State Sen. Tom Davis was within his rights to express concerns last week about a piece of student art displayed at Robert Smalls Middle School that included the controversial quote, "You can't have capitalism without racism."
But he aired his criticism publicly -- on Facebook and in email to the media -- before he had all the facts, including that the painting had already been removed from display. As a state senator, his words almost certainly carry more weight with school officials and the public at large than the average person's; he should be more mindful as a result.
The quote is from a 1964 speech by Malcolm X. Robert Smalls principal Denise Smith said the painting was part of a Black History Month project in which eighth-grade advanced art students researched the civil rights movement and teamed up to create artwork based on that research.
Smith said attribution for the quote, originally missing from the exhibit, was added later and conceded it should have been there from the start. She also said students should have included more context in the display.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"In retrospect," Smith wrote in her email, "because this artwork display illustrated a period of American history, the students should have included appropriate text along with their paintings that provided the proper historical context. Without that context, someone viewing the paintings might have mistakenly believed that the students or the school were endorsing a particular political or social viewpoint, which certainly was not the case."
Her response was reasoned in a way that Davis' initial communications were not. In an email to school district administrators and Board of Education members, Davis said he received a photo of the artwork from an outraged constituent. Even as he sought an explanation, he concluded it was inappropriate for display at a public school. Before anyone from the school district could respond, Davis shared his email with the media and posted a photo of the painting on Facebook, where he called for it to be removed.
Had he waited 20 minutes for Smith's response before posting to Facebook, Davis would have learned the painting had been taken down even before he requested it. And he would have learned it was a single painting and not the "mural" he described.
The painting was part of a rotating, month-long exhibit of student art that also depicted Maya Angelou and the Harlem Renaissance, as Smith explained in her email to Davis.
In this context, the Malcolm X artwork, while perhaps still objectionable with the quote, seems hardly worth the uproar Davis seemed intent on creating.
Instead of admitting as much, Davis said he accepted Smith's explanation and apology, even though Smith's email didn't offer an apology.
Davis is active on social media, where he is eager for discourse with the public. That is to his credit. Smith and the Robert Smalls staff, as public employees, should expect scrutiny, but they also deserve a fair chance to explain themselves. Davis' statements after the fact do not make up for his being quick to judge.
His outrage might have been genuine and he might have had a good point to make, but by acting hastily, he did neither himself nor his point any favors.