Obama Happy Hour: Can't We All Just Get Along? Host Michel Martin joins freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, political science professor Lester Spence, and journalist Quinn Klinefelter to comb through the week's headlines. The guys weigh in on President Obama's White House happy hour with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, and the evolution of racism in online forums.
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Obama Happy Hour: Can't We All Just Get Along?

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Obama Happy Hour: Can't We All Just Get Along?

Obama Happy Hour: Can't We All Just Get Along?

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, political science professor Lester Spence, and reporter Quinn Klinefelter of public radio station WDET in Detroit.

I may jump in here or there, but for now, take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, yo, fellas, what's up? Welcome to the shop.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney; Editor): Hey, hey, hey.

Dr. LESTER SPENCE (Political Science Professor): Hey, what's up?

Mr. QUINN KLINEFELTER (Journalist): Hey.

Mr. IZRAEL: Q, what's up, man? First time in. Welcome.

Mr. KLINEFELTER: Thank you so much.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what? Check this out. President Obama sat down with Vice President Biden, Sergeant James Crowley and Dr. Henry "Skip" Gates to bury the hatchet. Now, there's also rumors flying that the Budweiser frogs and Spuds Mackenzie, they're on their way to the Middle East to try to reinvigorate that peace process as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Now, while Skip and Crowley and Obama had, you know, traditional brews, Biden went non-alcoholic. Not for nothing, right? We got some tape on this, right?

MARTIN: Well, actually, we do. The sergeant - let's see, President Obama and Vice President Biden didn't talk about the discussion afterwards, you could see why, but Sergeant Crowley did give a press conference after the get-together, and this is what he said.

Sergeant JAMES CROWLEY (Cambridge Police Department): I think what was accomplished was, this was a positive step in moving forward, as opposed to reliving the events of the past couple of weeks, in an effort to move not just the city of Cambridge or two individuals past this event, but the whole country.

MARTIN: And we didn't hear from Professor Gates yet. I'm going to call him professor Gates. I don't know. Obviously, he and Jimmy are very intimate in a way that I wasn't aware of, but we haven't heard from him yet, but I assume we will. Here you go.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, me and Skip - thank you, Michel. Me and Skip go about 10 years back, to Africana.com. What's up, Skip? Yo, and he also has a piece right now entitled "Something About the Happy Accident," it's on theroot.com, where he does talk about his experience with the beer.

You know, I'm wondering if people missed the teachable moment. Q, what did you think? Q, you there?

Mr. KLINEFELTER: Yeah, well, you know, I don't know. I think for one thing, it's about as good of sponsorship that you get for Bud Light as anything, right? I mean, how much does it cost to get a presidential spokesperson, to begin with?

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. KLINEFELTER: But, you know, a lot of people here have been interested in it, but they also are a little bit iffy on whether or not, you know, the racial element to it is all that it's being made out to be, really.

MARTIN: Really? Why do you say that?

Mr. KLINEFELTER: Well, because, you know, there's a lot of people here that will look at this with kind of a sad resignation. They see it all the time. You know, racial profiling is almost a part of the fabric of Detroit in some ways -at least, according to many people.

You know, whether you're trying to find an apartment, redlining with insurance rates, etc. But as you talked about a little earlier in the program, they kind of tend to think that a lot of times it has to do with the police, you know. And you don't mess with the police. And it makes sense that the professor would get a bit belligerent trying to get into his own house, but when the police try to clamp down on you, most everybody I talk to say, boy, that guy shouldn't have really been trying to push it.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, yeah, there's that. Dr. Spence.

Dr. SPENCE: Well first, it would have really - what would have really impressed me if they had cracked a nice bottle of Wild Irish Rose instead of drinking…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SPENCE: You know, I mean, go old school, all the way back. If you're going to do it, do it, right? Wild Irish Rose.

MARTIN: Pour a little taste on the ground for the ancestors, right?

Dr. SPENCE: Straight up. Pour out a little liquor for - the ancestors, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, go ahead.

Dr. SPENCE: Yeah, straight up. But what I've been trying - because I teach racial politics and black politics, like, for a living, for me, like, these conversations are things that I've been having. So what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to be open to the possibility that these conversations are helpful but at the same time still be critical of this approach, where we think if we just bring black people and white people together in a room and talk about, quote-unquote, race, as opposed to really politically organizing against racism, is a solution to the problem, right?

