Are we ready for meaningful racial discourse?

Mount Airy Mayor David Rowe faced a gamut of opinions Thursday night, with a city council meeting room filled with people letting the mayor know what they thought of comments he made in a Jan. 5 Washington Post story.

The article, which went to great lengths to portray Mount Airy as a town teeming with racism and sexist attitudes that were common in the 1950s and 60s, quoted the mayor extensively.

What has gotten the mayor into hot water, though, was a small quote he gave to the Post:

“At the same time, he said, African-Americans often bring hardship on themselves. Asked to explain what he meant, he amended the statement to mean young blacks,” the Post reported.

The article further quoted Rowe as saying, “when you’re my age and you see an African-American boy with pants at their knees, you can’t appreciate them,” and that he would never employ someone at his construction company who dressed that way. “I’m worried about when a person chooses to dresses like that, what kind of effect will that person have on society.”

Truthfully, those are disturbing words, most definitely tinged with what some might reasonably call racist attitudes. But they only tell a tiny part of the story.

Since then, Mayor Rowe has agonized over his statement. He’s apologized, both in a letter to the editor published in The Mount Airy News on Jan. 12, and in public commission meetings.

We believe his apology to be heartfelt and sincere, and we in no way believe his comments to the Post are representative of his overall beliefs toward others. Were the comments ill-advised, the words poorly chosen? Absolutely. Do they show a bit of racism, even if unintended? We would say so.

Then again, we challenge anyone to show us one person who doesn’t carry some form of latent racism.

Unfortunately, our nation was built on racial inequality. The economic engine of the South was built on the backs of enslaved African-Americans. For a hundred years after the Civil War, our nation still treated blacks as second-rate citizens, some even twisting the words of the Bible to paint African-Americans as an inferior race.

Much of the development of the far west was at the expense of Asians, who alternately were used as virtual slaves for labor-intensive work, then violently driven out of communities or industries once the work was done.

Even the founding and expansion of the nation was done at the expense of Native Americans, who our founding fathers painted as an inferior, savage race in order to justify taking their land and destroying their culture and committing wholesale murder against the various groups of natives.

We’re a nation built on racial divide, and it’s really only been over the past 55 to 60 years we’ve made any meaningful attempts at addressing that history and how it affects us today.

What makes true healing and coming together difficult is that no one wants an honest discussion on race. The mayor says something that is offensive to some, and the public screams for his resignation — despite an honest and sincere apology.

Unfortunately, that’s what has happened to our public discourse in America. If a person says something offensive, we scream for his head, to have his job and his life ruined. If a person says something we don’t like, we can just brand him a racist (or homophobic, or sexist, whichever we think is the strongest label for the cause), shout him down and move on, without anything really changing.

Far too many people want only to scream, to fight, to denigrate and to prove their view is right and all others are wrong, and that is no way for a society to grow or evolve.

Maybe, just maybe, this Washington Post article turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Don’t misunderstand — we still believe it was an intentional hatchet job, one of the most egregious and open examples of muck-racking “journalism” we’ve ever seen — the type of report that would get a reporter fired at most reputable newspapers.

But the story has brought into the light the fact that our community, however strong and loving and caring, does have its problems. Among those problems is a still-smoldering difference between the various racial groups which make up the Mount Airy-Surry County community.

Perhaps this is the basis for a meaningful, wide-ranging discussion on race relations, discussions that lead to true change. Not overnight, of course, but over time.

As for Mayor Rowe, we hope the public has, or will, accept his apology. The mayor is an honorable man. He’s worked long and hard to build a successful business, to serve on the city school board, to contribute to Mount Airy in a meaningful way, and now he’s turned to public service, via the mayor’s office, as a way to further serve his community.

He has stated he will not resign, and we applaud him for that. He made a mistake, he took ownership of that error, and he’s moving on.

But in so doing, let’s hope he and some of the other more thoughtful voices from this debate find a way to bring meaningful, long-term change to the local discussion on race relations. Otherwise, we’re just repeating the same old fight that’s been going on for generations.

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