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Barbershop: Public Redemption


This weekend, a full squad of presidential contenders is in South Carolina to make their case to that state's Democrats. And even though race and history aren't specifically on the agenda, in a way they are because South Carolina is the most diverse state to play an early role in the primary process. And it's a place that's seen more than its share of racial pain, including the murder of nine black people by a white supremacist at a South Carolina church in 2015.

And that's one reason why we decided to talk about two events this past week that speak to questions about race, forgiveness and possibly redemption. First, former Vice President Joe Biden talked about working alongside segregationist senators early in his career, and he received backlash from fellow presidential hopefuls. Senator Cory Booker called on Vice President Biden to apologize. The vice president says that he won't and said Booker should apologize to him for questioning Biden's commitment to civil rights.

We also heard about Parkland shooting survivor and gun rights activist Kyle Kashuv. His offer of admission from Harvard was rescinded after the University discovered he sent a series of texts and online messages with numerous racial slurs and vicious racist stereotypes when he was 16. Kashuv has apologized for the comment, saying he was competing with friends to be outrageous and saying he's learned from the mistake. And about the decision, Kashuv tweeted, in the end, this isn't about me. It's about whether we live in a society in which forgiveness is possible or mistakes brand you as irredeemable.

So what about that? We decided to take this up in the Barbershop because that's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Joining us today are Monica Hesse, columnist for The Washington Post Style section. She recently wrote about this very question.

Monica, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

MONICA HESSE: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: We're also joined here in studio in Washington, D.C., by Eric Liu. He is the author most recently of "Become America." He's a former adviser in the Clinton White House. More recently, he's concerned with the issue of revitalizing Americans' sense of civic engagement through his work with Citizen University.

Welcome back to you as well.

ERIC LIU: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us is China Dickerson. She is a veteran political strategist who's worked on many local and national campaigns. And she has a particular focus right now on helping Democrats win state offices.

China, welcome to you as well.


MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you because I wanted to start with Vice President Biden's comments in which he reminisces about working with segregationists like Senator James Eastland in the context of talking about civility on Capitol Hill. There was this back-and-forth with Cory Booker about whom should apologize to whom. And, you know, they seem to have lowered the temperature on that with a private phone call. We don't know exactly what was said, but they're both trying to walk it back. But what exactly are people asking him to apologize for? What exactly do you think it - that people are upset about here?

DICKERSON: Well, I think there's a couple of things. Unfortunately, in politics - or fortunately - you're working with folks who are normal (laughter). And so when you're caught off guard, often, you say things in a way that might be taken or understood to be offensive. I think folks are upset when you say that you've worked with the segregationists or you've worked with someone who's racist or sexist or any of the things that we all are often appalled by. Folks get upset, as they should. I think the...

MARTIN: But why as they should? I mean, I think what he's saying is this is the only way to get - back in the day - look, 10 beats nine, and if you want to get some things passed, sometimes you're going to have to work with people you don't like.

DICKERSON: Totally agree. We wouldn't have passed the Civil Rights Act, right, if you didn't reach across the aisle to work with others. So I think, though, folks - they hear, but they don't process and take in what was actually the intention of what was said. They just hear, I was sitting next to a segregationist having a conversation as if it was OK for them to be segregationist. I was friends with the segregationist. No, being co-workers, collaborating, coming to a consensus is not the same as being best friends, right?

MARTIN: So, Monica, I'm going to go to you next because you recently wrote a piece about Kyle Kashuv, and you wrote, look, unless we seal them all in a cave, people who do bad but not illegal things are going to continue to be part of our society. What do we think that should look like? What is your personal vision? Yeah, exactly, Monica. What do you think?

HESSE: Well, I think that there's a really vast difference between sealing people off in a cave and allowing them admission to Harvard. And what I think is difficult right now is that people are treating Harvard revoking his admission as the end of the story. I saw a lot of people say, oh, he can just go somewhere else. He can just go to University of Florida. And I think that when we say things like that, what we end up doing is sort of - is passing the buck. If we're saying that Harvard students shouldn't have to go to school with him, why would we say that University of Florida students were?

So I think we need to not just say, someone else will decide down the line what should happen. We all need to be invested in having conversations about, if you were the director of admissions, if you are the boss whose job he applied for, what would you do? And what standards are you going to have? And how are you going to be a part of this conversation?

MARTIN: OK, Monica. I'm putting you on the spot. Where would you come out? I mean, you do make the...


MARTIN: ...Valid point that everything about the Harvard admissions process - full disclosure - I went to Harvard. I mean, it's not a secret. That, you know, all the decisions are made on things that people did when they were 16. So it's not like they're - you know, this wasn't the death penalty being administered to this person. It's a question of whether you get into this college or not. And that's - decisions about all those candidates were made about things that they did when they were 16. But, Monica, putting you on the spot, what would you do?

