Roundtable: MLK Papers for Sale, Racial Profiling Topics: Letters and personal papers from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., are set for auction; a study suggests Americans are more willing to help white Katrina victims than black ones; and a proposal in New York to make racial profiling of terror suspects legal. Guests: Callie Crossley, social/cultural commentator on the television show Beat the Press in Boston; Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education and co-director, immigration studies at New York University; and Robert George, editorial writer for the New York Post.
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Roundtable: MLK Papers for Sale, Racial Profiling

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Roundtable: MLK Papers for Sale, Racial Profiling

Roundtable: MLK Papers for Sale, Racial Profiling

Roundtable: MLK Papers for Sale, Racial Profiling

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  • Transcript

Topics: Letters and personal papers from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., are set for auction; a study suggests Americans are more willing to help white Katrina victims than black ones; and a proposal in New York to make racial profiling of terror suspects legal. Guests: Callie Crossley, social/cultural commentator on the television show Beat the Press in Boston; Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education and co-director, immigration studies at New York University; and Robert George, editorial writer for the New York Post.


This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. On today's roundtable, Sotheby's is set to auction the papers of Martin Luther King Jr., and New York lawmakers try to make racial profiling legal for terror suspects.

Joining us today from our bureau in New York is Robert George, editorial writer, New York Post. At member station WBUR in Boston, Callie Crossley, social-cultural commentator on the television show Beat the Press. And Marcelo Suarez Orozco, company-director immigration studies at New York University is at member station WLIU in Southampton, New York. Thank you all for joining us.

So after years of trying to auction the collection of papers, manuscripts, and personal library of the Revered Martin Luther King Jr., Sotheby's is finally getting the go-ahead to do it. On June 30th, they're going to sell off the King collection. They're estimating the lot of about 10,000 items, including drafts of the I Have a Dream speech, will go for between 15 million and 30 million. Robert, let me ask you, when Coretta Scott King was alive, she kind of put the brakes on this. Now, that she's gone, her children appear to be endorsing it. Is this a betrayal of the civil rights legacy? Or is this just the way things go with the states and commerce?

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Writer, New York Post): I think it's a, it's a little bit of the, it's more of the latter. Obviously, you know, the papers belong to the King family. And fortunately, I mean, I think this is, you know, this is an issue that has come up in a number of different ways over the last few years as to whether the King family is - has really been the best legacy bearer's really of the King legacy - that is to say the written legacy, the intellectual legacy - because now seem to be in a situation where his intellectual property is going to be - is being auctioned off and the family, obviously, is going to benefit, but arguably, history might be better if all of it was, you know, kept together.

CHIDEYA: Marcelo, you're at New York University. The auctioneers at Sotheby's say that they hope that a institution, like a major university, or the Smithsonian, will go ahead and buy the collection all as a piece. If not, I suppose it would have to be broken up. Tell us how universities think about acquiring these collections.

Professor MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO (Professor of Globalization and Education and Co-director of Immigration Studies, New York University): Well, I think that usually a set of criteria are put in place. And clearly if there ever was an archive that fit that criteria, it would be the papers of the Reverend Martin Luther King. This is a national treasure. This is arguably the most important archive - certainly one of the most important archives - of the 20th century. Surely the most important archive of the second half of the 20th century. And the fear here, is that this will be privatized, that this will be purchased by an individual, who will have no responsibility to have these papers of historic national, international, global relevance, available for study, for research. There are great historical - there is great humanistic - there is great scientific value of these papers.

And these are really papers that should be purchased, either by a major research university, by the Library of Congress, and made, in perpetuity, available for the future generations to study, to examine, to reflect upon, one of the great developments of the 20th century. It's really a function of the incentives here, that universities, that private collections, will have in moving on to purchase. The estate is valued at perhaps between 15 and $30 million, so this is a major opportunity.

CHIDEYA: Callie, you know, at Stanford there's something called the King Papers Project, which is run by Claiborne Carson. And then you have the King Center, and you have various other civil rights museums - you know, a museum in Birmingham, other museums - that would be logical homes for this. Do you think that the King family, just on a moral level, should have donated the papers to and organization, or group, or institution, that already had a track record in this? Or do you think they have every right to benefit from the life of a man who gave of himself to others, and they may not have fared as well economically because he spent all his time giving to others?

