Incoming Minneapolis school member is repentant but defiant over racially-charged Web commentsby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
A newly elected Minneapolis school board member continues to apologize for racially charged comments on a Web site he's linked to. Chris Stewart admits the comments are unbecoming of a public official. Stewart says the uproar is helping open up the painful discussion of race in education.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Chris Stewart's Monday morning schedule was thrown into chaos as he bounced from one media interview to another, attempting to stem a flow of bad publicity. He showed up on the weekly Minneapolis radio show on KFAI-FM, Conversations with Al McFarlane, where the host asked if he planned to resign, even before taking office.
Stewart's answer is, no.
Calls for Stewarts resignation came after Stewart was linked to a parody of the Independence Party's 5th Congressional candidate Tammy Lee that used crude racial language. Stewart apologizes for the tone of the parody, which he says he was not directly involved in. In addition, the Star Tribune newspaper reviewed past writings on another Web site Stewart operated that also posed stark racial arguments, referring in one instance to a "Coon Award" given to some blacks who receive notoriety by criticizing other blacks.
Stewart, who is black, is contrite about touching a nerve with the public. But in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio news, he also defiantly insists the postings are a way into the difficult discussion of race.
"I'm not giving myself a free pass to say that this is right or that folks don't have a right to be upset about it. I do think that all along that when I say we have to have an open conversation about race, I happen to know that the people carry a lot of racial attitudes that once you get into the conversation carry a lot of discord," he said.
Stewart says his election with three other new office holders earlier this month, was more about the core issues for the school district, including the search for a permanent superintendent and closing the achievement gap between low income minority students and their white counterparts. He says concerns over the Web postings are minor in comparison.
"I don't think that was the criteria for the school board. I think the criteria for the school board was what are your exact ideas for putting the school district back on track," he said.
Stewart, who's originally from New Orleans, says he's used to more direct discussions on the topic.
"People have different ideas about what's comedy and what's not; what's satire, what's not, what's racist and what's not."
The Minneapolis School Board issued a statement last week, expressing disappointment with Stewart's involvement in the controversy, but did not call for his resignation. The board has no authority to remove a fellow member. Board member Peggy Flannagan says she accepts Stewart's apology. She says she hopes the dispute doesn't distract from the board's work once he takes office in January.
"That's something Chris has to think long and hard about. Can he be an effective school board member in this situation? I think he has all the tools he needs to be successful. It will be up to him as we move forward," she said.
Stewart says he's received both support and brickbats. One of the supporters is Dan Schulman, who donated money to Stewart's campaign. Schulman is a Minneapolis attorney who frequently represents the Minneapolis NAACP, most notably in a law suit against the the state of Minnesota in 1990's. The state settled the suit in part by creating the Choice is Yours program which allows Minneapolis students to attend schools in suburban districts. Schulman says he not only agrees with Stewart, he applauds his honesty.
"I think it's admirable that a school board member is speaking out on a subject where we need dialogue, opinions need to be aired--and that is the subject of race and racial discrimination," he said.
Stewart says he was taken by surprise by the attention given to the controversy. He says, though, that he's willing to try to turn the discussion to a more productive dialogue about the emotional reactions people have when the topic of race surfaces.
- All Things Considered, 11/20/2006, 5:48 p.m.