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Affirmative Action: Is It Still Necessary?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Neal Conan is off. This fall, the Supreme Court will revisit affirmative action. The court has agreed to hear a case from the University of Texas, a landmark case that could ban affirmative action in higher education once and for all.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has addressed this issue. In 2003, the court upheld affirmative action in a case that involved the University of Michigan Law School. At that time, the Supreme Court stated, quote: Twenty-five years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.

Well, it's only been eight years, not 25. With one justice recusing herself, it'll now be a more conservative court that votes. There are plenty of predictions that affirmative action could well be done for. Done for, maybe; we'll see. But what about done, as in, has affirmative action achieved what it was designed to do - or even come close? And if it is not done, when will it be, and how will we know?

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, Jessica Olien explains why she wants to be a single mother. But first, affirmative action. We have two guests at the outset. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University, and the founder of Your Black World Coalition. He recently wrote "America Remains Racially Broken." Welcome, Boyce Watkins.

BOYCE WATKINS: Thank you for having me.

DONVAN: And also joining us, Linda Chavez is here with me in Studio 3A. She is a writer, a broadcaster and chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity, who wrote this: Affirmative action perpetuates race obsession that harms all Americans regardless of color.

Thank you very much for joining us today, Linda.

LINDA CHAVEZ: Thank you, John.

DONVAN: So I would like to ask each of you to do a very brief mission statement for me. And that is to go back in time to the origins of affirmative action - back then, looking forward, to take one sentence - at most two - to state what the goal of affirmative action was when it was created. Let's start first with you, Linda.

CHAVEZ: Well, first of all, you have to remember it was a half-century ago that affirmative action first began, and it began at a time in which discrimination, not just private discrimination but state-sponsored discrimination, was pervasive.

The goal of affirmative action was not just to eliminate discrimination, but to try to cast a wider net, and to provide opportunities for those who had suffered past discrimination to be able to get the skills and training necessary to be able to compete on an equal footing.

DONVAN: All right, and that's without talking about where we are today. Again, for you now, Boyce Watkins, the same exercise, to go back in time. What was the goal? What was the mission at the beginning?

WATKINS: Well, I think the mission is interpreted in different ways by different people. But I would say that the goal of affirmative action was to make things right - to make America a country that is more consistent with its value systems; to try to make America into the country that it would have been had we not had a 400-year period in which one group was subjugated to the mercy of another.

I think that the broader objective is not just to eliminate discrimination but to actually eliminate racial inequality - which is a product of discrimination, you see, because you can have racial inequality even when there are no racists in the building.

When you look at American institutions, and you look at the divergent power structures, you see that there are many corporations, organizations, universities, etc., to this day, that haven't hired or promoted a person of color...

DONVAN: All right, Boyce, I want to stop you because I don't want to get to this-day point quite yet. But I do want to get there.


DONVAN: And in fact, I want to give Linda a chance to go back and actually begin to address this day because the question that we want to put to you, and that you were getting to, was whether or not we are done; has the mission been carried out.

And that's what we want to put to you, our listeners, as well. We want to ask you to think about that. Tell us whether in your view, affirmative action has achieved its aims. And you've heard it described now in two ways - one more narrowly, and one more broadly. And if it hasn't achieved its aims, what will it take for us to reach that point?

DONVAN: Linda Chavez, has - as you outlined the goal of affirmative action, has it done what it was supposed to do?

CHAVEZ: No, it hasn't because it got derailed, and it got derailed pretty early. It got derailed during the Nixon administration, when we went away from sort of race-neutral policies and towards providing, as I said, the kind of skills and training necessary to take those who had been victims of discrimination - and be able to give them the skills to be able to compete, and to do so in a non-discriminatory fashion.

What happened is, there was a movement, really, to replace one kind of discrimination with another; and to try to - instead of taking race out of the equation, to make race the central point of the equation so that in order to achieve what Professor Watkins has described - to achieve that representation that he's talked about - there were preferences that were then given to people who had been members of groups that had been discriminated, although the individuals receiving those preferences may have suffered no discrimination in the past themselves.

