Phillips: Why Criner has all-white jury in UT murder case, and not jury of peers

 

Potential jurors are sworn in before jury selection in the capital murder case of Meechaiel Criner, the transient man accused of killing University of Texas student Haruka Weiser in April 2016, in District Judge David Wahlberg’s 167th district court Monday July 9, 2018.
RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Travis County prosecutor Rickey Jones concedes an all-white jury is far from ideal in a case in which the defendant is an African American, who would be sentenced to life without parole if he is found guilty of the capital murder charge he faces.

“It doesn’t look like a jury of one’s peers,” he told me. “People – especially African Americans — notice those things and raise questions.”

Those are the very questions Jones wants to avoid, not just in the current high-profile case in which Meechaiel Criner is on trial for killing and sexually assaulting University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, but in felony criminal cases that involve lengthy prison sentences.

Criner, 20, has pleaded not guilty to the 2016 crime on UT’s campus. He would spend the rest of his life in prison if the all-white jury finds him guilty.

Jury selection in the case brought into focus the deep distrust people of color harbor about the criminal justice system. Along with other challenges (such as concerns about missing time from work or not having child care) that affect most people’s ability to serve on juries, the belief that the criminal justice system discriminates against African American and Latinos makes it tough to seat them on juries, Jones said.

READ: Meechaiel Criner trial: Race at issue in second day of jury selection

That kind of revelation coming from a prosecutor is uncommon. But Jones, assistant director of the trial division for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, knows something of the difficulties in seating blacks on a jury. He worked as a criminal defense lawyer for 23 years before joining the DA’s Office. From that perch, Jones got an up-close look at the jury-selection system.

In many cases, including Criner’s, Jones said it was not mostly prosecutors striking blacks from the jury, but blacks taking themselves out of jury selection because they don’t trust the criminal justice system can be fair to African Americans. While jurors publicly uttering those beliefs during jury selection can be rehabilitated by a defense lawyer, prosecutor or judge, it’s the next step that disqualifies so many African Americans, he said.

“If they have this belief (about the criminal justice system), I can put that aside if they say they can be fair in this case,” Jones explained.

“If they say, ‘no,’ they can’t be fair in this case, then that is the end of it because that is the law.”

Jones said that is the step that eliminates minority jurors. He has witnessed many African Americans come right out and say that they would be unable to be impartial in assessing evidence and deciding sentencing of a black defendant charged with a serious felony.

“That is where we lose our black jurors,” he said. “We can’t rehabilitate them after that.”

Jones doesn’t deny that African Americans have good reason to believe the deck is stacked against them when it comes to the criminal justice system. The many exonerations by juries of police officers for shooting and killing unarmed African Americans under questionable circumstances are a case in point.

Then there are the patterns and practices of too many prosecutors who have been known to strike African Americans from juries because of their race, particularly in serious felony or death penalty cases involving black defendants. Such practices spurred the U.S. Supreme court to bar racial discrimination in the selection of juries.

In Texas, such practices were unearthed in 1986 by The Dallas Morning News which cited a 1963 internal memo in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office directing prosecutors when picking juries not to take “Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated.”

Such behavior by Dallas prosecutors continued, according to an analysis by the Morning News that showed as recently as 2002, Dallas County prosecutors were excluding eligible black prospects from juries at more than twice the rate they excluded whites.

RELATED: Study: Blacks routinely excluded from juries

A study reported by NPR in 2010 showed ongoing discriminatory tactics by prosecutors.

Bryan Stevenson’s nonprofit group Equal Justice Initiative detailed widespread discrimination in the selection of jurors across the Deep South. One of the most troubling reasons prosecutors cited for dismissing black jurors, Stevenson said, were assertions about their intelligence, even though many of those potential jurors were college graduates.

Those dynamics continue, including in the Criner case.

One African American was struck for having a felony background, as required by law. Another was struck by a prosecutor who questioned his fitness to serve because a questionnaire he answered had many confusing answers, Jones said.

