FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Some political minds ask if Barack Obama's campaign staff has enough color. Plus, actor Wesley Snipes gets ready for his prison stripes. We've got that and more on today's Bloggers' Roundtable. With us, media consultant Carmen Dixon. She writes the blog "All About Race." Wayne Bennett, an attorney who blogs as "The Field Negro." And freelance journalist Danielle Belton. She runs the blogs "Black Snob" and "The Secret Council of American Negroes." Welcome, everybody.
Ms. CARMEN DIXON (Blogger, All About Race): Hi, Farai.
Mr. WAYNE BENNETT (Blogger, The Field Negro): Hi, Farai.
Ms. DANIELLE BELTON (Blogger, Black Snob and The Secret Council of American Negroes): Hi, Farai.
CHIDEYA: So let's start with this story CBS ran last week called Inside Barack Obama's War Room. Several bloggers have made the observation that no black or brown faces were seen in that Katie Couric piece. And some are wondering, just how many people of color does Obama have on his campaign? So we reached out to the Obama campaign and Candace Tolliver, senior communications strategist with Obama for America said quote, "we truly have one of the most diverse and talented teams in the history of presidential politics."
She said they've got plenty of African-American staffers like senior adviser Valerie Jared, who's also a long-time personal friend of the Obamas. They've got political director Matt Newjen (ph), senior adviser Erthlyne Cousin (ph), just to name a few. Now, Danielle, you're blogging about this now. And it's very funny the way you've approached it. You talk about your father playing a game called Spot the Black Person Working for the Obama Campaign.
Ms. BELTON: Exactly.
CHIDEYA: Tell me about your dialogue, you know, on and offline about this.
Ms. BELTON: Well, what was surprising to me was basically how, traditionally when you have a Democratic candidate, and even some cases a Republican candidate, there will often be like some, you know, black upstart, you know, shining star they make part of their campaign. That kind of becomes a launching pad, like for instance, Amy Holmes, who is a Republican strategist who often appears on television. She got her start with Bill Frist's campaign. So my father would, you know, it started out with him trying to spot a black person, you know, being Barack's secret service duty person. And it just kind of branched into the whole, well hey, I don't see any public, you know, PR-type people, you know, speaking out for Barack.
And I don't see, you know, anyone talking to the press, you know, that, you know, that are actually paid staff for the campaign. So he became really curious and he asked me about it. And, you know, I figured, well hey, why don't I see if I could find out? So it just seemed kind of startling to me, and especially to my dad, because his main concern was that, was Barack trying too hard to attach an appeal to a middle-of-the-road or to a white, affluent base to the point where he felt he couldn't be too close to black people, lest he be labeled the black candidate?
CHIDEYA: Wayne, I mean, this is the kind of the thing where some people aren't going to notice at all who is around a political candidate. Other folks will take very sharp notice. Do you think that this is the kind of thing - well, I'll give a very different example. But Oprah Winfrey's company, Harpo, was not cited as a black-run company because most of the executives at Harpo are white. This was by a firm, a research firm, whose name sadly I cannot remember right now. But the whole question of black enough also applies to staffing when it comes to diversity. Is this something folks should be paying attention to?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, I'm tempted to say, you know, you always want to get the best people for the job. But in Obama's case, he obviously hasn't. I mean, the people that have been advising him, I don't know if they're black or white but they certainly haven't been doing a very good job, certainly lately and certainly as it relates to Jeremiah Wright. But that's an interesting point. I never really thought about it until it was mentioned to discuss today. And I kind of looked at it myself.
What I do notice when the candidates are on the stomp or when they're speaking to a group - I call it the people placement in the back of the candidates when they're on stage. And I always wonder, like, do the campaigns control that? Because I noticed earlier on in Hillary Clinton's campaign, there were all these older people behind her. And then the crowd got younger and younger. And Barack's crowd got whiter and whiter as he tried to appeal to a certain demographic. So it's an interesting point. And I really, to be honest, don't know the inner workings of his campaign. I heard you saying that someone sent you something from his campaign about all the African-Americans that advise him. I got to say, though, whoever it is, they're not doing a very good job. And I have heard that - I know, like, David Axelrod and the higher ranking people in his campaign are predominantly white. So it's an interesting subject, I must say.
CHIDEYA: Let me get Carmen in on this. On your blog, "All About Race," you were asking if black folks will stay home in November if Obama doesn't get the Democratic nomination. So we've seen, you know, this issue of staffing come up. It may be a smaller issue in terms of mainstream appeal. But certainly the Reverend Jeremiah Wright issue has just been burning and burning and burning. What about the divisions? What are you writing about and what level of division do you think there is within potential Democratic voters?
