Not so fast.
Sure, we’re all moving along with a news cycle that lasts just hours, even on a slow day, but neither I nor you can let pass the wall of “oh hell no” that’s just about to get away.
We can’t just brush off the fact that a Colorado Republican state legislator speaking, loudly, from the well lectern last week in the Colorado Capitol House of Representatives called another member “Buckwheat.”
The racist slip of state Rep. Richard Holtorf’s well-known tongue was only part of the offensive show he put on that day and the next. He and other Republicans after the incident keep trying to say, “No story here. Move along, folks.”
A little history. Holtorf is the same eastern Colorado lawmaker who had lobbed some of the most cruel and flabbergasting remarks ever at a fellow lawmaker, Aurora-area state Rep. Tom Sullivan. Sullivan has been a statewide leader in the gun-control arena since his son was murdered during the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. During a discussion about gun control, after an impassioned plea by Sullivan to prevent what happened to his own son, Holtorf pushed back.
“You have to let it go,” Holtorf told Sullivan in February, talking about his own understanding of grief.
That stunt was just plain mean, though. Calling someone “Buckwheat” is just plain racist. And the worst part was the ham-handed cover-up that came later.
The recorded offense came during a May 5 discussion of a state stimulus bill as fellow members grew weary of Holtorf’s famous rambling.
“I’m getting there. Don’t worry, Buckwheat. I’m getting there,” Holtorf told someone in the chamber, according to a story by the Associated Press.
He knew he’d stepped in it when he followed the slur with, “That’s an endearing term, by the way.”
A few fellow reps weren’t having it, and it nearly turned into a brawl with critics calling out Holtorf and the bigoted term.
After that is when it got so ugly I say we can’t just let this go.
As is too often the case these days, the “apology” became a rationalization of Holtorf’s bigoted slip. He wasn’t a racist, he argued, a few weeks ago when he supported another Colorado House member’s racist rant about the “Three-Fifths Clause” in the Constitution because one of Holtorf’s friends had been a Black person — and gay, too. This followed earlier narrative of Holtorf’s version of American history when he pointed out indigenous people were far less than pleasant toward lauded European immigrants when they invaded North America.
This week, Sentinel Colorado held a new type of on-line town-hall meeting, allowing panelists and viewers to participate in a textual, narrative format. The topic of the town hall meeting was pervasive hatred and bigotry toward the Asian-Pacific Americans living in the region. You can check that event out by clicking here. But much of the discussion focused on comments like “Buckwheat” that aren’t taken seriously for the hurt and real danger they perpetuate.
“It was just a joke” is a defense that bullies use,” Asian Chamber of Commerce President Fran Campbell said. “It’s a micro-aggression that communities of color have been hearing for ages. We can, and allies can, call it out when it happens. Don’t let these types of statements slide: “You’re just being sensitive. I didn’t really mean it. Just kiddin’”…all of this is privileged rhetoric.”
Ethnic, sexual or racial slights based on insulting tropes and stereotypes are not “endearing.” They’re poison.
Holtorf told a reporter at The Colorado Sun he wasn’t a racist because he didn’t know the term was a racial slur.
In his almost 60 years, he never saw, remembered nor understood a single episode of “Little Rascals” or the satirical work on the “Buckwheat” trope made famous by Saturday Night Live icon, Eddie Murphy.
For a guy who stands in the well of the House and professes to have a profound worldly understanding of all things, it’s stunning that he missed Spanky and Our Gang in almost six decades.
Here’s the worst of it.
During the spin cycle on this as anger grew at the Capitol over Holtorf’s fellow Republicans wanting to look the other way from the conundrum, Holtorf continued to search for solid ground on his claim he had no idea the history of the “Buckwheat” stereotype.
For Gen Z truly without a clue, “Little Rascals” aka “Our Gang” was a Depression-era cinema serial about a group of kids doing marginally comedic and over-acted stunts and situations. Past generations watched endless reruns on down channels across the planet well into the 1970s. Buckwheat was a Black child character who virtually spawned a wide range of racist Southern Black tropes. Murphy parodied the character on SNL years ago, exposing the racist characterization for what it was.
Holtorf, however, stepped into political quicksand when he said that Buckwheat was no big deal where he was from.
“Where I’m from in eastern Colorado, as a country boy, I’ve had people call me that term many times. Buckwheat. It has a different connotation where I’m from,” Holtorf told Fox 31 TV news reporters. “I guess I didn’t have the insight to realize that that would be received in such a negative way.”
That’s not apologizing. It’s justification. That’s what Campbell and a nation of people of color are talking about. Sorry means sorry, “not, it’s not my fault you’re offended by my ignorance.”
I’m from eastern Colorado, too. And I, too, have been called “Buckwheat.” It was always meant to be insulting, never endearing.
And even as a child I knew it had nothing to do with pancakes and sorghum, rare cover crops or a generic word for sprouting things in the field. For the record, if you think eastern Colorado farmers are swimming in the stuff? This is dry, winter-wheat territory. According to the USDA, there are about 2 million acres of winter wheat grown in Colorado. There are less than 70,000 acres of buckwheat grown in the entire United States. Holtorf and others trying to spin that rural Coloradans throw out “buckwheat” like weather reports all time are just full of groats.
I’m insulted that he paints people from places like my hometown of Manzanola as “country boys” who are unapologetic, ignorant, inadvertent racists.
The blow back was relentless. After a couple of days, Holtorf offered this to Colorado and the lawmakers he offended, both by his remarks and his defense.
“I have felt the hatred and anger of so many citizens across the nation this week, and it saddens me,” Holtorf said in a statement. “The compilation of vile rhetoric that I have read this week exceeds by a large magnitude one word.”
It was just “one word.” It was just a joke. It was no big deal. It didn’t mean anything.
The slur, and then the, “what are you all so upset about?” and “that’s a term of endearment by the way,” shore up the unyielding wall of racism that Denver state Rep. Leslie Herod was talking about after the incident when she said in a tweet, “This is what I have to deal with Every. Damn. Day.”
If a guy at the gas station calls you “Buckwheat,” you say something and don’t go back. But an elected representative of the state House of Representatives, who gives the sorry-not-sorry show and finishes with this?
“These cultural differences continue to divide us,” Holtorf said in a statement. “I do not appreciate the lack of professionalism and verbal attacks against me on that day. I am sure no apology will be offered to me from those who also violated the rules of decorum.”
Cultural differences? Bigotry and racism are not culture. They’re malevolent crimes and choices.
Holtorf needs to get pulled off the stage by members of his own political party and his own constituents. This isn’t about rural versus urban. It’s about right versus wrong. It’s impossible to apologize for inadvertent racism while you’re defending it. Overlooking Holtorf only encourages more from him and those like him.
If you want to stop more terms of endearment by Holtorf and other elected leaders, don’t let this go.
Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]