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Should The NFL Police The N-Word?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR news. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael, with us from WCPN in Cleveland. From NPR West, film writer, actor and producer, Rick Najera. From Boston's WGBH, Neil Minkoff. He is a health care consultant and contributor to National Review magazine. And right here in Washington D.C., sports writer and journalism professor Kevin Blackistone. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. How we doing? Welcome to the shop.


RICK NAJERA: I'm feeling good.


NAJERA: I'm getting a haircut.

IZRAEL: Alrighty then. Congratulations.

MARTIN: Jimi, do you mind, though - before you jump in, I just wanted to ask since we started the program today talking about this new White House initiative called, My Brother's Keeper, if I could just ask the guys what their initial reactions to it are? And Jimi, of course, you know, I want to know what you think. What do you think?

IZRAEL: Well, I love it. I think it was just bold. I mean, I'm happy that he feels emboldened - and make a such - make such a statement attached to his own story and identity. You know, this is as black as he's ever been and this is going to shut up all the Barbershop critics that want him to do something for black people. Also, I'm hopeful - look, Brother's Keeper is not the answer, but I'm hoping it'll start some really important conversations that bring an answer. So that's definitely where I'm at with this.

MARTIN: Kevin, what do you think?

BLACKISTONE: I'm all for it. I think it would have been bolder had he done it in his first term, now obviously he's safe...

IZRAEL: Come on, man.

BLACKISTONE: ...But it's good - no, but it's good because there are programs like this all around the country. A friend of mine - a longtime player in the NFL, Domonique Foxworth, started a similar program up in Baltimore a few years ago. And it's a great bridge for young black boys to, you know, to get to success. So I'm all for it.

MARTIN: Rick, he said also - the program is also aimed at Latino youth as well.


NAJERA: Yeah, but it doesn't sound like it's aimed that much toward Latino youth and that's my big fear because for Latinos, sometimes we look at him as the deporter-in-chief. He's deported more Latinos than Bush did. So for us, we're always going to be a little bit skeptical. And even to look at the young men behind him, most of them are black. And...

MARTIN: But they were from Chicago - they were from a specific...

NAJERA: Yeah, which...

MARTIN: ...Program that he's been working with.

NAJERA: Yeah, I know, but Chicago has got more Mexicans than they have in Guadalajara, Mexico, so it's a huge Mexican population there. So my worry is, yes, the - it's a good program. I really like the heart in it and all that, but let's not forget the Latinos. That has to always be up first, 'cause when he talks about Martin Luther King 50 years ago, Dr. King, the America today is filled with a lot of Latino young men and that needs to be addressed.

IZRAEL: Point taken.

MARTIN: Dr. Neil, what about you? What are your thoughts about it?

MINKOFF: So it's almost like the program was designed to be as appealing as possible to as many people at as many sides of the aisle. So, I mean, it's limited, it's targeted, it's inexpensive and it's in some ways saying that the federal government can't go it alone. You need business and community and volunteers to be able to affect the lives of people. And the success of the Becoming a Man program shows that - where for $1,000 a year, arrests go down over 40 percent. Like, that's unheard of.

MARTIN: Is that wrong? You're saying it sounds like it's designed to appeal to everybody. Is that a bad thing?

MINKOFF: No, I love it. I think it's a great thing. I think it's coming out and saying that we need to find a new solution that involves more partnerships and less about us and you and private versus public.

MARTIN: All right.

NAJERA: He is using...

MINKOFF: It's great.

NAJERA: ...It's 200 million, but I still think that's - that's not a lot of money when you think about it compared to what we spend in other areas - but it is a start. I mean, it is a start. And what I liked about - is he said, preschool. Reaching our youth before they're in school and - where most of the minority youth doesn't get that.


IZRAEL: You know, Michel...


IZRAEL: ...If I can go here for second - I'm hoping some of these conversations - I know this is private money and bear with me here, but I'm hoping the conversations he has around Brother's Keeper - 'cause we talk so much about black maleness and how it's come down to lack of fatherhood - I'm hoping these conversations lead back to - he was talking about trying to ratify the child support system early, early on in the game. And I'm hoping that somebody makes that connection and we start having that conversation about federalizing the child support system. I'm hoping that that comes out of this - the Brother's Keeper thing. That is - that's just me.

MINKOFF: The other thing that I thought was great is if you can get Magic Johnson to be the face of your program - nobody can galvanize public support the way he did with his own disease state and raising awareness. Magic is perfect for this.

