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Roundtable: Haiti Kidnappings, Iraq Veterans, Live 8


On today's roundtable, we'll tackle how Iraq veterans fair in the job market, kidnappings in Haiti and a concert to aid Africa that some deem too white. Joining the discussion from member station WFDD in Winston-Salem is Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, also Debra Dickerson, author of "The End of Blackness" and "An American Story"--comes to us from member station WAMC in Albany, New York--and in our Chicago bureau is Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender.

So thank all of you for joining us.

And let me just jump into the first topic. You've got veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. They're struggling to find work. Some of them are laid off from jobs that they left when they were sent away as Reservists. Now from the employer's standpoint, these Reservists could be called up again and again, throwing their workplaces into turmoil. So, Roland, I'll start with you. Should companies be compelled to take back Iraqi vets?

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Executive Editor, The Chicago Defender): Well, I think they should, but understand that many of these individuals who join the service do so because they also failed to be able to get a job. There are a number of people who are young Latinos and poor whites and African Americans who joined the military because they don't have many employment options, and so for those coming back to be unable to find a job is not surprising. And I do think that individuals who are serving this country should have some form of protection. So again, if we do support tax credits to these companies, that's a good thing. So I certainly think that folks are putting their lives on the line, and we should do so, but it's not a surprise at all that they're having issues financially because, frankly, we are not paying our servicemen and women the proper respect financially that this government should.

CHIDEYA: Now, Debra, you are someone who served in the military. Your book, "An American Story," details your life as a working-class black woman who went into the military for both patriotic reasons and to set up a life for yourself. What does America owe people coming back from war in terms of job security?

Ms. DEBRA DICKERSON (Author): Well, I absolutely agree with the fact that the military is most often--it's the working class safety valve. It's the way up and out for a great many of us, but the point--we need to remind ourselves what it means to be in the Guard and the Reserves on the non-patriotic side but on the financial side. People do it for patriotic reasons, but they also do it for the money. And so that whole time before they got called up, they were receiving benefits. They were going and shopping at the BX and the commissary where you can save quite a bit of money. So it wasn't that they got called up out of the blue. They had been collecting benefits in some cases for a great many years before they ever got called up. So it's not entirely altruistic, and frankly, it bothers me to the degree to which some of the folks seem to feel put upon when asked to do the duty that they volunteered for. So I think that's an aspect that doesn't get discussed enough.

Given the way our economy is structured, though, it's going to be--I mean, nobody has job security. I like the idea of giving tax credits to people who take their soldiers back, but I think if they could take them back, they probably would. In the research, you know, we talk about restaurants that burn down. You can't go back to a job that burned down. So I think where businesses can, they do, especially in these days of the war on terror. It's got to be as good a time as any now to be in the Guard or the Reserves, but the most we can--given the overall unemployment rate, it's going to be very, very, very difficult to secure a place for returning Reservists and Guardsmen.

CHIDEYA: All right. Nat Irvin from Wake Forest, is this just tough luck for people who have been collecting a check, as Debra argues, and now are called up?

Professor NAT IRVIN (Wake Forest University): No, I don't think it's tough luck. I think what this is, is a reflection of that we're in the midst of a very unpopular war. We already know that war is hell, but I think that it's also a reflection that war is ironic. Two things come to mind. First of all, most of us are not experiencing the brunt of this war. We talk about it, but most of the burden is being felt by the people who are actually in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in particular the war in Iraq which is becoming very unpopular. And so I think that on the one hand, Americans are torn.

We obviously support our troops, but as the war drags on, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the people who are there to be able to come back here and then experience what Tom Friedman says is the world becoming flatter, and as Debra was talking about, the global economy. So you have both war as being hell and then you have the irony that we're no longer fighting against terrorism. We may say that we are, but in one sense, let's just say this. We're trying to make the Iraqis more competitive in a global economy, which means in one sense then that the soldiers are now fighting to make the Iraqis compete for their jobs back home.

It's a tough situation. I think that--yeah, I don't really have any good solutions about it other than to say that my sympathies lie with the military. My brother is a doctor who serves in the armed forces in Germany. My sympathies lie also with small businesses, people who are struggling to compete against India, but then at the same time, you know, they've got to cut costs. So this is a very...

Mr. MARTIN: Farai...

Prof. IRVIN: ...difficult time for our countries.

CHIDEYA: Roland.

Mr. MARTIN: ...it is a larger circle, though. So if the 320,000 Reservists have served or completed their mobilization in Iraq, you do have wives and husbands and childrens and others who are affected by those dollars no longer being at home...

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: ...but I think this is also an issue of, in essence, you know, two types of individuals within the military. A lot of the complaints have largely come from Reservists as opposed to individuals who are serving full time in the military. And so you sort of have--I haven't really seen many stories of full-fledging members of the military really complaining about this issue vs. those who are Reservists who were called up...

Prof. IRVIN: Right. Right.

Mr. MARTIN: ...and then who were being affected. So two different classes going on here.

CHIDEYA: Debra, since you did serve in the military, let me ask you about Reservists specifically. Is there any incentive at this point for people to join the Reserves or--you know, overall military recruitment is down. Are the Reserves going to suffer even more?

