Roundtable: Obama on Kenya; H.S. Football Recruiting

Thursday's topics include Sen. Barack Obama's remarks about "corruption" in Kenya and a high-school football team in trouble for recruiting Katrina evacuees. Ed Gordon's guests are economist and author Julianne Malveaux; New York University professor Pedro Noguera; and Walter Fields, CEO of the NorthStarNetwork.com.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, Obama goes to Africa, and a championship high school football team is challenged by recruiting violations, so says the state, and they're asking for the title back.

Joining us today to discuss these topics and more from our New York bureau, Pedro Noguera, professor at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of the northstarnetwork.com, joins us from KISS-FM in New York. And from our headquarters in NPR - or our headquarters, main headquarters in Washington, D.C., economist and author Julianne Malveaux, who's president and CEO of Last Word Productions.

All right, now that I've got that mouthful out, let's talk about, Walter Fields, the visit of Barack Obama to Africa and specifically Kenya, which is his father's homeland. He received a hero's welcome when he came, yet many say that he may have worn out his welcome. Because he gave a speech that suggested that the government of Kenya had to take a look at corruption within their walls, and suggested that the failings of the government is part and parcel because of the corruption that has run rampant throughout the years in Kenya and specifically with this newfound administration.

A spokesperson for the administration said this of Obama. Quote, it is now clear that he was speaking out of ignorance and does not understand Kenyan politics. We earlier thought he was mature in his assessment of Kenya and African politics.

All right, when you hear that, well, that says a lot, quite frankly, about African politics. But can, in fact, a U.S. senator come and point fingers at a government when many people are pointing fingers right back at the United States government at this time?

Mr. WALTER FIELDS (CEO, northstarnetwork.com): Well, you know, he's in a tough predicament. He tries to go home, and it proves you always can't go home. And I think when you begin to raise these issues in a country when you certainly have some issues in your own country it's problematic.

But I think he was right on target in talking about corruption because it has been a longstanding problem in many African nations. We have to remember...

GORDON: Yeah. Not just Kenya, exactly.

Mr. FIELDS: Not just Kenya. And we have to remember that a lot of these nations are still in their infancy. I mean a lot of African nations came into independence only in the 1960s. So we're talking about, you know, a 46, less than 50-year process here of attempting to create government. So, naturally, there are going to be, you know, governments that are corrupt. We had it here in the United States in our infancy and we continue to have problems with corruption.

So I'm not surprised by the reaction to his speech because certainly it's been a very sensitive issue, particularly when black leadership begins to speak out on issues of corruption in Africa because of the very complex relationship we have as a people with Africa, particularly sub-Saharan African nations.

GORDON: Yeah. Singer Dinah Washington said it first, I believe, what a difference a day makes, Pedro. Let me further a government spokesperson statement that went on to say we forgive him because it's his first time in the Senate and he has yet to mature into understanding issues of foreign policy, end quote.

Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (Steinhardt School of Education, New York University): Well, I think there's a point they're raising that is something we should take in mind. When you're going into another country, you do have to exercise tact and diplomacy. This is a problem the United States has not shown in the Middle East, for example.

You can't go into other countries and preach to them about the, you know, American values and fighting corruption, even though it's true. And it's very clear Kenya's a very corrupt country. But when you're representing you government, when you are engaged in foreign policy as he was, you have to use more tact and more diplomacy if you want to continue to have relations with those governments. And we need to have relations with the leaders of those governments.

So I think he language was not chosen well, and he needs to really exercise I think more tact when he's going to go out abroad, not just in Africa but elsewhere.

GORDON: Julianne.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (Economist, Author, CEO, Last Word Productions): You know, I was really disappointed with Senator Obama because I don't think that corruption is an African thing. And I don't think that - I mean look at Russia, for example. There is this transparency index that talks about world corruption. And certainly the African countries, while they dominate, they're not the only countries there. You know, parts of Eastern Europe and et cetera.

So for an African-American man to go to Kenya and to raise this corruption issue out of context - I mean there certainly is, as everyone...

GORDON: Well, but let's be straight on this, Julianne. His suggestion was it's not an African thing but that it goes on in Africa. The point was that he didn't suggest that it didn't go on elsewhere.

Ms. MALVEAUX: No, but I think that to do that there and to do that kind of scolding there when this has not been an issue. Remember now, heretofore, Barack Obama has not distinguished himself in terms of foreign policy or anything else. It would be very different if he were the leader on the Senate floor talking about corruption with foreign aid and then he went there and talked about that.

But having not distinguished himself to do that, I think - the only word I can use is disappointing, and I use the word disappointing out of fondness for the senator. Because if it was a white person who did it, I'd have a whole lot else to say.

GORDON: Walter, let me read some of what the senator said and then picked up on your point. This is a quote: The freedom that you fought so hard to win is in jeopardy. It's being threatened by corruption here in Kenya. It is a crisis, a crisis that is robbing an honest people of the opportunity that they have fought for, the opportunity they deserve, end quote.

