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Shop Talk: Are Rihanna, Brown Condoning Abuse?


I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop. The guys are going to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance journalist Jimi Izrael. He's in Cleveland. Here in Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney and author Arsalan Iftikhar. In New York, deputy managing editor of the National Review, Kevin Williamson. And from Austin, the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Mario Loyola. He also writes for the National Review.

Take it away, Jimi.

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

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.


MARIO LOYOLA: (Unintelligible).

IZRAEL: OK. Everybody - OK. Can we get a little caffeinated up in here? OK.

MARTIN: Yeah, maybe. Sip that Red Bull while you're at it, but go ahead.

IZRAEL: Right, right. Well, all right. Anyway, let's get things started. Talking about everyone's favorite topic - certainly mine - affirmative action.

MARTIN: I know, right?

IZRAEL: Supreme Court Justices say that they'll take a case where a white woman is challenging the University of Texas' race-based admission policy. A broad ruling in her favor could wipe out affirmative action rules, Michel.

MARTIN: That's true. I don't know that I would characterize their admissions policies as race-based, but race influenced, let's say. In 2003, the court voted five to four that race could be one of many factors that may be considered in admission to colleges and universities. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the opinion and she wrote, quote, "racial diversity is an essential part of education's mission," end quote.

But, of course, the makeup of the court has changed since then. Sandra Day O'Connor, of course, was replaced by - upon her retirement - by Samuel Alito, certainly very - an opponent of affirmative action, I think it's fair to say.

So, earlier in the program, we heard perspectives from two prominent legal minds in those two law school deans, but we were curious about your thoughts on the issue. So, Jimi, I'm just - why don't you just start? You're a college professor.

IZRAEL: Well, the thing is, I'm on record. I don't really support affirmative action, but I acknowledge I've certainly benefitted from it. But the thing is, as an educator, I don't support anything that may encourage mediocrity. But, on the other hand, I do believe there is a need to add balance in some cases and, sometimes, that means tipping the scale.

I don't know that any entity can be dependent on to foster diversity by virtue of the kindness of the heart. Entities don't even have hearts, do they?

MARTIN: Good point.

IZRAEL: Universities certainly don't. But, anyway, sometimes, you know, they may need a push and, sometimes, they need a law and this could be one of those times, the way I see it.

Super Mario, Mr. Loyola, you're in Austin where the case originated. What are your thoughts?

LOYOLA: Yeah. This is a difficult topic. I mean, you know, you've got to let time take its course and, you know, you've got to hope that, sooner or later, society itself will become more equalized and produce the kind of meritocracy that you want and the kind of diversity that you want.

A lot of government programs that are meant to force that to happen are sort of segregationist in and of themselves. And part of the problem with affirmative action is that, in principle, you're violating someone's civil rights by discriminating against them.

IZRAEL: So how long to wait? I mean, how long is too long and how long is long enough?

LOYOLA: Well, that's a good question. I mean, it's a difficult question. But there's inherent problems on both sides of the affirmative action debate. You know, on the minority side of affirmative action, you have a stigma in many situations - I remember certainly seeing that when I went to law school - of people who had, you know - one has the impression that they wouldn't be there if it wasn't for affirmative action.

And it would be nice if everyone could just compete on merit. That's in an ideal world and I don't know what to think. I mean, I wouldn't have gotten into the University of Wisconsin if it wasn't for affirmative action, but...

MARTIN: Why do you think that?

LOYOLA: ...the reason - well, because...

MARTIN: Why do you think that?

LOYOLA: Well, because my grades were terrible and the reason my grades were terrible is that I was too cool to do homework in my senior year. So somebody who really deserved to get in, more than me, did not get in because of affirmative action and I don't know what I think about that.

MARTIN: Maybe you're so smooth. Maybe you got in because you talk so smooth. You gave good interview.

LOYOLA: Yeah. They were increasing their representation of cool people, clearly, but...

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: Well, what about Arsalan? Arsalan, what do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I think what's important to keep in mind is that, you know, this new potential case, you know, could ultimately overturn 30 years of good law. You know, in the landmark 1978 Supreme Court case called Regents of the University of California versus Bakke, the court ruled in an opinion written by Justice Powell that race can be lawfully considered as one of several factors.

And so, you know, I think that opponents of affirmative action, you know, tend to paint the picture that race is the only factor involved, but you know, if you're a - you know, if you're a superstar basketball player or a virtuoso clarinet player. If you are a legacy admission, if your dad was Carter Pewterschmidt or Montgomery Burns, you know, you would have those things play as one of several factors. And the court ruled in '78 that race can play one of those several factors.

