What's the difference between a hard- nosed businessman and a racist?
A "hard-nosed businessman" is a guy like H. R. Crawford, who tells a reporter of his plans to use his tax-subsidized housing rehabilitation program to help responsible, paid-up, low-income tenants, but adds: "I'm not helping those who live in pigsties."
A "racist" is a man like Angus T. Olson, who says, in a private memo, that he is tired of his public housing tenants who "live like pigs . . . and (then) moan and groan about what poor landlords we are."
Oh, yes. Crawford is black. Olson isn't. Several prominent blacks, including the head of the Northern Virginia Urban League, have called for Olson's dismissal or, "at the very least, a public apology." It would probably be tough to find a prominent black person who would come publicly to Olson's defense.
Crawford, who has been complaining for years about destructive and dirty tenants, with their uncontrolled children, needs no defense. Indeed, he parlayed his no-nonsense attitude into an assistant secretaryship of HUD in the Nixon administration. He now is a successful housing manager and also a member of the D.C. city council, having garnered 85 percent of the vote in a four-way race.
I don't mean to suggest that Crawford hasn't been controversial. He raised eyebrows years ago when he started asking unwed mothers who applied for apartments under his management "how many more babies" they intended to have. He has fined -- or evicted -- tenants who let their children trample the grass. He has refused to rent to applicants after visits to their homes left him unimpressed with their cleanliness.
He hasn't won any awards for sensitivity, but the success of his philosophy -- "One may be poor, but one doesn't have to be dirty," -- has made him the envy of other low-income landlords whose properties are deteriorating.
Olson's memo, written for a member of his staff but somehow copied and distributed at a recent public-housing groundbreaking ceremony, said he was "fed up with tenants who live like pigs and negligently damage their apartments, calling the Health Department to moan and groan about what poor landlords we are."
He said later that he had no particular tenant in mind, but the tenant who distributed the memo believes he was talking about her. She had obtained a health department order requiring the housing authority to make certain repairs on her two- bedroom apartment, including replacement of missing window screens and vent covers and repair of a hole in the wall.
Olson, like Crawford, may have been saying what most of us -- including most public housing residents -- believe but what few will say publicly: that demolished stair railings, gaping holes in interior walls, broken windows and light fixtures, toilets clogged with all manner of debris, do not represent normal wear and tear on rental units.
Even some activists who have campaigned to force housing authorities to move more quickly with repairs will acknowledge privately that much of the damage is the result of the tenants' own abuse.
But the rules of the game are (1) that you don't say these things for public consumption and (2) that if an official says them -- particularly a white official -- you are duty-bound to charge him with insensitivity and maybe racism. Even if you know in your gut that he is telling the truth.
Does that mean that Olson is right not to apologize for his controversial memo? It does not. Public servants are expected not merely to perform competently, as Olson, by all accounts, has done -- keeping his city's 3,000-unit housing program solvent while its counterparts across the country are going bust. They are also expected to show some measure of political sensitivity.
An apology for his insulting language would not blunt the point that Olson was trying to make. And it just might clear the air enough to let him get on with his work.