So to that extent, you know, I really - I'm glad Obama brought them together, but I really wished that they would have talked more about politics and he would have created more of a space to talk about police brutality and the types of stuff that Quinn is talking about. Shouts out to the 313.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yo, you know, he gets to that on his piece on the Root that was actually entitled "An Accident of Place and Time." A-Train, I know you saw it. What did you think?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, some people called it the Beer Summit; some people called it the Beer-Stroika, the Audacity of Hops.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, one story that I think unfortunately got drowned out you, know, was the recent case of Cambridge police officer Justin Barrett who...

MARTIN: Boston.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oh, Boston. Sorry.

MARTIN: Boston. It was Boston. Different police, different department.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Right.

MARTIN: It's across the river but different department.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Boston police officer Justin Barrett, who had sent an email to some Boston Globe columnists and some other federal National Guard servicemen where he called professor Gates a quote, banana-eating jungle monkey. He was, of course, then put on administrative leave, and now there's a termination hearing that's going to come in the near future. But you know, I think that, you know, with this Beer-Stroika that we had at the Rose Garden, you know, there are, you know, really tangible issues of racism within the Boston police department and around the country that we do need to address.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what? That email comes to me, for me comes under the heading of one bad apple, bro. I mean, you can't - I don't know that we can safely extrapolate the attitude of a whole department from one email. I mean, A-Train...

MARTIN: It is interesting, though. But it is interesting to me...

Professor SPENCE: It's Boston. It's Boston.

MARTIN: ...that the guy says that the officer says that he didn't mean to be offensive.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Like he would have put...

MARTIN: What would you have said if you had meant to be offensive, officer?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, no…

Mr. IZRAEL: What else is he going to say?

MARTIN: I'm puzzled by this.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, what else is he going to say, right?

MARTIN: Well, he sent this to a Boston Globe columnist...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...and numerous other individuals, and now is shocked that it became public. I don't know, what did you expect?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I think we would hear a lot of - honestly, like, he would never have referred to a white person as a banana-eating jungle monkey. I think that is pretty safe to assume, and I think it's pretty transparent.

MARTIN: I think so. But this does, I think this does lead to - and if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with journalist Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Quinn Klinefelter, and professor Lester Spence in the Barbershop.

But it does lead to this other thing we wanted to talk about, which we talked about earlier in the week: the kinds of conversations that had been stirred up by this incident. Some of it, I think some people have found it very refreshing. They get a chance to say some things that they would like to say. But some of it has taken a very ugly turn at some points. Like for example, The Root, Jimi which you are a contributor, Henry Louis Gates is one of the - is the editor-in-chief, had been...

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...deluged by very racist comments over the course of the week. And I'm just, I don't know, I'm just interested to hear what people think that says, if anything, or if people just need an outlet.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you know for me, I mean, because you know I'm doing this Internet thing for a minute and I'm used to people coming at me. I'm used to people, I'm used to getting death threats in my comments and also my personal email box, you know. And people feel like the anonymity of the Internet gives them the ability to just kind of lob grenades from behind...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...you know, brick walls. And I always tell people, I'm like, look -you know, because I address my commenters very often, certainly if they address me personally. And I say, look, I say, you don't know my mother so don't, let's not go there. You know, but if you want to attack me personally, you know, attack my work, you know, because you don't know me personally, so attack my work.

MARTIN: But you don't have a problem with it - well, let me just play a short clip from Terence Samuel, the deputy editor of the Root. He was on the program, and this is what he said.

Mr. TERENCE SAMUEL (Deputy editor, The Root): What you saw here is a fair number of people who just kind of came into the conversation willy-nilly. And if you're going to have a conversation about race, sadly, you're going to have to sometimes talk to racists.

MARTIN: I thought that was a very interesting point.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, T. Samuel hit it right on the head. Go ahead, A-Train.

MARTIN: But his argument is, you have to open it up. Anyway Arsalan, what were you saying?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I give Jimi mad props for, you know, addressing, you know, people in his comment section because for a lot of people, you know, the comment sections of Web sites tend to be the lowest common denominator of the Internet. I mean, you can see YouTube comments. You know, a lot of times, like Jimi said, you know, people hiding behind the anonymity, you know, of the Internet, you know, are able to sit in the tighty-whities in their basement, you know, lobbying ad homonym and racist attacks on...

MARTIN: But can I ask you...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Sure.

MARTIN: ...as in addition to being a journalist, you're a civil rights attorney.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: That was kind of your first life.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: What about the free speech aspect of it?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well...

