Roundtable: Suggestive Lyrics, Minority Women Leaving Law Firms

Tuesday's topics: a new study about sexually explicit lyrics and teen sexual activity, and an American Bar Association study shows minority women are leaving big law firms. Guests: Mary Frances Berry, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender; and Yvonne Bynoe, author of Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's Roundtable, a U.S. Supreme Court justice says the jury is still out on U.S. democracy. And why are women of color leaving big law firms?

Joining us today from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., Yvonne Bynoe, author of the book Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and the Hip Hop Culture. Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender joins us today from our Chicago bureau. And Mary Francis Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania joins us via phone from Massachusetts.

All right, folks, one of the things we want to get to is something that's made headlines across the morning shows and the newscasts today. And that is a Rand Corporation finding that if young people listen to sexually-explicit lyrics, the chances of them actually participating in sex goes up tremendously. This is research from a study done that polled over 1,400 participants ages 12 through 17.

And then they went back and followed up with interviews two and three years later to see if this music in fact affected their subsequent behavior. Mary Francis Berry, no real surprises here.

Professor MARY FRANCIS BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): No. But I wonder about whether the youth are responding to the beat of the music as opposed to the words. Because I know one particular instance where parents thought that their kids were down in the basement, and they were down there dancing away to this song that said, do it, do it, do it. Give it up, give it up.

And they had loved the beat. It turned out the song was do it and give it up for Jesus. But they didn't even know what the words were to the song, so I wonder about that.

When you're an adolescent, when you're a tween or a teen - we know cause we all were there once - you have a lot of hormones raging and people are interested in sex. Whether or not music makes it the more likely that you engage, I think that they need to look at other factors. But if it does - let's assume it does, that the study is somehow right. Does this mean that we're supposed to say there shouldn't be any sexually explicit language or images in music?

I don't know. And it's not just rap music. It's music all across the spectrum.

GORDON: Yvonne, here's the interesting point: 51 percent of those who started having sex within two years were heavy listeners, versus 29 percent of that who said they had little or no sexually-degrading music on a day-to-day basis. Only 29 percent of them started having sex within those two years. The interesting point here is that this test was - or this survey was taken, I should say - via phone. So one might think that the teens were perhaps more truthful than they might have been face-to-face.

Ms. YVONNE BYNOE (Author, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and the Hip Hop Culture): Well, I think certainly they probably were more truthful, but I think Dr. Berry makes some good points that we've had sexually explicit music for some time. Certainly now, it is more saturated within the media. But we've always had - whether it was Bessie Smith or whether it was Marvin Gaye -we've always had music that was prompting people to, you know, get down and do their thing.

But I think the bigger issue - who were these children? What kind of households were they growing up in? What kind of other adult influences were they having? I think that - and, again, this is anecdotal - but the children and the young people who have other influences, who can look at this music as entertainment, look at it as entertainment and they get their cues about sexuality from other sources - be it parents, be it spiritual leaders, churches, whatever have you.

And I think that on the flipside, people who do not have those other influences perhaps might be influenced more heavily by the music.

I also, too, have to add in terms of it's not just the music. I think Dr. Berry is right, a lot of people are listening to the beat. They couldn't tell you what a song was or wasn't. They're just nodding their head to it.

But the other part of this is the music videos. It's the other ancillary things that go along with rock music, rap. It's the visual content, it's the personas of the artists, and they a lot of times are emulating how these artists dress, how they walk, and how they carry themselves.

So, again, I guess I'm not willing to put all the blame on the music itself. But I do think it has a big influence in the absence of other, perhaps more positive influences.

GORDON: The study looked at media in general. Also talking about wrestling -spiking, if you will - violent tendencies among boys and girls who watch it on a more regular basis. But, Roland Martin, perhaps I'm a little touchy here because I have a 12-year-old daughter, but it seems to me that Bessie Smith's lyrics, and even the lyrics that you and I grew up on - Marvin Gaye and Prince and the like - were not as outright raunchy as we hear today.

There's a song that many people don't even know about called The Whisper Song. I can't even repeat it on air.

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Executive Editor, The Chicago Defender): Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don't repeat it.

Ms. BYNOE: Right, exactly.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, that. But also, again, one of the hottest songs in the last couple of years was Ludacris' What's Your Fantasy? And he said, let me lick you from your head to your toes. I mean, that's just outright.

You're right. It's a difference when Dinah Washington sang Big Long Sliding Thing, and it was sort of very, you know, you was reading between the lines. But, again, at the same time, Barry White had a song called Take It Off, Take it all off.

