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Roundtable: Embedded Risks, Ending the 'N' Word

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Topics: the deaths of Western journalists embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq; more than 1,400 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) badges and uniforms are stolen; and a new Web site wants to abolish the "n" word. Guests: Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Michael Myers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; and Jeff Obafemi, host of the radio show Freestyle.

ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, hundreds of ID badges and uniforms from TSA airport security workers have gone missing. That's just one of our topics we'll be talking about.

Joining us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, DC, Mary Frances Berry, she is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Michael Myers joins us, he is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. He joins us via phone from New York City, and joining us from Spotland Productions in Nashville, Tennessee, Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio program, Freestyle.

All right folks we want to talk about a number of things, including what many of us have been following over this weekend. And that is the unfortunate deaths of two journalists and one still in critical condition. And that's a CBS team that was embedded with the Fourth Brigade combat team, 4th Infantry Division.

We've seen a lot of this, Mary Frances Berry, during this war, journalists being embedded. They were doing a story and following the troops, on Memorial Day, when a car nearby suddenly blew up. And we are seeing this more and more. Mary we should note that more journalists have been killed in this war than were killed in the Vietnam War.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): Absolutely. And it's very scary, but the journalist's absolutely necessary if the public is to be informed about what's going on, even the embedded ones.

I was a reporter in the War in Vietnam one summer and when I was a student, I went off to be a reporter. And we weren't embedded in those days. We had to get around for ourselves. But, this is dangerous work. It's necessary and it's really offensive how many people in the public don't understand how important the first amendment are and how courageous these reporters are, and who go out to do this work.

And it also just shows how scary it is in Baghdad and in other parts of Iraq now, how the violence still continues. In fact, it accelerates: there were a lot more deaths yesterday that were reported on Memorial Day. So, I think that these people were courageous, these journalists, to do what they do, especially when the public doesn't seem to have the respect that I think they should have for them.

GORDON: Here's what's interesting, Michael Myers, when we talk about this too. There are those who are critical of journalists that are embedded, if you will, with these infantries, with these troops, suggesting that close quarters may not allow us the kind of reporting that we should see.

Mr. MICHAEL MYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Well, that's because a lot of journalists become identified with their protectors. But the word, embedded, is a misnomer because it conveys some sort of security and protection when we know that Iraq is a very dangerous war zone.

It's a dangerous zone for journalists, it's a dangerous zone for military. It's a dangerous zone for the police, the Iraq military, it's a dangerous zone for civilians. So there is no “embeddedness,” but it comes down to safety and protection. Peace is not at hand in Iraq. Hostilities are ongoing. The insurgency is raging. And how do you protect oneself against car bombs? This feels like a situation that is virtually impossible to get out of, except you have to get out of it.

GORDON: Here's, Jeff, what this kind of story does do. Often when you look at the news, unfortunately, with almost 2,500 troops being killed, people hear that number, there's a certain expectation that soldiers will be killed. You almost look at it in a different way than you would a “regular” life lost. And here we're seeing two men in their 40s - one 48 and one 42, that's the camera man and the sound man. And Kimberly Dozier of CBS News, not yet 40, hanging on to life at this point. It does bring a sobering effect to those who follow this.

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Host, Radio Show “Freestyle”): Of course it does. I think that we have to reach a point where hearing that 2,500 people, who died, or have died. Hearing that number gives the same effect though, because sometimes I think we value one human life over the other. The good thing about it, if there's a good thing to be found about this situation, is that because they are journalists, the journalism industry will now point more of a light towards what's going on in Iraq.

It's tragic, embedded actually means in embattled nowadays. And I have a lot of respect for journalists who's going to put their life on the line everyday to make sure that people back here have an angle on what's going on. What's more tragic is that now that Western journalists are being killed, there's a big uproar. But there are Iraqi citizens being killed, there are other Americans being killed, there are people worldwide who are in Iraq right now, who are getting killed. And it's a tragedy that just needs to end.

Prof. BERRY: And most of the journalists who've have been killed, to date, have been Iraqi's or other…

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Right.

Prof. BERRY: …foreign citizens and not Americans. But when, of course, it's an American, it's just like the tennis matches in the French Open unnoticed. We don't cover anything unless an American is playing. Or even if we do cover it we say, oh, there are no Americans, so…

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Right.

Prof. BERRY: …that, no matter what happens, if something happens to an American, then we get all excited about it, and other peoples lives don't seem to be as valuable.

GORDON: Well, the president says that this…

Mr. OBAFEMI: And people need to take note of that worldwide.

GORDON: The president said that this was all part of his fight against terrorism. Some look at the country and wonder where that fight has gone. Here's a report, first brought to light by a San Antonio television station, WOAI in San Antonio, that suggests that more than 1,400 identification badges and uniform items had been reported lost and stolen from the Transportation Security Administration since 2003.

