Roundtable: Who Speaks for Black America? A recent Gallup poll shows many African Americans reject the idea of having one person speak for them on issues of race. Our panel of bloggers discusses the poll's results and considers a recent string of "unwanted" presidential endorsements.
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Roundtable: Who Speaks for Black America?

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Roundtable: Who Speaks for Black America?

Roundtable: Who Speaks for Black America?

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is News & Notes. Now, onto our Bloggers' Roundtable. Here's what's hot online, unwanted political endorsements. Plus, who speaks for black America? And if you saw someone in distress, would you help them or do nothing? With us, writer Amani Channel, who blogs at My Urban Report, Carmen Van Kerckhove, she blogs at Racialicious and is also the cofounder and president of the New Demographic, an anti-racism training company, and Aaron Laramore, who blogs at Political Season. Hello, everybody.

Ms. CARMEN VAN KERCKHOVE (Blogger,; Cofounder and President, New Demographic): Hi there.

Mr. AMANI CHANNEL (Blogger, Hey.

Mr. AARON LARAMORE (Blogger, Hello.

COX: Let's begin with this. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have racked up their fair share of endorsements for president. But sometimes, sometimes, the candidates get unsolicited and presumably undesired ones. Obama's most recent is from rapper Ludacris. I'm sure you've heard of it by now. He's got a new song called "Politics (Obama is Here)." It alludes to an imminent victory for Obama while dissing Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Here's a listen.

(Soundbite of song "Politics (Obama is Here)")

LUDACRIS: (Rapping) You can't stop what's 'bout to happen. We 'bout to make history. The first black president is destined, and it's meant to be. The threats ain't fazing us, the nooses or the jokes. So, get off your (beep), black people. It's time to get out and vote!

Paint the White House black, and I'm sure that's got 'em terrified. McCain don't belong in any chair unless he's paralyzed. Yeah, I said it, 'cause Bush is mentally handicapped. Ball up all of his speeches and just throw 'em like candy wrap...

COX: Now, for his part, Barack Obama said he has been a Ludacris fan in the past, but quickly distanced himself from this musical endorsement, calling it outrageously offensive, and saying, Ludacris should be ashamed of these lyrics. Amani, what are the bloggers saying about it?

Mr. CHANNEL: Well, I can only speak for myself. I just listened to the song. As you were playing it, actually, my head was nodding, and I'm, of course, a rap fan. I've met Ludacris and his mother, and I know that he does positive work in the community. However, in light of these lyrics, I believe that Obama probably had to distance himself in this situation, because of just the political implications of some of the things that Ludacris said, obviously.

But what do you expect from rappers? I mean, they're rappers. His name is Ludacris. He's going to speak - he speaks for a segment of society. There're probably those out there who agree with the things he was saying. Was this a good time to say it? I don't know. Will it reflect badly or poorly on Obama? I don't know. I mean, you know, Obama didn't sit up here and endorse this song by Ludacris. So, I don't know what the damage is going to be. But it's definitely a song that'll get your head nodding. That's what I know about it.

COX: Well, it did that for me as well, I will admit. Carmen, you know, Ludacris isn't the first black entertainer whose support for Obama has caused a stir. Comedian Bernie Mac's reference to hos in a routine he did before an appearance by Obama at a fundraising event caused the senator to chastise Mac for using such language. The question, though, is, isn't this the price a candidate pays for bringing in new people to the political process?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: It is the price, to some degree, but I think it's especially difficult for Obama because he is black. He has to constantly walk this racial tightrope, where he has to show that he is black enough so that he can, you know, reassure black voters that he has their best interests at heart, but then not appear too black to really scare off white people. And I think that in this - in these two cases, with Ludacris and Bernie Mac, because there is so much misogyny and, you know, various words and insults being used, because of the genres that these two artists work in, it becomes an especially tricky situation for Obama.

COX: I would imagine, Aaron, that it's also tricky for Obama to figure out a way to distance himself from remarks, like these by Ludacris, without offending the people who really like Ludacris and who, like Amani and myself, had our heads, you know, bopping to the music despite what was being said.

Mr. LARAMORE: Well, in that event - I mean, his problem is that there's really not much help to be done for that. You know, these incidents, like this with Bernie Mac and with Ludacris, are, to me, examples of how we simply find it difficult to get out of our own way. If you support the candidate, then don't do things that are going to politically embarrass the guy and require him to come out and denounce you and renounce you. Sometimes, it just - I just don't understand how we don't get context.

COX: You know, even Paris Hilton has joined the discussion. In response to the ad put out by the McCain camp linking her and Britney Spears to Obama as, quote/unquote, "celebrity lite," she's fired back with her own ad, blasting McCain.

(Soundbite of online video)

(Soundbite of song "America the Beautiful")

Ms. PARIS HILTON (Star, "The Simple Life"): Hey, America. I'm Paris Hilton, and I'm a celebrity, too. Only I'm not from the olden days, and I'm not promising change like that other guy. I'm just hot. But then that wrinkly white-haired guy used me in his campaign ad, which I guess means I'm running for president. So, thanks for the endorsement, white-haired dude, and I want America to know that I'm, like, totally ready to lead.

