Roundtable: Same-Sex Marriage, Single-Sex Classes

Friday's topics: the same-sex marriage debate; more white Katrina victims are pursuing insurance claims than minorities; and the Bush administration is letting public schools expand single-sex classes. Guests: Nat Irvin, president of Future Focus 2020; University of Pennsylvania history professor Mary Frances Berry; and Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, more white Katrina victims are pursuing insurance claims than minorities, and same-sex couples can't marry in New Jersey yet, but that might change.

Joining us today from our NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., we've got Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post, along with Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. And Nat Irvin, president of Future Focus 2020, who also teaches at the Babcock Graduate School of Management of Wake Forest University, is at member station WFTD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

So thank you all for joining us and let's move on to New Jersey. The state's Supreme Court ruled that homosexuals are entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples. But they kind of put a little spin on it, giving lawmakers 180 days to decide whether to legalize same-sex marriage or to have civil unions. In one CNN report, a gay woman, who's been with her partner for 32 years, reacted to the news.

(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)

Unidentified Woman #1: I just want to say to anybody out there who is already married, would they want it to be called anything else? Our culture, our society understands what the word marriage means. They understand what it means to be married. And that's what we have lived for 32 years, and that's what we want our legal agreement to be.

CHIDEYA: Nat, is this kind of the courts fudging it? Saying well, you have the legal rights but you can't marry, but you can - well, we'll leave it for someone else. I mean kind of what's going on here? Is this a major move or is this kind of a punt?

Professor NAT IRVIN (Wake Forest University): I don't think it's a punt and I don't think it's a major move. I think it's a compromise. It's a recognition by the fact that the country has moved toward I think recognition that something must be done on behalf of the gay community. People are not quite sure whether it should be called marriage or not, but they certainly believe - and I think the Pew Research poll show that 56 percent of respondents said that while they opposed gay marriage, they weren't opposed to civil unions.

And what this court has done is it's reflecting I think the general mood of the country: That we've got to find the right language to be fair and just to folks who are from the gay community who wish to get married. Whether are we going to call it marriage or not is the question.

I think the other thing, Farai, is to recognize just how far we've come in this debate that recently Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swore in the gay ambassador for the U.S. - the AIDS coordinator, and that - while in that ceremony she recognized his partner.

Now imagine that this has happened in the Bush administration. And it reflects what I think, Andrew Sullivan said, is the general acceptance and recognition that the gay community has to be recognized. We have to find the right legal framework, the right social framework, even in some instances the right religious framework, to come to grips with this very important issue in our country. And I believe that this court simply is making once - helping us all, reflecting all of us, the movement, toward the right kind of language. We don't have it yet, but we're going to get there.

CHIDEYA: Professor Berry, some people argue, look, there's no point in calling a union anything but a marriage. You know, advocates in the gay and lesbian community say, look, just give us marriage. And in Massachusetts you have marriage. In New Jersey, it's not clear whether or not you're going to have marriage.

There are cases pending in California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, in San Francisco there were people who were married; and then it was overturned, so they were unmarried. Where do you see the future of this going, because there is, you know, with things like the Defense of Marriage Act, a lot of opposition to same-sex marriages, and then there is also a move in the courts, in some courts, to seem to push this forward?

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): I think that there will be more constitutional bans on same-sex marriage passed in the election on the 7th in those states where they're on the ballot in a knee-jerk reaction to the New Jersey decision by people who are not being nuanced in what they read. I think the New Jersey court, it was a four to three decision, which meant that there may have been people on there who wanted to go for marriage but they had to get a decision. So it's a very balanced kind of decision.

I think what's going to happen to the country is that there will be more and more support for civil unions and giving people equal rights to economic benefits. In most of the states I think that will happen eventually. I think marriage is a sacrament, in my view, it's a religious sacrament, so that people who - once they get all the benefits, if they want to get married let them go get married in a church or some place, or whatever kind of forum they would do it in, and call themselves married so long as they have all the benefits.

But I do think we will in the short term get more and more civil unions and more equal benefits in the states as we go along. And then someday, once that's all done, because these things take forever, the wheels grind very slowly indeed. Once all that's done, then people will look up and say okay, if they want to call it marriage, let them call it that. And then there will be more labels like that permitted.

CHIDEYA: Joe, Prof. Berry just kind of making a distinction between the legal benefits of a civil union, or the legal benefits of a marriage, the civil part of a marriage and the sacrament of marriage. Is it enough to give people a civil union when some folks say you can never make a substitute for marriage?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, Metro/City Desk, The Washington Post): Well, it's certainly not enough for those people who wish to be married and not just to be in the civil union. And one thing on the four to three vote. As Mary indicated that the decision was four to three, but that was on the - the divide was on the question of whether or not we should call it marriage, as opposed to all of the justices in New Jersey being in agreement that gay and lesbian unions must be guaranteed the same rights and benefits that come with heterosexual marriage.

