Roundtable: Guantanamo Detainees, Wal-Mart Suit Tuesday's topics: A U.S. proposal to deport Guantanamo detainees; a death-row inmate gets a presidential award for good deeds; and a "Baby Got Backpack" ad raises a few eyebrows. Guests: Debra Dickerson, author The End of Blackness; Walter Fields, CEO and Publisher of the North Star Network; and John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy.

Roundtable: Guantanamo Detainees, Wal-Mart Suit

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's roundtable, US detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may get transferred and a death row inmate gets a presidential honor. Joining us from our New York bureau, Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of the and John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy. And joining us this day from Albany, New York, Debra Dickerson, author of "The End of Blackness."

Folks, welcome.

What we want to do is talk a little bit about what we are seeing and quite frankly some are suggesting is an albatross around the collective necks of the Bush administration, and that is the negotiation that is going on right now to transfer nearly 70 percent of the detainees at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to three countries as part of the plan, we should suggest and the administration says, to share the burden of keeping suspected terrorists behind bars. But some, Walter Fields, will say that this is the way that the Bush administration has to go about it because they have had so many problems with the detainees.

Mr. WALTER FIELDS (CEO/Publisher, I think they're right. I think this has been one of the real problems with the Iraq War among many problems, but the fact of the matter is is that the US has been particularly suspect in the way it has treated detainees. And I think for the Bush administration, the only option is to figure out a way how to parcel those individuals out and have other countries share in the responsibility of securing these individuals, whether it's Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. I think the real problem has been there have been elements in the military that have not abided by, you know, international conventions in terms of the treatment of detainees. So I think this was the only option that remained for the White House.

GORDON: John, one of the interesting points--and some people will argue that this is part of the quagmire we see in this war--is that one of the governments that the Bush administration is negotiating with is the government of Afghanistan which, in fact, would get about 110 Afghan detainees that would go to Kabul, and one would look at this and think how strange this must be.

Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (Manhattan Institute): Oh, well, there's no doubt about that. I mean, one thing that's interesting, though, in terms of where the people are going to be going is that although it's been extremely disappointing--it's been outrageous to see that these terrible things have happened to innocent people in our prisons--I'm always interested in the difference between individual malfeasance and what US policy is. And for better or for worse, when these people are in other prisons, I suspect that we're going to see that they're going to be treated much worse and in a very systematic way than they were in our prisons. And maybe it will create some sort of sense that prison, no matter where you are, is a horrible situation and there are always going to be some bad apples doing bad things. I'd just like to see what the comparison is between what's going to happen now and what's happened here, as disappointing as it has been.

GORDON: Debra.

Ms. DEBRA DICKERSON ("The End of Blackness"): I wonder about the populations of these countries. When these detainees are returned to their own countries, is there a danger--is there going to be a blow-back effect? Will the folks in Afghanistan see these people as somehow political prisoners, just given what I think will be seen in that part of the world as to taint, that they're somehow victims. And I wonder about--you know, I certainly hope--I think that they're in danger of being treated as badly as they may have been treated at Guantanamo. They're probably going to be treated worse in Afghanistan, but I wonder also about the extent to which there might be some sort of complicity in not keeping these people very secure. So it seems like a no-win situation to me all the way around. If we keep them in Guantanamo, it seems as, you know, an affront to their sovereignty. If we send them back to their own countries, they're likely going to be very abused or maybe allowed to escape. I think this whole war strategy needs to be revaluated.

GORDON: Walter, it just seems very strange to me for one who has grown up--and I was very young during the Vietnam War, but to read the history of World War I and World War II, look at the Vietnam War, to imagine the United States at this point in time where they find themselves in the war in Iraq and certainly the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, to take this mode seems very strange to me.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, it is strange. I think it's part and parcel of the problem with trying to occupy a nation. I don't think we were really prepared for the long-term implications of going into Iraq, and this is one of the long-term implications, that any time you occupy a nation and you basically create a police state, you're going to have a number of people that you're going to detain. And the fact of the matter is is that when you look at what's transpired in Iraq, we really have done a poor job in dealing with this issue, and I think it does fly in the face of, you know, international conviction and I think a lot of countries are looking at the US, saying that, `You know, we're speaking out of both sides of our face in terms of wanting to, you know, expand democracy around the world, but when it comes to the issue of human rights violations, which is what it's come down to to some of these detainees'--and it is an individual issue, but those individuals are acting as members of the United States military. So while they may be individual acts, there is a larger institutional issue. And I think even the Pentagon wants to find a way to resolve this because it really is a black mark on the United States military.

Ms. DICKERSON: If I could just throw one more thing in there, are we sure that these people need to remain in detention? Some of these folks have been in detention for years and have not received any kind of adjudication. I'm the last person who wants to see a dangerous terrorist released, but I wonder how thorough are our investigation of these folks are. And it's horrifying to me as an American to think that there are innocent people living in these horrific conditions in American prisons and what's likely to be even more horrific conditions in other countries. So I would like some assurance that these people--that their cases have been looked into and that there's been some sort of a review process and I would like to see some assurance that the Red Cross is going to have access to these places to make sure that these people--even if they're dangerous terrorists, we have our standards and we should be living up to them.

