8th March 2006

Blog :: Presumption of Guilt

The Modesto Bee recently carried an article about a disturbance in a Modesto City Council meeting. Eventually the video of the the council meeting will be online, but for now I'm relying on the Bee's description of the events:

After speaking to the council for 10 minutes on why New Bethany should be exempt from the city code requiring the church to provide off-street parking for its auditorium, one speaker said she never had seen the city act more biased against a project.

The speaker identified herself as Anita, a member of New Bethany. The Rev. Charles Ray Evins II said Wednesday that he could not disclose the woman's last name but that she remained distressed by Tuesday's events.

She then challenged O'Bryant to explain why the council and staff treated the church unfairly.

O'Bryant noted it was the third time the group had come to the council for a waiver and "each and every time we have tried to help you. I don't think that anybody … can say we were unfair … and the first time you people came to us and presented …"

At that point, Anita yelled at O'Bryant that it was demeaning to be called "you people" and walked out of the chamber. She was joined by others who had come to support the church, and they complained loudly as they left.

The Bee officially editorialized that

It was exasperation in Will O'Bryant's voice Tuesday night, not hate. After five hours on the dais, debating controversial items, it was apparent that several council members were tired. That, in itself, is not an excuse for being rude — which O'Bryant was. But we do not think he was being racist when he responded to accusations of unfairness, in part, with the term, "you people."


Saying "you people," in some instances, has been used to single out those of specific ethnicity. The phrase virtually is guaranteed to make any group — no matter their ethnicity — mad. O'Bryant's words were unfortunate, ineloquent and inappropriate. But not racist. O'Bryant has apologized. New Bethany's new auditorium was approved 4-3 over legitimate parking concerns. We hope the issue is settled.

Quite right, as far as it goes. But let me take this opportunity to take a little more provocative stance than the Bee. Racist speech is damaging. Even more so from the lips of government officials, racist speech has a lasting impact of distrust and suspicion. While certainly private individuals ought to avoid racist speech, public officials must be even more vigilant. Under the best of circumstances (and dealing with municipal code compliance is not the best of circumstances) individuals tend to regard the government as inflexible and perhaps even antagonistic. Adding racist speech by a public official only amplifies this natural tendency; people can lose faith in the ability of civic institutions to be responsive to the public. It is appropriate then that O'Bryant immediately apologised for giving offense even though that was not his intent.

Unfortunately, false accusations of racism are nearly as damaging. Being mad at City Hall, even alleging unfair treatment is a proud American tradition. Accusing officials of racism because of a rude comment, however, poisons relations between the city and minority communities. Undoubtedly because of this incident some residents of Modesto now think of O'Bryant as a racist. All the consequences of racist speech: the suspicion, the antagonism, the mistrust now exist, and the responsibility lies with the persons who made the claims. I agree with the Bee; O'Bryant's word choice was rude and I appreciate that he apologized both imediately and at length after the incident. With the accusation still hovering in the air, however, and with the Rev. Charles Ray Evins II still asking for an apology "to the community", I don't think it's fair to regard the issue as settled. The woman who was offended (and perhaps Rev. Evins as well) ought to apologise to O'Bryant for accusing him of racism.

We must hold our elected officials to account not to poison the well of public trust. We should also ask members of the public to be accountable for their actions that affect the public. I urge New Bethany Church to issue an apology to Councilmen O'Bryant.

Posted on March 8th 2006, 11:56 PM