COX: I cannot think of a presidential campaign, in my lifetime, at least, that has ever had this type of over-the-top celebrity involvement. Can any of you think of a race where you've seen this before?

Mr. CHANNEL: Well, no, I - this is Amani - I think it speaks just to the pop culture that we live in now, though. I mean, we're a celebrity-driven culture, where we're looking for the most popular - it's a popularity contest with the media. You know, who's the hot topic of the day? What is everybody talking about? What is everybody thinking about? So, you know, of course, Paris Hilton adds little-to-no credibility, I think, to either candidate, either way. But it's just speaking to the fact of the pop-celebrity culture that Americans embrace right now. Whether it's positive or negative, I'd say it's probably to their detriment, but that's kind of the way things are right now.

COX: Well, it certainly seems to me, sometimes, when I hear these things - and Carmen, I'd like to get your input on it - that it trivializes the whole process. We are, after all, talking about election for the president of the United States, and it seems to have become almost like a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Well, that Paris Hilton ad definitely cracked me up, so I think there are some "SNL" material there. But you know, I think that the good thing about this election is that it has brought a lot of new voters, and really encouraged people to get politically active. And so, I think in the past, presidential elections have seemed to be very dry and, you know, overly academic, and so I actually think that there may be a positive in the fact that we're seeing people like Paris Hilton, or Ludacris, jumping into the fray, because it at least shows that they're engaged. And let's face it. Not every American is a huge political junkie, who knows all the ins and outs of electoral politics, myself included. And so, it's good to have, I think, a wide variety of views represented.

COX: You know, that's an interesting point of view. My question for you, Aaron, is whether or not this is what it takes to reach the 25-and-under voting crowd?

Mr. LARAMORE: Well, if that's what it takes, then maybe the 25-and-under crowd isn't going to be reached very well. I find it hard to believe this stuff is compelling, or is going to engage even people who are young. Young doesn't mean that you're an idiot, and you know, this kind of discourse in the campaign, to me, trivializes the seriousness and gravity of the whole enterprise, and it's nerve-wracking to watch.

COX: It definitely is something different. If you're just joining us, you're listening to NPR's News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Farai Chideya, who was off this week. With us for today's roundtable are Amani Channel - I apologize for mispronouncing it earlier, Amani.

Mr. CHANNEL: No worries.

COX: Carmen Van Kerckhove, and Aaron Laramore. So, let's talk about another topic that we have. We - you know, here at NPR's News & Notes, we have staff meetings every day, and one of the issues that we grapple with in our staff meetings are balance, and how to be balanced particularly as it relates to covering the presidential campaign, when you have someone like a Barack Obama, who's a black candidate, who is - well, a biracial candidate, to be, you know, correct about it.

But there is this charge coming from certain portions of the media, Patrick Buchanan, for one, that the black media's bias is just overly evident. He cites, as an example, the fact that BET is going to cover the Democratic National Convention, and not even bother with the Republican Convention, because of BET's beliefs that the black audience is interested in one and not interested in the other. Let me start with you, Amani. Do you think that there is a bias in black media because of Barack Obama's presence? And if there is, what do we need to do about it?

Mr. CHANNEL: Well, I think - I'm a journalist as well, so I can sort of speak for the fact that as a journalist, and in journalism, we all have biases that are not supposed to come through. You're supposed to be fair and balanced, give equal attention to both candidates, both political parties. So, the fact that BET wouldn't cover the Republican Convention would appear to be maybe at least unfair coverage if they're only going to cover the Democratic Party.

But that being said, I believe that in general a lot of blacks tend to sway towards the Democratic Party. So, if their audience - I mean, you have to look at the TV business. It's in the business of informing viewers, but also reaching out to the audience that's going to watch their coverage. You know, they kind of have to cater to their audience. If they don't believe their audience is going to watch the Republican Convention, because the majority of blacks don't favor that party, then, I mean, that's just the nature of the business.

COX: Well, do you think, Aaron, that we - a collective we, black media - do we talk about Barack Obama too much?

Mr. LARAMORE: I don't think we talk about him too little or too much. I think - my issue with media - black media, mainstream media - is that largely, media has become almost useless in the analysis of public affairs. You know, it's infotainment now, 24/7 on the cable news stations and elsewhere, and you get very little that is useful for making decisions about who should lead the country.

COX: Well, we'd like to think that we do offer some useful information here on News & Notes. I just want to drop that in there, Carmen, before I get your opinion about walking this tightrope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LARAMORE: I'm talking about mainstream. I'm talking about the mainstream. Come on now.

Mr. CHANNEL: We know who you're talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Carmen, what do you say?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: It's an interesting question, and actually something that we grappled with a little bit at Racialicious, even though we are a blog, and probably not exactly journalists. We went back and forth, wondering whether we should officially endorse a candidate. We ended up officially endorsing Obama, and for us, we did it because we knew that, because Obama was in this race, this presidential race, the topic of race would be covered by the media to a degree that had never really been done before. And because our blog focuses on race and pop culture, we felt that it was appropriate to expand our coverage of political issues, but specifically with the angle of exploring how race gets played out. And so, I think it's a matter of not only knowing who your audience is, but also knowing the exact editorial perspective you come from.

