Topeka Black leaders in Kansas sharply criticized a State Board of Education member Tuesday over comments he made last month when he made repeated reference to the N-word while talking about new history and social studies standards.
During a discussion about the new standards, which the board voted to approve, board member Steve Roberts, an Overland Park Republican, commented that he thought the standards were too “politically correct” in some areas, especially regarding use of the racially derogatory word.
He first said he was under the impression that the city of New York had officially "outlawed" the word, although in fact the city had only passed a nonbinding resolution in 2007 calling for a moratorium on use of the word.
He then pointed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which was written 50 years ago that day, April 16.
KSBE member Steve Roberts on use of 'n-word'
“And as I call up the Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Roberts said, “that N-word — and we all know what I'm talking about — it is in this document twice. So, I guess I really don't have a question so much as an admonition that we have to push the frontiers of political correctness, and do what's right.”
“So, if I was to use it clinically,” Roberts continued, “I would almost do a test to see what the effect on Twitter would be. 'You know that Roberts guy said n----- in a school board meeting. And he said it as, it's probably the ugliest word in our vocabulary.' It's an utterly repugnant, absolutely horrific word that we should rise above. But I did get it out there, and I appreciate the opportunity to do that. I wish you luck, sir.”
His comments were directed at the Rev. Ben Scott, past president of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP and a member of the committee that wrote the new standards.
Scott said nothing at the time in response to Roberts. But he returned to the board today to say he was both offended and confused by Roberts' comments.
“I didn't get the connection in those statements relative to my comments to this board,” Scott said. “At a time when racial animosity is on the rise, as public officials and leaders we should be trying to calm the waters instead of fueling the fire.”
“If the remarks by this particular board member were an attempt to besmirch the reputation or legacy of Dr. King, they are unacceptable and should be recanted,” Scott said.
Board member Carolyn Campbell, a Topeka Democrat whose district includes Lawrence, said she received numerous phone calls after the meeting from people who had viewed a recording of the meeting on the State Department of Education website.
“No one has been able to understand why he (Scott) had to endure the monologue regarding the N-word, especially stating Reverend Dr. King used it twice in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Campbell said. “It was offensive to me due to the insensitive way it was implied that Reverend Dr. King used this word as part of his vocabulary on a regular basis.”
In the famous letter, King wrote to other clergy members who were critical of his civil rights activism to explain why he believed it was right and necessary, and he did use the word twice as illustrations of the kind of hatred and humiliation blacks were subjected to.
Afterward, Roberts defended his remarks.
“One reason I brought it up was because it actually was the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail,' which is one of the greatest documents I've ever read, and he used it twice,” Roberts said. “And I love getting out of the box, and I love developing a reputation for being willing to be politically incorrect. And I think it's pretty evident there are some people who feel I was very politically incorrect.”