• 03/28/13 - - A 'slip of the tongue' may reveal greater truths

    - - A 'slip of the tongue' may reveal greater truths

    By Brian Judge - Kingston Whig Standard

    “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe / Catch a n----r by the toe / If he hollers, let him go / Eeny, Meany, Miney, Moe.”

    If I was a senior manager with the National Parole Board and recited that rhyme in front of 20 staff members and a room full of black inmates, am I racist, or just stupid?


    If the nature of my job was to write professional reports that help determine whether inmate A or inmate B is ready for conditional release, is my insensitivity noteworthy?


    What if my letter of apology said it was an “extremely regrettable … slip of the tongue” - should that be the end of it?


    These were the questions that came to mind after receiving a copy of a signed letter of apology written by an unnamed parole board manager. Actually, the name is quite prominent in the letter, but I am choosing not to reveal it.

    The letter, dated May 21, 2004 is on Government of Canada letterhead and is signed by the manager in question. It was sent to me by someone who was in attendance that day.


    From what I can gather, the event was a two-hour information session that took place at a minimum-security prison and was sponsored ironically, by the BIFA Group – the Black Inmates and Friends Assembly.


    Here’s the essence of the apology in the words of the parole board manager:


    “At various points throughout the evening, many inmates were asking questions at the same time – and on one such occasion, in a light-hearted attempt to encourage one question at a time, I very ill-advisedly (and as mentioned above – thoughtlessly) used a portion of a nursery rhyme to choose the person for the next question.


    “That rhyme contained an inappropriate word referring to the black race.


    “I do apologize for such insensitivity and assure all those in attendance that I was simply trying to limit the questions to one at a time so that our session would be as productive as possible. I had no intention whatsoever of making a derogatory remark to anyone, or to any race, creed or colour. It was an extremely regrettable and totally inappropriate 'slip' of the tongue as I recited the rhyme.”


    Admittedly, this “slip of the tongue” happened a while ago, but it’s instructive when you know there’s been a 50% increase in the number of black offenders filling our prisons over the last 10 years, the most dramatic increase occurring in the last five years.


    Black people make up roughly 2.5% of Canada's population. There are more than 1,300 black convicts doing time in federal penitentiaries, many of them in Ontario, where 20% of the federal prison population is black.


    A “slip of the tongue” like this draws attention to a concern that many community leaders have expressed for quite a while: that it is much, much harder for a person of colour to get released on parole because of systemic racism in the justice system.


    Now, I can hear the keyboard critics saying that no matter what your ethnic origin, if you do the crime, be prepared to do the time. I definitely agree with that cornerstone principle.


    What irks me most about this is that a highly paid professional would have the nerve - or, perhaps, confidence - to recite such a nasty rhyme publicly, in full view of peers and a room full of mainly black inmates.


    Being a cocky racist is one thing, but when the function of your job gives you the power to influence the outcome of a parole hearing and someone’s bid for freedom, that’s starting to get downright scary. It makes me question whether in some cases black inmates really are getting a fair shake when it comes to conditional release and parole.


    The National Parole Board is an “independent administrative tribunal that has exclusive authority under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to grant, deny, cancel, terminate, or revoke day parole and full parole.” It depends on professional staff and their case management reports to do its job effectively and fairly.


    What if there’s a bit of racial intolerance hidden beneath the surface of some of those reports?

    I am naively Canadian enough to believe that justice is colour-blind. But I admit a circumstance like this shakes that belief somewhat.


    Yes, the senior manager did apologize and perhaps has learned a lesson. Maybe this person was sent for some type of racial sensitivity training and really didn’t mean to offend anyone. Perhaps the “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” method truly was the manager's way of encouraging one question at a time.


    Martin Luther King Jr. said we should judge people by the content of their character. I am fine with that, especially in this sad case. King also noted, though, that “nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”


    Brian Judge, a member of the Whig-Standard's Community Editorial Board, is a public-relations specialist living in Westport Rideau Lakes. He is also a producer and editor at prisontv.net.



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