Roundtable: 'N' Word, Ford, Racial Profiling

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Topics include the debate over the "N" word, Ford's attempt at a financial turnaround and a pray-in in Washington, D.C., held to protest racial profiling of passengers. Farai Chideya's guests are economist and author Julianne Malveaux; Ron Christie, vice president of DC Navigators; and Walter Fields, CEO and Publisher of the NorthStarNetwork.com.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

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

And that music was just taking me back. It was BDP, KRS-ONE, who we just heard. “The Bridge is Over.” Anyway, moving along on today's Roundtable, we're talking about dropping the N-bomb from the entire language. And Ford Motor Company takes a huge financial gamble.

So joining us in our New York bureau is Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of NorthStarNetwork.com; and at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., economist and author Julianne Malveaux, president and CEO of Last Word Productions, Inc. She's also there with Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying firm D.C. Navigators and former deputy assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Welcome and we're going to try to keep this portion of the show relatively clean, folks. Julianne, I got to start with you. When you heard Paul Mooney saying that he is a recovering N-word-aholic and then you hear KRS-ONE, who considers himself a hip-hop historian as well as rapper saying, you know what? This is language and this is what we do - is we play with language.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (CEO and President, Last Word Productions, Inc.): You know, I think Ron Christie would have to describe to you my physical reaction to the entire segment, which was very physical. I had to take my shoes off and sort of walk around.

To hear the word - here is what my problem is, Farai. Michael Richards did not just use the N-word about 10 times but he also visually invoked a lynching. He talked about someone hanging from a tree with a pitchfork up their rear end. And I am very disappointed at all of our national commentators for focusing on the N-word and not on the continuum. Because when you focus on the continuum, you understand what the N-word opens up the door for.

In other words, how dare this white boy - and I'll say it, white boy - who's what? He's 50-ish, so he is in my generation. He ain't - did not grow up in Mississippi. He does not have this experience, so how has he incorporated this history into his life and to use that as a scourge on black people in his audience who were doing what people in comedy clubs do? They clown. That's why you go to comedy clubs, to clown. But you don't go to comedy clubs to behave, you go to act like an idiot.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me just bring up what Paul Mooney said, which is that he said - when KRS-ONE said, you know, this is just language and we can use it however we want. Paul Mooney said you're not from the lynching generation, which is what I hear you saying now. So do you think it's really (unintelligible)?

Ms. MALVEAUX: But it's not even a generational thing, Farai, because guess what? Lynching is history. It's black history. You cannot clean up that history. I heard the KRS-ONE brother talking about, well, you know, you can diffuse. I had asked your producer to pull up a book some African brother's written in his book called “Capitalist N-word: The Road to Success”, in which he excoriates black people because we're not economically correct enough. And a friend of mine sent me the book, I'm about to slap her.

But in any case, you know, people use the word to shock, but the fact is that the word is part of a historical continuum, which was extraordinarily painful to us.

CHIDEYA: Walter -let me bring in Walter because it is part of a historical continuum and it is part of, you know, painful, violent history. But I remember reading Elenor Holmes-Norton's autobiography or biography and she - in it are some old memoirs of hers that were incorporated into the book in which she uses the N-word. And I can't think of someone more intelligent, more forthright, more pioneering as, you know, someone who is a litigator and who is now sitting in Congress. So what does that say?

Mr. WALTER FIELDS (CEO and Publisher, North Star Network): Well, I think many people have slipped up and used the word, but it's not about language at all, it's about identity. And we have to not focus so much on the word but the historical context of the word and what generally followed the use of that word, which was violent episodes that were based upon white privilege.

So to hear someone trying to explain it away, to say that there is a derivative of this word that is acceptable because it has some meaning within an artistic construct, I totally disagree. I don't think you can get away from the history of the word and what that word means in terms of negative identity in this country.

So when you hear it used by a Michael Richards or by a comic, any other comic on the stage, black or white, I think we have to be truthful about what this word means. And I think, you know, this is probably one of the most important conversations we can have in the black community right now because it really talks about who we are as a people and how we perceive ourselves.

So, you know, I welcome the debate between, sort of, hip-hop and older generation and those of us who sort of are sandwiched in between - the hip-hop generation, the older generation. I was getting my swerve on when I heard BDP but, you know, some of us are very concerned about how this word has now come back into fashion by us.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. It's - and maybe more so than ever. I mean, when I think about the era in which Richard Pryor was using the N-word, I think that it was used a lot less than it is now in terms of popular discourse. Ron, I want to bring you in on a personal level. You have a child or children, is that correct?

Mr. Ron Christie (Vice President, DC Navigators): No, actually. Not yet.

CHIDEYA: Oh, not yet. Okay. I misunderstood. Well, I asked the question that didn't make air of the two panelists that if they had a - say an 8-year-old in their life, what would they tell them the word meant? And we didn't have time to run that, but it seems to me that a lot of this is about a dialogue with kids, with teens, and you can't just, in my experience, say okay, don't do this because that's kind of like putting the warning stickers on the records. You put it like, oh, great, I know which ones to buy. So how do you, Ron, bring this up in a context with people who might not have the same sense of history?