DONVAN: All right, Boyce Watkins, your crack at the present day. Has affirmative action come anywhere close to addressing what it was intended to address?

WATKINS: I think the question answers itself. I think anybody who thinks that we can solve a 400-year pattern of systemic discrimination with 20 years of good behavior is absolutely delusional. I think that if you look at our society, if you look at the human rights abuses that have been documented by the United Nations, it's been made very clear, and it's known throughout the world, that the United States is still a two-tiered society.

If you look at quality-of-life factors such as education, economic equality, mass incarceration, etc., you see that people of color still live a very different reality from people whose ancestors were not subject to discrimination.

You see, affirmative action is not just a matter of dealing with what I've gone through as an African-American male, and the discrimination I've experienced. It's a matter of dealing with the fact that there is inequality that was created in my life long before I was born because of what my ancestors were not able to leave to me. They were not able to leave wealth to me. They were not able to give me power to inherit.

So ultimately, if you really want to make America the country that we claim that we've always wanted it to be, you have to dig a little deeper than to just have a couple policies that run for a couple decades.

DONVAN: What do you think of Linda Chavez' critique? And Linda, correct me if I'm getting this - correctly. I think your critique is, you don't necessarily disagree that that overhang is there, but what you are saying is that affirmative action as a tool has not actually worked. And I think Boyce Watkins is saying we need to have it work more.

CHAVEZ: Well, that's right, and let me be clear about this. I am not saying that we have actually reached the Promised Land yet. We haven't. I mean, there is still discrimination. There's still prejudice in our society. We haven't totally eliminated it.

But the way to get about solving that - there is, you know, as Boyce talks about, there is a skills gap in America. There is an education gap. There - it is an unfortunate fact that a lot of black and Latino - and by the way, poor white kids - go to schools that do not prepare them sufficiently to be able to succeed in the world.

But granting preference on the basis of skin color, regardless of whether that individual child has suffered from the effects of that discrimination, makes no sense to me. Why is it you would prefer a black child who might be the son or daughter of - you know, a lawyer and a doctor, over a white child who may be the child of an out-of-work mine worker?

DONVAN: To move to our topic, then, Linda Chavez, do you have a solution to the kind of problem that Boyce Watkins is staying is - still persists?

CHAVEZ: Absolutely.

DONVAN: Which would be what?

CHAVEZ: We do have to focus on education. We have to do more in trying to close that skills gap. But the way to do it is not to, you know, put it under the rug, to sweep it under the rug so that we don't have evidence of it. And unfortunately, what colleges and universities do when they have these dual admission standards - where they basically allow students in who have less qualifications, to get in based on skin color - is that they actually hide the evidence of this miseducation that's going on in so many of our school systems.

And those kids, by the way, are then put into schools where they are almost guaranteed to fail - because they are mismatched.

DONVAN: Boyce Watkins, in taking on your point that we're nowhere close to having affirmative action having concluded - having succeeded in meeting its goal, what would be the world in which it has completed its mission? What would that world look like? What are the goalposts here?

WATKINS: Well, theoretically speaking, a world in which affirmative action has succeeded is a world that the United States - or it's a country that we would have had, had we not had 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow ...

DONVAN: Right, but ...

WATKINS: ..and oppression of a group of people. So it's going to take a long time to try to create anything that looks like that world. I know that - it's easy to sort of talk about, you know, discrimination and to sort of say look, the elimination of discrimination is the objective of affirmative action. But the truth is that one of the biggest mistakes, I think, that we make when we talk about affirmative action is, we think that it all stops with discrimination - or the creation of equal opportunity.

And actually, the real culprit is the actual inequality, which is a product of discrimination. So it's not a matter of pointing fingers at people and saying ha, you're a racist, that's - you're bad. It's a matter of saying no, you can have inequality when there is not a racist person anywhere in sight.

When - you know, I was a product of affirmative action. I worked very hard. I earned my Ph.D. I did all the right things. I pushed as hard as I could. But I was hired at Syracuse University, which was a school that had not in 100 years hired any African-American in the finance department. And so effectively...

