A high-ranking official at SUNY New Paltz was forced to apologize this week for what critics called racially insensitive remarks in a New York Times piece about the election race in the 19th Congressional District.
Gerald Benjamin, a long-serving assistant vice president and former dean at the university and head of his eponymous regional public policy research center at the campus, issued the apology one day after the July 17 story by Astead W. Herndon (“A Congressional Candidate Used to Be a Rapper. Will It Matter?”) appeared in The Times. The story focused on criticism of Democratic congressional candidate Antonio Delgado’s 2006 hip-hop album “Painfully Free.” In statements earlier this month the GOP super-PAC Congressional Leadership Fund and Delgado’s opponent, Republican incumbent John Faso, took aim at Delgado (who is black) for his use of the word “Nigga” on the album, as well as for expressing sentiments they called anti-American and anti-free-market. Faso called on Delgado to weigh in on whether he still holds the same sentiments expressed on the album.
That criticism sparked a backlash as Delgado and his supporters claimed Faso’s remarks were a racial dog-whistle intended to “otherize” a non-white candidate running in a largely white and rural district. Delgado defended “Painfully Free” as part of a hip-hop tradition of raising political and social awareness among inner-city youth using the vernacular of rap.
In the Times article Benjamin, a friend of Faso’s, weighed in on the likely impact of the lyrics controversy, saying, “Is a guy who makes a rap album the kind of guy who lives here in rural New York and reflects our lifestyle and values?” and “People like us, people in rural New York, we are not people who respond to this part of American culture.”
Benjamin’s remarks were met with a swift and severe denunciation from the university. The same day the article was published a statement from New Paltz president Donald P. Christian and chief diversity officer Tanhena Pacheco Dunn blasted the Benjamin’s comments, referring to him simply as “a campus leader.” “The quotes raise the specter of racism and marginalize members of our community, both of which are antithetical to our institutional values of inclusivity and respect,” the statement read.
On July 18, Benjamin issued his own statement apologizing for the remarks. In his statement, Benjamin said he was attempting to point out that race is always a factor in American politics and that Republicans were using Delgado’s hip-hop past to try to open “a cultural gap” between the candidate and many of his would-be constituents.
“I made these points badly,” Benjamin conceded. “My remarks were insufficiently precise, my points poorly articulated and my language very insensitive and therefore subject to multiple interpretations.”
Benjamin — who is quoted in The Times article saying that he did not believe rap was “real music” — added that his comments were off the mark in part because of his self-professed ignorance of the genre.
“I react negatively to racially charged, violence-inducing misogynistic lyrics I have heard, but knew virtually nothing about rap music as a form of affirmative artistic and cultural expression,” he wrote. “I was therefore particularly in error and professionally inappropriate in generalizing from a casually informed point of view, and in doing so turning what should have been an analytic statement into a very badly informed personal one.”