MAXWELL:   Significance of race shouldn’t be denied

2/18/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Simon Peter is alive and well. If you consult the New Testament, you will learn that Simon Peter is the disciple who denied knowing Jesus after the Romans closed in.

In Pinellas County, we have our own Simon Peter in the person of Calvin Harris, the first African-American to sit on the County Commission.

How did Harris get on the commission? He got there because, after Bruce Tyndall resigned, Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him. Why did Chiles appoint Harris? Because Harris, 56, is black.

That’s right. Chiles, fully aware that a black could not get elected to a commission perpetually dominated by white male Republicans, took advantage of this rare opportunity and appointed a black to finish out Tyndall’s term.

Did Chiles do the right thing? Absolutely.

Now, back to Simon Peter.

Yes, Harris (whom I know and like) is afflicted with Simon Peter’s Syndrome, a condition that causes blacks to deny the significance of race or pretend that race had very little if anything to do with their good fortune. In the case of politicians, they delude themselves and the public that they are unaware of race.

The severely afflicted never mention race publicly _ even though their black constituents may be enduring a living hell.

Harris, obviously trying to get elected, has heard the cock crow three times and is denying that race means anything to him. He is avoiding all issues, especially single-member districting, that remotely smack of race. He does not want to be labeled as what he calls a “one-issue (race) commissioner.”

Listen to part of his spiel: “Economic development as it relates to the business community and as it relates to the minority community are not mutually exclusive. We all want the same things for our kids: We want them to do better.”

Sounds good. But has Harris seen a typical black community in Pinellas County lately? These areas have economic needs far different from those of what he calls the “business community.” Parts of St. Petersburg’s black community, for example, need radical economic intervention _ or razing.

I agree that race should not be Harris’ only issue. But because he is black, the hardship that is caused by race should be one of his issues. After all, his white colleagues are not talking about the problems blacks face because of racial discrimination.

What, then, do I want Harris to do?

I want him to be honest about race, to acknowledge its significance so that he and his colleagues can help improve the lives of blacks who are truly harmed by racial discrimination. I want him to follow Colin Powell’s example. Powell, the first black to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has never denied the importance of race in his life.

To those who hold him up as a black who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, Powell cautions: “I never forget for a day, or for an hour, or for a minute, that I climbed to my position on the backs of the courageous African-Americans men and women who went before me.”

To those who argue that he has erased the color line, Powell responds: “To some extent I have transcended race in general America, but I know why. I don’t look that black. I don’t have some of the stereotypical patterns with which white people have defined us. But I make sure everybody knows I am as black today as I was yesterday. I take pride in it.”

To so-called progressive journalists who do not mention in their stories that he is black, Powell says: “Don’t stop calling me black now. If I’d shot somebody, you’d damned sure make sure, either by picture or word, that the story conveyed “A black man did it.’ ”

In no way am I suggesting that Harris should be obsessed with race. Nor am I asking him to always talk about it. I simply want him, along with other African-Americans in positions to improve the lot of other blacks, to do as Gen. Powell does: Let the world know that being black means something, that it is an integral part of who we are, that it is the prism through which other groups see us.

Do not think for a second, however, that Powell does not understand that race consciousness also can be a trap. “We can’t walk away from the rest of America and go off into our own little world,” he said in Ebony magazine. “Our language is English . . . Don’t give me any silliness about black English or African roots. We don’t live there; we live here. We’ve got to make our life and future in this broader American society and cannot separate ourselves.”

Powell’s is a rational way to talk about race. We do not have to become a Simon Peter.