Roundtable: Iran and Iraq, Racial Profiling in NYC

Monday's topics: reports link Iran to insurgents in Iraq; questions about racial profiling in New York City. Guests: Glenn Loury, professor of social science and economics at Brown University; Robert George, editorial writer at The New York Post, and E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, Secretary of Defense Gates says there's proof that Iran has ties to insurgents in Iraq, and De Beers intends to create a black-run diamond firm in South Africa.

Joining the panel today, Robert George, editorial writer at the New York Post, Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Brown University, and E.R. Shipp, Lawrence Stessin Distinguished Professor in Journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication.

Thanks everybody for being with us. And Robert, I'm going to start with you.

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Writer, New York Post): Okay.

CHIDEYA: What did you hear in the whole discussion about Barack Obama's presidency? What about his platform? What about the race question? Any thoughts?

Mr. GEORGE: No, none at all. No, of course a few here and there. First of all, the age question, as Axelrod said doesn't really - really doesn't enter into it. Age isn't the question, but I think experience in the context of national politics is. It is true that Bill Clinton was younger when he became president than Obama would be if he won.

But Clinton had been governor for a dozen years and had been head of the DLC, the Democratic Leadership Council, for several years as well. So he'd already been on the national scene. And Kennedy had been in the House, U.S. House and Senate for several years before that.

The question is, though, whether Obama has a real strength and substance beyond justice his incredible, great background story and his great charisma, which are certainly formidable. The question is, though, still this kind of nebulous idea, well, I'm running on unity because our politics are broken. It seems like every single four years you get at least two or three candidates who talk about how broken the system is and they're going to be unity, a unity person.

I mean Gary Hart was talking about this 20 years ago, when he was a guy of new ideas. And as Hart had to explain, you know, where's the beef, I think Obama also has to put a real substance to show how is he really that different from any other Democrats except just on the charisma.

CHIDEYA: All right. E.R., what's his greatest challenge?

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism, Hofstra University): Well, his greatest challenge I think comes from the way the press frames the issues. We restrict the imagination of the public. I think that Obama brings to the stage a different way of looking at our politics.

And if we're thinking about a new age involving interactivity, the Web being influential, the blogs, all of this, there's a new dynamic out there. And I think he plays into that as well as he holds on to the roots that he has firmly in the black religious - conservative religious community. He brings a lot to the table. So we in the press may be his greatest challenge because we can't see that.

CHIDEYA: Interesting point. What do you think, Glenn? Is the honeymoon going to end at some point? There is always a cycle where people are looking towards who's going to run, and then they throw their hats in the ring and then the muck-raking begins.

Professor GLENN LOURY (Social Science and Economics, Brown University): Well, I don't know. We're going to see. I just think it's very exciting. It's just a very interesting phenomenon. I mean I was watching Barack Obama and his wife being interviewed on "60 Minutes" last night, thinking to myself this could be the first family of the United States of America? And I mean, you know, you don't need words. All you need are those pictures to see just how profound a cultural phenomenon that could be.

George Bush has made a mess of the presidency. We're stuck in this war. People are despondent. And a new mood is afoot, and that's the kind of thing that makes this Barack Obama phenomenon possible. I agree that his experience is thin. Frankly, I don't know that the man is qualified to be president. He's going to have to prove that to us over the course of the campaign. But the potential here is enormous. And I (unintelligible) -

Mr. GEORGE: Professor Loury, all you have to be is, what, 35 years old and born in America. That's the only qualification.

Prof. LOURY: Yeah, technically.

CHIDEYA: Technically.

Prof. LOURY: Technically. But what I mean is I haven't seen his vision about America's role in the world - exactly what, being the only superpower in the aftermath of the fiasco of these wars in the Middle East. Exactly what is Barack Obama's vision about how the United States should cooperate with our allies and with others to try to move ahead? I don't know what it is. Exactly what is his vision on domestic policy to counter the conservative revolution of the last 15 years. I don't know where Barack Obama stands genuinely on that. I suspect he's a liberal and I think he's going to be a stealth liberal for some time. But that's what I mean.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, I just want to leave it there because we're going to be discussing Barack Obama quite a bit in the coming weeks and months. So I want to move on. You mentioned the war, and now the Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. has hard evidence that Iran is providing weapons or technology to help insurgents in Iraq. They've looked at serial numbers and markings on explosives.

Now the Bush administration has said they don't have a plan to invade Iran. Glenn, I'm going to go back to you. Is this a bad sign in terms of potential future engagement in other parts of the Middle East? Is this a good sign in that our Intelligence is working? What does this really mean?

