MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for a special fifth anniversary edition of the Barber Shop. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds, and while we usually end the week in the Shop, we knew we couldn't get our anniversary party started without the guys. They've given us five years of great buzz, sharp wit and more than a few cutting comments.
So joining us for this round are some of the OGs, our original guys in the shop. Freelance journalist Jimi Izrael made a special trip. He's in our Washington, D.C. studios this week. Hi, Jimi. Nice to see you sitting right there.
JIMI IZRAEL: Hey, Michel. How you doing?
MARTIN: Also with us, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Lester Spence, blogger and political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, and joining us from the West Coast as usual, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette in San Diego.
Take it away, Jimi.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Fellows, welcome to the Shop. How we doing?
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.
LESTER SPENCE: Happy Anniversary. Hey.
RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Aww, shucky ducky.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IZRAEL: All right. Yo, so it's been five years and we're going to do a little looking back. Five years ago, Kim Kardashian only had been married once, Senator Hillary Clinton was leading Senator Barack Obama in early polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, and almost no one had lost their job for saying something stupid on Twitter. I even had almost three feet of hair five years ago.
Ladies and gentlemen, those were heady times and we've come a long way. Now...
IZRAEL: We're going to go and talk about some of those stories that stuck with us. Right, Michel?
MARTIN: Well, you know, Jimi, why don't we start with you, since you did us the honor of...
MARTIN: ...coming all this way. What's your top Shop story?
IZRAEL: For me, Michel, it has to be the beer summit. That was in 2009, after Harvard professor Henry Louis Skip Gates was caught by the police when he forced his way into his own house near campus. He was arrested for disorderly conduct by officer James Crowley. Now, things really took off after President Obama said the police acted stupidly.
Well, that made a lot of people mad and eventually the president invited Gates and Crowley over to the White House to smooth things over. Wow, I wish he'd invited me over when I got mad about stuff. Anyway...
MARTIN: Well, why does this matter? That's interesting. This is the one that stands out for you. How come?
IZRAEL: Well, yeah. I mean, it's one of my favorite stories because it's kind of an American photograph, you know, because for me everybody involved was kind of right, but everybody involved was kind of wrong. You know, I mean, it was a great American picture about the confluence of miscommunication, happenstance and tone deafness...
IZRAEL: ...complicated by race. That's why I love this story.
MARTIN: Well said. Well said.
IZRAEL: Professor Spence, chime in, man.
SPENCE: So the story - well, first, I remember cracking a joke. I remember Michael Vick was going through his stuff and I talked about how maybe he should be on the cover of Cat Fancy.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: That's not nice.
SPENCE: But the story that jumped out at me was the Newt Gingrich story where we talked about his comments about poverty and about how kids should perhaps - like, poor kids should perhaps learn to be janitors and should maybe take over the janitorial services of their high schools.
MARTIN: And why do you think that was the - why is that the most important one for you?
SPENCE: It's important for me for a couple of levels - for a couple of reasons. One reason is because a lot of listeners don't necessarily - you know, so because we're trying to jam a lot of stuff into, like, a little bit, there is often a lot of intensity that doesn't get necessarily covered, and I felt intensely about the story, but I wasn't able to articulate that. That's the first thing.
But the second - the reason I was - I felt so intense about it is because there's - we've finally begun talking about poverty, begun to take poverty seriously, but the way that conservatives of both parties - the way blacks and whites are talking about it is really deeply, deeply problematic. Right?
So, since - what - in 2010, 27 out of every 100 families who needed assistance - only 27 out of 100 actually get it, which means that there are 73 out of 100 families who need assistance - some type of welfare assistance - but don't get it.
The reason that kids are poor isn't because they don't have work ethics. Right? But time after time, we get this repeated - in this current election cycle by conservative Republicans, but every now and then by people like Bill Cosby and even Barack Obama, in some cases.
MARTIN: OK. Interesting. Arsalan?
IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, as Barber Shop listeners around the country will know, from time to time I tend to hand out my weekly redunkulous awards, and you know, we've - in the span of five years we've talked about many, many high profile falls from grace. So we had Eliot Spitzer. We had Anthony Weiner. But for me, you know, the whole Tiger Woods phenomenon/scandal was something that I don't think that we've really ever seen in modern sports history. I mean, you know, here you had a figure who was essentially a transformational, transcendental figure in the sports world. I mean, Nike had entire...
IZRAEL: Right, right.
IFTIKHAR: ...ad campaigns with little kids from around the world saying I am Tiger Woods, I am Tiger Woods. And, you know, he broke the color barrier within golf, essentially, you know, dominated it to the point where people were already asking, is he going to be the greatest golfer ever?
And then, you know, we obviously had that infamous, you know, incident with his Escalade and his wife taking a 9-iron to it.
IFTIKHAR: And I think it really, really shows, you know, a cautionary tale in terms of how far hubris will take you in this world. And, you know, his inability to essentially fess-up beforehand and then have his little stage press conference and things like that. And the fact that he hasn't been able to return to form at all winning a major tournament in golf, I think for me, you know, not only does Tiger when the five-year redunkulous award but it's probably one of the biggest Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments we've had.
MARTIN: Well, does that make you say I don't ever want to be that famous?
IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I mean...
MARTIN: Or I never want to be that arrogant? I mean what is it...
IZRAEL: Oh-oh. OK. Now the answer.
IFTIKHAR: I - no. The...
IZRAEL: You got to be careful with that answer.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IFTIKHAR: Well, I never want to be that famous. I mean I think that, you know, we as a nation tend to gravitate around a cult of celebrity now, whether that celebrity is based on you being a reality television star or a sports athlete or, you know, an elected congressperson. You know, I think that, you know, we've essentially entered into a societal realm of hubris and impunity where essentially, you know, people aren't taking responsibility for their actions.
MARTIN: Hmm. The R?
IZRAEL: Hmm. All right. Well, changing gears just a bit. Ruben?
NAVARRETTE: Yo. Yo.
IZRAEL: The R? Now you've always given a taste of that West Coast wisdom.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IZRAEL: And for your favorite story...
IZRAEL: ...you went right for the White House, right? Isn't that right, Michel?
MARTIN: He did. And Ruben, let me play this clip just in case for those who may have missed it. A few months after the so-called beer summit that Jimi was talking about, you tied that summit to a couple of other stories about President Obama. That summer he'd lobbied unsuccessfully for the 2016 Summer Olympics to come to Chicago. And in the middle of all that this tragedy unfolded in Chicago that we also talked a lot about. This young student, Derrion Albert, was beaten to death on his way home from school in September. He was an innocent bystander. He was literally just trying to get home. And Ruben, here is some of what you said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
NAVARRETTE: A lot of folks are saying listen, if you bring the Olympics to Chicago, there's no doubt you're going to have lots of police and Natural Guard protecting the folks here - the tourists, the international tourists. How about spending some money to protect the folks here now before the Olympics get here?
And I think that's a very fair point. And the most cutting thing I heard - and I got to hand it to - see, African-Americans are a lot like Latinos in that regard. When they have a question - when they have a concern, they will tell you. They don't care, black president or no black president, they will go right there. And clearly, one person said you suppose that somebody's going to - you suppose the president now is going to invite Derrion Albert's mother to the White House for a beer?
NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: So Ruben, go ahead. Tell me.
NAVARRETTE: That was very telling for me for a couple of reasons.
NAVARRETTE: I mean it has to be said that along with the opposition to Barack Obama from the beginning and from folks out there some of whom were motivated by racism and some of them were motivated by other things, who had a very steep learning curve in terms of getting used to the idea of a black president, so did African-Americans have to get used to the idea of what it meant to have a black president. I think basic assumptions were made by African-Americans, have never said out loud that somehow if you had a black president and you had a case like this from Chicago, the very least you would have is the African-American president would come forward in a public statement and make something public about it.
