Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2017

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A conversation all too common

Earlier this week, my son came to me visibly upset with a question that I was not prepared to answer. He asked why one of my legislative colleagues, Assemblyman James Wheeler, said he would legalize slavery if his constituents asked him to. Sadly, my son and I became engaged in yet another conversation about race — a conversation that is becoming all too common.

My sons are not ignorant of the fact that people sometimes make offensive and thoughtless remarks, especially when politics are involved. Even worse, my wife and sons know that, in my capacity as a state senator, I receive offensive and threatening emails that are laced with prejudice, typically sent under pseudonyms.

But none of these compares to the comments from Wheeler. As one of my sons noted, the slavery comment did not come from an angry person making anonymous comments on the Internet; it was an elected official who is expected to justly represent the people of Nevada in an equitable manner.

As a father, I racked my brain trying to come up with an explanation as to why an elected official, one with whom I have worked and have taught my sons to respect, would make a comment like that about such a tragic part of American history. In my attempt to address this question, I couldn’t help but think back to the increasing number of candid remarks made by candidates or public officials in the past few years that have left me trying to answer the question: “Why would anyone say such a thing?”

Look at Mitt Romney in 2012. During a private fundraiser, he declared that all those who support Obama’s re-election are people who think they are entitled to government handouts and take no responsibility for their livelihoods. This out-of-touch perspective about a huge group of Americans was offensive and laced with discrimination toward, among others, people of color, America’s working class and lower-income citizens.

Just last month on a conservative talk show, another of my colleagues, an elected leader in the Nevada Legislature, stated that it would be great for his party if “minorities and young voters” don’t turn out to vote in the 2014 election. With America’s history of voter suppression of minorities, it is absolutely appalling that an elected official would, instead of enhancing efforts to reach out to a new demographic of voters, take joy in the idea that people who look like me and my sons wouldn’t show up to the polls.

Of course, all of these out-of-touch comments, including the one made this week regarding the support of slavery, were quickly followed up with statements of apologies. As one of my sons asked about Assemblyman Wheeler, however: “Is he sorry because he understands that what he said was wrong? Or is he sorry because he got caught?” Obviously, I can’t answer that question. But knowing my children, they may very well ask him that question themselves. With all due respect, of course.

In the end, the apologies fall flat because they don’t address the larger issue at hand — an issue that many people would prefer to avoid. To wit: Race is an ever-present undercurrent in our national, state and local dialogue, and it continues to play a vital role in our ability to progress. Indeed, despite our country’s gains in the area of race over the past few decades, we are not yet a post-racial society. To evolve toward that end, we must hold people accountable and begin to have a larger conversation about the root of these comments. It is those conversations that should be more common.

Nevada state Sen. Aaron D. Ford, a Democrat, represents District 11, which encompasses portions of the Las Vegas Valley including portions of the communities of Spring Valley and Enterprise.

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