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Is Obama's Same-Sex Statement All Talk, No Action?


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 shapeup this week are freelance journalist Jimi Izrael. He's with us from Cleveland. Here in Washington, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. Also here in our D.C. studio, Johns Hopkins political science professor and blogger, Lester Spence, and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. He's in from San Diego.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?


LESTER SPENCE: Doing good. Hey.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Oh, shucky ducky.

IZRAEL: Alrighty, then.

MARTIN: Step away from the Red Bull.

IZRAEL: Right, right, right, right. Well, you know what? Just a few days after President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, Newsweek magazine created a buzz with this kind of provocative cover. You'll remember, it shows President Obama with a rainbow halo around his head and the headline The First Gay President, kind of reminds me when Toni Morrison knighted Bill Clinton the first black president.

Lester Spence, the good doctor, you've been blogging about this. Politically, what do you think President Obama's same-sex marriage announcement - what do you think it means?

SPENCE: Well, I think it means that, for the first time - well, not really for the first time - but it really gives gays and lesbians and people who support them increased political capital to actually fight for marital rights. Right? I mean, so we think of marriage as kind of a thing that people do, but there are, like, 1,100 - no - there are more like 1,200 state and federal benefits that come with marriage that people who are married - that people who want to engage in same-sex marriages can not actually have. Right?

So just him saying that he supports it gives them increased political capital to fight. Now, they're going to be - there are some concerns that he may lose support from, say, African-Americans, for example. But the reality is is that black...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. That'll happen.

SPENCE: Yeah. No. The reality is that black people, black attitudes on this issue are really changing and that's unlikely to happen. This is really a great thing.

IZRAEL: I've always thought the whole meme about black people being homophobic - I've always thought that was overblown. Ruben Navarrette, you've been - you've said before in the shop that black folks vote against same-sex marriage when the issue comes up...

NAVARRETTE: They have.

IZRAEL: ...at the polls. OK. Well, do you think this will change anything?

NAVARRETTE: Well, they are not alone. Latinos also voted. A majority of Latinos voted against gay marriage on the day they voted for Barack Obama to be president in 2008. There's a paradox for you. A number of African-Americans in California - the majority of African-Americans in California, on that same night, went to the polls, elected Barack Obama to be president, voted against gay marriage. So those two communities have had that issue.

I don't - it's taken me a while. Ten years ago, I was on that train of folks who believed in a civil union and didn't like the idea of gay marriage, but for the last 10 years, I've been in favor of gay marriage. And it really is a tough issue for a lot of politicians to come down on.

I don't think the president went far enough and I'm not alone in that regard. A lot of folks - if you saw Barbara Walters interview him on "The View," she was trying to pin him down as to more of a commitment in terms of: what are you prepared to do as president? You're not just some taxi driver. You know, you don't just teach, you know, college. You don't just write a column. What is it that you're prepared to do as president to put actions to your words? And he wouldn't be pinned down. All he says is, I support gay marriage. I support the idea of it. But he hasn't said that he would help repeal DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act.

And this is, again - Barbara Walters isn't alone in trying to pin him down and trying to get more out of him. I just think this is words, words, words and, unfortunately, in this administration, we've seen time and again, they think words and actions are interchangeable. They think words are just as good as actions and...

MARTIN: Yeah. But Ruben...

IZRAEL: Well, hold...

NAVARRETTE: ...that words speak just as loud as actions.

MARTIN: Wait. Let me just ask this, Ruben. Two things here.


MARTIN: First of all, you're also the same guy who's also telling him to set his priorities. I mean, this has been your ongoing theme here. It's about the economy. And why are you diverting from that? That should be your priority. And every time he's something other than that, you've criticized him for not setting priorities. So, number one...


MARTIN: ...I want to know what's up with that. And, number two...


MARTIN: ...I wanted to ask you, on a personal level, you said that you were kind of civil marriage, yes, marriage, no, 10 years ago.


MARTIN: I'm curious about what changed your mind.

NAVARRETTE: Well, I'll tell you. I want to take on the second part first, but I think, with regard to his priorities, I said all along he'd have had a much smoother presidency if he had focused on the economy like a laser in the first term and in the first year of the term - excuse me - the first year.

And because people would have said, well, even if he didn't make it, even if he wasn't able to make a dent in it, at least he tried. And I think that it took him too long to get to that and I've said that before.

But I think the gay community is saying, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. You have said - you come in and taken our money. You know, you have these bundlers who go into the gay community. They want something in return for that and they hope that this is sort of going to help them along those lines, but they have been very unhappy with this president, as you know, up to this point because they think that he is actually evolving in the other direction.

