Roundtable: Caribbean Ties, Immigrants, Teachers

Thursday's topics: U.S. attempts to repair relations with Caribbean nations; President Bush's stance on undocumented immigrants; and a Florida plan to pay teachers according to performance. Guests: Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post; economist and author Julianne Malveaux, president and CEO of Last Word Productions Inc.; and New York University professor Pedro Noguera.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. On today's roundtable, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice attempts to repair relations in the Caribbean, and Florida tells teachers their pay will be based on student performance.

Joining us today from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post. At the Corbett Studio in Cincinnati, economist and author, Julianne Malveaux, president and CEO of Last Word Productions, and Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University is at our New York bureau.

Thank you all for joining us, and let me start with Condi. She flew to the Caribbean on Thursday trying to repair relations with another part of the world, angry not only over the war in Iraq, but the U.S. role in Haiti's struggles.

Julianne, let me start with you. There was, among other articles, a recent huge New York Times magazine story suggesting that the U.S. may have unduly been influences by forces in opposition to president Aristide, bolstering the claims that he has made that the U.S. tried to force him our. How is the U.S. going to repair relations with Caribbean nations?

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (President and CEO, Last Word Productions Inc.): Farai, I think it's going to be very difficult. There is not a lot of trust. It's not only that Haiti situation. There has been something of a benign neglect. While we've looked at the Iraqi area and other areas, the Middle East, you know the Marshall Doctrine--the Monroe Doctrine, forgive me, that talks about having good relationships in our own hemisphere is one that the Bush administration has, frankly, ignored.

We can talk about trade policy towards the Caribbean. We can talk about any number of things where you basically have heads of state that have very bruised feelings. The Haiti situation, of course, is the worst situation, but it's not the only one. So she can attempt to hold out the olive branch if she likes, but unless she's come with a package that includes some dollars, that includes some commitments, that includes some renegotiation of trade relationships, I don't think she's going to get very far.

CHIDEYA: Joe, what has your paper been doing in terms of covering the Caribbean region? With all the other things going on in the world, we don't necessarily hear a lot about it, but here the secretary of state is down there trying to mend these fences.

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, The Washington Post): Well, I think that the situation in Haiti is a very important situation that hasn't gotten nearly the amount of attention that a lot of people would like, whether it be from The Washington Post, The New York Times or any of the America media. And it's a very important situation for a number of reason, not the least of which is that it's very close to the United States border, as of course is everywhere in the Caribbean.

And I think that's why the secretary of state felt it necessary to try to go down there and mend some fences, as the communiqué out of that meeting talked about the Caribbean being the third border of the United States after Canada and Mexico, of course. And so that recognizes the importance of the Caribbean to the United States. It recognizes the need to have a good, strong, positive relationship between the United States and the region.

But as Julianne said, that relationship has been a bit ragged as of late. And I think it's going to take probably more than just one meeting between Rice and her counterparts to mend it.

CHIDEYA: Pedro, Haiti has been in and out of the news for everything from natural disasters to their changes in government. What role should the U.S. be playing there? Or what role should U.S. citizens be playing in advocating for Haiti?

Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (New York University): Well, given that the United States has played such a major role in the undoing of Haiti and continues to be a major drain on the Haitian economy--many Americans don't realize how much the United States is implicated in the exploitation that we see in Haiti. We have a major role to play supporting the country, supporting efforts to build democracy. The Haitian community in the United States, I think in particular, has a role I can play because we have large Haitian communities today which have education and economic resources that can support their country.

I just want to add about the secretary's trip to the Caribbean. We should keep in mind that in addition to Cuba being a major source of concern for the United States, despite the fact that it controls it, that prison there in Guantanamo, we also--Trinidad is one of the largest suppliers of oil and natural gas for the United States. The United States, although it tends to ignore the Caribbean, actually continues very important strategic relationships there. And Caribbean leaders are finally showing a willingness to stand up to the United States, and I think this has generated concern in the Bush administration.

CHIDEYA: Pedro, let me stay with you. We talked about the Caribbean as the third border of the United States. Let's move onto the first or second border, Mexico. President George W. Bush has now said that he does not intend to grant amnesty or automatic citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. This is a debate within the Republican Party, let alone between the parties. Can you frame for us this ongoing debate about what to do in terms of incorporating undocumented immigrants into American society or saying bye?

Mr. NOGUERA: Well, here's the bind we're in. We have a complete dependence on immigrant labor in this country now in several key sectors. In agriculture, in the service sector, in most food production, we are dependent on immigrant labor. So many New Yorkers today are dependant on their nannies who come from Central America and the Caribbean. So at the same time, we have this xenophobia and this ambivalence or this desire to rid ourselves of immigrants that we need.