Mr. FIELDS: See, I don't really have a problem with his critique because I think that he is absolutely correct. One of the issues of stability in sub-Saharan African nations is this issue of corruption. And not just sub-Saharan African nations but, you know, throughout the world.

But my concern as an African-American is my homeland, and I think that's the context in which the senator came over to Kenya and began to talk about this issue of cleaning up government. Because it's clear that people are suffering in many of these nations because of corruption. So I don't have a problem with his speaking out on it.

I think the only difficulty he is going to have is that he is the only black United States senator and there's going to be such a high threshold for him any time he steps on the continent that I think it's going be difficult for him to talk about anything dealing with African politics because the burden is so high.

GORDON: All right. Let's turn our...

Ms. MALVEAUX: But you know, Walter, the issue is this - he has not - again, I would say this: He has not distinguished himself in this area. That's what my concern is. This has not been an ongoing concern for him. He's gone to his father's homeland; I think that's wonderful. He's made some wonderful statements and been treated like a rock star. Right on, right on.

But the fact is that come home, deal with your (unintelligible). If this had been an issue that you'd stood out on before, you'd have a right to talk about that. I just think it's really out of context.

GORDON: Pedro, I don't want to speak for the senator, but he will suggest that, look, you know, I've just gotten on the Hill. Give me an opportunity.

Ms. MALVEAUX: He's been there two years, Ed.

GORDON: And I'm sure he may - well, but still. Relatively speaking, he's, you know, a neophyte. And I'm sure that he would suggest to Julianne you have to start somewhere, and this might be his start to get involved in trying to bring stronger ties from the United States to Africa.

Prof. NOGUERA: I still think it's the height of arrogance to go into a country and to tell them about what they need to do about their corruption. I think it's one thing to express solidarity with the efforts to fight AIDS. There's so many other things he could've spoken to that aimed building bridges.

But this business of going into other people's country and telling them what to do, that's the American way approach, and it is resulting in Americans of all kinds being disregarded and not well liked. And I think he could've approached it very differently.

GORDON: All right. Let me take us to another American way as we have been commemorating the year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Right around the corner is the anniversary of September 11th. And we are seeing Bush and many in his administration out there stumping for the idea that, look, we've got to fight this terrorism.

Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, all out talking about what has to be done to keep us safe, Walter Fields.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, if you look at the poll numbers, high disapproval of the war in Iraq but still some public acceptance of the president's role in the fight against terrorism. So what the White House is trying to do strategically is shift that focus from Iraq to terrorism, and it's part of a larger package.

You're going to hear the president over the next several weeks give a number of speeches trying to frame terrorism as the issue. At the same time, the Defense Department has let a contract out for $20 million to improve public relations news coverage on the war in Iraq.

So it's sort of a two - a tag-team thing that's going on here. That they understand as they approach November, they've got to get the public away from thinking about Iraq and really frame this as the president is right in the fight against terrorism.

GORDON: Julianne, Donald Rumsfeld tying what we're fighting now, and if we turn away and be too passive, linking it to what we saw in Nazi Germany. He said, quote, many have still not learned history's lesson, end quote, and believe that somehow extremists can be appeased.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Yeah. This administration has mastered the art of extremist rhetoric, and we've seen that time and again. And this is exactly what that is. I don't think that people are ignorant of history (unintelligible) in the business of appeasing extremists.

I think what we're looking at here is an administration that is in horrible trouble and fearing what's going to happen in November because of the disapproval of the war in Iraq. And what they have done is hoisted themselves on their own petard by using Iraq and terrorism interchangeably.

I thought, and, you know, perhaps I'm wrong, that Osama bin Laden was initially headquartered in Afghanistan. So how we got to Iraq and now we're trying to go to Iran and we've got a military that's dispirited, tired, and spread very thin. And they've got to try to justify this. And so, you know, wolf(ph) tickets is all they can sell, I mean this is all they can do.

And it's absurd. The PR contract that Walter mentioned is absurd. That we're paying taxpayer dollars to do spin when those dollars might be better spent fighting poverty, or quite frankly, taking care of our military, some of whom are on public assistance.

GORDON: Pedro.

Prof. NOGUERA: Yeah, I agree. I think this idea of trying to use the war on terror as a way to bolster support for the Iraq War. It - well, I can't say it's not going to work, but it's such a twist of the reality. It's really frightening.

Because the fact is if you look at the situation in Iraq, it's deteriorating steadily. The Time Magazine recently, their lead story, described just a trip by a journalist into Baghdad. Anyone reading that kind of vivid description of the situation there cannot believe that this is a situation that's going to get any better anytime soon. We don't have a strategy in Iraq. We don't know what our troops are doing there, what role they're going to play in mediating this sectarian violence.

We don't have an exit strategy beyond that. And it's very clear that this war is going to continue long after Bush is gone. And that's the real issue. The mess they've left this country in and what the next administration will do about it.

GORDON: All right. Turn our attention to what we are seeing. We just, in segment one, talked about the red tape for evacuees coming back and attempting to rebuild their lives in Louisiana and Mississippi. This is part of that red tape.

