Roundtable: Katrina Housing; Governors at the White House

Wednesday's topics: post-Katrina housing problems; the governors' meeting at the White House; and a San Francisco newspaper publishes a column titled "Why I Hate Blacks." Guests: Hofstra University journalism professor E.R. Shipp; John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy; and Bob Meadows, staff writer for People magazine.

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TONY COX, host:

Now for the Roundtable. Among today's topics, we'll talk more about the post-Katrina housing problem and discuss the governor's meeting with President Bush, including the chances of one of them moving into the Oval Office.

Joining us on the panel today are E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication, John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy, and Bob Meadows, staff writer for People magazine. Hello, everybody.

Mr. BOB MEADOWS (Writer, People magazine): Hi.

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute): Good morning.

COX: Nice to have you on today. We heard, of course, about the Bush plans to demolish four public housing projects in New Orleans. And we've just heard from HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, who argues the point that affordable housing doesn't always mean safe housing. E.R., let me come to you first. Does he have a point there?

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication): He actually does have a point. It's very easy to say the politically correct thing. We need to provide affordable housing. But what exactly are we talking about? When you mentioned in your opening that the governors might want to move into the White House, I thought you were going to say they might want to move into some of this affordable housing. That might be an idea. So they'll know exactly what they're talking about.

If these apartments are moldy and raggedy - and it probably was, in some conditions, like that before Katrina - and if the neighborhoods are not safe, the playgrounds are all broken and cracked. Well, what are we talking about sending people into?

COX: That makes sense to me, John McWhorter. Does it make sense to you?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, yeah. The housing question is definitely more complicated than we are often told. And it's perfectly understandable for people who lived in a particular area to be nostalgic - and even that word is a little bit trivial - for where they used to be.

But the fact of the matter is that if certain cultural patterns have become entrenched in particular places, then often the only solution to turning things around is to make sure that people move to other places. And, of course, we have to emphasized - make sure that people do have other places to go.

But we're already seeing how in New Orleans, many of those projects are being re-occupied by people who are engaged in violent activities. And affordable housing is even a complicated concept, because where that ends up meaning subsidized housing, often subsidized housing ends up being a situation where people don't have the motivation to keep up their housing the way they would if they were paying somewhat more for it. And landlords take advantage of it as a place that they do not have to take care of the way they would take care of other things.

So it's hard, especially because, obviously, in New Orleans, we also have a situation where people are not being given the basic resources that they would deserve despite all of these policy wonk details about the housing and housing projects.

COX: Well, it seems that we're at a political impasse, Bob Meadows. What do you think it would take to break it?

Mr. MEADOWS: Boy, what will it take to break it? Well, as you probably know right now, there are several politicians who are trying to - well, one thing I think that one of the main issues here is that insurers are no longer writing policies down there in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in general. And so there are a lot of politicians right now who are really pushing to get these insurers to step off, and, you know, come on and do things that they promised they would do which is paying people up, insuring new houses that can be built.

I'm not quite so sure that I, you know - Maxine Waters pushing for these houses to be reopened, that really doesn't sound that great to me. I mean, we are all, I'm sure, were in New Orleans prior to Katrina, and you drive around and you could see this was - New Orleans was no panacea before, you know, before Katrina. And that's really not what you want to go back to. There needs to be like - you were speaking with the gentleman earlier - the housing, federal housing coming in and really pushing to get these units open and getting people back there that way.

Prof. SHIPP: You know what? It's a - it may go back to the original concept of public housing. It was always meant to be relatively short term in terms of people living there. It was to get them on their feet again. And it was always meant to be more mixed in income than it turned out to be. It turned out to be a dumping ground for the horribly, horribly poor.

COX: You know I should say that we attempted to - we wanted to have Maxine Waters on today to, sort of, speak to her view about pushing this housing. Do I hear you John McWhorter, want to come back in?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Yeah, I just want to insert briefly that one of the hardest things about the New Orleans-Katrina situation is that we have to remember that other than the wonderful tourist district and cultural aspect such as the food and the music and the interesting language situation (unintelligible) been interested in.

We have to remember that a New Orleans housing project was not a place that any of us would have felt any warmth for if we have seen a story covering it before Katrina.

Mr. MEADOWS: Absolutely.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Naturally, people want to go back to the familiar, but these were terrible places to live.

