President Obama: 'Nobody's Boy'?

Originally published on August 5, 2011 2:06 pm

The President was recently referred to as "your boy" by MSNBC's Pat Buchanan, and his debt ceiling policy was called a "tar baby" by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). Also in the week's news: July gained 117,000 jobs and MTV hit 30 years on the air. Weighing in are the Barbershop guys: author Jimi Izrael, attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Republican strategist Ron Christie, and professor Mark Lamont Hill.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: 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. You know we couldn't leave him home so we brought them all to Philly with us. Joining us for a shapeup from Philadelphia are author, Jimi Izrael; civil rights attorney and editor, Arsalan Iftikhar; Republican strategist, Ron Christie; and Philadelphia's own Marc Lamont Hill, associate professor of education and African-American studies at Columbia University. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Listen. Thanks, Michel. Listen, before we go much further, I got to shout out WCPN 90.3 in Cleveland, it's good to be home. Welcome to the future. Ladies and gentlemen, bothers and sisters, friends - and I see a few enemies - welcome to the shop. How are we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

RON CHRISTIE: What's happenin'?

MARC LAMONT HILL: Welcome to my city.

IFTIKHAR: (unintelligible)

IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah. You run the city, man. So you're the man. All right, well, let's...

HILL: (unintelligible)

IZRAEL: Let's get things started. Now, picking up on your earlier conversation, Michel, about diversity in the newsroom, some members of the media are still getting heat for how they talk about the president. Now, this week, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan referred to the president as your boy on Al Sharpton's new show. Woo.

MARTIN: Right. In fact, for people who missed it...

IZRAEL: You got the tape.

MARTIN: We'll just play it for you so you can understand what we're talking about. Here it is.

IZRAEL: Drop it.


PAT BUCHANAN: And let me tell you, your boy, Barack Obama, caved in on it in 2010. And he'll cave in on it again.

AL SHARPTON: My what? My president, Barack Obama? What did you say?


BUCHANAN: He's your boy in the ring.

SHARPTON: No, he's nobody's boy. He's your president and he's our president and that's what y'all are going to get through your head.



IZRAEL: He's got to check himself before he wreck himself, right?

You know what? In related news, Colorado Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn this week, he called President Obama's debt ceiling policy a tar baby. And lots of folks, but not me, took offense to that, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, you know, so I wanted to ask people what they think about this. Do you think that this is intentional? Obviously, many people interpret this as disrespect. But I'm wondering if other people - you think it's ignorant they don't really understand what they're saying and the impact that it is going to have on certain people who are hearing it, Marc? This is your town, so we'll go to you first.

HILL: I think that's part of it. I mean, I doubt that the congressman decided to use the word tar baby in full public view knowing he was going to get pilloried by the media. He used the word tar baby in a way that he didn't understand. But one of the privileges of whiteness and one of the privileges of white supremacy is that you don't have to know if certain terms offend people.

No, I'm not letting him off the hook. I'm saying he should be on the hook 'cause he made a mistake. He should be aware of what's going on. And I think...

IZRAEL: Ignorant isn't an excuse.

MARTIN: All right, Jimi says - go ahead.

IZRAEL: I totally disagree with that. Listen, man, they start with the tar baby, I mean, that goes back to Joe Harris' book, "Uncle Remis," right? And these are stories he collected from the black oral tradition. And the tar baby is just a sticky situation. It's just a metaphor for a sticky situation.

HILL: That's my point. That's my point.

MARTIN: So you think he should've - instead of saying...

HILL: He didn't understand it's a racist term.

IZRAEL: Well, and certainly...

HILL: And he should have.

IZRAEL: And certainly he should have, but I'm OK with how - I think the metaphor was apt. I'm sorry.

HILL: Nah, see? That's where you're...

IZRAEL: Wait, wait. Could he have chosen a different metaphor? Probably. Probably.

HILL: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Probably.

HILL: Probably.