Ms. DIXON: Well, I think we're a long way out from November. So I'll preface my answer that way. Right now, what I'm seeing and what I'm talking about with friends, personal friends, is that we're of a consensus that we wouldn't vote for the Democratic candidate if it's not Barack Obama, if he is given a raw deal at the convention. Given the turnout, given what he has in sheer numbers, he should get the nomination. Now, on the other hand, McCain seems to be reaching out across the divide, even a little bit, which is intriguing. But personally, I've decided I'm going to vote for Barack Obama, no matter what. If it's a write-in, then so be it. And I know that there are others who have a similar idea.
CHIDEYA: Is that echoing back to, you know, some elections where people say spoiler, spoiler? I mean, what you're saying sounds like Barack Obama himself, if Senator Clinton gets the nomination, could become a spoiler.
Ms. DIXON: Well, I take issue with the term spoiler. Even with Nader. I think anyone's allowed to run. Anyone is allowed to earn votes. That's the American way. Why is he a spoiler? None of us is entitled to the office of the presidency. You have to earn it.
CHIDEYA: All right. Let me move on to - speaking of earning it. I know, a bad pun. But Wesley Snipes, he earned it. He kept it. And he got it. And that got it is his jail sentence. He was sentenced to three years in jail for failing to file his tax returns for several years in a row. He apologized for his actions, cut three checks of five million dollars each, but it wasn't enough to sway the court. So, Wayne, on your blog, "The Field Negro," you write, "can't a brother get some love from Uncle Sam?" I mean, you know, what do you mean by that?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, you know what, I happen to know a little bit - this judge was, I have to say, a little out of control. I mean, the prosecutor, I'm sure, was surprised themselves with the sentence they got on this case. And the judge pretty much made it clear in his trial that he was not going to be kind to Mr. Snipes. And given the fact that I know some people say well, the case is a little different. But Willie Nelson got probation for cheating on over a million dollars' worth of taxes. And I mean, three years just seems a little excessive. I don't think he'll do a day.
CHIDEYA: He owed 41 million dollars.
Mr. BENNETT: Who did?
Mr. BENNETT: Wesley. Wesley Snipes, you mean. Oh, absolutely. And I think he should be punished. And he should be - he should pay it back. But I just thought three years was a little excessive, which I don't think he will do, by the way. I think they will be successful on their appeal.
CHIDEYA: Well, Wayne mentioned Willie Nelson. But there's also Marc Anthony, who last year agreed to pay 2.5 million dollars in back-taxes.
Mr. BENNETT: Right. Right.
CHIDEYA: Carmen, do you think there's a double standard, or is this just, look, you know, you - death and taxes, and if you don't take care of the taxes, you're going to end up in the slammer?
Ms. DIXON: I'm not so convinced it's a double standard, anything more than celebrity, non-celebrity, profile, non-profile. Because this case was generating a lot of publicity even before it hit the trial. There was this idea that Wesley Snipes was very adamant about - and very militant, shall we say, with scare-quotes around it. Very militant about not needing to pay taxes. So sure enough, that judge wanted to smack him down and send a message to anyone else who might argue about paying taxes in this way. It's clear.
CHIDEYA: Danielle, his tone - Wesley Snipes' tone - seems to have changed. It was at one point much more sort of like, I'm doing this on principle. And then later became, well, I didn't really know what I was doing. Was that a little bit too late to change the game?
Ms. BELTON: Well, I think that it was. I mean, Wesley is a really kind of proud, almost - well, he's an arrogant person. I mean, let's be honest. A lot of people who've worked on him on some of his later films often complained about his level of intensity, and how he would just black out other people. Wesley's in Wesley's world. So I think he thought he could just, you know, kung fu kick his way through all of this. And by the time all the heat came down...
CHIDEYA: Blade goes to jail.
Ms. BELTON: Exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BELTON: Exactly. Blade goes to jail. Totally. And just to add, though, even though I feel like Wesley's sentence was kind of harsh compared to what they traditionally do to other celebrities. And not just Willie Nelson, but Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor and Sammy Davis, Jr. all also got in trouble with the IRS. As well as Will Smith when he was young. You know, none of them saw a day in prison. They all got probation. So Wesley was basically being singled out because he was involved in this whole mythology that's going on, on the web. This group of individuals who are arguing that legally, the federal government cannot, you know, enforce these tax laws. And so therefore, they came up with all these loopholes you could use to actually steal money from the government. So they really want to make an example of Wesley to sort of shoot down this ideology. But I don't think anyone expected the sentence to be that harsh.
