By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Democratic leaders point to insulting comments made by two Republican lawmakers to the Legislature’s black caucus in calling for legislators to undergo diversity and sensitivity training.
State Sen. Jim Summerville of Dickson has been criticized for an email he sent earlier this month to the chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators saying: “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the black caucus thinks.”
His Republican colleague, Stacey Campfield of Knoxville, has supported the comment and even called the black caucus a “segregationist organization” that should be ignored.
Three years ago, Democratic Rep. John Deberry of Memphis held two diversity training sessions for legislative staffers following the revelation that a Tennessee legislative staffer sent a racist e-mail about President Barack Obama from her state computer.
About a year later, Deberry gave the same sessions to state Safety Department officers who provide Capitol Hill security after a state trooper accidentally sent an e-mail proclaiming white pride to 787 state employees.
Those attending the sessions spent at least five hours being coached to avoid discriminatory behavior unacceptable in the workplace. It was the same training Deberry’s marketing firm gave to some clients before he became a legislator.
Deberry, who is a member of the black caucus and a former chairman, said the recent comments reveal a culture of insensitivity that still exists at the Capitol and that maybe it’s time for lawmakers to go through some sessions.
“Statesmanship is the ability to know what to say, when to say it and how to say it,” said Deberry, adding that he would be willing to once again oversee the sessions.
“That’s what we have to do if we’re going to be successful in making good public policy and having good public image. We’ve got to … learn how to communicate better.”
The black caucus had sent Summerville an official response to a hearing over complaints about Tennessee State University’s handling of grade changes. The group called the allegations “much ado about nothing” and questioned why the historically black university was singled out for a legislative investigation.
Summerville did not immediately return a phone call to The Associated Press seeking comment.
Despite a call from Democrats to apologize, Summerville seemed unrepentant in brief remarks to reporters last week.
“Which part wasn’t clear? The matter speaks for itself,” he said. “Maybe I could have used a more artful term like a ‘rodent’s posterior.'”
Summerville also made a rude hand gesture at a television reporter who sought an explanation about the email from the senator, WKRN-TV reported.
Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham stripped Summerville of his chairmanship of the higher education subcommittee for the remark to the caucus.
“There is a standard of courtesy that must be observed by members of the General Assembly and this went beyond what is acceptable,” Gresham said in a statement. The next day Summerville resigned from her Education Committee.
Meanwhile, Campfield, who is a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, wrote on his blog that Summerville’s reference to a rat’s behind has become a “catch phrase” among members of Tennessee’s delegation to the convention.
As for the black caucus, Campfield told The Knoxville News Sentinel that they should be listened to as “individual legislators.”
“That’s fine; that’s what it’s all about… but as a segregationist organization, we should not be listening to that,” Campfield said. “We shouldn’t give them special treatment because they are a race-based, segregationist organization.”
Adam Nickas, executive director of the state Republican Party, condemned the comments of Summerville and Campfield.
“We do not endorse their comments and they are not reflective of the view of the state party,” Nickas wrote in an email to the newspaper. “Such statements are simply ridiculous.”
Rep. Larry Miller, who chairs the black caucus, told the AP that the group is not a segregationist organization and that he has made several attempts to reach Summerville, who has been unresponsive.
Miller added that diversity and sensitivity training sessions may benefit some lawmakers, but he questions the effect on others.
“Some individuals, if they don’t know by now … how not to be disrespectful or insensitive, then what’s the possibility of changing their attitude?” the Memphis Democrat asked.
“Some of these people you pretty much give up on and you move on, you move forward.”
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said he believes lawmakers would benefit from some type of sensitivity session, even if it means incorporating it into the mandatory ethics training.
“I mean, it is somewhat unethical to be offensive,” he said. “Perhaps we need to make that part of our ethics training every two years.”
Frank Dobson, director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt University, said the lawmakers’ offensive comments are part of what he calls the “racial divide” and that the training sessions may help to some degree.
“There’s still much work to be done in terms of healing, understanding and educating,” he said.