Local TV weatherman Jeremy Kappell insists he was speaking too fast and misspoke when he inserted the word “coon” in the middle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s name during a broadcast earlier this month. He was subsequently fired from his job at WHEC-TV10.
Like many Rochester-area residents, I’ve participated in multiple conversations about Kappell and the aftermath. Whether it was an accidental slip of the tongue or a speech practice that reflected his bias, after it happened, it stopped being only about him and also started becoming about us.
At the same time, I have been rereading a 600-page collection of King’s sermons, articles and speeches compiled by scholar James Washington. Thus far, in 24 of the first 26 pieces, King calls for principled nonviolence as a framework to build a future that works for all. Please note in the many celebrations of King’s life in the next few weeks how infrequently nonviolence is highlighted. We celebrate the man and his message and disregard the method that he believed in with all of his heart. As a student of nonviolence and of King’s thinking, I offer a few thoughts:
- Intention vs impact. Like all of us, Kappell has to grapple with internalized racist conditioning. I certainly do, and have attempted to understand it through measures like the Harvard Implicit Association Test. (It’s free—try it and be prepared for the results.) Regardless of whether this was a linguistic error or a manifestation of a prejudiced phrase used at other times, the impact is what matters. For those who know the history, the way Kappell jumbled his words mirrored the way King’s name was deliberately disrespected during his life. For many, this decreases trust in his claims that this was a slip of the tongue and increases the impact of the harm.
- Educated to blame. When something goes wrong, punishment is the strategy we have been taught to seek, to create justice and to meet human needs like respectand fairness. But when communal harm is experienced and is unevenly distributed, as it often is, everything becomes more complicated. For some, the loss of Kappell’s job and the damage to his reputation and career feels fair. To others it feels unjust; Kappell himself is seen as a victim.
- Thinking in systems. When communal harm intersects with historical harms, complexity increases even more. Simple answers to complicated problems often make problems worse, and that’s what has happened here. The swift decision to terminate Kappell’s employment did not mitigate the issues. It inflamed them. Unintended consequences abound; we now have more division in our community, at least in the message boards I have seen, and have offered new fuel for white supremacists who thrive on the narrative of white people under attack.
A healing prescription
- As a community, we can learn to swiftly call for process rather than punishment, through the lens of transformative or restorative justice. A community-based process could still occur that would include Kappell, members of the black community, leadership at WHEC and others. Restorative practices are used throughout the community—in our schools, faith communities, courts and colleges. There are plenty of local resources to support this framework, which is built to handle complexity and diverse opinions. I would like to know what recommendations a group like that could make. Perhaps one might be that WHEC would get involved, both in terms of its own internal practices and to take on a bigger role of advocacy for racial justice and dialogue in the community.
- These calls for wiser processes can be inclusive. They are part of the advocacy for the use of restorative practices in area schools to address racial disproportionality. Nationally, students of color in suburban and urban schools are four times as likely to be suspended as compared to their white counterparts for the same behaviors. We need processes that intervene and that teach, while excavating the collective burden of implicit bias.
- In our individual conversations, we can seek to be grounded in respect and choose to understand rather than agree. Conflict without contempt is a core concept called for by systems author David Peter Stroh. We can learn how to disagree in ways that strengthen our understanding and ability to manage complexity, rather than applying force of various kinds in an attempt to artificially simplify what is happening.
Every choice we make pulls a certain kind of future into existence. I want to live—and I want each one of you, your children and their children to live—in a community at peace with itself, where we have enough trust in one another to have robust disagreements, like in this case with Kappell, and still respect and even appreciate one another.
Kit Miller is director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, a nonprofit that equips people to use nonviolence to create a sustainable and just world for all. With community partners, it focuses on nonviolence education, sustainability and environmental conservation, and the promotion of racial justice.