Roundtable: Obama Creates Faith-Based Office Up for debate on today's bloggers' roundtable: Former President George W. Bush championed faith-based initiatives supported by federal dollars. But does President Obama have the same perspective? His first decision on the matter suggests he might.
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Roundtable: Obama Creates Faith-Based Office

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Roundtable: Obama Creates Faith-Based Office

Roundtable: Obama Creates Faith-Based Office

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TONY COX, host:

And now onto our bloggers' roundtable. President Obama rolls out his version of faith-based initiatives, and the NAACP turns 100 years old. With us we have writer Amani Channel who blogs at My Urban Report, former L.A. Superior Court Judge Kevin Ross - he blogs over at 3 Brothers and a Sister and hosts the Kevin Ross Show on BlogTalkRadio; and Shawn Williams, who publishes the blog Dallas South. Hello, everybody.

Mr. KEVIN ROSS (Blogger, 3 Brothers and a Sister): Hello, Tony.

Mr. AMANI CHANNEL (Blogger, My Urban Report): Hello.

Mr. SHAWN WILLIAMS (Publisher, Dallas South): Hello, Tony.

COX: Nice to have you. Let's start with President Obama's new faith-based initiative. Actually, it isn't new at all. It's an extension of the controversial program begun under the Bush administration, and it grapples with the issue of separation of church and state.

So Kevin, in black communities, that line is often blurred, and with a black president, what effect can we expect from him with regard to faith-based policy?

Mr. ROSS: I think the issue that Barack is going to have - our president - is one really about jobs. I mean, when you look at - whether we're talking about the NAACP or we're talking about just this whole stimulus package, so much of what black folks are looking at right now is, look, I can't meet my mortgage. And while the woman who was in Fort Myers was saying, Barack, I need you to hook me up with a kitchen, you know, the fact remains that people aren't tithing, so these churches are seeing dwindling numbers in their church pews, they're not able to do their programming.

But one of the issues that Bush had was this whole notion of who can the church hire and still maintain their integrity from a standpoint of if you're someone who believes in gay marriage and you want to work for a church, can you get that job? So I think those are going to be some of the issues that he's going to be grappling with. But I think it's really going to be dealing with this economy and how to reconcile that.

COX: Let me bring Amani in, but before I do, Kevin, you said something that it actually generated quite a bit of blogger reaction on our show. And that is, you referred to the president as Barack. And before you respond, some people feel that that is an inappropriate way to respond to him as a president. Now you are entitled to say whatever you want, but I wanted to bring it to your attention and...

Mr. ROSS: You know, I caught that, and you know what else I caught?

COX: What?

Mr. ROSS: I caught Michelle doing the same thing. As I'm saying, Michelle - as in First Lady Michelle Obama. Her - when she was speaking before a group of individuals, she said, and you know, Barack and I. And then this last time that she spoke she referred to him as President Obama. And so you even have the first family...

COX: That's grappling with this...

Mr. ROSS: That's going through this transition because we have been so used to calling him that. It's just like when I refer to George Bush, but no one necessarily caught that. And I think that's one of the issues, especially amongst black folks, that we have become so hypersensitive to the area of did people refer to Bill Clinton by Bill or Slick - you know, what did they call him, Slick Willy? And there were all these different names, and he is the first black president, and you know how Clinton is. And so, I don't want us to get so caught up in, well, he is our president, so we got to be on our best behavior. I think that it's important to respect the office, but I did notice that, and I know exactly what you're talking about.

COX: Well, I just felt compelled to point that out.

Mr. ROSS: Sure.

COX: Amani, I'm going to get us back on point about this faith-based initiative unless you want - unless you have a comment also about whether or not to refer to the president in that way. Part of that is because the president, I think, has presented himself as an every man and someone who people should feel comfortable with relating to, but there is a line, perhaps, that should not be crossed, and we'll have to decide what that line is.

Amani, what do you say about this faith-based initiative? Different from Bush's? Are you expecting something more from him because he is black and because of what he has said about his own faith?

Mr. CHANNEL: Well, it seems like it's the same but it's a little different in that these faith-based programs are going to receive federal funds. They can't use discriminatory policies towards the folks who are receiving or benefiting from their programs, the folks who they end up hiring. So Obama seems to be - President Obama seems to be following the same ideas...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSS: There you go.

COX: But it's good that we address it. Finish your point, Amani.

