Roundtable: Obama on Faith, Texas Redistricting

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Topics: Barak Obama calls on fellow Democrats to court Christian evangelicals and embrace faith; a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholds much of a Texas redistricting plan; and a lawsuit over public housing in New Orleans. Guests: economist and author Julianne Malveaux; Bob Meadows, writer for People magazine; and Pedro Noguera, professor in the Steinhart School of Education at New York University.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, Illinois Senator Barack Obama says Democrats need to court evangelicals and the fight for fair housing continues in New Orleans. Joining us today to discuss these topics at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., economist and author Julianne Malveaux, President and CEO of Last Word Productions. And, in our New York Bureau, Bob Meadows of People magazine, along with Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University.

Welcome and let's get right to it. So yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision about the Texas Congressional map engineered by former House majority leader Tom DeLay. The court ruled that most of the map will remain as is, but a section was thrown out because new boundaries didn't protect minority voting rights. Bob, what are the implications of this decision?

Mr. BOB MEADOWS (Writer, People Magazine): That remains to be seen. I think one of the things that the Supreme Court did, of course, by upholding this matter, is that it could open the door to the majorities - party majorities from different states from just redrawing districts any time they want. This is something that, obviously, people are very concerned about, especially the minorities in the various states.

Georgia Republicans have already done it. Colorado Republicans are trying to do it. Perhaps Democrats in New York, Illinois, wherever, will try to do the same thing. So, obviously, like I say, this is something that the repercussions of it, immediately, in Texas, is that what they redrew two years ago after what they have redrawn six years ago is going to sort of stay the same, but it might be changed a little bit, but it may have huge repercussions down the line.

CHIDEYA: Well, actually, the ruling says you can redraw the lines whenever you want, you just can't do it this certain way. And what I found interesting, among many other points, is that the kind of opposition among the justices was on the basis of civil rights of Hispanics. It says, you know, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, says Hispanics do not have a chance to elect a candidate of their choosing.

So this voting rights law that really started out in the African-American interest has now been used for Latinos. Pedro, what are your thoughts on that?

Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (Professor of Education, New York University): Oh, I think that's a wise decision, given that, you know, the Hispanic population is growing not only in Texas but elsewhere, important that there be representation - adequate representation in the Congress and in the state legislature.

I think the real question, though, with respect to the Supreme Court decision is the fact that it opens the door for this kind of manipulation of elections at every state. And I don't think that's a good thing for voters and I don't think it's a good thing for the overall health of democracy in this country.

CHIDEYA: Julianne?

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (Author; President and CEO, Last Word Productions): Farai, you know the Voting Rights Act was extended to include Hispanics, actually, when it included the states of New Mexico and Texas back in - I think the first amendment - so the first amendment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. So the Voting Rights Act has been cognizant of the interests of other minorities all the while. It did start out, clearly, with the African-American push for equal rights, but it did include others very early on. So I think that's important to note.

This decision is horrible, and we need to look at it in light of what's happened now with the Voting Rights Act. In fact, the very authorization of the Voting Rights Act has been tabled for now, because Congress people in Texas and Georgia do not like the fact that their states are held out as special. But you see that this case, in terms of the Hispanic voting rights issue, makes it clear that Texas should still be held out as special.

So when you look at the Supreme Court, combined with what's going on in Congress, I say that people of color have a lot of work to do to ensure that our voting rights are maintained. If, any time, one party gets a majority they get to go in and draw lines, we will have utter confusion at the Congressional level. And the inability, especially of Representatives of color, perhaps, to maintain seniority.

CHIDEYA: And in this case, Tom DeLay, of course, who's given up - or giving up the political life - he had such a profound impact on Texas politics. And basically, what he engineered is going to remain. Pedro, what do you think of the implications of Texas going from 17 to 15 Democratic majority in the legislature - now it's overwhelmingly Republican?

Prof. NOGUERA: Well, that, I think, is a real issue. If you look at the history of Texas, Texas was always a state that produced several very significant Democratic Congressmen and Senators. And that's going to be increasingly less likely to be the case not simply because the politics of the state have shifted, but because the lines have shifted.

And Texas is becoming increasingly diverse. You look at cities like Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, these are majority minority cities. To not have African Americans, Latinos, represented there, I think represents a grave miscarriage of justice and a real sign that the Democratic rights of those citizens are being violated.

CHIDEYA: But...

Ms. MALVEAUX: Farai...

CHIDEYA: Julianne.

Ms. MALVEAUX: ...the word gerrymandering is one that we need to never forget. Gerrymandering was what was used, essentially - and one of the reasons why we had the Voting Rights Act - to divide people. What I think is going to end up happening here - and I'm very, very apprehensive about the fact that, as Pedro said, you have these majority-minority cities, but you have these majority white suburbs. And you basically see lines being drawn in ways that will pit African-Americans and Latinos against each other in some elections but preserve the suburbs for white Republicans.

