Roundtable: Afghan Aid, Long Beach Convictions, 'Roots' at 30

Monday's topics: President Bush requests $10 billion in aid for Afghanistan; a judge in Long Beach convicts nine teens of a hate crime; and Roots reaches its 30th anniversary. Tony Cox talks with Robert George, editorial writer for the New York Post; Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator on the Boston television show Beat the Press and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of immigration studies at New York University.

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TONY COX, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, President Bush asked for more than $10 billion in aid for Afghanistan, guilty verdicts in the Long Beach, California, hate-crime trial, and 30 years ago this month, Americans were glued to their television sets for "Roots."

Joining us on our panel today are Robert George, editorial writer at the New York Post, Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator on the Boston television show "Beat the Press," and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education and co-director of immigration studies at NYU.

Everybody, nice to have you.

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Writer, New York Post): Good to be here.

Professor MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO (Globalization and Education, New York University): Thank you.

COX: Let's - good morning. Let's start with Afghanistan. President Bush, of course, wants Congress to approve an additional $10.6 billion to help Afghanistan strengthen its security forces and rebuild. Now, the request, which the president will make formally next month, comes after a year in which Taliban forces launched surprisingly vicious attacks across the country.

So Robert George, here's my question to you: Given all of the discussion that the Democrats have held so far about whether they, number one, are able to, and number two, would in fact fund the president's call for the surge in Iraq, how does this request for funding differ? And what might they do?

Mr. GEORGE: Well, what I think they're going to end up - they will end up supporting it. Ironically, the president will be able to use the Democrats' own words against them in that they have been arguing for quite sometime that the focus on Iraq has distracted us from where Democrats see, quote, "the real war on terror" being in Afghanistan.

And the fact is that the Taliban have been staging something of a comeback. There's also serious questions about the commitment of Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, to control the Taliban from their insurgencies across the war into Afghanistan as well.

So the fact is the Taliban are back there. They seem to be working hand in hand once again with al-Qaida and it really is a - it's one rare area of agreement, I think, between the Democratic Congress and the Republican White House.

COX: Callie Crossley, do you share that view?

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Commentator, "Beat the Press"): I believe that this may be the one instance that's, you know, money may be well spent. Though I have to ask the question: Where is all these money coming from?

You know, going in there to beat back the Taliban was a really serious issue, and that's a real serious security force, not just for the region but I think it does have some long-range implications for the United States. However, I mean, I'm just completely suspicious about, you know, the request for any new money. And I think that's because - I don't think I'm alone in this. I think as people keep hearing about more and more requests for money for Iraq, it makes you suspicious about there being any legitimacy to these kinds of efforts.

COX: Marcelo, the points that are being made that the Democrats would probably fall in line with regard to giving this money to the president for Afghanistan raises an issue that I'd like you to address, and that is whether or not the Democrats are really, although they are technically in power, are they really in control with regard to how they could spend money either in Afghanistan or in Iraq because of the political capital that's at stake?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, control is the key issue. So technically, of course, from a constitutional point of view, Congress will have a big say in the ways in which appropriations for the war effort are made. But this now has a life of its own and, as Robert suggested, we're going back to where we began, really facing, however, a very, very different set of coordinates. It's a very, very different scenario.

It's deep winter in the mountains, and we are in for what will likely be a new substantial offensive in the spring by the Taliban. We have an increasingly clear failure on the part of the Pakistani apparatus to control the Taliban operatives, al-Qaida operatives, working from the Pakistani-side of the border.

So we're facing really what has become an increasingly dangerous set of coordinates in that region of the world. And I think the Democratic Congress will have very little room in terms of making political statements about this. This is one point where the gravitational force of the war is such that there will probably be alignment between the president and the Democratic Congress.

Mr. GEORGE: And part of the problem you do have, of course, which touches upon something that Callie just brought up, is that, you know, money is fungible.

I mean, in terms of - you can approve $10 billion to go to Afghanistan, but once it gets into the - I mean once it actually is authorized, the Defense Department obviously can spend it wherever they see fit.

COX: All right. Let's move on to another topic. As you all know over the weekend, on Friday in particular, there was a conviction here in Southern California in Long Beach in the hate-crime trial involving 10 juvenile - 10 black juveniles who were accused of beating three white women in October.

