Nobody likes to be called racist.
Manchester Republicans didn't like it when Democratic activist, Mike Farina, recently identified their campaign literature slogans as racist on Facebook. Farina alleged that words like "homegrown" and phrases like "Keep Manchester in the right hands" are racist dog whistles — not overtly racist statements, but statements intended to evoke deep-seated white fear of black- and brown-skinned people.
Republicans and their supporters quickly dismissed Farina's comments online and in the pages of The Courant. Along with Manchester's Democratic mayor, Jay Moran, they argued that no racism was intended. "I think they're good people trying to do the best for Manchester, as are the Democratic candidates," Moran said.
No. That's not how racism works. Nobody likes to be called racist, but actually experiencing racism is far worse. And the reality is, many of Manchester's African-American, Hispanic and immigrant residents experienced the Republican campaign literature as, if not racist, then in the very least insensitive, tone-deaf and unwelcoming. And many white people like me who live or work in Manchester also experienced the message that way.
Is it really better for Manchester's leadership to be homegrown? Well, that excludes the vast majority of the town's African-American, Hispanic and immigrant adults. Keep Manchester in the right hands? The Manchester Board of Directors has always been in white hands. The message is: black, brown and immigrant people need not apply. Maybe that wasn't how the Republicans intended their message to be heard. But that's how it was heard. That's why Mike Farina was on solid ground when he called the literature racist. He was talking about impact, not intent.
I've been accused of racism numerous times in my life. It first happened in college. I remember making a statement during a class discussion that sounded to some in the room like I thought all black people were poor and uneducated. Another student very gently suggested my comment was uninformed and likely came from a place of unexamined racism. I was angry. I felt my words had been misinterpreted; so I dismissed the critique, arguing that I didn't mean to be racist, so my comment couldn't have been racist.
After this happened a number of times, I realized I needed to pay attention. I cared deeply about building a safe, inclusive, welcoming, anti-racist community, and it dawned on me that I was missing something. So, instead of dismissing the charge of racism, I listened. I started to understand that while what I intend with my words and actions matters, how people experience my words and actions matters more. Once I understood this, I could see how my words could cause pain I hadn't intended. I was able to say "I'm sorry" and ask for forgiveness. And, most important, I was able to act differently in the future.
I agree with Mayor Moran: Manchester Republicans likely didn't intend to produce racist dog whistle campaign literature. But I don't agree that the larger community should just move on because the GOP didn't intend racism. People were hurt. Healing is needed. Manchester Republicans have an opportunity to acknowledge that despite their best intentions, their literature had a racist impact. They ought to apologize. Taking such a step would be enormously helpful in opening up further dialogue in Manchester, and ultimately improving race relations.
Like many towns in Connecticut, Manchester has a very diverse population when it comes to race, culture and ethnicity. But when we examine who is involved in the town's many boards and commissions, the complexion of its leadership is still largely white. This says to me that the problem of racism in Manchester runs much deeper than the GOP's recent campaign literature, and that all of us who care about Manchester's future need to be in dialogue with each other about race, racism, diversity and inclusion.
Nobody likes to be called racist, but it's not enough to say "I didn't mean it." If we can stay in the conversation and try to understand why someone is calling us racist, progress will happen.
The Rev. Josh Pawelek is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester.