In the world of octogenarian racial slurs, 80 year-old Donald Sterling is not exactly fading into the sunset, nor going gentle into that good night. In actuality, he has figured out inventive ways to pile upon his own dubious case. Still, we live in a world of what’s happening now, and right now, while the NBA is figuring out how to proceed with concluding the Sterling matter, Robert Copeland, 82, insisted on leveraging his opportunity to step to the head of the class.
Mr. Copeland, a police commissioner in Wolfeboro New Hampshire, erupted onto the national scene last week as he unrepentantly admitted using the N-word to describe President Obama. Ms. Jane O’Toole, a Wolfeboro resident finishing dinner at a local bistro in March heard a gentleman she did not know announce loudly that he
“Hated watching television because every time he turned on the TV he kept seeing that fucking nigger.”
The “nigger” to whom he referred was the President of the United States.
When she found out who Mr. Copeland was, she complained to the town manager in a letter. Initially, Mr. Copeland acted unfazed by the complaint. In an e-mail responding to the inquiry about the incident, he replied:
“I believe I did use the N-word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse. For this I do not apologize – he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”
According to the 2010 Census, Wolfeboro is a community of 6,269. News reports have indicated the population of the resort community is 97% white; there are about 20 black residents. As with most instances such as this that make their way into the sphere of the public square, there were supporters and detractors for the commenter. In this instance, however, the detractors greatly outnumbered the supporters.
By last Thursday when the town meeting convened, there was a contingent of citizens, more than 100, calling for Mr. Copeland’s resignation. He declined comment during the meeting. Meanwhile, the town manager indicated there was no mechanism to remove Mr. Copeland from office.
The good news is this was not an incident that needed to be considered in isolation. Yes, the actor had to stand on his own merit, or lack thereof, but because there have been a series of these off-putting divisive slurs recently, a number of people responded quickly calling for Mr. Copeland to be held accountable for his offensive remarks.
A number of prominent political figures denounced Copeland, including Senators Kelly Ayotte (R), and Jeanne Shaheen (D), and Governor Maggie Hassan. Even former and possibly future Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, who owns a vacation home in Wolfeboro, called for the commissioner’s resignation. Governor Romney said in a statement to CNN:
“The vile epithet used and confirmed by the commissioner has no place in our community: He should apologize and resign.”
Local elected officials also condemned Copeland. The town manager, David Owen, issued a statement last week indicating he and the town’s board found Mr. Copeland’s behavior:
“Reprehensible and totally inconsistent with the Town’s open and welcoming character. Mr. Copeland’s views are in no way representative of the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Wolfeboro, its administration, or the men and women of the Wolfeboro Police Department.”
Early this week, Mr. Copeland, despite his initial resistance, tendered his resignation to the town manager. In response, Ms. Linda Murray, chairman of the town board told the Associated Press:
“The resignation gives us the opportunity to move on. We are a very accepting community that really takes care of each other.”
Ms. O’Toole, who initially reported the incident also weighed in on the subject. She told the New Hampshire Union Leader she was:
“Happy he’s done this, not only for the town but for him. Hopefully we’ve taught our children a lesson that you can stand up and make a difference.”
On the surface, this can easily be viewed as another happy ending. But is it? Sort of…but the deeper truth is this is much bigger than old white men refusing to adapt to current day realities. That meme, while popular and easy to digest, is simply not the story in its entirety.
Racism is real, and it is not just the province of octogenarians, or even sexagenarians, as is Cliven Bundy. The sad truth is there is a pattern of discrimination planted by history, nourished by politics, and nurtured by economics; a pattern that ensures some groups face inherent disadvantage. I repeat racism is real. The idea that we have evolved into a post-racial society just because we elected Barack Obama President (twice) is simply a non sequitur; perish the thought.
Contemporary racism is epitomized by the marginalization of groups, executed with acute discretion and lack of fuss by well-mannered and too often well-intentioned people operating deeply flawed systems. For example, a US Department of Education report notes that black preschoolers (mostly four year-olds) are four times more likely to be suspended more than once than their white classmates. According to a 2013 report by Release, a UK group looking at drugs and drug laws, blacks in England and Wales are far less likely to use drugs than white people but six times more likely to be stopped and searched for possession of them. In both countries black people are far more likely to be convicted, and to get stiffer sentences and longer jail time.
Racism is alive and well. Not only that, it mutates to adapt to the body politic. As a case in point, President Richard Nixon once explained to his chief of staff:
“You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.”
There is no simple solution; no one size fits all remedy. There is much work to do to eradicate this most pervasive of scourges. Never doubt that. For now, “Move Over Donald Sterling; Make Room for Robert Copeland!”
I’m done; holla back!
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