IZRAEL: R.C., want to jump in here, man?

CHRISTIE: I do. And I think I agree with both of you gentlemen, actually. I think it's ignorance. He should've known the historical context of what that type of phrase means. But on the other hand, I don't think the congressman meant anything racial by it. But having the first African-American president in the White House you're going to leave yourself open to certain criticism, to certain interpretations if you say things like that. I thought it was a stupid thing to say. He put it out there on the record and I think we should be talking about it.

MARTIN: What about Patrick Buchanan, though?

CHRISTIE: Look, I've known Pat Buchanan for probably, like, the last 15 years and...

HILL: I'm sorry to hear that.


CHRISTIE: Hey, we all have our different friends. That's what diversity is about in this country.

I don't think that he meant anything racist by it. But I thought that was one of the more stupid things I've ever heard him say.

MARTIN: Well...

HILL: (unintelligible)

IZRAEL: That's (unintelligible).

HILL: That didn't bother me at all.

MARTIN: See? That didn't bother Marc. (unintelligible)

IZRAEL: That's your boy, Pat Buchanan, man.


MARTIN: Wait a minute. Hold on. Wait. I have to hear this. Marc, that did not bother you.

HILL: No, I mean, when I see Al Sharpton, I'll be, like, what's up with your boy, Barack Obama? 'Cause he's tripping right now.

MARTIN: But there's a difference between you and Patrick Buchanan, is there not?

HILL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I've never confused the two of you.

HILL: That's for sure. But I don't think boy is a term that - I think people use boy in all sorts of ways.

MARTIN: Well, just to clarify for people who - Arsalan, we haven't forgotten about you. But just to clarify for people who may not understand why it is that many people find it offensive to call a black man a boy, Jimi, do you want to break it down?

IZRAEL: Well, I mean you don't call a black man a boy. You don't call any adult male over the age of six a boy. It's derogatory. Unless that's your friend, unless you have an intimacy with that person.

CHRISTIE: Exactly.

HILL: That is the point. That's what Pat Buchanan was saying.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: But it doesn't have - well, if it is an intimacy I'm acquainted with it.

IZRAEL: But see Pat Buchanan went in a different way and we...

HILL: Oh, you sound like Michael from - boy is a white racist word. I get it but I don't think that's what he was going for right there.

MARTIN: Okay, well, let's hear from Arsalan.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, it's we have to look at things holistically. You know, a few months ago we had the Fox Business News guy saying, you know, Barack's drinking 40s in the White House. And, you know, the terrorist is - I mean this is part of an entire meta narrative that we're seeing where it, you know, these are code words that are being said. And also, I mean Jimi, for the last four years, I mean being a Barack supporter since our days in Chicago, you've been calling him my boy...

IZRAEL: That's your boy. That's your boy.

IFTIKHAR: You've been calling him a boy for years.

IZRAEL: That's your boy. But see, my whole thing is they're bigger fish to fry, than...

IFTIKHAR: There are bigger fish to fry. But what I'm saying is that, you know, had, you know, had we, you know, a white, another white American as president, I don't think that we'd be seeing these - I don't think anybody would be talking about, you know, drinking 40s in the White House. That's racist.

IZRAEL: Well, you know what? But wait a second. When W was in the White House I called him a frat boy in chief. You know, I mean I didn't have any problems with it.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, but there's nothing racialist about that. You know what I'm saying?

CHRISTIE: But here's the difference, guys.

IZRAEL: Go ahead.


CHRISTIE: Look, I would never and I worked for President Bush, I'm friends with President Bush, I would never...

IFTIKHAR: My apologies again.

HILL: Yeah, that don't sound diverse. (Unintelligible) George Bush...

CHRISTIE: All right. Hey, fellas, easy. But I would never have referred to him as my boy the president because I think it's disrespectful to say you're a guy or your boy Bush.

IZRAEL: Right.

