Roundtable: Obama Plugs Cardin, Supermodel in Black Paint

Friday's topics: Sen. Barak Obama (D-IL) throws his support to Democratic Maryland Senate candidate Ben Cardin; model Kate Moss poses in black body paint on the cover of the English newspaper The Independent; and a discussion over how Hollywood depicts Africa. Guests: Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post; and Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, Barack Obama backs Democratic candidate Ben Cardin in the Maryland Senate race, and Hollywood stars look to embrace Africa in an unusual way.

Joining us today from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post. Along with Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. And we've got Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University. He's at member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

So thanks for joining us, and let me go straight to this Maryland situation, because you guys know I'm from Maryland. So Representative Ben Cardin, the white Democrat, who's facing a black Republican, Michael Steele, gained the support of two leading African-Americans. Democratic Senator Barack Obama, the lone black person in the Senate, and, you know, Kweisi Mfume was defeated by Cardin. At a rally, Cardin shared his enthusiasm.

Representative BEN CARDIN (Democrat, Maryland): I am so honored to introduce Senator Barack Obama.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Maryland, you got to put this guy in the Senate.

CHIDEYA: So Senator Obama shared his charisma with the crowd, even poking fun at Republican candidate Michael Steele's campaign.

Sen. OBAMA: I'll bet he likes puppies. I really do. I believe that. But I'll tell you what, that's not what this election's about. The election's about the future.

CHIDEYA: So, Nat, we have Barack Obama, who is often talked about as the first future black president, basically supporting a white guy over a black guy. And this is not anything new necessarily in Maryland. Because, you know, I'm from Baltimore and right now there's a white mayor who most of the black folks voted for, from what I understand. How does race break down in these races?

Professor NAT IRVIN (Professor of Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Well, Farai, first of all, this has got to be the longest senatorial campaign in the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. IRVIN: I think it's to be expected that Cardin would get the endorsement of Obama. I mean it's certainly not a surprise. Had he not done that, the campaign for Cardin would be over; and it would be over for Obama as well if he were considering himself as a presidential candidate.

I think the key endorsement for Cardin - excuse me - for Steele, however is that he got Mfume's son to endorse him. Mfume of course having endorsed -Kweisi having endorsed Cardin, and a lot has been made of that. But I think this is what shows you the strength of Steele's campaign, that he's been able to find different voices among the Democrats who are supporting an alternative strategy.

I think it's been very interesting to see how many black Democrats indicated that they're willing to support Michael Steele. And I think it points out how he's been able to bridge a lot of - how to serve as a bridge to a lot of voters who have just simply been tired of the Democrats taking their votes for granted.

I think the final thing is that in the end this will be a matter of who gets the voter turnout.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, a couple of things that I should disclose. One is that I was on Bill Maher's show with Michael Steele and really enjoyed a conversation about him and his values. He's very Catholic; he used to be a monk actually. But also Kweisi has a lot of sons and we don't know how those other sons would line up in the race. Mary...

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): Yes. Farai, I was about to say that, because I know some of them. He's got a lot of them. It's hard to keep track of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BERRY: And by tomorrow...

CHIDEYA: You said that. I didn't.

Prof. BERRY: By tomorrow Cardin will find one to come out, one or two maybe, to come out with him. The problem with Michael Steele - there's a couple of things. The problem with Michael Steele is no matter how charming he is, he promised when he was elected lieutenant governor that the first thing he was going to do was to implement the study that was done of disparities in the death sentence, death penalty in Maryland, which was race-based.

And there was a big study that had been done and he never did anything the whole time he was lieutenant governor. He sort of shoved it aside and Maryland went on executing people anyway, despite the disparities that had been shown. And that was a major campaign promise he'd made.

The other thing is that, aside from getting a son to endorse him, one of Kweisi's son, Cardin has a much better record on the issues that African-Americans are concerned about. So what we're really going to see here again is whether people vote on the basis of race - African-Americans - or if they carefully find out about all these issues and how they vote.

I think the Republicans got 12 percent of the black vote in the Ehrlich/Steele race, governor/lieutenant governor, so we'll see how many they get. And Barack Obama of course is a Democrat and supported Cardin because he is and because he was told to and because he's got a good record and that's what they do.

But how it plays out will not be based on Steele's charm or lack thereof, or Cardin's lack of charm. It will be played out based on whether black voters go for the issues or whether they go for putting a black man in the Senate.

CHIDEYA: Joe, you know, you are at The Washington Post. You're a stone's throw and a million miles mentally away from my hometown of Baltimore. I'm being editorial here. Washingtonians, in my opinion, they just don't give the love to Baltimore even though we have the great house music and all that. But anyway, I'm going to stop digressing.