But three of the other four blacks were dismissed because they were unable to follow the law regarding impartiality and fairness because of their views regarding the criminal justice system, Jones said. The fourth was let go for similar causes because of her views that the criminal justice system treats people with mental disabilities unfairly.

Aside from losing those potential jurors, another Travis County minority resident, who said he recently became a naturalized U.S. citizen, stated that during his time living in the country he has come to believe that minorities accused of a crime do not get fair trials. He, too, was dismissed.

With that, the standard – a jury of one’s peers – fell. An all-white jury was seated.

Jones believes things must change to prevent further erosion of public trust. He is right.

That has got to start with African Americans not opting out of jury service because of their legitimate beliefs about discrimination in the criminal justice system. Having those beliefs is OK, but as jurors, they must be impartial in assessing a defendant’s guilt or innocence regardless of his or her race.

Preventing unfair or unjust verdicts and sentencing requires sacrifice in giving one’s time to jury service when called. And it requires fairness from prosecutors in not using lame excuses to strike qualified people of color to justify keeping African Americans and other minorities off juries.

 

America the beautiful, now America the ugly under Trump

 

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents ask a group of Central American asylum seekers to remove hair bands and weddding rings before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

 

So, this is our America.

We’re now a country that gives cover and comfort to white supremacists who publicly slur Jews, African Americans and Latinos.

We’re a nation that defends extremes in gun regulation, even as our children and families are gunned down in our classrooms and churches by persons armed with weapons of war.

We’re a government that paints Muslims with a broad – and ugly – brush.

We’re a sovereign power that wants immigrant kids who grew up in our neighborhoods, have made us proud with academic accomplishments or service in our armed forces, to be exiled to the shadows of our cities or other countries because they lack legal papers or citizenship.

And we’re a country that rips migrant children from the protective, loving arms of their parents.

This is what America has become under the leadership of President Donald Trump. And it’s an America that we the people have endorsed with our votes, legal and justice systems, apathy and void of moral clarity.

Trump might have conceived it, but we now must own it.

That hard dose of reality reverberates in the voices of crying children seized at the Mexico-United States border.

Between May 5 and June 9, more than 2,300 children were separated from parents or adults with whom they were traveling, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Family separations are the result of Trump’s new zero tolerance policy, which refers all border crossings for federal prosecution, even though many migrants crossing the border illegally, mostly from Central America, are seeking asylum.

Up to this week, the public had a limited view of the impact of forced separations on the children. That changed when the nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica published what it said was a recording made inside one of the U.S. government facilities where children taken from their parents are housed.

We heard the raw, unfiltered cries of children calling out in Spanish for “Daddy!” and “Mommy!” We heard children sobbing deeply. We heard a girl repeatedly pleading with adults to call her aunt, whose phone number she had memorized.

RELATED: Hear children recently separated from their parents

“My mommy says I’ll go with my aunt and that she’ll come to pick me up there as quickly as possible.”

ProPublica identified her as a six-year-old from El Salvador.

That was gut wrenching. But then we learned of the “tender-age” facilities across Texas set up by the federal government to house infants, toddlers and young kids.

In simple but powerful words, radio commentator Dave Ross for Seattle’s KIRO-FM brought into focus how far we’ve strayed from President Ronald Reagan’s America as a “shining city on a hill.” How far removed we are from the hope the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in speeches that cited the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.

Ross said: “Those are American border agents, trained in America, paid by American taxpayers, following orders from an administration that ran on this policy and was elected by Americans!

“This is who we are now!

“I’m sure we very much would like to be a ‘beacon of hope to the world,’ but that brought too many strangers banging on the door. And so it appears we will snuff out that light and change the locks, at least for now.”

Though Trump officials strongly defended the policy and – unbelievably — justified it with Scripture, officials now appear to be moving away from family separations, no doubt because of rising public pressure, including from the president’s own Republican Party leaders, such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

On Wednesday, Trump said he would sign an executive order that would end the process of separating children from families after they are detained crossing the border illegally, the Associated Press reported.

“We want to keep families together. It’s very important,” Trump told reporters during a White House meeting with members of Congress.