MARTIN: I mean, I feel differently about news organizations.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I mean, these are comment - people have a right to set the terms of discussion. I mean, we don't print, you know, false information knowingly so those are the terms.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: So I think people have a right to say. But what about the whole question of whether there are rules of civility that should be adhered to? What do you think about that because I can tell you, this police officer is also making a free-speech argument.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Or some people are making it on his behalf, saying, I can say what I want.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, and you're absolutely right, Michel. You know, the First Amendment does fully allow for any racist or bigoted, you know, the thoughts or comments to be made. Where, you know - where the line, where the legal lines could be crossed are, you know, for example, if you make a death threat towards someone or you make defamatory or libelous statements which can be actionable in a court of law. And you know, we see a lot of these comments cross over into those lines where they are either, you know, they're making threats of physical, you know, harm or they are into the defamation or libel...

MARTIN: But are those kinds of racist comments, calling somebody a banana-eating jungle monkey, is that by definition defamatory?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No, it's not. A defamatory statement is one that can be proved factually false. So, you know, if somebody went on and said that Arsalan is a woman, that is a factually incorrect statement. That can be proven to be false. And so, you know, that's what defamation legal claims in a civil court are there to remedy.

MARTIN: But that's tricky to me because Jimi, I'm curious about what your take on this because there are times when people have gotten into disputes with you online about things, and you've been very stung by it because you think you're having a vigorous discussion and they feel offended and attacked by it. And I'm just interested...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...where you think the line should be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I will say, I will bring gender into it because I think, well, you say it goes both ways, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, boy.

MARTIN: But I do think that's - what do you, on the one hand you want to invite people into the space; on the other hand, some people by the definition of that kind of conversation will be chased out. So what do you...

Mr. IZRAEL: Well see, there's been instances when colleagues and other bloggers have gotten at me, and I either address those or I don't. If I think they're making a salient point, you know, I'll let it go. And even if I don't think they're making a salient point, they're lying through their teeth, I'm going to let it go, too. You know what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, for the most part, you know, I'm open to engaging anybody that wants to engage me about my work. You know, if you start trying to get at me personally, that's when you're going to have a personal problem, you know, because you don't know me personally. So what's the point of that? You know so...

MARTIN: Because...

Mr. IZRAEL: ...I handle it kind of on the by-case basis, you know, so you got to, yeah, it's case by case.

MARTIN: But here's what we find in matters of race; A lot of people don't care what the facts are.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mmhmm.

MARTIN: They don't care what the facts are.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Right.

MARTIN: They just want to say what they want to say. I mean, one of the things I have found difficult over the years as a journalist is that you can constantly address these issues. Like, there's more minorities on welfare than whites. That is simply not true, just on the numbers.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But people don't care. And then you report what is true, people say, oh, that's not true. You're lying, or you're censoring. It's just a very - I don't know, Quinn, what's your take on this?

Mr. KLINEFELTER: Well, you know, I think that there is a good reason to have an open debate and so on. I mean, even if it is, you know, just abhorrent comments because that's supposed to be part of the melting pot idea, right?

Professor SPENCE: Right.

Mr. KLINEFELTER: I mean, you bring all these comments together and then, you know, you let somebody basically hang themselves if they're going to say stuff and people kind of comment on it. I think in the racial aspect, though, it gets to be a little bit tough just because of some of the inbuilt things. You know, around here, I mean, in Detroit, right, a massively African-American population, I'll sit and talk to people and you just, you know, talk like normal humans after a while. But that first look at somebody, I'll ride a Detroit bus for example, right? I'll be the only white guy on it. Nobody will sit with me, you know...

MARTIN: Oh.

Mr. KLINEFELTER: ...and I haven't talked. I haven't done, I swear.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, man.

Mr. KLINEFELTER: You know I'll brush off the seat. I keep sniffing, you know, I use my deodorant. I'm okay.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I'll sit with you, Quinn.

MARTIN: I'll sit with you, Quinn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KLINEFELTER: Yeah, you know, because I'm the minority. And so it's very easy to see how that gets thrown at somebody right off the bat. Yet, you sit and talk to somebody across the aisle for like two seconds and suddenly you're just connecting like that. It's this very individual thing. And if anything comes out really good out this whole Gates and Crowley situation, it would be just being able to have a connection one-on-one with somebody else to realize that maybe there's more that brings people together that would actually divide them.

MARTIN: Hmm. Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what? All these commenters sometimes kind of make me sick...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: ...and I wish my medical coverage covered it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Yo, but you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: That's a transition.

Professor SPENCE: That's a nice segue.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, hey...

