Roundtable: Black Leadership, U.S. Health Care

Topics: how black leaders can work together for the common good of African Americans; a judge's refusal to delay New Orleans' mayoral election; and a poll that indicates health care is the top concern of Americans. Guests: Brown University social sciences professor Glenn Loury; Hofstra University journalism professor ER Shipp; and Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's roundtable: the number one concern for Americans is healthcare, according to a poll, and no more delays in the New Orleans mayoral election. Joining us today to discuss these topics and more: from our New York bureau, E.R. Shipp of Hofstra University. She's a journalism professor there. And Michael Meyers, Executive Director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. And with us, Glenn Loury, Professor of Economics at Brown University. He joins us from member station WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts.

All right, folks, before we get into anything, I wanted to raise a question that I raised with Secretary Alphonso Jackson, and Glenn Loury, let me start with you. I thought it was interesting what he said, the idea that it seems to me that if we always say as black Americans; we're not a monolith; We all don't walk in lockstep. If we're really going to move forward, we're going to need conservative and leadership at some point to get together and deal with each other on some of the things that they can agree on. I'm wondering what you thought about what he said, and whether or not you believe it's going to do any good.

Professor GLENN LOURY (Social Sciences, Brown University): Well, I don't see any harm in African-Americans across political spectrums sitting down and comparing notes, but I think--and I agree with the secretary that that should be done in a civil way and calling names, Uncle Tom and what not, is not constructive. But I think we have to acknowledge that the government, the philosophy of this government, what it has actually done, what it's about, what drives it is antithetical to the interests of most African-American people.

I mean, we're talking tax cuts for the rich here. The president said he was going to be a compassionate conservative, but I haven't seen a whole lot of compassion. We're spending a trillion-and-a-half--that's one-and-a-half trillion--on a war about which a great deal of criticism might be leveled, and the priority of taking care of the crisis amongst African-American males or taking care of these problems in our inner cities seems to be way back in the queue for this government, and you know, self-respecting African-American leaders are going to have to be able to say that in this kind of conversation with conservatives.

GORDON: You know, E.R. Shipp, it's interesting because when I deal with many of the politicians in terms of our discussions on either side of the aisle, I don't even get into those numbers anymore because they'll find some numbers that counter what you say. Or, you know, they'll juxtapose it with something that they've done good, and it's kind of a bean counting thing. But one has to question whether or not leadership in general, is going to be able to attach itself to one or two ills that we can fix because, lord knows, we're not going to be able to fix all the ills at one time.

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication): That's very true, but you know what, they don't have to sit down in a room and regularly meet to come up with a plan. If they had a system to periodically, maybe twice a year, talk about agenda items that they can agree upon--and then let them go off in their own manner and work on these issues, and then the next time they come together, we can compare notes to which approaches are working and which aren't. As it is now, we have either no communication, or we are screaming, and still the problems exist.

GORDON: Mm hmm. Any need, Michael Meyers, in your mind, for conservatives and liberals, in terms of black America, to have a meeting of the minds and find some common ground on any level?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Well, first of all, I don't like labels, but there is not going to be any meeting of the minds between so-called conservatives and black liberals or black progressives or, for that matter, black radicals or black extremists--if you're going to use labels. There is no meeting of the minds. But my point is, what does black have to do with it? Being black is not enough. This is about power, money, prestige, and the exercise of power. And there are people in power...

GORDON: Well, but one will argue, Michael, that what black has to do with it is the idea that, you know, you're gonna have to fix your own car.

Mr. MEYERS: No.

GORDON: Nobody else is fixing the car for you.

Mr. MEYERS: In American society, blacks can't do it by themselves. No group, ethnic group, can do it by themselves. The question is who gets access, who has the power, who gets--just with respect to no big contracts, etcetera. And my point is that the use of words like Tom, and Oreo, and banana, these terms are a passé in the 21th century world. (Unintelligible) name-calling, is not intelligent. It's just idiotic.

Prof. SHIPP: It's stuff that should have been left on the playground decades ago.

Prof. LOURY: Absolutely.

GORDON: All right, well, we got some unison there, so let's move onto the next subject. And that's something that we've been talking about for some time. We found, this week, that a judge is refusing to delay the New Orleans mayoral election, despite the pleas of many civil rights' groups who suggested that the displaced evacuees would not be able to vote--and that enough has not been done to try to make sure that this is a fair and just election. Any surprise here, E.R., to you?

Prof. SHIPP: Yes, I think there is a surprise. I thought this would be delayed a little bit, until some better mode of communicating with these scattered voters could be devised, and I believe at one point somebody was asking that voters could do so electronically or...

GORDON: And there had been talk about satellite voting and all of that.

Prof. SHIPP: Satellite voting and all of that. And none of that, to my knowledge, is even remotely in place, so it seems to me this is going to be a bit of a sham. It's an exercise that will make New Orleans look as though it's on the road to recovery. And I think, every week we have some new exercise in that manner, but it seems to be a bit of a sham election.

