A Different State of Race Relations

Utah state Sen. Chris Buttars came under fire for saying of a bill: "This baby is black. . . . It's a dark, ugly thing."
Utah state Sen. Chris Buttars came under fire for saying of a bill: "This baby is black. . . . It's a dark, ugly thing." (By Scott G. Winterton -- Deseret Morning News)

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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY -- Earlier this year, a state senator stood on the statehouse floor here and spoke disparagingly of a pending bill. "This baby is black," said Sen. Chris Buttars, a Republican, adding, "It's a dark, ugly thing."

Weary of talking about race? Come to the Beehive State, where race relations is a topic of bracing freshness.

Here, basic issues of sensitivity -- what is spoken of aloud and what is best left unsaid, assumptions good and bad, all the delicate matters that in so many parts of the country have been burnished to exquisite subtleties by worry and constant attention -- are still very basic indeed.

Take what happened to Tamu Smith.

Smith was in cosmetology class when she felt a hand on her head. A classmate was handling her hair.

"And I said, 'Don't ever touch my hair without asking me,' " Smith said. "And she was like, 'Well, I can touch your hair.' And I was like, 'What?' And she was like, 'I can touch your hair because I've never touched black people's hair before.' "

It was after a supervisor was summoned that, as Smith recalls, the classmate whined a question that, a decade later, still strikes at the poignant and suddenly timely essence of being black in Utah: "If I don't get to touch Tamu's hair, then what black person's hair am I ever going to touch?"

While Buttars's cutting remark about an offending piece of legislation was, the Rev. France A. Davis said, "the kind of thing you'd see when I was growing up in Georgia," the controversy was finally put to rest when the senator apologized before Davis's mostly black congregation at Calvary Baptist Church, which knew a teaching moment when it saw one.

"There is kind of a time warp," said Darius Gray, an African American and producer of the documentary "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons." "We are a bit slow on the uptake here."

Indeed, with race an inescapable part of the presidential campaign, blacks in Utah say their experiences serve as a reminder of the awkward times that most of the nation has moved beyond.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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