One girl was acquitted. She's 12. The judge believed, as I said, that the act was a hate crime. And the defendants' age in range - ranged in age from 12 to 18, and they could be sentenced by this judge to confinement up until they are age 25.

Now here's reaction I like to play for you immediately after the verdict. You're going to hear two voices: The first, the prosecution, the second one, one of the defense attorneys.

Unidentified Man #1: Nobody is happy today. For the victims, they leave today and will still have to undergo surgeries. They're still undergoing therapy. And of course, no one is happy to see any family to have to go through what the minors' families have to go through. And the whole sense of the juvenile justice system is the hope that they will be rehabilitated and will never see anybody again.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm somewhat grief stricken. I'm somewhat disheartened. I'm somewhat flabbergasted and floored by the outcome. I am happy that one of the minors is being released, but I'm also saddened that there are nine children that are still going to be incarcerated and away from their families.

COX: So here's my question to you, Callie Crossley, about what is feeding racial tension in 2007, particularly for young people. Long Beach, for those of you who do not know, is a racially diverse port city of about a half million people. What's driving this kind of behavior?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, I think there's all kinds of forces and that - even if it's racial - even if you're in a racially diverse community, difference is difference and it's always approached with some kind of skepticism. That whole the other thing sets people off.

And I think you have an especially volatile situation here when you're talking about a group of young people, because if there's a slightest spark of tension, groups then get negative energy inside. And that propels folks in a group to do - to some action that they would not have taken perhaps by themselves.

And I think there was a lot going on. It was Halloween night. There was, you know, here I am with a group. I'm feeling very feisty. I got the backing of my little posse and I want to say some things. But I would wonder if any of those kids expected it to take the turn that it did.

Now having said that, a hate crime is a hate crime, and I do believe that it needs to be addressed in the sternest way possible. Though it seems very sad to me that a lot of the kids in question here had no history of any kind of violence or problems and were in fact quite good students at their schools. So it's very sad.

COX: That's one of the arguments that was made. And in fact - if you are just joining us, you are listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox.

With me on today's Roundtable are Robert George, editorial writer at the New York Post, Callie Crossley, whom we just heard, social and cultural commentator on the Boston television show "Beat the Press," and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at NYU. And we are talking about the verdict in the Long Beach hate-crime trial.

Robert George, what's your take on it?

Mr. GEORGE: Well, my take is - you know, two observations. I'm one of those people who is skeptical about the entire idea of hate crimes per se. I think that any kind of an incident should be judged specifically on the incontrovertible facts. If you got one group that is - one group of young people, regardless of their race, beating up another one, it's an assault situation. And I, just generally speaking, don't like the idea of an add-on because one is white and one is black, or whatever the case may be.

COX: Well, let me just ask you, would you feel the same way had the race roles been reversed in this case?

Mr. GEORGE: Oh yes, absolutely. I mean, I don't like the idea of hate-crime statutes where you have an add-on because an individual - now if you're like, for example, if somebody is, you know, burning a cross on somebody's lawn, you certainly can charge them in terms of intimidation or arson or whatever you want.

I just don't like the idea of a hate-crime per se. I was going to add is that it is a shame. I mean, we had a similar incident here in Brooklyn, not too long ago where a young - a young group of black girls came to a public basketball court, and there were some young white girls from the local Catholic school playing, and they decided to, you know, decided to start beating them up as well.

One of the things that is increasingly disturbing, I think, frankly, is a lot of these kind of incidents are involving young girls as opposed to just young men, and that's something - what we - I think society also needs to take a look at as well.

COX: Marcelo.

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Yes, if I may, two issues. First, there is a very well-established legal precedent for the category of crimes, where really the purpose of the crime is to target entire groups of individuals. And to in a way multiply, let's say the terror or the fear that is perpetrated in the crime. That's the legal philosophy behind the idea of a hate crime, that you have a victim, but that you also have a category of people that become immediately targeted by - let's call it the symbolic aspects of the crime.

But the issue in Long Beach is also in the context of increasing gang violence. In Southern California, we've seen the pattern of killings between Latino gangs targeting African-American. So this is part of a general dynamic of violence, a general dynamic of dystopia that really gets at the heart of the problems we're having in our schools, in our job sites, in our community centers, in our churches, around the kinds of conversations that are culturally-plural democracy needs to have for all of us to get along. And especially troubling is the issue that young people are so involved in these crimes.

