Roundtable: Mideast, Wal-Mart and the Urban League

Monday's topics: Condoleezza Rice returns to the Middle East for talks on Lebanon; and Wal-Mart aims to attract more black customers with help from the Urban League. Guests: Callie Crossley, a social and cultural commentator on the television show Beat the Press in Boston; Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University; and Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's Roundtable, is Rice right? And Wal-Mart paying the National Urban League for blunders?

Joining me from our headquarters in NPR East, I guess we like to call it, in Washington, D.C., Joe Davidson, editor at The Washington Post. Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator on the television show, Beat the Press, which is seen in the Boston area. She joins us from member station WGBH in Boston. And with us, Nat Irvin, professor of future study at Wake Forest University. He joins us from member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

All right, Joe, what you heard from Tom Casey at the State Department and then we hear from Sheila Jackson-Lee, one of the questions that remains unanswered and one that becomes one of those tricky pieces to the puzzle is whether or not we can gauge if the Israeli military used too much might in retaliation for what happened before. That has a question that's been debated quite frankly over this course of two weeks-plus.

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, The Washington Post): And I think the bombing of the apartment building over the weekend is - certainly gives fuel to that argument that there was overreaction, in fact overkill by the part of the Israeli armed forces. I think that's the view of many people around the world. And I think that's why the United States has found itself somewhat isolated in this situation in terms of its backing of Israel.

The European nations, other nations around the world, have called for an immediate cease-fire; the United States chose not to. Instead it allowed - or perhaps allowed is the wrong word - but it certainly did not condemn the military action by Israel, because it shared a common goal, and that was it wanted to give Israel time to root out, to destroy the Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. And so it did not call for that immediate cease-fire.

And that now puts Israel and the United States in the minds of many, I think, kind of very much together in this and very much to blame. Which is why I think we saw those protesters in Lebanon burning an American flag as they were protesting Israel. I think that's what many people in the world believe.

GORDON: Nat, on a diplomatic front, some will say that is so far backburner as the Bush administration is concerned, no one knows whether there are missteps there are not. But certainly on the international front we keep seeing what's seem to be missteps by that administration.

Obviously, as Joe suggested, we're not calling for an immediate cease-fire. The worst thing that could've happened in fact happened, and that is a public display of deaths by innocent civilians, many women and children splashed on the front pages of newspapers all across the world.

Professor NAT IRVIN (Professor of Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Well, I think, Ed, it points to what I believe is a fundamental flaw that this administration has toward the Middle East in general. And that is it seems to be caught up in its own rhetoric about the Middle East. You know, the idea of spreading democracy, the idea that somehow this administration under this president can transform the Middle East.

You know, history has shown you don't solve the Middle East, you try to patch it along. You try to, you know, fix a little bit here and there. It's not the kind of situation that lends itself to some administration in Washington suddenly figuring out how to solve a problem that has been here for, you know, quite a few years.

And I think the arrogance of our position toward the Middle East and then our just categorically supporting Israel at all costs has really hurt us in our so-called war on terror. I mean, we are in a position now where we have lost so much ground with Arab nations and those who would've supported us in an effort to try to, quote, transform the Middle East, that it's been just a horrible, horrible, several missteps.

And I think that we're going to be paying for this for a very long time to come in the future.

GORDON: Callie, here's what I found interesting. In the interview we just had with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, particularly from a Democrat, but it was clear that she was not going to pin the issue and problem on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as many in the media have been doing.

She made it very clear she didn't believe it was a quagmire for the secretary or by her doing but by this administration.

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Social and Cultural Commentator, Beat the Press): Well, I think a lot of people are looking at Condoleezza Rice's activities there and seeing a woman whose hands are tied because she has to represent the United States and the United States' position.

And so what I'm struck by is that she was in the meeting with one of the Israeli higher-ups when the attack happened on that apartment building. And looking at her face coming out of that meeting, it was clear she was stunned and shocked just from a human level, and I'm sure just trying to figure out, okay, now what do I do because I'm here and I got to say something. And we, the United States, have said that there will be no cease-fire, but this clearly seems to call for it.

So I think that she is in a little bit of quagmire because - but that's her job and she's got to figure out, I think, how to trade upon the good, close and loyal relationship that she has with President Bush and others in the administration and bring them the bad news.

That's what you get when you have that job, is to be able to bring back the bad news and say, okay, we got to look at this a little bit differently if that in fact is the case.

GORDON: Joe, let me ask you this...

Ms. CROSSLEY: And I...

GORDON: I'm sorry. Hang on for me, Callie, just a moment. Joe, let me ask you this: can the United States, will the United States, this administration step away from Israel at all if we see continued fighting, bombing? There are reports that even during this 48-hour, quote, pause, we saw military strikes by the Israeli Air Force.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, only on occasion over the last few decades, frankly, have you seen the United States pull away from Israel to any substantial degree and for any substantial period of time. There have been times of increased criticism here or there.

