Phoenix NAACP Leader Defends His Credibility After Sexist Remarks

Don Harris talking to Channel 12 News reporter Monique Griego on Tuesday, seconds before making a crude comment about her body to another reporter.
Don Harris talking to Channel 12 News reporter Monique Griego on Tuesday, seconds before making a crude comment about her body to another reporter.
Ray Stern

(UPDATE: The Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP accepted Harris' resignation on Monday night. Ann Hart was made the interim president.

Don Harris, president of Arizona's largest NAACP chapter, will find out Monday whether he'll be fired for saying a TV reporter had "nice tits" just after a meeting about six high school girls' use of a racial slur.

Under the heat lamp since New Times published an article on Wednesday about his sexist remarks, Harris lobbied to stay in his position on KTAR (92.3 FM) News Radio's Mac and Gaydos show. On Thursday's live broadcast, he said the 20-member governing board of the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP had scheduled a meeting on Monday afternoon to decide his fate.

"I can tell you on Tuesday morning" if the board keeps or fires him, he told radio talk show hosts Mac Watson and Larry Gaydos.

The pair gave Harris a hard time about his comments, telling him he should be ashamed of himself and suggesting he should resign. Harris, a brash 77-year-old lawyer and former U.S. Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam, grew argumentative, even defensive, as he was grilled.

"Do you think you have any credibility anymore?" he was asked.

"Of course," he replied. "How has my credibility been ruined?"

"You know how this looks," one of the hosts pointed out. "You're talking about getting rid of a word that shouldn't be used, the n-word. And then you go out, and to me, the example that you gave the kids is, well — you said something really terrible, you said something really sexist . . . Instead of racism, it's sexism, I mean — shame on you!"

"You've shamed me now . . . I understand that, I'm not offended by it," Harris replied.

"You've got to quit," they told him.

Harris dismissed that opinion, responding that he'd do "what's best for my organization." He said "leading clergymen" are pushing for him to stay, and he touted his work for the group since he took over as president from the retiring Oscar Tillman in 2014.

Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian covered the NAACP debacle on "Young Turks" this week.
Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian covered the NAACP debacle on "Young Turks" this week.
tytnetwork.com

"I can help this community like I've helped [it] for the last 60 years or so," he said. "I'm not going to have that good set aside because of a stupid, errant comment by myself."

Harris gave the example that just last week, he helped put an expelled African-American boy back in school and was able to get a track coach "thrown out at a junior college" reinstated to his position.

He questioned how much grief he should be required to take over his "flippant" remarks. He admitted he'd be a "distraction" to the NAACP for a while, but said he didn't think concern over his remarks "would last a long time."

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, an influential organization based in Washington, D.C., released a statement demanding that the NAACP remove Harris from office:

"The National Coalition of 100 Black Women (NCBW) implores the NAACP to swiftly and expeditiously remove Mr. Harris from office," said the announcement sent to New Times by local NCBW leader Kim Covington. "His comments made [about] a KPNX 12 News reporter, immediately following a community meeting to address the racially offensive conduct of six Desert Vista students, was disregardful of women, in poor taste, and clearly indicative of his lack of regard for the true meaning of women’s rights and civil rights.

"Mr. Harris does not represent countless women of color in this community, and his conduct and subsequent speech was offensive and not at all a reflection of African American women, or the rich legacy and history of the NAACP, and the countless pioneers who champion civil rights and inclusion throughout this nation. His conduct was an embarrassment to all Arizonans."

A call to the Baltimore headquarters of the national NAACP wasn't immediately returned today.

The flap over Harris actually began with the outrage over an inflammatory, widely shared photo of Desert Vista High School seniors spelling the n-word with letters on their T-shirts. They'd been part of a larger group using the lettered T-shirts to spell "Best You've Ever Seen * Class of 2016" for senior-day pictures. At some point, six of the seniors thought it would be hilarious to pose so their T-shirts formed the word, "NI**ER."

A picture of the stunt was shared on Snapchat, where it soon went viral. Suddenly, people all over the country were fuming and talking about racism. The Ahwatukee school was forced into crisis mode. Police units were brought onto the campus as threats poured in. The entire student body had their lessons disrupted for a day to discuss racial sensitivity as protesters gathered outside school gates.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a "longtime friend" of NAACP President Don Harris.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a "longtime friend" of NAACP President Don Harris.
Twitter

On Tuesday, the Tempe Union High School District held a hastily assembled meeting of local leaders, educators and black activists, including the Reverend Jarrett Maupin, First Institutional Baptist Church leader Warren Stewart, Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, and about 40 others. After a three-hour discussion, at least some members of the group resolved to try to eradicate the n-word from society. Harris pledged $5,000 to the cause — then, as he was interviewed by reporters outside the TUHSD office about the meeting, Harris remarked enthusiastically — twice — that a TV reporter had "nice tits." New Times captured his words in an audio recording.

When New Times later asked Harris about his crude comments, Harris said he couldn't "believe we're having this conversation" and that he was "really fucking sorry." Harris used several other expletives in the conversation and joked that maybe he should just kill himself if people were offended. The subsequent New Times article about Harris' remarks became a news story in itself, with local and national news sites like Gawker reporting on the debacle.

The incident gave rise to a discussion on the "Young Turks" news show between Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian about when, if ever, it might be okay to say the phrase "nice tits." Behind the anchors was a picture of Harris beneath the words "Not the Breast Choice."

This photo of six Desert Vista High Schools sparked nationwide outrage, and led to the community meeting that NAACP President Don Harris attended.
This photo of six Desert Vista High Schools sparked nationwide outrage, and led to the community meeting that NAACP President Don Harris attended.

If someone is sitting on the couch with buddies while watching Girls Gone Wild, Uygur argued, Harris' phrase would be no problem. His co-host took the position that even in private, it's still a "disrespectful and vulgar way to refer to how someone looks." Harris drew additional criticism for his friendship with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Uygur called "a well-known racist."

Uygur also rated Harris' response to New Times ("I'm going to slash my wrists . . . Better yet, I'm going to throw myself out of a fucking window, except I'm on the first floor") as "one of the best quotes of all time."

Numerous people took to social media to opine that Harris should quit immediately.

But Ann Hart, first vice president for the Maricopa County NAACP, told New Times that although there was "extreme concern" over Harris' comments, he did good work hard for the African-American community and she was recommending that he stay on the job.

It's unclear whether the Channel 12 reporter, Monique Griego, heard Harris' comments about her, because she had turned her focus to another interview. However, Harris made the comments to New Times loudly while standing a few feet from her. Harris said he doesn't think she heard him. Griego declined to comment.

New Times will update this story after the local NAACP's vote Monday night about Harris.


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