There is a concern, of course, that with that many articles missing, many people may, in the guise of security, may be able to go through security at airports and pose a very serious problem. The Transportation Security Administration has suggested that regardless of credentials or - and this is from a statement: Regardless of credentials or uniforms, everyone is screened each time they enter the checkpoint. Badges and uniforms used, individually or collectively would not allow access to a person with ill intent. Michael Myers?

Mr. MYERS: Well, my first impression, upon reading this is that terrorists don't need not stinking badges. And they don't come in uniforms. If a guy wearing a uniform and a badge can penetrate Homeland Security procedures then it's a poor system indeed.

It's like watching a B movie; indeed I've seen the movie. But my concern is that intelligence requires intelligence. Re-issue uniforms, different uniforms. Intelligence requires redundancy, double-check the checks. But also, what about the cargo holds on these planes? They're still not being inspected.

So a lot of this is just, you know, the loss of uniforms, the badges, which raises, you know, alarms; but the real alarm is that terrorists are smart, not dumb.

GORDON: Well, but that's…

Prof. BERRY: And people…

GORDON: …all part and parcel, Mary Frances Berry, of the problem. If in fact, as Michael Myers says, these cargo holds are not being inspected, if you have a badge, if you have a uniform, there is a greater likelihood that you maybe able to get through the first security checkpoint. I travel a lot and you often see people with badges and uniforms being let through without a real check of that badge.

Prof. BERRY: Absolutely. And even the story points out that a TV station had footage of employees passing through, being waved through. This whole area of airport security, Americans behave like a nation of sheep here. We have had story after story about holes in the security system, from both people who work at TSA and from the press, that identifies holes in the system, including the cargo question of not even checking anything.

But yet we go blithely through, taking our shoes off and sticking them on there, and having them go through, and thinking we're somehow made safe. And we're spending all this money to do this. So, the system, obviously, it has human error in it.

We also know that - the story tells us - that in other countries, terrorists have used stolen badges and uniforms in order to carry out what they were doing. It would be obvious that we would start checking cargos. I mean, we've been talking about this and talking about this, but we still don't do it. There doesn't seem to be any great public uprising about it. Yet, I saw someone in the airport actually get mad at another person who didn't want to take their shoes off, making a big issue out of it.

So, I don't know what we do to make people more aware of this issue and to make TSA any more efficient than it is. But it's obviously a big problem.

GORDON: Jeff, from the story that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, and that is the air marshals being concerned that their anonymity is not being kept in the best way to this, to the port story we had a few months ago. One has to question the idea of just how safe are we?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Oh, you have to always. At first off, in an example of how the media can really effect some positive change by pointing out some serious issues and some of the contradictions that can emerge from the mouths of people who, in this case, attempt to downplay the seriousness of these sad issues. You have to give credit to WOAI for putting some light on this.

This is a serious issue. Lost or stolen security or law enforcement IDs and uniforms are a real problem. A few weeks ago I was pulled over by this cat who was impersonating an officer. He had an ID and he had a badge, and in that case, the only thing that busted up whatever scam he was running was that I had a close association with some law enforcement officers. And I asked him for some badge number and that kind of thing and he sped off.

Now, if somebody would venture to do something that bold with a false ID they probably bought out of a flatbed of a pickup truck from some good old boy at a gun show, then what could happen if real credentials got into the hands of real criminals who wanted to do real damage. That's the question we all have to meditate on.

GORDON: All right. Let me turn our attention to something else that's been debated and talked about for a mighty long time, far longer than this terrorist question. And that is, again, the N word. We've gotten wind of a new website that is up, AbolishTheNWord.com, and this was inspired by a local radio program here during Black History Month that was doing a story on the N word. And some Brooklynites decided to bring this website, get signatures, again in the attempt to abolish it.

We see now that Ice Cube has joined the fight of Ludacris and 50 Cent, suggesting that Oprah is against hip-hop artists and hip-hop, and part of that fight is her being angry about the liberal use of the N word in many of these songs. Michael Meyers, again, is this much ado about nothing, or is this something that the black community really should get a handle on? And while you can't make people do anything, can there be this collective idea of whether or not to use this word?

Mr. MEYERS: No. The N word is bigger than black people. It always has been.

And blacks in the past did not use it - now they do. But not only blacks, but whites, they use it. Others, Hispanics, they use it among themselves, calling each other nigga' and nigger, and all that other stuff. I think it's too late. If you were going to ban the N word, but I don't believe you can or you should. I don't think you can ban words.

I don't want to ban words. Words mean something and they convey a message. Sometimes they convey a message of faith. Sometimes in the context they convey a message of brotherhood or sisterhood. And many of the young people who use the N with each other are not conveying hate, but brotherhood or sisterhood.

I think, if you start banning words, there'll just be other words created. For example, if you wanted to ban chink, somebody could create egg roll. So, you know, words cannot be banned.

GORDON: Let me ask this...

Prof. BERRY: Uh, I think that the issue is not whether the N word has always been used, or who it's used by or how it's used now. It's whether black people should embrace the public use of it as we have as the young people have, the rappers have; should we embrace it? There used to be, black people would privately use, that is within the community, the N word. I mean, we used to say things like you're my N, if you don't get no bigger, and if you get some bigger, then you're still my N. But we did not go out calling ourselves that publicly, because we knew that the word was a slur in the community at large.

So the real issue is, should it be embraced? It had been embraced. It's gone very far. Young people tell me now they say things like, yo, cheesy my neesey, and that that means hello, how are you doing, my N? Maybe we should change it and say my neesey all the time, and that might solve some of the problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: There is clearly, though, a generational difference here in the idea of what this word means. The older folks remember the scars, the hatred, and the hurt that came with that. The young generation doesn't seem to know the real history, nor care. Their whole idea is, we determine the power of the word and, for us, we're minimizing the effect.

Mr. CARR: And for some people, they do view it that way. And the wonderful thing is, old or young, I've heard old people and young people use this word all the time. And my barber said, I'm really going along with what he used to say, I'm more concerned about the mentality than I am the word itself.

Prof. BERRY: Right.

Mr. CARR: My barber used to say, the problem with the black people in America is they are locked in a continual civil war with the Ns. So it's a mentality there that I think has become kind of standardly accepted in hip-hop and other places. And, I will say, I'm a member of the hip-hop nation, I came up in hip-hop, so I love the positive elements. But that's one of the elements that has been negative.

When we do speak words, we give them power. But I'd also argue that the intent behind a word. To some people, the N word has no power. Somebody calls me that I laugh, because I know it doesn't describe me. So to some extent, I've snatched the sting out of it myself, mostly because I know that it doesn't apply as either a noun or an adjective.

Prof. BERRY: Maybe we should start calling everybody else that.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, there is a sense though, Michael...

Mr. CARR: That's right.

GORDON: ...of a question of whether or not you can involve the idea of teaching right and wrong, rather than banning a word. For instance, as Mary says, years ago you would never hear that word in public without a crossed eye or a fight getting ready to happen. Now, you walk in a mall in an urban area, and you readily hear that in the same way you may hear a sales associate say, anything else?

Mr. MEYERS: Oh, absolutely. I believe in public education. I believe in mass education of the public. I believe in inculcating young people, in particular, with values about how we treat each other, about language. I believe in unlearning of stereotypes and that kind of education.

But I don't believe that you can tell - instruct young people that certain words have a negative connotation or a slur if they don't believe that word has a slur anymore. And contextually they know about nigger with respect to American history and segregation and how they subjugated black people. They know that, their not ignorant.

GORDON: Well, some of them know that. I'm not sold that all of them know that.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, people - I think anybody who's watched Roots, anybody who's read, anybody who has history in school, they know about the N word. Everybody knows about the N word. The problem is that the N word now has different currency - different context.

Prof. BERRY: But I think Ed is right. We can't - but, Michael, we can't be sure that they all know. First of all, history...

Mr. CARR: That's true.

Prof. BERRY: ...was not taught in all the schools. Secondly, I encounter many young people who don't know anything and the post-Civil Rights generation, they say, we don't know anything about the history of this stuff. We're just living now. And we make things mean what we, you know, think they should mean. So they don't really understand the context.

I see nothing wrong with educating people about the history of it and the -what the embrace of it means, but I don't think one's going to stop it. So I'm all for making it my neesey instead of N for the (unintelligible).

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: My neesey.

GORDON: Jeff, 30 seconds for a final...

Mr. MEYERS: (Unintelligible)

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: The other issue is that you...

GORDON: Jeff, final thoughts? Thirty seconds.

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Yeah, you make it bigger, a bigger issue, with the website, by calling attention to it. We use words like oppression, discrimination, every day. We put those into action, accept their workings without being angry at the actual practice as we are with hearing the N word ring in our ears. So you can educate people about 40 ounces and blunts, but if they still want to do them, if they're going to do them.

GORDON: All right. I won't even touch that analogy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Jeff, Michael, Mary, thank you so much. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. MEYERS: Thank you.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you.

GORDON: Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, her mother was an actress and her father was the star of a popular Hollywood sitcom, so why was journalist June Cross raised by a family 3,000 miles away? We'll tell you in just a moment.

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