And maybe as eloquent as Barack Obama has been before as he was in Philadelphia during the campaign talking about race, he could come forward and say something really profound about black on black violence, you know? And it didn't happen. And if you looked at the time on some of the commentary on TheRoot, where Jimi writes and others were saying this in the black community, there was a real concern here that what have we done here? We have black president is sort of president first and black secondary. And it took some getting used to, it still takes some getting used to. I think a lot of people in the liberal coalition that helped elect Barack Obama - be it gays or African-Americans or Latinos or civil libertarians or whatever, likewise feel this kind of sense of disillusionment about Obama. They still much prefer him - let me be clear - to the alternative, to Mitt Romney and the Republicans - but boy, they're just not really sure what, you know, what they got in the bargain. And that came out in the summit, this whole thing about the beer summit and this thing about Derrion Albert because I think a lot of people were - that was the beginning of sort of like oh, OK. I get it. This is, he's got a really important job. Maybe he doesn't have - maybe this isn't part of his bailiwick. It should be.
IZRAEL: What would you have had him do? I mean...
NAVARRETTE: Well, as I said in that piece, here we're on the Trayvon Martin case. In the Trayvon Martin case you have Obama getting criticism from both sides because white folks and others are saying it was bizarre for him to come forward and say if I had a son he would look like Trayvon. And African-Americans and others are saying is that the best you can do - that was this vague statement you made - if I had a...
MARTIN: Well, why does that make him...
IZRAEL: Well, wait a second. I mean wait a second.
NAVARRETTE: What does that mean?
IZRAEL: His name is Barack Obama, not Bruce Wayne, brother. I mean what exactly, I mean you still haven't...
NAVARRETTE: The president has the bully pulpit first of all, Jimi.
NAVARRETTE: He has a moral authority in issues like this, it goes back to when President Kennedy was talking about the civil rights movement or LBJ or any of these - when you have presidents at a time of moral crisis, they have traditionally come forward and had something to say - Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing. But I don't have a moment like that for Barack Obama. I can't point to a case where people have been hurting and he opened up and he made them feel better. I don't see that and I have not seen that.
IFTIKHAR: Tucson shooting after Gabrielle Giffords assassination...
NAVARRETTE: I don't remember that. I don't remember a single thing he said in that speech.
IZRAEL: What, your cable went out that week, bro? I mean...
NAVARRETTE: Well, wait a second.
MARTIN: Go ahead.
NAVARRETTE: No. I don't remember a single line from that speech. I don't remember a thing those being he said there.
MARTIN: Dr. Spence? Dr. Spence?
SPENCE: Well, you know what? I think, I don't actually agree with Ruben often, but I think he's - although the Trayvon Martin is a bad example, I understand what he saying. I think that - and what happened in the Trayvon Martin case is - to the extent that people were critical and I was one of them - people expected him to actually say something a little bit quicker than what he did, right? But he hasn't been - while he's been really forthcoming in being critical of black communities, right?
NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.
SPENCE: He hasn't quite been forthcoming enough in speaking to black people's ills other than saying well, if I help everybody else I'll help black people. And that's something that I think, to be fair, black communities are used to, right? But that's something that people who are little bit further to the left of black people - black leftists, so to speak - actually want him to do more than that.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our special fifth anniversary edition of the Barbershop. Our guests are political science professor Lester Spence, that's who was speaking just now. Also with us, attorney and author Arsalan Iftikhar, and our writers Jimi Izrael and Ruben Navarrette.
IZRAEL: Back to you, Jimi.
All right. OK. Well, the Barbershop, we've hit the big five, and so we're going to go around the table with some of the OG's - the originally guys - to talk about some of their favorite memorable conversations. And now political science professor, Dr. Spence is up. And we're going to talk, you know, we're not surprised probably by your standouts, so it was political, I'm sure. Right, Michel?
MARTIN: Yeah. Well, here he talked to us about the Gingrich story. But why don't you, why don't you just pick another one. You talked about the moment, one of the moments where you talked about Newt Gingrich talking about sort of poor kids. Well, was that - is that the most important political story for you over the last five years? What would you pick?
SPENCE: Yeah. It really is because - and this goes back to Ruben's comments, right? There's a way that we've talked, there was a moment in time in which the poor were kind of taken off the radar, particularly after Bill Clinton passes the welfare repeal in essence, right? But then when all of a sudden the poverty numbers just jump up this conversation, we're having this conversation again. But how do we talk about it? There is this group of people now who talk more about structural inequality but at the same time there are a number of people who over and over again basically blame the poor for their circumstances.