CHIDEYA: Well let me move on to our final topic, which is gentrification. Hundreds of people recently gathered in Harlem to protest development and gentrification of the area. Now, gentrification has come to symbolize wealthy, often white newcomers into a neighborhood, displacing poor people of color. But plenty of black folks are happy to get more variety in the kinds of shops and restaurants that they have, and in the public safety. Now, Carmen, Harlem was all-white, you know, Dutch-American, before it became all black. Do you think it's going to flip again racially because of these new economic moves by city planners and real estate investors?
Ms. DIXON: Well, it's bigger than just Harlem. Manhattan is flipping racially. Because it's becoming so exorbitantly expensive, only the people at the highest echelons of income can afford to live anywhere in Manhattan. So of course people are going to spread out. But I've got to tell you from personal experience, I certainly know plenty of African-American investment bankers who bought houses, brownstones, in Harlem because they couldn't afford them on the Upper West Side, so they moved up a little further, up to Harlem.
My concern about the gentrification is - look, we're a capitalist country. It's going to happen. Change is going to come. But protecting some of the character, protecting the individuals who maintained these areas when they were blighted, who lived there and raised families and created the culture and up kept buildings to the best of their ability, so that now it is desirable for people with much more - with many more resources to come in and take over. What happens to them? And I think we have to look out for those people.
CHIDEYA: Wayne, there's - some of the issues that come up in a situation like that is that if you've had, say, a brownstone that was worth 200,000 in bad times, and it's worth a million now, you might not have money to pay property taxes. You know, on the newly appreciated house. What could government do, or, you know, what can anyone do to try to help out people like the folks Carmen was mentioning, who stayed there through the rough times?
Mr. BENNETT: Right. I think the first thing is that the developers have to give fair value to the people that they're trying to buy out, or they're eventually going to buy out. And I think local governments do also have to play a role. I know here in Philadelphia, we do have these revisions of the property taxes and the - you know, to make sure that the taxes are fair and equitable. And people aren't priced out because they can't afford the taxes. I call it New Yorkification here in Philly, because, seriously, Philadelphia - all these New York developers are just coming in, and the prices are just going through the roof for everything in and around center-city Philadelphia. But the thing is, here in Philly, at least, it's just confined to the center-city area. And I just think it's ironic, because it was that a lot of affluent whites were moving to the suburbs, and now they're moving back into the cities. And that is kicking the price up. But I do think local governments can play a role. They can be little more pro-active in what they do with property taxes and so on. To try to protect people at the lower end. But a lot of these people, if they get fair market value, you know, they might want to sell to developers.
CHIDEYA: Let me get...
Mr. BENNETT: I just - yeah, sure.
CHIDEYA: Let me get Danielle in here. You get the final word. There's also been tensions between, you know, wealthy newcomers and the people who've been there. And they can be of the same race. And we see these tensions that are really about money, not about race. Whose job is it to step in on those levels and go to community board meetings and try to, you know, put some oil on the troubled waters?
Ms. BELTON: Well, what I wish would happen - because we are actually having a gentrification issue in St. Louis, as well. What I wish would happen is that there would be more agreements between the developer, the community and the city, the municipality, where basically they agree to create a mixed-income neighborhood, where there's enough, you know, nice new houses that are affordable, that's good for working-class people as well as creating, you know, these gorgeous brownstones. Or in our case, you know, we have all these great loft apartments that attract young people with money. So that way, you all kind of work together.
I mean, the working-class people, they already work in the city. It's convenient for them to live there. I mean, they're going to be the ones who are going to use the grocery stores as well. I mean, working-class people, they like to go to the restaurant. It doesn't make any sense to kind of force these people out of the neighborhood just because, you know, they're of different incomes. I feel like there should be a way to create a balance.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, I want to thank the three of you. Thanks so much.
Ms. DIXON: Thank you.
Mr. BENNETT: Thank you.
Ms. BELTON: Oh, no problem.
CHIDEYA: We've been talking with attorney Wayne Bennett, who blogs as "The Field Negro." He was at the Audio Post studios in Philadelphia. Danielle Belton runs the blogs "Black Snob" and "The Secret Council of American Negros." She was at member station KWMU in St. Louis, Missouri. And media consultant Carmen Dixon writes the blog "All About Race." She was with me at the NPR West studios.
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