DONVAN: But to come to my question, you're saying you don't - you're not really sure what that world would look like, except in the negative. It wouldn't look like the world that we have now, but - and you say it's a long time. So it's - you're - it's quite an open-ended thing, as you describe it, going forward.

WATKINS: Well, I don't think it's entirely open-ended. I think that you can have deliberate measuring sticks. For example, if you're looking at a corporation and the percentage of managers of color, well, look at the population. Is that number anywhere near the population that is, you know, reflective of the community at large?

DONVAN: All right, let me bring in Linda - let me just bring in Linda for just a moment.

CHAVEZ: But Boyce, that isn't the way the world works. And by the way, what you're talking about is a kind of utopian society, where everyone is equal. I mean, actually, we've seen in the 20th century...

WATKINS: Well, it's not utopian. It's actually just realistic.

CHAVEZ: No it isn't realistic because in fact, there is inequality in every aspect of life. People are not all endowed equally with the same talents, with the same interests, with the same desires and motivations. So, you know, this idea that you're somehow going to achieve a world in which you've got, you know, perfect representation of every ethnic, racial and gender group across the board, at all levels of society - the only way you could do that would be through a kind of authoritarian regime in which you squelched liberty.

DONVAN: All right, I'm going to let Boyce respond to that, but we have to take a break right now. And Boyce, I'm going to let you respond to that as soon as we come back. Our guests are Boyce Watkins at Syracuse University, and Linda Chavez, chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

We're asking the question: When we will be able to tell that affirmative action has completed its mission, if it ever will? And I'm not sure we're hearing the answer to that question yet, and we'd like to hear from you, our listeners, your views on that as well. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. It's been nearly a decade since the Supreme Court last took up the issue of affirmative action, but it's going to do so again later on this year, when the justices consider Fisher vs. Texas and the courts' decision to take up Abigail Fisher's case against the University of Texas, which has prompted a new discussion about the shelf life of affirmative action policies - long considered an essential tool to counteract discrimination, and to promote equal opportunity.

But some Americans believe the policy is no longer helpful or working, or is simply the wrong tool to correct inequities. So tell us what you think. Are we done with affirmative action? And if we're not, when will we be? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Linda Chavez, who is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity; and Boyce Watkins, founder of Your Black World Coalition. And Boyce Watkins at Syracuse University, just before the break, Linda Chavez was opining that your view, and your vision, for affirmative action relies on - I think she said a rather utopian outcome, where everyone is equal in all ways. And really, you needed a chance to respond to that. So here's your chance.

WATKINS: I've never sought out a perfect, utopian society. But we can't settle for a vastly and undeniably imperfect society, either. We can't look at a society where there are remnants everywhere of this historical discrimination and just sort of say oh, well, we know we've been beating on you and battering you for 400 years, but now we're just not going to - we're not going to harm anyone anymore, and everyone should treat everyone the same.

And if you somehow ask for some sort of - of any form of reparation for what's happened to your descendants, and what created the society we live in today, then somehow you're being a racist. You're being just as bad as we were when we did this thing to you.

And so I think that to somehow say that we're going to eliminate 400 years of undeniable racial inequality by simply saying we're not going to allow for discrimination anymore, that's like me saying that the milk I spilled on the floor is going to clean itself up because I promise not to spill any more milk.

DONVAN: But bottom line, Boyce...

WATKINS: You have to deal...

DONVAN: Bottom line, though - I'm sorry to interrupt because - I had heard you make that point before. I just want to get - bottom line, do you think that affirmative action, as a tool, is working?

WATKINS: I think that it's working. I think that when we allow it to work, it does work. I was a product of affirmative action. I know lots of people who never would have gotten interviews, never would have gotten opportunities, had the organizations not been forced to consider people of color.

There are successful coaches in the NFL who never would have gotten a chance had the organization not been forced - say, through the Rooney Rule and other sorts of mechanisms - to even take a look at that person. So I think that to say that this isn't working, or somehow it's reverse discrimination - I think that's a little bit silly.

DONVAN: All right, we want to have our listeners join this conversation now, and Rick(ph) in Sacramento has been on hold for a little bit. Rick, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RICK: Hi, thanks, I love the show.

