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 whatever's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are political science professor Lester Spence, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, Sean Connor, outreach press secretary for the Republican National Committee, and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. Our regular contributor Jimi Izrael is getting his shapeup elsewhere this week. I don't know what's going on with that. So, Ruben will keep order in the shop. I may jump in here or there, but for now, take it away Ruben.
RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Michel, thank you. Happy New Year to you and all to my Barbershop colleagues. How are y'all doing?
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, what's cracking?
Dr. LESTER SPENCE (Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): How are you?
NAVARRETTE: All right. I'm in the big chair, in the grownup chair today. Feels important, look out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEAN CONNOR (Outreach Press Secretary, Republican National Committee): Can we rotate that responsibility?
(Soundbite of laughter)
NAVARRETTE: Well, listen, I'll tell you what - this is one of those weeks, this is one of those times where you love being in this business. There is so much to talk about, so much to write about, you almost don't know where to begin. We're going to start talking about the never-ending circus in Illinois, which took some very interesting turns this week as Governor Rod Blagojevich decided to sort of one-up the ante - up the ante, and say, oh, yeah, you know what? Since I am innocent until proven guilty of these charges of trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat, why don't I just give the seat away to no less than Roland Burris, who holds the distinction of being the only African-American - the first African-American ever elected statewide in Illinois?
So, now, we have this whole dynamic - this racial dynamic. The U.S. Senate is obviously very up in arms over this. Harry Reid and others have said they're not going to seat Roland Burris. Burris says he's going to go and present his credentials to the Senate. There's a confrontation brewing. African-Americans are split. They're on both sides of this issue, tying to figure out how they feel about it all. But I've got to talk to Arsalan to find out what's up, because he's our Chicago guy. What do you make of all this, Arsalan?
IFTIKHAR: You know, for years, I've been thinking that, you know, the states of Illinois and Louisiana have been really been duking it out, you know, in terms of, you know, the most politically crooked state. And I have to say that the fighting Illini - my fighting Illini took it with this appointment of Roland Burris. For me, it was sort of a blast from the past. Unless you're from Illinois, you really don't know who Roland Burris is. He was actually my attorney general growing up. He was a four-time Illinois comptroller. Seventy-one years old - he does look good for 71 years of age. But you know, it was definitely a surprise pick of someone who many Illini, you know, sort of see to be political a has-been, and you know, who is now, unfortunately, in my opinion, you know, made the mistake of accepting the nomination from Rod Blagojevich to the...
MARTIN: Why would he take it? That's the part I'm not - I mean, obviously, speaking for someone else. Obviously, you want to hear from him.
MARTIN: But why would he take it? I mean, Danny Davis - Congressman Danny Davis says that he was offered of job - who's also African-American. And he said he turned it down because there's just too much taint around, too much of a cloud around it.
IFTIKHAR: I think - you're absolutely right, Michel. I think it had to do with political relevance. You know, Danny Davis is still a congressman, a United States congressman who is still politically relevant. And Roland Burris is a political has-been; you know, nobody's heard from him for the last 10 or so years. You know, he's been doing his consulting and legal gigs. And I think that, you know, another opportunity in the limelight, especially to be the only current African-American in the U.S. Senate, is something that I think sort of appealed to his ego and his pride.
MARTIN: Do you want to hear - speaking of - Ruben was talking about the whole racial dynamic here.
MARTIN: And Congressman Bobby Rush - I think what a lot of people are thinking about is that Congressman Bobby Rush, when Roland Burris was presented, made a comment that a lot of people thought was unfortunate, but here it is. I'll play it for you. Want to hear it? OK.
(Soundbite of press conference, December 30,2008)
Representative BOBBY RUSH (Democrat, Illinois): Let me just remind you that there presently is no African-American in the U.S. Senate. So, I applaud the governor for his decision and I will ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer.
NAVARRETTE: Ow. There you go. There's learn some language there. Lester Spence, what do think of that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
DR. SPENCE: It sounds crack-ish. It's crack-like.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DR. SPENCE: I mean...
DR. SPENCE: I mean, you see, the thing is - so, blacks deserve representation in the Senate, right?
