Roundtable: New Orleans Schools, Fla. Hazing Law

Tony Cox is joined by John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy; E.R. Shipp, Hofstra University journalism professor; and Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle. They talk about the devastating effect Hurricane Katrina has had on the New Orleans educational system; whether New Orleans rebuilding efforts were short-changed by the federal government, and a follow-up on the new fraternity hazing law in Florida.

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TONY COX, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, AIDS is on the rise in South Africa and it's crossing class lines like never before. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin says the money for rebuilding his city is there but wonders why no one is getting it.

And the follow-up on a new fraternity hazing law - two frat brothers get prison terms. Joining our panel today to discuss these topics are E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication, John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy, and Jeff Obafemi-Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle."

Hello, everybody.

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism, Hofstra University): Hi.

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Senior Fellow in Public Policy, Manhattan Institute): Hello.

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI-CARR (Host, Freestyle): Hey, Tony.

COX: Well, we just heard from an educator in New Orleans about the devastating effect Katrina had on the educational system, and there seems to have been a sea change in that city with regards to how public education is being offered with charter schools becoming the new paradigm.

So E.R., let me come to you with this question: Is this the future of public education, the model that will be needed to save public education for black and brown children in urban settings around the country?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, we're seeing more and more charter schools. Here in New York in particular we're seeing them. But some of them have failed also. So I think we have to look at the individual schools to see if they are functioning or whether they're just kind of hiding under the rubric of charter school with raised expectations that there will be more resources, more oversight by parents, more creativity among faculty members. But at least it's nice to know that we're not saying: Rest in peace, New Orleans school system, 1841 to 2006.

COX: That's an interesting point. You know, John McWhorter, it would seem, to follow-up on what E.R. is suggesting, that this is really quite an opportunity to reform public school education. Do you see it that way?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Oh, definitely. I mean, Katrina of course was a horror. But to see a system that was as completely dysfunctional as the one in New Orleans having been eliminated so that you can start again is really exciting. Because if there is one fact about education that mislead the great many, very intelligent and well-intentioned people, it's the idea that was promulgated especially by Jonathan Kozol's book, "Savage Inequalities".

That the reason that a school failed is because the state and Washington D.C. don't give them enough money. And if they just got more money and if teachers we're just paid more, then everything would be okay.

Here in New Jersey - which is where I'm doing this from, my home phone, because I'm sick, which is why I don't sound good right now - it has actually been tried to give the public schools in ugly places as much money as the ones in leafy places.

And it has not worked at all. All of which is to show that there are times when the bad things that are going on in schools, both among the students and the teachers and the administrators, becomes a culture in itself. I hate to use that word. And it takes on a life of its own. So in New Orleans what we're seeing is a chance to cut through the cultural problems on the parts of people of all ages and try something again.

COX: Let me go on to Jeff Obafemi-Carr. But let me just say, John, you sound pretty good to me, actually.

Mr. MCWHORTER: (Unintelligible).

COX: You sound pretty good.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Good.

COX: Jeff, to his point, even though this is really a good opportunity it would seem. At the same time, some of the same old issues involving some of the same people, as we heard from Steven Martin, have cropped up. I mean they had to sit-in to get the building that they want.

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: Oh, indeed. And the issue that I think we also don't want to lose when we're talking about this is that at this point a charter school system - that term is an oxymoron. Urban education is already a huge challenge when we you have a unified board and government backing and the like.

But to create a lot of different miniature systems may create even more chaos. Here in Tennessee, they only recently in the past few years have allowed charter schools. And they haven't proven that remarkable of a system. Statistically, they're not eating the public school's lunch everyday as much as people would like to think they are.

But we all know that what it takes to educate children is more than just the funding. That's a foundational principle. Jerome Morris, who's an education specialist at the University of Georgia, is always talking about how teacher - the culture of teachers is a foundational principle in urban education.

You could take a caring, dedicated teacher who focuses on the student's individual success, and they can be conducting classes in a shed and that student will be a success.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Exactly.

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: So, I think, you need to - we need to kind of have a balance between those two. And what concerns me the most about New Orleans right now is that everybody's rushing in - all the textbook publishers, educational consultants. And they're rushing in, and I'm concerned that the intent is not so much the education of the children as much as it is an opportunity to experiment and see what happens.

COX: That's one that we'll have to keep our eyes on. Let's move on to another topic, but stay on the same area, in the Gulf region. Mayor Ray Nagin told the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that New Orleans was short-changed. We all heard that.

He pointed to the billions of dollars being poured into Iraq saying, and here's his quote, "I look at what we're doing in Iraq and how we spend money at an unprecedented level there. How we can set up temporary hospitals and designate money to rebuild their economy, and we have this dance going on in New Orleans." That was the end of his quote.

Now earlier in the week, NPR's Juan Williams spoke to President Bush about his omission of Katrina in the State of the Union speech, and the president came back saying that billions have been spent - have been sent to the Gulf Region and that he thought that he had spoken plenty about the situation while actively encouraging a rebirth.

His view was, E.R., that it's up to the local leadership to run with the ball now. Who's right?

Prof. SHIPP: I think he is partly right. Because we see that many hundreds of millions of dollars have been sent to New Orleans for infrastructure repair, for example, but the state has only given it a fraction of the money earmarked for that. So you've got, first of all, perhaps not enough money being allocated at the federal level.

But you definitely have a huge gap between what the state is sending to New Orleans. Now maybe the message is - maybe it's politics, of course - but maybe the message is they want to be assured of some kind of accountability system. Something we've seen in New York when much money came in after 9/11 and a lot of it ended up in corrupt projects, in people's pocketbooks for people to take cruises around the world.

So we have talks about an accountability system, but let me make one final point on this. Dr. King made a similar connection in 1967 and 1968 between the decline in aid for urban America with the siphoning off of money as the Vietnam War escalated. So Mr. Nagin is sort of following in those footsteps.

COX: This is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox. In case you're just tuning in, with me on today's Roundtable are E.R. Shipp, professor of journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication, John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy, and Jeff Obafemi-Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle."

We are talking about New Orleans and Mayor Ray Nagin's charge that the city is being overlooked and that the government has the money, and the money has not gone from Washington to the pockets of the people in New Orleans who need it most.

John McWhorter, where can this logjam, if I can put it that way, be broken up so that the money gets where it is supposed to go?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, you know, this is one of those things where, you know, I think it's my job to kind of play devil's advocate on what Nagin said. You know, maybe race has something to do with why things aren't happening more quickly but, you know, we can do a thought experiment. Suppose all the personnel were white, can we really say that we know definitively that we wouldn't have the thing stalling and log-jamming and bureaucratic ineptitude.

And OK, big surprise, President Bush is not somebody who's terribly focused on domestic issues or compassion. We know that. We've seen it. And OK, he didn't mention it in his speech. He's got other things on his mind.

Nagin really, if you ask me, needs to go to Amazon.com and order Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses. Robert Moses got a lot done here in the New York City area. He built highways. He built bridges. He created a whole experience we have of New York today as head of the Triborough Bridge Authority.

He wasn't a nice man. He did a lot of things wrong. He got on a lot of people's nerves, even ruined people's lives. But when there was little money and little will, for almost 40 years he basically jigged the system and got stuff done. He thought about it.

Nagin seems to think that he can just kind of sit and do what he always did and wait for some money to come in. He has got to start hustling. And it's his job to come up with ways to play with the rules and ways to cajole and ways to bring coalitions together to make something happen that under ordinary conditions will not. And until he does that, I think we're going to see this inertia. We need somebody with a little bit more of get up and go than I think he seems to have. COX: Are you saying, John McWhorter, quit whining?

Mr. McWHORTER: Not quit whining. He can whine all he wants to but he could whine while making special, concentrated efforts to take the laws and creatively interpret them in such ways that money gets to people who need it right now. That takes more than just waiting for ordinary things to happen and complaining that they don't.

COX: Well, maybe, Jeff Obafemi Carr, he's not up to that. What do you think?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: I think Ray Nagins is definitely up to hustling and making things happen. I think, he's - if there's anything we can say about Ray Nagins love or hate him is that he is going to say what's on his mind. He is going to be very direct. He is going to be even controversial and confrontational.

And one wonders if those are skills that work in the political arena in this day and age. That could be argued but the fact is he definitely has a point. He has a point when you look at the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has given over $300 million to the state in New Orleans but the states only passed on about $145 million of that.

And the excuse is that - he's not done the paperwork. I'm one of the guys who will say: I will call out race when I see it. And it's not about playing the race card, but when you do everything you're supposed to do and there is still something that disconnects there, then perhaps race is a factor.