HESSE: I mean, if I were Harvard's admissions officer, I think that they made the right choice because you are judging him based on many other 16-year-olds, most of whom would know never to use this horrible language. But I also don't think that the right solution is to cordon him off away from society indefinitely. I received emails from people after my column came out saying, why should we care? He should just go to get an internship with Richard Spencer.

And surely that's also a terrible suggestion - the idea that if you really want to - if you want society to progress, if you want young people to learn from their mistakes, if you want them to learn how to grow and be better, than just saying, we're going to push you off with extremists isn't - is not the right answer. If you're asking me what level of university does he deserve to go to...

MARTIN: No. No. I really wasn't...

HESSE: I don't know, but I'm trying to think really hard about it.

MARTIN: Yeah, what - how should we think about this, really, is the question. So, Eric, this is where I go to you because Citizen University - that's actually all of your work right now...

LIU: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Is figuring out how we should engage with each other at a time when people are very angry with each other, in some cases for very legitimate reasons.

LIU: Yeah. So much of what we're doing at Citizen university is trying to create these spaces where people can actually sharpen their capacity for moral discernment. I think in both these cases - the Biden case in this Kashuv case - we live in a society right now where the temptations are to go very binary. And either the guy is the devil, or you must immediately forgive and redeem, right? And, as Monica says, there's a wide space, a chasm between those two poles.

And I think what we have fallen out of the habit of doing in our social media outrage-addicted age is the capacity to find shades of grey, right? And I think that's done best not actually as a spectator, just watching each case unfold, but talking with other people, talking with your neighbors. How would you handle this? How would we handle something like this similarly in our community with a local politician or with someone admitted from our high school to a selective college or university so that it becomes real and tangible to us?

Because when we lose that capacity for discernment - and I'm not saying there's a right answer, certainly in the Kashuv case or the Biden case - but we will come to different conclusions. And to build that muscle for discernment is absolutely necessary for citizenship in a democracy.

MARTIN: It's interesting because you say that people's - this is best engaged on a local level because we have had examples of this recently. The governor of Virginia, I think many people will recall, Ralph Northam - it was discovered that there were photos of somebody in blackface - he says it wasn't him - on his medical school yearbook page. He said there were many calls for him to resign. He said he wouldn't resign but rather he would use this as an opportunity to be basically a steward of racial reconciliation in the state. And some people are agreeing with him, and some people aren't. What's fascinating is that a lot of African-Americans do agree with him about that. So, China, if you don't mind, I'd like to go back to you on this and say, how would you like people to think about this?

DICKERSON: Yeah. I think actually we need to put the onus - so I disagree a little bit with the gray area because I think we need to put the onus on the people who are political - or, I'm sorry, who are public figures. And so if you are deciding - deciding, not the public has thrust you into the public spot - but you are deciding to be a public figure, we do not know you outside of your very public image, and so to expect us to kind of understand where you're coming from or for us to give you a certain amount of time or for us to sort of have this relationship with you as if you are our brother, sister, father, whoever, I think that's unfair.

So we as public figures need to be a little more intentional in what we say. So I do agree that, yeah, it kind of sucks, right, when someone takes what you've said out of context. However, you knew before you said what you said that it would be critiqued.

LIU: Oh, absolutely. Look...

MARTIN: So I'm going to give Eric...

LIU: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...The last word because we have a minute here. I'm going to ask you, since you are the CEO of Citizen University, give us homework. How would you want us to think about this going forward and start talking about these issues with each other going forward?

MARTIN: I think you've got to put yourself first in the situation of the person who's committed the social transgression. But then, quite frankly, you also have to think about, we who are going to either receive this person back into the body or not, what do we need to do to sharpen our own judgment about our own capacities for forgiveness and for redemption?

I think in the case of something like Joe Biden, absolutely. A public figure goes into public life knowing that they're going to get pounded for what they say. But our job as citizens is to ask, what was the intention? What is the purpose here? And how is it actually that we can distinguish between shades of transgression? And if - you know, we can still hold a politician to account. But if we ourselves just say it's one or the other, then we're clearing the field for bad people to be - who will flatten our moral capacities.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for that. That's Eric Liu, former speechwriter and domestic policy adviser to President Clinton. He's now co-founder and CEO of Citizen University. China Dickerson was with us. She's president of Dickerson Strategies and political strategist at Forward Majority. That's a Democratic super PAC. And Monica Hesse was with us, columnist for The Washington Post Style section.

Thank you all. It's a rich conversation.

DICKERSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: We'll talk again.

LIU: Thank you.

HESSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.