As we mourn the lives lost in New Zealand, where peaceful prayer and worship were interrupted recently by gunfire, murder and hate, let us reflect on the state of affairs in Prince George’s County. In Prince George’s, we are no stranger to racial intolerance and violence. Del. Mary Ann Lisanti’s (D-Harford) recent comments have picked the scab off of an old wound that has never fully healed.
From the colonial era through the Civil War, Maryland was a slave state. With its proximity to the national capital, plantation slavery grew rapidly in Prince George’s County. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, the African-American slave population in Prince George’s was over 12,000 and outnumbered the resident white population. During the Jim Crow era, institutionalized racism was pervasive in Prince George’s, dramatically curtailing education and employment opportunities for African-American residents. Racial terrorism was frequently carried out against the African-American population in Prince George’s, with at least five documented lynchings occurring here.
Segregation of schools in Prince George’s persisted well after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; public schools were finally forced to integrate following court rulings in the early 1970s. To this day, the Prince George’s County school system remains one of the most segregated school districts in the nation, with nine of 10 black students attending a school where at least 90 percent of students are minorities. Hate groups with white supremacy ideology continue to be active in Prince George’s County. As recently as 2018, we had Ku Klux Klan recruitment and pamphleteering in Prince George’s neighborhoods.
Since at least the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, the Democratic Party has promoted policies of racial inclusion, diversity and reconciliation. During this time, the Democratic Party has built a pluralistic coalition whose power base is firmly anchored by an overwhelming majority of African-American voters. Yet, despite the power wielded by African-American voters within the Democratic Party, their vote is often taken for granted. From crime bills and policing that disproportionately target African-Americans to cutbacks on social services for the urban poor, African-American priorities are often misaligned with Democratic Party priorities.
It has been a month since the story broke about Lisanti blithely referring to a part of Prince George’s County as a “n—– district.” Since then, she has been formally censured by the Maryland House of Delegates and stripped of her position on any legislative committees. Her resignation has been called for by the state’s black legislative caucus, the governor and numerous county officialss. Even the state Democratic Party, which she is allegedly a representative of, has called for her resignation.
In response, Lisanti has been evasive and given contradictory statements. She has said that she was “sickened that a word that is not in my vocabulary came out of my mouth” only to follow up that there was no “independent verification” that she said the phrase and that those who are casting judgment against her were doing so “likely for their own political expediency.” During this time, she has steadfastly refused to resign, and without any committees or assignments, remains in Annapolis.
The n-word, as described by Nathan Connolly, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, is “the only word in American English that can so violently and dramatically collapse the past and the present … that there is a way we have comforted ourselves with a certain distance from the 19th century or the Jim Crow period, but that word immediately causes us to conjure images of the water hose, the lynching tree and the dogs.” The word reeks of hatred, white supremacy and racial oppression. Lisanti’s reference to Prince George’s as a “n—— district” shows her unfit to represent her constituents in District 34A, of which nearly 30 percent are African-American.
Lisanti has argued that she should be judged by her actions more than her words. “You, my colleagues, are considering what is the appropriate sanction for the use of a word,” said Lisanti. “While ever so vile and hurtful, a word. Not an action, behavior or course of conduct.”
However, Lisanti’s voting record also belies a disregard for issues of concern to her African-American constituents. In 2015, she voted against a bill that repeals mandatory sentencing of 10 years imprisonment for certain drug offenses. In 2016, she voted against a bill to restore voting rights to felons on parole or probation and voted against a bill that would expand the rights of victims of police brutality. Most recently, she abstained from voting on increasing the state minimum wage to $15, later to support the override of Gov. Hogan’s veto.
This voting record portrays a legislator who is not only out of step with the expectations of her African-American constituents but out of step with the Maryland Democratic Party, which passed all of these measures without Lisanti’s support.
With Lisanti’s refusal to resign, the House of Delegates must move to expel her. This process begins with House Speaker Michael Busch (D). Unfortunately, at this point, he has not advanced any motions to expel her, and he is now absent from the State House while he recovers from pneumonia. In his press release, Busch stated that he has “expressed my extreme disappointment and concern over her irresponsible and hurtful actions” but that through “sensitivity training … she has the opportunity for redemption.”
Frankly, this is not enough. The House of Delegates, under the leadership of Speaker Busch, must take a principled stand and begin proceedings to expel Lisanti immediately. It is unconscionable that she remain a representative in Maryland, and any Democratic delegate who defends her is culpable of putting partisan politics ahead of the values the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for.
Del. Mary Ann Lisanti must go. The people of Maryland have no faith in her ability to serve.
– DANNY SCHAIBLE AND SHERMAN HARDY
Danny Schaible serves on the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee and is currently running for Hyattsville City Council. Sherman Hardy is a U.S. Air Force Veteran and Realtor and was recently a Democratic candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates in District 25. They invite other activists to Annapolis on April 4 for #BlackoutLisanti, a day of action to demand Lisanti’s resignation or expulsion.