Ms. DICKERSON: I would have to go out on a limb and say, `Yes, it's going to be very difficult.'

Prof. IRVIN: On a limb, Debra.

Mr. MARTIN: Man!

Ms. DICKERSON: It's--yeah, that's it. It's a hard call. And that's where we're seeing all these articles about these, and you know who I feel maybe the most sorry for is the recruiters because recruiters in the best of times have been under an enormous amount of pressure to meet their goals. And, Nat, can you imaging trying to recruit people in this economy and with this war? So we're seeing there is a young high-school student who did a big, you know, scam. He went undercover in his town and tried to join the military, and he did it.

Prof. IRVIN: Right.

Ms. DICKERSON: He told them he was on drugs and these poor recruiters--I feel so sorry for them--they helped him--they said he was a high-school dropout. They helped him get a bogus online diploma.

Prof. IRVIN: Right.

Ms. DICKERSON: It was...

CHIDEYA: Oh, my goodness.

Ms. DICKERSON: Yeah, it's unbelievable.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, back in the day, they used to take, you know, prisoners and say, `You can either go into the Marines or you can go to jail,' and...

Ms. DICKERSON: Exactly.


Ms. DICKERSON: And I wonder what they would do now if they gave them that option.

Mr. MARTIN: And...

Ms. DICKERSON: I think they'd go to jail.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, they're actually taken them now.

Mr. MARTIN: `Take me to jail,' that's what they're saying.


CHIDEYA: Yeah, three hots and a cot.

Well, let me turn to a couple of other international issues. First of all, Haiti. Now more than a year after the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti is in utter turmoil and there is now a wave of kidnappings being documented around the nation, not just rich people but the few middle-class people. Many Haitians believe that the US toppled the Aristide government. So does this mean that the US has some obligation to join in and to help shore-up the country, Nat Irvin?

Prof. IRVIN: Well, of course we do. And, you know, I think the important point I'd like to make about the discussion of Haiti is to think about this. When was the last time you heard anything positive about the country of Haiti? I mean, you just have to think about how often...

Ms. DICKERSON: Toussaint L'Ouverture.

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah, that's--when was that? 1884?

Ms. DICKERSON: That's the last time, yeah.

Prof. IRVIN: I think that's a long time ago, and, you know, the fact is we need to separate from--the image of Haiti and the people of Haiti. The people of Haiti that I have met are absolutely--and I'm, you know, making a generalization here because I work in a academic institution, but smart, intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, caring people, people who love their country, and it's just so unfortunate that we never hear about the extraordinarily bright Haitians who are part of this country, who are part of Latin America, who are struggling trying to remake their country.

I was reminded of this in two instances--one with friends who serve as missionaries in the country of Haiti who were always coming back telling stories about the positive things, about the wonderful people in Haiti who are struggling against a failed political and social state. And then number two--even just last evening, happen to get a chance to talk with a young Haitian woman who's a student in one of the UNC campuses who's studying here with us at Wake Forest, talking about her passion for her country, how she's preparing herself for the medical field and how she hopes to lead a non-governmental organization who will one day help our country. The future of Haiti lies in the talent of the people there.

You know, it wasn't that long ago that Chile was a failed state. It wasn't that long ago that Singapore was trying to merge with Malaysia. The fact is leadership and a vision for the future can come from the people of Haiti. I will make one final point--I will say is this. This is also a time when I think that the United Nations needs to take a stronger hand, especially in this country, in the affairs of Latin America and in particular Haiti. And it is where a guy like John Bolton might be just the exact person that the United States needs and the United Nations need.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, it is very...

CHIDEYA: Roland.

Mr. MARTIN: ...difficult for me, as with Haitian descendents--me being a descendent of individuals who came to this country from Haiti to look at what's happening in this country, but it is in economic peril. I mean, that's what's going on here, and it was unfortunate that the United States did not demand that the hooligans who threw out Aristide respect a democratically elected president if he was indeed guilty of the crimes that they allege and that our own State Department chooses to toss out. Then they should have called for an international trial as opposed to sending a jet to allow him to leave the country.

And so, yeah, the US does indeed have a responsibility, but the reason we don't is because we do not see Haiti as an economic or a military need. It is not in the interest of America for us to do so. If Haitians come to this country, we turn them back. If Cubans leave, we simply welcome them with open arms. And so that's why we're such hypocrites on this issue of Haiti.

Ms. DICKERSON: But that's, you know, the...

CHIDEYA: Well, Debra, go head.

Ms. DICKERSON: ...hypocrisy of the country is one thing, but I think what is really striking to me is the passivity of black Americans. We don't seem to feel the kind of affinity for the folks in Ha--maybe it's because they speak French or something, but we don't se--we're not up the--the Cubans get what they want because the Cubans are up in arms about what happens in Cuba. Black Americans--it's appalling and sad to me how little sense of community we seem to feel with the folks in Africa. We're not up in arms about Darfur. We got up in arms about apartheid, but not...

Mr. MARTIN: But, Debra, Cubans have a significant presence in the country in terms of the political infrastructure there in Miami. The Haitians do not have a like-minded infrastructure...

