Our character test

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 47 views 

We now find in our recent Fort Smith municipal history two unfortunate incidents resulting in an ugly racial undercurrent to our governance discussions.

There is the episode in which a white city director reminded a black city department head that he served but one master. That was followed a few weeks later with a white city director distributing at a board study session an e-mail in which a Fort Smith citizen suggested the only problem with slavery is that it’s too expensive and machines can do the work better than blacks. If you find the moral exclusion repulsive, you are not alone.

Both incidents revolve around the same white city director — Bill Maddox.

The flurry of comments about Maddox have centered largely on the question of his views on race. The more important issue, however, is larger than the racial views of Maddox or of his true intent. Despite what City Director Gary Campbell believes, we indeed do have a racial controversy in our city. The question, then, is not about the character of Maddox. Our collective character is now up for review.

The egregious lack of judgment by Maddox has created significant doubt as to the racial attitudes among the leadership of our fair city. We waste time debating what Maddox believes or whether he should resign. His simple resignation would prove little in comparison to the evidence we need to provide the world. And that evidence must prove we collectively have no patience for such nonsense.

There is no doubt that socio-economic success is more likely and broad in communities and metro areas that do the best job of squashing prejudice based on race, gender, sexual preference, disability and religion.

Just a few years ago, we decided — or so I thought — to be more of a modern community. We wanted to move forward with quality of place issues, events and projects that would make us more attractive to the creative and entrepreneurial minds that come from all categories of humans.

We might respond to our character test by pretending nothing happened, conduct behind-the-scenes outreach to those offended and hope the issue will go away. People will justify this quiet, sweep-it-under-the-rug approach by explaining that more publicity is the last thing we need on this matter. They will say it’s all a coincidence of events and is not that big of a deal.

Unfortunately, folks are watching. The young, ambitious, smart and professional — of all races and backgrounds — who live here or are considering a move to our area are watching. Publicity is exactly what we need on this issue. More to the point, public leadership is what we need.

It is now that we, Kind Readers, watch with interest to see if Fort Smith business and civic leaders assume the responsibility of their leadership.

Will the other six members of the board come together to make known their disapproval of such bad judgment? What about the Mayor? Will our business groups reprimand, or make public their discomfort with the recent racial insensitivity? Will groups like the Leadership Fort Smith Alumni Association and the Young Emerging Leaders issue statements that let the world know this one man does not represent the true heart of Fort Smith?

Our leadership blocks have several options. They might demand Maddox resign, publicly apologize, or otherwise make known that Maddox does not reflect the spirit of our community. If we don’t have a solid public position against such lapses in judgment, we risk losing the types of creative and entrepreneurial minds that come from all categories of humans.

Let’s hope our leadership will reinforce to the world our collective and certain rejection of any form of prejudice.