Prof. LOURY: Well I don't know for sure. I know it's a very dangerous situation. I mean, there is a good chance that Iran is probably involved in some way or another with Shiite insurgents who are operating in Iraq, just as it's very clear that the Saudi Arabian, if not government, then the Saudi Arabian society is involved to some degree in the support of Sunni insurgents who are killing Americans in Iraq. And we can't just stand by and not say anything and not do anything to the extent that we think that that's the case, given that we're over there. But God knows a war with Iran would be an absolute disaster.

I mean, first of all, it would mean re-instituting the draft. There's not any way that we're going to have the manpower to do it. Secondly, it would mean $100 a barrel oil, because the Straits of Hormuz are easily closed and a lot of the the world's oil flows through there.

It's a very dangerous and delicate situation. I wish that I could trust our government enough to rely on their report about evidence of this kind of thing, but the track record of getting us into the war in Iraq has left me and I think many American observers in a situation of not knowing what to believe when our government makes statements like these.

CHIDEYA: Robert, how do you respond to that?

Mr. GEORGE: I agree on almost a 100 percent here. I mean the problem you've got here is, first of all, the word insurgents in the context of the Shiite militia isn't really that accurate, because many of them are actually allied with the Maliki government. Let's also keep in mind that Iran and Iraq actually have diplomatic relations, so that whole issue is fuzzy right there.

Now we're - basically, the argument that the administration wants the American people to accept. And it may very well be true, but because of what happened before, everybody is suspicious. The argument that they want to make is that Iran is supplying Iraq with, pardon the expression, weapons of minor destruction.

I mean I don't want to underscore the fact that the IEDs are very deadly and they are responsible for killing a number of American soldiers there, but they are not in any way of the level of the type of killing power that warranted the invasion of Iraq in the first place. So now we're going to suggest that we're almost creating a (unintelligible) to go into war with Iran because of this. It's going to be a very tough sell for the administration to make that.

CHIDEYA: E.R., do you think the administration is even going to try to sell a war with Iran at this point?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, knowing what we know about how the Bush administration played us to get us into Iraq by saying that we were fighting a war against weapons of mass destruction, a war against terrorism, I can see that what we're doing right now is playing into their hands. They have us even seriously considering that Iran could be the next target, and they're laying the groundwork for perhaps an invasion.

I don't think they're going to do it. I don't think they can succeed if they even are seriously thinking about it. But they want us to keep thinking right now to distract us from Iraq to think that Iran is the next bad country on Earth, the next part of the evil empire.

They have worked to undermine Iraq and Iran at various points in our history, and then they work to prop up various regimes in those two countries.

Mr. GEORGE: E.R., the funny thing is, though, the question is are they focusing on Iran to distract us from Iraq or is the whole debate over the issue of the surge and getting Iraq under control, there really to make us ignore what may actually be the case going on with Iran.

Prof. SHIPP: They're not putting any troops in Iran. But they want us to have in the back of our heads that the solution to the problem in Iraq is to perhaps do something.

Mr. GEORGE: You know, they've already sent a whole aircraft carrier. So tactically speaking, that's almost the equivalent of actually putting troops there.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know what? We're going to reexamine this later. I'm going to just go through and re-invite everyone to this conversation. We've been talking with Robert George…

Prof. LOURY: We'll be talking about those things a lot for a long time.

CHIDEYA: Yes, exactly. This is ongoing coverage. Robert George, editorial writer at The New York Post. That's who we just heard from. We've also been speaking with Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Brown University. E.R. Shipp, Lawrence Stessin distinguished professor in journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication. I'm Farai Chideya. This is NPR's NEWS & NOTES.

And moving on to yet another topic that is going to be thorny to deal with: New York City, racial profiling. Last week on the Roundtable, we mentioned there was growing concern. Records show that 55 percent of people stopped and frisked in the city are black. Now the Reverend Al Sharpton has threatened a class action lawsuit, and the NYPD responded by saying the data is just proportionate to the crimes they investigate.

Robert, you're in New York. You're black. You're a man. Not that you wouldn't have an opinion if none of those were true. But what do you think about the whole idea of a class action lawsuit as we address. I'm thinking of the I-95 cases about profiling in cars. What about profiling on foot and throughout the city?

Mr. GEORGE: I'm of kind of mixed emotions about it. I mean, the NYPD does say that they're frisking and their stops are a reflection of what victims of crimes, when they give a description they say that this person was so and so, and so then they go out….

CHIDEYA: Do you mean a black man between the ages of 25 and 60, between 5-foot-tall and 7-foot-tall?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GEORGE: Something like that. Well, you know, it's interesting…

Prof. SHIPP: (Unintelligible).

Mr. GEORGE: But it is interesting. I mean, a week and a half ago I was in the subway, and we were just waiting for the number one train going uptown. And this is in Times Square. And there were about a half dozen police officers, one who was clearly plainclothes, but he had his badge out so that you know that there was an operation going on. And as I turned around, they stopped and frisked this gentleman right in front of me who is about my height, and I'm about 5'9. And that they pat him down, and he's there with his girlfriend, who happens to be white, which is significant in the context of the story.

And so, you know, I asked, you know - that they kind of let him go. And I asked them and said, what was going on? He says, well, there was a purse snatching down on, like, 23rd Street and so they're stopping people. I said - and he says, and I - he said, they're looking for a black man with a blue jacket, which he did have, and blue jeans. And he says but 6'3. And this guy happens to be 5'9".

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Mr. GEORGE: So I mean, it's a - I mean, I can certainly respect these kind of - these incidents. And when it's happening to you, when you see it happening to somebody who is doing absolutely nothing except, you know, just normally standing there on the subway. But what are the police supposed to do when they are supposed to be responding to specific crimes? That is the issue.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, what do think about this?

Prof. LOURY: Yeah, well, I think probably stopping and frisking is an effective instrument of law enforcement. However, I think that given the enormous discretion that police officers have in the use of that instrument, and given these sort of background sensibilities around race that animate our society, it's inevitable that in practice what stopping and frisking is going to be in part, in addition to being a law-enforcement instrument, is racial profiling and a reminder to the vast majority of 20 to 50-year-old, 5-foot to 7-feet-tall black men that they live in a society where a cop, excuse the expression, can pull you over and put his hands on you and run through your pockets just because he doesn't like the way that you looked at him, just because he got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning.

So the theory about this as a law-enforcement instrument is one thing. But the day-to-day lived experience in East New York, Brooklyn, in Harlem, or on the subway or whatever of being a young black man, when any policemen who feels like it that morning who doesn't like your body language and the way that you look at him can run his hands through your pocket, and if he finds a joint in there or something like that can collar you and carry you off to prison and make a thug out of you.

Well, no wonder there's a protest against that. I mean, I really think it's a double-edged sword. And if it were sensitively used by an administration and a bureaucracy that has the trust of the people, that would be one thing. But when it becomes a bludgeon, that's another.

CHIDEYA: E.R., what about the legal aspect, though, a class action lawsuit. Would that really produce a different end, do you think?

Prof. SHIPP: No. And in this case it's more of a political ploy than it is something that will work in the courts. I want to say this. The way I understand what's going on in New York - and I am a New Yorker - is that certain precincts that are predominantly black have reported a significant amount of crime and most of the perpetrators of those crimes are black.

This is black people saying help us here; we are victims. I'm on the side of the victims in this case. So the fact that they are stopping and frisking more people in the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn than they may be in some other part of the city, I don't have any problem with that. It's documented. There's a basis for it. So we need to get out of the whole headset that any time cops stop and frisk it must be something based on race or racism. I'm thinking they're working for the people in my neighborhood. They're working for me.

Mr. GEORGE: That's exactly right. And also the policy could end up being based on race but not being racism because, as E.R. said, if we're talking about these neighborhoods which are predominantly black and the victims are black, you know, it's the cops then pull back, they are then open to the charge of, well, we're ignoring crime in black neighborhoods.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, though…

Prof. LOURY: The only alternatives - it's not as if you have to either stop and frisk or you just let the criminals run wild. It's not like there aren't any alternatives to how you try to respond to crime than stopping people on the street who, most of the time, there is - only one out of 25 stops leads to arrest. That means 24 times out of 25 a person is innocent and they're stopped.

I mean if a black person owns a department store and there's a shoplifting problem, so he wants the problem dealt with and therefore he hires people to watch who comes into the store. And if they follow black people around inside the store, a person could say, well, it's a black businessman, he's trying to prosper and all he's trying to do is protect his property, which would be true.

And it might be true that most of the shoplifters are black. But the most important point is that the vast majority of black customers are not shoplifters. The vast majority of young black men on the street are not thugs.

CHIDEYA: Sorry, folks, we're going to have to leave it at that. We've been talking with Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Brown University. He was at member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island. Also, E.R. Shipp, Lauren Stessin distinguished professor in journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication. And Robert George, editorial writer at the New York Post, who was at our New York bureau.

Next on NEWS & NOTES: Is satellite radio finally a threat to AM/FM, and the Carolina chocolate drops are keeping banjo and fiddle music real and rootsy.

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