How do we know when we as a nation or even as a smeall community have made progress, particularly on the social front? Some like to point to the election of Barack Obama as president as a sign that we are able to look at the "content of one's character" instead of the color of one's skin. But even though we know his election did not magically solve the issues of race in America, it did tell us what voters would elect an African American to our highest office - something that is surely character revealing.
Here in Chapel Hill we face a test of our character. Here's why: before the election a council member resigned, but after the date when his seat would have been on the November 3d ballot. Under our ordinance the Town Council gets to appoint the replacement who fill the remaining two years of the seat.
There was a great deal of community discussion on this, especially on the timing of the resignation's effective date, who knew what when, and whether or not the old council or new council should make the appointment. The Council has now decided that the new Council will make the appointment in December. There are 10 applicants, but none of the incumbents running for reelection applied.
OK, here is where it gets interesting. The member who is an African American who was appointed to fill the seat of an African American who died last year was not elected to a full term. Since he did not apply for the appointment, the only way to ensure that there is African American representation on the Council is to appoint one of the two African Americans who applied.
Another of the ten who applied for appointment finished fifth in the elect-four contest we just had, and was very close in total votes to the fourth place winner. This person is white. The local NAACP argues that for many historical reasons, the Council should appoint one of the two African Americans to the seat to ensure a voice from that community remains on the Council.
Simply put, I have a lot of problems with this approach. First, the author of the NAACP paper (the president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP) is wrong in calling this a case of “taxation without representation.” It's interesting to note that the voters who did not elect an African American to the Council elected two African Americans to the School Board, and they will join another African American who is already on the seven member Board.
There are many African Americans I know in Town who are offended by this "you must appoint an African American" approach. If there is no African American on the Council, it is best explained by the campaign the candidate ran, the terrible overall turnout of 16%, and drastically less turnout by African Americans. Clearly, the outcome is not about the unwillingness of the voters to vote for an African American.
The fifth-place finisher ran a campaign that garnered him a lot of votes. Running a campaign is good prep for serving in office; you have heard directly from many citizens and interacted with them in forum after forum. Given the timing of the appointment on the heels of an election, why didn't those seeking the appointment run for office?
Well, the decision will clearly have tremendous impact on our community, no matter which way it goes. Those of us who are African American and don't support the NAACP position have and will continue to be labeled, negatively by some but not by others. Those who are not African American and don't support the NAACP position are also subject to similar actions because of their position. Those who remain silent for whatever reasons pose an entirely different question. Clearly, to put your convictions out there is character revealing.