Lesson to be learned
John Dennis set aside five days of canned statements yesterday. He had watched the Red Sox and the Patriots, he said in an interview last evening, but only out of professional obligation, not any real interest. He had far weightier matters on his mind.
Ever since he suggested that an escaped gorilla might have been waiting for a Metco school bus, he has been listening to persistent attacks on his character, to suggestions that he is, pure and simple, a racist.
Not true, he said. The truth, he insisted, is that he made an idiotic, out-of-touch comment with no thought to how it would sound or how it would affect a community. He said that placing his career in jeopardy was less painful than seeing himself wrongfully portrayed as a bigot. He claimed, persuasively, that the whole thing has been a serious education.
"I've just been trying to breathe, trying to keep my head above water," he said. "I'll tell you what has not been part of the past five days: sleeping."
Supposedly, this city has an unseemly fascination with the racial woes of its past. But there's a reason for that. Every time you think the past has been packed away, along comes someone to snicker at the thought that there's pretty much no difference between black schoolchildren and primates. Dennis and his broadcast partner Gerry Callahan are just the latest examples.
John Dennis may or may not have heard of John J. Kerrigan, the late segregationist chairman of the Boston School Committee. But his speculation last week about Little Joe, the escaped gorilla, recalled one of Kerrigan's many infamous moments.
During the school busing crisis, Kerrigan mimicked a chimpanzee while referring to ABC News correspondent Lem Tucker, who was black.
"He's one generation removed from trees," Kerrigan said. "I bet he loves bananas."
Kerrigan may have thought he was a comedian, but his stand-up routine would eventually land him out of office.
Unlike Kerrigan, who defended his comment to the day he died, Dennis, at least, realizes he said something unfathomably stupid -- though he didn't at the time.
"It was just an off-the-cuff comment," he said, invoking the stupidity defense. "It wasn't something where I knew immediately `I shouldn't have said that.' I don't know whether that indicts me more or less."
WEEI, Dennis's employer, has fended off suggestions that he be fired, and Metco officials haven't joined in the calls for Dennis's removal from the airwaves. They seem to believe this is a moment people can learn from, and they're right.
There's no question that Dennis's two-day suspension is too little punishment. He not only insulted Metco students, he demeaned all black people with his stupidity.
Still, his firing wouldn't accomplish much. It's an easy thing to demand, and would be a relatively easy move for the station. It's the attitude that has to change, not merely one of the voices on the air. John Dennis's firing would make a lot of people feel better, but it wouldn't get us significantly closer to the "New Boston" politicians keep blathering about.
Here's a suggestion. Instead of being fired, or serving a longer suspension, John Dennis should voluntarily ride a Metco bus every morning for a week.
It could pick him up on Seaver Street, where Little Joe took his stroll. He could look around the bus and see if any of these kids who choose to be bused in the hope of getting a better education remind him of anything in the zoo. He could try talking to them -- something I bet he doesn't do a lot of with ordinary black people. He could listen.
And when the week was done, he could think about John Kerrigan and this city's painful history and how he has added to that pain. The last five days may have been difficult, but I'd suggest that the education of John Dennis is not yet complete.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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