Scott J. Bryan column: Let’s talk about race

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The Gadsden County Times

Is Ronte Harris a racist? Is Donald Trump?
Are you?
Am I?
The subject of race remains a divisive topic, but it continues to permeate our society.
Race reportedly played a factor in at least one mass shooting this weekend – a lone wolf drove nine hours to El Paso, Texas, to kill Hispanic people because he feared new immigrants would make Texas a “Democratic stronghold.”
Race was the prominent factor in a mass shooting in 2015 in Charleston, S.C., where nine were killed during Bible study at their church.
Mass murder is the extreme result of racial division, but it’s not the only one.
Gadsden County is a unique community.
Of the 67 counties in Florida, it’s the only one where the majority of the population is black. Like many rural counties, Gadsden County faces economic strife, and a disproportionate amount of its residents live below the poverty line.
Despite being a county where the majority of residents are black, racial animus plagues this community. In the three months I’ve worked as editor of this newspaper, the subject of race has come up frequently – with black and white residents.
And while some believe we should push the subject to the side, I disagree.

A FEW MONTHS ago I read “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” an incredibly well-researched and well-written book by Jennifer Berry Hawes. The book is about the Charleston church shooting,where nine black churchgoers were gunned down during a Bible study, and how families and the community responded to such a vile and despicable act.
I grew up outside of Charleston, walked by Emanuel A.M.E. Church at least 100 times as a kid and had profound respect for its preacher, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who once filibustered in the state Senate so another district could receive funding for a historic site honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor, Dr. Benjamin Mays. I lived in the district where Mays is honored. I was proud of Pinckney.
The book is heart-wrenching and honest. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I shed a few tears while reading.
The book also made me think about my upbringing in a racially diverse suburb outside of Charleston, where as a teenager the quality of your basketball jump shot was more important than the color of your skin. But everybody’s connection to race is grounded from where they came.
“As a white woman, I’ve since thought a lot about the difference between empathy and shared experience,” Hawes wrote in the book’s preface.
We’d all be wise to consider that.

OBVIOUSLY, I WRITE about race this week because of comments made by Quincy Commissioner Ronte Harris.
A couple of weeks ago, a resident, Vivian Howard, accused Harris of calling her an “Uncle Tom.” Before deadline, I texted Harris and asked him to call. As always, Harris returned my call.
Harris and I spoke for about 23 minutes. I asked him if he called the resident an “Uncle Tom.” He said he didn’t recall using the derogatory epithet, but also said, “I can tell you this, it’s not a bad assessment of her.”
It’s not my job to pass judgment on Harris. When it comes to his elected office, voters will do that. When it comes to his final judgment, God will do that.
I have empathy for the resident he demeaned, but I don’t have Harris’ shared experience – a relatively young black man in his first political position facing a wave of constant criticism. I don’t have the shared experience of Howard, a resident who has been publicly bashed by so many because she was unhappy with a high utility bill and a racial epithet she said was slung at her by an elected official.
This is a community rife with racial animus, and it’s time we have a conversation about it. Just because a fuse is lit doesn’t mean we should blow it out.
During the one-year anniversary of the Charleston church massacre, a wise voice spoke not about forgiving and forgetting, but of forging a future.
Coretta Scott King, the wife of slain Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., stood outside a memorial for the nine who died.
“You have to find ways to come together in private spaces,” King said, according to “Grace Will Lead Us Home.” “That’s your assignment.”
And now it’s your assignment. This is our community’s private space.
This page, Times Review, is an opportunity for residents – white and black – to convey their thoughts on race. It’s a long overdue discussion. I ask if you don’t have shared experience, please have empathy. And if you have experience, please share it.
Harris’ comments have angered many. Harris’ comments have emboldened many.
Let’s channel those feelings into a constructive conversation.

Scott J. Bryan is editor of The Gadsden County Times. He can be reached at sbryan@gadcotimes.com, 850-627-7649 or https://www.facebook.com/GCTScottBryan.