Editorial: Bias in Hartford, Hidden or Not

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

It is perhaps inevitable that understanding and misunderstanding travel uncomfortably together along the road to racial justice. But the former will never outdistance the latter without good faith and patient engagement with the issue, as the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality’s recent descent into discord sadly demonstrates.

A lot of ink has already been spilled on this debacle, both on the news pages and in the Forum, so we will confine ourselves to the briefest of recaps. During an impressively detailed presentation to the committee on Oct. 17, Police Chief Phil Kasten described his department’s efforts to root out both explicit and implicit bias in policing through training and constant self-evaluation. As he had done previously, the chief cast doubt on the validity of a University of Vermont study released in January indicating that black drivers are far more likely to be stopped and searched by Hartford police than white drivers, and he said he had seen no evidence of “racist ideologies” among his officers.

At that point, the panel’s chairwoman, Olivia LaPierre, a 23-year-old black woman, observed that it is almost impossible to be entirely bias-free because “white people are socialized to be racist.” She was immediately challenged by Dan Hillard, an older white man who also served on the committee, to state whether she believed all white people are racist. “Yes or no?” he demanded when she attempted to expand on the thought that racism is a social construct — an idea that was effectively elucidated at that point by a third committee member, John Hall.

Even if the concept was unfamiliar or the terms unclear to Hillard, the peremptory, prosecutorial tone he adopted was uncalled for. A moment’s reflection might have suggested to him and others that we are all the products of our upbringing and the social and cultural environment in which we live. Whether we perceive it or not, those things help create the lens through which we see the world. Anyone can profit from examining one’s conscience and conduct in light of that insight.

In any case, the nearly two-hour meeting proceeded as uneventfully following that sharp exchange as it had previous to it. Unfortunately, some of Hartford’s elected officials subsequently decided not to take the opportunity presented to promote better racial understanding but rather to force LaPierre off the panel and to undermine its work. These included Selectboard members Dennis Brown, who declared that his feelings were hurt by LaPierre’s comment; Sandy Mariotti, who claimed she was offended; Chairman Dick Grassi, who said “all of us have feelings about that statement”; and Mike Morris, whose forwarding of a racist email depiction of the Obama family and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder led to the appointment of the committee in the first place. Maybe they expected LaPierre to provide a trigger warning and a safe space before broaching so controversial a topic.

One wishes that these members of the Selectboard had confined themselves to mismanaging the town’s budget priorities, as they seem determined to do, rather than intervening in the committee’s work. But since they did, they should not be surprised that in submitting their resignations, LaPierre and Wayne Miller accused the board of undermining the committee’s work from the beginning. Indeed, Grassi’s subsequent assurance that “the last thing I wanted and the last thing we want is to not support that committee” must be treated with skepticism.

As the committee now regroups and tries to find a way forward, all must recognize that the process of exploring the ways in which bias, whether overt or hidden, poisons the life of the community is bound to be painful at times. Good will, open minds and a genuine desire to deepen understanding are the essential tools at hand.