Roundtable: Biden Run, Civil Rights, Virginia Tech Wednesday's panel discusses Sen. Joe Biden's (D-DE) run for the presidency; the state of civil rights in black communities; and world reaction to the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech.
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Roundtable: Biden Run, Civil Rights, Virginia Tech

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Roundtable: Biden Run, Civil Rights, Virginia Tech

Roundtable: Biden Run, Civil Rights, Virginia Tech

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

On today's Roundtable, foreign leaders criticize U.S. gun control laws. Plus, are racial slurs in the workplace illegal?

Joining us today to talk about these stories and more are Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle; E.R. Shipp, professor of journalism at the Hofstra University School of Communication; and John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy.

Welcome everybody, and let me just jump ahead a little bit. So you've just heard from Senator Joe Biden, one of the candidates for president. And before we move on to tackle other topics, I want to get your opinion on a last question that I post to Senator Biden. I asked him what he thought about the state of civil rights in African-American communities and what he wants to see changed. Here's what he had to say.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Only the civil rights of African-Americans and everyone else are going to be determined by their opportunity -access to opportunity. And it starts with education. It also deals with us trying to change the environment - not only a political, but the cultural environment that permeates everything.

If you look at the number of African-Americans as well as whites who are in jail for a violent crime, they only have two things in common. It's not their race. The one thing they have in common is they can't read, and the second thing they have in common is they witnessed their mothers being beaten, or the person raising them being - or being victimized themselves.

That's why the proudest thing I've ever done in my life is writing the Violence Against Woman Act, and pushing and pushing against all odds to get it passed, even over the initial objections of a lot of groups you'd think would've supported it.

Because if you could change any one thing, you could change the learned behavior of violence. And the most victimized community, most victimized community in American society happens to be the African-American community because they're also the poorest community out there.

And so you got to change opportunity. I would fundamentally alter the way in which we provide access to college. I would fundamentally change the way in which we - for example, we all talk about No Child Left Behind. Well, look, we're $74 billion behind in funding. But even if we funded it, it's not the answer. The answer is smaller classrooms and better teachers, no matter how you cut it.

My wife is an educator. She's a teacher at high school and now at a college level in the last 15 years. She has her doctorate. My deceased wife was a teacher. Ask any teacher, whether you have an advanced classroom or remedial class, the smaller the class, the better your chances. We know that. Why don't we deal with that?

We know that if we wanted the brightest students in the world, we have to - the brightest teachers in the world. Why aren't we doing what Japan does? Paying teachers are saying they pay their engineers. Why weren't we attracting the best people out of the UCLA's and the great universities out here in this state to go into education? And it costs money.

But imagine, if I can end the war in Iraq, that's a $100 billion a year. If I'm able to change the tax structures I want to, just eliminating the top - just not renewing the top bracket, that's $185 billion a year I have to spend.

I can change the country with the help of people. But you got to - we got to stop, sort of nibble around the edges of this stuff.

I mean, I was a single parent. I had a lot of help raising my kids. I can't imagine how hard it is for a high school dropout mother of two who is a woman of color - or not even of color, a woman, a, you know, a Caucasian woman. Her kids are held to the same exact standards as are. What do we do? Early childhood education across the board? No. We know these answers. But as a society, we just got to commit to them.

CHIDEYA: So John, that was quite an exposition from Senator Joe Biden. He talked about everything from taking money that is currently being spent on the war and putting it to social programs to really helping out single parents. Do you invest in his vision of what would make America more just in a civil rights sense?

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow in Public Policy): Wow. First, I've been an admirer of Senator Biden. But unfortunately, what he just said, although it was very articulate - I'm not even going to say the next part - I didn't even mean to go into that point. But although it was, very articulate and it was very well intentioned, there's too much that Biden has not checked up on. For example, I really am not sure that seeing violence against women is a key cause of the things that we see with black men in the community.

Violence against women is terrible, but that being the key, I'm not sure to the extent that there was a hint in there that the things like Head Start need to be increased. The literature is extremely, extremely divided. There is no solid demonstration that small classrooms are the answer and poor kids are being taught very well. And big classrooms, as far as everything he said about good teachers, the question is why he would not be combating the teachers unions that make it so hard for bad teachers to get fired.

