Sen. Joyce Elliott’s Brilliant Response to Leslie Rutledge’s Racist Email

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Sen. Joyce Elliot (D-Little Rock) posted the following status on Facebook a little past 4PM today. She absolutely nailed the entirety of the situation, to the point that I don’t feel like I need to add anything else.[foot]Beside, my addition would just be to mock the ridiculous “literary” explanation.[/foot]

Enjoy.

I posted nothing about this email yesterday because, like many of you, I was outraged by what I read. The incredible lack of judgment and insensitivity filled me with repulsion that informed me I should wait. Wait, be as thoughtful and objective as I could before reacting publicly. Yes, from where I sit, the email is racist and insulting–intended or not–and forwarding it rather than trashing it perpetuated a blatant marginalization of folks simply in need of help. After trashing the email, Ms. Rutledge should have responded to the sender, Ms. Gardner, that she (Ms. Rutledge) did not appreciate such demeaning of anyone, and especially ones in such vulnerable status in life. If Ms. Rutledge did express outrage upon receiving such an email, she should share that with the public. If, indeed, she was not outraged, well, that’s certainly problematic, especially for someone vying to be the elected legal voice of our state’s population. For anyone who thinks my comments are about politics, think again. I do not know Judith Gardner to be a racist, but what she wrote was. No pass from me. I don’t know Leslie Rutledge to be a racist. I don’t know her other than as a candidate. But I do know her action gives me no comfort that she can or would be an attorney general who honors all of us. How will she “protect” all of us when she doesn’t even respect all Arkansans or lacks the judgment to recognize she doesn’t? Finally about Ms. Rutledge, it would be heartening if she would just take responsibility for what she did and apologize, not continue the excuse-making of “I just forwarded what my friend sent to me.” Why, do that? What was the point?

I promised in an earlier post, I would explain why I think this whole mess is racist, not that you need my thoughts but because it is unfair to lay such a claim without explanation. I know there will be criticism of my position, and some will throw out the “political correctness” wet blanket as a way of dismissing any discussion about race that calls people to task. So be it. Here are my reasons:

1. The original email was written from a position of power about people who were practically powerless. When vulnerable people come to you for help and later you decide you have valid reasons for sharing their plight, it should not be done with a tone of condescension and/or in a language that marginalizes them as you relate their story. The context informs me that this exchange between the clients and the professional should have been done in a professional, dignified manner. Any sharing of the exchange should have mirrored what I can only assume was a professional rendering of service. I was a teacher of speech, communication and literature for thirty years. I understand literary technique, context, setting, appropriateness of diction, and other nuances that inform the message. The use of the dialect in the email is not demanded by context. Just the opposite, unless that is how Ms. Gardner spoke to the people in need of her assistance. Nothing suggests that to be the case. For a writer to suggest that the reader cannot credibly–if not certainly–infer race from what almost anyone can recognize as Black dialect is a real stretch.

2. Ms. Rutledge is a learned, educated person. As an attorney, surely she understands the power and the powerless of words. I am sure she knows that certain modes of speaking connote power while others do not. There is nothing wrong with anyone’s dialect, but society does not respects all dialects as equals. There tends to be a direct correlation between the degree to which a group is respected and the degree to which the language identified with the group is respected AND/OR a correlation between the power of a group and respect granted to the language identified with the group. In other words, if you are a marginalized group with a distinct dialect, you can count on your dialect being marginalized as well. That’s especially so when people of power co-op that dialect for no valid reason. Surely, Ms. Rutledge has the discernment and the judgment to know that appropriating Black dialect to describe this situation was wrong. If not, isn’t this a serious problem for anyone who wishes to be the attorney general?

Just as none of us is perfect, I do not expect Ms. Rutledge to be. But almost none of us is a candidate for attorney general. Ms. Rutledge should apologize–at the least. If she thinks she has nothing for which to apologize, I suggest she take some time and learn about the history and culture of the people she says she wants to represent and will “protect.” The I-did-it-because-someone-told-me-to excuse is what we are accustomed to from children on the playground. The people of this state have a right to expect much, much more from our top attorney.

Well said, Senator. Well said.