DR. SPENCE: And there's a significant problem that there are - with Obama's election, there are none. And we can easily imagine the case in which the governor could've appointed someone who really does serve the interests - who would really do an excellent job serving the interests of black voters as well as working-class voters in general. But this isn't that guy, right? I mean, it's really clear this isn't that guy. I mean - so, what I'm thinking about the appointment, the first thing I'm thinking about - and this is going to sound kind of goofy - is I'm thinking about Dick Clark. You know, when the ball drops and after the stroke and Dick Clark is saying - and you can't really decipher what he's saying, right?
NAVARRETTE: But Lester, check this - let's check this out. I did some research the other day, finding out - looking at other people who had been appointed to Senate seats. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn't. Oftentimes they lose, you know, within a few months or a year of being appointed. There are some really mediocre white men, OK, who have been appointed. In California, a guy named John Seymour, who was appointed to fill the Senate term of Governor Pete Wilson when he became governor - left the Senate to become governor. Why can't black folks and brown folks have the luxury of being just as mediocre as the white folk?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: A very valid and important point, Ruben.
Dr. SPENCE: Wow. Oh, that's (unintelligible). That's hot.
MARTIN: But the question, I think - the issue though, Lester, is I think...
NAVARRETTE: I got it. White males can be mediocre. All the black folks have to be Colin Powell.
MARTIN: But it seems to me that Governor Blagojevich made it clear that he wasn't that interested in the interests of anybody but himself in this. I mean, I think that's kind of the through line here. He's innocent until proven guilty, of course. And he hasn't been - I mean, he's been arrested; he's been charged. But he hasn't been convicted of anything. But the fact is he's never made it clear to me that he's interested in anybody in particular in this case except his own political advantage.
NAVARRETTE: Well, let me bring Sean - let me bring Sean Connor into this, if I can.
Mr. CONNOR: It's an even broader issue. I mean...
NAVARRETTE: Yeah, what about the - I mean, Sean, let me set it up to you this way. The business about the Republicans and the Democrats, you have white Democrats who run the Senate, people like Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, and others. Talk to me about the fact that maybe now we're going to get a sense for where the Democratic interests and the African-American interests part company.
Mr. CONNOR: Well, let's back up just a little bit. One of the things you have to understand is it's been Republicans that have asked for and called for a special election. And when it first happened, everybody was like, yeah, a special election. Oh, we should, yeah, take it to the people. But the problem is, when the Democrats realized that they might lose the seat, they backed off of that. And they went, well, we don't want to do that. So, actually, a lot of this sits in the lap of the Illinois Democratic Party opposing a special election and taking away the ability for this governor to make this appointment. And you know, that's where the problem is. We wouldn't have had this issue if everybody would have got onboard and said, you know what? Let's take it to the people. And my favorite part is, you had people in Illinois saying, well, we can't afford it. We can afford failed social programs. We can afford failed, you know, initiatives. But we can't afford to take it back to the people and let them make the decision.
MARTIN: Well, the irony, of course, is they have to have a special election anyway because Rahm Emanuel has to - that's obviously just a congressional district as opposed to statewide. But there has to be a special election to fill his seat.
IFTIKHAR: Well, and it would cost $50 million to hold a special election for this Senate seat.
Mr. CONNOR: Is it worth it?
IFTIKHAR: Fifty million - hold on. Fifty million...
MARTIN: Why so much?
IFTIKHAR: That's just the - that's the cost that they said it would take.
MARTIN: That doesn't sound...
Dr. SPENCE: I thought it was 15.
IFTIKHAR: No, no...
NAVARRETTE: Well, listen. We've got to move on guys because we could - we will get a chance to talk about Rod Blagojevich again, I promise you.
Mr. CONNOR: Many times, I think. Many times.
NAVARRETTE: He'll be back in the news before long.
Mr. CONNOR: He's the story that never ends.
NAVARRETTE: Yeah, I know. It's like the gift that keeps on giving, I know. But we got to do something else in this segment. We've got to talk about this song that's out there, this little ditty called "Barack, the Magic Negro." Now, in terms of background, here's the background. Some people may forget this, but it wasn't long ago that a lot of old school civil rights leaders, including Reverend Al Sharpton and others, had sort of gone after Barack Obama because they thought he'd never win the nomination, the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency. And they blasted him for the same thing that Bobby Rush did in Illinois when Bobby Rush ran against and defeated Barack Obama in a House seat - a House race. Basically, the rap was that Barack Obama didn't understand the civil rights movement. He was late to all of that. And he wasn't authentically black. He wasn't black enough.