CHRISTIE: Same sense that I think it was a mistake that Buchanan said your boy when he was making the remark towards Barack Obama. He's the president of the United States and I think there's a certain level of respect and dignity if you're in public life, like many of us are, that you don't say things like about that regardless of the color of the skin of the president.

HILL: I agree with that. I agree with that.

MARTIN: Can I just say one thing, though? I am so tired of people telling us that they're just emulating, you know, what hip-hop heads say. Like, you know, this is the excuse. They say well, I'm just saying what you all say. In what other area of life are these particular individuals taking direction from hip-hop heads?


IZRAEL: Right.

IFTIKHAR: Exactly.

MARTIN: Stock tips? I mean investment advice?


IFTIKHAR: Exactly. Right. Right.

MARTIN: Excuse me, real estate? And they're not, so tell me why that in this unique area people feel that they can appropriate language and...

HILL: I'm with you.

MARTIN: ...because they're down with it?

CHRISTIE: That's why they're stupid.

IZRAEL: Well, yeah. I think MTV did that. I think MTV made it cool to disappropriate(ph) hip-hop. But we'll get to that later.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop segment from Philly. We're joined by author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, African-American studies professor Marc Lamont Hill and Republican strategist Ron Christie. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Now a lot of people have bad stuff to say about the government in general, and the president specifically, Obama, your boy. Nah, I mean...


MARTIN: Because of the economy.

IZRAEL: Because of the economy. But even with - but, you know, we have some numbers drop today. You smell that?

MARTIN: Right.

IZRAEL: Fresh numbers.

MARTIN: Right. We talked about this a little earlier in the program, as we talked about the economy added 117,000 jobs in July. That was much better than any analysts, whoever these analysts are, we're expecting. But certainly, much better than the numbers in June where it was a very pitiful 18,000 new jobs. And the jobless rate has dropped slightly from 9.2 percent to 9.1 percent. I'll just play a short clip of the president who talked about this this morning.

IZRAEL: Drop it.

President BARACK OBAMA: What I want the American people and our partners around the world to know is this: we are going to get through this. Things will get better, and we're going to get there together.

IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. Thank you. R.C., check in on that.

CHRISTIE: Well, I think things are going to get better but I think they're going to get worse before they get better. I think you need to create somewhere in the ballpark of $200,000 - 200,000 jobs a month to bring down the unemployment rate.

MARTIN: I'll take $200,000, by the way.

CHRISTIE: I'll take it too.

MARTIN: I want that too.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I'll take 50.


CHRISTIE: I think regulations imposed by this administration, the health care bill imposed by this administration is going to drive taxes up, I think it's crippling the economy and I think that we need to allow these small businesses in this country to really unleash and really create jobs. But this administration has done in my opinion, a disservice to creating jobs and it's been a barrier and an obstacle rather than being an inhibitor of trying to create jobs.

IZRAEL: A-Train.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you a question like that? Because, you know, I know many Republicans, particularly conservatives, continue to focus on health care and the health care mandate and so forth. But why wouldn't one make an argument that creating another market for health care which allows small businesses to offer this to their employees when they can now, is actually a job creator? Why wouldn't it be, given that people can not invest as much of their income in health care as they are now doing, that it takes some of the drag off...

CHRISTIE: Because, you see providers like Harvard Pilgrim up at Massachusetts saying the restrictions that were put on by Obamacare make it cost prohibitive for them to stay in business, so they're going to get out of business. You see insurers and providers saying that it's more cost-effective for us to get out of this. That's why it's a job killer, to say nothing about the 0.9 percent Medicare tax that's going to be imposed next year. More taxes, more regulations and people who are looking at this and saying is this smart? Should I be in this? No, they're getting out of the system.

IZRAEL: A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: What's interesting to me is, you know, we always hear this code word job creators, which means rich ass people. You know, people making $250,000 and above. You know, this is, you know, during the whole debt ceiling debate, you know, we need to generate revenue. And, you know, the vast majority of Americans in public polling showed that they supported, you know, tax increases for people making over $250,000 a year.

