Ford's comment divides St. Petersburg

Watson Haynes, from left, Seville Brown and former mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons attend a news conference Monday in St. Petersburg to denounce comments by mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford that they perceived as racist.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Watson Haynes, from left, Seville Brown and former mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons attend a news conference Monday in St. Petersburg to denounce comments by mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford that they perceived as racist.

ST. PETERSBURG

Mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford's racially charged words on a shock jock's radio program last week continue to stir debate across the city.

On the steps of City Hall, a group of roughly 30 prominent businessmen, community organizers and ministers gathered to denounce the comment Monday. All but a handful had previously come out for Ford's rival, Bill Foster, 46.

But beyond, at community events, beauty shops and lunch spots, people are talking.

Was Ford's use of the term H.N.I.C. offensive? And what did she mean when she said it?

In its politest translation, the acronym stands for Head Negro in Charge. More commonly, the N replaces a racial epithet.

The definition of the term, however, isn't so easily explained.

"It could mean anything from a point of pride to essentially an accusation that someone is big footing you," said Keith Woods, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute who teaches diversity and coverage of race relations. "That is why if you are using it outside of the group it is dangerous language. When it comes out of a white person's mouth, I no longer know what it means because it is a different context. How does anyone translate that?"

Ford, a white lawyer, used the term during an interview last week on the Bubba the Love Sponge Clem radio show on WHPT-FM 102.5.

Clem criticized Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, who oversees economic development in the city's predominately black neighborhoods and was the city's first black police chief, as the "quasi-leader of the African-Americans."

The shock jock added: "To me, it's talking down to them, that they have to have somebody to quell them and keep them in line."

Ford's response: "Actually, Cornel West has a whole explanation about the H.N.I.C. theory, and I agree with that. We don't need one spokesman for a group."

Ford, 52, did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday.

West, a noted black professor at Princeton University, wrote about his H.N.I.C. theory in his 1994 book Race Matters.

"The time is past for black political and intellectual leaders to pose as the voice for Black America," West wrote. "The days of brokering for the black turf — of posing as the Head Negro in Charge — are over."

Asked about her use of the phrase Friday, Ford stressed that she did not call Davis an H.N.I.C. She said she was making the point that the city does not need a liaison to the black community.

"I want everybody to feel like they can ask me anything and they don't have to go through a certain staff member," she said.

The radio interview occurred Tuesday. As news of Ford's comment spread, so did debate about her word choice.

At Tangerine Plaza on 22nd Street S Monday, a popular African-American retail center developed under Davis' watch, few could agree on the definition of H.N.I.C.

Jamekka Harris, owner of Meme's Beauty Salon, proudly called herself an H.N.I.C.

"Everyone knows the boss is the head n----- in charge," said Harris, who added that she doesn't closely follow politics and is supporting neither Foster nor Ford.

Freddy McQuay, 70, said he felt neutral about the term.

"That don't bother me," said McQuay, who said he supports Foster because he thinks he has more substantial ideas. "It shouldn't bother anyone."

Pablo Baker, however, said he was supporting Ford because of Foster's Christian conservative religious views. Now, however, his support is wavering given Ford's word choice, he said.

"She's calling the whole community that," said Baker, 47. "She's saying everyone is a n----- if he is the person in charge of the n------."

Political leaders quickly took sides in the debate.

At City Hall, former mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons organized a news conference to denounce Ford's statement.

"We will not accept anyone using racial terms to downgrade anyone," said Gibbons, who is black.

Gibbons said it did not matter whether Ford's use of the term referred to a Negro or the racial epithet.

"I am not a Negro. I am an African-American," said Gibbons, who has endorsed Foster. "We are not Negroes. We are past that."

Sevell Brown, interim director of the National Christian Leadership Conference, said Ford's use of the term was indefensible. He insisted Ford essentially called Davis an ignorant puppet put in place by white leaders.

"They ought to shut their mouths if they don't know the meaning of the words they are introducing to the public dialogue," he said.

Brown then praised Foster, also a white lawyer.

"We appreciate Bill Foster not introducing words that will cause a racial divide," he said.

Among those who attended the news conference were pilot Ed Montanari, flight instructor Jack Tunstill, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce president John Long and restaurateur Mike Atwater, all Foster supporters.

A handful of Ford allies or fellow Democrats have jumped to her defense, including State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, and City Council member Wengay Newton, City Hall's only elected black official.

"If she is quoting a professor, then she didn't say it, he said it," said Newton, noting that he did not find the term offensive.

"I heard it in Lean on Me," he said. "It means a person in charge."

H.N.I.C. can be interpreted differently by different people, Tampa said.

After the presidential election, a T-shirt featuring President Barack Obama's image and the letters "H.N.I.C." was a popular item with young customers at a Midtown convenience store. But older customers complained, and Tampa asked the store clerk to remove the shirts.

Still, he said much of the outrage aimed at Ford is politically motivated.

"Everyone standing on those steps (of City Hall) had a right to be there and had a right to express themselves, however, I respectfully disagree with a lot of what they said," said Tampa. "In particular, suggesting that Kathleen is a racist and that she called Goliath Davis an H.N.I.C. She made reference to a speech and a theory and she agreed with a theory of having management or leadership spread throughout her organization and that people should be able to come to her directly."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

Web tease

To read more about the St. Petersburg mayor's race, go to elections.tampabay.com.

Ford's comment divides St. Petersburg 10/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 26, 2009 5:46pm]

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