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Social and Cultural Commentator, Beat the Press): Well, they have - the obviously have every right to give the papers or to sell the papers, as they will. And remember now, for most of them, he was not really around for their lives. So in a large way, this is his legacy to them. Now, having said that, I can speak now as a documentary filmmaker, and one who was specifically involved in looking at those papers and understanding their value - working alongside Dr. Claiborne Carson, for the Eyes on the Prize documentary series. So it was really important for us to be able to look at the volume of material in order to put together the historical record.

And I can tell you, personally, that there was lots of archival material not stored well - sort of haphazardly in Mrs. Coretta Scott King's home and all over the place - that those of us, who were scholars light, that would be me as a documentary filmmaker, and other scholars for real, were concerned about and still have yet to see. So it becomes a real important issue for those scholars to be able to read that material, to see that material, and to answer some questions that are probably - can be answered by what's there. But I can tell you, there's a lot that has yet to be seen.

I would hope that this could be purchased by the Library of Congress or some - or Stanford would step up. For God's sake, they have an endowment to do that, if need be. And what I fear is that some private collector will purchase it. I think about Michael Jackson's buying The Beatles - all of The Beatles recordings. And yes, he didn't break them up in some, you know, small pieces. But at the same time, I mean, he can do with it as he will. It would be, it would be, I think, an imperative on - for one of these institutions that has so far had some part of the archive, to go ahead and try to put together the funding to get the rest. I mean, there is a lot of material that has yet to be seen by a lot of people.

CHIDEYA: Marcelo?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: I think the key, the three key issues here, Farai, have to do with, A, keeping the materials intact, in other words, keeping the collection a single entity for historical and research value; to keep the archive properly organized, properly digitized whenever possible, to keep the materials in an orderly space in perpetuity; and three, that there is access to scholars from throughout the world, who are - who will be studying the legacy in the generations ahead. So these are really the three key issues that we need to be thinking about as the auction proceeds.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to turn to another issue having to do with race and the legacy of discrimination. There was an online study by The Washington Post, in conjunction with a Stanford researcher. It found that Americans are more willing to support extended government aid to white victims of Katrina, than to African-Americans and Latinos. Overall, the penalty for being black and a Katrina victim amounted to about $1,000. Callie, is this a surprise?

Ms. CROSSLEY: No, it's not a surprise. And you know, I have two minds about it. On the one hand, it's very sobering, and it's depressing because there it is again. On the other hand, any time there can be objective measurements, which, you know, destroy folks arguments that people are paranoid and somehow have racism in the forefront of their brains every day. I mean, this is an objective measurement, and there you have it. It's real, folks. Now, whether or not people exaggerate that in other instances, is another situation. But in instances where there is systemic and institutionalized racism, these kinds of important objective measurements can't be done enough, as far as I'm concerned. And it's very sad to see the result of this.

FARAI CHIDEYA host: Now, Marcelo…

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: It's not surprising. In a way, that explains why nobody really paid the political price for the debacle, for the man-made disaster in New Orleans.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, one of the reasons why that happened was because typically with the political equation, you had everybody finger-pointing. You know, the feds said it was the local folks' fault. And the local folks said it was the feds' fault. You know, putting that aside, I would say that that - this is actually one reason why it is, frankly, better to create a structure, whether you want to look at it from the government - government donations - donations to the government or donations to private charities, allowing those to be the arbiters, if you will, of assistance to aid. So you're not going to get these situations where, you know, private individuals are going to say, well, you know, I'll help that group, but I won't - I don't necessarily want to help this group.

So, I mean, in that sense, it's a better structure, if money is going to, say, Red Cross and other private organizations, it can take this and then just bring the aid to whoever needs it, regardless of race.

Ms. CROSSLEY: But, Robert, isn't every organization simply made up of people? And people come into organizations with their own pride and prejudice. And so there's no insurance that any institution is going to have better ethics than the individual's running it, who are just human.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, I think that - I mean, I think that's true. I think it is tragic, but it is also, in some sense, human nature that, you know, individuals may have a greater empathy for those who look more like them.

And, that is - the thing is, though, how one gets around something like that is the real difficult nut to crack. And this kind of a study, while it does give a certain light into human nature, it doesn't really point one in the direction of how to address that.

What I thought was interesting is that one of the studies suggested that the amount of money that people were willing to give to, say, the white victim versus the black victim, was about the same. But the amount of time that they were willing to give that money was about a month shorter. So, I mean, I think that's, you know - what that says I'm not sure, but it's an interesting - it's kind of an interesting side note to this.

