Friday, August 5, 2016

Leaders Must Stongly Reject Bigotry, Racism

This column appeared in The Sun Chronicle on August 5, 2016.

GOUVEIA: Racism and bigotry must be condemned swiftly

    Posted: Friday, August 5, 2016 12:15 am
Racism and bigotry are not new problems. They have been around since one caveperson first noticed their neighbor had a different color skin, or worshipped at a different shrine.
The spread of racism and bigotry has always been directly proportional to how much the existing society was willing to tolerate it. If the leaders of a given government or society treat it indifferently, it usually spreads and rears its ugly head higher and more often.
That brings us back to the distasteful and delicate subject of bigotry at the local level, often spread by electronic means such as Facebook and other sources. And things get even touchier when it is a local government official spreading the hatred.
It was a short time ago when a North Attleboro elected official resigned shortly after posting an anti-Muslim meme on his personal Facebook page, along with a racist post concerning Michelle Obama. The public outcry against his stupid and bigoted communications was swift and decisive. The townspeople generally condemned his actions, and he did the right thing and stepped down.
But the reaction of town leaders was a bit slower — to say the least — than the people they serve. Many officials were Facebook friends with this individual and most likely saw the offensive posts, yet remained silent initially.
Some offered the famous “free speech” argument at first, but changed their tune when it was pointed out town officials had a responsibility beyond that of a regular citizen. And voters clearly were not going to tolerate using one of our basic constitutional rights to justify bad behavior by public officials.
As Editor Mike Kirby noted recently in his column, the same type of thing happened a few weeks ago in nearby Easton. A newly appointed member of the town’s conservation commission posted three separate anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic memes, setting off a firestorm of protest and outraged discussion. It is still going on as you read this.
The official in Easton has said he has no intention of resigning. The board of selectmen that appointed him prior to the remarks, over an experienced incumbent by a 3-2 vote, has discussed instituting a “code of conduct” for appointed and elected officials when it comes to electronic media. Some individual selectmen denounced the actions strongly, others less strenuously.
But one selectman in particular initially defended the posts as “free speech.” He stated and posted on local websites that he knew the individual to not be a racist, and offered excuses for the incredibly crude and awful posts. He even criticized those who objected to them, saying many of the objections were motivated by local politics.
He later backed off when the backlash became intense, contradicting himself on the same websites by claiming he had never defended the posts. But by that time, he had added immeasurably to the damage and pain inflicted by the perpetrator of the bigoted messages.
People expect to be treated fairly by government, particularly at the local level. And government and the officials serving within it have a sacred responsibility to maintain and bolster that confidence. A government without integrity is something no one can count on.
So it is bad when an official outwardly and clearly expresses racism or bigotry. Today, any Muslim citizen appearing before the Easton Conservation Commission has valid reason to question whether they will receive fair and equal treatment.
But it is even worse when other, higher-ranking officials fail to condemn that bigotry swiftly and in the strongest possible terms. That changes the appearance of the issue from being about one misinformed individual, to a systemic and institutional problem in the government, itself.
This issue is not limited to North Attleboro and Easton. But unfortunately, these communities are serving as an example of what to do when these horrible things happen.
The official in Easton did eventually apologize — sort of — while still trying to excuse his posts. We will see what, if anything, happens as a result.
But the failure of leadership beyond him is just as important to note as the inappropriateness of the poster.
As the old saying so correctly notes: “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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