A remark by a white Inglewood city councilman that several observers, including two of his black colleagues, considered racist has created an uproar and prompted discussion of changing the city's sister city program.
Councilman Anthony (Tony) Scardenzan made the comment at the council's March 10 meeting while discussing his proposal to spend an additional $5,000 on the city's exchange program with its sister city, Pedavena, Italy. Seeking support for the proposal, Scardenzan described his 1985 trip to Pedavena with four high school students and commended the youths--all of whom are black--because they had "lived up to the standards of Italians," according to several observers.
(His exact words could not be verified because Inglewood does not tape its council meetings. The statement was confirmed, however, by Deputy City Manager Norman Cravens and several other officials.)
"The progress we have made as a city took a step backward because of his comment," said Don Fields, a black resident who addressed the council this week. "It takes uneducated audacity to say that minority racial groups are living up to the standards of Caucasians."
Scardenzan, who came to Inglewood 24 years ago from Pedavena, said he meant no offense.
"In Italy we don't have black people and all I was saying is that the group was able to blend in with the community," he said.
Mayor Edward Vincent, who is black, jumped on that remark, saying, "There you go again. You really don't understand what this is all about, do you?"
Another black councilman, Virgle Benson, told Scardenzan: "You said they acted up to the standards of white people. It was a racist statement."
In an interview, Benson said he had not objected when Scardenzan first made his remark because "I didn't think it was appropriate to say anything at the time. Honestly, I was hoping that people had missed what he said. I did say something to him after the meeting and told him that he should measure his words more carefully."
Benson said, "I doubt very much" that Scardenzan meant it as a derogatory comment, but that he "needs to stop and see who it is he's serving."
Scardenzan told the council that if his comment was perceived as racist, it was an "honest mistake of wording. In my heart, I know I don't have anything against black people."
In a later interview, Scardenzan said the controversy is an effort by the "Vincent political machine" to discredit him because he is against Proposition 1, a measure on Inglewood's April 7 ballot that would raise the mayor's salary from $10,800 to $49,621 a year. Scardenzan's council seat is not up for election this year.
The council's third black member, Daniel K. Tabor, said he does not believe that Scardenzan meant to make a racist comment.
"I think it's just a problem of semantics and communication," Tabor said. "He meant what he said (complimenting the youths on their behavior), but not the way it came out."
Mildred McNair of Concerned Citizens of Inglewood, who frequently attends council meetings, didn't accept that explanation. "Whether the remark was covert or overt," she said in an interview, "he did say it and it's an insult to any human being whatever race the person belongs to."
McNair and others in the council audience called for changes in the sister city program, including dropping Pedavena. Many believe that Inglewood would have more in common with a Caribbean or South American city.
Vincent said that the council will look into reorganizing the program. The city is spending $25,000 this year on the program, which has included an exchange of local doctors and the visit of an Italian choir. Scardenzan's proposal to add $5,000 to the budget was defeated 4 to 1.
Benson said the remark was not a factor in his decision to vote against the proposal.
"I would never make a snap decision based on the way somebody says something," Benson said.
School board Vice President Caroline Coleman, who was at Tuesday's council meeting, agreed that the student exchange part of the program needs to be revamped. (The program paid to send the four students to Pedavena, but Scardenzan paid his own way.) She said that tourism rather than education seems to be the current goal of the program.
"We would like to have our children visit the schools in the different countries," she said, "not be just be one big party like it is now."