Last Sunday, the nation honored the memory, achievements and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., officially commemorating his memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I believe it was a moving and fitting tribute to not just his efforts, but the entire civil rights movement, and a reminder of just how far we’ve come.
At the same time, over the course of this month we’ve seen story after story that reminds us that, though progress has clearly been made, the issue of race and its lingering pernicious impact continues to be a problem in our nation.
The issue of race in America first rose back to the surface of our national debate following the execution of Lawrence Brewer here in Texas. Brewer was the unrepentant murderer of James Byrd, Jr., whose 1998 dragging death in Jasper shocked our state and our nation. Days later in Georgia, Troy Davis was executed. Davis, African American, was convicted of murdering a white off-duty police officer. Davis was convicted solely on the basis of eyewitness identification but, since his trial, 7 of 9 eyewitnesses recanted their previous testimony. Right or wrong, many saw race as a key factor in the execution going forward.
The National Spotlight is Back on Texas
“Where race is concerned, people sometimes act as if the past is a distant country, a place we ought never revisit, unless it be for the occasional purpose of congratulating ourselves on how far we have come. But the past has this way of crashing the party. Usually, it does so with the subtlety of statistics quantifying ongoing racial bias in hiring, education and criminal justice. Occasionally, it does so with the bluntness of a sign reading “N—rhead.” — Leonard Pitts
Race in America (and Texas) reached the top of the national agenda after the Washington Post reported that Governor Rick Perry’s hunting ranch once held an extremely offensive name.
As it turns out, there are more than just a few similar place names across Texas and the nation. In 1991, I passed legislation to change racially offensive names given to geographical features throughout the state. Unfortunately, that intent does not seem to have been carried out. The bill listed 19 geographic features that contained some variation of “Negro” or “Negrohead” in their names and instead named them after various African Americans that have made significant contributions to Texas.
Twenty years later, almost nothing has been done. The legislation required the director of Texas Department of Transportation to submit applications to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names (USBGN) to reflect those changes and then update all relevant maps and signage in this state. According to the U.S. Geological Survey website, an application was submitted to the USBGN for 19 name changes, and the USBGN rejected each application.
I have asked the Texas Department of Transportation to investigate why no further action was taken and what the next steps are. I still believe changing the names of those 19 locations is an essential step in achieving a more tolerant Texas that respects the dignity of all individuals regardless of their race.
As to the issue of the offensive rock itself, I am not in the business of reading a man’s heart, but instead judge his record. Unfortunately, Governor Perry’s social policies have had a disparate impact on people of color, whether you’re talking about low-income people who are hurt by social service cuts or the large numbers of people behind bars for petty offenses. We still have a long way to go in terms of integrating our flagship universities. We have historical vestiges of discrimination that go beyond the language on any old rock.
Texas Should Say No to Confederate Battle Flag
Speaking of vestiges of discrimination, in the last month, the issue of creating an official state license plate celebrating the confederate battle flag has come to the forefront in Texas. We can argue history. Some argue that the Civil War was not about slavery and other issues were just as important. Let’s just say I disagree. I, for one, am rather happy the Union won that confrontation. Even then, it still took another century for African Americans in the South to win the right to vote, ride the bus, eat at a restaurant or use the bathroom where they chose.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, 90,000 Texans fought in the Civil War; during that period, there were 182,000 slaves in Texas, over 30 percent of our population. To descendants of those Texas slaves, the battle flag is a symbol of Ku Klux Klan repression and violence, not heritage.
What cannot be argued is whether the confederate battle flag is a symbol of Texas; it is not and is, instead, a symbol of hate and oppression. The battle flag, also referred to as the Klan Flag, never flew over the Texas Capitol and is not one of the Six Flags of Texas. It was adopted by the Klan in the 1930s and segregationists as their symbol of hate and opposition to any and all efforts to enact civil rights and equality in the South. The official confederate flag, referred to as the stars and bars, is actually a symbol of our state; it has never been used by hate groups and white supremacists to send their message.
Symbols matter. The Nazis adopted an ancient Hindu symbol as their emblem, and their actions forever tarnished it in the eyes of millions around the world. In my view, the battle flag is a similarly tainted symbol of racism and hatred, and too divisive to too many Texans to receive an official state seal of approval. I will continue to oppose a license plate glorifying the Confederate Battle Flag and urge Texans to join in this fight by contacting the Department of Motor Vehicles at firstname.lastname@example.org and Governor Rick Perry ‘s office at 512-463-2000.
Race Still an Issue
Whenever the debate turns to race, it seems the discussion centers either on the past (sure, racism used to be a huge problem) or on the issue in general (racism still exists, but not here). Whenever specific current examples are given, all too often excuses are made or the implication that race was a factor in the problem is boisterously rejected. In other words, everyone concedes racism in America still exists, but only in the abstract, not in specific, real-world terms.
The sad but simple truth is that the impact of race continues to be a major factor in whether one succeeds or fails in this nation. Not the
only factor but, still all too often a major factor. For instance, African Americans are less than 12 percent of the Texas population but make up over 35 percent of our prison population and nearly 40 percent of those on Death Row. Only 6.7 percent of African American males have earned a degree or certificate from an institution of higher education, and our state continues to lag in producing minority graduates overall.
Enrollment at some of our top public universities remains highly segregated. At the University of Texas, only 4.7 percent of enrolled students are African American; at Texas A&M, only 2.9 percent. The University of Houston — on the verge of becoming a top-flight, Tier One college — has a much more diverse student body and is leading the way in educational opportunity.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more Americans are living in poverty today than since it began keeping records 50 years ago, and Texas is unfortunately leading the way. Today, nearly one in five Texans lives below the poverty line, which is $22,314 for a family of four. Overall, Texas ranks 6th in the nation in people living in poverty; 4.6 million, or 18.4 percent, live below the poverty line, well above the national average of 15.2 percent. Distressingly, Texas’ poverty rate grew by 9 percent last year, and is growing faster than the national average. In Houston, the median family income has dropped by nearly $3,000 since 2008.
Race and poverty are sadly still intertwined. In Texas, the poverty rate is 20 percent, but 35 percent for African Americans, compared to only 13 percent for Anglos. Though the problem is particularly pernicious in the Deep South, race and poverty are major issues all across the country. For instance, the poverty rate of African Americans living in Michigan exceeds that for those living in Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Alabama. New York has a slightly higher African American poverty rate than South Carolina.
In other words, the issue of race continues to be intertwined with opportunity in Texas and our country. It plays a key role in our society and we cannot just pretend that the legitimate progress made in the last several decades means equality of opportunity has been achieved and no more action needs to be taken.
Where Texas Ranks
Even as poverty and inequality rise, Texas ranks at the bottom in investing in our families.
Tax Revenue Raised per Capita – 46th
Tax Expenditures per Capita – 50th
Percent of Uninsured Children – 1st
Percent of Children Living in Poverty – 4th
Percent of Children Fully Immunized – 34th
Percent of Population Uninsured – 1st
Percent of Non-Elderly Uninsured – 1st
Percent of Low Income Population Covered by Medicaid – 49th
Percent of Population with Employer-Based Health Insurance – 46th
State Government Health Expenditures as Percent of the
Gross State Product – 43rd
Per Capita State Spending on Mental Health – 50th
Per Capita State Spending on Medicaid – 49th
Percent of Population Physically Active – 36th
Health Care Expenditures per Capita – 45th