You know, so, again, I think the difference today is the proliferation of music with ringtones, with cell phones, with videos where it's all around, with iPods - versus in the past where you had certain music that was suppressed, that was kept under wraps, you know, hidden, you know, from public view. I think that is the big difference.

But we've always had the sexually explicit lyrics. But certainly, it is not as aggressive as it is. You had artists like Gerald Levert and others who said their music is sexual, but it's not as overt as you hear some of the music today because it's just downright, you know, let's just get our freak on. It's just they just go there.

And so I think that's what the study highlights, is how suggestive the lyrics are and how there's no nuance, there's nothing covert, there's nothing behind the closed door. It's just wide open, and let's just get our freak on. That's what it lays out.

Prof. BERRY: Hey, but there's also a danger here that when I asked - at the end of what I said - what do we do about it, even if we assume that it has an influence. Are we suggesting that we ought to somehow censor the kind of music that is produced, or should parents stop up the ears of their children and their eyes? What is it that we're saying even if we believe this study without more? What is it?

I remember when Elvis Presley was on CBS on, what, the Ed Sullivan Show that night, gyrating the first time. And parents went crazy all across the country. My child is seeing that. It's going to make them think about having sex. I bet you the child had already - if they were going to think about having sex - had already thought about it. And you do have to have sex with somebody unless you're going to masturbate.

But what is it we're suggesting in this study? That if the study is true, do we just encourage the non-production of such music? Do we tell parents not to let their children listen to it and see it? What do we do?

GORDON: I suspect, like everything else, there's a sense of moderation, Mary, much of which we've not seen necessarily of late. And, of course, as we've said - not just with this topic but across the board - parental involvement in terms of making sure that you know what your kids are listening to. You know, some kids can handle it, some kids can't. And really, it goes back to the parents and their participation, I think.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, that was what I was talking about, Ed. I speak on this quite frequently, and I always ask where are their parents? Because the media has allowed more and more of this music to come into a zone that used to be, I guess, more youth-friendly. You can hear a lot of this in drive time radio shows when before, a lot of this music was - you couldn't hear it till after midnight.

So now while you're getting ready to go to school or whatever have you, all this stuff is blasting. Whereas, you know, maybe a decade ago you would've had to stay up late and, you know, maybe disregard what your parents said about going to bed to hear it.

So I think parents do have a responsibility. I'm not for censorship, but I think parents have - loathe to have those discussions.

GORDON: Or don't even think about it.

Ms. BYNOE: Exactly.

GORDON: All right. Let's move on to another survey, and that is the American Bar Association looked at - along with the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago - why so many women of color are leaving law firms. The report is called Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms. And what they're finding - again, no surprise here, Roland Martin - is that many women of color are finding themselves alienated in large law firms, being left out, excluded from golf outings, after hour drinking, networking events. The study also showed that this isn't necessarily outright bigotry that is happening, but that the partners - usually white males - are finding less in common with these women to connect with.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, absolutely. I mean, we ran this as a cover story in the Chicago Defender called It's Hard Out Here for a Black Female Lawyer. And it really highlights that divide there, because, surely they have the skills. They are qualified. But it is that bonding, if you will, that also plays a part in terms of how you relate to clients, how you relate to people in the office. And so a lot of these women are saying, you know, forget it. I don't even want to deal with it. Then you have those who are choosing to set up their own law firms. So this is this is certainly something that the firms need to look at, because when you lose - when you have this kind of talent drain leaving law firms, it hurts not just the firms themselves, but also the clients - people like us - because we don't have the benefit of their expertise, their view of the world in these law firms.

GORDON: That being said, the best and the brightest, Mary, are also being handed - routinely - inferior assignments, including just reviewing documents, writing briefs, and the like.

Prof. BERRY: This study reflects everything I know about what's happened to young black women. I know many of these people who have in fact left law firms - major law firms, who have good academic records - who walk away in disgust. And some of them become very, very, have been successful in business rather than practicing law, although they always had wanted to be a lawyer. And it's the culture of the firm, it's the old boys' network, it's the assumption on seeing people about what they are - all the stereotypes that we know affect us everywhere else in the world affects what goes on there.

I think what needs to happen is that some of the companies that deal with these firms need to make an emphasis in terms of diversity. Not just on be more diverse, but saying here is where there's a particular problem which he have identified and you ought to do something about it. Young women have come to me - this study just reflects everything I know, and say I can't find anybody to mentor me in the firm. They are overly critical about everything I say and do, they ignore me. They call me by somebody else's name.

They think every black woman's name is Jane or Susie, or whatever it is. And it doesn't matter who you are and how you look. I see them on the street, they don't even speak to me when we're out of the building because they didn't notice me, because they're not used to speaking with black people - except when I'm in the building and I say, hey, this is me. Then they speak. They give me assignments that don't make any sense and they're dead ends.