Mr. CHANNEL: Yes. So President Obama seems to be following on the same path of President Bush in that the program is going to continue. However, he doesn't want - of course, any organization that's receiving federal funds, they can't use discriminatory practices, which, you know, seems like it's a fair thing to do.

The question, I think, is how would the government enforce it? What kind of policies will be in place to make sure that religious organizations that receive these federal funds don't use discriminatory practices? Of course, if you have an organization or a church that doesn't support homosexuality and then you have a homosexual who applies for a position in one of these organizations, you know, who's going to make sure that these churches don't discriminate? So that's the bigger question that has to be answered.

COX: And that is a very interesting point. And maybe one of the answers to that, Shawn, will lie in the person who has been put in charge to lead that office. His name is Josh DuBois - I think I'm pronouncing it correctly - a 26-year old Pentecostal minister. Do you have those kinds of concerns, the kind that Amani just mentioned?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, just quickly, Tony. I do have to mention a comment that my mom left on my blog relating to President Obama and whether we should call him by a first name. She said, I know my mother really well too, but I didn't call her by her first name, so I had to put that out there but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think that with president - what we're seeing with President Obama with the stimulus package, what we've seen throughout his kind of presidency so far is he's walking a line. He's walking a line with this faith-based initiative between people who are strongly in support of separation of church and state as well as those who are the faith-based groups that Bush brought into office. So I do have some concerns as far as the hiring practices because I don't believe that anyone receiving federal dollars should have the right to discriminate.

But again, I think the thing to watch here is going to be how does President Obama straddle that fence between groups who don't generally agree on anything, and you wouldn't assume that a Democratic president is going to push a faith-based initiative because most of his Democratic counterparts were against it. So that's kind of the key here, is how will he straddle that fence?

COX: One more thing on this before we move to another topic, Kevin, and that's this, to follow...

Mr. ROSS: That's Mr. Ross to you, Tony.

COX: Ah, yes, Mr. Ross.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSS: And I'll just say, Shawn, from day one, I always call my mama, mama. But if I had been calling her Barbara and then all of a sudden she was like from this point on, you're going to call me, mama, I may slip into a certain vernacular before I make that transition. So it's this whole point about Barack's name, the president's name. When Kanye West said, George Bush doesn't like black people, he didn't say President Bush. And we knew exactly what he was saying. It wasn't...

COX: He didn't say George, either.

Mr. WILLIAMS: He didn't say George, either, Kevin, so he did address him, only when you put the last name in there, that gives (unintelligible).

Mr. ROSS: What did he say?

COX: When you say president, that changes...

Mr. ROSS: But wait, what did Kanye say when he said George Bush doesn't like black people?

COX: Well, we don't want to go back there. OK. We don't want to go back there.

Mr. ROSS: The only reason why I say - I'm making the point and because I saw the comments and I appreciate them, was that when we talk about the president as the position, and when we talk about what's going on in the blogosphere as it pertains to even this faith-based area, we're really talking about individuals on the ground and how are they going to benefit from all of his policies, whether it's Josh Dubois saying, OK, this is how we're going to handle this, and we're going to take it by a case-by-case basis, what are we doing with the stimulus package? Right now, it doesn't matter what you call him. Folks are hurting and they need jobs. And if we're not able to address that on a level that people can relate to, they're going to be calling him more than just what we're referring to right now.

COX: Let's move on to another topic that people perhaps are not talking about as much as they should given the seriousness and the impact of this devastation on the black community. Last week - I don't know if any of the three of you know this - Black AIDS Awareness Day came and went. It happened on February the 7th, and it made very few ripples in the media world. But AIDS still continues to be widespread in the African-American community.

Now, Amani, we know that AIDS is nothing new, and yet, I have the sense - and I wonder if you do, I'll ask all three of you - a sense that while there is awareness of AIDS in the black community, there doesn't appear to be a great discussion about it.

Mr. CHANNEL: That may be because, of course, like you said, it's nothing new. The media is, of course, focused on the economy right now. And so, that may be why the whole topic is overlooked. Of course, AIDS is still devastating in terms of, you know, the black community. According to the most recent numbers, there were 56 - more than 56,000 newly infected cases, and of those, 45 percent of those were black. That was in 2006.

So it still is a condition, a disease that is ravishing the black community. The question becomes how can we on a day-to-day basis, perhaps, continue the discussion, get ourselves talking about it, and then doing things to help preventing the disease. It certainly is not going away, and there definitely needs more attention from the media in general. But you know, right know, we're all focused on the economy. People are struggling. People are hungry. And so when you have those two things going on, that's why some of the issues get overlooked...

