Editorial: Racial Unawareness in Hartford

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hartford School Board members are required under the district’s code of conduct to “support” all decisions of the board, even when they personally oppose them. On occasion, this policy mandates that they support the insupportable.

For instance, last week the board declined an invitation from the Selectboard to name two members to an Equity and Diversity Committee being formed to study and address race relations in town. School Board members Paula Nulty, Nancy Russell and Chairwoman Lori Dickerson voted to rebuff the invitation, while Peter Merrill and Kevin Christie were in favor of participating. The result is that despite their conscientious objection, Merrill and Christie are now bound to support their colleagues’ breathtaking display of ignorance and arrogance.

The Selectboard proposed forming the committee after one of its own members, Mike Morris, forwarded to other recipients an email he had received depicting in a racist manner members of the Obama family and former Attorney General Eric Holder.  The panel was to include two members each from the Selectboard and the School Board, as well as five members of the public. Nulty, Russell and Dickerson declined on the grounds that the school district already has in place sound policies and practices to ensure that students of all races feel welcome in the schools. (Not explained was why, if this is so, they would not want to share this model of racial comity with their Selectboard colleagues and members of the public.)

Christie, the School Board’s sole black member, demurred from that rosy view. “Even though we may think nothing happens, it’s a very quiet thing sometimes. I’ve been here since the 1970s, and I could tell you stories that would flip you out.”  That perspective was echoed by Wayne Miller, a black Hartford High School graduate who later told staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling that his own experiences of violence and taunting suggested strongly that the school system was far from welcoming when it comes to race.

In explaining her position, Nulty said, “My own children’s experience in school over the past several months, being conservative, being Catholic, being pro-life, they’ve gotten smacked around like you wouldn’t believe. … Racism is wrong. Everyone should know that. But I worry about things veering off into diversity sensitivity and all those sorts of things. Forgive me, but I don’t believe in the whole ‘diversity’ thing, because (in the view of those who advocate for diversity) . . . there’s some diversity that’s OK and there’s some diversity that’s not OK.”

From this one can infer that, whatever their merits, the school district’s programs and policies have not fully succeeded in creating an environment in which all students feel at home. An aim of diversity programs should be to spark a sense of empathy in participants, which is a prerequisite for developing tolerance for all sorts of differences, including political and religious ones.

It is not entirely surprising that white elected officials in a town where 95 percent of residents share their skin color would be blind to racial problems, despite very public evidence that they do exist — for instance when a black resident of Hartford was beaten by police in his own home a few years ago as they responded to what turned out to be an erroneous report of a burglary in progress.

But School Board members are community leaders whose actions have consequences. The board’s majority snubbed a good-faith effort by the Selectboard and also signaled unmistakably that it is not interested in promoting racial harmony in the community, or even in exploring the subject. We urge Merrill and Christie to ignore the absurd gag rule imposed by the board’s code of conduct and forcefully advocate in public for reconsideration.