MARTIN: Well, it was interesting - one of the things that was interesting to me - if you looked at who was in the room, it was from the, you know, the Fox News - Fox television personality, Bill O'Reilly and Colin Powell was there. Magic Johnson was there and the new head of the NBA was there. The new commissioner was there. I mean, it's just - that is what...

BLACKISTONE: It's like we are the world.

MARTIN: ...You got to say about the White House is that they do have the ability to command people's attention in ways that, sort of, few other entities do. So, you know, we'll see. We'll keep in touch on it and we'll also hear what you all have to say about it. And if you're just joining us, we're having our weekly Barbershop roundtable with writer Jimi Izrael, health care consult Dr. Neil Minkoff, sportswriter Kevin Blackistone - he's also a journalism professor - film and television writer and producer Rick Najera. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, well, I don't know if anybody was thinking about moving to Brooklyn, but you might not get a warm welcome from Spike Lee. The filmmaker went off about the newcomers in his old neighborhood of Fort Greene - stand up Fort Greene - and about gentrification in general - some of my old digs. Anyway, during a Black History Month event this week, he kind of let them have it. Somebody drop that clip...


IZRAEL: ...Please.


SPIKE LEE: You just can't come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say - like you're mother [bleep] Columbus and kill off the Native Americans - you can't do that. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect.

IZRAEL: No, tell us how you really feel, Spike. Thank you, thank you. You know, as you can imagine, those comments didn't sit well with everyone. You know, I - you know, Spike Lee, sometimes I wish somebody would turn his microphone off 'cause listen man - and this is going to get me some flack, I know this, but you know what - poor people don't necessarily want to live in some of these neighborhoods. And when you're living there, you don't want to keep up the neighborhood. You don't want to reinvest in it, but then you get hostile when other people come and they want to reinvest in it and they want to bring it up. Now there's something not quite fair about it, but it's also coming and going. You know, if your neighborhood is important to you, you pass those values down through your community if your neighborhood matters. You can't blame the wheels of progress when you yourself have dropped the ball. You know, everyone gets to bring their own tradition and reject yours. He who pays taxes is the shot caller. That's all - hey, that's all I say about that.




IZRAEL: ...Kevin Blackistone. Shaker Heights, Ohio...

MARTIN: Showing up on a T-shirt near you.

IZRAEL: ...About the way I'm looking at you.

BLACKISTONE: Well, you know...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Kevin.

BLACKISTONE: ...I mean, gentrification's a reason that I was very uncomfortable returning home to D.C. to move back into a lot of the neighborhoods that we were looking at in D.C. just because I felt uncomfortable buying a home that has been rehabilitated and, you know, it's a couple doors down the way from someone who I know their house will be bought and sold and rehabbed in a few years as well and they would no longer be able to live there. And so, you know, with the problem of affordable housing in this country being as large as it is, I understand what Spike was saying. And we don't...

MARTIN: So what you're saying is you should just move to the suburbs and just abandon this - the urban core? You see what I'm saying?

BLACKISTONE: ...Well, no no. You - no, you don't...

MARTIN: You're saying you're uncomfortable so what's the choice then?

BLACKISTONE: ...I wasn't - well, the choice is to try and provide housing for everyone.


BLACKISTONE: And that's a - and housing's a very, very difficult thing...

NAJERA: Affordable housing.

BLACKISTONE: ...Affordable housing. And re-gentrification does not necessarily answer that. In some communities maybe it has worked, but in a lot of communities it hasn't. And, you know, it's not like Washington D.C. needs a French bistro on every corner. I mean, it needs a lot of other things. And that's kind of what I sense now in the D.C. that is here as opposed to the D.C. that I grew up with.

MARTIN: So you agree with Spike?

BLACKISTONE: I agree with Spike, absolutely.

MARTIN: Rick, what about you?

NAJERA: Well, you know, I think Spike used some very emotional terms talking about Columbus coming in, I mean, Columbus was coming in with genocide. I mean, I think a few yuppies coming in and putting in a Starbucks ain't going to kill anybody. So I look at it - my grandfather, he Mexicanized - or gentrified a neighborhood - it was a white, middle-class neighborhood. He moved in, all of a sudden it became Mexican. So now - so there's a lot of reverse gentrification. Then, you know, years later is - what we're talking about is people - the real estate speculators who come on in there and really jack up all the prices. And the people that do live there aren't having affordable housing. That's the problem. When you start adding affordable housing with this gentrification, then I see its merits, but it's all going to change.