But basically the United States is Israel's best friend, it's a close friend and it's a steadfast friend. And so I think that it's this kind of situation, however, that might bring a little bit of daylight between the two, but frankly not much. And I think that the United States will continue to be a strong supporter of Israel and that anything that gets out of the United Nations, certainly through the Security Council where the United States has a veto, will be something that Israel can accept.

GORDON: Callie, I cut you off. Before I move on to the next topic, I wanted to allow you to get that out.

Ms. CROSSLEY: What is - what happens, though, when we and our representatives, as in Secretary Rice, are not viewed as coming with a peacemaker stance, but coming with a very strong stand for one side? You can't have conversation, nobody wants to listen. We've seen the shift in the way that the Arab companies - Arab countries have responded.

Initially they said, okay, Hezbollah, enough. And now after this happened with the most recent attack on those civilians, the Arab countries are saying, what are we doing? We got to give her some leeway to do something and we have to realize that we cannot affect any kind of conversation if we're viewed only as a supporter of one side, period.

GORDON: Well, I think it's always viewed that way with a wink and a nod, you have to listen to the United States. But I think up front, they assume, many countries in that region, which side of the fence the U.S. is going to sit either way.

All right. Let's turn our attention to the National Urban League, which got a $5 million check from Wal-Mart which will be dispersed over 10 cities over five years. So that's $1 million a year for a job-training program that the National Urban League will run.

This in response as an apology from Wal-Mart as it, in January, grouped a DVD, The Planet of the Apes: the Complete Television Series, with a group of documentaries talking about the lives of black dignitaries like Martin Luther King Jr., actress Dorothy Dandridge, former heavyweight champ Jack Johnson and Tina Turner.

We also see, Nat, Jesse Jackson and others heavily criticizing Wal-Mart for its business practices, particularly among its employees, suggesting that they are running unions out and not paying fair wages, particularly for a company that is the largest in the United States.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, for Wal-Mart, this is all about the future. I mean, they may be characterized in some respects as sort of an apology. But Wal-Mart recognizes the demographic future of America, recognizes the growth of minority-owned businesses. They just finished deciding to leave Germany, closing 85 stores because they didn't have the right business model; their culture didn't match. So they're going to turn their attention back to where Michael Porter has said for a long time - the Harvard professor - that one of the most underserved areas of America is the inner cities. And of course that generally reflects minority communities. So this is smart business practice on the part of Wal-Mart.

They know that they've been hammered publicly for their relationships with their employees, the fact that they're criticized often for not providing enough health care. I mean, there are a lot of issues where they have had to do a lot of work. But I still say that - and I don't think $5 million is very much money, by the way - but I think this is just the beginning of Wal-Mart getting it right when it comes to recognizing the opportunities for minority businesses and minority communities and its own employees. It's a good strategy.

GORDON: Five million dollars is certainly not a lot of money for Wal-Mart, but a lot of money, quite frankly, for the National Urban League. We should note that a million dollars was given for a three-year grant to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to provide scholarships and internship opportunities for black students.

But, Joe, one has to raise this question once again, we've heard it quite frankly behind closed doors for a long time and most recently out in the public, and that's whether these institutions become co-opted by these checks.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think that's a real concern. I mean, if you are in a position, as many people are in this country, of being critical of Wal-Mart because of its wage and benefit policies, and many of those people are black activists and then your major black organizations get money from them - will they then be less likely to take a critical stance against that company if in fact that's what the constituents, the general constituency of those organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Urban League believe to be the case. And so they might be, in a sense, be out of step with many of their constituents.

And I'd like to pick up on one point that Nat mentioned about how Wal-Mart might now be getting it right, about the inner city market. Well, we just have to go back a few days where Wal-Mart said it's not going to open any more stores in Chicago, because Chicago has passed local legislation requiring Wal-Mart - or requiring stores of certain size to have a certain minimum wage and other benefits.

And so I think what many people who get upset with Wal-Mart would want Wal-Mart to do is to raise its wages and increase its benefit level, and then that would probably cost Wal-Mart a lot more than $5 million.

GORDON: Callie, here's the interesting dynamic for Wal-Mart. The same people that are in the pool for not getting paid enough, not receiving the right health benefits, have to, quite frankly, shop at Wal-Mart because it provides them with the price point that they need with the wages that they make. So one has to look at this as a true American dilemma here.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, it's - actually it's a true Wal-Mart dilemma, because they're famous for, you know, beating down venders.