Now the Republicans what they've done is they used the code word job creators to, you know, somehow push back against that. And I understand that, you know, these people might be job creators but these are people, you know, in the top .1 percent of income brackets in America.

MARTIN: You meant terribly rich, not that term you used earlier.

IZRAEL: Yeah, he's giving us that David Chappelle punditry.


MARTIN: Which we will, you meant terribly rich.

IFTIKHAR: I meant terribly, terribly rich.

MARTIN: Terribly rich.

IFTIKHAR: Terribly rich.

MARTIN: Pinkies up.



HILL: I agree. I mean I think that it becomes, there's always this sort of the sky is falling clamor that comes whenever people talk about revenue increases, tax increases and such. People say oh my god, it's going to kill the jobs, it's going to inhibit growth. The fact of the matter is what the president should have done is actually forced revenue increases, forced tax increases...


HILL: that the uber rich, the ultra rich would be able to pay their fair share, and I don't think it would have inhibited job growth. In fact the one thing we saw in the debt ceiling debate was the absence of a conversation about job growth. The president caved on everything and there was not one piece of that bill that actually created the very jobs that were talking about right now.


HILL: And that to me is the issue.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, moving on, before we let you all go, president Obama had a big part this week. It was his 50th birthday, and I know you all convey your very best wishes for - all of you. But MTV celebrated its 30th anniversary this week. Where you when it launched, Jimi? I know this was a pivotal moment for you.

IZRAEL: Actually it wasn't because my mom couldn't afford cable so I was at home wishing I had cable.


IZRAEL: But what I did see is how it changed the kids around me, and it kind of gave them an eye into this catalog of cool that MTV had become. And then it kind of drove the consumer culture. What I think though about MTV, it was kind of the end of hip-hop as we know it, because "Yo MTV Raps"...


IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. Okay.

HILL: Here's where your Cleveland is coming out.


IZRAEL: Well, nah, wait. Hear me out. Hear me out.

HILL: You have never (unintelligible). Say Bone Thugs. You have nothing to say about hip-hop, sir.

MARTIN: Security. Security. I need to hold them apart.

IZRAEL: Hear me out. Hear me out. We...

HILL: Please. I got to hear this.

IZRAEL: Hear me out because both of us teach about hip-hop a bit. And my feeling about MTV is that it gave the hipsters a chance to look into this culture in which they had no stakes and draw from it to absorb, appropriate and eventually kind of claim this culture that wasn't theirs without having to engage the people of this culture...


IZRAEL: Hold on. Hold on one moment. And for me this was not the business. Go ahead.

HILL: Well, see, I mean that's ironic because and I'm not even kind of Cleveland right now. The reason you have access to a New York piece of art, a New York hip-hop aesthetic is because of MTV. These things broadcast a New York bronze art creation to you.

IZRAEL: We don't agree on that, so...

HILL: Well, that's how you got hip-hop. That's how you got hip-hop, Jimi. But the bigger point here is that hip-hop didn't get appropriated because of MTV. There is a whole lot of reasons why hip-hop got appropriated but it ain't because of MTV. What MTV did was create a market, it created a space to see all sorts of hip-hop exist, not just one kind of a Tribe Called Quest.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, and let's not forget that MTV did not actually even air black artists for many, many years...

HILL: A long time.

IZRAEL: Right.

IFTIKHAR: ...until, you know, "Billie Jean," you know, in what, '83 or '84. But what's interesting to me, you know, the first video where symbolically on August 1st, 1981 was "Video Killed the Radio Song," and so, you know, by The Buggles. And so, you know, for me it was that trans - I mean granted I was four years old, but I mean...


IFTIKHAR: ...I watched it. You know, but it was that transition from sort of an auditory experience to now more of a visual video experience.

MARTIN: Right.