COX: All right, let's move on to our last topic of the day. Well, one of the last two. Think back, the three of you, Marcelo, Callie and Robert. Robert, I don't know how old you are. Marcelo, I don't know how old you are. Callie, I know how old you are, but I'm not going to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yeah, and if you want to live.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Think back 30 years.

Mr. GEORGE: There's going to be a hate crime right here.

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: I think it's an age crime.

COX: Thirty years ago, what you were doing when you heard this.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Roots")

Unidentified Man #1: What's your name?

(Soundbite of gasping)

Mr. LEVAR BURTON (Actor): (As Kunta Kinte) Kunta.

(Soundbite of gasping)

(Soundbite of whip)

Unidentified Man #2: Lord God, help that boy.

(Soundbite of gasping)

They're going to whip him dead.

Unidentified Man #1: What's your name? Say it. Toby. Who are you? Say your name.

(Soundbite of whip)

Mr. BURTON: (As Kunta Kinte) (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: What's your name?

Mr. BURTON: (As Kunta Kinte) Toby.

COX: That of course is a scene from the landmark film "Roots," which aired 30 years ago this week. I couldn't believe it, and to add one more thing to it. LeVar Burton was in our studios on Friday, and I had a chance to just chat with him momentarily. I was like can you believe 30 years have gone by since he was in this particular scene. He said he couldn't believe it himself.

Thirty years, what do you think about that, Callie? That's a long time and yet it still has legs, doesn't it?

Ms. CROSSLEY: It still has legs. And I'm amazed at the length of time that has been too. Though, it's really interesting, there is a gap of people who, you know, knew about the impact of that series and what it did, not only for television, but just for black people and the story of black people in this country.

And for those who just have no connection. I'm a man of - I was purchasing a small African statue in a store once, and the foot of the statue was broken off, and I said to the young black woman. I said, huh, Kunta. She looked at me liked I had three heads.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CROSSLEY: She didn't know what I was talking about, you know.

Mr. GEORGE: What were you talking about? Yeah.

Ms. CROSSLEY: You know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It's really interesting that there's a gap, you know.

COX: Well, I suppose that's true. There's a student who is here with me this morning, and I asked her if she had seen "Roots." She said yes. Then I said who do you remember? She said O.J. Simpson. I was like oh, God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But that makes sense, though.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yeah, he was in it.

Mr. GEORGE: If somebody says LeVar Burton, oh yeah, he was in "Star Trek" wasn't he?

COX: That's absolutely right. I wonder if you look ahead five years from now, 10 years from now, particularly in light of the kinds of conversations we've been having about incidents in Long Beach and elsewhere where race relations are at issue - how a show like this helped shape our thoughts about race, and how that may shape our thoughts looking forward. What do you say, Marcelo?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, the rate of success of "Roots" had to do with the fact that it did beautifully and very meaningfully, movingly engaged fundamental universal themes. So that is one of the pieces that gives the series a kind of a universal flavor that overstays with us.

I remember vividly being at Berkeley. I was a junior in college, and we were all glued when this led - there had never been anything like this. And, so in the context of the ongoing conversation about race and diversity in our country, I think, that this is one of the points of reference that are part of the themes that get metabolized in how we move forward, and the issues that we return to - schools, schooling, health issues, jobs - are the issues that are at the center of that conversation.

Mr. GEORGE: And I also think too also at the dead center here was also the -

COX: Let me just say, Robert, we got about 30 seconds.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, specifically that the issue of family, and what the efforts of - that's the individuals - the characters there went through to try and keep the family unit together. And then when you kind of contrast it with some of the troubles of the black families having nowadays, it kind of shows we know how much the foundation of the family is important. And how much it has to be stressed right now to cure some of these other social ills.

COX: Robert, I really appreciate that. I wish we had more time to talk about this, but we don't. From our New York bureau, Robert George, editorial writer at the New York Post; Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at NYU, and co-director of immigration studies; and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator.

Everybody, thank you very much for being with us.

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Thank you, Tony.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

Mr. GEORGE: Thank you, Tony.

COX: Next on NEWS & NOTES, fiction for the young folk, the tale of a fallen African prince, and a book that asks: Can you hear me, God?

(Soundbite of music)

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