Ms. DICKERSON: But they have us.

Mr. MARTIN: ...so that's why the Cubans dr...

Ms. DICKERSON: They have us.

Mr. MARTIN: Well--but when you compare them to Cuban...

Ms. DICKERSON: And we're not doing it.

Mr. MARTIN: ...is because they have a political infrastructure, plus an economic infrastructure that the Haitians do not have.

Ms. DICKERSON: Well, that's...

CHIDEYA: Well, Roland, let me just ask: What is us? Is us anyone who has brown skin? Is us the people who come from the continent or from the diaspora? How do black Americans decide who is us and who to advocate for?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, first of all, I don't separate black Americans' view of international issues even from whites, because bottom line is as Americans, we barely look at somebody from another state. And we're focused more on our neighborhoods vs. even folks in the same city or same state if you're talking about even going out of the country. And so I wish we did have such an affinity and an affection for the deprived in those countries, but that is the reality. We are not concerned in this nation, black, white, Hispanic, you name it, with folks beyond our borders.

CHIDEYA: Well--and, Nat, let me turn to you and transition to our last topic I think we're going to squeeze in here. Now there's this big Live 8 concert. It's a follow-up to Live Aid. It's talking about the need for debt relief in Africa, and Bob Geldof, who did Live Aid and who's doing Live 8, was just criticized by this deejay who said that there aren't enough black musicians at the event. He said, quote, "If we're going to change the West's perception of Africa, events like this are the perfect opportunity to do something for Africa's self-esteem," but does it really matter who performs? Shouldn't the headliners just be some big names and they'll raise more visibility or do you really need an African presence for a theme event about Africa?

Prof. IRVIN: I think it's nutty. I mean, the idea that somebody's actually complaining about whether or not the performers are too white and, you know, this sort of self-esteem issue, that you need to have black performers now in order to bring support for Africa. You know what? The continent--the states of Africa--I'm thinking about Zimbabwe in particular. I mean, what difference does it make if the performers are green? What needs to happen is, you know, we need to address political corruption in some of the leadership of, say, Zimbabwe, for example.

I have a student who couldn't come back this summer to study in our program because they couldn't get enough fuel to fly the planes back out of Zimbabwe. You think about what's going on in Sudan and you're going to argue about whether or not there are white performers at a concert desig--I mean, theater of the absurd.

Ms. DICKERSON: But it's a little striking that...


Ms. DICKERSON: ...you've pulled together a concert--if we're--it's like pulling together an all-star basketball team and not having any black players. We're sort of overrepresented in the entertainment field. It seems--it just--is it: Would I have--you know, would I be leading a charge about it? No. But it does seem a little striking that there aren't more black performers in any musical, except for maybe symphonies.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, no, but actually--but it's...

Mr. MARTIN: I mean, it's not terribly striking to me because first of all as reporters, we ask the very basic questions: Were black entertainers asked?

Ms. DICKERSON: Yeah, that's important to know.

Mr. MARTIN: Did they accept--you know, it's kind of important to know that and I concur that this is a matter of providing relief and aid to those who are in need...

Prof. IRVIN: Need?

Mr. MARTIN: ...and what I would say is to the black entertainers in this country: How significant are they concerned about the issues and are they willing to step up vs. the ones saying, `Well, you know, please ask me'? You have such a major issue with it.

CHIDEYA: I just have to jump in and...

Mr. MARTIN: They can organize their own concerts, please.

CHIDEYA: ...you know that Mariah Carey...

Mr. MARTIN: You don't have to be asked.

CHIDEYA: ...Snoop are being performers at the London event. So that's who we're sending as our emissaries of black America.


Mr. MARTIN: Well--but again it's not a question of...

Ms. DICKERSON: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. MARTIN: ...who we're sending. It's not a question of who we're sending. Were others asked and did they accept?

Ms. DICKERSON: Yes, that is important to know.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, look, I'm going to say this. I read an interesting piece in the London Telegraph that said that what would be a more interesting discussion now is not who's doing the dancing on stage, but who's actually handling the accounting and the business transactions for these rock performers. You know, in other words, what countries are actually doing the quiet boring business of being competitive in a global economy. I happen to agree with that writer.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, it's notoriously difficult to actually break even on these concerts, let alone earn any money.


CHIDEYA: I mean, the main point of this is to raise awareness, but at the same time--and I'll end with you, Debra--if you're trying to raise awareness for black people in Africa and the stage is all white, isn't that a problem?

Ms. DICKERSON: I'd have to say yes. A huge problem in the scheme of things, no, but it bespeaks of paternalistic attitude. It just seems like something that, you know, why would you--it's such an easy offense to have avoided. It's strikingly dumb it seems to me, but should we boycott the event, that sort of thing, no, but it was dumb.

CHIDEYA: All right. On that note, it was dumb. We've got Debra Dickerson, author of "The End of Blackness," "An American Story" in Albany, New York. In Winston-Salem, Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, and in Chicago, Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender. Thank you all for joining us.

Prof. IRVIN: Take care.

Ms. DICKERSON: Thanks.

CHIDEYA: Coming up, jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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