New York City

Who Ambushed Susan Rosenthal?

Who ambushed Susan Rosenthal? Who’s covering up for him or her, and why? Not a whistleblower, but a disgruntled employee out to get the boss. With help.

Opinion by David Stone

RIOC president/CEO Susan Rosenthal’s firing shocked us, buried on a slow news Friday, but was there more behind the timing? Grandstanding? Posturing for political gains?

It was Juneteenth. Anything to that?

Suspicions rose fast when the text of the complaint against her became public. And those accelerated when the person dragging his or her boss — and family — through the mud stayed unnamed.

Let’s be clear. This was not a whistleblower deserving protection but an unhappy employee publicly attacking Susan Rosenthal with accusations that long ago passed their sell by date.

So, who ambushed Susan Rosenthal?

A bigger mystery, after all, is: Who thought the charges, some years old, at least one secondhand, justified a high profile firing?

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Because the Governor’s office shrouded everything in secrecy and broke the news only to the New York Post, truth’s at a premium, but let’s take a look anyway.

Verbatim: The Charges

Here, word for word, the email sent to dozens of state and local officials as well as RIOC executives and board:

Good morning

In the past few days, we watched 50 states, and over 20 countries protest to demand change to police brutality and systemic racism. An outcry started after the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man by the hands of a police officer. The systemic racism and social inequalities black people face on a daily basis is nothing short of disheartening; however, the statement Black Lives Matter should not be controversial; it’s a call for equality, justice and accountability..

My experience of working at RIOC for the last several years have been toxic as we’ve experienced offensive racial comments and jokes of a sexual nature by Ms. Susan Rosenthal, RIOC’s Chief Executive Officer/President. I’ve witnessed the lack of regard for employees as senior leadership continues to make excuses and play a blind eye on these troublesome issues. Some of my experiences include:

  • Last year Ms. Rosenthal purchased a painting named “The Cotton Picker” which depicted a slave picking cotton. The painting was placed it in her office until she decided to take it to her home. She faced no repercussions. In addition to making staffers feel uncomfortable, we also felt disrespected. Photo added below for your reference.
  • While meeting with a resident, I overheard Ms. Rosenthal refer to her “son in law is black as hell and her daughter is white as snow.”
  • When her first grandchild was born, she also mentioned that her grandchild was “the real African American” as her son-in-law is of African descent. Her statement was extremely appalling.
  • She also shared and suggested that “not all black people look alike.”
  • She has also mentioned in meetings with internal and external parties, that the last time she trusted someone she lost her virginity.

These insensitive statements should not be made by anyone, especially an individual trusted to lead a corporation.

The truth is Susan Rosenthal has made racial comments and sexual innuendos the norm at RIOC knowing employees will remain silent in fear of losing their livelihood while others continue to shield her, this practice should no longer be acceptable. I debated whether to send this email however, if I continue to ignore these experiences there will be no progress.

Analyzing the Charges

First up, the preamble is as pretentious as it is irrelevant. And the grammar poor enough that a high school English teacher would pepper it with red check marks.

As one senior RIOC exec told me, “Susan doesn’t have a racist bone in her body.”

Roosevelt Island News: Alice Childress Memorial
In 2018, Susan Rosenthal played an active role in rescuing this Roosevelt Island Memorial plaque honoring Alice Childress. Childress was an African American literary giant, and Rosenthal went on to produce one of her plays at the Howe Theatre.

From rescuing a memorial to Alice Childress to championing Black History Month, she showed no evidence of racism anywhere, but just the opposite.

So, what was the point? And then to go on with dubious, out of date accusations, one actually laughable… And why now?

Susan Rosenthal Ambushed by the Love of Art

The first object of grievances from years past, The Cotten Picker, may or may not depict a slave. And if the unhappy employee felt so “disrespected,” why wait a year to say so?

Furthermore, why take it out of context or explain why it might offend anyone? Shall we just take every individual gripe as universally valid and worthy of censorship?

RIOC president Susan Rosenthal at the 1619 Project event.
In February, this year, Susan Rosenthal spoke on the theme of shedding light on the hidden history of African Americans .

The painting, I confirmed, is art created by an African American painter who exhibited it for Black History Month at Gallery RIVAA.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified the artist as a resident of Coler. That was inaccurate.

How do you think he feels, seeing his work demonized as racist, unfit for an art lovers office?

No good reproduction is available, but The Cotten Picker is a vibrant abstract more likely to invoke empathy than anything else. Top African American artists have shared their takes on this theme countless times.

It’s neither offensive nor exceptional.

While We’re At It, Let’s Drag Her Family Through the Mud Too

Anyone who knows Susan Rosenthal would see “(my) son in law is black as hell and her daughter is white as snow” as embracing her family diversity. Once you get past the illiterate misquote.

To be clear, Rosenthal, habitually plain spoken, was not complaining but chatting about family life, unaware of a backstabber lurking in the wings.

And what the hell’s wrong with calling her beloved grandchild “the real African American?” Nothing disparaging there, and it sounds more like pride to me.

Here again, the disgruntled employee harks back to years past, but there’s no evidence of a complaint from anyone at that time.

Susan Rosenthal Ambushed: Turning the Tables

Since civil rights marched to the American front pages, stereotyping African Americans was an issue.

No one in their right mind sees “not all black people look alike,” as anything more than repudiation of stereotyping.

Fortunately, the unhappy subordinate spared us an explanation of how this offended his or her tender sensitivities.

It’s ridiculous that anyone in a responsible position would give this more than a moment’s consideration.

Radical Purity Raises Its Head

I’ll share a story.

A man tells his doctor that he’s out of shape and has lost all energy. Even his sex life is gone.

The doctor prescribes exercise.

“Take up walking every day. Start with a block, then two blocks the next day. Do a little more every day. Call me in a couple of months and let me know how you’re doing.”

Two months later, the patient calls and reports positive results.

“I’m up to half a mile a day, and I feel much stronger.”

“And how is your sext life?” the doctor asks.

“I don’t know. I’m 31 miles away from home.”

That’s borrowed from a great Netflix show, Somebody Feed Phil, a travel show.

It’s mainstream. You can tell it to anyone.

Also true of “the last time she trusted someone she lost her virginity.”

Come on, people, are we so puritanical, these days, we can’t make a simple joke without risking attack? Is this the kind of community we want?

Conclusion: Who Ambushed Susan Rosenthal

Sadly, we can’t answer that because those copied on the disgruntled employee’s email aren’t saying.

But why?

He or she never asked protection as a whistleblower. Never went through appropriate channels set up for that.

Instead, the email was targeted for impact, disparaging a superior on flimsy grounds with suspect motives. Looked at objectively, not one of the complaints holds water. Not one’s grounds for reprimanding, let alone firing, a loyal executive.

And what was the rush?

Barely a week passed from the ambush email to the firing… on Juneteenth.

Is the real racism hidden behind exploiting a holiday celebrating the end of slavery in Texas for political gain?

And why all this secrecy? Why not stand up and defend what to many appears an outrageous act of score settling?

A local leader approached me on Wednesday. “Is there any way we can get Susan Rosenthal back? he asked.

Anything’s possible, of course, but if I were her, I’d tell Andrew Cuomo where he could stuff it.

And if I were a thoughtful local resident on Roosevelt Island, I’d ask those seven board members living here why the hell they rolled over from such outrageous backstabbing.

And why protect the assailant in the ambush of Susan Rosenthal?

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