Now, say that, and I say well Ray (unintelligible) need to make sure they do the paperwork, as well as complained to. But at the same time, the excuses that there's paperwork to be done and it hasn't been filed, but how much paperwork versus repairing a city here at home. And I think that's the argument here.

All of the gargantuan tasks that face you when you're talking about rebuilding an infrastructure halfway around the world, versus what you need to do in your own backyard.

COX: Well, you know, this is confusing, I think, to a lot of people - myself included, I'll admit that, E.R., because it seems as if, if the money is there, the money is being allocated, why in the world can't these folks get it and who is stopping them from getting it.

Now, you hear Ray Nagin or you listen to Barack Obama, and there is the suggestion or implication that the person responsible for this shortfall is George Bush. And then you hear George Bush say well, the people responsible for it are down in Louisiana and down in New Orleans. So you know, where is the problem?

conflict between the three levels of government. It's like that we should be pointing in that particular direction. The - it was odd that Mayor Nagin was actually giving a tour to the Homeland Security folk from the Senate, and they were expressing utter surprise that so little had been done. Now, why are they the last of know?

COX: Mm-hmm. That's an interesting point. Interesting point. All right. We have another topic that we're going to get to. It's a follow up, actually. We do that occasionally here on NEWS & NOTES Roundtable. This is the follow up to a topic that we visited before involving the felony hazing law that went into effect in 2005.

Now two members of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, were convicted in December for spanking a pledge so severely he had to have surgery on his behind. Now on Monday, the judge sentenced the two frat brothers to two years in prison saying she wanted to send a message.

So Jeff, what message do you think was sent?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: I think the message sent was hazing is insane. I pledged. I went through a whole lot of stuff that probably was not quite exactly what happened in this case, but probably it was close. And as according to peer pressure at the time, we thought that was what you do.

But you get a little bit older and you learn that you have to advocate trials and obstacles for organizations. I believe in that, especially for rights to passage for young men. It does bring some people together.

But for people, especially black people, to beat the snot out of each other for months at a time, and then turn around and say well, now you're my sister, now you're my brother, is the worst remnant of the chains of psychological slavery I've ever seen.

So I thought and hope that, at least, this sends a message to all the young people out there that says there are other ways to create a bond in your organization than taking things out on each other like this and damaging other people's person, psychologically or physically.

COX: Well, you know, John, the university, clergy, community leaders had asked for leniency - nothing new there - saying the defendants were otherwise upstanding citizens and good students. And the judge's decision notwithstanding apparently is going to have the affect of preventing these two guys, one of whom was a pharmacology major, from getting licensed in their professions after college.

So here is my question, should this be a factor in sentencing because on the other hand the victims says he still hasn't recovered, and his father says this wasn't hazing, it was torture?

Mr. McWHORTER: No. I am - what Jeff just said should be written in stone and planted somewhere as a plaque. I cannot improve upon that. And yes, it's too bad. I mean there are all sorts of things that may have been going on in these hazers' lives that would make it inconvenient for them to be in prison.

But frankly, I'm sure that there will be ways that they will be able to achieve their professional goals with the help of professional lawyers who can explain what actually happened. But an example is needed to be made in this case. And the only way to do it was with something rather public and draconian that we'll be talking about here on the radio.

It's only two years, not wonderful, but it's not like it's 10 or 20. And what they did to that guy and the kind of sadism that, that can bring out in people, it needed to be stopped. Something needed to be said, and those guys need to just suck it up, and hopefully, this will help turnaround the culture in a way that nothing any clergymen or nothing anybody just said on the news in itself could have changed.

COX: I only have about 30 seconds, E.R. I know that's really short but can you give me something on this?

kind of thing. It was so ridiculous that we were swinging across a little body in water, yelling out the names of our boyfriends. The big sisters knew that some of them were their boyfriends, so you got paddled if you yelled out the wrong name.

And then when I was in the middle of planning a lawsuit to respond to a lawsuit from the junior KKK on our campus, they wanted me to go and iron some blue jeans. That's when I walked away and say, you know, this is silly.

COX: Too much.

From our New York bureau, E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication; John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy, joined us from New Jersey where he is recovering; and Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle," in Nashville, Tennessee, at Spotland Productions.

Everybody, thank you as always.

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Thank you.

Mr. McWHORTER: As always.

COX: Next on NEWS & NOTES, rapper LL Cool J is a fitness freak and an inspiration. Branford Marsalis, too, for homeless musicians in New Orleans.

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