DONVAN: Sure, and what's your question?

RICK: I was just going to comment, really. Like, here in Sacramento, where I live, you know, the majority - it's a very diverse city, and there's all different walks and backgrounds. But yet when you go to the university here in town, the majority of the student population are white - you know, Caucasian kids.

And me being Hispanic, myself, you know, being subject to affirmative action, me getting into the school, when the reality of only, you know, a small percentage of the whole population of the school being Hispanic or black, and the rest of them being white - I feel that affirmative action still needs to take a course where the real results of affirmative actions aren't really going to take place until, you know, those numbers, you know, the next generation of kids come in, and the numbers are more equally diverse in comparison to the population.

DONVAN: OK, so for you, we're done when the numbers in the schools are more balanced - more in balance with the larger...

RICK: Well, yes, definitely, definitely. You can't show those numbers unless the population reflects the amount of kids actually going to that school or not.

CHAVEZ: Well, actually, the voters of California got rid of racial preferences back in 1996, with an initiative that was on the ballot there. And guess what happened to college admissions in California after that? There are actually more Latino and more black students.

And by the way, I'm very glad the listener brought in Latinos, because Boyce has talked about this as entirely a kind of black and white issue. In fact, Latinos are the largest minority now. And for many of those Latinos, there's not 400 years of discrimination in this country.

Now, my family happens to have been here that long, but most Latino families have not. You're talking about many people who just arrived, or who have only been here a generation or at most, two generations. So this whole idea of doing something now to give people preference based on a history of discrimination in the United States doesn't equally apply to all the groups who are now its beneficiaries.

And moreover, if you look at California, the new system, which is more race-neutral, has actually had better outcomes. More kids of Latino and black heritage are going to school, and more of them, by the way, are graduating because they're ending up in schools for which their qualifications actually make them able to compete.

DONVAN: Rick, thanks very much for your call. I'd like to bring in Russ(ph), who is in Kansas City. Russ, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RUSS: Hello there. Hey, a couple of things - I went to Berkeley under affirmative action, and I - personally, being a white male, at the bottom of the affirmative action totem pole, be it gender or race. But I saw it do a lot of good. I mean, nobody gave me anything. I had to carry sacks of cement and snake drains to put myself through school.

But what I saw was a generation of kids who were getting into a school not because they were black, etc.; the test scores were equal. Sometimes, you know, the blacks would get preferential treatment, or the Latinos or whatever - back then, we called them Hispanics. Because the - it was not just only an attempt to redress past ills, but to establish habits and a presence of minorities in the student body so that in the future, we could have those people grow up to have kids in a college-filled household, with college-minded priorities and sensibilities.

DONVAN: So you're saying it worked? Russ, are you saying, then, that it worked?

RUSS: It did. Now, it needs to continue to work. It's not a very good tool. It's like driving nails with a crescent wrench, but at least the nails get driven. What we need is more awareness. There's a sentiment out there that racism is gone because Obama is in the White House. No, he wouldn't have gotten elected if he'd been unable to string together a coherent sentence.

There is a lot of work yet to do. And until we come up with something better - like California, or whatever - we still need some form of affirmative action, I think.

DONVAN: So you lean more towards Boyce Watkins, then, in this discussion?

RUSS: Well, it's kind of half-and-half, because it needs major improvement. But I don't think that California's 1996 initiative would have had as positive a set of results if you hadn't had a foundation built by double A before that. If you want to address other things, how about a subculture that despises and ostracizes people who speak the English language coherently instead of innercity jargon? We have a lot of work to do everywhere. But I think double A currently is better than the alternative of no double A.

DONVAN: Let me bring Boyce Watkins back into the conversation. Boyce, you've never said you think it's a perfect tool, but you think...

WATKINS: No, it's not a perfect tool. It's certainly not a perfect tool. But what I'm trying to figure out is which studies - why were - you know, we must be reading different studies because the studies that I've seen, like in diverse issues of higher education, tell me that the enrollment numbers for African-American students in California and Texas declined dramatically as a result of passing these bans on affirmative action.

