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California and the West

Racial Slur Ignites Anger in Las Vegas

Education: An apology from the new school superintendent, who came from Fresno, fails to quell controversy. Many call for school board to reprimand him.

August 08, 2000|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — The new school superintendent in town warned his audience that what he was about to say could be misinterpreted.

Indeed, when Carlos Garcia, who arrived here last month from Fresno, used a highly charged racial slur in a radio interview about racism, any honeymoon he might have hoped for quickly ended.

And now the school board is coming under fire for not reprimanding its new top administrator.

That may change Thursday, when trustees will discuss possible discipline of Garcia for the remark, which dramatically illustrated his provocative style of communication.

At issue was an interview Garcia gave to nine high school student interns at Las Vegas' popular African American radio station, KCEP-FM.

Near the end of the hourlong taped show, Garcia--who started his job here July 7--was asked how he would prevent racism in the Clark County Unified School District, the nation's eighth-largest.

He began by saying that racism has no place in public schools. "I never see colors, and people are people," he said.

Then, acknowledging what he was about to say could be misinterpreted out of context, he continued: "Niggers come in all colors. To me, a nigger is someone who doesn't respect themselves or others."

The fallout was immediate.

"I could see in the students' faces that they were very, very hurt, disappointed and extremely angry" over the use of the word, said Sherman Rutledge Jr., general manager of the radio station, who participated in the interview.

On July 27, the day after the radio interview was broadcast, Garcia apologized at a regularly scheduled school board meeting.

"My intent was to take a bold stance against racism," he said. "To illustrate my opposition, I used emotionally laden terminology. I sincerely regret that my choice of words offended others."

Among those not satisfied was Wendell Williams, a black state assemblyman.

"I'm a former teacher, and I know you never use a negative to enforce a positive," he said. "It's unbelievable to me that the highest ranking educator in the district would make a statement like that.

"I'm not sure he should be fired," Williams said, "but what's scary about this whole situation is that the school board itself took no position and feels it has no position to take."

After Garcia's public apology, school board President Mary Beth Scow formally noted that it was received for the record. "Sometimes things like this happen and good things come out of it," she said later. "We'll all have more sensitivity."

For his part, Garcia said, "I've apologized 200 times, to different groups and different people. How many times can I say I'm sorry?

"I shouldn't have used the word. I know better than that. I've spent my entire life working against racism. I should have known that word would have incensed people, and I made a mistake.

"I'd never want to hurt anybody," he said. "It [racism] is something I fought so hard against, all my life. My talk was to fight against it, and to have it backfire on me hurt my soul."

Still, the criticism has continued.

Rutledge, the radio station manager, has written letters calling for Garcia's dismissal. Williams, the assemblyman, said at the school board meeting that he is still waiting to hear how Garcia would erase racism.

And Shirley Barber, the only black member of the school board, wants Garcia's remarks discussed in a private session of trustees Thursday night. Barber was out of town when the interview was broadcast.

"He called me to apologize, while I was still back East," she said. "I said, 'My goodness, I don't believe you said it.' But I did accept his apology."

However, the school board was remiss, she said, in not taking a formal position on Garcia's remarks.

"We need to talk about this," she said. "This community is very concerned that the board hasn't taken a leadership position on this."

Barber said she is not calling for Garcia's head, but "I definitely feel there should be some type of reprimand, verbal or written. . . . If we ignore it, we're sending the wrong message to the students, parents, community, teachers and administrators."

Still others don't see a need to dwell on the issue. The Rev. Aaron Williams, an African American pastor at the 3,000-family multicultural International Church of Las Vegas, said he did not take offense at the superintendent's radio remarks.

"I could see why a lot of people would be upset, but he was trying to make a point," Williams said. "I'm looking at his heart, and his heart wasn't expressing what actually came across. His heart was saying that racism comes in all colors, all creeds, all societies."

Garcia was hired by the district at a time of tremendous growth, increasing ethnic diversity, troublesome test scores and student transiency. He tackled similar issues in Fresno, and won over trustees during interviews with his engaging candor, said Susan Brager, the board's vice president.

The controversy over Garcia's remark didn't come as a big surprise to Bill Riddlesprigger, the only black school trustee in Fresno, where Garcia was superintendent for the last three years.

In Fresno, and previously, Garcia often spoke of his upbringing in the barrios of Los Angeles and becoming a streetwise teenager in Banning before graduating from Claremont Men's College in 1976.

"He has a tendency to make offhanded remarks that wouldn't be made by a person who gives it more thought," Riddlesprigger said. "But Carlos Garcia is not a racist.

"He has a lot of folksy sayings that make people feel comfortable, like he's one of them," he said. "It just didn't come out as he intended."

Garcia promises that the controversy will be an isolated one.

"Now I've got to move forward. Actions speak louder than words," he said. "Give me a chance to demonstrate that this one issue is not who Carlos Garcia is."

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