This is a confession.
Like most SoFla news junkies, I've followed with interest the ongoing controversy surrounding Broward school board member Ann Murray's regrettable use of "the N-word" in a conversation in 2007. For those few who have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a quick breakdown: On the 18th, my colleague Bob Norman reported that Ms. Murray, while working as a school bus terminal supervisor, referred to the upper bleachers of Dolphin Stadium as "n***** heaven." She was disciplined, but the incident was never discussed during Murray's school board election campaign. Now that it's out in the open, a lot of
people think Murray ought to lose her job.
According to the Sun Sentinel, Ms. Murray said Tuesday:
To this day, I have the deepest regret for the incident and the pain I may have caused others. I ask the African American community and all communities who suffer with the ugliness of bigotry to accept my sincerest apology. I pray for healing and forgiveness from those I have offended as we move toward a new chapter and forever close the old.
The apology is nice, and maybe even genuine. Which doesn't mean the governor shouldn't fire her. I happen to think he should. But I also think the calls for her removal, like almost all public denunciations of racism, focus on the wrong thing. Take a look at the responses to the Murray revelations from prominent black leaders in that same Sentinel story. "How can she make decisions about our children," asked Freda Stevens, of the Broward Democratic Black Caucus, " ...if this is the way she feels about African Americans?" Marsha Ellison, of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP, said: "She made the comment because she feels people like me are 'less than.' There's no reason to believe she will make the right decisions, the just decisions for people she considers 'less than.'"
While understandable, such sentiments might give a reader the impression that bigots have no place in the public sphere. Which is nonsense. If we were to purge the public sphere of folks who wrestle with their internalized bigotry (and occasionally lose), we'd have nobody in the public sphere at all. And if we truly intended to muzzle those who've made a racist/classist/ageist/ablesit/sexist comment at an importune moment, those people now screaming for Ann Murray's job would almost certainly be muzzled themselves.
Of course Ann Murray is a bigot. But so are you, and so am I. That's not Murray's problem. Her problem is moral laziness.
Just like the people Ms. Murray offended, and just like Ms. Murray herself, and just like you, I am a member of "communities who suffer with the ugliness of bigotry." I'm queer, which doesn't win many points in Iran or northern Florida. I'm an atheist, which makes me highly suspect just about everywhere. I'm a liberal, which means I can't visit Allen West's town hall meetings without being told I'm "vile" and bent upon destroying America. I'm "white," which makes me nervous in certain neighborhoods. And I'm American, which makes me the butt of nasty jokes in some otherwise nice European bars. (I respond to these by threatening my interlocutors with "shock and awe.") As a result of all this, I've been known to say nasty things about straights/believers/conservatives/other-races/foreigners during moments of anger and/or immaturity. Why? Because I'm a mammal, an ape; a flickering little pinpoint of rationality strapped atop a big hormonal rocket of animal instinct, tribal allegiance, and an inchoate fear of otherness. I say something stupid, and then my rationality reasserts itself and I recognize that my brain has misbehaved. I give it a good smack and move on.
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That said, I've never done anything quite so stupid or nasty as use a racial epithet at work, in mixed company, or as the result of anything other than momentary rage. Murray managed to do all three. Her comment was made in front of co-workers, in front of black people, during a moment when she wasn't under any particular duress. And that's why she should be canned. Not because she's a bigot -- we're all bigots. She should be canned because she surrendered to her bigotry.
Or so it seems. It's a risky business, presuming to know the contents of another person's heart, and as with most really morally anguishing matters there doesn't seem to be an obviously good answer to the questions posed by Ms. Murray's indiscretions. To get a firmer grip on things, I called up a person who claims membership in more minority populations than anyone else I know -- my former bandmate, the Bishop S.F. Makalani-MaHee. You can read my Q&A with her here.