Roundtable: Maryland Senate Race, Harvard Admissions

Guest host Tony Cox is joined by economist and author Julianne Malveaux; Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University; and Pedro Noguera, a professor in the Steinhart School of Education at New York University. Topics include: a Michigan bill that would require girls to receive the HPV vaccine; Maryland's heated Senate race and Harvard University's plan to eliminate its "early admissions program" because it puts low-income and minority applicants at a disadvantage.

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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

On today's roundtable, the battle for the Senate in Maryland, and a law that would require HPV vaccinations for young girls.

Joining us today from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., is economist Julianne Malveaux. Julianne is also president and CEO of Last Word Productions. Julianne, nice to have you back.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (Economist, Author, CEO, Last Word Productions): Thank you. Good to be here.

COX: And from member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, and a columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal. Nat, nice to have you.

Professor NAT IRVIN (Future Studies, Wake Forest University, Columnist, Winston-Salem Journal): Hey. Good to see - hear you, Tony.

COX: Nice to have you back. And from our New York bureau, Pedro Noguera. I think I said that right, Pedro. Correct me if I didn't. A professor in the Steinhart School of Education and NYU. Pedro, nice to have you too.

Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (Steinhart School of Education, NYU): Good to be here.

COX: We have quite an eclectic mix of topics so let's jump into the first one. Michigan girls entering the sixth grade next year would have go be vaccinated against cervical cancer under legislation backed Tuesday by a bipartisan group of female lawmakers. The legislation is the first of its kind in the United States, says lead sponsor Republican State Senator Beverly Hammerstrom. And the vaccine was approved by the FDA in June for use in girls and women, and has been hailed as a breakthrough in cancer prevention. It prevents infections from some strains of the sexually transmitted Human Papilloma Virus, which can cause cervical cancer and genital warts.

So let me just say as a preamble to this that I asked in an informal poll around the office yesterday, of people, whether or not they would give this vaccine to their daughters. And overwhelmingly, they said no. So let me ask you, Julianne, what do you say?

Ms. MALVEAUX: I would absolutely. I know a young woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 25, and, you know, almost lost her life - is now infertile and, you know, would like to have a family and she can't. She's done a lot of activism and writing around the issue, which has raised my awareness about it.

I think that people need to do a little study here. No one wants to send young women a signal that it's okay to have sex. But the fact is that the consequences of this particular cancer can be devastating. And if you can prevent it with a simple vaccine, I say why not?

I think that, you know, a lot of times we get into this notion that sex education means people are going to have sex. It doesn't mean that. It means you're giving people awareness. And in this case you're really protecting them from a horrible disease.

This is a bipartisan piece of legislation. I think, you know, women understand this very well and I'm sorry the folks in the office don't, but maybe you'll play this tape for them and ask them to please reconsider.

COX: Well, I'll tell you what their answer - what their reasoning was. It was that they felt that there wasn't enough testing known. And they didn't want their children to use experimentally. They wanted to wait a little while before subjecting them to something like this.

Nat, what do you say?

Prof. IRVIN: Well, I mean, that's a reasonable objection except that the scientific community has already declared that this vaccine has been proven to be safe, as safe as any other vaccines that we've had. I think that - I'm with Julianne on this. I don't understand how you could possibly - and I will concede that some people may not know the science behind it.

But it seems to me that this is clearly a matter of public health. It's not even a moral issue. It is a matter of public health. And for women who are, for those who may think that it's a matter of just purely a moral health - a moral issue, that is to say concerned about the abstinence or the fact that we may be encouraging young women to have sex. I don't think that's it at all. The fact is women are the ones who will get this disease.

And you have to remember, even if a young woman is celibate, that she may marry someone who has not been. And so therefore she will be the one who will contract this disease. I think the greater issue that we're going to have to deal with is who's going to pay for this.

This vaccine costs a lot of money. And the average cost of vaccines a few years ago was - you could get all the childhood vaccines would be under $100. They're already $1,250 right now, and this one adds $300. So if we were talking about vaccinating all of the young women in this country, who's going to pay for it? And this is, by the way, a worldwide disease, by the way.

COX: In the case of Michigan, where this legislation is being considered, it is said that the Michigan employers will cover the cost of the vaccine. And you're right, the three-shot vaccination is going to cost $360. Let me bring Pedro in.

Do you think that there are some cultural issues associated with people's fears regarding giving a vaccination like this?

Prof. NOGUERA: I do, and I think that while it may not be warranted, there's a great deal of suspicion out there in black communities, but also in other communities, about any mass immunization campaign. We did have a record of forced sterilizations in Puerto Rico not too long ago.

So those kinds of fears are out there. And so if the science is good, if these immunizations have been field tested - I would hope that the FDA has done a good job - then what's going to be very important is - if they do pass this legislation in Michigan - is that there be a massive education campaign explaining why this kind of immunization is necessary, that it is safe, and that encouraging families to voluntarily go - come forward.

Otherwise, I think you'll see a lot of people who will hesitate to subject their children to this.

COX: It certainly is a topic that touches the nerves of a number of people. We'll keep our eyes on that one. Let's move onto topic number two.