MINKOFF: There's a long tradition in America about the - trying to balance the nostalgia about how good the neighborhood used to be versus the reality of it. And Steinbeck wrote about the changes in Salinas and Mario Puzo wrote about how Little Italy had changed over his life. And I think that this is another step in that, albeit a maybe more profanity-filled step in that...


MINKOFF: ...But I think in New York - I think in New York it strikes deeper because of the history of urban renewal and where Robert Moses laid out the bridges and all the people that got displaced. So I think it does cut closer to the bone in New York than elsewhere.

MARTIN: But, you know, it's interesting though - kind of, he made it an interpersonal dynamic. Like don't come in here and start talking about how I play my music and how - and what my food smells like. And he made it kind of an interpersonal dynamic. But what I think people are really, you know, upset about is policy. I mean, if the city does not give people places to live that are affordable for whatever - I mean, you see people putting up these, you know, these apartments with these granite countertops and you realize that whoever's putting those buildings up is never going to be able to afford to live there...


MARTIN: ...It's kind of infuriating some people, but I don't know that that's addressed by the people who live in those granite countertop places being nicer, you know, or not taking up all the parking with their strollers, you know, their expensive strollers. I don't think that that's really the issue here, you know what I mean? Essentially, he has tapped into something. You know, the bike lanes is a real flashpoint, you know what I'm saying?


MARTIN: Because a lot of these cities, now they want the bike lanes. And guess who gets to use the bike lanes? Kind of the young, fit, kind of yuppies...

NAJERA: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...But guess who a lot of the people who stayed in these neighborhoods and stabilized them who are now not physically capable of using the bike lanes - and how do they go to the doctor and that kind of thing? And so you see these flashpoints emerging, but -but, you know, he does have his finger on a lot of things that people are talking about.


NAJERA: Well, the person that was asking the question...

IZRAEL: It's all to me as a personal ax to grind...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

IZRAEL: ...Ax to grind because of his dad.

MARTIN: Oh, and one never does that. Never - no one ever grinds a personal ax...

IZRAEL: Especially not Spike Lee, right?

MARTIN: ...On this program, Jimi.

IZRAEL: I'm just saying.

NAJERA: Well, he brought up the point that the guy that was actually asking the question, he was going, let me kill you - he was telling - that was asking the question. I think the guy was a brother, that's what I'm assuming 'cause he said, you know - but he sounded like - saying, hey, the people that lived in this neighborhood, you know, African-American people, are now having a chance to sell their homes for more money and they're moving to Atlanta. So they're talking about a whole change in the culture of going to Atlanta. And I sat there and I thought, you know, Atlanta's not a bad place to live. I don't know if that's a good argument there.

MARTIN: Well, as Chris Rock said...

IZRAEL: It really isn't.

MARTIN: ...It's where all major black decisions are made, so I can't understand why that's a...


MARTIN: ...Why that's a problem. An interesting - actually, one of those things where - we're actually going to be talking - it's here, it's a question of how, like, how you deal with it. Before we let you go, we got to get your take on this issue, Jimi, of the N-word.

IZRAEL: Yeah, the NFL is cracking down on players behaving badly - as if - and that includes using the N-word. The league is considering a 15-yard penalty for any player who uses the slur on the field, which means there will be nobody on the field.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

IZRAEL: KB, you're the sports guy. What's up?

BLACKISTONE: Well, you know what? Unless and until the NFL can understand why the R-word - which is the name of the team right here in Washington D.C. - is, they have not a leg of credibility to stand on on this particular issue. Beyond that, there's no need to police the reappropriation of language. You know, this is a European word - a European slur aimed at people of African descent for a number of years meant to injure them. And we have a generation of folk now who have flipped the script on that and have turned it into a word in which they can use comfortably among themselves. They can use it like a brick in somebody's face among themselves. They can use it anyway they want and it is no place for the NFL, despite its concerns about workplace environment, to penalize a team and penalize a player on the field for the use of this word in any context.

NAJERA: Yeah, I think 15 yards is - it depends - if it's a white player saying it, I think there should be more yards, you know, then if it's a black player saying it...



NAJERA: ...So, should be like 25 yards at least, you know? For a black player to say it, it's different...

IZRAEL: You might get knocked 25 yards...

NAJERA: Yeah, exactly.

IZRAEL: ...So it might not matter.

NAJERA: Yeah, I'm taking back the W-word, OK - for us Latinos.

MARTIN: You're taking it back?

NAJERA: Yeah, the W-word. I'm using it all the time now.