Mr. CHRISTIE: We'll I'm a direct descendant from slaves. My great grandparents - great, great, grandparents, I should say, were in the slavery era. My grandparents still own the piece of property that was a slave plantation. And you can bring it up, as Walter suggests, in a historical context.

When this whole first piece started, Julianne Malveaux and I sitting in Washington, we were steamed. Why are we steamed? Because it seems to me we have gotten away from the pain of slavery, we've gotten away from what has happened, how African-Americans have been systematically discriminated against in this country. And you have Dr. Martin Luther King standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial and saying we should be judged by the content or our character, not the color of our skin.

And yet, looking at what happened with Michael Richards, looking at what happened with some of our hip-hop individuals, they seem to glorify this word or they seem to think that it's no big deal. It is a disgusting word. It is an important part of our history as Walter and Julianne have pointed out from where we have been as a people.

But we need to move away from that and we need to move toward a system where we are looked at based upon our intelligence, based upon our creativity, just as opposed to looking at some word that is used for a very painful and a very, very racist way of looking at a group of people.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, we're going to move away from this topic, which has, of course, been something that's consumed us in recent weeks as a nation. But, Julianne, there's a lot of other important things going on in the country right now. And one of them is that 38,000 employees accepted buyouts or early retirement from Ford Motor Company, and they're doing something, which seems unprecedented in the company's history - they mortgaged nearly all of Ford's domestic assets to raise $18 billion. What's going on here?

Ms. MALVEAUX: The auto industry is restructuring. Ford and other companies have made unwise commitments especially in large vehicles, SUVs, and that has not paid off. From a market perspective - which I think is somewhat wrong - but from a market perspective, if you balance your success by what happens quarterly, they're not succeeding, they are failing.

And so they are trying to figure out how to reconstruct themselves. In the wake of the announcement that they laid off 38,000 people took the buyout, their stock went up. But that has major, Farai, major implications for African-American people, for the trade union movement and for the future of industrial America.

For African-American people, as we know, unions have protected African-American people in employment. So I don't have the numbers yet. I tried to get them this morning, what the percentages were of who took buyouts. But you're in Detroit, so you know what Detroit looks like. Many of these are African-American people; the auto industry has been the foundation of the African-American middle class in Detroit.

Secondly, in terms of the trade union movement, this is a 50 percent hit in Detroit for the UAW. I'm not sure, again, what it turns out to be nationally, but I'd guess it'd be a 3 to 5 percent. Unions already are organizing low. So to take another 3 to 5 percent out, I think, is basically problematic.

But the third and most important issue is that Lou Dobbs has been pushing on a long time, is the war on the middle class. What's happening with people who are making, you know, between 30 and a 100, which pretty much is our middle class it's not the upper middle class. And you just cut out a lot of people and say that they are fungible, that they are negotiable.

And so this really is a phenomenal, seismic shift, not only for the company, which I know that Wall Street will look at, but for people and for organizers.

CHIDEYA: Ron, from a - I assume that you come from a more free market perspective.

Mr. CHRISTIE: I do.

CHIDEYA: You know, so what do you make of this? I mean if the American auto industry isn't viable, then it may just die. Is it viable? Could it die entirely in terms of these big companies that are struggling? And what role should government play in, you know, propping up or something like that?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I think the auto industry is always going to be viable in America. It's been the bedrock of our capitalistic society if looking back in the last century, the American innovation of the automobile. At the same time, Ford Motor Company has made some terrible business decisions these last several years. And I think that their poor business decisions are manifesting themselves in the fact that they have to mortgage their property and they have to essentially layoff or buyout half of their workforce.

CHIDEYA: But, Ron, let me just throw this in there. I understand that some automakers are going to President Bush and saying, you know what's killing us? It's pensions and healthcare. In Japan, there's government pensions. There's government healthcare. We don't have that here. All these older employees, that's killing us. So what is government's role?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, the Big Three - the CEO's of the Big Three automakers went to meet with President Bush a couple of year - a couple of weeks ago, I should say, and they outlined just what you suggested, that the pensions are killing them. Part of the problem - and I'm a free market guy - part of the problem, my grandfather worked at General Motors for 50 years and was a proud union member.

But at the same time, some of these union contracts, some of these very, very structured contracts that the employees have are putting our companies out of business. I think American - the auto industry needs to be more competitive. They need to certainly look at - they're looking at lighter fuel or lighter cars, more fuel-efficient cars, but at the same time structuring those benefits for their employees so that they can remain competitive.

CHIDEYA: Well being out here in L.A., I can't tell you how many times I've seen stretch Hummers. So I'm not sure that Americans all want smaller cars, although it makes a lot of sense, folks.

Anyway, Walter, do you think that it's really just or mainly the bad moves of an individual company like Ford that got it into hot water, or is it something structural about the way that the U.S. is changing in terms of what labor is done here in the country, what labor is done overseas, how we have healthcare, all of those things.

