Editorial: Lawmaker's outrageous slur is no way to foster discussion of race

The unfortunate thing about state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray's description of her hometown as "white supremacist" is less how wrong and irresponsible the characterization is than how destructive it is to a conversation that needs to continue.

In an interview last week with the Daily Herald's Marie Wilson, the Naperville Democrat doubled down on a Facebook post that attracted broad criticism, insisting that long-dead policies and practices in "the whole Chicago region" justify claiming that today we see "white supremacy in an unclad kind of way, without its hood on" in contemporary policies and attitudes.

Her comments, let us state flatly, are patently offensive and outrageously exaggerated.

Whatever racial inequities and prejudices exist in Naperville or any other Chicago suburb, they cannot remotely be compared to the openly hostile and vile actions and behaviors of a misguided subset of white Americans who espouse ignorant claims of racial superiority and urge separation from and subjugation of other races. That she does not recognize the insult in her remark and believes "starting a conversation" justifies it is a bitter reflection on the quality of her own judgment and a worrisome suggestion about her own ability to operate effectively as a leader in her community.

Not that starting a conversation about race is unimportant. To the contrary, the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations has been leading that discussion with its Black/White Divide initiative and shows every indication of keeping it alive until the racial divisions that remain in our suburbs and our state are closed. We have strongly supported and hosted conversations that are part of this project.

But the discussion is not well-served when a state legislator issues a vague generalization and shows no remorse about its impact on the people it insults. The result is not the advance of an important conversation but an impotent polarization of it.

In that context, it is somewhere just short of dumbfounding to think that Stava-Murray believes it is not only acceptable to make such a slur about an entire community or region but that in doing so she has launched a constructive conversation.

The exact opposite is true. One of the challenges of building a successful dialogue on race is getting the privileged to acknowledge that problems exist. Comments like Stava-Murray's impede that aim. Instead of focusing on legitimate areas of race relations, such as even issues like schools and police relations that Stava-Murray raised, the comfortable respond with outrage and discredit the merits of the issue on its face. This only sets back the goals of equality and fairness that the overwhelming majority of suburban residents of all races share.

Numerous groups have called for Stava-Murray to apologize for her heresy, but she seems perfectly satisfied to stand by her statements. That's unfortunate. Perhaps at least in time she will come to see how counterproductive this kind of rhetoric is and will find a more constructive way to participate in a conversation that is both necessary and already well under way.

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