Tony Norman: Blatant racists are the easiest to squelch

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In March, a New Hampshire police official was overheard using the "n-word" in referring to President Barack Obama. When 82-year-old Wolfeboro Police Commissioner Robert Copeland was confronted about his disrespectful reference to the president, he didn't back down.

"I believe I did use the 'N' word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse [sic]," Mr. Copeland confirmed in a recent email to other local officials. "For this, I do not apologize -- he meets and exceeds my criteria for such."

One can only imagine what it means to exceed Mr. Copeland's personal criteria for being called that racial epithet, but chances are the reasons aren't much more than skin deep.

To their credit, the good citizens of Wolfeboro, which is overwhelmingly white, made it clear to Mr. Copeland at a packed town meeting last week that they consider him an embarrassment. They demanded his resignation as one of their three elected commissioners overseeing the town's 12-member police department.

Over the weekend, former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also called for Mr. Copeland to apologize to Mr. Obama and resign from office. The case had become a rare opportunity for biracial and bipartisan unity on the unfitness of an elected official.

Perhaps tired of the infamy, Mr. Copeland finally complied with those demands on Monday with a tersely worded note, sans apology, to the police commission chairman: "I resign."

Obviously, Mr. Copeland's name will be added to the ever-lengthening list of grumpy old white guys like Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy who can't be bothered disguising their lifelong distaste for blacks, now that the Grim Reaper is a mere step or two away.

Meanwhile, no one on this side of the U.S. Supreme Court is really surprised that virulent racism still exists in America and that a disproportionate amount of the rawer stuff is the expression of doddering old men and women nostalgic for Jim Crow and the open celebration of white privilege.

In a way, these candid bouts of racial contempt shouldn't be considered "news" even when uttered by public officials such as Mr. Copeland. As sad as it is, such views are far more commonplace than many -- especially those willfully naive citizens who consider racism a vestige of the pre-civil rights era -- will acknowledge.

This is what U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was getting at in his commencement address Saturday at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore. I'm often critical of Mr. Holder, but he told the truth, as these excerpted statements indicate:

"Over the last few weeks and months, we've seen occasional, jarring reminders of the discrimination -- and the isolated, repugnant, racist views -- that in some places have yet to be overcome. These incidents have received substantial media coverage. And they have rightly been condemned by leaders, commentators, and citizens from all backgrounds and walks of life.

"But we ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation. Because if we focus solely on these incidents -- on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter -- we are likely to miss the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines."

Mr. Holder then made the case that "the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. ... They are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized."

Later in his speech, Mr. Holder all but indicted Chief Justice John Roberts for aiding and abetting this attitude with the majority's recent rulings on race issues: "But discrimination does not always come in the form of the hateful epithet. ... As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote recently in an insightful dissent in the Michigan college admissions case -- we must not 'wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. ... The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.' "

As Mr. Holder so ably demonstrates, the best way to deal with a societywide problem is to admit that we have one. Unfortunately, Mr. Copeland and his ilk are not as much an exception as we'd like to think.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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