CHIDEYA: You know, I want to turn to Bob with another topic. It's time that the political parties are starting to go head-to-head around the 2006 midterm elections, precisely the Congressional districts we're talking about. Senator Barack Obama criticized his fellow Democrats yesterday. He said his party did not "acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people." Now he's urging Democrats to woo evangelicals and other churchgoing folk so his party has a fighting chance in 2006. What do you think of that?

Mr. MEADOWS: I thought it was - I remember about a year ago, Republicans were saying that they need to target blacks through religion. And, obviously, TD Jakes helped out George Bush by supporting him. This is something that, yes, the Democrats do need to do.

And it - Barack's speech the other day was very impassioned. This is something that he said has been bothering him since he was debating against Alan Keyes back in the 2004 campaign. Alan Keyes accused him of not being a Christian because Barack supports gay rights, because he supports abortion. And Barack was saying that, listen, the conservatives have taken over this by pretending that white evangelicals only care about gay rights, abortion, prayer in schools, things like that.

But what he's saying is the Democrats have to tailor their message. They have to - to these people, and that they can't just avoid or dismiss this issue. They have to attack it head on. I think it's brilliant.

CHIDEYA: Pedro, you know, Bob was just saying that this is something that was very passionate, this speech. And, in fact, during the speech, Obama says, kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will and dedicated myself to discovering his truth. He has not spoken in those terms before. And in some other nations, like Europe - many European nations, religion is kind of a non-topic in most of politics. But is this a case of sincere emotion or a case of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em?

Prof. NOGUERA: You know, I'm really concerned about it. I think that matters of faith should really be left up to an individual. We don't elect politicians to run for religious office. We're electing them to represent us. It's one thing to appeal to people of faith and to appeal to the humanitarian interests and concerns. It's another thing to say you're going to appeal to evangelicals, many of whom are very committed to very conservative causes, and which would alienate another part of the base.

I'm concerned that Obama is pandering to a segment of the country that has no interest in support of the Democratic Party at all. And it really concerns me because I see this kind of approach from Obama in a number of areas - around the war, the fact that Lieberman is now his mentor - I see it as a very bad sign.

CHIDEYA: Julianne?

Ms. MALVEAUX: I agree with Pedro up to a point. I do think that Obama is basically straddling a middle ground very, very carefully. And I think that that's problematic when, clearly, he has other views. I think with this faith thing there is something for Democrats, especially African-American Democrats, to begin to deal with here, which is how you spin the message of economic justice in the context of faith. And that's what we need to do.

Faith is not just about gay rights and abortion. It's also about that which you do to the least of these, you also do for me. So if you really want to talk about faith, how do we have so much hunger in this country? How do we have so many people who are still earning the minimum wage?

You know, I would have had more respect for Brother Obama if he had brought some of the social justice issues in to segue them with faith. Because I think what you've seen is this wedge and it hasn't impacted African-American voters. You look at Ohio, when you just start talking about abortion and gay rights.

But there's so many other things that are said, that are spoken to in the Bible, including the issue of fair wages. That is biblical, I mean, if you want to play faith. So, you know, if you want to play the faith card, play it in a way that works and that really is humanitarian.

CHIDEYA: Julianne, Bob, whoever wants to jump in, what about this whole issue of whether or not this is a lost cause. You know, the president's poll numbers have been dropping. His evangelical support isn't even as high as it was. Does this mean that the Democrats have a perfect opportunity, or that, you know, they shouldn't waste the - the Democrats shouldn't waste their energy?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Oh, Farai. Don't say perfect opportunity and Democrats in the same sentence, because you know they're going to mess it up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know if they had a perfect opportunity they'd mess it up. The issue is not Mr. Bush. The issue is his party. I mean, the reason why Barack Obama is speaking up is because about a quarter of the Republican Party are hard-line Christian conservatives. You cannot even talk moderate Republican unless you acknowledge that fact.

So take Mr. Bush off the table and look at the future of this party, and you can see why it's appealing for a politician who's straddling the fence to try to talk there.

CHIDEYA: Bob, do you think that - I mean, Barack Obama gained prominence for being, I guess, only the second or third black Senator since Reconstruction...

Mr. MEADOWS: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...and it's tough out there. It's tough out there for all politicians, but when you have that broad of a constituency, does he have any choice in this whole straddling the line thing?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, certainly he has a choice. He has a choice but he - well, okay. He has a choice, but I guess, perhaps maybe not if he wants to be reelected.

He does have to appeal to this wide range of people. He's a Senator, he's not a Congressman. He's got to appeal to a lot of people to get reelected. He has to - he's a black man and I imagine next time his candidate - the candidate the Republicans run against him is not going to go down because of sexual charges or whatever it was. So he really has to appeal to this group. He's got to try to at least.

That's why I think it's a brilliant strategy. That's why I call it brilliant. I'm thinking in the context of him winning, not so much how it's going to help the greater masses. But if he just wants to win, if the Democrats want to win, yeah, they've got to go after this base.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, I'm going to turn, reluctantly, because I think there's a lot more there, to another topic.

A coalition of advocates says a federal plan to demolish four public housing complexes in New Orleans is discriminatory. A lawsuit filed this week alleges the demolition plan violates international laws that protect people displaced by natural disasters. In this case, that means mostly poor African-Americans.

