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Jim Kenyon: Come and Listen to a Story ’Bout a Misdirected Email

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Published: 1/22/2017 12:29:58 AM
Modified: 1/22/2017 12:30:02 AM

When I was a kid, The Beverly Hillbillies was a popular TV sitcom that got laughs by portraying uneducated people living in a place they didn’t belong. But it’s hard to find anything funny about an email I received Friday that used a doctored image from the show to take a not-so-subtle racist swipe at President Obama on his way out of the White House.

A photo titled ‘Movin’ Day’ showed a rusted-out truck loaded down with bedding, a wash basin and other belongings. A wooden barrel was strapped to the front bumper.

Four people are pictured in the jalopy, though, in fact, only three of them actually moved out of the White House on Friday — Barack and Michelle Obama, and Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother. The fourth occupant, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, never lived in the White House and left the administration in 2015. The one thing the four people have in common is that they’re all black, and they all look ridiculous. Also in the car is the Obamas’ dog, who also happens to be black.

Get it?

As if we needed another repulsive use of Photoshop.

I’m a bit hesitant to say who sent me the photo because I generally think he’s a decent guy. But that’s no excuse. Especially for a public official. The photo came from Mike Morris, a member of the Hartford Selectboard. I’m not quite sure how I ended up on Morris’ email list. Perhaps it’s because, a few years ago, he was among a group of Hartford residents bent on ousting Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg who would send me emails offering why a change in leadership was in order.

After Rieseberg resigned in August 2015, I stopped getting emails from Morris.

Until Friday morning.

Later on Friday, I drove over to Morris Homes, the White River Junction modular home business that Morris has operated for 16 years. I found Morris, who was elected to the Selectboard last year, watching CNN’s coverage of Inauguration Day on a TV outside his office.

I brought along the doctored picture. Morris seemed genuinely surprised that I had it. To his credit, he didn’t deny knowledge of the photo.

A friend had sent it to him, he said. He wouldn’t tell me who. “I’m not going to throw him under the bus,” Morris said.

That morning, Morris said, he had gone through his emails and had deleted some and responded to and forwarded others. “I did not know that I sent it to you,” he told me.

Or anyone else, for that matter, he said. According to Morris, he thought he had put the picture in his email’s trash, but must have hit the forward button by mistake. “That’s all I can think could have happened,” he said. “I’m not good with computers.”

I’m not either. So I’ll take his word that distributing the email was unintentional and that he didn’t share its racist perspective. The photo was “inappropriate,” Morris said. “I’m not that way. It’s not my style.”

I suspect that I wasn’t the only one who received the photo from Morris. He told me that he has dozens of people on his email address list.

On Friday afternoon, I sent the photo to Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, a nonprofit advocacy group that works on behalf of marginalized Vermonters.

I figured Reed could explain much better than I could what makes the photo so offensive. Reed, an African-American who has lived in Vermont for decades and is old enough to remember The Beverly Hillbillies, tends to choose his words carefully.

“The characterization of the Obamas, an Ivy League family, being uneducated and uncouth in the many ways that The Beverly Hillbillies exemplified is unacceptable,” he said. (Barack and Michelle Obama are Harvard Law School graduates and earned undergraduate degrees from Columbia and Princeton, respectively.)

In a state where 94 percent of residents are white, it puts Vermonters, particularly public officials, in a bad light, he said.

“Public officials need to be really conscious about what they say and do,” Reed said.

Hartford Town Manager Leo Pullar, a former Army colonel who came aboard in July after retiring from the Pentagon, told me he gets a lot of emails from Morris, but he didn’t receive this one.

The email I received came from Morris’ personal email — not his town account. Still, a public apology might be in order, Pullar said. “Mike will have to do something,” he said. “There’s absolutely a lesson here.”

Morris isn’t the first Vermont public official — and I doubt he’ll be the last — to find himself having to explain something that suggests the need for racial sensitivity training.

At Reed’s earlier suggestion, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns reminded public officials to think before they talk — or hit “send.” This came after several embarrassing moments, including when a police chief in southern Vermont asked his Selectboard for a K-9 unit to catch Latinos, Reed said.

“Whether intended or not, public officials’ actions or words are often perceived as being officially sanctioned by the government and the people it serves,” Steven Jeffrey, the league’s then-executive director, wrote in the nonprofit organization’s July 2014 newsletter. “The notoriety of such actions and deeds can only have a negative effect on our communities and our state.”

In Morris’ case, emailing the offensive picture might very well have been an accident. But as is often the case, damage was done. Regardless of its origins, I find it difficult to ignore the significance of the email’s timing — on Obama’s last day in office and Donald Trump’s first.

Not a hopeful omen.

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