What's interesting to note, as you mentioned, Sandra Day O'Connor, you know, for many years essentially served as that pivotal swing vote on the court, which has now shifted to Justice Anthony Kennedy. What's even more troubling for progressives in this matter is that Justice Elena Kagan actually has to recuse herself from this case. And so that makes it a five three slant towards the conservative side. So, you know, what we're seeing here essentially is the Supreme Court, you know, with a conservative slant essentially telegraphing their intent to possibly use traditional activism to overturn 30 years of good law.

MARTIN: Well, what do you mean by that? What is judicial activism?


MARTIN: What does that mean to you? Because people use that term...

WILLIAMSON: It means overturning a decision he liked.



IFTIKHAR: Well and no and...

LOYOLA: Yeah, Kevin.

IZRAEL: Kevin Williamson.

IFTIKHAR: Oh, and conservatives...

MARTIN: OK. Which never happens, right?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know conservatives conveniently use judicial activism when they feel like liberal judges are overturning the policies that they like. And so, you know, it's kind of interesting when they bring that up.

MARTIN: Well, what of that, Kevin?

LOYOLA: It's always funny to me too.

MARTIN: Go ahead. Mario, you think that's - I mean what you - well, kind of let's go...

LOYOLA: No, it's always fun...

MARTIN: Go Ahead. I'm sorry.

LOYOLA: I was going to say it's always, I'm sure Kevin was about to say something similar. It's always funny for me to hear liberals talking about judicial activism when they - I mean in the Warren and Burger courts, I mean in the 1940s the Supreme Court just switched from judging to legislating and started inventing all kinds of rights. And for decades and decades, judicial activism was something that liberals did.


IZRAEL: Well, let's hear what Kevin Williamson has to say as opposed to use speaking for him, Super Mario.

WILLIAMSON: Well, you know, I...

IZRAEL: Go ahead and jump in here.

WILLIAMSON: I went to the University of Texas...

MARTIN: Because Kevin's so shy.

IZRAEL: Right.

WILLIAMSON: I went to UT so you know that their admissions standards really aren't all that high to begin with.


WILLIAMSON: I think that Sandra Day O'Connor, when she says that racial diversity is an inherent fundamental part of higher education's mission, is talking nonsense. I mean that's an intellectually indefensible statement. You can go up the road to Southern Methodist University and it's very diverse. You have the white Dallas country club set and the black Dallas country club set and it's, you know, it's terribly, terribly diverse. But it's, the people there are exactly the same.

You know, UT a lot like that. There's no diversity at the University of Texas. It's one of the most intellectually conformist and homogenous places in North America and it's not going to change. You know, UT has been through this before. When I was in school we had the Hopwood case, the University of Texas Law School, another of affirmative action case found against the university, ultimately said you can use race but just a little bit.

You know, race is a pretty primitive proxy to use for any sort of real socio-economic diversity. I think if the university wanted to look at trying to help students who are disadvantaged get a little extra nudge in, you could do things like look at whether their parents were college graduates, or whether their parents were high school graduates.

You know, this sort of...

MARTIN: Don't they do that as a practical matter? Don't they do that anyways as a practical matter? I mean isn't that what the essays are for?

WILLIAMSON: UT, and particularly there's a certain faction of...

MARTIN: Isn't that what essays are for? Isn't that what interviews are for? I mean does that really happen anyway?

WILLIAMSON: Well, UT has a particular ideological commitment to using race. They will use race to the extent that they can wherever they get a chance to. They've shown this for years and years and years. They've been doing this - I mean they did it for a long time on the other side Thurgood Marshall in Sweatt versus Painter forced him to stop doing that and other using race on the other side. And it's just what they do. It's what they want to do.

MARTIN: Is this really about you UT? Is this really about the University of Texas or is there any broader point that you want to make?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I think point to, yes, some specific conditions there, because if it's particularly history with these issues and the fact that it was the home to another affirmative action case. But, you know, you're not really making the world better for blacks and other minorities by changing standards at places like the University of Texas.

If you're poor and you're black in Texas your real educational problem isn't what it takes to get admitted as an undergraduate at UT. It's the fact that you're growing up in Houston or San Antonio or Dallas in a K through 12 system that is just barbaric and dysfunctional and terrible and you're not going to make life better for them by monkeying around with the admission standards at Flagship University.

This is like, you know, affirmative action at Harvard Law. If you're a marginal candidate for Harvard Law School you're probably going to be OK in life, you know, those aren't really the people that have real big problems that need to be addressed through public policy.

