everybody should be prepared to leave so that they can test it out and see if it occurs, you should be prepared, people should be prepared to just leave for a little bit to see what happens if they get the warning. We won't know the answer as to whether the levees are fixed unless something happens again and then we find out that they are not.

GORDON: Jeff it really is a strange catch 22 to be put in because in one sense you almost want people to stay way and until hurricane season is over as to not go through the evacuation once again that was obviously problematic, yet you want to rebuild the city, you want people to come home and live there lives.

Ms. OBAFEMI CARR: Yeah it is a strange catch 22. I mean if you develop a new fire suit I don't want to be the first one to test it. I mean that is just, I mean that is just logics. So these levees, there are definitely issues here. The US Army core of engineers are saying that it is going to be fine which they are not going to tell people, give people a false since of security by saying that we're not sure. They are going to be sure of that.

The outside scientist are saying well you can't used weakened soil without armoring with the clay or the rock under the levees to make sure that it is going to be strong. So I think the people of New Orleans are caught in the middle and the best that we can hope for is that the levees get up and that we don't have as bad of a season as we had last time.

GORDON: Mary Frances Berry I have to start this story with you, Business Week suggested that Amherst College is "an incubator for the elite" and I think it is fair to say that we can says that about many of the elite colleges across this country. What we're seeing from Amherst President Anthony Marks is what he is suggesting as a new affirmative action initiative based on class, and that is that they are proposing to put 25 percent of the slots to this university and give it to students poor enough to receive Pell Grants. What we are also hearing today: MIT is suggesting that they will match grant money for lower income students. Colleges are starting to see that there is no real diversity on campuses, particularly of the elite universities.

Lest we think this is really, really big, we should note the Pell Grant awards range from $400 to $4,000. MIT's annual income, or I should say, tuition, is 43,000.

Ms. FRANCES BERRY: And all of the Ivies are in that same range. I must point out that Charles Hamilton Houston, the great architect of Brown against the Board, who taught Thurgood Marshall was an Amherst graduate. I just thought, black guy. I just thought I'd point that out. Anyway, I think Amherst is doing the right thing. I think it's very exciting that they should do this. I'm all in favor of affirmative action based on class, and always have been, as well as affirmative action based on race and sex, and so on, and national origin. And so I think it's a great idea.

It's also true that standardized test scores correlate with income. so that if you just used standardized test scores to admit people, you never would admit these poor people. That's one of the issues they're facing up like, who do we admit? And what will the faculty say? And are these students of good quality? But I think it's a wonderful idea, and that elite institutions are in the best position to raise money to fund this. That's why they're elite institutions, and they have these graduates. And I think they can have all these multiple purposes of trying to open up their campuses. And it's high time that they did it.

GORDON: Roland Martin, one of the things that the faculty is saying, and we've heard this echo for years, is that even though these students are, "smart," they come from, in many people's mind, inferior high schools, and then when they are juxtaposed to other students, they just don't compete and, therefore, bring down the averages at these universities.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I think that is the elite argument that is used in order to keep them out. I mean, I've heard that nonsense, whether you're talking about state public institutions, whether you're talking about private. I mean, the bottom line is, how do you open up opportunities? And this is one way to do so. And so at least Amherst, and others, are not trying simply throwing up their hands and saying, oh well, we just can't bring 'em in.

You have to create different unique and innovative ways to get low-income students into the schools. And I think the universities that have been proactive, that have been vigilant, they have done a better job than those who've just simply thrown their hands up and said there's nothing we can do, so we're just going to ignore the whole issue.

GORDON: Jeff, perhaps a Freudian slip on my part. I understand I said Pale grant instead of Pell Grant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Pretty good one, pretty good one.

GORDON: Let me ask this: the idea that when we hear of grants being given to these students, we should note that that it sounds good on paper, but the monies still fall substantially short.

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Oh they do, and you have a case where one of the girls who's now an ambassador for Amherst, in particular, talked about how she was on a grant there, and making great grades out of Harlem. And she was still, had to work in the cafeteria in an apron, and still felt as if she was part of the staff and looked down upon. I think we need to reexamine the entire notion of what education is for, period, because we've gotten way off base in America.

I could start a fill in the blank statement and everybody listening would get it right. You go to college to get a what? Education. Get education to get what? A job. Get a job to make what? More money. So the end result of so-called elite education, even in itself, is not to better society; it's not to transform the nature of the human condition; it's not even to discover what one's calling is so they can understand their unique place in the world. It's to make the cheese, the bling, the Benjamins. And I think we really need to have an overhaul. But I think the Amherst College plan is noble.

GORDON: Mary, real quick for me, with about a minute left, do you believe that this is going to be a trend that we see picked up across campuses?

Ms. FRANCES BERRY: Well, all of the elite institutions are doing it, or having plans to do so, and have been for the last two or three years. And usually where the elite lead, the non-elite stumble along and try to follow, or at least pretend that they are, so I think it will be a trend. I'm not sure that much is going to change, in terms of how the poor are treated on campus. That is, they might still have to work in the cafeteria and not, you know, they might not have the same things that other students have.

But I think the trend of trying to open up opportunity, there may even be some federal program, eventually, to try to help state schools to do the same thing, but where the elite lead, the others usually follow.

GORDON: Roland, real quick for me: any thought that we would ever really see a slot set aside for "free education" in the real sense of free?

Mr. ROLAND: I doubt it because power of education has become big business so...

Ms. FRANCES BERRY: Roland, can I interrupt you to just say? I must say this, Ed. Our higher education was free; it was free at City University in New York, it was free in the whole University of California system. And many of the professionals we see who are immigrants, who came in...

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. FRANCES BERRY: ...and who are educated, who are European descent, got a free education. And now we got a new generation of colored people: Latinos in California and elsewhere...

GORDON: Mm hmmm.

Ms. FRANCES BERRY: ...and immigrants in New York City who aren't getting a free education. I just thought I'd point that out.

GORDON: Right. All right, well, Roland, you'll have to get on Mary; she stole your time...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Jeff, Mary Francis Berry...

Mr. MARTIN: The way I'm feeling, go ahead, Mary.

GORDON: ...and a sick Roland Martin, we thank you, very much, greatly appreciated guys. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

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