Mr. FIELDS: It's not what the U.S. has done. You know, we're living in a different economic time. We're dealing in a global economy, and the notion of an American auto industry is really passé. Even if you look at Ford, I mean they own part of Volvo, they own part of Mazda. So the notion of a uniquely American auto company is no longer valid. And I think this is a significant move that Ford is making.

And this doesn't just affect the auto industry. American businesses better look at this because what Ford is basically doing is mortgaging everything. They can't borrow any more money. So now they're going to their assets and they're putting it all on the line to raise this cash. If this doesn't work, this is it for Ford Motor Company. And that may seem to be a dramatic statement, but don't forget there are many corporate names that we can go to that no longer exist and function in this country because they went down.

So I think we better understand the significance of what Ford is doing. They're basically rolling the dice. They've run out of options. We all know that pensions, healthcare are tremendous costs for an American auto industry.

But we also know that there's been a series of bad decisions that have put Ford, Chrysler and GM in a very bad position. So for Ford to take the step -and mind you, out of the Big Three, Ford has never ever sold its assets to raise money - this is a big step. So I think we better be clear it's not only going to affect the trade unions. It's going to affect the supply chain because the auto industry has a ripple effect of all of those suppliers that will be impacted if a company like Ford goes down the tubes.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, Walter. And we're going to have time briefly for one more topic. Ron and Julianne, you're both in D.C., and there was a pray-in demonstration this week at Washington National Airport where six imams rolled out their prayer mats reacting to racial profiling of passengers in Minneapolis.

What are we to make of the situation of racial profiling or cultural profiling when it comes to Muslims? And how does this - I guess, Julianne, I'll start with you - is this an effective form of protest?

Ms. MALVEAUX: I think it is. You know, Farai, this is - this random racial profiling allows any passenger to decide that they're disturbed that they see three or four people with turbans on and send a note up to the pilot and then these people are taken off.

I was on a flight about three years ago where this happened, and I actually confronted the pilot and said, excuse me, but I'm a writer and reporter. And if you put this brother off - it was a guy with a scarf on - I said you're going to have to tell me why and I'm going to write about it. And he backed off, because the fact is that, you know, some white guy who happened to be inebriated and it was clear. Okay, now the CIA got me.

CHIDEYA: I'm sorry we appear to be having some kind of technical difficulty.

Ms. MALVEAUX: (unintelligible)

CHIDEYA: I know. Sounded like a lawn mower - it's the CIA using lawn mowers.

Mr. FIELDS: That was Dr. Malveaux

Mr. CHRISTIE: Yeah, see, Farai, I…

Ms. MALVEAUX: But, you know, let me just finish my point, Ron.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Sure.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Just if you can, for a minute.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Sure.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Here's the whole point here. I think that there is a right to have reasonable caution, but you cannot randomly profile people. And the fact that you got six Muslims on a plane, does that mean that they get to be thrown off. You've got to - there at least should've been a question raised about the person who raised the question. And I'll say this in fairness: There seems to be enough murkiness about the facts that we need to know more.

Mr. CHRISTIE: And see, this is where I disagree with Julianne. As a lawyer, you're trained to look at the totality of the circumstances. You're looking at six individuals who were praying very loudly. Prayer outside of a gateway, fine, that's one thing. They get on the airplane, two of the men asked to be reassigned up to first class. Two were sitting in the middle, two were sitting in the rear, which is the exact identical configuration, geometrically, of the 9/11…

Ms. MALVEAUX: So move them, Ron.

Mr. CHRISTIE: No, no, Julianne, they asked to be moved.

Ms. MALVEAUX: No, no, no.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Wait, wait, wait…

Ms. MALVEAUX: So tell them no.

Mr. CHRISTIE: (Unintelligible). Let me finish my point.

CHIDEYA: Guys, we have very little time.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Very little time. My point being, if you look at the geographic configuration of how they sat, if you look at the prayer, if you look at the fact that they asked for seatbelt extenders and they were talking about the Iraq war, and they were talking about Osama bin-Laden, and they were being very, very critical of President Bush.

If you look at the totality of the circumstances, and I actually listened to a passenger who was on that flight yesterday, and it wasn't just one note. It was several passengers who were very frightened. I think that the flight crew did the responsible thing by taking those individuals off that plane so they could have a discussion to make sure that there was nothing wrong, given that the TSA was created by the Department of Homeland Security…

CHIDEYA: We're about out of time.

Ms. MALVEAUX: So, Ron, if I'm critical of President Bush, I can't fly no more?

Mr. CHRISTIE: No, but if you start praying loudly and you start asking for seatbelt extenders and moving around without being given permission.

CHIDEYA: All right guys. Guys, we got to…

Mr. FIELDS: None of that makes it right.

CHIDEYA: We've got to wrap this up. No, no, no, we're done. We're done. Or else we're going to have to rent time and, you know, roll over on someone else's show, and that's not going to happen here.

All right, Walter Fields, CEO and Publisher of NorthstarNetwork.com; Ron Christie of DC Navigators; economist and author Julianne Malveaux. As usual, muy caliente. Thank you all.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams with Political Corner. And on Africa Update, turmoil in Somalia and Ed Bradley's final gift to the continent.

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