MARTIN: Well, it's interesting because I think there are a lot of - for want of a better term - liberals or progressives who agree that the K through 12 education is broken in this country. It's interesting that in the last election, you know, John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, called educational civil rights issue and the leadership conference on civil rights, which is one of the, you know, premiere kind of civil rights, you know, advocacy groups in this country also calls it a civil rights issue and has now sort of taken on the issue of K through 12 education.

One of the things that fascinates me though, before we - we are going to move on - is that you all don't seem very passionate about this issue. I mean you all have certainly sort of well thought out opinions about it but it sounds like this just really isn't like the cutting edge of things on your mind right now I'm wondering is that because you all are past it, because you all have sort of passed through that stage of your lives, or you really think it isn't really as important as kind of one of the cutting edge issues of our time. I just wondered if I could, you know, asked that.

I mean maybe, I don't know. Arsalan, I'll ask you that question.

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think that again, you know, because this would essentially overturn over 30 years of good law, I think that it would probably take a lot even for a conservative Supreme Court to overturn Bakke. I mean, you know, again, opponents of affirmative action always point to, you know, the fact that somehow there is a quota system in place. Well, actually Bakke ruled that quota systems were not constitutional, but again, race could be used again as one of...

MARTIN: I get it. No, I get the substance. I'm just saying you don't seem that worked up about it.

IFTIKHAR: Well, I mean I'll get worked up about it if Bakke gets overturned.

MARTIN: OK. And Mario, you don't seem that worked up about it.

LOYOLA: Well, I think that the - I mean Arsalan points to the reason why, that the Bakke case struck down a quota system. The other case, the other Bollinger case in 2003, decided by the Supreme Court on University of Michigan's undergraduate program, struck down as unconstitutional a numeric point reward, you know, bonus points system for being a member of a minority community. That's - those numerical kinds of affirmative action are particularly egregious.

I think that once you're down to what the Supreme Court approved for the law school, which is just considering race as one of a multiplicity factors, it's not as egregious as affirmative action in its original versions.

MARTIN: All right. OK. Well...

WILLIAMSON: You know, we should ask Asian students applying to state schools in California, where the Bakke actually overturned the quota system.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we will. That's a good idea.

WILLIAMSON: And I think they'll tell you that they didn't.

MARTIN: OK. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME - that's a good idea, Kevin. We'll do that. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, editor Kevin Williamson, and columnist Mario Loyola.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Well, a remix song sent pop-culture fans into a tizzy this week - as remixes are want to do. Chris Brown and Rihanna hooked up in song yet again. They released two remixes with each other. Now, it was Rihanna's "Birthday Cake" remix, released on her 24th birthday that got everyone amped up. Michel?


IZRAEL: We got a clip, yeah?

MARTIN: Yes, we do. I know you want to hear it. Maybe this will perk you all up. Here it is.



CHRIS BROWN, RIHANNA: (Singing) Give it to you in the worst way. Can't wait to blow her candles out. I want cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, yeah.


MARTIN: All right. Well, all right. That's the PG version.


MARTIN: OK. I'll just...

IZRAEL: Right.


MARTIN: Just to say that there's no ambiguity here. But the reason that this is an issue is that the singers were formerly an item. They got into this nasty, ugly fight in 2009, right before the Grammy Awards. And Chris Brown pled guilty to beating her. And there were leaked pictures that showed how badly she was injured.


MARTIN: And so then people were saying, what's going on here?


MARTIN: That, you know, that he had a stay-away order against her for quite some time. That order was lifted because she said she didn't want to damage his career. They needed to be in the same room together and - like, as they were at the Grammys. So then people were like, what's up with this?

Now, we talked about this with a group of our women commentators earlier in the week, so I just was interested in your opinion - the guys about this. Arsalan, what do you think? You're a culture vulture.

IFTIKHAR: I am completely bumfuzzled by this. I mean, you know...


IFTIKHAR: Not - you know, Chris Brown didn't only hit Rihanna, he made her look like Buster Douglas. I mean, this is some - and now he's singing about giving it to her in the worst way? Listen homey, you already gave it to her in the worst way. And...

IZRAEL: Those aren't his lyrics, for the record. Those are her lyrics. She wrote the song.

MARTIN: Those are hers.

IFTIKHAR: Oh, she - he's singing it, though. I mean, again, it...

MARTIN: Which had to have been an agreement, on her part. I mean, they both - you know, he did a thing on her song, and she did a remix of his song. So what...

IFTIKHAR: Well, and that's why I'm bumfuzzled by it. I mean again, it's...

