Franklin County leadership punched itself in the face – twice -- this month when County Commission Chair Cheryl Sanders lobbed a callous and careless ethnic slur against Jews during a heated debate at the July 2nd meeting. A ridiculously weak apology this week has left a lingering bloody nose to public civility in the wake of such pathetic, but supposedly unintentional, hate mongering posing as leadership. How could it even happen today?
Sanders’ nonchalant nastiness was a sobering but stupefying moment that is forever on the record as a disgraceful piece of modern history for the community. It cannot be ignored. It must have a strong and direct response.
As the commission wrangled over how much to raise the salary of Howard Nabors, a longtime employee elevated to now head the road department, chair Sanders tried to cut through conversation about salaries of other department heads with this comment: “Today’s not the day to do it. We’re here (for Nabors’ salary), not to be up here jewing over somebody’s pay.”
What a stunning comment for anyone to make – let alone a public official in a public meeting. Even worse than the anti-Semitic remark by Sanders was the fact that no one challenged her about it. Not one of her peers on the commission called her on her language; not one member of the audience spoke up in protest; and not even this newspaper, The Apalachicola Times, which quoted the remark in a long story about the Nabors appointment, ever took Sanders to task for it, in news columns or editorially.
Under the best-case scenario – and that’s not a very good case -- Sanders may just be very ignorant. But that is hardly a good excuse for her words.
I spoke with chair Sanders on Monday, July 15, when - to her credit - she returned a phone call from me. When I told her use of the word “jewing” was offensive, she initially denied that she had said it. Instead, she offered, she had used the word “jawing.” That’s not true – and, later in the brief call, she acknowledged that she had, indeed, said “jewing” in reference to the salary discussion.
“It was a slang, not a slur,” Sanders told me.
Actually, chair Sanders, it is a slur – period. You can’t get away with calling it slang now that you know it’s offensive to people. You owe yourself and surely the community better than to try to justify the word even after you used it and after you’ve been confronted about it.
On Tuesday, July 16, Sanders offered a weak attempt at an apology that, in many ways, only amplified and magnified her slur. Here’s the text of it:
"On July 2 there was a statement I made that offended. I used a word that was offensive to some people. It was in the heat of argument and it was a poor choice of words and I’m sorry. If I have caused any hardship to the people or employees of Franklin County, I’m sorry. This is a heartfelt apology."
If that’s an apology, it lacks real contrition – and when you have to describe your own apology as ‘heartfelt,’ it probably is not.
Candidly, Sanders admits she didn’t know about the word “jewing” being an offensive slur – as much as the “N” word is for blacks -- or, she never had time to learn that the term contributes to prejudicial and stereotypical myths about an entire group of people. That possibility may reflect a deeper level of ignorance by Sanders about other offensive words and phrases that slur Jews, blacks, women, Hispanics, elders, Asians, gay people, etc. You don’t have to be black to be offended by racism; nor do you have to be Jewish, to be appalled by anti-Semitism.
We all know that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other “isms” still exist – and they even flourish in some places, among some people. But, the example being set by Cheryl Sanders is unworthy of the people of Franklin County. The naked ugliness of hate borne of ignorance, displayed from the dais of a governmental body by someone who purports to be a leader, absolutely needs to be “outed” and confronted.
Even if chair Sanders fails to get educated about slurs, or to correct course away from the polluted path of prejudice she apparently travels along, let this be a teaching moment for the good people of the community she is serving. At least, her somewhat lame apology is a start. At most, Sanders needs to undergo sensitivity training -- and perhaps there’s a good case to be made for a countywide anti-prejudice campaign to take root.
Barbara Goldstein, who is the director of the Big Bend’s area’s Holocaust Education Resource Council, is just the right person to help create such an effort. She helped put Sanders’ slur into perspective with these words:
“Prejudice results when ignorance goes unchecked. For a county commissioner, more sensitive language should be used as an example of understanding diversity. In the aftermath of the moral and societal failures that made the Holocaust possible, confronting anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred is critical.”
Diversity in our community, state, nation and world is a great strength, not a weakness. Tolerance, acceptance and understanding among all people are what help to define our civilization, rather than diffuse it.
One can only hope that chair Sanders feels a need to go beyond her flimsy mea culpa, publicly, and to decry her own choice of damaging words. Even more meaningful would be a genuine effort to foster and embrace a community that respects and celebrates diversity as a higher road for Franklin County’s future.
Ron Sachs, CEO of Tallahassee-based Sachs Media Group, is a property owner and taxpayer in Franklin County.