I think clearly the word marriage is more than just a word. And that is something that I think the legislature in New Jersey now will have to grapple with. But it's clearly also become a national issue to some extent even for -in those states where it is not a local issue. I mean the president of the United States was in Iowa this week. And it's not an issue on Iowa, but nonetheless he was there campaigning for a house candidate and he took that opportunity to criticize what he called the activist court in New Jersey. Mary and I were talking before the broadcast about how this New Jersey decision is having an impact in Tennessee. So it's clearly a local issue with national implications.

CHIDEYA: I want to move along to another local issue with national implications. Katrina left of course so many people devastated in terms of their homes and their lives. And there's a new report out that said that poor and minority neighborhoods did not apply for government help in resolving insurance disputes the same way that residents of white neighborhoods and wealthier neighborhoods did.

And there's a quote in a story from the Associated Press from a woman, Dorothea Kitchens. She lived in the Ninth ward. Her house was destroyed. And she talks about, you know, this whole process of government appeal which she and her husband didn't do, and she said my husband didn't want to be bothered. I just asked him, why don't we sue the insurance company? He said, they ain't going to do nothing no way. White, meaning white people, just decided they was going to go file. Black, we just gave up easier.

What does this say about the level of mistrust, Joe, between African-Americans and government? And in this case the government was, you know, offering to intercede with insurance companies.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think it says a lot. I think it says a lot about the level of mistrust, the lack of confidence that black people have not only in government but with big businesses, the corporate structure. There's an article in today's New York Times that talks about black voting turnout may be diminished because of lack of confidence in the, you know, in the voting procedures because of Florida and Ohio in the last two times out.

So I think this type of alienation, this dissatisfaction with the system in bold letters I think is definitely an issue for black people. And it's something that stems from generations of racism and discrimination. I don't think that you can - excuse me - you can kind of stop, you know, bold face discrimination one day and expect the effects of it to diminish the next day. It takes a long time. And in some cases black people in a sense impose it upon ourselves to some degree, even though well-recognized in those historical roots, because we don't kind of say, okay, we're going to go out and grab this even when we have the opportunity because of this legacy.

Prof. BERRY: But, Joe, and Farai and Nat, this story - these folks, the Kitchens, didn't have information either. And the same story tells you that there they were in the 9th Ward, they had real reasons for mistrust after the evacuation-failed-efforts with Katrina and everything else that had happen. And they had no information, no computer, no radio, no TV - they didn't even know they could appeal the decision. And the comment of her husband was just layered on top of that. And as I say, he has lots of reasons to distrust.

Also, if the state really wanted to - and the insurance company - to get information out to people like the Kitchens, what they would've done is had those Red Cross volunteers and the people from Uncommon Ground, and other volunteers who are out there in the area, pass out information to them, or have some way for them to access it. They had no information. And on top of that, is layered the mistrust. It's like, you know, when I read this story, I turned on Billie Holiday: God bless the child that's got his own, them that's got, gets. And so...

CHIDEYA: But Professor Berry...

Prof. BERRY: ...there's another story like that.

CHIDEYA: Let me just throw something else into the mix. All right, you've got three layers here. You've got the insurers. You've got the government plan to intercede. But shouldn't there have been a third layer of civil rights organizations, maybe

Prof. BERRY: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: ...who took up this as a mantle and went around and educated people door to door?

Prof. BERRY: Absolutely, for I thought of that too.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That was going to be my thought.

Prof. BERRY: I said why wouldn't it in NAACP?

Mr. Davidson: Yeah.

Prof. BERRY: And I actually sent an e-mail last night, and said you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Some of the groups that were down there - the Advancement Project, LDF, all of them - were down there involved. Why didn't they get this information out? Also why aren't they even at this point - and I did sent e-mails to all of them - why aren't they even at this point trying to do something about making these people whole, despite the fact that this has already happened. There maybe some way to do it. But yeah, they should've been in there. Instead of just being in there, you know hooting and hollering and carrying on...

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yeah, Mary, I'm with you.

Prof. BERRY: They should've been there with both feet, putting out information and helping these people.

CHIDEYA: Nat.

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah, well I was just going to - I agree with Mary. My first thought was, you know, what do you do with a story like this. I remember when -we all remember when Katrina hit. The first thing that you think about is charity. Of course, you want to make a contribution and try to help people who are immediately faced with loss of limb, loss of property, loss of life. You want to try to bring some sense of safety to them.