MARTIN: Yeah. Very nice.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, it's interesting how Obama's having a hard time selling his health-care overhaul to rural America. Now that's really intriguing for me. And we got a little bit tape on that?

MARTIN: You know, this is one of the interesting things about this, and one of the questions I'm curious about is whether at the end of the day, this was a productive interaction or not, this whole, whether this whole episode was productive or not. There's some evidence that it isn't clear whether you can tie this, but it's clear that Obama's favorability ratings are sliding. And it would be interesting to see, to me...

(Soundbite of whistle)

MARTIN: ...whether part of it is that - whites who were, the white population who were tenuous supporters or indifferent to him are now taking a cue from this. And for example, we have a clip that we - from a piece that we had on MORNING EDITION where a man named Ricky Drake, who's unemployed, who's disabled, uses Medicaid, talks about why he is not supporting health-care reform, even though you would think he'd be somebody who'd benefit from it. Here's what he had to say.

Mr. RICKY DRAKE: The health-care plan he's got, Obama is going to hurt people in the long run. Minorities are going to get more attention than the whites and stuff like that. That's the way I take it from what the news was talking about.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Mmm.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow. Thanks for that, Michel. That's deep. You know, and it's deep even given, you know, given specifically that the Wall Street Journal says 46 million people don't have health care.

Professor SPENCE: Yeah. That's right.

Mr. IZRAEL: And 14,000 people a day are losing it because they're getting their jobs cut. Dr. Spence, drop some science on us, please.

Professor SPENCE: So this is very much related to the last conversation we had. So what's happening is you've got over 40 years of mis-education about the role of government in general and in this case, the role of government in health care. So in this case, what he's trying to do is he's trying to have a conversation when what really needs to happen is education, right?

So he's creating this space where now, people feel like they have the ability or the interest just to shout out untruths, sort of shout out what they think is right but actually is not. But there is not, at the same time, a space created where people can be critically educated. In this case, this guy is clearly going against his own interest, in large part because of a combination of conservatism and racism. And that's the thing we have to begin to create the space to educate people about, instead of just talking to people and creating like, coversations with the spaces.

Mr. IZRAEL: Q, you've done a lot of reporting on this. Chime in here.

Mr. KLINEFELTER: Well yeah, you know, in terms of the unemployment situation, I mean, Detroit is ground zero, right, in terms of just how high the unemployment rate is and the drop in manufacturing. When they talk about the health-care issue - a lot of Obama officials have been through here pushing it - and you'll hear the criticism that, hey, he's going too fast. He's trying to do too much too soon. Here, they don't say that at all. They want it done now. People are losing insurance left and right as they go, and they need something to try to keep it.

At the same time, I found actually a different take that I was a little surprised about, and that comes from my own personal experience because my mom has had some pretty severe health issues over the last three or four months. And so I've talked to more physicians than I probably ever had in my life, and a number of them are trying to relocate out of the state just because they are not making enough money. They said so many people have lost their insurance, private or paid for by the companies...

Mr. IZRAEL: Mmm.

Mr. KLINEFELTER: ...that they're living off Medicare. And they said that doctors are not making - the doctors will say that they're just not making enough off where Medicare is now. And if in fact they extend insurance coverage to cover everybody, they're going to pay for part of that by dropping back how much that they're giving in Medicare.

MARTIN: Wow.

Mr. IZRAEL: Whoa.

Mr. KLINEFELTER: And so these doctors are going to be making less. And so they're looking to go elsewhere. At the same time they'll even say, but you know, nobody's going to cry for us because we can't take that third trip to the Bahamas this year.

MARTIN: That's crazy. Wow. Thanks, Quinn.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. Let the healing begin. Go ahead, Michel. It's all you.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you all. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for the Root.com. He's a guest lecturer and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and he joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Quinn Klinefelter is a reporter with WDET in Detroit, and he joined us from there. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, and he joined us from WYPR in Baltimore. And Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com and a civil rights attorney, and he joined us in our studios in Washington.

But before I let everybody go, we have an announcement: Vanessa Navarrette arrived yesterday at 1:15 p.m. Pacific time.

Professor SPENCE: Whoa.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah.

Professor SPENCE: Thank God.

MARTIN: She weighed in at 8 pounds, 11 ounces. And dad, Barbershop regular Ruben Navarrette, tells us she is beautiful and healthy. But after nearly 24 hours in labor, mom Veronica is tired. Our best to Ruben and Veronica. Gentlemen, thank you.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. KLINEFELTER: Thank you.

Professor SPENCE: Peace.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup. Yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday.

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