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Calling Out Racism At Public Meetings Sparks Praise, Questions

Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center

Hate mail and racist remarks have long been a reality for people in public life – especially for African Americans. But instead of quietly commiserating with colleagues, a few Charlotte officials are calling out those messages in public meetings.

In one case, the prompt was an unsigned letter full of stereotypes, insults and violent language. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake read from an unsigned letter at the Aug. 7 meeting.

"You people do not even know how to use eating utensils, not less sit at a table and eat appropriately," the letter said. "Yet you will blame everything on your slavery …"

In another case, emails to Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair Mary McCray questioned the qualifications of a new African American school superintendent.

"This email is from a young lady named Jamie Lawrence," McCray said. "She said, ‘Your obvious racism over the last seven years has come to a head with the hiring of Earnest Winston, a person with no superintendent experience …’"

Mary McCray and Vilma Leake
Credit CMS/MeckNCGov.org
Mary McCray (left) and Vilma Leake each have called out as racist emails they've received.

McCray said at last week’s meeting that the questions were really about Winston being a black man, not about his credentials.

The messages Leake and McCray read at meetings are different in many ways. The letter sent to Leake and many other black officials talks about sending black Democrats to concentration camps and hoping to see them blown up – language threatening enough that Leake has asked the FBI to investigate.

McCray’s emails had names attached. One used a racial slur in reference to school board members and implied that Winston was hired because he’s black. The other, from Lawrence, was a strongly worded critique of McCray’s performance in office, which called Winston’s recent hiring a foolish mistake and accused McCray of racism.

But they all fit into a national context of emboldened bigotry and public pushback, according to Terza Lima-Neves. She’s  president of the North Carolina Political Science Association and aprofessor at Johnson C Smith University. She says that context includes presidential tweets, responses from national figures and Charlotte officials refusing to keep silent.

"There are going to be some public officials that feel that they need to be on the right side of history. So they do need to speak up," Lima-Neves said. "They might feel that they have a moral obligation to speak up. When all of this blows over, if it ever does, where do I want to be? Where do I want my voice to land?"

Calling out correspondents by name is unusual for McCray, who has chaired the school board for seven years. In fact, if either emailer had showed up to read those remarks during the board meeting she probably wouldn’t have allowed them.

About 20 minutes before reading the emails and challenging the writers to ask themselves whether they might be racists, McCray read her standard warning to speakers from the public:

"You may speak on any topic of your choice except for either individual student matters or specific personnel matters," McCray said. "No personal attacks would be allowed. Neither profanity or inappropriate language may be used."

WFAE got copies of the two emails through a public records request and tried to reach both senders.

The writer who used a racial slur didn’t respond.

Jamie Lawrence did. Lawrence, a self-described lifelong Charlottean, declined to do a recorded interview. But Lawrence said in a series of emails with WFAE that McCray’s decision to read the email – and to link it with a more inflammatory message from someone else – constitutes “public bullying and name calling” that “politicians do today in order to shut down debate and deflect legitimate criticism.”

Lawrence condemned the language used by the other writer. “While there is no place for bigotry in our society,” Lawrence wrote, “there should be a place for spirited debate.”

It’s not clear from the emails whether the names on the sender line are authentic – or, for that matter, whether Lawrence actually is a young lady, as McCray said. WFAE asked McCray several times to elaborate on her decision to go public with the messages, but she either texted that she was busy or didn’t respond.

But from the dais McCray defended the board’s unanimous vote to hire Winston as superintendent earlier this month, despite the fact that he has never been a principal or superintendent and has no advanced degrees in school administration.

"He doesn’t hold a doctorate degree," McCray said. "Nor does that award-winning celebrated superintendent of Miami-Dade, a district where children are being prepared for college and careers and a district far larger than CMS."

Winston is the second African American superintendent of CMS. Leake, the county commissioner, served 11 years on the school board. She was there in 2002, when CMS hired the first, Jim Pughsley. Like Winston, Pughsley was hired without a search. And Leake says that decision sparked the same type of racial criticism.

Leake said she heard things like, "We don’t need that black man. He can’t fill the bill for us. This community will not accept him."

McCray’s decision to read emails and call names won kudos from Leake, who’s been in public life for decades, and from Kendall Sanders, the school board’s non-voting student member and a senior at Northwest School of the Arts.

"At first, I was a little shocked that she actually did say the names of the people," Sanders said, "but I didn’t disagree with her. I do believe that people who make comments like that should be put on blast."

The letter about sending black Democrats to concentration camps also went to Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles. But in a "Charlotte Talks" interview she chose not to emphasize it, saying that people who voice hateful and bigoted views are minority voices that shouldn’t be used to label a whole city.

Go behind the headlines with WFAE political reporter Steve Harrison in his weekly newsletter "Inside Politics." Subscribe here.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.