And the fact that there is this contradictory stance in the country about immigration creates a desire to, on the part of politicians, to pretend that by not acknowledging the rights of those immigrants who are here, by treating them as fugitives essentially, we are in a better position. And all this does is to keep immigrants basically as an underground supply of labor who can be exploited to do the very worst jobs, and what Americans need to understand is that when you have a group of people who can be paid very little wages with no benefits, it actually undermines conditions for American workers because those workers will always be able to undo any gains made by America workers.

So America workers and the broader public need to understand that immigration is actually essential. But to our quality of life, at the same time we need to have reasonable policies which result in don't end up treating immigrants like fugitives.

CHIDEYA: Julianne, bouncing off of that point, the President said, “The best way to do something about it,” meaning immigration, “is to say that if an American won't do a job and you can find somebody who will do the job, they ought to be allowed to do it legally on a temporary basis.” Now, what Pedro Noguera was saying was that there is this huge pool of people who will do just about anything within the labor market, and in fact, the president of Mexico said oh well, Mexicans are just taking jobs that blacks won't. Frame this in a debate between the Latino community, the Latino immigrant community specifically, and African-Americans. Is this whole debate over immigrations causing tensions within the ranks of lower income workers of color?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Farai, that's a great question because it absolutely is. I agree with much of the substance of what Pedro said, but there's one thing that I think he said that I take issue with and that's the issue of this huge labor shortage. The fact is that the unemployment rate in the African-American population is near 10 percent. Last month, for the first time, it got to like 9.8, but it's been above 10 percent for much of the Bush administration, and in fact, much of recent history.

There is a preference on the part of some employers to hire Mexican immigrants in particular over African-Americans, especially in some of these service jobs. There was a description recently in one of the San Francisco newspapers that described Mexican immigrants as just like African-Americans, but without the attitude, which I found a little bit amusing. So when you look at that, you do see at least at these low wage jobs, a kind of attention. Why is that a job?

So Vicente Fox is full of it. When you see people in some of the construction jobs, and there are lost of undocumented people working construction, these are jobs that African-Americans have not been offered. So it's not that African-Americans won't work. There's some cases where there is a preference. Part of the preference is a preference for someone to be illegal because they can pay them less. And the black and brown communities need to understand that.

I mean when you look at New Orleans, for example, where people have had a lot of resistance to the fact that Mexican immigrants were doing some of the debris cleaning at $9 an hour. The union wage was something like $20. Halliburton and others had bid that job out at 60. What's I've said to African-American laborers is don't get mad at the Mexican immigrant who's making nine. Ask where the $51 went. That's who you need to be mad at is the person who's exploited that surplus labor.

But as long as you have high black unemployment, there will be tension. As long as you have employers who are willing to exploit, there will be tension. We've got to deal with the fact that I think the president is playing this thing against two ways. He, early on, said that he was going to come up with something with Mexico. He talked about it in his first administration, and of course he had September 11th, but he's trying to play it two ways and he knows the reality.

The reality is that we do need some kind of program that does indeed acknowledge the rights of people who are working here. Where would our lettuce come from? Where would the nannies come from? There is a level of dependency, but we also have to recognize there's also a level of under utilization in our country of African-American workers. Part of it's racist. Part of it's something else, but we've got to deal with that as well.

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, one interesting thing about this, you're talking about President Bush, is it's interesting that he finds himself somewhat to the left of some of his Republican colleagues on this particular issue because President Bush is the one that's promoting a guest worker program that many fear will result in amnesty for people who are here without proper documents. And of course, the president, as we said earlier insists that it will not. But you have this interesting split within the Republican Party, and in the Senate, you have the, the Republican leader, Senator Frist, trying to advance legislation by going around the Senate Judiciary Committee, which of course is headed by Republican Arlen Specter. And Senator Frist's legislation would not include a guest worker program, but you have John McCain who has legislation which supports the president's program, and both of these might face each other in the Republican Presidential Primary.

So you do have an interesting divide within the Republican Party that curiously enough puts the president to the left of an issue. That's probably a place that he is not really familiar with in many cases.

CHIDEYA: Well, Joe, you mentioned Frist and others who are jockeying for position for the presidential election. What do you think, coming up on 2008, I know it's premature, but I'm just going to go there…

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CHIDEYA: …do you think that a Republican who supported citizenship would be able to win the primary? Or is it one of these things where you have to be super far to the right on immigration in order to really lead the party?

Mr. Davidson: Well you know, one reason there's a split is because the immigration issue can, plays differently in different places. Texas has always had a more moderate position. Texans, I should say, have always had a more moderate position on immigration than people in California. Several years ago, when California introduced and passed some harsh immigration laws, laws that at least the people of California felt were harsh, they, the Republicans were voted out. Meanwhile, the Republicans in the House and the Senate from Texas had a much more moderate view of immigration laws. So I think it's one of these things that plays differently in different areas of the country.