Now, I started off against gay marriage and ended up more in favor of it. He's been sort of reversed when you look at what he did in the Illinois Legislature. What changed my mind is this basic idea that family members of mine who are gay should have the same rights to be married as I do. And when you see it as a case of marriage equality and just liberty, freedom like everybody else, having the same freedom as the person next door, I think it's much harder to run against it than when you see it as a religious institution and the idea of marriage being special between a man and a woman. So for me it's about equality and it's about liberty and that's where I've arrived.

MARTIN: Hey Jimi...

IZRAEL: Ruben...

MARTIN: ...can Arsalan jump in here? He's dying. He's dying. He's jumping out of his chair.


IZRAEL: OK. All right. Why not? Go ahead, A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know fellas, you know who's not getting enough props in this whole thing is Uncle Joe Biden.

SPENCE: Oh, that's right. That's actually right.

IFTIKHAR: You know, let's not forget, the Vice President Joe Biden went on the Sunday talk shows, not only coming out publicly in support of gay marriage but, you know, throwing the "Will and Grace" reference in there but, you know, that really was the impetus that brought this about. And so I'm waiting for Vice President Biden to start, you know, dropping dimes about, you know, decriminalizing marijuana or closing Guantanamo Bay.


IZRAEL: Joe is the gift that keeps on giving.

NAVARRETTE: And two words - indefinite detention.


IFTIKHAR: But, you know...

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: For him.

IFTIKHAR: ...the interesting thing, you know, as a civil rights lawyer, what I always tell people is that in America under our constitutional system, the protection of the civil rights of one person is the protection of the civil rights of everyone. And the example I always get is the landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown versus the Board of Education, which was about a seven-year-old little black girl in Kansas who could not go to school next door to her. But the landmark decision actually became the legal precedent for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects every single American from employment discrimination. So we have to understand that even though we might not be gay or we might not be an immigrant, we have to understand that the protection of the civil rights of one American is the protection of all Americans' civil rights.

MARTIN: Jimi, wants to - Jimi?

IZRAEL: Can I get this out right quick?


IZRAEL: Ruben?


IZRAEL: You said something about our black and brown brothers going to the polls and voting down gay marriage. You know, I want to clarify something. We don't believe it's a racial thing so much as we believe it's a religion thing, yeah? I mean are we on - do we agree about that?

NAVARRETTE: I think religion's a big...

IZRAEL: I mean I...

SPENCE: Absolutely.

NAVARRETTE: Oh, I think, no doubt. Religion is a big part of it with regard to the African-American community and...

IZRAEL: I think religion is the part of it.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Well, again, I don't think...

MARTIN: Well, because nobody says that...

NAVARRETTE: I don't think it can be justified - I don't think you can hide behind religion when you say that a group of people should be disenfranchised. Living in California, when that ballot initiative, Prop 8, was on the ballot, it was pretty clear. This was an attempt to disenfranchise a segment of the California population. And it was almost a 50-50 vote. It was so incredibly close, right? So incredibly close and it was a big disappointment to me personally that a majority of Latinos who don't need lectures on being discriminated against, were on the wrong side and a majority of African-Americans were on the wrong side and they know better.

MARTIN: How do you - I don't know how you call something so fundamental that people's being as religion for some people as hiding behind it. I mean you wouldn't say you can't hide behind your sexuality; you can't hide behind your intellect. I mean if that is fundamental to who you are how you call it hiding behind, as opposed to a profound belief that has to be engaged?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. What I...

IZRAEL: Also, the gay community has...

NAVARRETTE: I'm having trouble with this. I'm having trouble with...

IZRAEL: Go ahead. Go ahead, man. I'm sorry.

NAVARRETTE: I'm having trouble with a community that has typically during the civil rights movement gone to the church as a focal point of a movement for equality, then coming back to the same church as somehow a focal point for an attempt to deny equality on another group of people. It doesn't work that way and it doesn't sound good when it's coming from Latinos, it doesn't sound good when it's coming from African-Americans.

Now, African-Americans who are gay and Latinos who are gay have been saying this for some time that it's particularly hurtful that their communities are not in their corner. So what I'm saying here is that the president can talk all he wants but there's a lot of folks out there who want to see some serious action and they want to see it...

IZRAEL: But, but, wait...

MARTIN: But that is the same thing is true of religious minorities, like people who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or perhaps people who are conservative Jewish people. I mean those are also religious minorities in this country who also may have a deep and profound belief...


MARTIN: ...that marriage should take on a certain form and nobody...

NAVARRETTE: I hear you. And...

MARTIN: ...turns to them and say, how could you say that because you are...

NAVARRETTE: Well, I do. I would. I do and I would.



IFTIKHAR: But let's...

NAVARRETTE: ... if you're Jewish or your Mormon and you know what it's like to be discriminated against, where do you get off discriminating against somebody else?

