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.
10 thoughts on “Jeremy Kappell: One Perspective”
Thank you, Frank for sorting this issue out in clear concise terms. All things are not equal and life is not always fair. I agree with the one responder, the station made an economic decision not necessarily for moral reasons.
“…familiar particularly in the South, where he has lived”
I think this is an important thing to remember. Although I had not heard the phrase before, those who live and have lived in the south have heard it, a lot.
Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. These lists really seem to sum it up and are a cold shower on any talk about progress in our community.
A few thoughts I’d like to add.
1) It is remarkable that local residents called for the station to rehire him. Think about this for a moment. This corporate entity dropped this man because they did not think being associated with this virulent racism was good for the bottom line. This is American capitalism just doing its thing. However, there were many local residents who were saying that there was a higher value than capitalism and commerce, and that this moral value is the right to actively pursue the habits of heart and mind of white supremacy. Let that soak in.
2) The D&C’s response was to frame the issue around intent and impact. This frame allows for the possibility of innocent intent. Clearly his mouth was in the habit of using this derogatory phrase and he couldn’t stop it before airtime. Why would the D&C twist itself into a pretzel to allow for the innocent intent of this man? Why not just tell the truth? This is a classic dodge that looks like a progressive response to white supremacy but is actually an assertion of it.
3) This episode perfectly mirrors the dynamic around the removal of pickanniny art at the carousel. People point out the offensive nature of the art/statement and the immediate response is denial and self-righteous indignation. There’s an appeal to rights and values and an absence of humility and study of the social and historical context. Then the media totally gets it wrong. Here we are, several years later and the response is the same. Some people have learned and grown but one can’t deny that the foundational dynamic continues, unabated.
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As usual you hit the nail on the head with your summary statement in bold regarding the emotional toll of racism.
While some can say, yes all those things happened, get over it, what people of color have to put up with today is still awful.
As most of us are probably aware, a similar incident happen after this one – and the person apologized and kept the job. Of course it was in the South.
My guess is if this happened @ Channel 13, while I love the local folks there, the owners @ Sinclair Broadcasting would not have fired him. Sorry I’m pissed that Sinclair has poisoned our favorite station for news.
As far as I’m concerned, 45,000 signatures and the conversation at the following link says it all. There’s nothing else to say. The handwriting really IS on the wall: https://www.facebook.com/CityofRochesterNY/posts/10155959031737621?comment_id=10155971820307621¬if_id=1547725128537407¬if_t=feedback_reaction_generic
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Jeremy was very sincere in his apology. I do not think it was intended to be a crude comment at all. It was weird the way it came out. There was or is no reason to believe it was intentional.
It was a true “mis-speak” and he should be given a second chance. I find him very believable and hope he gets a second chance.
When will people understand that, if you laugh at racist or homophobic jokes or make these types of statements when you are with your friends, the truth will always slip out. Call out your friends and acquaintances when you hear these types of jokes or statements and then I will believe that you are not a racist.
Thanks, Frank. Yup –cries of pain..
I am amazed that so many white people did not know the meaning of coon! Too many ears are not open.
Regarding a restorative justice approach, per Bernice King, I agree IF Kappel first apologized, or at least stated that he apologized for hurting people. He has not done either of these. Therefore, he must suffer the consequences.
Frank, what took you so long? Very interesting that you tool a poll as did I. My audience was the few folks that have needed bike services on Hudson Ave and as such is even more limited than your sample. Most of the folks polled were among our regulars and with whom I felt comfortable asking this type of question. I surveyed POC for the most part and I found maybe a 60/40 split over whether it was a mistake. Fewer agreed with his dismissal. Regarding the “IF” question, I believe that what he was saying that not all were offended, some recognized it as a spoonerism and as such were not in need of an apology but to those who were offended he did apologize sincerely (my opinion). I have been interested in the fact that this has not fallen totally along racial or political lines!!! Keep up the good work, my friend.