COX: That's a good point to make. All right, let's move on to our next topic. President George Bush and America's governors butted heads this week over the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Now, here's a question for you: Should the costs of health care for children -or where should that rank in relation to the cost of the war? And, I mean, especially given today, for example, with the story like the one out of Maryland of the 12-year-old boy who died of an untreated toothache for lack of medical insurance. That certainly doesn't seem to help the White House, John McWhorter.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Yeah, that's a - you can't sugarcoat this one. I mean, I think, really, if you try to put yourself in the Bush administration's head, you don't get villains rubbing their hands together and trying to starve the poor. What they're hoping is that because they are so cash-strapped because of other things we don't even need to mention, that maybe they can force the states to be a little more careful with their bookkeeping. And they're assuming that everything will be all right and that everybody will stay covered.

As usual, however, it's compassionate conservatism that isn't being attended to carefully enough. And I think we're hearing from the governors that if this money is not increased - that already, there really wasn't enough - and if it isn't increased, then we're going to have some serious problems. And so it's - the Bush administration thinks that this is just a matter of accounting. But really, it's a matter of looking at what actually happens on the ground. And this administration has never been good with that, either internationally or nationally.

COX: Well, E.R., the governor of New Jersey certainly made that point, didn't he?

Prof. SHIPP: Yes, indeed. When you think about it, we're talking about a family of four earning somewhere less than 20,000 - $21,000 a year, and having to take care of their children. There's not a lot of money, and I will mention Iraq, though John chose not to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHIPP: We're dumping money into Iraq and Afghanistan and various other so-called allies who seem to be doing us more harm than good.

I can see that we should have a real debate about our priorities. I would pick the health of our children over some of the wastefulness we are seeing going on in the name of fighting terror. A lot of money is going into the pockets of people. They lost a whole truckload of money or two - or pallet of money, I guess.

So I think that we need to really think hard, and the governors are making a good point and starting with children they may get more sympathy, more - a greater hearing on the issue.

COX: The (unintelligible)…

Mr. MEADOWS: In terms of…

COX: Go on.

Mr. MEADOWS: And to finally say it's on - you know, the flipside of that is, I mean, obviously, if you compare the life of a child to war, you're going to go with a child. But then when you turn it around and say, you do a story on, say, soldiers over there who don't have armor - who don't have proper armor, don't have proper defense - then all of a sudden, you get into the human aspect of it and you can see why, you know, the thing is we're in a war. That's the unfortunate thing. We're in a war.

If you just - if we weren't in a war, it would be really easy to say well, yeah. But since we're in this war and we and you do that type of story, you humanize it, then you can say well, sure. Maybe you do need to send money over there for the troops.

COX: You know you're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox. And in case you're just joining in, with me on today's Roundtable are E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication, John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy, and who you just heard, Bob Meadows, staff writer for People magazine.

To another point about the governors, though folks, and it's this: Are you surprise at all that they are flexing politically in the way they are now that - unheard of a couple of years ago?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCWHORTER: No, Bush, I mean, the Republicans lost, and now in 2006, the elections, everybody's flexing right now. Congress wasn't doing a thing to stand up against Bush - not everybody is. So no, I'm not surprised at all.

Prof. SHIPP: Yes, and they know that he is a lame duck. Even Republicans are speaking up in ways they would not have done a year or two ago. So it's not a surprise at all, and it's not a surprise that a lot of governors think they want to become president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: You know, and that's a - it's a perfect segue. Thank you very much, E.R. It brings me right to my next point, because the role of the president, obviously, is a very delicate balance for these chiefs of state, these past state chiefs of state, as well as for the president. A couple of interesting things: four of the last five U.S. presidents have been governors. None came from the Senate.

Now, there's been a great deal of talk, obviously, about Clinton, about Clinton and Obama and McCain and others. Only four senators have been elected president in the last 87 years - not since Harding in 1920. This is kind of interesting. I don't know if that gives those governors who are still in the running, although they are considered dark horses, if that that gives them any hope. What do you think, John?

Mr. MCWHORTER: I think that we have to always allow for the aspect of chance in this case. And I think that in this case we're dealing in particular with Senators Clinton and Obama. And they are two uniquely charismatic figures. I think it's safe to say that Hillary Clinton got a bounce because of what her husband used to do. And so we happen to have two senators with unusual life stories and unusual circumstances who have come to attention.

But I think that the general pattern still applies. We're just dealing with a chance matters such as the way many people might pretend that the fact that people are running around in Central Park at 72 degrees about four weeks ago as a matter of chance in terms of climate change is in the world.

COX: Well, E.R., you know, we have Bill Richardson out of New Mexico, Mitt Romney out of Massachusetts, Mike Huckabee out of Arkansas, still in the race, so to speak, although Mitt Romney took a little bit of a hit with his strategy being revealed in the Boston Globe the other day. What does this mean for them? Does it give them any hope at all in your view?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, if you just look at the history, yes, it gives them hope. But anyone in politics has hope, that's why they got into the race or have announced that they're thinking about getting into the race. They for some reason think that there is a chance that they may win. And in some cases, they're foolish. A couple of others dropped out of the race, I believe.

