Henry County Council member Kenon Gray said some people are seeing racism in a Facebook post that was meant to be a simple political statement.

Gray shared a post on his personal Facebook page Friday morning of U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-D) and Ilhan Omar (MN-D) with the added comment “Meanwhile, in Minneapolis ...”

People who follow the councilman online took screenshots of the post and began sharing it to local community Facebook groups. Many of them claim the post was racist because both women are minorities and because Omar in particular is a naturalized citizen from Somalia.

One New Castle woman, Melanie Wright, started an online petition to have Gray removed from public office.

The councilman issued the following statement Wednesday:

“I’m saddened that what I viewed as a political post pointing to the policies of two members of Congress with whom I disagree caused so such angst, animus, and discomfort in those who saw racism, Islamophobia, misogyny and intolerance,” Gray said. “I never saw race, gender, creed, ethnicity or religion when I posted that meme or similar ones. I saw a socialist commending a like-minded representative from the very Minneapolis district that was recently decimated from riots, looting, burning and destruction to numerous family businesses, many being minority-owned. We see partisan politics getting uglier by the day as polarization is the norm.

“I am sorry I played into furthering divisions instead of being sensitive to those holding a view different from my own conservative Christian ones,” he continued. “I’ve deactivated my Facebook & Twitter accounts to resist temptations to post my political beliefs. ‘Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.’ 1 Corinthians 10:23, 1 Corinthians 6:12”

Gray continued, saying he grew up in 1950s-1970s America, “when virulent systemic racism and sexism were more the rule; far worse than anything prevalent today.”

“I didn’t approve of those injustices when growing up, and I do not today,” he said. “In my posted political meme, I attempted to utilize satire to illustrate the destruction that occurs when law enforcement and rule of law are vilified by a political agenda of both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Ilhan Omar.

“I believe both representatives disfavor principles upon which America was founded. They seek to destroy capitalism while instituting more socialism, to defund police for a system of counselors, while favoring platforms in which I will continue to stand against,” Gray added. “I’m a fiscal conservative Republican who advocates for capitalism and traditional values while rejecting the ongoing push towards more radical socialism. I disagree that being conservative in general or pro-capitalism in particular equates with being anti-black, sexist or similar accusations.”

Gray said people who have taken the time to truly get to know him as a person over the years realize that “I am not a racist (or the other monikers).”

“I hold people of all races in esteem and seek to treat all individuals with respect at all times. When posting the meme or similar ones under question, I did not see race, gender, creed, ethnicity or religion,” Gray said, adding, “I’m sorry for bringing the rest of my council colleagues and the party under attack. I also apologize to my constituents who did see a racial or similar degrading message in the meme that I did not see. It is my sincerest desire to serve the entire community with greater respect and empathy throughout the rest of my term.”

Henry County Council President Susan Huhn said the members of the council appreciate Gray’s statement and apology to the people of Henry County.

“We respect the work Kenon has done on the council – he has distinguished himself and works hard to represent ALL of Henry County’s citizens,” Huhn said. “Though some of us view the meme differently, we all deeply respect each other and enjoy working together, and we look forward to continuing to serve Henry County to the best of each of our abilities.”

Statements from local parties

The Henry County Democratic Party and the Henry County Republican Party Central Committee both issued statements about Gray’s post.

Henry County Democratic Chair Alan McCraine said Sunday that “social media was ablaze once again” when Gray shared the post “intended to cause derision of the two (Ocasio-Cortez and Omar) in the eyes of the public.”

McCraine said Gray’s post was insensitive to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day, and the Minneapolis business owners who had their businesses destroyed in the riots following Floyd’s death.

“We believe there has been a call for heightened awareness of the unfairness and indignities minority populations have been suffering for generations,” McCraine said. “At a time when America is being called to accountability for the systematic racism practiced in our cultural fabric, there are a few insensitive individuals like Mr. Gray whose actions are deplorable in civil society.

“It is all the more deplorable to think that this action comes from a public official, elected to promote the public welfare through cooperation and sound ethical judgment. The post served neither,” McCraine continued. “Mr. Gray currently serves immigrants and members of minority populations here in Henry County. They have lived here for years and work in health-care, education, businesses, and services. We celebrate their presence and their contributions.”

In his statement, McCraine said the Henry County Democratic Party “will work to find a candidate of higher standards than he (Gray) has exhibited” to be on the ballot when the councilman’s term expires in 2022.

The Henry County Republican Party Central Committee also released a statement this week. The GOP Central Committee is made of Chairman Todd Hiday, Vice Chairman Chad Malicoat, Secretary Betsy Mills and Treasurer Betsy Cedras.

Mills and Malicoat serve with Gray on the Henry County Council.

“This past week, Henry County Councilman Kenon Gray made posts on Facebook that many in our community found to be inappropriate and offensive,” the central committee said. “We acknowledge Councilman Gray’s apology, and we appreciate the constituents inside and outside of our party who have respectfully brought forth their concerns. It is our hope that this is a learning opportunity for all and that we can move forward in a spirit of goodwill as we continue to serve the county that we love.”

The Henry County GOP Central Committee noted the local community, the state and the nation have spent the past months “engaging in hard and necessary discussions about racial equity and diversity in America.”

They then referred to a section of the 2018 Indiana Republican Party Platform that states: “We believe that a diversity of cultures, thought and perspectives make our nation strong. … We respect and honor individuals and families of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds and celebrate the diversity of ideas and perspectives brought to our party. We are excited to welcome all backgrounds and cultures into our party – as this provides us with a stronger shared voice and ensures we continue to stand for all Hoosiers.”