GORDON: That's part of why I used, John McWhorter, the word albatross as it relates the Bush administration because that has been part of the concern...

Mr. McWHORTER: Oh, yeah...

GORDON: ...part and parcel of it...

Mr. McWHORTER: ...definitely.

GORDON: ...that perhaps some of the people being detained should not, in fact...

Mr. McWHORTER: Oh, of course. It seems rather clear that possibly most of these people should not be there, and the administration is so secretive as to there being any justification, which leads you to think that there might not be one. When this whole war began, I thought, `Well, at least we can be sure that in our prisons, the barbaric sorts of things won't go on that you read about happening in Middle Eastern prisons.' It's been a severe disappointment that these terrible things have happened. I talk about individual malfeasance, but I don't want to make it sound like I'm pardoning it.

GORDON: Let's turn our attention to a situation that could, in fact, affect 1.6 million current or former female employees of Wal-Mart. And this could, in fact, be the largest private employer civil rights case in the United States history. Walter Fields, Wal-Mart has gone through over the course of the last couple of years a rough go of it in terms of being now looked upon as the new giant who isn't afraid of anybody. And now we're hearing from female employees that for equal positions they have, in fact, not been paid at the same rate as their male counterparts. There's question, though females clearly make up disproportionately, in fact, the employment numbers for Wal-Mart employees, they do not rise through the ranks anywhere close to their numbers. As you look at this, how do you think it plays itself out?

Mr. FIELDS: I think it's a real problem for the company. I mean, you're talking about a company that caters to a large number of women shoppers in terms of their customers. And it also flies in the face of, you know, Sam Walton's vision for his company in terms of being family friendly. So I think they've got a real problem with this. It's not the only problem Wal-Mart has. I mean, Wal-Mart has chalked up a number of problems over the last couple of years including the issue of the siting of Wal-Mart stores, and particularly in an urban community in terms of displacement issues. So this is one to add to the list and I think that Wal-Mart is going to go through some significant challenges as they try to weed through this.

Mr. McWHORTER: And it's very important to see what we can do about these sorts of wage discrepancies between men and women because at this point in our society, it's a rather subtle business. It's something that's rarely done in an overt way, and it's hard for one person often to perceive. And there's a psychological phenomenon called minimization which is that people tend to discount the amount of discrimination that they're experiencing even if they think that members of their group are experiencing it. So one woman might think, `Well, I'm not being discriminated against in this way even if maybe there's some big problem nationwide.' So if we could do an audit study or at least look at something like Wal-Mart which is basically the whole country's economy at this point, then maybe we can find a solution to this problem, and the solution begins with finding that these discrepancies to an extent may still exist and not based on culture or ambition.

GORDON: Debra Dickerson, the other interesting point here to watch itself play out will be just how big big business is in this country. When you take a look at Wal-Mart--and we look at sex discrimination suits coming against it, the idea that Walter just mentioned, urban displacement, and the union issues that Wal-Mart has grappled with over the last few years, one has to say if ever a company faced a gale wind, this company is facing it. It'll be interesting to see how strong they can stand in that wind.

Ms. DICKERSON: Well, yeah, it's like the biggest guy at the party. You know, that's the one that, you know, whenever anybody gets a few drinks in them, that's the guy they're going to try to take on and Wal-Mart is the big guy at the part. What I--you know, in my utopian fantasy world, Wal-Mart gets out in front of this and says, `Oh, my goodness. Is there a possibility that we have been subconsciously discriminating against women? You know what? We're going to do all the research to check this out, and, you know, oh, my God, you're right. There has been this subtle discrimination and, boy, are we sorry. And these are the steps we're going to take, you know, to make sure, you know, that we accept that we've got this unconscious system going on and this is what we're going to do about it.' That's the fantasy world that I'm going to live in about Wal-Mart because for all their problems and all the very real problematics of, you know, the big stores, you know, displacing mom and pop and all that sort of thing, you get the sense that Sam Walton is this sort of everyman guy and that he would care about something like this, that he didn't know, and if turns out to be true, he's going to be the one to fix it. And if that were to happen, I think it would just have such a wonderful ripple effect throughout the economy.

Mr. McWHORTER: And we should always remember that big bad Wal-Mart, for all of its flaws, provides a lot of cheap decent-quality stuff...

Ms. DICKERSON: I shop...

Mr. McWHORTER: the very working poor people who we're all so concerned about. There are good things about Wal-Mart, so I think we should wish them well rather than making them completely into the bogeyman that we're often told that we should.

GORDON: I'm sure that the card from Wal-Mart will be coming, John, and thank you.

Let us turn our attention to a giant, a true giant. We can truly say that this goes to this man. Ofttimes, we use that word too often, but John H. Johnson, as we just talked about in segment A with Earl Graves and Bob Johnson, passed away yesterday. Walter Fields, when you think of Ebony and the importance in the black community, this truly is a legendary man and a legendary magazine.