Representative Benjamin L. Cardin was declared the winner over colleague Kweisi Mfume in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. And that set up a showdown with Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, as you all know, in one of the most closely watched general election races in the nation.

With more than 93 percent of the precincts reporting, Cardin had edged Mfume by 8 percentage points. So here's one of my questions to you, and I'll throw to you first, Nat, what does this say about Mfume? Is this a harbinger of the end of his political career or is that reading too much into it?

Prof. IRVIN: Well, I think that it might be reading a little too much into it, Tony. He didn't get the support, I don't think, from the National Democratic Committee, as - at least, you know, I'm here in North Carolina. Julianne knows this better than I do.

But my sense of it is that he didn't get the support that Cardin got from the Democrats, and I think this is what's going to really help Steele win this election. I think that for Mfume he probably may run for the mayor of Baltimore, and probably will be successful.

But I think in terms of Michael Steele's opportunity now, he stands a really good chance of winning this campaign. And I think that's because…

Ms. MALVEAUX: I don't know about that, Nat.

Prof. IRVIN: I was going to say and the reason I think he stands a chance of winning is because I think that Steele - Mfume having lost - Steele has an opportunity to appeal to the independent streak within the black community. And I think he's emerging not as blacks are going to be suddenly Republican, I just think they're gong to be less likely now to be Democratic, and I think that's where Steele has an opportunity. But you go ahead, you might disagree.

COX: Yeah. What do you say, Julianne.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, you know, it's very interesting. Kweisi did not have the support that he deserved to get from the Democratic establishment. Of course, the DNC has a basic policy of not endorsing in primaries. So Cardin was able to get the support of a couple - Steny Hoyer - and a couple of other people.

But what was interesting about this campaign, especially the most recent debate as you saw it play out, is that there's a very cordial relationship between Cardin and Mfume. So this was not one of these acrimonious, you know, talk about your mama-kind of campaigns. This was, yeah, very collegial campaign.

And my thinking is that if Cardin is able to convince Mfume to campaign with him and for him, that you may be able to neutralize the race factor. I do know that in Prince George's County and especially among many African-Americans males, Steele is very popular. He plays it very interestingly. I mean he goes to the black church, you know, Bible thumping.

But he's, you know, he's a smart, charismatic speaker who older sisters, he, you know, sort of caters to them. And so when you see him action…

COX: He's good.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You see a real politician there. But I do believe that edge could be blunted if Cardin can get Mfume to campaign with him. And, you know, Mfume may have some debt, there may be a deal that needs to be cut. But I don't think it's a done deal that Michael Steele is in there at all. This is going to be a hot race and one to certainly watch.

COX: Well, Pedro, were you surprised that Mfume didn't win?

Prof. NOGUERA: I think it's very hard for a, particularly a black-identified candidate like Mfume to win in a state, like most states, the majority white electorate. I think that if you look at the state that have produced Black statewide leadership like Illinois with Obama or Wilder in Virginia, it tends to be that these are candidates that kind of downplay race and have a different kind of appeal.

Mfume clearly coming out of the NAACP, the Black Caucus, out of Baltimore, he's very Black identified. And I think it still speaks to the ways in which the electorate is very divided on the basis of race. That it's hard for a black elected official or a black politician to be elected statewide in a majority white state because of the race factor. And I think that hurt Mfume.

COX: I just wanted to say that we're going to have a lot more on this race in Political Corner coming up a little bit later in the show with Juan Williams. But I have another question about this for you, Julianne. And that is as a black voter in the state of Maryland, when you have a black candidate like Steele, a white candidate like Cardin, who's a Democrat, does it create problems for black folks trying to decide whether to vote their political conscience or their racial conscience? Do you know what I mean?

Ms. MALVEAUX: It certainly does, especially when you have a candidate who comes off as attractively as Steele does. I know a good friend of mine, Dorothy Bailey, who was formerly on the Prince George's County - she was a county commissioner. She has gone, and she's a Democrat, she's gone with Steele. I know several other Democrats who do plan to do so.

I mean they see him as pushing our racial interests. He is one of the few, he is pro-affirmative action, he's racially conscious. He's not playing any games with that. He had Russell Simmons down here a couple of weeks ago to endorse him. And so, you know, he gets race.

So, because he gets race, I think that maybe African-Americans are going to have mixed feelings. On the other hand, again, I come back to a Cardin-Mfume kind of deal. If Cardin can show that he gets race too, I think that - and Mfume helps him - I think people will go with him.

Before, you know - the other thing I'd like to say about this race is, let's be clear, Mfume did not raise the money he needed to raise, and he had the base to do it. The one place where I would fault - Cardin out-raised money, out-raised him five to one, so that he was not on television until the last ten days of the campaign. Cardin, meanwhile, had been on TV for months. So, you know, he had a national base because of the NAACP from which really to raise money. If I were to fault him on anything it would have been that. If he had even half of Cardin's money, he would have won this race…

COX: He might have won.

Ms. MALVEAUX: …Pedro, regardless of, you know, the whole notion of racialized black candidates not being able to win.