So, here comes a guy, writes a piece in the Los Angeles Times - an African-American from the left writing a piece about this "Barack, the Magic Negro" business, sort of mocking the idea that Barack Obama is accepted by white folks. Then comes an attempt by a white comedian named Paul Shanklin to do a parody of this very thing, the lyrics of which - you've got to imagine Al Sharpton, right - this is key - Al Sharpton is the voiceover going like this.
(Singing) Barack, the Magic Negro...
MARTIN: We can play it for you. Ruben, you don't have to sing it.
NAVARRETTE: Oh, then I won't have to do that. Sounds good. Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: Yeah, thank you.
NAVARRETTE: You don't want to torment anybody, I know.
MARTIN: That would be kind of among the more painful things you don't want experience this morning is Ruben singing "Magic Negro." So, here is just a short clip from - it's not the whole song. And here it is.
(Soundbite of song "Barack the Magic Negro")
PAUL SHANKLIN: (Singing) Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C. The L.A. Times they called him that 'cause he's not authentic like me. Yeah, the guy from the L.A. paper said he made guilty whites feel good. They'll vote for him and not for me 'cause he's not from the hood...
MARTIN: Well, that's very interesting but...
NAVARRETTE: Now, this piece was sent out...
MARTIN: Go ahead, Ruben.
NAVARRETTE: This piece was sent out, Michel - this thing, this song was included in a CD, and it was sent out as a Christmas gift in a very, I think, bad move with bad form by somebody who's running for chairman of the Republican National Committee. So, the storyline then becomes that Republicans are racists because they sent out this, or some Republicans sent out this CD. Now, my question to you, Lester, and to all of you to begin us, is how do we get there? I mean, it seems to me like it's a difficult line to draw from the initial criticism, which came from black folks and black leaders, to all of a sudden this CD that's passed around by Republicans. Is this racism? Is this just not politically correct? What is this?
Mr. CONNOR: Well, I will say, first and foremost, I get to be a little quieter during this piece. I know, I know. Everybody in the shop is looking at me crazy now because I have to remain neutral because it's part of the chairman's race. And I - you know, as a staffer, I can't interject myself into those conversations. But I will say this is a good time for us to be talking about what Republicans are going to do for African-Americans and Asian-Americans and Latino folks around being inclusive into the party. And I think it's fair to ask every single person running for chairman and every single person running for co-chair, what do you want to do for black and brown folks? And I think they've all put out those plans, and they're easy to read, and they're everywhere.
IFTIKHAR: Now, this is Arsalan. As someone who does not work for the RNC, I do not have to remain silent on this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CONNOR: Not silent, neutral.
IFTIKHAR: Now, hold - so the analogy that I would give is...
NAVARRETTE: Arsalan, go ahead.
IFTIKHAR: Imagine there was a song called "McCain the aging cracker lived by the sea and picked Sarah Palin to be his less-than stellar VP," or something like that.
Dr. SPENCE: Oh, that's hot. Put a phat beat behind that; that'd be dope.
NAVARRETTE: Yes, sir.
IFTIKHAR: You know, that would be condemned, I'm pretty sure, quite quickly by the RNC and other folks. I mean, this is not only in bad taste; it did have racialist overtones, if you don't want to call it racist overtones. I mean, you know, I don't care if the voiceover was supposed to be Al Sharpton. It was a terrible voiceover to begin with. It was just - it was a terrible mistake and it should never have happened.
NAVARRETTE: Lester Spence.
Dr. SPENCE: This is Lester. There's a difference between the types of discussions that a group has, whether it's black people or Democrats or Republicans, kind of in-house to figure out where their interests are, who represents those interests. And then the types of discussions that happen between groups, right? So, this is kind of related to the use of the, quote/unquote, "N-word." Blacks have a certain - I don't want - a loose right, a loosely defined right to talk about these issues. Well, does Barack really represent black people, et cetera, et cetera? You know, is he really the best guy? But when you take that conversation and when it jumps groups, and it becomes the GOP, which at the national level is the white party, right? We may talk about diversity at the state level. At the national level, it is the white party and their interests are often defined against non-whites. This has a totally different tenor. So, the question becomes at that point, what are the penalties, if any, that blacks who are interested in this issue can actually apply to the Republican Party, so they'll realize they can't do idiotic stuff like this?
