Saturday, December 3, 2016

Elephants and Racism

Howard County is billed as a bastion of diversity. One of its taglines is “Choose Civility”. But behind the veil is an elephant. And that elephant is racism. Hate speech and other repercussions of our recent election have cropped up here as of late…most notably in our schools. Social media posts by students at River Hill High School, Atholton High School and Oakland Mills High School have occurred within our Columbia community. And notably these incidents occurred after the presidential election. But the county has seen issues arise within our schools even before the election at Glenelg High School and Mt. Hebron High School And then there was that unfortunate incident of our now former Sheriff being exposed as a rabid racist who made racially inappropriate comments about African-Americans, ethnically inappropriate comments about Jewish people, including our former county executive Ken Ulman, as well as sexist comments pertaining to women.

So how does this happen? How does a community that is consistently voted one of the most desirable communities in America abide a “veiled identity” of racism? Well, as anything else, accountability and responsibility lie at the top. The Howard County school superintendent needs to take a much more active and consistent approach to the issues that have occurred in our schools, from the raising of Confederate flags at Glenelg High School to the racist social media posts by students at the other schools I have mentioned. There is no blanket right to free speech in a school environment. Both students and parents should be assured that the learning environment of their children is safe and welcoming for all children. And school administrators do have the ability to greatly restrict that right in a public school environment and for obvious reasons. The Howard County, Maryland government also needs to take a proactive and visibly vocal position regarding its schools and county employees. The diversity coordinator position within the school system that was created in response to the Mt. Hebron incident that mysteriously disappeared before it was ever staffed, should be reactivated and actually staffed. Recently it has come to my attention that the human rights commissioner that replaced me on the county Human Rights Commission resigned less than a year into his 5 year appointed term. Apparently, among other things, he had caused a commotion on the Commission by repeatedly using the racially laden “N” word during Commission meetings, causing the Commission to have to hold a sensitivity training for the Commission as a result. You read that correctly…the county government Human Rights Commission had to hold a SENSITIVITY TRAINING because one of its county executive appointed Commissioners, Ivan Betancourt, was repeatedly using a racial epithet during Commission meetings. Betancourt then spewed the same racially laden language, including the “N” word at the meeting, claiming the word is in the dictionary and he has a right to say it. So a Howard County Human Rights Commissioner that was vigorously backed by our county executive to replace an African-American woman, myself, on the Commission, resigned less than a year into his 5 year appointed term after using racial epithets such as the racially charged “N” word during Commission meetings.

 Then there is the issue of our former county sheriff in the summer of 2015 with the complaint alleged by the deputy who filed a human rights violation complaint, among other things, alleging that our former county sheriff routinely made racist, sexist and anti-Semitic remarks. Dr. Sands, the head of the Howard County Office of Human Rights personally contacted me, as the then chair of the Human Rights Commission and adamantly requested that I help her “resolve” the complaint without addressing the matter before the full Commission, a clear and blatant violation of Howard County, MD human rights policy and procedure for reviewing complaints. I told her that the deputy should have a right to file his complaint with her office, like any other county employee and that I would not assist her in hiding the matter in violation of not only the deputy’s civil rights, but county law. Not surprisingly, the next month I received a certificate from the county government thanking me for my service, a de facto notice that I was officially not to be reappointed to the Human Rights Commission. And then that same month Ivan Betancourt was appointed to replace me on the Commission. So there you have it. This is how racism lives and thrives. We feed it by hiding it and explaining it away with catchy phrases like “teachable moments”. If we are truly ever going to be #OneHoward, we need to expose the elephant in the room and tell it is no longer welcome in Howard County. And then we need to take measurable, open and honest steps to make sure it knows to never return.

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