Thursday, January 10, 2008

When in doubt, use the race card

When someone is accused of discriminating against another person because of race, gender, disability, or other factors, it is a very serious allegation. Because I have grown up with a disability and have-I'm sorry to say-had firsthand experience with what real discrimination is like, I am acutely aware of how easy it is for people to be discriminated against in the negative sense of that term. I have also developed an awareness, however, of just how easy that it is for some to use their race, gender, disability, or other individual uniqueness as a crutch to avoid taking responsibility for their actions-and that is especially prone to occur when a person is in a position of some authority and their actions are questioned.

In Knox County Government, there have been questions about the ethical, moral, and most importantly the legal aspects of the actions of several current and former employees of the Knox County Mayor's office for many months and even years. There are also questions about whether Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale authorized a lot of this behavior, and many of us believe that the evidence points (in some cases circumstantially, and in some cases more concretely) to the reality that he did. Neither Mike Ragsdale nor his underlings have demonstrated that they are fond of having to answer for their actions, and in the case of Knox County Community Services Director Cynthia Finch, she has a very easy way to deflect criticism: As an African-American woman, she can claim that the Knox County Commissioners who are questioning her about allegations of favoritism in grant allocation requests are racists:

"Do you think this commission is motivated racially?" Lambert asked Finch, who is black, as she fielded questions about the grant program sparked by a critical federal report.

"You could do a lot better job," Finch responded.

Lambert left his seat and approached Finch at the lectern, throwing down a stack of photographs including some of a white supremacist rally held downtown over the summer in reaction to a January double murder.

The supremacists had threatened Lambert's life because he "did not want them coming to this town and spreading their hate," the commissioner said.

"I've been called a racist, and I'm not going to take it," Lambert said, adding after the meeting, "I believe she is calling us racist by saying you could do better. Now that I'm asking questions about these community grants, I'm a racist."

Commissioner Lambert and I certainly didn't see eye to eye during the recent sunshine law trial in Knox County, but I know Lumpy personally and I consider him a good friend. I do not blame him in the slightest for feeling angry, hurt, and personally attacked when Ms. Finch made this muffled allegation that he and other Commissioners were racists. Further, I do not believe he was wrong to try and show Ms. Finch photographs of the Klan rally in downtown Knoxville-the one where Greg Lambert stood up to the Ku Klux Klan. Cynthia Finch's allegation of racism was yet another desperation tactic by yet another official in the Ragsdale administration to avoid public accountability.

Martin Luther King said in his famous "I have a dream" speech that he dreamed of a day when his children would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." We are hardly moving in that direction when public officials who just happen to be people of color are crying "racism" when they are made to account for their actions in office just as their white counterparts are made to do (and here I thought equality was what we were striving for). Racism is too serious of an accusation to be used as a political tool to avoid public scrutiny. To accuse those who are attempting to get to the bottom of unethical and possibly illegal acts of racism merely to avoid the heat is a disgraceful act of cowardice in its own right.

Ms. Finch is a public official by virtue of her appointment by Mayor Ragsdale. With the public trust also comes the public heat, and that knows no color or gender. Ms. Finch needs to learn to take the heat or get out of the game.

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