But Cardin does not have the national profile that Steele does, because Steele is one or three black candidates for national office in these midterm elections. Does that make a difference? Does it make a difference that Steele has more of a national profile?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, The Washington Post): Well, only the people of Maryland can vote, obviously. I think that one way might help Steele, though, is in terms of fundraising and drawing kind of celebrity support from others around the country. There's a story in the Post today that has him kind of indicating that he's a bit concerned, though, about the amount of funds from national Republicans and the amount of help that he might get from national Republicans.

They did pour a lot of money into his campaign early on - $1.1 million - and he calls that an unprecedented effort. But he expresses some concern about whether or not that unprecedented effort will continue, because, as you know, the Republicans have a lot of trouble around the country this election year. Many more Senate races are in trouble than what was originally expected in terms of Republican hopes.

And so his concern is - Steele's concern is that some of that energy, some of that money is being diverted to some of these other races that are now in question. And in fact there's a big race right across the border from Maryland in Virginia which is now in question. George Allen was thought to that have had a safe seat, essentially. But now his seat in the Senate is definitely much closer to being up for grabs than it was just a few weeks ago.

CHIDEYA: Well, there's allegations, you know, that he used the N word when he was a college football player and all that - Allen I'm talking about. But before we move on to our next topic, let me ask all of you - and, Joe, I'll go back to you - how important is skin color or racial identification versus, you know, kind of political identification in a race like this?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think the fact of the matter is it does play a role for some, and for some people within the black community it might be a stronger role than for others. But I don't think it's the determining factor for most black Americans in the state or most black people in Maryland.

I saw a poll which I think indicates that right now Steele is getting about maybe 25 percent of the black vote, and I can't say that for sure because I don't have that information in front of me. But if that's correct, that would be a significant increase over what black people generally give Republicans.

But even if that is correct, that still means that 75 percent of the black people aren't going for him just because he is black. So I think that race plays a factor but is not the overwhelming factor. And I think black people generally will vote their interests.

CHIDEYA: Professor Berry?

Prof. BERRY: I'm just going to have to wait and see. I still recall the Clarence Thomas, all the support he got despite his record. Support that people give Condi Rice on the gospel music station because she's black and they're happy to see her in that job. So we'll have to see how it goes.

But I would hope that we move beyond that, but we'll just have to wait and see.

CHIDEYA: Professor Irvin, do you think that things have gotten more or less racially identified for black voters? And what I mean by that is, you know, 10, 15, 20 years ago, were black voters more likely to vote for a black person who may not have toed the typical line of their community's interests versus now? Is there anyway to even tell that?

Prof. IRVIN: You know, I think it's such a broad - you have to really be specific to the kinds of races that you're talking about, Farai. You know, I mean there was one - you just have to be specific. I agree with Mary. Fundamentally, we'll just see how this all turns out.

But I think in this instance the interesting thing is how Michael Steele has been able to create himself in the cloak of a steel(ph) Democrat. He's appealed to what I call as the independent streak that is alive and well within the black community.

And I think this election will, however, point to - if Steele is successful, it will point to a successful strategy for blacks who are not Democrats to find a way to be independent enough from the history of the Republican Party, the recent history of the Republican Party, and then maybe find some common ground with blacks who are Democrats.

And so I just think you have to be specific to candidates. People run different kinds of races. You know, the local issues, the - sometimes you have - let me just stop there. That's really it, the bottom line.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, there's a topic I absolutely can't wait to get to, and I'm just going to share it with you. Hollywood/Africa/British supermodel Kate Moss was in black face, or full black body, on the cover of the left-leaning English newspaper The Independent last weekend. But now there's in the U.S. folks like Gwyneth Paltrow is part of a campaign by an AIDS charity, Keep a Child Alive; she's wearing African jewelry and face paint with the slogan: I am an African, or I am African.

And you've also got people like Alicia Keyes. It's not all white people, but it's very - as someone who has relatives in Africa who I, you know, I know and I go visit and, you know, a brother, a cousin, et cetera, it's very kind of ethno-primitive. It's not very up-to-the-moment. So what's up with this whole kind of, like, pretending to be African thing? That's just the way I'll put it.

Prof. BERRY: Well, as I recall, during the campaign, the presidential campaign, John Kerry's wife said that she was African because she was born somewhere in Africa. And so I guess - oh, she said she was African-American. That's what she said she was.

So, and then you have - who's the movie star that got the Academy Award that's from South Africa?

CHIDEYA: Charlize Theron?

Prof. BERRY: She's - I guess she's an African.

CHIDEYA: Well, in some ways...

Prof. BERRY: So people can be...

CHIDEYA: ...that's kind of different, because you do have white people who are born and raised...

Prof. BERRY: In Africa.

CHIDEYA: ...in Africa. But in this there's Iman and maybe one or two other people who are African. But it's mainly black Americans and white Americans who, you know, it's more - it's meant to be kind of I guess a spiritual or ethical call, you know, that we should support Africa. But the way in which the images are depicted are like necklaces and face paint and, you know, just - not that...

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, I...