COX: Well, not only do we need to know who our audience is, we need to know who our leaders are, which leads me to our very next topic. A recent Gallup Poll found that 29 percent of black Americans name Barack Obama - there's that name again - as a person they would choose as their spokesman on race issues. But 49 percent cited someone else. Six percent named themselves. I have the list in front of me. Just in case you're curious, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are pretty down low - are down pretty low on that list. The question is, Amani, does anybody speak for black America?

Mr. CHANNEL: Well, if you rely on, you know, the mainstream media, it would be Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. I think that a lot of folks in the audience, or a lot of black folks, feel like they don't necessarily speak for all of us, and that's because, you know, we all come from different backgrounds, different perspectives. There are folks who are biracial. There are folks who are multiracial. And so it's hard to just - you know, the media likes to grab one spokesperson and let them represent, OK, this is what black people are saying, but I mean, that's in general, you know, regardless of black or white. I mean, that's how the media does it, but you can't just choose one person for a spokesperson.

I feel like I represent myself. I speak for myself. Someone else can't speak for me, which is why I blog, and if you want to know what I think, go to my blog and check out what I think about whatever I'm writing about. But you know, with the media, you kind of have to - you know, you only have so much room for so many voices. So, a lot of times it gets singled down to whether it's, you know, Obama, Jesse Jackson - I'm looking at the list - Oprah Winfrey, it always ends up being just a few select names who end up bubbling to the top.

COX: You know, back in the days of - at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King was someone who, obviously, was considered to be a leader and a spokesman for black people, and a lot of black folks had no trouble with that. Malcolm X was another. Even Muhammad Ali, at times, was considered to be a person that could speak representatively about the black experience in America. I don't know that there is such a person anymore who can do that. Aaron, what do you say?

Mr. LARAMORE: Well, I think that the survey results were instructive, in that you had this wide variety of people that folks gave answers to about who they wanted to be spokesman. So, you had, you know, from Sharpton and Jackson, on the one end, over to Colin Powell and Obama on another end. So, I think that that's instructive that, you know, we're not a monolithic community in that respect. We do have a diversity of voices, and people can't really identify one person who really embodies all that.

It was interesting to me that Obama seemed to have garnered the majority of the vote, in that - you know, clearly he's no departure from traditional liberal politics, as practiced in the black community for a long time. He is the marketing of liberal politics taken to a much higher level of effectiveness, and so it's not surprising that people look to him, more so than any of the others, as a spokesperson that they would pick.

COX: Well, you know, Carmen, what I found interesting about the list, which I have in front of me, that out of all the categories, there were only three that had double-digit percentages, Barack Obama was 29 percent of people. The question was, if you had to name one individual or leader in the U.S. to speak for you on issues of race, who would that be? Twenty-nine percent said Obama, 18 percent said others, 16 percent had no opinion at all, and all the others were like one, two, three, and four percent. That surprise you?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: It doesn't surprise me, and I think that the fact that this question is being asked at all is indicative of something. I mean, the headline of this article is "'Black Spokesman' Title Still Up For Grabs." I look forward to the day when we see "'White Spokesman' Title Still Up For Grabs". Nobody walks around asking white people who their - what leader speaks for them when it comes to race, and you know, another great line in this article is, "the poll does suggest that black Americans see beyond race when thinking about Obama," as if this is a - really surprising.

So, I think the unspoken premise behind articles like these is that there is something fundamentally flawed about black people, and let's try to figure out what that is, that there's some kind of inherent dysfunction, and that they're somehow different from, quote/unquote, "regular people," which in this country, tends to mean white people.

COX: Yeah.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: And so, I think the underlying premise of it is interesting to analyze.

COX: I would like to see this article after the election, and if Obama were to win the White House, if people's attitudes about him would change, with regard to being a spokesman on race for the United States. I appreciate all of you coming on. It was an excellent roundtable that we had today. Thank you so much.

Mr. CHANNEL: Oh, you're welcome.

Mr. LARAMORE: You're welcome.

COX: We've been talking with Carmen Van Kerckhove, who blogs at Racialicious - she was at our New York studios - writer Amani Channel, who blogs at My Urban Report - he was at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta - and Aaron Laramore of the blog, Political Season - he was at member station WFYI in Indianapolis, Indiana.

You can find links to their blogs, and ours, at, and the conversation doesn't stop here. Our online series, Speak Your Mind, gives you a chance to sound off on the issues you care about. To find out how, go to our blog,, and click on Speak Your Mind.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our show for today. Thanks for tuning in. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcasts, visit our website, To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at News & Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, some say payday loans prey on poor and low-income borrowers. So, why is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference defending what some say is predatory lending? We'll take a closer look at this unlikely marriage.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Farai Chideya. This is New & Notes.

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