So I haven't seen - from all the scholars that I talk to on a regular basis, they haven't said anything good about the impact of banning affirmative action. And so I'm trying to figure out where these numbers Ms. Chavez is referencing are coming from.

CHAVEZ: Well, you can Google it and in fact, there have been major news stories going back to the late 1990s, about the increase in the number of students. But it's more important than the number that get in the front door. It's also important how many get out the back door, and actually receive a degree.

And one of the problems with programs that give preference to people who have lower grades, lower test scores, and may not be as able to compete in a very elite school like the University of California at Berkeley is that they may not graduate. And under the race-neutral programs that have been in effect since then, what we've seen is a much higher graduation rate of students who are actually getting their degree - because maybe they don't end up at Berkeley. Maybe they end up at University of California-Davis or Santa Barbara or even UCLA, although that's one of the top-tier.

DONVAN: But Linda, Russ' point was that he went to school in an era where he felt the work that affirmative action was actually doing needed to be done. He said that base needed to be put down there. He's essentially saying the tool worked, and the tool worked effectively. And you have said it's a bad tool; it's an ineffective tool. Was it a better tool at one time?

CHAVEZ: Absolutely. The idea of affirmative action, as I said at the onset of the program, was to cast a wider net. And what Boyce was talking about, in terms of his job, was exactly that. You do want employers, you want colleges to go out and find students and employees who they might not otherwise have found. That's the first step.

And the second step is if you find that there aren't enough qualified people in the pool, then you try to create programs to increase the likelihood that you're going to have people with the skills. All of that part of affirmative action is absolutely fine. And if we'd concentrated on that, I think we'd actually be farther ahead today than we are.

What's not fine is when you give people preference - and particularly, when you give preference to people who may come from very privileged backgrounds themselves, and you discriminate against people who are quite disadvantaged. Asian-Americans, for example. I mean, the fact is, you know, people talk about all the white students in California. I don't know what campuses they've been on.

I've spent a lot of time on campus. And this huge Asian population, many of these kids come from very poor backgrounds - first-generation or second-generation Americans. And yet, they are not given preference. They are actually, I believe, discriminated against on some campuses. And so this whole idea that we can make up for past discrimination by having a little bit of discrimination that maybe is going to have some sort of a positive impact, it just doesn't wash with me.

DONVAN: I want to go to another - an...

WATKINS: It's not...

DONVAN: All right. Go ahead.

WATKINS: It's not discrimination - I didn't mean to jump in.

DONVAN: That's fine.

WATKINS: I just have to say this - that number one, we have to stop perpetuating this myth that somehow, beneficiaries of affirmative action end up sort of creating this mass of unqualified minorities...

DONVAN: Well, let me...

WATKINS: ...given opportunities that they don't deserve.

DONVAN: Boyce, let me stop you because I do want to bring in an email from a viewer - from a listener that goes straight to that point - from Mirsa Barogavoch(ph) - and it will give you a little something to bounce off of. She writes: Affirmative action creates a perception that a professional of color may not be up to the same quality standards as individuals not covered by affirmative action. It does not matter, she writes, that this perception is actually accurate. What is important - that many people have this perception.

So let me let you loose on that, because you are - already started.

WATKINS: Well, you know, the perception - we all deal with that. I dealt with it when I was - when I benefited from affirmative action. But I'd rather have the job, and have people have an odd perception of me, than to never get the job in the first place, as my ancestors did - because I wasn't the first smart black guy to apply for a job at Syracuse University. I can also say that when you talk about these preferences and how it's discriminatory to somehow make up for past discrimination by casting a wider net across, you know, ethnicities, especially when you talk about African-Americans, who have - do have a unique experience in this country.

I think it's interesting that we have this big problem with preferences in that context, but white kids were getting affirmative action long before the program was ever created. I see, in many cases, where there are legacies of individuals that are admitted to universities because their parents went to school here, or their parents had money to give to the school, or some other sort of benefit that comes from the fact that the campus, or that the institution, was built with social norms, systems, and an infrastructure that benefits white males over other people.