Mr. ROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. CHANNEL: And there are some other issues like education...

Mr. ROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. CHANNEL: And other things that are important to us as well, so.

COX: I would imagine, though, that going back to that whole point of the faith-based initiative, the church in the black community has been one of the places where traditionally community issues, political issues have been addressed, but because in the black church its opposition to homosexuality, does that have an impact on the ability to get the word out and to mobilize people, do you think, Kevin?

Mr. ROSS: Well, I will say this. I think that when you look at the black church, by and large, it's a place of worship and for you to really deal with your own spirituality from a standpoint of your higher power, whatever you want to call it. But it's also a business. And when you look at the business model that we're seeing in a lot of churches, they themselves are struggling. And so, the last thing you want to do is do something that's going to offset your ability to continue to make the business thrive.

And the reality is, as African-Americans, we are very conservative. We're very much Republican in the sense of our politics, especially as it relates to the church. And so when you don't have a venue that really embraces the different lifestyles, and then you have the black media which is also struggling financially, those are the forums where you would have these discussions. And right now, I just don't see that being at the top of the agenda.

COX: What's your take, Amani?

Mr. CHANNEL: Yeah, I would agree.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Can I say real quick - real quick, Tony. This is Shawn. You know, I wrote an article for Dallas Morning News on this particular subject that actually posted in the paper on Saturday, and had no idea that that was Black AIDS Awareness Day, and it just happened to coincide. And what I did was challenge the church and challenge the African-American community to start talking about this because when we look at who's suffering the worst, it's us.

And I think our stars, our community leaders are much more comfortable with talking about AIDS and HIV in Africa because it's far away and it seems like a big problem. But we are tentative and afraid to agree to address the situation here in the United States because, you know, African-American women are 23 times more likely to be victim to this disease than their white counterparts...

COX: Well, should this not be coming from the first black president of the United States? And should not his faith-based initiative be a part of the vanguard to get that word out?

Mr. ROSS: See, I would say that where it came from in terms of Shawn is exactly right. Shawn is a blogger who has a show on BlogTalkRadio like me - like I'm doing a show tonight. We're going to be talking about these issues. You know, I wrote on the blog, 3 Brothers and a Sister, what the NAACP needs to do in terms of we've got these 100 years, but they're not doing anything. They're not speaking out.

So, when you have people like bloggers and people who are doing Internet radio, they are becoming the voice of where the discussions need to go. Because, you know, let's just say Radio 1, for instance. Right now, they've lost 18 stations. When you look at black newspapers - when you see Tribune getting ready to go bankrupt and you see Sirius XM radio getting ready to file for bankruptcy, you know that these black media outlets are dying on the vine, and it's going to take individuals like Shawn and Dallas South and Amani and myself and others to keep those conversations going.

COX: Amani, I'm going to have let you the last word on this. We've got about 30 seconds or so. Do you agree with Kevin?

Mr. CHANNEL: Well, I mean, we're at a time now where we are now empowered to have conversations about what's important to us. And so, with this topic of HIV, you know, it is ravishing the black community, and like we just mentioned, black women are being infected at a much higher rate because for whatever reason, black men aren't protecting themselves. Of course, it's on both people to protect themselves, but it's up to each person now. I mean, the mainstream media is having challenges. The media in general is having challenges. So we can't traditionally - we can't completely rely on the media. However, we do need to continue these conversations, and I think that's kind of the power in this conversation too, is that now we're talking about this issue.

Mr. ROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. CHANNEL: We're raising awareness to this issue.

COX: Absolutely.

Mr. CHANNEL: And we need to keep having these conversations.

COX: And unfortunately, our show is one of those that's going away also after March the 23rd...

Mr. CHANNEL: Yes, indeed.

COX: And we won't be able to continue to have this kind of thing.

Mr. CHANNEL: Right.

COX: I appreciate, gentlemen, all of you coming on. We've been talking with Shawn Williams who publishes the blog Dallas South. He was at Cake Mix Recording Studio in Dallas, Texas. Writer Amani Channel who blogs at My Urban Report. He joined us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Also, former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Ross, who blogs at 3 Brothers and a Sister; he was with me here in our NPR West studio.

And of course, you can find links to their blogs and to ours at And the conversation does not stop there. Our online series, Speak Your Mind, gives you a chance to sound off on the issues that you care about. To find out how, go to our blog,, and click on Speak Your Mind. Thanks, gentlemen.

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