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Donn Esmonde: No place for race in school fight

I see it coming. Let’s not let it happen.

The emotional debate over Buffalo’s schools has the potential to get ugly.

If people keep injecting race into this bubbling stew, the pot will boil over. Residents will divide along racial lines. Any chance for collaboration on the School Board will get torched. The City of Good Neighbors will turn downright unneighborly.

Let’s not let it happen.

The School Board’s vote Wednesday to retain Superintendent Pamela Brown broke down along racial – not to mention gender – lines. Five African-American women voted to keep her. Four white men voted to fire her.

One of the speakers in Brown’s defense was Sam Herbert, the African-American community activist. In pre-vote remarks, he addressed Brown’s fiercest board critic, developer Carl Paladino, as “Mr. White Man.”

To me, the racial reference was unnecessary. When I asked Herbert about it, he said he was only responding in kind to Paladino’s racializing of issues. Paladino frequently refers disparagingly to “the sisterhood” – black women at various levels of power in the district. His repeated references to Brown as “incompetent,” said Herbert, are seen by African-Americans as racially loaded.

“ ‘Incompetent’ has long been a Republican code word for blacks not being capable of a job,” Herbert said. “It has negative, submissive connotations.”

People, people, people – can’t we all just get along?

America has a long and troubled history of race relations. In an urban district headed by a black woman, and overseen partly by white men, I think everybody needs to tread lightly. Particularly when the first-year superintendent’s toughest critic is an outspoken hothead who, we discovered during his run for governor, forwarded racist emails that included a doctored photo of Barack Obama dressed as a pimp. Electing a racially charged figure to a city school board is like lighting matches at a gas pump. Everything could go “boom.”

Having said that, remember that prime Paladino targets over the years include Rep. Brian Higgins, then-business leader Andrew Rudnick and, obviously, Andrew Cuomo – all of them white. If nothing else, Paladino is an equal-opportunity vilifier. Which is worth keeping in mind. Just as it’s worth noting that Herbert is a frequent critic of Byron Brown, Buffalo’s black mayor.

But really: Can we stop the nonsense?

The district has enough problems without planting racial land mines. It is time to tone down the rhetoric, deal with people individually and praise or criticize performance without labeling someone as “incompetent,” particularly when she has a doctorate.

“Everyone has to be careful with the words used and how we use them,” said reformist board member Jim Sampson, who voted against Brown. “The environment right now is volatile. Unless we resolve it, it will be the kids who suffer.”

The issue is performance, not complexion.

I’ve seen how ugly this can get. The School Board 14 years ago was divided along racial lines over then-Superintendent James Harris. Among the progressive, liberal white board members branded as racists was Helene Kramer. She was married to a black man and named her sons after Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. I mean, really?

As absurd as that was, it shows how emotions can swamp logic.

Paladino’s blowtorch style and email history make this board a potential tinderbox. But I think he’s there for the right reasons. Expending his time and energy in the name of helping school kids – nearly 80 percent of whom are minority – doesn’t strike me as racist. But I think it would go a long way if he dropped the “sisterhood” condemnations. Just as it was nice to hear Herbert – who needs to retire the “Mr. White Man” label – tell me: “We’re all in the same boat and should be rowing in the same direction.”

As captain of that boat, it would be helpful if Brown – who comes off as aloof – did more reaching out. The top-down, ivory-tower stuff doesn’t work, particularly when she just dodged the cross hairs. She can’t, to my mind, run the district without checking in with the board members who manage it. It would have, among other things, spared her the embarrassment of the board swatting aside her $115,000-a-year PR hire. The best way to polish the district’s image is not by pumping up the PR staff. It’s by hitting state education deadlines and growing graduation numbers.

In the wake of the “fire Brown” vote, the district needs some “Kumbaya” moments. It was nice to hear that board members are arranging a “retreat” with Brown. I hope it’s one of those corporate bonding affairs where people build trust by falling backward into each other’s arms. If Brown and Paladino catch each other a few times, it might go a long way towards breaking the racial fall.