You can go point by point by point. I get his basic vision, but a lot of that was sort of Democratic Party platitudes that sound good, but which, if he could enact right now, I think we would look a year from now or five years from now and see that nothing had changed because the problems are more complex than that.

CHIDEYA: E.R.?

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication): They've always been more complex than that. But what he did say is something that - isn't that surprising? It's what the civil rights struggle has always been about. Best access to opportunity. So that's the key phrase. How do we do that? How do we go about making sure that everyone has an opportunity for a good life, life, liberty, pursuit of happenings we've been talking about since the beginning of this country. How do we make sure that people have an access to good education?

These are the hard issues. And during the course of a presidential campaign, we will hear slogans like this, but we won't really see any action. Think about the time remaining between now and the next presidential election. You will see how little can be done by so many over so many issues.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, the things that Senator Biden laid out were very much broad strokes social policy. Is that what comes to mind for you when you think about a civil rights commitment from a politician?

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Host, Freestyle): Not exactly, and it's very - it's interesting that you use that term, because that's exactly what I was going to say. And Senator Biden is definitely well spoken in the way that he articulated the broad strokes. But in terms of how you provide access to the opportunity, it's like in a painting. It's not the broad strokes, it's the fine details, the minute details - the devil is in the detail.

So we've heard the broad strokes, and he even acknowledge the broad strokes himself. He's like, we know we need smaller classroom size. We know we need programs and opportunities, et cetera. But we never hear about the details. And considering the fact that he's been in the Senate for 30 years, it seems as if you would have had 30 years of being able to be a part of fixing this process.

And I think that goes to regardless of the level of street credibility you may have in the civil rights movement, or in putting people together and witnessing things in the '60s - regardless to that, it speaks to the nature of being in the Senate for 30 years. And I really think that when it comes down to it, when you're a career senator or a career legislator, people don't tend to look to you to be president because you're not in the position where you make executive decisions. You're full of talk that says, well, I proposed this. I called for this. But you're never in a position where you say, I took a stand and made this happen.

So I think that that eventually, that's going to come up and - although he might be bolstered by the two cardinal rules that you gave him that might save him from a political misstep in the future.

CHIDEYA: Well, very briefly, before we move on - because there's a lot of other stuff to talk about. I want to just sort of get each of you - how about, E.R., John, and then back to Jeff - do you think that experience can be a disadvantage now in the presidential campaign where you've got Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, neither of whom has been in for even a decade - you know, Barack not even having been in for five years or for a full term, a full six-year term - is experience actually disadvantage to a certain degree in this campaign?

Prof. SHIPP: It depends on what kind of experience you're talking about. The experience of a Joe Biden for 30 years in the Senate may mean that his time has passed. We've been through too many cycles where nothing was quite accomplished that had been promised to us as a nation.

And so I think it depends on the type of experience. Obama has experience. Clinton has experience. They're in different ways, though, than someone who's just been in the Senate for 30 years.

CHIDEYA: John?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, I think experience can be nice, but there are also times when fresh perspectives and fresh thinking are necessary. And it could be argued that somebody like Obama, having been in for such a short time means that his thoughts haven't hardened into certain patterns, that he isn't as beholden to certain groups.

And so actually, I think that experience sometimes can be overrated. I kind of like the direction that things are going in.

CHIDEYA: Jeff?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Yeah. I think experience can be helpful, but in this case I think experience is hurtful because you become - you are a part of the problem that people have been complaining about for the last six to eight years. I think that it's just like with teaching their people who are career teachers for 30-plus years.

There are people who are career administrators in education, and they got out of the classroom after a few years to get into administration. There's a reason why somebody would spend 30 years in the classroom, because they are not administrative material. And I think that that might come down to one of the biggest issues in this election.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, you guys are a bunch of tough critics. And in case folks are just tuning in, this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. We have just been hearing from Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle," John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy, and E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication.

I want to move on to another topic that's just, I mean, it's been wrenching everyone - Virginia Tech. And professor and poet Nikki Giovanni comforted and inspired her students at a convocation. Let's take a listen.

Professor NIKKI GIOVANNI (Creative Writing, Virginia Tech): We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHIDEYA: So Professor Giovanni was one of the people who had a chance to see the shooter and what some people have been calling some really disturbing work output of his. He wrote, for example - and it's posted online now - some really disturbing plays.

Is this a situation where, you know, he obeyed the law in buying the guns. He didn't break any gun laws that existed. He bought things that he could legally buy. But should someone have taken a closer look at this troubled young man before this happened?

Prof. SHIPP: They tried. In fact, Professor Giovanni spoke to the department chair in creative writing in the English Department. He was an English major. And that person decided to do one-on-one instruction with him to remove him from the classroom because he was deemed to be so disruptive of other students' learning.

But, as you said, he had done everything more or less by the book up to and including buying his weapons. So there was little that the campus, based on its current policy, could do. He's a grownup and he's 23 years old. So unless he openly threatens somebody, there wasn't much that could be done other than to monitor him. And I think people monitored him, but it was not enough.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Yeah. It's a really tough, senseless kind of thing because the fact is that I think that most of us can remember in college that there was some weird little guy who liked to draw guns and listen to heavy metal and probably stalked an ex-girlfriend. That guy is always there. And nine times out of 10, he does not shoot up a campus. We're just dealing with copycatting.

Columbine happened and it got around, especially in this Internet age, and now that is a model that many sick, little people are going to copy, which they couldn't have in 1985 because it wasn't a pattern yet.

And the saddest thing of all is that we can't prevent it, because if we jumped on every weird little guy like that, next there would be the lawsuits about singling out people who were just different, et cetera, who hadn't actually done anything wrong. We really can't know. We are a tough, nasty society in certain ways.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, let me take you to the gun question. The Australian prime minister blasted what he calls America's gun culture. People in countries around the world are saying America's gun culture - as I mentioned, the shooter was legally purchasing these guns. These were not bought on the underground market or anything like that.

Do we need different laws, or is it, as John argues, in some ways these things are going to happen?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: I think we need - I think this thing, I think it's both. I think these things are going to happen. I think that we also need some kind of law that raises a red flag. When a college student walks into a gun shop and pays $571 for a 9mm weapon, and then buys 50 rounds of ammo for that weapon, I think there needs to be some law that signals that there is something wrong and some way to cross-reference this.

I don't think there was any way to predict that Cho would do what he does. A lot of people are pointing back now - they had an interview on CNN with his roommates who said, well, he was strange. He was stalking people.

Nikki Giovanni, after Cho's classmates read one of his plays, "Mr. Brownstone," or the McBeef play and there was a lot of insanity in it. They - a few days later, out of 70 students, only seven of them showed up. And they said that they didn't want to show because they were afraid of him, and she offered to take him to counseling.

But, nonetheless, in the world of the arts there are people who've written in more insane plays than that who were called the next great playwright in America because they didn't go in some place and shoot up somebody. And so I think that you never can predict fully how this could happen. So because you can't predict it, there has to be some kind of tangible way when we're dealing with the gun culture in America to deal with it legally to raise that red flag.

CHIDEYA: But you know we…

Prof. SHIPP: But we have the Second Amendment, and that's the bar, I think, to many of the things that we would love to see changed. If there is a right to bear arms, and most people forget the circumstances under which this right was given - it was basically to protect your community - but people now will always raise the Second Amendment.

And that has lead to our reputation abroad being that we are a gun culture. In France, a newspaper talked about our fixation on gun fetishism. A Mexican paper talked about the war mongering spirit among us being led by the Bush administration itself. So, around the world, we are seen as people who favor guns above anything else.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Remember also that on preventability he was smart enough to buy ammunition elsewhere. You know, what could we possibly have done to prevent this little crazy from doing what…

Prof. SHIPP: You keep calling him little. What do you have against little people, John?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: (Unintelligible) a little probably young.

Mr. McWHORTER: A whole lot of things that lead me to think that this was a person of diminutive stature because of his clearly diminutive spirit. Which is right.

CHIDEYA: Oh my gosh. All right. On that note, we are just going to…

Mr. McWHORTER: (Unintelligible) tragically (unintelligible)…

CHIDEYA: We are going to end this right here. Joining us from NPR's New York studios, John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy and hater on people of small stature.

Mr. McWHORTER: Diminutive stature.

CHIDEYA: E.R. Shipp, professor of journalism at the Hofstra University School of Communication, and Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle," from Spotland studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Thanks a lot, guys.

Prof. SHIPP: Thank you.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thanks, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES: A new children's book about summers in the inner city and our weekly staff music picks, this time by Tony Cox.

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