MARTIN: You're going to be using it all the time now?

IZRAEL: Good luck with that one, bro.

MARTIN: Well, not here, please, if you don't mind.

NAJERA: Yeah, I'm not going to be using it here.

MARTIN: No? OK. Well, Rick, can you talk a little bit more about that? I mean, you know, as a film writer, I mean, how do you - what's your take on that? I mean, when you put the word - do you, do you use it? I haven't really seen that word used very much in any of your films to this point.

NAJERA: No, no.

MARTIN: I don't see it as being part of your thing.

NAJERA: I don't like the word myself. And I think sometimes when you take - I think it's how we deal with people. It's like if I'm with Latinos who are Mexican, I might say like, hey, I'm a Chicano, but if I'm with Mexican-Americans, I might say Mexican-American. If I'm with white people, I'll say I'm a Latino. So we all in our daily speak use different words to different crowds, but I think there is a certain amount of polite speak that we use publicly - then the N-word should be avoided at all costs in that way, 'cause to some people it's very hateful and hurtful. And some people can say I'm taking it back, but it's opening a can of worms that isn't necessary.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. Well, Neil, what do you think?

MINKOFF: I think that the issue is - I mean, I think that it's a symbolic gesture, but I think that the real issue is some sort of cultural change in terms of what's acceptable behavior on the field, what's acceptable in terms of talk because singling out one word - it would be very easy to switch to a different slur. And what about other things that aren't racial slurs, like homophobic slurs? I mean, just recently my own son encountered in the Boston suburb, anti-Semitic slurs, which I didn't think would be possible here in this day in age.

And, you know, it becomes really hard to believe that you can single out a word like that the same week that the - one of the teams in the NFL is giving one of the more famous users of that word - Mr. Riley Cooper - a $10 million deal. You know, there's - it just seems to be sort of all over the place and almost designed to get us talking about whether or not the NFL is trying to be progressive enough with its talent and not really about accomplishing anything.

MARTIN: Well, can I ask Kevin this question? Isn't this - this is in part sparked by the whole Richie Incognito - Jonathan Martin situation, isn't it? Isn't it?

BLACKISTONE: Yeah, that's some of the - that's some of the background, but actually the person who brought this up is John Wooten, who's a historical figure in - for black football players in the NFL. And he was the one, as head of the Fritz Pollard Association, which looks after employment opportunities in executive positions for black folks in the NFL, he was the one who was disturbed by it and said that the league should start looking at penalizing players for the use of it. But it's very problematic. I'm, you know, it's...

MARTIN: Well, what about Neil's point that - are other slurs being considered, I mean, or is it just that one?

BLACKISTONE: Well, it's primarily this one and in part, as you said because of the Incognito situation and the Riley Cooper situation, and a situation that happened last year on the field where a player and an official in the game exchanged the word. So what are you going to do with an official? Kick him out the game as well?

MARTIN: An official?

BLACKISTONE: An official.

MARTIN: Wow, OK. All right.


MARTIN: Crazy, OK, we only have 30 seconds left, so I'm just going to ask Rick this question. Oscars are this Sunday, you're going to watch, right?

NAJERA: Yeah, I'm watching.

MARTIN: You're watching.

NAJERA: I'm definitely watching.

MARTIN: OK, 'cause the other guys are just - they're going to go bowling or something. I don't know what their problem is. You're a member of the Writers Guild...


MARTIN: ...So you vote for best screenplay. Do you - I know - I don't want to ask you to reveal your vote, so best picture, what is it in your view?

NAJERA: You know, I always looked at - and I think I always choose the underdog. I'm thinking like "Nebraska." That's the one that I really think...


NAJERA: ...Is a powerful film...

MINKOFF: That's interesting.

NAJERA: ...And that's the script I would vote for. And as for the actors, I mean, it's turning into Christian Bale - gained weight - and then the other one lost weight.

MARTIN: Matthew McConaughey lost weight.

NAJERA: Matthew - yeah. So I'm giving it to the woman who won "Biggest Loser." She lost the most weight of everyone, so I'm giving her the Oscar.


MARTIN: All right. Rick Najera is a television writer, he's the author of "Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood." Also with us, Kevin Blackistone, sports columnist, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Neil Minkoff, health care consultant and contributor to the National Review. And Jimi Izrael is a writer. You can find his blog at his JimiIzrael.com. Thank you all so much.


MINKOFF: Thank you.

NAJERA: Thank you.


MARTIN: Remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast, that's in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.