Bill Maxwell

Racism behind questioning of black professionals

Although a new year has arrived, some of America's deepest problems endure. One is the presumed inferiority of black professionals who are not entertainers or jocks, despite the 2008 election of our first black president.

I was reminded of this problem in a Dec. 17 article in the Times about the Pinellas County school district's "critical shortage" of black teachers, a legal status meaning that the number of black teachers is two or more percentage points below the percentage of black students.

In 2000, a court ordered the district to make a real effort to do better, but the district has not done better. Statistics at the end of 2010 indicate that while 18.8 percent of the district's students were black, only 7.6 percent of teachers were black.

The theory behind the proposal to increase the number of black teachers comes from studies suggesting that many black students perform better with black teachers. Educators and elected officials who have sincere motives should find nothing wrong with trying to hire more black teachers if their presence can make a positive difference.

But many white people cannot control the tendency to automatically question the qualifications of blacks. School Board member Carol Cook, for example, did not equivocate when she reminded her peers that quality should be the primary focus as the district attempts to comply with the order to hire more black teachers.

"I have some (concern) just because of the nature of the agreement," the Times quoted her as saying. "I don't want to turn it into hiring anybody (just) because of the color of their skin."

At first blush, Cook's comment might seem innocuous. It is not. Why is the issue of quality reserved for blacks? How often has Cook or other white board members questioned the qualifications of white prospects in such a demeaning way?

Too many white Americans continue to believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that blacks are inferior or incompetent even though these same whites are familiar with many highly capable and effective and beloved black teachers. As far as I know, black teachers attend the same colleges of education whites attend, sit for the same certification exams and are evaluated the same.

I cannot help but conclude that racism is at work. And racism is not exclusive to the teaching profession or even one race's views of blacks. It is in most areas in which so-called meritocracy supposedly is practiced.

I discussed Cook's comment with Goliath Davis, St. Petersburg's first black police chief. He said that he, too, was offended, and he discussed his experience with the qualification issue when he became chief in 1997.

Many whites — especially police officers — claimed that Davis was not qualified for the job, obviously disregarding pertinent facts: Davis had been on the force since 1974 and had served with distinction as division chief of training and research, deputy chief and assistant chief.

Perhaps the most pernicious rumor against the first black chief was that his degrees were from mail-order schools. The truth, of course, is that he had earned a bachelor's degree from Rollins College in Winter Park, a master's degree from the University of South Florida and a doctorate in philosophy from Florida State University.

"It was about racism," Davis told me. "How could a black man be qualified for this job?"

His tenure was marked by turmoil in part because of policies he implemented, including a tough chase procedure and prohibitions against shorts for officers and cursing. Former officers and police unions even filed dozens of lawsuits against Davis, most of them unsuccessful. He said the bulk of the strife was rooted in resentment and the belief that a black man was unfit for the job.

Attorney James Sheehan, who sued Davis and the department twice on behalf of white police officers, acknowledged years later in the Times that much of Davis' trouble was fueled by race.

"Here comes this strong African-American man who's doing what he believes is the right thing," said Sheehan, who is white. "If Go Davis was a white man and he became police chief, those feelings about him would not have been the same."

I do not know what it will take for so many whites to stop automatically questioning the qualifications of black professionals who are not entertainers or jocks. Perhaps little or nothing can be done. Perhaps this is one enduring reality of race in the United States.

Racism behind questioning of black professionals 12/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 30, 2011 5:54pm]

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