‘Insensitive’ Benton remarks draw ire

Published 8:28 am Friday, February 6, 2009

FRANKLIN— Black community leaders are speaking out against what they consider culturally insensitive remarks by school board nominee David Benton.

During an interview by the City Council for the board’s vacant at-large seat Monday night, Benton made references to chicken dinners, ghetto-style clothing and poverty, remarks that some black leaders considered offensive.

“When you serve a school system that is made up of a 75 percent minority population, you have to be sensitive to certain cultural stereotypes,” said school board member Mona Murphy. “I’ve served on the board with Mr. Benton for a long period of time and I have to say, I didn’t know he had those views. I’m not sure I would be comfortable serving alongside him anymore.”

When Benton learned Thursday that some were taking issue with his comments, he replied, “I think people are being overly sensitive.”

“What I said on Monday was right,” Benton said in a telephone interview. “If you feed people they will come to a meeting in Franklin. It’s unfortunate but true. I stand by my comments. When I said some of the clothing the kids wear is ‘ghetto,’ I made no reference to anybody in the community. I’d say both black and white kids wear ‘ghetto’ clothes. I think uniforms are a good way to combat that because it is an issue, not only for our school system (but for) school systems all over the nation.”

Asked during the interview Monday night by Councilman Barry Cheatham about school uniforms, Benton replied that uniforms serve as a deterrent to disciplinary problems. Benton added that during his first term on the board, the school board instituted uniforms at J.P. King Middle School because “we didn’t want the kids to be wearing ‘ghetto-style’ clothing.”

Councilwoman Rosa Lawrence asked Benton what he meant by “ghetto-style” clothing.

Benton responded, “Kids that have baggy pants down to their tailbones, untucked long T-shirts, bandanas on their heads, doo-rags and things like that.”

Lawrence said she was surprised by Benton’s assessment.

“I was concerned with his statements because it showed that he is insensitive to the cultural diversity in Franklin,” she said. “He appears to have a very negative view of our children. His comments seemed out of touch and helped me understand some of the reasons why we haven’t progressed much in the schools during the nine years he’s been on the board.”

Lawrence said Benton’s comments helped her make up her mind to vote for Ellis Crum, the other nominee being considered for the school board.

The seat was left vacant last month when the state attorney general determined that Benton’s appointment to the board last spring was invalid. The City Council failed to formally notify the public of the meeting at which Benton was appointed.

Others in the black community said they perceived Benton’s comments concerning parental involvement and the lack of student achievement to also be controversial.

Throughout his interview, Benton made reference to a lack of parental participation in Franklin schools.

“For whatever reason, parents in Franklin don’t take enough of an interest in education. They don’t place value in education, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.

When Councilman Mark Fetherolf asked what the schools have done to get parents involved, Benton said, “History has shown us in Franklin that if you feed people, they’ll come. So, Mr. (Don) Spengeman, several times a year, has a chicken dinner at a PTA meeting and that’s always his best-attended event. If you have pizza, people will come. If you serve chicken, people will come. If you send a flier that says we are having a meeting at 7 p.m., please come, you don’t get the type of response in Franklin that we would like to see,” he said.

According to an article in Virginia Law Weekly, “chicken” references were often used to parody blacks in minstrel shows during the 1800s and are still a source of contention today.

Murphy said she was “shocked and appalled” by what she heard.

“Speaking just as a citizen of this community, I must say I was upset by his references to chicken dinners. I have received numerous calls from citizens who also found Mr. Benton’s speech degrading and insulting. People are very upset and were truly devastated to hear that he said those things. I told them they should call their City Council members to air their concerns. I am going to do that myself.” she said.

Franklin resident Dr. Alvin Harris was present at the meeting and said he was “hurt” by Benton’s remarks.

“If he has no more tact and civility than that, it does not bode as a good sign that he should be leading our children,” he said. “There may be things we don’t agree with each other on, but we should at least be sensitive to each others’ feelings. To say that we just serve chicken and that’s the only thing that draws people out is distasteful,” Harris said.

Councilwoman Mary Hilliard criticized Benton’s statement about the relationship between achievement and poverty in the Franklin school system.

“The bottom line is we struggle every day and we will always struggle in Franklin as long as we have the poverty and the lack of concern for education that we have,” Benton said during the interview. “We have too many people in Franklin that don’t put enough value on the education of their children.”

According to the latest data, nearly 40 percent of children in Franklin live below the federal poverty line. More than half of the city’s residents are black.

“I believe our children can perform to a higher standard regardless of their circumstances,” Hilliard said.

She also took issue with Benton’s use of “ghetto” during the interview.

“Here in the 21st century, to hear comments of that nature is unbelievable,” Hilliard said. “I’m concerned that the entire city has not seemingly grown out of this type of mentality. The nation as a whole has united to elect a black president, but in Franklin with a population of only 8,000 people there still seems to be a racial divide to use words such as ‘ghetto’ in reference to our children. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Councilman Barry Cheatham said he did not believe Benton meant for his comments to be inflammatory but did think the nominee should have picked his words more carefully.

“I don’t think he meant anything derogatory, but I do think he could have phrased it a whole lot better than he did,” Cheatham said.

Councilman Benny Burgess said he “would like to sit down with my colleagues to hear what they have to say directly, so I can better understand where they’re coming from.”

To listen to the school board interviews in their entirety, log on to www.thetidewaternews.com.