Power and prejudice

We’d like to think that we washed our left-leaning village clean of racism decades ago, stuffed it with liberals and made sure we always had a person of color on our otherwise all-white and privileged town council. While hiring, especially at upper management levels, a diverse mix of races and ethnicities is a good first step toward ameliorating discrimination, it doesn’t erase prejudice. Most instances of discrimination ultimately boil down to power, and even a subtle abuse of power is no less real and no less of a problem.

In Chapel Hill, the people who make the decisions and set the policies for town residents are white. The people who make the decisions about what to publish in all three of the town’s newspapers – The Chapel Hill Herald, The Chapel Hill News and The Daily Tar Heel – are white. An overwhelming majority of the people reporting on events are white. Those people hold positions of power.

If we “haven’t heard a peep” out of Public Works Department for (almost) three years, it doesn’t mean that everything has been fine. In summer of 2008, a Public Works employee, a past chairman of the Black Public Works Association, reported that he was afraid to use the bathroom at work after finding his name, next to “the N-word” and a picture of a noose, written on a urinal. More racially charged graffiti targeting the employee was found in another town building a few weeks later.

I seem to recall that at some point a supervisor was reprimanded over the incidents, but I couldn’t find a story about the resolution in a search of the N&O’s online archives. I don’t recall that anyone was fired.

After reading the newspaper and town versions of what led to the termination of Kerry Bigelow and Clyde Clark, I’ve tried to imagine what the men picking up the garbage in my neighborhood could do to make me feel threatened – something that would not be a criminal offense, which would no longer be simply a personnel matter. If I felt nervous around the sanitation crew working my neighborhood, I’d make a point not to be near my trashcan during the 3 minutes they are working my street.

As for complaints from co-workers, most organizations have a protocol that human resources follows, and that always includes letting the offending workers know that their behavior is making their co-workers uncomfortable. Evidently, that process wasn’t followed with Bigelow and Clark.

This issue may be more about union-busting than racism. But the fact that Bigelow and Clark want to make the appeals hearing public and that the town was willing to spend $22,000 to justify firing the men makes me think there is more to the matter than the people in power are letting on.

I will be very interested to learn the full story.
– Nancy Oates

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16 Comments

  1. Terri Buckner

     /  December 30, 2010

    Thank you Nancy.

  2. Fred Black

     /  December 30, 2010

    “In Chapel Hill, the people who make the decisions and set the policies for town residents are white. ”

    Not following you here.

  3. Nancy Oates

     /  December 30, 2010

    The town manager is white, and you’ll notice that he has considerable sway over council decisions. The mayor is white. Seven out of eight remaining council members are white. The chief of police is white. The head of the downtown development commission is white. The head of the chamber of commerce is white. The UNC-CH chancellor is white. Pretty much everyone who has ultimate authority over an organization that affects life in our town is white.

  4. Terri Buckner

     /  December 30, 2010

    And since the power structure is all white (and mostly male), problems will be seen from the white male point of view. Change doesn’t occur under homogeneous leadership.

  5. Fred Black

     /  December 30, 2010

    What you offer here is an oversimplification of policy making and decision making, as you ignore the significant and important understanding of how inputs from others influence outcomes and the actions of those in positions of power. There is a tremendous amount of research out there on this topic but it sounds like your position is already fixed.

    So what point of view would you say the POTUS has as he deals with the problems he faces?

  6. Terri Buckner

     /  December 30, 2010

    Obama has a heterogeneous group of advisors:
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/cabinet

    I missing your point Fred. Are you saying that homogeneous leadership has no impact on the direction and slant of policies and decision making? If so that is inconsistent with the literature (sociological) that I’ve read.

  7. Runner

     /  December 30, 2010

    And I thought yesterday was a bad day for this website.

  8. Fred Black

     /  December 30, 2010

    What I’m saying is that your statement about homogeneous leadership ignores the fact that these leaders are not making decision/policies in a vacuum; you also have to consider the diversity of the inputs into their decision making and policy making. Do our leaders not have heterogeneous staffs/advisors too?

  9. George C

     /  December 30, 2010

    “Change doesn’t occur under homogeneous leadership.”
    Terri,
    First, I’m a bit offended (not by you but by the overall tone of this thread) that because I’m a white male it is to be assumed that either I’m bigoted and/or racist and/or unable to think or make a decision in a fair and impartial manner. I’ll agree, to a certain point, with your comment above. But I can speak from experience about the difficulty of getting minority representation on some of our Town advisory boards. I’ve even approached some of the Town’s black leaders who told me that they would try to help but usually to no avail.
    It is very unfortunate that our minorities often don’t have the time, or resources (financial and otherwise), or inclination to serve on advisory boards or to run for office or perhaps to seek upper level management positions in our Town government. But simply pointing out that we have a less-than-ideal situation, something that most of us agree on, does nothing to solve it.
    What is the solution? What is your solution?

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  December 30, 2010

    We’ll just have to disagree on this one Fred. I love the theory that change occurs from bottom up, but I have yet to see that happen in public agencies. The town council must think it’s a problem since they chose to appoint a new member based on race. And in this instance, the input was from an outside group AND one that opposes efforts toward unionization.

  11. Terri Buckner

     /  December 30, 2010

    “First, I’m a bit offended (not by you but by the overall tone of this thread) that because I’m a white male it is to be assumed that either I’m bigoted and/or racist and/or unable to think or make a decision in a fair and impartial manner. ”

    No George, that is not what I’m saying. I’m saying that you and I see the world from a lens that reflects our upbringing and experiences. My world as a white woman (from a poor family in rural Missouri) shaped my views in ways that are too subtle to define, but they exist and they impact my actions and beliefs and how I interpret the actions of others. And they are quite different from yours, even though our adult lives have probably overlapped in many significant ways. That doesn’t say anything negative about you. It just says that we are different and that in order to fairly impose and interpret policies that affect us both, we need diversity of leadership to more fairly represent our different experiences.

    It’s really hard to talk about race without offending, but I assure you I meant no offense to you, to the director of Public Works, or the town manager, or any other white man. The internet is not the best venue for such discussions.

    Runner–if you don’t like it, stop reading! You’re doing this by choice so stop complaining and find something else to do that will not frustrate you so much.

  12. George C

     /  December 30, 2010

    Terri,
    I think you and I both agree that we need more minorities involved in all aspects of our community – both the public and the private sector. And I do believe that efforts to do so are ongoing in this community. Unfortunately, progress in this area continues to be slow and solutions to speed it up seem to be lacking. I wish I had some, but I don’t.

  13. Fred Black

     /  December 30, 2010

    The point that we should not ignore is that good leaders recognize their limitations and know their strengths, and compensate for their limitations and enhance their strengths through the capabilities of the team that they build around them. That Terri, is why I believe that in and of itself, the make-up of our current leadership is only part of the story. They are not operating in a vacuum.

    BTW, Lance Norris, the director of Public Works, is black.

  14. Terri Buckner

     /  December 30, 2010

    So is Flo Miller, Fred. But that doesn’t change my opinion on this situation.

  15. Fred Black

     /  December 30, 2010

    Terri, I was referring to your comment: “I meant no offense to you, to the director of Public Works, or the town manager, or any other white man. ”

    Understand that I am not speaking about the firing situation, only the original comment about decision makers and policy makers. I personally do not know enough about the case to take a position or make charges. Having worked similar cases with Fortune 100 companies, I appreciate the difficulty in getting to the truth.

  16. John Kramer

     /  December 31, 2010

    Let’s see. The director of Public Works is black. So are his fired employees. Yep, blatant racism at work here, Chapel Hill style.

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