MARTIN: To me, the issue is not - is whether - the core substantive question is that is this racist or not? Because this is not an academic exercise. The question is that - this person isn't running for, you know, professor of semantics at Hopkins. He's running for the chairman of the Republican National Committee, which - we had Mike Duncan on this program, the current chairman, said, look, we are interested in being the party of all people. We're interested in having every - and it's just a question of do you have the judgment to be in a position like that? This is not something he just sent to his personal friends. I mean, this is something he sent to political people. And that just seems to me that if you're going to be in a job like that - it is telling that someone doesn't have the judgment to understand that that might cause offense, discomfort, and - for some folks anyway.
IFTIKHAR: It definitely gets the ridunculous award of the week. The first...
MARTIN: I don't know. There's a lot of competition for that. There's a lot of competition for that. If you...
Mr. CONNOR: Blagojevich, I think, gets it...
MARTIN: I was going to say Ruben - Arsalan's kind of on both sides. Is it Blagojevich or "The Magic Negro"? I'm not sure.
NAVARRETTE: It's a bit if a tie. Exactly.
MARTIN: It is a bit of a tie. If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with Lester Spence, Ruben Navarrette, Arsalan Iftikhar and Sean Connor. Back to you, Ruben. Only have a couple minutes left.
NAVARRETTE: Let's wrap up with a conversation about the NFL. The NFL is a great system when you think about it, because this is not like autoworkers, join a union, make cars nobody buys and they get a bailout and a raise. At the NFL, you win, you stay; you lose, you go. Arsalan, what's up with that? Are you happy with the way some of the NFL coaches are shaking out?
IFTIKHAR: Well, I think for me, you know, one of the things that really strikes true about the NFL is the parity that we're seeing. I mean, you know, you have the Miami Dolphins, who were 1 and 15 last year, who are now 11 and 5 and dethroned the New England Patriots, who had a perfect season last season, to make it to the playoffs. And New England is not in the playoffs. You saw, you know, one of the few black coaches, Romeo Crennel, booted from the Cleveland Browns because of their lackluster performance. You know, in terms of the level of play in the NFL, I think it hasn't - it's never been better. In terms of the actual of parity or disparity within, you know, which - within black or minority coaches being represented is a completely different discussion.
NAVARRETTE: Lester, how do you see it?
Dr. SPENCE: I'm from Detroit, man.
IFTIKHAR: Oh and 16, 0 and 16.
MARTIN: Oh, man.
NAVARRETTE: I feel you. I feel you.
Mr. CONNOR: We're sorry.
MARTIN: But do you know, I respect you for still being a fan.
IFTIKHAR: That's right.
MARTIN: I think that's so powerful that (unintelligible) is still supporting the lions despite...
IFTIKHAR: Absolutely. That's gangster.
MARTIN: You know, that's so hot.
Mr. CONNOR: Just him and Aretha Franklin.
Dr. SPENCE: But the thing is...
NAVARRETTE: I'm a long-suffering Oakland Raider fan, so I can't talk. I can't talk.
Mr. CONNOR: Oh, my gosh. I am, too. You know, being from Oakland, I support...
MARTIN: But you also have those hot jerseys, really. I can't - I'm sorry, those jerseys are hot.
Mr. CONNOR: I mean, you can rock the black and gray...
NAVARRETTE: Black and silver.
Mr. CONNOR: Black and silver.
IFTIKHAR: Hey, Buffalo Bills...
MARTIN: But you know, the bigger issue - and we don't really have time to talk about it - is the whole question of the college coaches. That sport is so dominated by African-Americans at the college level. And it's an historic low number at the end of this season there'll be something like three Division I African-American coaches. And at some point, I sure would love it if we could talk about why that might be. But I think we have to leave it there, Ruben. What do you think?
NAVARRETTE: We do.
Mr. CONNOR: (Whispering) Racism. Racism.
MARTIN: OK, all right.
NAVARRETTE: Happy New Year, folks.
Dr. SPENCE: Happy New Year.
IFTIKHAR: Happy 2-0-thousand and nine.
MARTIN: All right, Ruben Navarrette writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com. He joined us from San Diego. And here in our Washington, D.C., studio much love, Lester Spence, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, Arsalan Iftikhar, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and a civil rights attorney, and Sean Connor, outreach press secretary for the Republican National Committee. Gentlemen, thank you all so much and Happy New Year.
Mr. CONNOR: Thank you for having me.
Dr. SPENCE: Thank you.
NAVARRETTE: Thank you.
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