A four A state championship is now in debate in Louisiana. The football team that in fact, that won that class state championship, is now being asked for their title back. Saying that they violated recruiting laws for the state of Louisiana in that some football coaches, assistant football coaches, had actually gone to sites where evacuees were staying, signing up football players, and that they had signed false reports to play on this football team.

Walter Fields, there will be some who will say, at that time, you've got to waive these restrictions, these residential restrictions, and let these kids -many of whom where in shelters - play football, get back to some sense of normalcy. Others are suggesting that, look, these were just football coaches desperate for a win, on the hunt and taking advantage of kids who were displaced.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, you know, as much as my heart goes out for the victims of Katrina, I think the latter may be the case. You know, it'd be one thing if there was a real effort to try to help as many young people as possible. But what this seems like happened, is that you had coaches who knew who were these players were and actively went to go get them to help bolster their team. If that's the case, then I don't think the state has any, you know, option but to strip this school of its title.

And it's a shame, because the kids are the ones who get penalized. The ones who came into the new school, as well as the ones who were at the school already. And I think this might be another example of extremism in scholastic sports, where you have coaches willing to do almost anything to make sure that they had success on the field.

GORDON: Pedro, we note that the school is appealing. I'm sure that they will say that it wasn't spelled out. Schools were given wider latitude in accepting transfers during the aftermath of the hurricane. But rules were not let down for direct recruiting of those students who were displaced.

Prof. NOGUERA: You know, Ed, I'm a sports fan and I love football but it's hard for me to get excited about this story. Given the bigger problems facing New Orleans and the number of children who are not in school, whose education's been interrupted.

The fact that we give a story like this so much attention, to me, is a reminder of how too much emphasis is placed on sports, while bigger issues related to who's getting an education and who's not, are overlooked. I hope these two boys get to play but it's really isn't a major concern for me.

GORDON: Two boys, meaning two of the star players that were taken in. But, Julianne, others will argue with Pedro with the sense of this is just another repercussion in the lives of people trying to find their way back to normalcy.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, I'm with Pedro 1000 percent on this one. I mean I think that, first of all, the story is absurd. I just came back for New Orleans. I was down there for some of the first anniversary activity. A fraction of the schools, Ed, are open.

Some of the schools that used to be public schools are now charter schools with special entry requirements. So young people are going to enroll in school and being told there's being no room for them. I mean, the entire situation is so phenomenally heartbreaking. You know, I think three or four times in the course of two days, I, you know, with my hard self, you know, was on the verge of tears.

Because, I mean our young people are not being served. So if these coaches went and get these boys, I say, right on. And I'm not a sports fan. I really don't care. But if these coaches went to go get somebody cause they were good in sports, I hope someone went to go get someone cause they were good in journalism, and someone because they're a good poet, and someone because they were a musician.

I'm pretty sure that's not the case but that would be my hope. But this is a drop in the bucket of what has been called the dismantling of an education system in New Orleans. That had less to do with Katrina than with this No Child Left Behind nonsense. And with the state attempting to disempower the black people in New Orleans. And that's what I mean, the black in New Orleans.

And so you look at this and it's like a bellwether. But, you know, people will - you can't get families back if their kids can't go to school. Families cannot come back to New Orleans if their kids have nowhere to go to school. So while on one hand you're having all this celebration, you're telling people come on back. The fact is that they can't come back unless they just want their children to be ignorant like the governor and the mayor and some other people. Don't get me started.

GORDON: Walter, though, isn't this is the sense, I mean the idea, that when you look at this - this has received a lot of press attention - and the reality is whether we like it or not, that people in the sense of what they deem important often find what we in the press call - is trivial. This is not a small story in this area.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, you also have to remember, in that part of the country football is king. Literally that's the only thing that matters in many of those southern communities. So for this school to win the Louisiana state high school football championship is similar to a high school team in Indiana winning that state's high school basketball championship. It's huge in the south.

So you can see why the coaches may have gone out of their way, sensing an opportunity here through this tragedy, to bolster their fortunes on the field. And I think that's unfortunate. Because I do believe that there's a larger issue about what's happening to the children and young people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in New Orleans that is being just ignored.

But this story is big precisely for that reason. Because in that part of the country, whether we like it or not, football is practically the biggest thing that many of those communities have.

Ms. MALVEAUX: But, Walter, then where were the other coaches, where were the other people? If you knew if that you had young people who had been displaced, how come coaches weren't lined up to recruit them? Theseā€¦

GORDON: Well, we don't know that they were, Julianne. I'm sure these weren't the only coaches walking around looking for star players.

Mr. FIELDS: I'm quite sure that happened.

Ms. MALVEAUX: These kids at least got to go to school that year. Some didn't.

GORDON: All right. Got to stop us there. Julianne, I'm going to save this for next week when you come back to talk about the Census Bureau's annual snapshot of economic health for the country. So, Julianne, Pedro, and Walter, thank you and have a good holiday.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

GORDON: Next up on NEWS & NOTES, NPR's senior correspondent, Juan Williams has all the latest from Washington in this week's Political Corner. And we'll talk to a Katrina survivor whose story we brought you a year ago. We'll hear how she's doing now.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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