CHRISTIE: I think that's exactly it. I mean it definitely changed my life. I remember it opened up a whole new world. I mean you saw all whole different...

HILL: You watch MTV?

CHRISTIE: Yes. I saw a whole different culture, a whole different aspect.

MARTIN: Ron has a whole other side.

CHRISTIE: That's right.

HILL: He hangs with George Bush and Pat Buchanan. I don't know...

CHRISTIE: Exactly.

IZRAEL: He's obviously a Beavis and Butthead guy.

CHRISTIE: Ah, come on.


MARTIN: Go ahead, Ron. You were saying...

HILL: (unintelligible) candidate George Bush.

CHRISTIE: But perhaps, you guys, you know, what is it that the left with George Bush? Just for once. I think MTV opened the minds and opened really the eyes of a lot of people who had never seen an entire hip-hop culture, they've never seen an East Coast culture, and they thought huh, there's a whole different world out there. That's how I felt a little kid and I thought that's pretty cool.

MARTIN: You know, but what do you mean when you say appropriation? I always wonder what that means. I mean doesn't art belong to everybody? Doesn't culture belong to everybody? I mean we all eat spaghetti and salsa and, you know, whatever, you know what I mean? Why aren't we allowed access to have access to the culture even if we didn't originate it? I mean we like - what you mean by appropriation?

IZRAEL: I think there is having access, and I think there's appropriating. I think taking it for yourself, taking it as you're own and not giving anything back to the stakeholders, you know, that's my opinion, you know....

HILL: But it's real. But that ain't...

MARTIN: Isn't that record sales? Isn't that what it is, giving something back? What is it?

HILL: Because they the only ones buying it.


IZRAEL: Right.

HILL: But only the people selling the records...

IZRAEL: You're helping me make my point. Because I believe that the MTV culture diluted the culture, diluted hip-hop culture and it changed the message and it's not what it was and it...

HILL: There's all sorts of hip-hop going on around outside of MTV. You can still find artists like Kweli, like Jean Grae. You can go even deeper on the underground and find those folks.

MARTIN: But is really MTV even about music anymore?



HILL: I ain't seen the music video in three years.

MARTIN: The videos that really have an impact how do people access them? They go to their sites. I mean if you think about the videos that have made news like, you know, "Telephone," Lady Gaga, so "Telephone" or Kanye, you know, "Beat It"...


MARTIN: ...or something like that. But I have to wonder though, if MTV were more present in music would there be more politics in conversely, I'm thinking about like MIA for example...

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...the videos which are the most provocative ones, but don't get a lot of airplay. I'm sort of wondering about that.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know what's interesting about that phenomenon Michel, is that, you know, like in 1986, you know, when Run DMC and Aerosmith did "Walk This Way" together...

HILL: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: know, at that time that was groundbreaking stuff. You know, here you had a white rock band and a, you know, a black hip-hop band collaborating for the first time and it sort of, you know, brought these two cultures together. And, you know, for everybody who was watching TV at the time, it was really a groundbreaking era.

MARTIN: All-time favorite video? All-time?

IZRAEL: "Girls on Film," Duran Duran.

MARTIN: All right. All-time favorite?

IFTIKHAR: "Thriller," Michael Jackson.

MARTIN: "Thriller." Marc?

HILL: I'm going with "Thriller."

MARTIN: "Thriller." Ron?

CHRISTIE: Make it three.

MARTIN: "Thriller?"

CHRISTIE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: All right. Okay. Jimi, as usual, the outlier.


MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book, "The Denzel Principle." Ron Christie is a Republican strategist and former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of and managing editor of the Crescent Post. Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education and African-American studies at Columbia University, and host of the TV show "Our World with Black Enterprise." Thank you all for joining us from our broadcast from the National Association of Black Journalists Conference in Philadelphia.


HILL: Peace.

CHRISTIE: See you later.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Allison Keyes will be sitting in the host chair next week. She will talk more with you on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.