Editorial: State’s racism conversation is far from over
With the resignation of Wolfeboro Police Commissioner Bob Copeland on Monday, the temptation is to say, “Thank goodness,” and move on.
Make no mistake: Copeland needed to resign after using a racial epithet to describe President Obama. But it is too simple and too easy to reduce the whole episode to the embarrassing bigotry of one 82-year-old man.
Copeland’s continued refusal to apologize for his language, and the reactions of those who know him, suggest that some New Hampshire residents don’t understand how racism or modern society work.
Unless we all learn from this, we will all be embarrassed again.
Take the words of commission Chairman Joseph Balboni to Monitor reporter Sarah Palermo before the story went national.
“I think it’s crazy. Bob is a very nice person, and he’s been very generous to the town of Wolfeboro,” read his quote in Thursday’s paper. “He’s worked with a lot of blacks in his life. . . . He said some harsh words about Mr. Obama, and here we are. This woman, she’s blowing it all out of proportion.”
This reflexive defense of someone using racist language is deeply disturbing.
Jane O’Toole, the person who lodged the original complaint (“this woman” to Balboni) is depicted as the problem. The fact that Copeland worked with black people in the past functions, in Balboni’s mind, like an inoculation against racism. And Copeland’s supposed niceness and generosity trumps all.
Does any of that pass the smell test to you? Or does it read as though people in power are automatically defending someone they know, without considering the way his words would reverberate across the state and nation?
Before you answer that, let’s remember what former U.S. congressman and current state Sen. Jeb Bradley was quoted as saying in Friday’s paper: “I would hope that my good friend Bob Copeland would apologize for the remarks he made. They were uncalled for, and I hope he’d apologize.”
Bradley’s first reflex was to defend someone he knew. There was no acknowledgment of how Copeland’s words might affect others or the message that their repetition might send. And there was no call to resign, only a tepid (“I hope”) request to apologize. That was the first reaction of a politician who has served on the national level, and it was depressingly shortsighted.
By the next day, Bradley had bowed to the inevitable and joined in the calls for Copeland to resign.
Then there are the copious reactions of online commentors on the story. Again and again, the same basic arguments are made. That Copeland was railroaded by a busybody (“this woman”), that he was only exercising his rights to free speech, that way too much is being made of all of this. Never mind the fact that O’Toole didn’t put racial slurs in Copeland’s mouth. Never mind the fact that the First Amendment doesn’t protect us from the consequences of our speech or the attention it generates.
Is the story finished? If we believe it’s only about the racist words of one man who refused to see them for what they were, then yes.
But with a broader perspective that incorporates the comments of Balboni and Bradley and the social context that made them feel comfortable defending Copeland, then the story isn’t finished at all.
In fact, the discussion is only beginning.