CHIDEYA: ...necklaces and face paint don't exist in Africa. But it's very, like I said, ethno-primitive.

Mr. DAVIDSON: I think - two points. One, I think you could argue that given the origin of the species, everybody is an African. But that might be a different topic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVIDSON: In terms of the beauty standards and these kinds of things, it kind of strikes me in a couple of ways. One, I wonder if it is just totally opportunistic; just a way for people who are already rich to make more money. But on the other hand, when I see all these black women walking around with blond hair, straightened...

Prof. IRVIN: Tell it, brother!

Mr. DAVIDSON: ...and the way...

CHIDEYA: Uh-oh!

Prof. IRVIN: Tell it brother!

Mr. DAVIDSON: ...the way we as a people have just grabbed white beauty standards, you know, forever, basically.

CHIDEYA: You need to go to jail and talk to Lil' Kim.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, I think that if some white people want to take on the beauty standards of African people, you know, I can't be totally upset about that even if they are making money off of it.

Prof. BERRY: And it is amazing, Joe, how - since you got on it - it is amazing how people have, everybody has gone to that. Straighten my hair and make it red or whatever it is. And try to...

Prof. IRVIN: Tell it, Mary!

Prof. BERRY: ...look that way.

Prof. IRVIN: Tell it!

Prof. BERRY: We went through that before...

Prof. IRVIN: That's right.

Prof. BERRY: ...and had to get away from it. Now we're going back to it again.

Prof. IRVIN: Deeper than ever.

CHIDEYA: So what are you going to say about the Japanese girls who have, like, Afro perms? I mean is that...

Prof. BERRY: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...is that being African?

Prof. BERRY: It's all - what all this means is not taking seriously the burdens of race and oppression and trivializing things and thinking you're doing a good thing. I think this whole business of the white folks trying to be African in these campaigns, you know, part of it is this campaign about the AIDS charity, Keep a Child Alive, and that's supposed to be helpful and symbolize their empathy for people in Africa. But you're right, it is ethno-primitive the way it's being done.

Maybe they should get their hair kinked or something. Or do some other - or learn something about Africa. Or go and do something culturally with Africa besides, you know - I mean, I don't know, maybe something else.

But we are, as Joe said, on the other side going in the other direction as black people.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, what strikes...

Prof. IRVIN: Well, listen, let me just...

CHIDEYA: Go ahead.

Prof. IRVIN: Let me disagree with my sister here for just a moment. Because...

Prof. BERRY: Go ahead.

Prof. IRVIN: ... I know we all do have - I have a lot of friends, white, who are both in this country and are part of the international community, who are actually doing some marvelous things for the continent of Africa. And I think that part of what we Americans have a tendency to do - not my two colleagues here - but we Americans don't really know that there's a different way of looking at the continent of Africa in Europe than it is in America.

And the response that, you know, of Gwyneth Paltrow and some of the others, saying that they are Africans, it's all part of something really quite fundamental about trying to get the international community to do something about AIDS. There are a lot of strong, very powerful and very wealthy people who are devoting their lives and their resources to trying to provide water for wells where people don't have them.

My son just got from Kenya this summer working with a young group of mostly young white kids, part of the Armani Foundation, who were trying to do something about orphans, the AIDS orphans, a problem in Kenya. And I think that what the Europeans are doing that we African-Americans are not doing is we, you know, we like to adopt this sort of African-American heritage, but what's needed, what the people in Africa need and what they would tell you and what the women of Africa need, is they need resources. They really need people...

Prof. BERRY: But wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Nat. There are people in this country, including some of my students, who have projects that they do in Africa, like real work that they are doing in Africa.

Prof. IRVIN: Right. Right.

Prof. BERRY: Some of them are white, some of them are black students. There's the Gates Foundation, there's Bill Clinton, there's all kinds of people who are doing things for Africa. But I think it's a different issue as to what you -how you dress and say we're African, and put on these, you know, beads and all the rest of it. The point is, what does that have to do with it?

CHIDEYA: Well, what does that have to do with...

Prof. IRVIN: That's what I was...

CHIDEYA: Wait, we've got to cut it off.

Prof. IRVIN: But that was just - okay.

CHIDEYA: I'm sorry.

Prof. IRVIN: I'm just saying that's a fashion statement.

Mr. DAVIDSON: I'm looking for Kate Moss to write Black Like Me.

CHIDEYA: You know if they gave me five more minutes it would be a different situation.

We've been talking with Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. From our Washington, D.C., headquarters, Joe Davidson at The Washington Post. And at member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University.

And thank you all.

As always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics you've heard, you can call us at 202-408-3330. Or send us an e-mail. Log onto npr.org and click on Contact Us. Be sure to tell us where you're writing from and how to pronounce your name.

Next on NEWS & NOTES, NPR's special Africa correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault brings us the latest news from the continent in Africa Update, and two brothers who are bringing a new twist to talk radio.

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