upper waypoint

BART Board Censures Member for Racist Comment

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A screenshot of BART board member John McPartland participating via Zoom in board meeting.
John McPartland, a member of the BART board of directors, speaks via Zoom at the body's Jan. 12, 2023, meeting. He is facing censure for telling staff members at the meeting that their work on the agency's racial equity initiative is 'cotton-pickin' inspirational.' (Courtesy of BART)

Updated 1:45 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26: The BART Board of Directors voted to censure member John McPartland for using a racist expression during a meeting earlier this month.

McPartland told three Black staff members at a meeting Jan. 12 that their work on BART’s ongoing racial equity initiative was “cotton-pickin’ inspirational.”

McPartland, who is white, apologized to the board and staff members Thursday and acknowledged that his “clumsy and inappropriate” words were “offensive and racially insensitive.”

Javier Pruitt Hill, one of the three BART employees whose work McPartland commented about on Jan. 12, said during public comment, “Director McPartland, your apology is acknowledged, now it’s time for action.”

Pruitt Hill, who works in BART’s Office of Civil Rights, said McPartland’s comment “embarrassed me, disrespected me and emasculated me in public.”

He challenged the board of directors to amend its code of conduct to include provisions on racial equity, social justice and anti-racism and to provide for recalls of board members who violate those provisions.

Lateefah Simon, the board’s only Black member, acknowledged McPartland’s apology but said public servants must live up to a higher standard in addressing racism.

“If we are going to stand up and run for office or be an appointee of any public office, it is not only our duty to understand the matters in front of us, it is our deep duty to understand, love, research and honor the communities we serve,” Simon said. “And, as the apology was read today, begin to make amends.”

The board voted six to two to approve Board President Janet Li’s motion to formally censure McPartland and remove him from all committee assignments.

Original post: The BART Board of Directors will consider a measure Thursday to censure a member who used a racist expression during a meeting earlier this month.

The measure, introduced by board President Janice Li of San Francisco, is in response to Alameda County member John McPartland’s use of the term “cotton-pickin'” while addressing several staff members at the board’s Jan. 12 meeting.

McPartland, who is white, was speaking approvingly of a presentation three Black staff members had just made on BART’s ongoing racial equity initiative (PDF). One of those presenting was Maceo Wiggins, chief of the agency’s Office of Civil Rights.

“I have been looking at these kinds of reports forever and a blue moon,” McPartland said from his Castro Valley home via Zoom. “And despite my relationship with Maceo that goes back — oh my goodness, two decades — I’ve got to tell you that, as opposed to trying to figure out which way to go and based on the data we’re looking at, I find the work that Maceo is doing right now to be so cotton-pickin’ inspirational.”

McPartland ended by congratulating Wiggins on “magnificent work” and added, “I look forward to being part of it in any way I can.”

The following video contains offensive content.

Seven of the other eight board members were in the meeting room at BART’s downtown Oakland headquarters; board member Debora Allen of Contra Costa County was also attending remotely. None of the directors responded immediately to McPartland’s comment, though a brief exclamation was audible immediately after he uttered the phrase “cotton-pickin’.”

“You’re not going to be able to air the words I said, but it was along the lines of, ‘I can’t believe this,'” San Francisco board member Bevan Dufty said last week.

The expression McPartland used is considered racist and one that denigrates Black Americans, who endured forced labor in Southern cotton fields as enslaved workers and later as part of the coercive sharecropping system.

The Jan. 12 comment prompted Li to put forward a “consideration of action (PDF)” against McPartland. The motion says McPartland violated provisions in the BART board code of conduct (PDF) that require members to treat the public, staff and each other with respect and to refrain from publicly attacking or disparaging staff or members of the public.

Li said she feels McPartland, first elected to the BART board in 2008, had no ill intent. But, she added, this was not the first time he had made racially offensive comments during board meetings.

“We are public officials, we are elected leaders, and we run a district,” Li said. “The bar is set higher for folks like us. And when this is a pattern of behavior, I think that we can’t just say, ‘Oh, but he doesn’t mean any ill will, it’s fine, we’ll just pull him aside and let him know.'”

In 2019, McPartland drew criticism for a patronizing comment made to Abre’ Conner, a Black attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, who had addressed the board during a discussion of whether BART could ban panhandling.

“I didn’t catch the name of the young African American lady,” McPartland said. “Very articulate. … If you’re a law student, you’re doing great. If not, you should consider it.”

Informed that Conner was an attorney, he chuckled and said, “Already a lawyer? OK. … Doing great.”

During a June 2020 board discussion, McPartland complained about the removal of monuments commemorating leaders of the Confederacy. He focused on one in Richmond, Virginia, celebrating Gen. Robert E. Lee, a slaveholder who betrayed his oath to defend the U.S. Constitution by resigning from the Army to lead Confederate forces in the Civil War.

“Robert E. Lee was an exemplary general who was a West Point graduate,” McPartland said. “The United States military tried to make him the commander in chief of the Army, and he turned them down, not because of racism, but because of family — the priorities that we have are God, family and country — and he ended up becoming a general that ended up simply doing his job, and he’s being villainized.”

During that 2020 meeting, Dufty persuaded McPartland to “walk back” his comments about Lee and the Confederate memorials. In an interview after the Jan. 12 comment, Dufty said he considers McPartland a friend but that his words “would not pass muster in any way, shape or form.”

Dufty said he regretted not addressing McPartland’s remark in the moment, saying he realized the words were traumatizing for BART staff members. “I have my own apology to make,” he said. “I’m not going to dance around it.”

Li said one factor that made McPartland’s recent comment different from earlier episodes was the fact that it was directed toward BART staff members.


“He used those words during a staff presentation and was giving his comments in response to work that staff has done,” Li said. She said that after McPartland’s comment, staff members “were clearly very traumatized and impacted by his use of racist words.” She said that it’s important for BART to “wholly and fully and directly” address what happened.

Doing that will “give the district and the general public the confidence that we saw it, we acknowledged it, we’re taking action, and we’re moving on, because BART is here to run trains,” she said.

McPartland did not respond to a request for comment for this story. He said in a report published by The San Francisco Standard last week that he was mortified and intends to offer a public apology for his Jan. 12 statement.



lower waypoint
next waypoint