GORDON: And Wal-Mart is America.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, I know, but I'm just saying, I just want to, you know, it's almost like hyper-American if you look at it that way. Because they're famous for beating down their vendors such that, you know, you can provide those very low prices.

I mean, when I first heard about this deal, I thought to myself, well, is it blood money in a way? Because here you train these people for whatever jobs are supposed to be there, and they don't have some health benefits, they have no health benefits. And then they can't make enough money in the store that they were trained to work in so that they could pay for their own health benefits. So what is the point here? I mean, it's kind of like this horrible, vicious circle.

And where they get off with some public relations deal, I mean, I want to have people have job training, but to what end here? I'm not saying...

GORDON: Well, we should note that the job training program will be run through the National Urban League, and I'm sure the training will be more than just training for jobs at Wal-Mart.

Prof. IRVIN: And it's also true we'd be very critical of Wal-Mart if it gave no money to groups like the Urban League.

GORDON: Yet we saw Andy Young...

Ms. CROSSLEY: Listen, I don't have - listen, I don't have any problem with, for them having to pay, you know, and apologize for horrific behavior that they demonstrated. I don't have any problem with that. But I just want - if we're going to take the money, and the question has been whether or not the organizations are being co-opted, then lets make the deal such that in the end there really is a true benefit for those people are being trained or are being put in these internships other than, you know, some short-term, you know, apology and money thing. That's the only thing I want to see happen.

GORDON: Andy Young was on this program a few months ago when Wal-Mart brought him to the table in talking about trying to bring Wal-Mart into inner city areas when they saw, as Joe just pointed out, a dilemma in trying to - and many local legislators in particular were fighting against it because of the wage and lack of health benefits - but Andrew Young raised a point of providing for those in the inner city.

He said it's easy for those who live in the suburb to talk about that because you have a number of stores that you can go to right around the corner, but this provides job opportunity. It provides a store that provides the -certainly, again as I noted just moments ago, the price point that many in these communities need, Nat. So, again, the dilemma is far more than just what we see at face value.

Prof. IRVIN: Sure it is, and that's why I think it's better to do business with Wal-Mart. Although I think the points that have been made about the major organizations perhaps being co-opted, I don't think that's the case. But maybe that is. Maybe that is. I mean, $5 million is not very much money, but I do think there are good intentions on the parts of both entities here, both the National Urban League as well as Wal-Mart. At least I believe that there is.

And I think that having activist pressure to always challenge major corporations - Wal-Mart, Ed, you mentioned it being America. You know, most of what it makes and sells are made in China, however, and it's just sort of the reality of the dynamics of a multinational corporation operating in (unintelligible).

GORDON: And that too is the American way, Nat. You know that.

Prof. IRVIN: It certainly is. It certainly is.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, Callie, very quickly. Shouldn't we put some of the onus, quite frankly, in terms of these organizations being co-opted back on the black community in the sense that they have to look to money elsewhere, corporate donations and the like, because they don't get it from the black community, quite frankly, in sheer numbers?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, absolutely. But one of the points of having a representative organization is that they can represent a large body of folks in that constituency of folks who are the ones who will most benefit from it. So, I mean, you're sort of caught between a rock and a hard place here. On the one hand, I mean they, as Nat said, its okay to have, you know, to have some interaction with these corporations, but how is the money being used - that's my point - and will it have some long-term effect and not short-term.

I see - I just worry about these people being trained, albeit by the Urban League, and then in the end still having to require, you know, welfare support. I mean, particularly if you're working at Wal-Mart, you're going to need some because they're not giving it to you.

GORDON: But, Nat and Joe, with about a minute left - 30 seconds for each of you. Let's be honest. Many of these organizations are reliant on corporate dollars to sustain themselves from year to year.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, that's true. And many of these corporations, not just Wal-Mart, have had problems with the black community in one way or another over a period of years, if not decades. And so black organizations do find themselves in this quandary where they take money on the one hand and then find themselves perhaps in the need to criticize the person who's the donor, you know, the next day.

GORDON: Denny's is a good example, Nat. Problems there, then monies were paid, and we still see trickles of stories coming out with Denny's having problems with African-American either employees or customers.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, you do. And I think that this is part of the dynamic. This is sort of that dynamic tension between corporations having, as I always come back to, recognizing the reality of the future. The dynamics of what people will look like, the customer base, and then having to reconcile that with past behaviors.

The thing I would say is this. All of us need to be aggressive of whatever principles we have when we try to engage multinational corporations with what our fundamental principles are of what is right and what is wrong and what is just and what, you know, should be expected on behalf of good corporate citizens.

GORDON: All right. Nat, Callie, Joe, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Prof. IRVIN: Thank you.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

GORDON: Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, a trip to the theater could save your life. And after a health scare, singer Mary Wilson is working to save the music legacy.

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