COX: All right, let's move on to (unintelligible).

Prof. IRVIN: Well, you know, I wanted to add one other thing, Tony.

COX: All right, make it brief.

Prof. IRVIN: I think Pedro's point - okay - is that the thing about Steele is this - that I think he captures being a senator who is black as opposed to be a black who is a senator. The racial identity is important to him, but I think he's capturing this notion of how to be a candidate who has particular perspectives that are independent, say for example, of the National Republican Party, which appeals to the independent streak that I think is developing within the black community.

And finally, the other thing is this. There are only - there's only one black senator in the United States Senate…

COX: That's true.

Prof. IRVIN: …representing 40 million black people. And at some point, we've got to change these dynamics. I mean we've got, you know, three states, states like North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota that have less than three million people and they've got eight senators.

COX: All right. That was supposed to be brief, Nat - but I'm going to let you go on that - because we've got one more topic we want to try to get in before we run out of time. That's dealing with Harvard University, which is breaking a major trend in college admissions. It's planning to eliminate its early admissions program next year ostensibly for the benefit of minority undergraduate applicants, saying that by not binding them to early admissions it will give them more of an opportunity to get in.

Pedro, what do you think of this?

Prof. NOGUERA: Well, I think it is a good step. I think Harvard - it's easier for Harvard to do it than many other institutions. But hopefully others will follow.

I do think that early admission does place students who are less informed, less supported in the advising process, to get access to these elite universities. So it's - I think it's a good thing. I think Harvard could do a lot more, though.

I mean last year Harvard announced that they would start providing free tuition to students who come from families earning less than $40,000 a year. Well, I don't imagine they admit very many students who earn less than $40,000 a year, and I think they could do much better than that to really expand access to the university. But I think this is a good thing.

COX: Nat, you work in the academe. What do you say?

Prof. IRVIN: Oh, I agree with Pedro. But I don't think that this particular program in and of itself means that there will be minority students who suddenly can afford to go to the elite schools. I think what really makes a difference is, as Yale and Harvard have done, made it so that if families earn a certain - below a certain number, $40,000 for Harvard and $45,000 for Yale, that they get free tuition.

It's really about money. It's also about education. It's about parents knowing what to do. And any time you can get the institutions, the academes as a whole, to make the climate in general better for minority students it's got to be favorable. But this is not it, in and of itself. It's not going to - suddenly we have ten percent more black students going to the elite universities of this country.

COX: You know, Julianne, earlier in the program we talked about HBCU, this being HBCU week, and we talked about some of the difficulties they have competing financially and otherwise. Now a program like this and others around the country that will make it ostensibly easier for minorities to get into those schools could impact HBCUs, do you think, in a significant way? Probably not, though, right?

Ms. MALVEAUX: No, I don't think so. I mean I do think this is a good move on Harvard's part. I do think that early admissions have a tendency to negatively affect those students who don't have knowledge of an academic culture. It's increased - still so many of our young people are first-generation college. If you talk about black and brown students in particular, they're still first-generation college. And they don't, you know, I just filled out, helped a young person fill out that FAFSA form, this financial aid form. That thing is complicated!

COX: Mm-hmm. It sure is.

Ms. MALVEAUX: I mean it's a trip! So, you know, when you're looking at it, I mean our HBCUs will not be replaced. As Michael Lomax said, you know, half of the students who are going to graduate school are coming from HBCUs, because HBCU's are equipping young black people with a different kind of confidence, a different energy, than those who have gone to predominantly white institutions.

I have nothing against Harvard. Being a graduate of MIT myself, that would be my only thing against Harvard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALVEAUX: But, you know, having nothing against Harvard, I do not think, as Nat said, that we're going to exponentially see the number of black people increase at Harvard because of this minor change in admissions policy. There really does need to be - we need to look more globally both with the HBCUs and with the PWIs at what's being done in our nation.

Our nation is divesting, not investing, in education. We're spending, you know, less money relatively on education now than China, India, and Eastern Europe, all of which produce more engineers than the United States of America. We need more financial aid money out there for young people. We need more realistic kinds of formulas for the financial aid. And I think even more importantly, our HBCUs need to be better supported not only by the federal government but also by their alums.

COX: Okay. We're going to have to run out of here.

Ms. MALVEAUX: HBCU alums have a low giving rate, and that's really a problem.

COX: That was good. You had me worried, but we're going to make it out on time, which I appreciate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALVEAUX: We do our best, Tony, every time!

COX: You do a good job. But, boy, you make me nervous. I really tell you. Thanks again to Julianne Malveaux in Washington. Julianne is an economist and president and CEO of Last Word Productions, Inc. From our New York studio, Pedro Noguera, who is an educator professor at NYU. And in Winston-Salem, Nat Irvin, columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal and professor of future studies at Wake Forest University. Thanks everybody.

Prof. IRVIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

COX: Next on NEWS AND NOTES, NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams has the inside scoop on the latest happenings in Washington, and rap artist Pigeon John on finding success with music the whole family can enjoy.

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