GORDON: Is it enough, Glenn, for this judge to say, as he did, and the, we should note the election is April 22, so a little month away--telling representatives on both sides, hey, just deal with this issue and make sure that the displaced residents have the ability to vote. It seems that that is almost simplistic.

Prof. LOURY: Yes, it does, and it seems that what we're seeing is the redefinition of what New Orleans is and whose New Orleans is. And while I don't think the judge has any political agenda hidden in and of itself, there are going to be political consequences here. You know, these people may never get back into that city, and they may never get back into that polity, and it's really a remarkable thing to behold how a diverse and complex and society by this terrible natural disaster, is now going to be remade. And it looks like it's headed for Disney Land or something like that.

GORDON: Michael?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I don't agree. To answer the question you put to E.R., I told you so. I told you so before. And the federal judge is--first of all, this election has already been postponed--and the federal judge, who is the tryer of fact, the independent person who looks at the claims, he rejected them. He said you can have an election. Now, fairness, all this stuff is contextual, and I'm not going to substitute my judgment for the judges, and I'm certainly not going to substitute the judges' judgment with the NAACP's judgment because I distrust the NAACP. It does have an agenda, and it's not my agenda.

GORDON: So what would their agenda be here, Michael, in your mind?

Mr. MEYERS: Their agenda is a racial grievance. Their agenda is keeping in the newspapers or trying to be visible. Their agenda is saying, in effect, that New Orleans ought to be a chocolate city. Now, my point is that people can vote. The NAACP should get out the vote, get buses in their, get people down to the polls, whatever it takes, get resources together to get people to vote, get (unintelligible) ballots.

GORDON: E.R. Shipp, is it the NAACP's responsibility, as Michael is suggesting there, to get buses out and bus people from Houston to New Orleans.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, they're the ones who are crying foul.

GORDON: Well, I mean, you know, let's cut to the chase, Michael. If you're going to talk about election day, that's what we're talking about, so whose responsibility would it be?

Prof. SHIPP: Right, it's not their sole--it's not their sole responsibility. This is a governmental thing, but Michael's right in the sense that at some point they may have to step into the breach. Hopefully that won't be a large breach, but they should step into the breach with buses or what have you. The NAACP, the churches, various civic associations, they can help the New Orleans political infrastructure that probably--when you get right down to it - probably don't want a lot of these people coming to participate in this election.

Prof. LOURY: That's exactly my point. Of course the NAACP should do what it can, but the cost of getting those people to the polls is higher than the cost of other people in the electorate. Your position in the queue to vote, in effect, depends how high your house was relative to sea level when that flood took place. The poor and black people of New Orleans are being effectively, relatively, disenfranchised by what's happening, and that's my point.

Whose city is it? It's not about a chocolate city; it's about did everybody who lived in the city before the flood have, in effect, one man, one vote with respect to their position in the polity right afterwards, and what's playing out here is that they did not. The poor people on low ground are at the back of the queue with respect to the political process, and that's a fact.

GORDON: And then there are always misnomers when we talk about things like this, when we talk about whose city is it and was it. It depends on how you define how you own a city because even prior to Katrina, disproportionately it was a black city by virtue of residence, but it was never a black city in terms of total power.

Mr. MEYERS: And even prior to Katrina, there were people who were disinterested in voting and people who would not vote. Look, my point is, if you want to vote, there are opportunities to vote. Vote. There are absentee ballots. If you got to go to New Orleans to vote--and you don't have to--but if you have to go to New Orleans to vote then the NAACP…

GORDON: Yeah, but, Michael…

Mr. MEYERS: …and all the other groups, should put some funds in there and some people on the ground and get them to the polls! Stop with the racial rhetoric!

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: All right.

Mr. MEYERS: Jiminy Christmas!

GORDON: Okay, let me move us on to…

Mr. LOURY: So, we can calm Michael down a little bit.

GORDON: …to a study, that the Gallup Poll released and it revealed, according to the people that they spoke with, that Americans are most concerned not about terror, not about the war, but the availability of affordable healthcare. A total of 68 percent of the people polled said they worry a great deal about having that available to them; coming in second, Social Security, the Social Security system.

So as we see this president, Glen Loury, march across the United States waving the flag of keeping us safe from terror and saying that this is the number one issue that America faces, the poll suggests that is not how Americans see it. Is that the idea that Americans don't have to sit in the big chair and keep us safe or is that just, you know, my backyard--the idea that hey, I have to be healthy before I worry about anything else?

LOURY: Well, one of the things that fascinates me most about this war on terror situation is that we, the public, have very little information by which to judge exactly what the nature of the threat is. Now, I don't say that the government is manipulating or overstating the threat. I don't say that at all. It may be that the respondents to that Gallup Poll simply are ignorant about what the actual situation is, so they underestimate the threat.

