Two weeks ago Rochester TV meteorologist Jeremy Kappell was heard to utter a racial slur during a weather forecast. This triggered a series of reactions and counter-reactions that have once again highlighted the racial division in the Rochester region. Jeremy Kappell was fired.
In these last weeks I’ve intentionally sought the responses of both white and Black people – in the meetings I’ve attended, commentaries I’ve read, and in one-on-one conversations. Here is a summary of what I’ve heard (acknowledging that this in no way represents a statistically valid sampling):
From white people:
- Most were unfamiliar with the term he used and were very ready to believe that this was simply a slip of the tongue, a spoonerism as it’s known.
- Many (most?) have been highly critical of the station for firing him.
- A petition calling for the station to reinstate him was signed by 45,000 people.
- Many (most?) have been highly critical of Mayor Lovely Warren for issuing a statement calling for his dismissal, characterizing this as stoking racial animus.
- The four-minute video Kappell released on social media, with his wife at his side, struck white people as a sincere, emotional appeal from a man who had been wronged, and whose career would now be in jeopardy. His apology seemed credible, genuine.
- Very few spoke to the pain experienced by Black viewers.
- The responses were very similar among my “liberal” friends and acquaintances and my “conservative” friends and acquaintances.
From People of Color:
- All were quite clear that this was indeed a racial slur.
- Nearly all were staunchly dismissive of the explanation that this was a verbal slip.
- Many believe that it was indeed quite intentional, citing the instances in which the exact words were used on TV in at least 5 other known instances.
- Nearly all were strongly in favor of his immediate dismissal: “This cannot be tolerated.”
- Mayor Warren was credited with some restraint, because she had waited two days and spoke up only when the station was negligent in responding on a more timely basis.
- Nearly all believe that Kappell’s apology was insincere, that it was flawed in several ways:
- He made no immediate apology at the time of the broadcast.
- He waited two days before issuing a statement (many agreed that he was hoping this would just blow over).
- His statement contained the classic form of a non-apology: “I’m sorry if I offended anyone…”. He had been told very clearly that people were offended. So why the “IF”?
- He did not acknowledge that the phrase he uttered was indeed a known racial slur, familiar particularly in the South, where he has lived.
- All criticized the station’s initial inaction, since no action was taken and no apology issued until two-three days after the incident (again, hoping this would just blow over).
- A couple of noted national figures urged his reinstatement, with a suspension and training – Al Roker and Bernice King, daughter of MLK Jr.
- All revealed in word or non-verbally the pain that this kind of event surfaces.
Of the many possible points for commentary in the Jeremy Kappell saga, I’m choosing to focus on one that has particularly struck me:
We white people have a dark and persistent history of minimizing and dismissing the emotional toll of racism:
While enslaving African people was legal, white people could whip and rape at will and with impunity. Sunday afternoon – after church. They could tear families apart for financial advantage, turning deaf ears to the wails of mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children. Faux science bolstered and promoted the belief that Black people did not suffer as white people suffered, failing to recognize the tendency of those same people to disguise the pain, to go stoic for fear of further repercussions.
Then slavery was replaced by a combination of Jim Crow laws, contract labor and lynchings (over 4,400 between 1877 and 1953). You’ve seen some of the photos of the Sunday afternoon lynchings, right? Hundreds, thousands gathered, picnicking, in celebratory fashion. The most macabre feature of these photos is the white faces of those gathered around the broken, destroyed human being: smiling with satisfaction, victory, righteousness. Women and children included. Cognitive dissonance at its ugliest.
And now back to our current episode: We see so many white people deeply empathizing with a white husband and wife’s pain, while neglecting to even acknowledge the cries of thousands of Black people, cries prompted not just by this incident, but by the thousands of other wrongs they experience that do not make the headlines.
I must listen to the experience and voices of those on the receiving end, those who continue to endure blatant and thinly-veiled interpersonal, structural and institutional racism. They live in a city ranking high on the scales of racial segregation. What’s more, they have seen that situation actually worsen in the past decades.
I must listen – and ACT.
Comments welcome. See below.
Opportunities to connect with the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass:
6th Annual MLK Worship Celebration, sponsored by United Christian Leadership Ministry. Sun. Jan. 20, 4:00 pm. Speaker: Former Mayor William A. Johnson, Jr. LATE NOTE: Due to weather concerns, this has been rescheduled to Sunday April 7 at 4pm at Pentecostal Miracle Deliverance Church 923 Portland Ave.
“Intro to Implicit and Unconscious Bias in Professional Settings” 540WMain. Mon. Jan. 21, 4:30 – 6:30.
“Justice Post Douglass: A Community Meeting” 540WMain. Mon. Jan. 21, 7:00.
“History of Rochester Gentrification” 540WMain. Thurs. Jan. 24, 6:30 – 8:00. This one has particular meaning for me. I plan to attend.
“Expressions of King’s Legacy” at RIT, with featured speaker Tara Setmayer, CNN political commentator and former GOP communications director on Capital Hill. Thurs. Jan. 31, 12:00 – 2:00 pm.
Book: “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing” Joy DeGruy, Ph.D.
Book: “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” Ibram X. Kendi; National Book Award Winner
Attend one or several of the events above, not as a spectator, but searching for a place to invest your energy in the actions that are represented there.
United Christian Leadership Ministry. Membership meeting. Sat. Feb. 9, 10:30 – 12:00, Downtown Untied Presbyterian Church. Call me if interested in attending, or to learn more about this organization: 585-734-2960.
Combined meeting of Take-It-Down Planning Committee, Faith Community Alliance and Movement for Anti-racist Ministry and Action Coalition. First Saturday each month. Central Church of Christ (101 S. Plymouth Ave.). Call me if interested in attending, or to learn more about these organizations: 585-734-2960.
Meeting of the Rochester City School District Racial Equity Advocacy Leadership (REAL) Team. Tues. Jan. 22, District Offices, 130 W. Broad St. 6:00 – 8:00 pm.