Home to the Locust Hill Country Club, Paychex, and the Rochester Institute of Technology, the town of Henrietta (according to the American Community Survey conducted between 2005 to 2009), is 81.5 percent white, and 7.9 percent African-American.
Not surprisingly, the town supervisor, all four town board members, and the ethics board are all white.
Less surprising (albeit no less unfortunate), is the recent official statement by the Henrietta Town Ethics Board, which basically exonerated town supervisor Jack Moore for calling black residents of Rochester and Henrietta “city cousins.”
In their words: “Our board is not vested with the authority to hear complaints or address complaints. We render advisory opinions, generally relating to questions of conflict of interest.” How convenient.
I thought for sure that public pressure would be substantial enough to force Mr. Moore’s resignation. Clearly, this has not happened. It appears Mr. Moore will not only survive politically, but that he will move forward without any genuine effort to reform his own poisoned worldview.
What is worse, in all of the articles, blogs, news reports, and public comments I have come across that have been related to Moore’s slurring of black people, in not one have I seen a writer or reporter explain why the term “city cousins” is so blatantly racist. It is as if we all are under the same spell of an unspoken assumption. The assumption that well-intentioned white people know why the term is offensive, and mean-spirited bigoted people don’t know how offensive it can be.
Both assumptions may be false.
When Moore referred to black people as “city cousins,” he may have been suggesting they are a different branch of the hominid tree. Paleoanthropologists tell us that hominids include a variety of primates, such as orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Essentially, Moore could have been calling an entire race of American citizens inferior, not as fellow human beings, but as a different tribe of animal all together.
Historically speaking, this is what the pejorative use of the term “cousins” has referred to when it has been used by Europeans to demean people of African decent. It goes back a long way. In an article entitled The Ape Insult: A Short History of a Racist Idea, University of Melbourne lecturer James Bradley writes: “Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1859) showed that the closest ancestors of human beings were the great apes… while most evolutionists believed that all human races descended from the same stock, they also noted that migration, and natural and sexual selection had created human varieties that – in their eyes – appeared superior to Africans or Aborigines…the relationship between humans and monkeys reinforced the connection made by Europeans between Africans and apes. And by making it seem as if people of a non-European origin were more like apes than humans, these different theories were used to justify plantation slavery in the Americas and colonialism through the rest of the world. All of these different scientific and religious theories worked in the same direction – to reinforce the European right to control large swathes of the world.”
The reason Moore’s words were so hurtful had nothing to do with it being a meager slip of the tongue, or a silly goof that we all let out from time to time. What slipped and why was it a goof? More likely, the frequent use of the slur “city cousins” could reveal the uncivilized belief system of a town supervisor with influence over nearly every aspect of community life, from zoning permits to education.
I wonder how many African American residents of Henrietta have felt adequately represented on the town zoning board, school board, or chamber of commerce. And, how many African Americans have actually worked in Moore’s administration?
What the various African American communities in Rochester and Henrietta probably want more than an apology, or mandatory sensitivity training, is for Moore to not only acknowledge the equal worth of black people, but to celebrate the way their achievements in science, the arts, and athletics have influenced the places where he works and lives.
Has Moore forgotten that one of the most accomplished residents to come out of Henrietta is Shenise Johnson? Johnson is a former John Wooden finalist, member of the 2009 basketball women’s U19 world championship, star of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, and global role model to millions of young women all over the world. She is no “city cousin,” that’s for sure.
Instead of a pathetic apology, followed up by zero political reform, let’s have a campaign to oust Moore, and honor the contributions of African Americans in Western, NY.