MARTIN: Well, let me ask you this, next five years - just quick. We only have about three minutes left and I want to hear from everyone.
MARTIN: Next five years, do you think, do you fear you'll still be having that conversation? The
SPENCE: Yes. But the thing that'll be really different - and this is something I never expected - you'll hear, you'll increasingly hear us talk about white poor as if they were black.
SPENCE: And that's something I thought that the poverty thing would be just about...
SPENCE: ...black people, right?
NAVARRETTE: Right. I hear you.
SPENCE: But we'll see them talk about the white poor the same way they talk about black people.
MARTIN: Ruben? How about you? What you think? Next five years, what do you think, what?
NAVARRETTE: I think to Lester's point, I think and the bigger point, yeah? Some of the things we're dealing with now are going to continue on for the next five years and unfortunately, probably the next 50 years, we're going to find different ways of talking about those things. But the idea of sort of caring about people who are going through something you're not going through, getting middle class folks to care about poor folks, getting rich folks to care about the price of gas for middle class folks, it's very difficult. It's not going away.
IFTIKHAR: For me, you know, again what's interesting during the 2008 presidential campaign when, you know, people on one hand tried to paint then-candidate President Obama as some kind of crypto-Muslim Manchurian candidate and then during the Jeremiah Wright debacle he was a Christian liberation theologist, you know, it's like pick a lane. You've got to slow your roll there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IFTIKHAR: But, you know, the otherizing of each other in politics I think is some...
MARTIN: The otherizing. That's a good phrase.
And because, you know, essentially by, you know, 22 percent Alabama, Mississippi voters right now in 2010 believed that Barack Obama is a Muslim and essentially that's their way of saying he's black. That's their way of otherizing him. And, you know, now that we have a Mormon candidate on the Republican side I hope we're going to, God willing, see less of that and then hopefully in five years we'll have our own television show for the Barbershop so will be a little to talk about it on the air.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Oh, nice save. Nice save. Let me just say that that's Republican voters, Mississippi's Republican voters...
MARTIN: ...a majority of those believe that Obama was - because that's who was surveyed. Just want to be clear about that. Jimi, final?
IZRAEL: I'm hoping in the next five years me and my home girl, Margaret Bernstein from The Plain Dealer, were talking about the fatherlessness thing as it impacts the black community.
IZRAEL: I really want us to start talking about how the lack of fathers in the home has impacted our community as a whole and how we can work on that, how we can fix it. Also, I want us to have conversation about education, you know, and public-school education. Why do I have to pay 15 grand a year for my kid to get a decent education?
IZRAEL: You know, why can't the school system rise to the occasion? You know, I want to hear those conversations in the next five years.
MARTIN: But, you know, back to Dr. Spence's point.
MARTIN: The whole question of the father and the role of the father is not a black problem anymore. It's not just a black issue anymore. This is one of those areas in which more broadly the single female head of households...
NAVARRETTE: Sure. Sure.
MARTIN: ...have become a dominant family style in the United States and other communities.
IZRAEL: But I think it hits our communities the hardest. I do.
MARTIN: OK. Fair point.
Jimi Izrael, freelancer journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. Here in Washington, D.C. for our special fifth anniversary edition of the Barbershop. Also with us, Lester Spence, blogger and political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. Arsalan Iftikhar, civil rights attorney, author and founder of themuslimguy.com. All here in Washington, D.C. And from San Diego, Ruben Navarrette, syndicated columnist who writes for the Washington Post Writers Group, Latino Magazine and CNN.com.
Thank you all so much, and happy another five.
NAVARRETTE: Thank you.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And once a week we take time for our credits, that's where we recognize the work of the TELL ME MORE staff. But there are so many others who help make this program possible. We decided we wanted to share our celebration with them. So all this week you will be hearing the names of the other talented NPR professionals who are responsible for bringing TELL ME MORE to you.
And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. 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 tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.