All of this happens. But I think there has to be an emphasis on it as a problem in order for it to get solved.

GORDON: Yvonne, the interesting point is - Mary brings up the emphasis - but this really has been something that has been talked about, not just in law firms, but across the corporate world for decades now - many of these same complaints and concerns. One has to wonder if in fact the old boys' network will ever be broken.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, I think the main issue that we have to delve into a little deeper is what are we talking about when we say diversity? I think, you know, we usually get into the topical conversation about race and gender, and then there'll be a workshop and/or a seminar or even in some places a series of them. And that's about it.

But talking about diversity really cuts to the core of the culture of a corporation. Many of these areas, you have white people who have literally never dealt with anybody who did not look like them. Conversely, you have some black people, regardless of their academic credentials, who have never dealt with anybody that, you know, substantively that was not like themselves in a more social environment.

So I think that for both sides of the equation, there has to be some more soul searching. What are we trying to do here? If I'm interested in just coming and doing my job and not really having too much interaction with my fellow colleagues, is that good enough for this particular law firm? And for some firms and corporations, that will be it. And people who take that stance will benefit or not based on that corporate culture.

If the culture, however, is one that we all need to not just get along and accept each other in some random way, but actually collaborate and be helpful as a total entity - then that will look totally different. So I'm not suggesting that any of these things that these women have said are not true, because certainly I've dealt with my own share of some of these issues. But I think that it's not just about mentoring. I think if I can't find a mentor in this corporation or this law firm, then maybe I need to go somewhere else and see where else I can get help.

I think that for a lot of people - especially I've seen men of other ethnicities - they take some of this, I don't want to say abuse, but I think they're a little harder in terms of saying this is something I want and I'm going to work for it. And I'm going to do this until I can do something better. And I think that we might have to get a little harder and be a little more strategic on how we approach these things. So again, that doesn't let people off the hook. But I think you - if you want to be a lawyer and you want to get to be a partner, you know the old boys' network is going to stay there as long as we allow it to stay there.

Prof. BERRY: Ed, I have to say this. The most depressing part in this whole study was when it says that when minority lawyers are in a firm, and they become partners and so on, they don't take any special interest - by and large - in trying to help the other people of color who they see coming in as more junior people.

I don't know whether that's because they know they're not going to be there very long, given what happens. Or they feel that they don't want to be different from what the other people are like.

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. BERRY: The old boys' network, who are partners. But here they are, in, and they take no special interest in trying to get anybody else (unintelligible)…

Ms. BYNOE: But that goes…

GORDON: Roland, historically, that has seemed to be an issue of fear - what I call fear of a black planet. You don't want to be the outcast in terms of the other partners seeing you pulling more color into the firm.

Mr. MARTIN: First of all, I agree. But you, frankly, you have no choice. Because if not, you've become the spook who sat by the door. And that is, you make no effort to diversify a firm. And if not you, then who? If you are an African-American, if you are a brother and you're in that particular position, if you don't do it, then who?

To expect a white partner to do it is not going happen. And so, there's a responsibility that comes with you being in that position. And also, maybe there were people who pulled you in, and if you don't do the same, then frankly you're letting them down.

Ms. BYNOE: But also, too, that presumes - again, this is about the whole issue of diversity - that presumes that when you hired these people that came in the door with any thought that they had any obligation to anybody. And if they did not have that coming in, they're not going to have it as a partner or whatever have you.

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. BYNOE: You can see that in other parts of society, where, I got mine and you'll get yours if you get it. So I think that, again, if a company or a corporation…

Mr. MARTIN: Well, black folks don't have that luxury.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, we see plenty of them, so whether or not they have the luxury, they certainly take it upon themselves.

Mr. MARTIN: But we also do see plenty of people who do pull others in.

GORDON: All right.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, I'm just saying…

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: And that is a responsibility. Otherwise, you're going to see (unintelligible)…

GORDON: But not everyone sees it that way is what Yvonne is saying…

Ms. BYNOE: Exactly.

GORDON: …and that is…

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I understand.

GORDON: …no one's disagreeing with you, but the reality is not everyone sees it that way.

Prof. BERRY: And I…

Mr. MARTIN: (Unintelligible).

GORDON: One thing that, one thing we all have to see is time has run out. All right folks, sorry about that. Greatly appreciate it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BERRY: All right.

GORDON: All right. Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, our tech contributor Mario Armstrong explains how the Web can teach kids to manage their personal finances. And hip-hop in South Africa, a profile of rapper Pitch Black Afro.

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