But what this also reflects is that our civil rights organizations, our social services organizations, have to think always in context of infrastructure. Have to think about in terms of the system, the larger systems. And I think that it illustrates how - and within the black community - we have to strengthen, to continue to strengthen, our understanding of financial literacy.

You know when we look at studies that show how blacks, when they apply for home loans or commercial loans, that all systematically, are generally charged higher rates. And it won't necessarily be because on the part of the lender to intentionally do it is because you weren't sophisticated enough about the process.

And you know there's a lot over in that area - the whole financial literacy thing. But I think what this illustrates to me, is that we talk - we, you know, we make a big deal about what other people do. And what other people didn't do. What we ought to be making a big deal about is how do we - even at this point, Mary, I agree with this - even at this point, there should be some redress for these folk, who - I mean, well most of us don't have the time and the money as was illustrated in the story to wait out the big insurance companies.

Sometimes, you know all - this could happen to any of us. You get in a tough situation, you need help. You need help to be able to fend off. How do you fight against the, you know, a big pharmaceutical company - even if you win? That's where a lot of people, black or white, are faced with in this country. And I think that it is incumbent upon some of our major institutions, who certainly have made a lot of noise about what happens in Katrina, to go back and maybe put some resources around the legal redress and maybe help some of these folks.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Now, I think, I think all of that makes perfect sense, but I think the first institution that has the responsibility to inform people of their rights is the government.

Prof. IRVIN: I agree with that, Joe.

CHIDEYA: All right, one last topic, not much time for it. This is actually something that's close to my heart or at least to my experience. I went to a single-sex public high school back when there were only two left in the country. There were, of course, tons and tons of them and they were closed or you know made co-ed. I went to Western High School in Baltimore.

Now the Bush administration is giving public school districts a lot of latitude to expand single-sex classes or schools. And this could mark a huge change. But already, locally, in places like New York and Philadelphia, there are single-sex schools for both girls and boys. Now is this a step ahead or a step back? You know I mean...

Prof. BERRY: I'm firmly opposed to it, Farai. And the reason why I'm opposed to it is - I don't mind single-sex schools, private schools, and I think people should pay for them. But all the arguments for single-sex schools - especially when we have no evidence, no research evidence that people learn better in them, that's in the story - the same arguments people made for not desegregating schools in my hometown.

I remember going here and listening to the arguments - that white children wouldn't be able to learn with the black children who had different behavior -Negro children - who had different behavior from them and so on, and everybody would be better off doing their own thing. And education would be separate but equal. And we would all be fine.

It's also miring in - an additional factor is, most people don't consider sex discrimination to be as significant as race discrimination, or sex stereotyping to be as...

CHIDEYA: But very quickly, and I don't want to leave everyone without time. What about the idea that girls speak up more in, you know single-sex classrooms...

Prof. BERRY: That has to do with teachers. I teach. If you don't call on the students, and you call on the boys, and you've been acculturated and socialized to believe that girls just aren't interested and can't learn certain things, and their parents have socialized them and you - your parents will socialize you - to believe that. So what I'm arguing for is a change, at bottom, and how we deal with stereotyping. Although on the surface, people may try this, if it's going to happen anyway. Because as usual, we don't deal with underlying problems. We deal with putting Band-Aids on problems.

CHIDEYA: Joe and Nat, very quickly.

Mr. DAVIDSON: I think that there are a lot of parents who would opt this. My wife went to a single-sex high school in Philadelphia. I do think that they would have to be - that you would need some really iron-clad guarantees that the girl's side would not be short changed. Because historically that has been the case. And so you would really need vigorous oversight on that point.

CHIDEYA: Nat.

Prof. IRVIN: Oh, I'm firmly in favor of this. I think it's a - I'm happy that we're going to finally experiment with some different ideas about how to improve schools. But I don't for one minute believe that this is a solution. This is just part of a solution. The fact is - and I think Mary touched on this - is that our schools actually are designed for the wrong time. I mean it's fundamentally, the school structure, whether you have all boys attending one or all girls attending a school, what's going on in a classrooms is really what's wrong. And our schools need to be redesigned for the 21st century.

But any effort that can help, even on the margins, to improve the academic performance of young black students, young black girls, young white students, any American student - I'm for it. I just know this. This is not the solution. It's part of a solution.

CHIDEYA: All right. Nat Irvin, president of Future Focus 2020. Mary Francis Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Joe Davidson, editor at the Washington Post. Thank you all.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

Prof. IRVIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, you live in it everyday but how much do you know about your skin. A new book on the topic contains some surprises. And masters of music George Benson and Al Jarreau smooth things out on their new album, Givin' It Up.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AL JARREAU (Singer): (Singing) You know what makes me smile, is kicking this groove for miles. It always makes me grin, no matter what mood I'm in.

CHIDEYA: You're listening to News & Notes on NPR News.

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