“RUARACIST?”

Imagine opening an e-mail – from a Columbia school board member, no less – with that in the subject line.

I opened this doozy not long ago.

Responding to my critique of school superintendent Phyllis Chase, the board member told me I was “perpetuating the [Columbia Daily] Tribune’s bias against Dr. Chase.”

Racial implications continued in another e-mail, in which this individual noted that if “members of the Waters family were among the biggest beneficiaries of ‘urban renewal’ in the 1960’s” and if the “Tribune building was indeed built where Sharp End – a well-known African-American business district – was, it was all an “interesting coincidence.”

“How dare…!” my wife said. I agreed. Criticism is not racism just because its object is the district’s African-American leader. To suggest otherwise is to inject an element of ethnicity where it doesn’t belong.

It was just another instance of someone in a position of power applying an inappropriate label – “racist” – to shut down a critic or challenger.

Watershed moment

Former Tribune columnist Tony Messenger wrote about this sort of name-calling in a July 20, 2005, column, “Opposition group fights those who too quickly label them.”

Messenger followed a group of citizens called TARRIF, who joined forces to fight tax increases they thought were unfair. “Traci Wilson-Kleekamp is a nut. A kook even,” he began the column. “Ditto Ben Londeree, Renee Richmond and DeAnna Walkenbach. And don’t forget Karl Skala. The whole bunch is nuttier than a fruitcake.”

Harsh words for citizens many would have just as eagerly labeled “caring and engaged.” But “that’s what you’ll hear from a few self-appointed city leaders in the next few months as Columbia debates an expected vote in November,” Messenger admitted. “For their efforts, they’ll be labeled loud-mouthed, anti-growth, not-in-my-backyard troublemakers.”

Why the labels? In TARRIF’s case, City Hall and other establishment players wanted “to do all the talking, and they want us to shut up,” Wilson-Kleekamp opined.

But the group pressed on, with Wilson-Kleekamp telling Messenger that she was fully aware “the more she spoke out, the more some folks would try to marginalize her views,” which included wanting “the city to develop a comprehensive growth plan before it decided to start seeking tax increases,” Messenger wrote.

Likewise, Skala wanted the Columbia “Planning and Zoning Commission – from which he was recently removed – to have more say in the development process,” while Richmond and Walkenbach wanted “developers to treat residents’ property rights as equal to their own.”

In defeating two of six proposed taxes, the group created a watershed moment in our little burg’s political history. Gone were the days of dismissing establishment critics as crackpots.

Columbia would never be the same.

The Scarlet Label

Despite a grassroots revolution that, three years later, has seen once marginalized players, such as Skala, ascend to the city council and several stern status-quo rebukes at the ballot box, establishment players – and former players – still play the labeling game.

Public hearings “bring out the cranks, the professional complainers and those with an ideological ax to grind,” former Columbia school board member Kerry Crist commented in the Tribune last week, while noting that not enough people attend public meetings.

Largely considered an “august body” of educated and successful elites, the school board has sported many of the labeling game’s most practiced players. At a recent meeting, members slapped several labels – from “alarmist” to “micromanager” – on Inez Segert, a colleague who challenged proposed budget cuts.

Those labels didn’t make sense, and they rarely do.

Tribune publisher Hank Waters did not “kill” the district’s tax levy, as several levy supporters suggested at Flat Branch Restaurant last election eve. Voters killed it, and by a large margin.

When at the district’s first “listening forum,” amidst groping for the message voters intended with that defeat, I suggested they might have fired the superintendent, board member Steve Calloway scolded me for “getting personal.” But the superintendent is a high-ranking public official, and the discussion had nothing to do with her personal life.

Speak no evil

I often ask myself why the things my mother taught me – and insisted I teach my own children – are so often junked in adult life.

Johnny, think for yourself. Johnny, stand up for what you believe in. Johnny, get involved. Vote. Run for public office.

But name-calling – especially in a smallish town – can make getting involved intimidating enough to shut down debate, which often appears to be the establishment’s end game. Will they think I’m a crank if I criticize the tax levy, or a professional complainer if I report the mold problem at Benton Elementary? Will they think I have an ideological ax to grind if I advocate for a different math curriculum?

See no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil. Is that why violent crime is pounding our town?

See no gangs; hear no gangs. Everything, dear citizen, is absolutely fine.

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