Race lessons from America

Hard on the heels of Donald Trump’s ascent to be President-elect of the USA, comes a striking example of racial tensions in that country with an incident involving public comments from Pamela Taylor, Executive Director of a government-funded non-profit group in Clay County, West Virginia. In a Facebook post about the coming shift from Michelle Obama to Melania Trump, Taylor said:  “It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I’m tired of seeing an ape in heels.”

After images of the post went viral last month, a Clay County Development Corporation representative told The Washington Post that the nonprofit organization’s board had removed Taylor from her position. The uproar also prompted Clay County Mayor Beverly Whaling, who had commented approvingly on Taylor’s post, to resign. In the following days, however, the issue was further inflamed when the media reported on a letter from the Clay County Development Corp’s Acting Executive Director, stating that Taylor is scheduled to return to her old role in the organization.

The revelation here is once again providing evidence of racial tensions in a country often held up to the world as an example of racial harmony – the so-called successful and harmonious ‘melting pot’.  In the pressure of units competing for national or regional political power, these underlying racial tensions rise to the surface and show themselves openly as in the West Virginia official’s comments on social media. Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS, Ronald Sanders, who also writes a weekly opinion column on current issues, weighed in heavily on the reinstatement of Taylor despite the public uproar over her “ape in heels” comment. “I was outraged last week,” he said, “and I continue to seethe over the fact that Pamela Ramsey Taylor, the director of a Clay County, West Virginia, non-profit [organization] who was removed from her post after she called Michelle Obama an ‘ape in heels’ in a November Facebook post, will be re-instated in her job.  What signal does this send to Americans, black and white?   Indeed, what statement does it make to the rest of the world? The Obamas triumphed in the White House, and showed to the world that the depiction of black people – and particularly black women – is distorted.  The Obamas in the White House ripped that depiction to shreds.   In no small way, that is due to a most attractive woman who walked as gracefully in her heels, as she sparkled in her running shoes, and even barefooted. Every woman should be pleased that Michelle Obama represented and empowered them.”

In response to Taylor’s reinstatement, Robert Roswall, Commissioner for the West Virginia Bureau of Senior Services, and Cynthia Beane, Acting Commissioner for the state’s Bureau of Medical Services, wrote a letter to the non-profit’s board requesting copies of its anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, as well as an explanation on how its employees have been trained. Roswall and Beane wrote that “in light of recent events surrounding Ms. Taylor that made national media,” the county must “receive specific assurances that no actions of discrimination/harassment will be conducted or viewed as acceptable practices within the work environment for the Clay County Development Corporation.

Furthermore, please provide specific guarantees that neither Ms. Taylor, nor any other employee, has in any way conducted themselves in a discriminatory manner with any recipient, or potential recipient, receiving state services that your organization administers,” said the letter. Taylor later told NBC-TV affiliate WSAZ that she understood why her Facebook post may have been interpreted as racist, but that it was not her intention. She said she was referring to her own opinion about Obama’s attractiveness, not the colour of her skin, according to the news station.

She told WSAZ that the heated public response to her Facebook post had become a “hate crime against me,” saying that she and her children had received death threats. She said she was planning to file a lawsuit against people who had slandered or libelled her amid the uproar, according to the news station.

There are lessons in this episode for countries around the world, one being Guyana, struggling with their own questions about racial harmony.  Particularly apt, for those seeking guidance in approaching this issue, is the report concerning comments from Obama within his family about this subject.

In an extensive profile in the New Yorker magazine, which gives an inside look at Obama before and after the election, he briefly talked about what he told his daughters, Malia, 18, and Sasha, 15, about Trump’s victory and the racial incidents that followed.  “What I say to them is that people are complicated. Societies and cultures are really complicated … This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry,” Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick. “These are living organisms and it’s messy. And your job as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding.”

The West Virginia incident, which created shockwaves across the USA media and around the world, contains important lessons for other places, such as Guyana, where one frequently hears calls in this publication and others for an end to elections conducted along racial lines.  Barack Obama’s words to his children, in particular, emphasize for us the complexity of the subject.  In any country where these tensions arise, it is critical as we engage the issue to always keep in front of us the delicacy of the task and, more particularly, the fundamental reality the US President has underlined: “This is not mathematics.  These are living organisms, and it’s messy.”

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