Updated: Two black county commissioners received a racist letter. Their colleague showed how to respond

Update, Aug 14: At least 12 elected officials, including black county commissioners, Charlotte City Council members who are people of color, and the black chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board, have received similar letters in recent days, the Observer’s Anna Douglas and Annie Ma report.

Earlier this month, black members of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners had a disparaging letter waiting for them when they arrived at the Government Center in Charlotte. Like many public officials, the commissioners are accustomed to criticism of their policies and positions. But this letter began on a darker note: “Each of you black Democrats should be tarred and feathered and run out of town.”

Then it got worse. “None of you know how to read or speak properly,” it said. And: “Do you think for one minute we would be inviting you to have dinner at our parties? I hope not. You people do not even know how to use eating utensils.”

There was more, much more. The words were shockingly direct and disturbingly measured, the kind of racism that doesn’t flash from anger but is deeply rooted. “I had a lot of emotions that ran through me,” said District 4 representative Mark Jerrell, who along with District 2’s Vilma Leake has publicly acknowledged receiving the letter. “I immediately thought of my girls, and I was sad for them.”

Jerrell showed the letter to his colleagues on the board, including District 6 representative Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, who was taken aback by the words. Rodriguez-McDowell wasn’t surprised someone would harbor those thoughts, or even write them. But this was a Mecklenburg colleague, a friend, on the receiving end. So last Wednesday, when it was her turn to deliver the invocation at the Board of Commissioners’ August meeting, she had something simple and powerful to say.

“I want to inform the community that a number of your representatives at this dais have received extremely racist mail that you would not wish on your worst enemy...” she said. “For those of you in our community who think that racism is an overused buzzword and it is not real and you don’t experience it, you need to be made aware, it is very much real right here in this community, in this room, today.

“None of us should feel immune to what is happening in our country, state and county. Instead, we all need to check ourselves, check our friends and family and acquaintances and take action to make sure that we are being part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

When she was done, she looked to Jerrell, who mouthed a silent “thank you” and tapped a fist to his heart. Later, he told the editorial board: “I thought how important it was that what people say behind closed doors, to say it in public.”

It was perhaps even more meaningful given that Rodriguez-McDowell, a Democrat, represents a conservative south Mecklenburg district that for years sent commissioner Bill James back to office despite his history of racial and bigoted remarks. Rodriguez-McDowell knows her invocation came with at least a little political risk. “Honestly, I don’t care,” she told the editorial board. “It’s not more important for me to have this job.”

It’s no secret that this country continues to struggle with the stain of racism, and it’s no revelation that in the past few years, the voices of hate have been emboldened. That includes our state, where just last week the black owners of a new Siler City restaurant received a vulgar letter in the mail telling them to leave town. On Sunday, the restaurant did close — not because of threats, but because overwhelming support had caused the restaurant to run out of food.

It is a message we need to keep delivering, in Siler City and in Charlotte, whether we’re customers or neighbors or a county commissioner with a microphone. “I feel like it’s the bare minimum to speak out,” Susan Rodriguez-McDowell says. We’re glad she did.