Kansas Education Board member Steve Roberts defended himself on Tuesday after facing criticism over his use of a racial slur at a mid-April meeting while arguing that his colleagues were embracing standards that were too “politically correct.”
Roberts addressed his concerns to Ben Scott, past president of the Topeka NAACP and part of a group responsible for revising history education standards, saying that political correctness could affect the reading of historical texts. He invoked Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” noting that the document contained the n-word and seeming to suggest that the context of how the slur was used was important.
“And as I call up the Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Roberts said, “that N-word -- and we all know what I'm talking about -- it is in this document twice. So, I guess I really don't have a question so much as an admonition that we have to push the frontiers of political correctness, and do what's right.”
“So, if I was to use it clinically,” Roberts continued, “I would almost do a test to see what the effect on Twitter would be. 'You know that Roberts guy said n----- in a school board meeting. And he said it as, it's probably the ugliest word in our vocabulary.' It's an utterly repugnant, absolutely horrific word that we should rise above. But I did get it out there, and I appreciate the opportunity to do that. I wish you luck, sir.”
Scott told Roberts that he "appreciated" the comments at the time, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. On Tuesday, however, Scott returned to the board to weigh in on the emerging controversy, where he said he had reconsidered Roberts' language.
“I was taken aback,” Scott said. “I didn't get the connection in those statements relative to my comments to this board ... At a time when racial animosity is on the rise, as public officials and leaders we should be trying to calm the waters instead of fueling the fire.”
Other black leaders in Topeka have called Roberts' remarks unnecessary and inappropriate, the Associated Press reported, saying they had heard from constituents who were disgusted by his use of the n-word.
"People who have looked at it have been very upset about it," said Carolyn Campbell, the only black member of the board, according to the AP, adding that some wondered if he "was doing it for media attention."
Campbell went on to claim that Roberts had failed to make his use of the n-word a teachable moment.
“It was offensive to me due to the insensitive way it was implied that Reverend Dr. King used this word as part of his vocabulary on a regular basis,” she said. "My concern was it was never clear why he mentioned Dr. King and that letter."
“One reason I brought it up was because it actually was the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail,' which is one of the greatest documents I've ever read, and he used [the n-word] twice,” Roberts said, according to the Journal-World. “And I love getting out of the box, and I love developing a reputation for being willing to be politically incorrect. And I think it's pretty evident there are some people who feel I was very politically incorrect.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the Topeka Capital-Journal. The post initially mischaracterized Roberts' comments on the standards and their possible political correctness. Language has also been amended to clarify that Scott is not the sole author of the revised standards.