IFTIKHAR: Ruben...

MARTIN: OK. We hear you. Go ahead.

IZRAEL: OK. Well, that said, I mean, has the gay community made any bridges to the people, communities of color but I'm not aware of, any substantial bridges to the people of color that I'm not aware of? I'm just curious. I'm going to put that out there because I keep hearing this conversation about what black people and brown people are supposed to do but, you know, there can't be any generosity without reciprocity.

NAVARRETTE: Well, listen. You know, Jimi, you know, we're living it right now. We have this very ugly history with regard to the Unity Conference, you know, the unity conference, bringing together the African-American, Latino, Asian-American journalists...

IZRAEL: Right. I know all about it, buddy.

NAVARRETTE: ...the whole story, right? Well, you know about the latest wrinkle, the fact is that when it was opened up to gay and lesbian journalists, OK, there was one group that defected and that was the group of black journalists who defected.

MARTIN: That wasn't the only reason. That's not the reason, Ruben. I'm sorry, I'm challenging your facts.


IZRAEL: Well, you're going inside baseball now. Right.

MARTIN: No. Well, just I'm sorry. Just as a matter of record, that is - first of all, it's a very minor issue but secondly, it was not about LGBT journalists, it was about financial issues in the sense of the financial burden because and a NABJ happens to be the largest association. I'm sure three people care about that, including us, but I just feel that...



MARTIN: I just feel that that's just not accurate.


MARTIN: Anyway, we need to move on. I'm sorry, gentlemen, this is a really rich and important discussion but there other things that I know Jimi wanted to talk about so in our weekly Barbershop roundtable with freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and political science professor Lester Spence.

I know, Ruben is so shy today. I don't know. What can we do to bring him out of his shell?


NAVARRETTE: Move the coffee away from Ruben. Move the coffee. Right.

MARTIN: Move it away. But, you know, talking about can we all get along on a lighter note...

IZRAEL: Right. Right. Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...these two popular New Jersey leaders teamed up on this video spoof this week. It was for their kind of legislative follies or a lot of state legislatures had this kind of tradition where they do some sort of a dinner. It's supposed to encourage people to, you know, get along. Can I just play a short clip of it?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. Drop it.

MARTIN: Do you want to hear it? OK. Here it is.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: You guys have any problems you want me to handle? Like a fire anywhere? People trapped?


CHRISTIE: No? No? Like a bad automobile accident where you need me to help some folks?

BOOKER: No, nothing like that.

CHRISTIE: Maybe the cat in the tree?

BOOKER: No. I think were all set here.

Cooper, what have we got?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mayor, thank you for coming. There's a two alarm fire down on State Street. We do have a car broken down on Route 1. And, yes, a little girl has lost her cat in a tree.

CHRISTIE: All right Cooper, as you were.

BOOKER: Governor, I've got this.

MARTIN: Anyway...



MARTIN: ...the deal is is that this plays out Cory Booker, his real-life reputation as a hands-on mayor who he literally just did in fact save a neighbor who was in a burning building and...

NAVARRETTE: That's right.

MARTIN: Governor Christie is, you know, trying to get in on that, not to his success. So I don't know. I wonder what you guys think about that.

IZRAEL: Good luck. I mean...


MARTIN: Well I don't know. What do you think?

IZRAEL: You know what? I saw the video and I was like overall the mise-en-scene was kind of reminiscent of Wes Anderson's circa "The Life Aquatic." The multiple camera style kind of shot right to digital. I dug it. You know, it looked expensive but exhaustive to edit. Well acted mostly, but not funny enough for me and for a lot of other people, I think kind of stick in the zeitgeist in any substantial way. And I don't think it's going to change anybody's political mind either, so there's that.

MARTIN: I understood like three words of that.


MARTIN: But anyway, Arsalan, go ahead. Including the, and and.

IFTIKHAR: No, I loved the video. And what's interesting for me living here in Washington, D.C., you know, having to deal with beltway politics, it shows how hyper-partisan our country has become here in Washington, D.C. It reminds me of a conversation that I had a few months ago with Clarence Page, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist from the Chicago Tribune, where he said, you know Arsalan, I've covered D.C. for 35 years and the level of vitriol, you know, back in the 80's Arlen Specter and Ted Kennedy would yell at each other on the Senate floor and then go play around at golf afterwards. He's like, I just don't see that as being possible today. And what I saw with the Booker-Christie video was that, you know, at the state and local level, you know, people are crossing party lines in a way that they're just not doing here and it really, really brought that to light for me.

MARTIN: Lester, what you think?

SPENCE: Yeah, along those same lines though, you have to remember the relationship between a governor and a mayor, a governor and a big-city mayor is different, right? So Coleman Young, first black mayor of Detroit, he worked really, really closely with William Milliken, who was governor of Michigan during the first couple of terms. So I think it's a good video. We have to understand that, but we have to make sure that we don't make the leap and say OK, wow, I wish our federal, our D.C. politics was more like this.

MARTIN: Because?

SPENCE: Because...

NAVARRETTE: It's different. It's just different.

SPENCE: Yeah. How people engage in personally has absolutely no effect on these really substantial political differences. I don't necessarily - I wouldn't necessarily want, say, for example, somebody far, far on the left like a John Conyers, I wonder what John Conyers to hang out with Ryan before or after.

MARTIN: Paul Ryan, budget committee chairman. Really?

SPENCE: Paul Ryan...

MARTIN: You don't want them to hang out? You don't think a game of bowling could smooth things over a little bit?

SPENCE: No. No. I...

MARTIN: A least a couple of brewskis?

SPENCE: What it does is it means to like a beer summit view of politics, right, where the only thing, where what we need to have people do it get together and talk it out and then just, you know, kind of smooth out differences. No. These are deep, enduring political differences that we need conflict to reconcile.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Ruben, what...

IZRAEL: And see, and Lester gets why - gets to why I thought it would be more useful to just have a craft, a craft critique of the piece rather than talk about it politically because there's nothing else there to talk about.


NAVARRETTE: Yeah. It's kind, you know...

MARTIN: Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: It's a nice gesture. I like the idea of people coming across party lines. I get the difference with the governor and mayor's relationship. But I just had a much warmer feel for the actual event. If you remember how Cory Booker, Mayor Cory Booker handled himself at the press day that day, they're all trying to call him a hero everything else...

SPENCE: Oh yeah.

NAVARRETTE: ...and he just in a very class act, very classy said, you know what, I just did what anybody else would do.


NAVARRETTE: And I flash back to that. I thought that was a much more, you know, sophisticated and respectful way of dealing with it.

MARTIN: It was a very profound event. Actually, we talked to him right after that, after he did...

NAVARRETTE: Oh, he was, he was just perfect the way he handled it. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...bring his neighbor to safety, and it was a very profound event. You all remember that.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: OK, before we let you go, you know I can say goodbye without getting those NBA, the playoff picks, you know, have to do it.


MARTIN: Arsalan, is doing his happy dance because, Arsalan, you're our man here. Who do you pick to win it all and...

IFTIKHAR: Well, I mean, you know...

MARTIN: ...why do we even ask this?


IFTIKHAR: Well, I mean, you know, with this condensed NBA season, you know, Derrick Rose is out of the playoffs. Dwight Howard's been out of the playoffs. You know, Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat is out indefinitely. We don't know when he's coming back. You know, so in the East, it kicks open the door for my beloved Boston Celtics to potentially make their one last run of their big three of, you know, Paul "The Truth" Pearce, Ray "Jesus Shuttlesworth" Allen, and Kevin "Big Ticket" Garnett, who is just turning back the clock. But in the West, I think that's the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are the two best teams in the NBA. It's kind of sad that they're going to have to duke it out to actually play somebody from the East in the finals. But I think it's going to be San Antonio and Boston. I've got to pick my Boston Celtics in six games.

MARTIN: I am shocked by that.

IFTIKHAR: I know, right.

MARTIN: Now Lester, you know, your Pistons are out, so you still watching?

SPENCE: Yes. Yeah. So you didn't let me, you know, normally I'd just say Detroit. It doesn't matter, right?



SPENCE: But, yeah, I think if Bosh doesn't get healthy I think it probably will be Boston and San Antonio. And I think it will be San Antonio.

MARTIN: OK. Ruben, what you like?

NAVARRETTE: I'm going to pull for San Antonio. I would like - a shout out to my friend, Julian Castro, the mayor out there, pull for him. But you know I'm agnostic on basketball. Bring back football season. Let's get going.


MARTIN: No wings for you. Jimi, you're a Cleveland man. You know, your Cavaliers lost LeBron James to the Miami Heat, ahead of last season. The Heat fell in the finals last year to the Mavericks, so who do you - what do you call it this time?

IZRAEL: You know what? I've got to say sorry to my man Scott Raab. I got to rock with the Heat, you know, because LeBron has got a lot to prove. He's Mr. MVP, you know, it's all in the shoes that came out and there's a suite...


IZRAEL: So if he can't win in those shoes he can't win.


MARTIN: Oh. Hey, I know what I want for Christmas.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Washington Post Writers Group, Latino Magazine and CNN.com, with us from San Diego. Lester Spence, blogger and political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. Arsalan and Lester, here with me in Washington, D.C.

Thank you all so much.


SPENCE: Peace.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.