Fairfield University professor says racially charged e-mail illustrates another case of discrimination
(Posted on February 25, 2011)
Just in time for the close of Black History Month we have another reminder of why knowing one's history is so important. On Monday the Director of Operations and Facility Management for the Cherry Hill, NJ Board of Education, Kevin Larson, came under fire for an e-mail he allegedly sent in response to a local principal's request for additional support in snow removal.
"All of my polar bears, trained seals and the two silver back mountain gorillas on loan from the township DPW (you should see them with a snow blower that has a banana tied to the front of it, they go through a blizzard like nothing you have ever seen...)" he wrote, "are already strategically reassigned."
The e-mail immediately raised eyebrows since only two of the department's employee's charged with snow removal are African American. Local authorities had no trouble reading between the lines. Township Council Vice President Sara Lipsett was frank in sharing her thoughts regarding the ill-advised communiqué. "There is no place for language like that," she told the media, "It is discriminatory."
My children attend school in Cherry Hill. The principal's request for assistance, perhaps not unlike others Mr. Larson likely received grew out of one of the snowiest winters on record in the township. How exactly an appeal for additional manpower in addressing this problem morphed into a case of racial discrimination is illustrative of a much larger problem dealing with the issues of race and civility.
The election of the nation's first Black President ushered in a wave of optimistic forecasts about a new post racial America where people would be judged in the memorable words of the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
However even before President Obama could take the oath of office, the all too familiar undertones of racial prejudice, hate filled speech began to percolate above the surface. This was of course nothing new for the President. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama faced far worse. And in the end hateful words did not deny him the opportunity to run and proved powerless to prevent him from being elected.
That does not mean, however, that they should not be addressed. Part and parcel of the public outcry concerning the Cherry Hill e-mail is the loss in civility and good judgment which seems to have been a casualty of modern discourse; a level of respect for the dignity and worth of others that one would assume would be a natural outgrowth of the maturation of communication in a country as rich and diverse as the United States. Instead the opposite is true and in everything from politics to popular culture we are treated to an endless chorus of hate, dressed up as humor or worse yet free speech.
Like parasites misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism have all been allowed to thrive by feeding on the corpse of civility in our country. When the flairs are overt we respond accordingly collectively condemning, for example, Mel Gibson's diatribe of hate after being pulled over on a routine traffic stop or Don Imus regrettable reference to accomplished female scholar athletes as "nappy headed hoes." But, does the Larson e-mail really rise to that level?
He certainly did not use any of the overt language that we typically flag as inappropriate but his words still reflect a deep and ugly history. Even if we were to extend to Mr. Larson the benefit of the doubt, that his reference to the "two Silver Back Gorillas" was not directed at the township's two African American groundskeepers, the fact remains that there is a long history of this type of racial imagery that is as powerful and persistent as it is ugly.
The identification of people of African descent as apes goes back before the Civil War. Many would likely be surprised to learn that African Americans were not the only racial or ethnic group so stigmatized. The Irish were also routinely depicted as half-Simians. In the decades after the Civil War, however, these characterizations took on a distinctly racialized nature with African Americans largely singled out as the closet descendants of primates.
In addition to helping to give birth to Jim Crow Segregation, one of the more unfortunate consequences of this perverse view of people of African descent and the pseudo scientific thinking that produced it was the shameful 1906 display of an Africa pygmy named Ota Benga in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoological Gardens in New York. Despite protests from religious and community leaders the Zoo's Director, William Hornaday, initially refused to end the exhibit proclaiming Benga to be the missing link between man and ape.
While such ignorance was rampant during Hornaday's life and might easily be dismissed as a product of the time, the continued comparison of African Americans to apes remains common. Racially fueled images of the President and the First Lady depicted as apes, for instance, drew sharp criticism in the early days of the Obama Administration.
The missing link today, however, might well be defined as a sense of civility tempered by common sense and a shared stake in our collective future.
Later in the course of his leadership within the Civil Rights Movement Dr. King shifted his focus from Civil Rights to human rights and often spoke eloquently about the link between civility and social justice. In the America Dr. King imagined, and I would like my children and other children to inherit we respect differences because we recognize the humanity of others, we do not shout people down because we disagree with them, we don't solve our problems by resorting to force of arms and we recognize the worth of all humanity, no matter birth or occupation. As we recently learned in Arizona with tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and the killing of six others, carless and or ill-considered words can ignite flames we never intended.
The fundamental problem with Mr. Larson's e-mail even if it an attempt at crude humor is the pain in continues to inflict and its power to divide at a time when we should be most united. As we celebrate the importance of free speech in this country we must also accept and be prepared to shoulder the responsibility of exercising that right by remaining informed and respectful of how our choice of words might potentially impact others. Civility and common sense are generally dependable guides.
Yohuru Williams is an associate professor of history at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. and the chief historian for the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York City. He is the author of several books and Williams' scholarly articles have appeared in The Black Scholar, The Journal of Black Studies, The Organization of American Historians' Magazine of History, Delaware History, Pennsylvania History, the Black History Bulletin and the American Bar Associations Insights on Law and Society. He is a regular guest on WVON in Chicago and has appeared on NPR, Fox News and various other radio and television programs.
Williams received his master's degree from the University of Scranton and a Ph.D. from Howard University.
Vol. 43, No. 215