Mr. FIELDS: Oh, without a doubt. This is an institution. I mean, I think, when you really think about Ebony--I can remember as a kid, we used to wait for Ebony to come in the mail, Ebony, Jet and TAN magazine. I mean, he was a pioneer in so many ways. I mean, Ebony was one of the, you know, picture magazines of the day along with LOOK and Life magazines. I think--you know, we talked earlier before we came on the air. John and I were talking about, you know, Ebony magazine--the fact that he built a corporate headquarters in Chicago during that period said a lot about the vision of John Johnson not just as a black businessman but as a businessman. So I think, you know, this is someone who truly was a giant and meant a lot not only to our community but to the nation.

GORDON: Debra Dickerson, one of the things that we laugh about privately in the black community--I'll share it with everybody today--is there are certain things that are covered in Jet that if you don't pick up Jet you never hear about it. And so the importance of Jet today remains as ever present as it was in the past, correct?

Mr. DICKERSON: You know, Jet is sort of like--my parents would send us every Friday, would send us to the store to get a National Enquirer and Jet, you know? And so when I think of growing up, I can see Jet and Ebony on every living room table of every family that we had anything to do with. You know, I'm trying to think of some of these crazy stories that were in there, but I always thought of Jet as sort of like the family photo album, you know, because it covered our celebrities so thoroughly...

Mr. McWHORTER: It's a society page. Yeah.

Ms. DICKERSON: Yeah. It will be missed definitely.

GORDON: But Jet then--and we should note Jet isn't going anywhere. John Johnson will be missed. I'm sure Linda would want me to say that, but, I mean, Jet really ran from the sublime to the ridiculous. The idea that Jet gave you the Chicago pimp who's very straight up...

Ms. DICKERSON: Right. Right.

GORDON: a casket that looked at an El Dorado, but we should not forget the importance of Jet magazine when they published the picture of Emmett Till...

Mr. FIELDS: Yeah.

GORDON: ...and what that meant to galvanizing the cause around this young boy.

Mr. McWHORTER: The funny thing is that Jet, although many people might say it isn't the most substantial of magazines, has always--now that I've been shilling for Wal-Mart, I'll shill for Jet--Jet actually has some great articles.

Mr. FIELDS: Sure.

Mr. McWHORTER: I have often been a little reluctant to say in a lot of my writing how many of the facts that I find and insights that I come up with are based on reading Jet magazine. And so I'm glad that it's not going anywhere. Ebony and Ebony Jr. back in the day were also magazines you could say that of.

GORDON: And interestingly enough--and, Walter, to pick up on your point--I think that--and I've tried to do it all day today--it's important for us not to, as the headlines will read, `John Johnson, great black publisher'--We heard Bob Johnson talk about it and you mentioned it. Here arguably when you mention the Sam Waltons, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, here's a man based on all of what he had to face at that time who clearly should be on that list.

Mr. FIELDS: Without a doubt he was an icon of American capitalism. I mean, John Johnson was a significant presence in the US business community, and, you know, he gave us magazines that really reflected all of black America. I mean, Ebony was sort of the magazine that was pitched to the up-and-coming black middle class. What he did with Jet, he allowed us to peek behind the curtain and say, `Look, this is all of the black community. There's some crazy stuff going on.'

GORDON: The good, the bad and the ugly.

Mr. FIELDS: That's right. And there's some ugly stuff going on. And I think that's why today it continues to have relevance because it's the one magazine that, like you said, that one story that you can't find anywhere else, you know Jet magazine has.

GORDON: And he suggested this, Debra Dickerson, that he wanted Ebony to not do anything but be the dream and the aspiration of that young kid in the ghetto who gets to see the home of the athlete or the multimillion-dollar movie star and aspire and dream to attain that as well.

Ms. DICKERSON: And that I think sometimes--I don't read Ebony or Jet with any regularity anymore. I go through spells, but I, like John, I'm struck by things I run across. And so you read about Sugar Ray Robinson and all that, but I'm always struck by the family of, you know, four siblings who were all violin prodigies in one family in Ohio or something like that. So even if you know you can't box, you can't sing, you can't dance, you can't do those fancy things, like, `Wow, here's a story about a black astronaut,' or, `Wow, here's this guy, Dr. Black, who's, like, you know, the most sought-after neurosurgeon in the world.' So it was maybe sometimes the less flamboyant--like these black chess masters. And I could just imagine so many young black kids, you know, saying, `Daddy, give me a chess game, you know, for Christmas.' So it was less the superstars than the untraditional...

GORDON: Right.

Ms. DICKERSON: ...success stories that I think have probably lit fires in young black kids' hearts that, you know, we'll never know about.

GORDON: Well, that being said, Debra, we're going to send you to church. You better get one of those church subscriptions of Jet.

Ms. DICKERSON: I will. I will.

GORDON: We want you to start reading it more regularly.

Debra Dickerson, Walter Fields, John McWhorter, thank you all very much for being with us today. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

Ms. DICKERSON: It's always fun.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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