Kathy Vestal: Race is not council’s primary divider on travel issue
By Kathy Vestal
Special to the Salisbury Post
I watched the entire three-hour video of Tuesday’s City Council meeting, as I often do, and I listened carefully to the discussion around the mayor’s travel to Salisbury, England, both from the council and during the public comments. I am concerned about where the council can go from here. I see an almost forced division, which is likely to work counter to what any councilperson or citizen wants for our local government, but it’s not inevitable.
I see two separate issues at work in the discussion. First, that of systemic racism. Racism is very real and arguably the base of, not only our national, state, and local political division, but most of the divisiveness of our culture, intricately and indistinguishably interwoven with our economic and criminal justice systems.
We desperately need open and civil discourse on these issues, because, while most of us do not self-identify as racist, it’s the nature of systemic bias that we will always see the world through the lens of our own backgrounds, and this feeds oppression. While we might never know from experience what it’s like to wake up black, or female, or gay, or Jewish, or Hispanic or poor, we can choose to listen with open hearts and minds to the diverse voices crying out around us to be heard. Did some of the public commentary push the education forward in a positive way? Did some of it slam doors, adding more divisive tension to our council and city?
The secondary issue, framed as the primary one, is that of our mayor’s requested reimbursement for travel to Salisbury, England. While I’m not sure there can be any possible interaction between black and white human beings without race playing some kind of underlying part, negative or positive, race is not the primary divider I saw at work here, but rather the also very common that’s-not-how-we’ve-always-done-it phenomenon, coupled with some gaps in communication.
Despite passionate and emotional public reaction, including some personal name-calling and shaming of individual council members, I saw respectful disagreement from every council member. Diversity of opinion is good in a governing body, and how fortunate we are that our council is also diverse in race, religion and orientation. This assures us that we are well represented and that decisions will be made, not perfectly, but fairly and reasonably.
The council has been injured in this debacle. Future communication will be stifled and difficult for each one of the councilpersons and for the mayor. Does disagreeing with the mayor on any given issue mean a councilperson is not sensitive to the black community? Must a councilperson agree with another on every issue to avoid being called an anti-semite, or with another to prove they are not anti-LGBT? Is it OK, on the other hand, to disdainfully call a councilperson an Alabama redneck or a country clubber?
My intent here is not to answer the reimbursement question, but to ask the rest of us to allow our mayor the grace to work this out. To juggle the demands of any political position is difficult, and many at national, state and local levels fail, selling themselves out to their supporters.
Mayor Heggins is finding her own way, taking pride in her vision of the council as the People’s House, hearing and caring for all people.
With all the public and media attention, if she makes this trip, will her travel story be received only with negative politics? If she does not take the reimbursement, will she be accused by some of selling out? Has the public outcry trapped her?
As citizens, can we give our mayor and every member of our council the respect and support they need to work together for our diverse city? And can you, can I, make a real effort to hear the cries of all our neighbors with compassion and grace?
Kathy Vestal is a resident of Salisbury.