WILLIAMSON: How could you possibly be surprised by this?

IZRAEL: Yeah. This is a mess.

MARTIN: Kevin?

WILLIAMSON: How much evidence do you need that chicks dig jerks?



WILLIAMSON: And that guys like Chris Brown never want for female companionship. If you look at, actually, the empirical data out of women and domestic - in situations of domestic violence, they tend to be in strings of relationships with the same sorts of men. This is true across socioeconomic status. Women who have the means to make choices about their lives also make similar sorts of decisions. They seem to be actively selecting. I think there's probably good evolutionary reasons for that.


WILLIAMSON: You know, the environment...

IFTIKHAR: Oh, man.

WILLIAMSON: ...in which human sexuality evolved was not much like the campus of Bryn Mawr College or Wesleyan, or something like that. There is a real, I think, evolutionary premium put on men who are aggressive. And those guys tend to be violent, and chicks dig jerks.


LOYOLA: Yeah, Michel, why don't girls like nice guys?

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm trying to contain...

IZRAEL: Yeah. I've got nothing for that. I'm off that.

MARTIN: ...contain violent impulses here. Kevin, I think that that - as the sole chick, as you put it, in this conversation, I think you are kind of way out of line there. I don't think that there's any evidence that women prefer violent individuals who beat them. But...


IZRAEL: Well...

WILLIAMSON: Explain to me why women who are in a relationship with a man who beat them, go into another relationship...

IZRAEL: It's easy.

WILLIAMSON: ...like that, and then go with another one like that? And this is true of women who are middle class; who are not, you know, financially dependent; who are not being, you know, trapped by circumstances - in these kinds of circumstances.

MARTIN: Based on, I don't know, some novels that you wrote? I mean, I don't know who you're talking about here. I really have no idea.

IZRAEL: Can I chime in here a bit?

MARTIN: Yes, you certainly may, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Look, I told you guys way back in the day that when this came back - came out in the rinse, we all feel just a little bit dirty, a little bit disgusted. And here we are on the other side, and we're all scratching our heads. And I'm telling you, this is the problem. The problem is that we all know, we all know couples who use violence as a primary means of communication. And if we don't, we should really look closer at our circle of friends. And for me, for me, the "Birthday Cake" song - it's a great, adult, sexy, pop hit. I could care - I'm not invested in Rihanna's life. You know, I have enough people in my life to monitor. I have many children. I have many young ladies and young men in my charge. But whatever is going on between Chris Brown and Rihanna, they're grown-ups. And they are grown-ups who have chosen to use...

MARTIN: And stay out of it. OK.

IZRAEL: And yeah, they've used - they've chosen to use violence as a way to communicate. It's not my business. It's not yours, either.

IFTIKHAR: Jimi, but the problem is that when little girls look at Rihanna as a potential role model, and they see her going back to this sort of relationship, and they have to deal with these sorts of relationships - you know, what kind of message is that ...

IZRAEL: If your little girl is looking at Rihanna as a role model you've got other problems. You got...

IFTIKHAR: I said potential, dog.



IZRAEL: But if she's even a potential role model, you've got other problems, homey. You know who my daughter's role model is? You're talking to him.

MARTIN: All right. OK. There it is. OK. Well said. OK. Before we let you go, this whole thing about Sacha Baron Cohen wanting to show up at the Oscars in costume for his upcoming movie. The Academy apparently asked him to reconsider, and said that they might revoke his tickets if he didn't change his mind. So Jimi, I'll give you the last word on this. So, do you care?

IZRAEL: I do care because Sacha Baron Cohen is a genius.


IZRAEL: He's a genius. But this is - it's not about him. So homey, put on a tux and represent.



IZRAEL: You know, it's not your show.


IFTIKHAR: Wait. But listen. If Lady Gaga can come to an award show dressed up in a red-meat dress, and Rihanna can come dressed up in, you know, Chris Brown, Sacha Baron Cohen can come in anything that he wants.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll see what happens. We'll check in with you next week and see what you think.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Kevin Williamson is the deputy managing editor of The National Review, and he is not a jerk and I like him. And he was with us from our bureau in New York.


MARTIN: Mario Loyola is director...

WILLIAMSON: I'm kind of a jerk.

MARTIN: Well - the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a think tank focused on the impact of federal on states. He's also worked at the Pentagon. He's a columnist for the National Review. He joined us from member station KUT in Austin. And, of course, Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of themuslimguy.com and author of "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims In The Post-Osama Era." He was here in Washington, D.C. studio.

Gentlemen, thank you all so much.


LOYOLA: Thanks.


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.