Let’s not go there.
We have plenty of race issues in this city. But the controversy over Superintendent Carol Johnson shouldn’t be one of them.
On Saturday, her fans held a rally at Bethel AME Church to support Johnson, under fire for failing to discipline a headmaster charged with domestic assault. Critics have demanded that Johnson resign. Councilor John Connolly called her failure to remove Rodney Peterson, who eventually admitted to the assault, the latest in a string of bad decisions.
In addition to praising Johnson, the crowd at the Jamaica Plain church laid into Connolly, accusing him of using the controversy to boost his political fortunes. Without naming him, Ray Hammond, pastor at Bethel AME, said Connolly was trying to set himself up for a mayoral election at the expense of the city’s children.
Connolly’s criticisms of Johnson’s tenure are no less valid because he hopes to run for mayor. And he is not alone in calling for her ouster. Still, as the most prominent critic of a popular city official, it’s not surprising he’s getting some forceful pushback.
But one element of that pushback has no place in this debate. Three of the speakers who rose Saturday to defend Johnson, who is African-American, cast her troubles in racial terms.
Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, criticized Connolly for “this angry white man thing he’s got going on.”
Miniard Culpepper, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Dorchester, saw criticism of Johnson as of a piece with the awful racial strife of the 1970s and declared there was no way the city would go back to it. “The days of Louise Day Hicks and Pixie Palladino are over,” he said, referring to leaders of sometimes violent anti-busing protests. “Carol Johnson is not going anywhere.” He and others said Connolly would pay for his stance in black neighborhoods.
“We need to relay that message come election time,” said parent Tony Brewer. “No one is to disrespect at all, by any means, anyone in our community. . . . [Johnson] is a sister.”
In the context of a mostly positive rally, which I viewed on video this week, the comments about critics’ racial motives stood out as especially unfair.
“Whenever you have a rally with people of color, you’re going to have people who make arguments in those terms, but I don’t think that’s the prevailing sentiment at all,” Hammond said in an interview.
Yesterday, Small said his comments were “just me coming out in the moment, and if I have offended anybody, I am man enough to apologize.”
That’s a relief. Look, obviously we don’t live in a post-racial era: just take a look at poverty and incarceration rates, at discrimination against minority home buyers, at the lingering segregation of our neighborhoods. And, as is clear from the online comments following everything written about her, Johnson is subject to the same prejudices as any person of color.
But that’s not what is happening here.
Reasonable people have called for Johnson’s ouster, including some parents. That doesn’t make them angry bigots nostalgic for Louise Day Hicks. They’re worried about a school system that serves mostly minority children.
Johnson made a grievous error in protecting Peterson, and, to her credit, she has acknowledged that. Casting her woes in racial terms is just too easy. It’s also insulting to the superintendent. She was hired because she has stellar qualifications, not because she is black. Her successes — and there have been plenty — should stand on their own. But so should her failures.
We’ve come that far, at least.