CHIDEYA: It is. And I want to move on to one more topic. I know that we could go on this one, but New York State legislators are considering a bill to let law enforcement to profile suspected terrorists according to race. Now, a civil rights advocate voiced opposition, saying its anathema to the principles of equality.

But State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, of Brooklyn, said, quote, "suicide bombers and terrorists fit a very specific intelligence profile, and race and ethnicity is very much a part of that profile." Marcelo, we, as a nation, have gone back and forth on whether or not law enforcement should be able to use race and ethnicity in order to examine people. Is this just making visible what already happens, that law enforcement and most people do use race and ethnicity to make judgments? Or does this set a dangerous precedent if it passes?

Prof. SUÁREZ-OROZCO: Well, it's clear that multiple criteria go into the making of these profiles. And certainly we now know ethnicity, immigration status, race, religion, increasingly have become part of the formula.

I think that what is important to keep in mind is that the best work, in terms of investigating possible criminal activities, is really is the hard work of investigating specific leads, of developing specific evidence, that fundamentally has to go beyond these abstract statistical profiles. It's very, very tedious. It's very, very hard work. And that's the work that generates the best results, in terms of preventing crime, in terms of preventing terrorist activities.

So I'm concerned whenever these statistical models are developed that are very abstract and that, in many ways, may distract from the hard work of developing the evidence, which really focuses on specific acts, specific leads, specific data, rather than on these racially constructed abstracts.

CHIDEYA: Callie, you know, there was a very interesting situation that I was made aware of by a friend of mine, where her brother, who, like she, is Sri Lankan, was profiled as Chechen when he lived in Russia. He spoke fluent Russian, and he looked - he was darker than most Russians, so they said, oh, you're a Chechen, and you're a terrorist.

So not only is there a question of racial profiling, but its like, well, do get the racial profiling right? People look a lot of different ways that may or may not be what they are. So, you know, in that sense, what does that mean?

Ms. CROSSLEY: What it means is that it allows people to play out the kind of biases that we have just demonstrated in the earlier story are often unconscious. I don't think that, you know, law enforcement people are trying, most of them, to, you know, just assign negative characteristics to certain groups of people because of race or ethnicity, but this is very dangerous when you start talking about terrorism.

We're seeing it play out all the time at airports. In fact, Essence magazine's latest article has an interesting story about a woman who travels back and forth to a Scandinavian county, and they assume that since she's traveling alone that she must be a terrorist, or a drug carrier, rather. So, I mean, this stuff is happening all the time, and to give actual legal sanction to it, whether or not it's being practiced informally, at least now in the state that it's in it can be brought to light; it can be fought against.

If it's legally sanctioned, then there it is. I mean, what do you say when you are constantly brought before folks and it's unfair and you've been profiled for doing nothing except looking the way you are. And somebody else has decided that looking the way you are makes you a terrorist.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, the...

CHIDEYA: Robert?

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah, well, the - it's funny. I mean, you've got kind of two extremes that are going on right now. Because at the same time you do have these almost chaotic situations at airports where they try to, you know, go out of their way to show that they're being random, and so they are, to use the cliché, they're picking up, you know, these old, you know, white ladies, you know, in their 70s, and, you know, you know, checking to see if they're terrorists when it's - anybody using common sense could indicate that they're not.

However, the flip side of that is, though - and I have to wonder why such a law like this would work, really, is because we're just starting to see, in places like Canada and some other places, are homegrown terrorists who are not necessarily looking like your - may not be looking like your typical Middle east - you know, Middle Eastern one who, quote, "fits the profile.”

So I think it is incumbent upon law enforcement agencies to look more beyond just race and ethnicity. Don't exclude race and ethnicity, because it's going to be a factor in many of these cases, but also recognizing that the terrorist down the street, you know, may be - just be somebody wearing, you know, regular jeans, and so forth, and quote, "looking like," you know, you know a blond white kid who happens to have decided to become a, you know, become a suicide bomber.

CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to have to leave it there.

In New York, Robert George, editorial writer, New York Post. At member station WBUR, in Boston, Callie Crossley. And Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-Director, Immigration Studies at NYU.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

Mr. GEORGE: Thank you.

Prof. SUÁREZ-OROZCO: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, one author takes on childhood obesity. And gospel singer Andrae Crouch is back with a new CD. After four decades of making heavenly music, he's still going strong.

(Soundbite of music from album “Mighty Wind”)

Mr. ANDRAE CROUCH (Musician): (Singing) believe it, every day...

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS AND NOTES, from NPR News.

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