Town's top cop, 82, uses racial slur to refer to Obama. Is his age to blame?

The N.H. town is seeking the resignation of the police commissioner, just the latest older white man to make a publicized racist remark. But blaming age just avoids the need to confront racism, experts say.

Jim Cole/AP
Wolfeboro Police Commissioner Robert Copeland listens Thursday in Wolfeboro, N.H. as town residents ask for his resignation.

Residents of the small town of Wolfeboro, N.H., crowded into a meeting Thursday to demand the resignation of police commissioner Robert Copeland, who has been unapologetic about referring to President Obama with the “N-word” in a conversation at a restaurant.

Resident Jane O’Toole overheard the comment and reported it to the town manager. Copeland admitted using the racial slur and justified it in an e-mail to Ms. O’Toole, saying the “current occupant” of the White House “meets and exceeds my criteria for such,” WMUR news reports.

Copeland is 82. Following hard on the heels of publicly condemned racist comments by fellow octogenarian Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, and by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who is in his late 60s, Copeland’s statements are prompting questions about the relationship between people’s age and a tendency to voice racist views.

Many people can think of an older relative or friend who occasionally says things based on offensive stereotypes. They grew up at a time when certain views and words were socially acceptable. Even Mr. Obama has spoken about the depth of racial bias by referring to his own white grandmother voicing ethnic stereotypes and admitting that she sometimes feared black men walking down the street.

But to explain these incidents by the age of the offenders would be a mistake, experts on sociology and race say, as it relies on a belief that racism is a relic and that racists won’t be with us much longer, so we can avoid the hard work of confronting racism that runs the gamut of age groups in American society.

“In instances where individuals are older, we gravitate to a particular narrative stereotype that identifies the age as ‘why.’ This is comforting because it reinforces the idea that racism is a generational thing,” writes David Leonard, a professor in the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University in Pullman, in an e-mail to the Monitor.

There are plenty of instances of racial tension among college students, too, for instance, with racial slurs being scrawled on dormitory doors and white students freely using such language behind closed doors. Some research suggests that because young people believe they live in a post-racial society, they can tell racial jokes and use epithets freely without it being racist.

“Lots of whites, across the age spectrum, they devalue any kind of achievements that blacks … have made because they believe they have gotten there through political correctness and affirmative action,” says Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “For a lot of white America, they can’t possibly imagine that our commander in chief, our president, is black, because it completely runs counter to their version of where blacks should be placed on the hierarchy.”

One difference that might be age-related: Copeland and Sterling didn’t “filter” these racist views in their conversations, while most people in their 50s and younger know that they aren’t supposed to talk that way in public, even though “they may still feel and act on those beliefs,” Professor Gallagher says. For his research he has visited bars in Philadelphia and witnessed whites of various ages, feeling safe among other whites, hurl racial epithets at black public figures on the evening news.

Hurtful racial comments aren’t made just by whites. In 2013, a jury awarded an African-American woman $280,000 because her black Hispanic boss repeatedly denigrated her with the N-word.

There are also plenty of Americans, including whites, who understand the history of racial oppression and the particular sting of the N-word and its ties to slavery and racial violence. In this group one finds the people willing to take a stand when they hear a racist comment, Gallagher says.

In situations like the one in Wolfeboro, “someone had to stand up, and once you have that, it’s easier for others to stand up against it,” Gallagher says.

Many people, including white men, stood up to say Copeland’s comments were unacceptable at the meeting at the Wolfeboro public library Thursday. “This is a public office and I just want to simply say that there is absolutely no room for this in public office,” one man said.

Copeland was recently reelected, and the three-person commission of which he is a member did not resolve the issue Thursday, but said a meeting would be set to discuss it, WMUR reports.

On Friday, town manager David Owen posted a statement on the town website saying that he and the board of selectmen are “appalled” by Copeland’s language and “we are hopeful that Mr. Copeland will accede to the public outcry and finally do the right thing and resign from his elected position.” Some residents are organizing for a recall vote if he does not resign. 

While it’s positive that more people seem willing to take a stand against racist comments, there’s more work to do to get at the root, Professor Leonard argues.

“The cycle of racist utterance, shame, and demand for apology directs our attention away from institutional racism, inequality, and the racism that is often unsaid,” he writes. “Individual challenges are important, but movements for justice, to transform the culture that produces hate and inequality … are crucial.”

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