For example, it's much easier to get mentorship from white males if you are a white male. So the bottom line is that if we don't start to honestly reflect on some of this, then we're never really going to make things right. And this idea that somehow helping minorities is taking something away from other people is incredibly problematic, because we didn't have a problem taking things away from minorities, but we certainly have a problem giving anything back.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Charles from San Antonio, Texas. He's been holding quite a while. Charles, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHARLES: Thank you.

DONVAN: Your comment or question?

CHARLES: After listening to the discussion, I think one, that the focus on education is good. I'm African-American. I'm an attorney. My wife is working on her Ph.D. So I don't think that my kids may necessarily need the help because we're in a different situation, but I do know that the programs were necessary. What I think is that it needs to be focused at a younger age. So I agree with both callers, to a certain extent. I believe the program is necessary, but I believe the focus, as it currently is directed, is kind of off.

I think we need to get to kids younger so that they do become both - qualified applicants that don't need affirmative action to get to college. But the program needs to go further back. We need to find ways to counter the effects of institutionalized racism, but when these children are younger.

I believe the problems start a lot sooner, like one of the callers referenced some of the stuff, cultural things that take place. So I think we need to get to the minority students, mentor them younger, give them opportunities - whether that be getting them into private education, or fixing our public education system. I think the focus needs to go to them at a younger age, and it needs to be on education.

DONVAN: Charles, can you stand by just one second? I just want to say this: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Charles, I wanted to come back to something that you just said - that your kids are going to probably be OK; and you're an attorney, and your wife is a professional.


DONVAN: Which raises the question for me - is this - should affirmative action be focused on a class thing as opposed to a race thing?

CHARLES: Well, I think there's a huge intersection of all of these now. I think a lot of times, we get focused on race. And I think very often, we have to look at, you know, other factors now. I think race is a thing, but we also have to look at income. And then you get into discussion of income versus wealth. We've had a lot of programs trying to focus on equalizing income, where the real problem may be intergenerational transfer of wealth, and not income. Because actually, intergenerational transfer of wealth has more of an effect on how far kids are going to go as far as education, whether they've - become professional or not.

So we've gotten hung up on a lot of variables, whether it'd be race or income. And I do think we need to look at the intersectionality, that you have to look at all things. I don't think you can just look at race anymore.

DONVAN: What do you think...

CHARLES: I think class has a lot to do with it.

DONVAN: What do you think of that, Boyce Watkins?

WATKINS: Well, you know, I think that a multitude of factors should certainly be considered. I think that class in America is - that is, ultimately, the driving force. I think that what's interesting is that historically, we designed a system where race becomes highly correlated with class, which is why you have to address the race problem in America if you want to move forward. I think that grabbing kids when they're young is certainly important; that's something that I do on a regular basis.

And I think that we have to also, at the same time, sort of reconsider what it means to be qualified. You see, if you have a system that is designed in such a way that it perpetuates the success of one group and yet it serves as a barricade to the success of another group; and you see these outcomes that sort of show one group of people excelling and another group sort of continuing to not achieve the same level of success; it's easy to say well, there must be something wrong with that other group of people, when the fact is that you have to stop and actually study this concept, the very important concept called institutionalized racism, and understand how the very foundation of the infrastructure of that institution serves to create the outcomes that we're assessing later on.

DONVAN: Let me just let Linda Chavez say one thing briefly.

CHAVEZ: Yeah, very briefly. I think you're absolutely right. Income does matter. If you look at poverty, though, the thing it correlates most highly with is not race or ethnicity - it's family structure. And that is a major issue in the African-American community today.

DONVAN: Well, it is not till this autumn, at the earliest, that the Supreme Court will actually take up this case, so I suspect we're going to be talking about it a great deal more between now and then. The future of affirmative action - we've been discussing whether it has been effective and so effective that it's been - that it should actually be called done and successful. The consensus, not quite yet; not a consensus or whether it's the right tool.

I want to thank both of our guests: Linda Chavez, who is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity; and Boyce Watkins, who is founder of the Your(ph) World Coalition - who have been my guests.

Coming up, on The Opinion Page, Jessica Olien hopes to be a single mom. She explains why, when we come back. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.