So it's an interesting time in our history, as John pointed out, with these unusual characters from the Senate running. But I wouldn't write off the governors just yet. As has been pointed out, they have in many ways more experience managing a large government, larger government than a senator does who is coming from a particular state.

COX: All right, we'll keep an eye on that.

We have one more topic I'd like to get to in the time that we have left. And it's this. A San Francisco weekly newspaper which calls itself the Voice Of Asian America has caught the attention of African-Americans recently. They published a column on Friday that was titled, quote, "Why I Hate Blacks," end quote.

Now in this column, Asian Week regular contributor Kenneth Eng lists reasons to discriminate against black Americans. Here's a couple. One, blacks hate us. every Asian who has ever come across them knows that they take almost every opportunity to hurl racist remarks at us. Here's a second. Contrary to media depictions, I would argue that blacks are weak willed. They are the only race that has been enslaved for 300 years.

So Bob Meadows, was this a slip, something that could have plausible denial or maybe a marketing move to build up circulation?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, this wasn't a slip. I mean this gentleman has written other outrageous columns as well, depicting why he hates whites and why whites hate Asians, and so and everybody denouncing him. It seems like he's some, he's a fringe character and Asian commentary, I guess, I'll call it. I don't really know.

And it's also not a slip because I'm certain that the editors read this editorial before they put it into the newspaper. So they knew what it said and they're probably like, oh, that's just him. You know, that's just him doing his thing. Publicity? Sure, I guess.

Prof. SHIPP: We're talking about it. I never heard of this publication before.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yes, exactly.

Prof. SHIPP: So and it's all over the place right now. This guy, I think the editors knew what they were doing when they printed his column, published his column. As Bob said, he's done a series of these things looking at whites. He's even said Asians hate each other or something, or maybe there's everybody hates him.

Mr. MCWHORTER: You know that show "Everybody Hates Chris"?

COX: Well, you know, the thing that I've found a little interesting about this, one of the things, was that the Fang family, which owns this paper, was the first Asian-American family to own a major U.S. Daily. They owned the San Francisco Examiner at one time. And so they are connected to this and there is some embarrassment for them. Now are they so high up the chain, perhaps, that this could go by without their knowledge or would they give tacit approval?

Mr. MCWHORTER: I think one issue that we have to remember is that the guy who wrote this, he's not 56. This is somebody in his early 20s…

COX: That's true.

Mr. MCWHORTER: …and you can just imagine he's looking for attention. And what worries me is that we're giving it to him. And you know, if you ask me, we should just get down in the sandbox and mentally lob back at him what he's lobbed at us up. I imagine that whole editorial delivered by the guy with prosthetic teeth that Mickey Rooney played in the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" movie where you cringe when he comes out playing, quote, unquote, "a Chinese person."

He's giving cartoon rhetoric and he's getting a lot of attention for it. And I think we certainly should not let it hurt us or give him any more attention than he deserves.

Prof. SHIPP: But you know what, one of the things that we should not let pass is that many Asian-Americans have come out to condemn what this man said. And to speak about - well, to say that black people are not the way he depicted us in the column, but to speak about racial harmony. So he is out there on his own it looks like.

COX: The question - my last question, we have about a little over a minute or so and I'm going to direct it to you, E.R., because I know that you teach journalism. What would you tell your students, if you had a class where you talked about articles being printed in publications like this one? How would you handle that lecture?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, there's a whole delicate balance about freedom of press and freedom of speech and all that. But ultimately, it's up to the editors and publishers to decide what they're going to publish. So this young man is entitled to his viewpoints and he may find an outlet for them on the Internet - anybody can publish. But for a newspaper, the decision has to be made by someone a bit more responsible to the community at large.

COX: All right, we'll take it right there. E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication, and Bob Meadows, staff writer, People Magazine. They joined us from our New York Bureau. John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy. He joined us by telephone.

Thanks everybody.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Thank you.

Mr. MEADOWS: Thank you.

COX: As always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics that you've head on our Roundtable, you can call us at 202-408-3330, 202-408-3330. Or you can send an e-mail. Log on to npr.org and click on Contact Us and please be sure to tell us where you're writing from and how to pronounce your name.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Next on NEWS & NOTES: A nutritionist tells us how to keep our hearts healthy, and we hit the screens to find out who knows what about black history.

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COX: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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