But the fact is that we can't assess what might be out there because everything that you need to know in order to make an objective assessment about it is secret, is classified. Of course, people are concerned about domestic issues. I think the president is on the wrong track in terms of trying to deal with the international threat, but I'm not at all surprised to see that the voting public doesn't have a keen sense of concern because we don't have the facts that we would need to make an assessment about it.

GORDON: E.R. Shipp, we should note, and I know you've looked at polls for years, that when you take a look at this poll, some of the other issues that in fact were of concern to the people. And we should note that this poll was of a thousand adults nationally. They talked about drug use, crime, violence; the possibility of terror attacks came in at 45 percent. Most of the time, when you talk about worry, you do think about the things that affect you individually and can affect your family immediately.

SHIPP: Sure. Now you think of those things that are visible, somehow, on a daily basis. We've seen all kinds of accounts recently of people losing their jobs or facing the possibility of losing their job and the benefits that might have come with that. We've seen information about the gap, the continuing gap between the haves and the have-nots. So it becomes a real personal issue for you. But I would argue that if we were to analyze these polling results a little better, and we don't have the wherewithal to do that today, we might find that there's a geographical difference in people's priorities.

Here in the Northeast, you can hardly go a day without 9/11 being in your face in one way or the other. Whether it's fighting over what to do with those to memorialize those who died or whether it's some health consequences to first responders or, you know, any of those things. Every day we are focusing on this, so I would think that terrorism would rank higher among concerns than it does in the national poll.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, there also seems to the component and not only regionally but whether it be gender or race that affects your response often in polls like this.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, look. I'm Black and if someone were to poll me and I live in the Northeast, I live in New York Ground Zero, I would have responded the same way and I'm not ignorant, Glen. I would have respond in the same way. Number one concern, availability and affordability of healthcare because guess what? It affects families. It affects you if you lose your job, as E.R. says, and you don't have health insurance. If you have assets and you get really sick and don't have health insurance or catastrophic insurance, guess what? Kiss those assets goodbye.

The changing economy, the oil industry, the Industrial Revolution is over and now we're in a technological information age, and people lose income and they lose their health insurance and their health coverage. And they try to get the COBRA substitute and it's very, very expensive. If you don't have income, how in the heck are you going to afford health insurance? No one wants to rely on emergency rooms.

So, if I were to respond to the Gallup Poll or any other poll and we have to remember that a poll is just that, it's a snapshot in time. Right now I would say, yes, healthcare, social security, availability and affordability. You know, we're just coming out of this winter with high fuel costs and gasoline costs, drug use, crime and violence and then maybe, okay: terrorism, terrorism.

INTERVIEWER: But Glen, there may be a surprise to people who feel that it may have been higher based on the drum beat that we've seen from this White House over the last, if we're talking about a snapshot, over the last month and a half.

Mr. LOURY: Sure. And this is a really interesting problem. Let there be another incident anywhere, doesn't have to be in the Northeast in the United States, and take the poll again and you're going to get a completely different result.

Mr. MEYERS: Of course.

Mr. LOURY: I repeat. It's not that people are ignorant, it's that we don't have any objective basis for saying whether the threat is small, medium, or large. And we're in this…

Ms. SHIPP: Red, orange, or yellow.

Mr. MEYERS: Exactly.

LOURY: It's true. The government has used this potential disaster as a political tool in one way or another in order to instill fear for partisan purposes and so forth. That's true. But it's also true that there's a threat, a nebulous threat out there. Are we going to be standing in long security lines at airports forever? When will it stop?

Can a President ever say that the war on terror is over, that it's been won, that we can relax? He dare not, or she--because the next day if something happens they would be impeached. So, we're in a box here it seems to me and the public doesn't have the information and in principle, can't have the information that it needs in order to make informed judgments about the nature of the terrorist threat.

GORDON: And E.R., with about 30 seconds, here's the real dilemma: when you talk about terror if it's the number one issue for an administration, when you talk about the concerns of a White House trying to fix things like healthcare, it's a Catch-22 that you find yourself in because you can't spend the correct amount of time, the allotted time needed, to correct that situation.

Ms. SHIPP: Well, it may be in this president's interest to keep the situation as confused as it is…

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah.

Mr. SHIPP: …so he can one day focus on the terror threat if that will deflect attention from some healthcare issues he ought to be focusing on.

GORDON: All right. Well, we'll see. Michael Meyers, Glen Loury, E.R. Shipp thank you very much, appreciate it.

Mr. LOURY: Oh, okay.

Mr. MEYERS: Thank you, Ed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Okay, Michael, thank you. Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, an apology for a North Carolina high school student five decades in the making and NPR's Farai Chideya continues her fitness challenge with a trip to the nutritionist.

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