And, Julianne, I know you have been aware of this case. Can you give us a little more sense of what's going on?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, half of New Orleanians have returned already. But of the people who lived in public housing, only 20 percent have returned. That 30 percent gap represents a gap in public policy. Those who have the means can come back, but those who don't can't come back.

HUD is literally playing games here when they say they're building for a more prosperous time. Well, what does a more prosperous time mean for poor people? In other words, you're not planning to provide public housing, subsidized housing, for poor people. You're writing them out of the future of New Orleans.

The lawsuit, I think, is actually quite brilliant, to use Bob's word, because I think it does put it in the context of international law and the right of return. And those are the key words that many New Orleans activists have been using to talk about future plans.

Now, Nagin's back in, but he still hasn't come up with the plan as to how to get people who've been dispersed, you know, this New Orleans diaspora, how to get them back to the city if they want to come. Some don't - but many do as you talk to them, and the issue is there's nowhere for them to come. This really does speak to the politics of income, because those who have are able to move and those who don't aren't.

Renters, apparently, have no rights. Public housing tenants apparently have no rights, and this is what...

CHIDEYA: Let me, yeah...

Ms. MALVEAUX: ...is being pushed to the court.

CHIDEYA: ...let me just get Pedro in here. Do you think that using international law in this context is really going to make a difference, because the U.S. has a kind of tense relationship with international law?

Prof. NOGUERA: Well, it may not make a difference in the U.S. courts. It does, I think, resonate politically within the United States and beyond, because the world saw what happened in New Orleans, saw that - how the greatest, you know, power in the world turned its back on very poor people during a time of crisis. So I think there is an embarrassment factor to be weighed here.

But the other side about the public housing, that we all have to keep in mind, is New Orleans was a city that was in terrible shape before the flood. It had such intense poverty, and we should not be seeking to recreate New Orleans as it was. The real question - and HUD actually has some fairly innovative programs, there's a program called Hope Six, which is a program designed to bring mixed-use housing - the real question is, can you bring those who were there back, but under better conditions, with better housing, in cleaner, healthier communities? That's the challenge the mayor faces.

CHIDEYA: And you know that Hope Six was on the chopping block, in terms of federal funding...

Prof. NOGUERA: I know.

CHIDEYA: ...but it was saved, for the moment. Bob, let me ask you.

Mr. MEADOWS: Sure.

CHIDEYA: How could America make a promise to New Orleanians that we will get you back home, and will this country make that promise?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, you know, America is so good at, you know, keeping its promises to minorities. I mean, just look at all those treaties with the Native Americans.

It's very easy, you know. Who - there was a Congressman, Richard Baker, I think he was quoted as saying something along the lines of, you know, we, God did what we couldn't do, finally cleaned up public housing after Katrina. I honestly think that's the mindset that is here.

CHIDEYA: Wow.

Mr. MEADOWS: I have to say that. They don't - as Pedro said, as Julianne - you know, they don't want these people back. They don't want it the way it was. You have a power structure in place, and a lot of these people are black, who, sure, sure, you're going to build it in the future, you're going to build it down the line. It's not coming now. People are desperate. They're living in abandoned homes. They don't have - because people are there, as Julianne implied, but they don't have anyplace to go so they're living in abandoned places. There's no electricity. There's no running water. This is - it's a complete travesty, as far as I'm concerned.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, we at NEWS AND NOTES went down right after Katrina. We went back six months later, and what astounded me was just seeing the Ninth Ward and other areas just block upon block upon block of homes that were just molding. You know, and could be - I mean, it is just mind-boggling.

Julianne, I guess the last word to you. Should America make a promise? And what would make that promise real?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, America, as Bob has said, has made lots of promises. I think that it is unconscionable that Americans have not risen up, and especially our organizations like the NAACP, risen up and demanded that these people are replaced.

Pedro, with all due respect, these so-called innovative plans that HUD has have to be balanced again HUD's inability to execute. They have been unable to execute for the past eight months, and I basically do not believe they're going to be able to execute in the future. The AFL-CIO's work offers us some hope, but the fact is Americans of good conscience must rise up and say this is unacceptable.

What if it happened in Washington, D.C., Farai, or in Los Angeles, or in San Francisco post-earthquake, or somewhere else? Why is it acceptable in New Orleans for poor people where most of them are black?

CHIDEYA: All right, we're going to have to leave it there. In Washington, D.C., economist and author Julianne Malveaux, President and CEO of Last Word Productions. And, in our New York bureau, Bob Meadows, of People Magazine, along with Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University.

Thank you all.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you.

Mr. MEADOWS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And, as always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics you've heard on our Roundtable, you can just call us: 202-408-3330, or you can send us an e-mail. Just log in to npr.org and click on Contact Us. Be sure to tell us where you're writing from and how to pronounce your name.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS AND NOTES, NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams follows up on FEMA spending on this week's Political Corner, and the inspiring story of an immigrant who worked as a janitor before becoming a U.S. college president.

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