Amid competing interpretations, Governor’s remark insensitive at best

Gov. Chris Christie’s use of the word “boy” in a Paterson Baptist church stirred ensuing debate within the African-American community, as some claim he simply used the word as an exclamation while others take offense at the governor’s remarks.

The incident happened last Tuesday.

While at a town hall meeting Gov. Chris Christie attempted to advance the ideals of vouchers, itemizing the benefits particularly for African American parents.  However, something seemed to go array.

The stage was set when Christie referenced Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34) without fully acknowledging her elected position, as elected officials had chastised him for doing on a number of occasions, just the first mis-step that day.

When Christie Town hall attendee Mike Henry, a deacon of the church and an African-American, yelled, “Fix our public schools” from the back of St. Luke’s, the vouchers-advocating governor responded: “You can yell all you want about ‘fix the public schools.”

Henry yelled again, “Fix the public schools,” at which point Christie said, “Yeah, I hear you, boy, I hear you.”

The question is whether the governor was using the word “boy” to address Henry or to express dismay.

The answer depends on who you ask.

The governor’s office released a list of times Christie has used the term in his various town hall appearances, but used as a noun the term has an especially insulting context when used to address African American men.

Pastor Kenneth Clayton welcomed Christie to his church for the town hall.

Last week he called for a public apology from the governor over Christie’s failure to use Speaker Sheila Oliver’s (D-34) name, and instead referring to an “African-American speaker” opposed to the Republican’s vision of schools reform.

But Clayton said he didn’t hear the “boy” comment as anything other than an interjection.

“We are not political allies but what I think is that was a misuse of the term on his part – but not intentional,” Clayton said. “I do not think it was the governor’s intent to be racist.”

For his part, Democratic Party operative James Gee, who was not at the church on Tuesday, objected to Christie’s use of the word “boy,” and posted an edited YouTube video of the exchange.

“I’m offended,” said Gee. “I’ve watched CC (Chris Christie) scream down people for years, never heard him call a white heckler, boy.”

“Shameful,” commented Trenton Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson.

Others on the thread disagreed.

“Although I am not a fan of Christie, I think that this video and its poor editing has (sic) done a superb job of making this sound like a racist thing instead of a slang expression,” wrote Aaron Bell. “I’m just saying… Once again, I’m really not a Christie fan.”

Contacted by PolitickerNJ.com to weigh in on the subject, state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28), head of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he was offended by the governor’s use of the term.

“I believe it’s more sinister,” Rice said, when asked if he believed Christie had used the term as an interjection rather than as a noun. I believe it’s in him and it came out,” Rice said. “He has a Bull Connor mentality. He’s taking the same approach, putting his bullying process on us. It bothers me. He doesn’t want anyone to challenge him.”

Rice said the governor’s approach to urban schools reform underscores the issue, in the senator’s view, as it minimizes the input of local citizens, putting into the hands of private enterprise a process that should be wholly public.

“I’m so glad there is an upcoming election,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-15), commenting on Gee’s thread and widening the discussion away from the word itself.

“Barbara Buono will make a great Governor,” Watson-Coleman added. “We must do this. His disrespectful rhetoric is the least of our problem with him, except that his rhetoric is a reflection of his disrespectful and failed policies. Hey New Jersey, are you better off today then you were four years ago? Not!”

But two more African American leaders present at St. Luke’s on Tuesday said they could not conclude that the governor’s remarks were racist.

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35), a congregant of St. Luke’s, attended Christie’s town hall and disagrees with Rice and Gee.

Like Clayton, she reiterated being offended by the governor’s use of the term “African-American lawmaker” instead of calling Oliver by name, and agrees with Henry and Rice that the State of New Jersey needs to fix Paterson’s public schools rather than turn to charter education and vouchers.

But as for the governor’s use of the term “boy,” Sumter said he may have used it as an exclamation.

“I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt on that,” the assemblywoman said.

Paterson Mayor Jeff Jones also said the interruption by Henry obviously bothered the governor and took him off his stride but said he was not certain on how to construe the governor’s comment.

Competing comments alone from African American leaders could haunt the governor.

There was universal agreement over his disrespect of Oliver – add to that Christie’s at best ambiguous use of the term “boy” and the take away is insensitivity.

Amid competing interpretations, Governor’s remark insensitive at best