CHIDEYA: Let's move on.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, Farai…

CHIDEYA: Go ahead, Julianne…

Ms. MALVEAUX: …the fact of it is, just a quick point. It's not going to be so simple as a single issue around immigration, I think. I mean, I do think that the Republican Party has been assiduously wooing the Latino community. There has been a wooing that talks about they're larger than the African American community, and the Latinos do split their votes more evenly than African Americans do. But because they split their votes more evenly, and even among Latinos you have some ambivalence here, I don't think it will ever be single issue, in terms of the 2008 nomination.

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to another Bush territory: Florida. Jeb Bush is supporting a new plan where Florida teachers will be paid on performance. The program will tie raises and bonuses directly to pupils' standardized test scores, beginning next year. It's already been approved.

Now, some states have proposed similar initiatives, but this is the first time a state has so closely linked the wages of individual teachers to students' exam results. Now, Pedro, you are in education. Is it fair to link pay to standardized tests, especially since some schools teach specifically to the tests and some schools don't?

Mr. NOGUERA: I think that this is a hugely problematic issue, the way they've addressed it in the state of Florida. To arbitrarily say that 10 percent of the teachers who produce growth in their students are going to get these rewards, opens up the door to very, I think, pernicious approaches to compensating--to favoritism among teachers. And I think it's going to be a real problem. I don't think there's a problem in looking for growth and trying to find ways that you reward schools and teachers that show that they are making a difference for their kids.

I think it's important that we have broad range measures, and to focus narrowly on test scores, I think is a huge problem. Particularly because there are lots of schools that serve, particularly in Florida, immigrant kids who have come to this country fairly recently, who don't speak English, and for whom there will be very little incentive to teach them, because you have to be very difficult to generate the kind of growth that might be possible in other schools.

There's also, I think, a bigger question that's not being addressed here, which is, how do we make it more attractive for strong college students to become teachers? Laws like these don't do it. They don't make this profession any more desirable, and that's the bigger crisis we have to face: a shortage of teachers throughout the whole country right now.

CHIDEYA: Joe, this action in Florida, of course, mirrors the whole issue of testing that was brought up by No Child Left Behind. How is that whole debate over testing going right now? Are the winds blowing towards more increased standardized testing, or is there a backlash?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think there's both of those, frankly. I mean, I think you do have winds blowing in favor of more standardized testing, which I think the law we're discussing in Florida reinforces. But at the same time, laws like that do generate a backlash against people who say you should not simply teach to the test, or the tests aren't reflective, necessarily, of what a student might know. But when it comes to the issue, the issue of the arts, for example, can you really have a standardized test that deals with a student who's proficient in music? That's one of the main issues in Florida.

You know, on a personal level, I had two sons who did very will on the SATs. I mean, my chest was just bounced out when I got their results. The fact of the matter is, though, on their report cards, when they brought home their report cards, I was never really satisfied, and it wasn't like they were failing, but I always thought that they could do more, they could do better. Maybe I was just trying to be an overly aggressive parent in this regard. But I don't necessarily think that, I mean, speaking as someone who has been pleased with my students', my children's test scores, I can say I don't think that's necessarily the end all when it comes to assessing a student's performance.

CHIDEYA: Julianne, we've only got a minute. What about the idea of racial and cultural bias in testing?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, I think that's exactly the issue here is, you know, this whole thing doesn't deal with the issue of what tests measure, how it measures it for whom, and we certainly have seen racial bias in some of the testing. The No Child Left Behind and the emphasis on standardized testing, Farai, is nothing more than a boondoggle to the standardized testing industry. And let's be clear: it is an industry. The more frequently you test, the more you tests you develop, somebody is making a profit for that, but our kids are not learning.

So it makes no sense to talk about linking pay, because the standardized test are only, it's English, it's math, as Joe says, you're not looking at music. You're not looking at social studies, you're not looking at a whole range of issues. And I think the bottom line is the one Pedro has raised here: how do you get more good teachers in to test especially--not to test, to teach--especially the young people who are at the margins, who are immigrant, who are poor?

We spend a lot of time, effort, energy, and money and this president with the most recent education cuts that he proposes, wants to provide more subsidies to the high schools, for example, where you have AP and International Baccalaureate. Well, what about those inner city high schools where there's nothing? And where the most motivated teachers should be to get these folks engaged in the educational process.

Every piece of economic data that we have, suggests that our country will face labor shortages by 2030 if we don't pay attention to the fastest growing populations, and those are the Latino population, first, and then the African-American population.

CHIDEYA: We're going to have to leave it there, Julianne. Julianne Malveaux with the Corbett Studio in Cincinnati; in Washington D.C., Joe Davidson of The Washington Post; and Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at New York University, thank you for joining me.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you.

Mr. NOGUERA: Thank you.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

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CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS AND NOTES, a young woman becomes a drug addict and prostitute, but manages to turn her life spectacularly around: my conversation with author Cupcake Brown.

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CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

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CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. Next time on NEWS AND NOTES, the mayoral election in New Orleans is a month away, and while candidates campaign out of state to reach displaced residents, others want voting day postponed. Reverend Jesse Jackson joins us to discuss this crucial election. That's next time on NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

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