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Diminishing Effectiveness of the Race Card

11 January 2017

For several years, playing the “Race Card” has been a very effective means of forcing actions that might not have otherwise come to pass. From the Cambridge Dictionary, race card is “to try to gain an advantage by drawing attention to someone’s race or to issues of race.” An editorial in the Fayetteville Observer titled, “Our View: School board creates drama with appointment” presents what has been the predominant response to race card playing and what appears to be a new reality. The editorial opens as follows:

Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 11.08.12 AM“Carrie Sutton says her fellow members on the Cumberland County school board did her wrong – and she thinks their motivation was racial. Member Greg West strongly pushed back against that notion. Either way, the board on Tuesday created needless tension with what should have been a pro forma appointment.”

The background here is that Carrie Sutton, who is black, was serving as vice-chair of the school board. The “pro forma” referred to in the editorial is that normally, although not policy, the vice-chair moves up to the chairperson position. During this election, Greg West, who is white, was elected chair on a 5-4 vote along racial lines. My assessment is the Observer’s editorial calls for the school board to bow to the race card. However, as is starting to happen across America, those five white members refused to bow. I hold that examination of this situation shows this to be an encouraging outcome. It points to the diminishing effectiveness of playing the race card.

An article by Alicia Banks titled, “Cumberland County school board members discuss vote on chairman” provides much information that allows for examination of this situation. Banks writes that some attendees at the meeting “called the vote to not choose Sutton ‘racially motivated’ and a ‘disgrace.’” Gregg West is reported to have said, in part, “‘It’s unfortunate race was paraded around last night.’” In his column titled, “Sutton speaks her mind; I like that”, Myron Pitts indicates Sutton, in the meeting, “called the vote ‘so racial.’” Without doubt, Carrie Sutton, being black, has been made the centerpiece of objections to her failure to be elected chairwoman.

Did this 5-4 vote happen because Carrie Sutton is black? If not, the race card was played and, so far, has failed to force the desired result. I say “so far” because those who play this card hardly ever give up without a physically, and even financially, draining fight. Consider the following from Alicia Banks’ article:

“Greg West said this week he was named to the position because of his ability to handle challenges for the school system next year. Some of those include securing more money from the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners and possibly seeking a bond to pay for delayed maintenance projects in schools. ‘Each year should be looked at as what’s best for this year because the challenges are different,’ he said. ‘And leadership style is what it came down to.’

‘We need to come together, and do what’s best for all the children,’ West said. ‘I want to work with everybody, and I haven’t given 14 years to stop now. I’m excited to lead the board forward.’”

Greg West is right. In this case, above all else, the primary decision point is leadership style. Even though what I have seen is from a distance, I have no problem at all choosing Greg West over Carrie Sutton when it comes to leadership style. What follows are some particulars.

In June 2016, my column titled, “Without Question-This is Discrimination” appeared in Up & Coming Weekly. I argued that Carrie Sutton’s vote against Vernon Aldridge, to replace Leon Mack, as the school system’s activities director was an act of discrimination. Aldridge is white and Mack is black. Sutton’s reason for voting as she did was reported in Catherine Pritchard’s article headlined, “School board taps Vernon Aldridge as activities director amid controversy.”

“Sutton said then she couldn’t support Aldridge’s appointment because she felt the school system should have looked harder to find a qualified minority candidate for the job. She said she believed black students, particularly young males, need to see black people in leadership positions to imagine their own future possibilities.”

Sutton voted against Aldridge because he was white, not black. This kind of thinking is not indicative of a leadership style that promotes fairness, or thoughtful working through, of issues.

Then there is Sutton’s response to actions taken in the case of Lee Francis, the Fayetteville teacher who stepped on the American flag while teaching on the First Amendment. He was initially suspended for 10 days without pay. As of this writing, he is assigned to a non-classroom position pending further action. My column in October 2016 titled, “Framework as a Critical Element of Thought” made the case that Francis demonstrated extremely poor judgement is his flag-stepping and general approach to presenting this topic. During a school board meeting where Francis’ suspension was appealed, the suspension was upheld on a 5-2 vote. Sutton voted against upholding the suspension. In her article, “Suspension upheld for teacher who stepped on flag,” Alicia Banks quotes Sutton, as follows regarding her “no” vote:

“‘I believe the whole thing was blown out of proportion, and I want strong African-American teachers who are innovative and creative. Was this the best judgment? No, it wasn’t. We don’t always make the best judgments.’”

When I review what I wrote in the column regarding Francis, I find Sutton’s thinking reflects poor judgement. Again, this leads me to question what would be her leadership style.

The Observer editorial referenced in the opening of this column indicates Alicia Chisolm, a black board member referring to the Francis hearing, offered a possible reason for votes against Sutton: “A majority of the board backed the schools superintendent’s decision to suspend Francis. Not Sutton, who Chisolm says, ‘questioned their Christianity for what they did to him.’” This is attacking individuals instead of examining facts and pursuing reasonable solutions.

In Myron Pitts’ column, he writes, “Sutton told me Friday she mentioned being chairwoman to fellow members as recently as three weeks ago, and no one raised objections.” I think the reason nobody voiced objection is reflected in what Greg West said to Alicia Banks as shown in her “…discuss vote” article above: “‘I guess she assumed she would get it. I knew this would upset her, but it’s what’s best for the board.’” What West says indicates a reasonable reluctance to present Sutton with positions contrary to her own.

Here was a candidate who, I contend, surely engaged in open discrimination, exercised poor judgement in the Francis case, inappropriately challenged the Christian standing of some board members, and fosters an atmosphere where she does not respect, or tolerate, disagreement with her thinking. I have seen, and had to deal with, the leadership style reflected in these actions and attitude. I believe those five white board members did what was necessary…they did not bow. This was not, and is not, about race. It is about leadership style. More importantly, it is about the lives and future of a bunch of young people who deserve much better than is indicated by this playing of the race card.

NOTE: Karl Merritt’s columns mentioned above can be read at following Up & Coming links:
Without Question-This is Discrimination…
Framework as a Critical Element of Thought…

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