Talking racism

Published 7:57 am Saturday, February 7, 2009

David Benton is not a bigot.

I say so with some conviction because I know a bigot when I meet one. I’ve known a lot of them in my 42 years. I have relatives who are bigots. In times of my life when I was less choosy socially, I’ve had friends who were bigots. These are not flaming racists who wear white sheets, mind you, but polite bigots with redeeming qualities. I know all of their code words.

For six years, I published a newspaper in a diverse Mississippi town where racial tension continually simmered and occasionally boiled. Race relations in Franklin are, by comparison, blissful. It’s one of the reasons I moved from there to here.

I have battle scars that I will carry to my grave of a failed effort to integrate a Deep South country club that denied membership to husband-and-wife physicians — she a retired Army colonel — solely because of their dark skin color.

I’ve traveled twice to Northern Ireland — not on pleasure trips but to promote peace and reconciliation between Unionists and Nationalists, whose conflict makes black-white racial unification in America feel like a walk in the park.

In that life experience, I’ve learned to identify bigotry in all of its forms, overt or subtle. David Benton, who caused a stir in the black community with some comments during his interview for the at-large seat on the Franklin School Board, is not a bigot.

For the past couple of years, I’ve served with Benton on the Franklin City Educational Foundation board. Every other month or so, I watch him conduct the business of the foundation, which exists solely to support the city’s public schools. It’s a volunteer board made up of people who wear many other hats and live busy lives. Its members serve only because of their passion for public education in Franklin. Benton is among the most passionate.

More telling, in a time when white flight from Franklin’s public schools is accelerating and parents increasingly are choosing private schools and “whiter” public schools in neighboring communities, Benton chooses to send his own children to a public school system whose enrollment is 75 percent black. Bigots don’t do that.

As for the comments that have caused an uproar in the black community, here’s my take: Benton chose his words poorly in one instance because he is, like me, an out-of-touch white guy. “Ghetto-style,” which Benton used to reference inappropriate clothing, was a bad word choice. He could have apologized for offending anyone and moved on, leaving it up to his critics to accept the apology or hold a grudge. He chose not to and fanned the flames.

As for Benton’s reference to “chicken dinner,” any objective observer who listened to — or read — his comments in full would see the innocence of the remark.

And as for the notion — expressed by Benton — that a high poverty level affects student achievement, he simply spoke the truth. Study after study has shown it. The number of poor children in Franklin makes the job of the public schools more difficult. Though it’s true that many of those poor children are black, speaking about the correlation between poverty and academic performance is not “insensitive.” It’s candid.

There’s a strong case to be made against Benton’s reappointment to the school board, but it has absolutely nothing to do with race.

If supporters of Ellis Crum want to make a convincing argument for their candidate, it’s this:

* For nine years, Benton has presided over a school division that has been, by most any objective measure, in decline. A school division that once attracted new residents to Franklin has become the reason that many leave. That is not entirely — or even mostly — the school board’s fault, but the board must accept some of the responsibility. A popular — and apt — definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expecting different results. New leadership has some appeal.

* Benton personally participated in what rates as one of the most egregious examples of poor stewardship of tax dollars that I’ve observed in my two-plus decades of reporting and commenting on small-town government: the conscious decision to employ two six-figure school superintendents for more than a year during a time when the schools were scrounging to pay for basic classroom instruction.

There’s also a persuasive case to make for Benton’s reappointment, beginning with his aforementioned passion for public education and a track record of action, not just words. Also:

* The school division is about to adopt a fiscal 2010 budget that will be as difficult and as painful as any in its history. By most accounts, the schools will have $1 million less to spend next year than they’re spending this year. Continued service by a business-minded person who has been intricately involved in the crafting of that budget has merit.

* Likewise, the school board is well into the process of making a critically important selection of the division’s next superintendent. Benton, like his colleagues, has invested untold hours in determining what kind of leader is needed, narrowing the pool of candidates and sizing up the finalists. That process needs minimal disruption.

If I were a City Council member, I’m not sure how I’d vote. I like both men personally and believe both to be qualified for the job. They were both impressive in their interviews Monday night. Neither man is the demon his critics make him out to be.

In making the decision, I’d not give one iota of thought to whether the school board has a black majority or a white majority. Unfortunately, for some people — both black and white — that’s what this decision is about. And as long as it’s about that, our schools will be a reflection of the most narrow-minded of the citizens they serve.