How can an elected official who called a black woman “nigger” (I use this word explicitly so readers can appreciate its harmful impact) remain in her position?

I have fielded this question dozens of times since we learned that Nancy Elgie, a school trustee for the York Region District School Board, used this word to describe Charline Grant, a black parent whose son is a local student.

Specifically, board officials told Grant, who did not hear the comment herself, that Elgie saw her speaking to media at a November board meeting and asked colleagues, “is that the nigger parent speaking to the media again?”

Elgie refuses to step down, and her fellow trustees remained silent for weeks after the news broke. Those who have spoken up, reluctantly and under intense pressure from angry residents, have consistently referred to Elgie as a champion of equality whose intentions are pure.

Intention is irrelevant, of course — Elgie’s comments have pierced the hearts of black people and made it impossible for us to trust her with overseeing our children. But Elgie and her many apologists have placed her supposed intentions above our feelings, and have dangerously equated her regret at being caught with our pain in being attacked.

Although Elgie refuses to accept it, the black community is finished with her. Every attempt to explain herself, to apologize without an immediate resignation, is a further insult. Yet Elgie’s insistence that she can redeem herself by citing career accomplishments or testimonials from family friends tells us how deeply she misunderstands the meaning and consequences of her anti-black racism.

In a recent piece in the Star defending their mother, two of Elgie’s children wrote that she accidentally slurred Grant because she was suffering from a head injury and mixed up her words.

“Given the ugly legacy of racism in society, it is not surprising that many people were quick to assume the worst of Nancy,” her children wrote. They added that although such language is hard to forgive, “a person’s reputation and life’s work hangs in the balance,” and the public ought to consider things from Elgie’s perspective.

Elgie’s comment is racist, but so is the suggestion that we should not hold her accountable because she stands to lose something. Elgie holds tremendous power over black children. Anyone who thinks she should maintain that power — including the ability to discipline and even expel black kids — after uttering a racial slur is not interested in protecting those kids. It isn’t fair to ask York region’s black families to get over Elgie’s slur so she can continue her career, which has been permanently tarnished.

I can see why Elgie’s family refuses to accept this — their conduct is disappointing but not surprising. However, it is devastating that Elgie’s fellow trustees, and officials within YRDSB and the province, have once again devalued black life by failing to swiftly and unequivocally condemn and sanction her.

Over the last couple of weeks, politicians have been cautiously speaking out, with some calling for Elgie to resign. Nearly all of them waited to be asked by reporters instead of making statements on their own.

The sympathy fellow politicians have shown for Elgie suggests they do not want to set a precedent by calling on an elected official to resign. So-called leaders protect their interests at the expense of black people.

Premier Wynne waited until this week to speak about Elgie and, instead of calling for her resignation, suggested that the trustee “look into her heart and make a decision.” If Wynne had her priorities in order, she would tell Elgie to look at the damage she has caused to black communities.

Wynne and many others seem to think this crisis is a referendum on a white woman’s character. No, this is a painful reminder that powerful people in this country are eager to excuse or ignore anti-black racism.

Elgie’s board colleagues can suspend her for the remainder of her term if they choose to investigate her under their code of conduct. Such an investigation is secret until completed, so we will wait and see.

The board had better make up for its earlier delays. Black residents are still dealing with the pain of Elgie’s remarks, and the powerful people who continue to coddle and protect Elgie will get their fair share of the angry backlash she has created.

Desmond Cole is a Toronto-based journalist. His column appears every second Thursday.

Desmond Cole is a Toronto-based journalist. His column appears every second Thursday.

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