READ ALSO: In reversal, Trump signs order stopping family separations.

It seems the cries of children melted America’s indifference – at least for the moment.

The issue is not fully settled. Family units will be kept together, but in detention facilities. Also, there remains a serious question about whether migrants fleeing violence and political persecution in their countries will be fairly handled by our courts regarding asylum claims. Instead, we might see them, and their children, swiftly deported by Trump policies that make it tougher to win asylum.

The U.S. should have secure borders. But Trump’s (and now our) America is an eternity away from an Ellis Island that once welcomed poor immigrants from across the globe.

Some no doubt will say that America never was perfect. That is true. But the nation was continually struggling to perfect its imperfections and address past wrongs. It had thought-leaders in Susan B. Anthony, who led the movement to win the vote for women; and Eleanor Roosevelt who tackled racism by flying with black pilots at Tuskegee Institute during WWII, when the military was segregated; her husband, FDR, took on the Nazis in Germany; Thurgood Marshall, was a fearless champion for racial and social justice. There were so many Americans who stood tall for our values.

That is the truly scary thing about today’s America in which hope is being strangled by fear, bigotry, intolerance and apathy. We are becoming desensitized to the pain and suffering of neighbors and strangers alike.

Our hope – and future – relies on rebuilding America humanely and sanely. If we do that, we rebuild ourselves.

CM Houston: Tired of being invisible

District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston questions reason she was left out of key meeting regarding the Lions Municipal Golf Course.
Shelby Tauber / AMERICAN STATESMAN

 

This is one of those moments in which City Council Member Ora Houston, the lone African American on the Austin City Council, questions whether she is invisible.

Not in the superhero way, but in the manner that some social scientists say disproportionately affects black women.

“It is unfortunate that in 2018 we still operate by the same good old boy rules, practices and procedures of the past,” Houston told me. “What happens in those situations is that there are voices that are not being represented in the room.”

A case in point is the way Houston was cut out of high-level talks regarding the University of Texas’ Lions Municipal Golf Course – even though swaths of UT are in her District 1; even though she initiated meetings last year with UT President Gregory L. Fenves to discuss options for saving Muny and dealing with the expiring lease agreement between the city and UT; and even though she kept Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Alison Alter in the loop of information regarding those meetings.

Yet, when Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson called the meeting a couple of weeks ago regarding Muny, Houston was not among those invited to the table. Those who were invited and attended were: Adler, Alter, Fenves, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.

READ: Why it’s exhausting being black in Austin

Watson says he chose the group based on their ties to Muny and ability to jump-start stalled negotiations regarding the popular golf course. Alter’s District 10 includes Muny as does Howard’s legislative district.

“I convened the meeting because I’ve become frustrated with both parties (UT-Austin and the city) and how they are approaching the matter,” he told me. “The purpose of my meeting was to light a fire.”

“I invited the mayor, city manager and council member who represents the neighborhood where the golf course is located. I’m pleased other council members are interested in this and I would encourage as that fire continues to burn, those council members need to make their interests known to the city and go for it. That is what is going to be necessary.”

Watson noted the clock is ticking on Muny’s future as an 18-hole, city-operated golf course. Under the contract, the city leases 141 acres (that include the golf course) along Lake Austin Boulevard from UT-Austin for more than $400,000 annually — a fraction of what the property would fetch on the market. That was estimated at nearly $6 million annually several years ago if leased for mixed development.

As far back as 2011, the city has known that UT’s desire was to permit the lease to expire next year as UT officials sought to monetize the entire 345-acre Brackenridge tract – which includes Muny — to generate more money for academic programs.

UT’s long-standing plans to turn the property into a mixed-use development were made more difficult, but still possible, when in 2016, the National Park Service – prompted by a group of golfers, environmentalists, Austin residents and black leaders — added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places.

Muny is recognized as one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated. Since that time, Watson said, negotiations between the city and UT have nearly stalled.

RELATED: Muny added to National Register of Historic Places

Houston isn’t buying explanations that the snub was an oversight. She made that clear in an email to Cronk this week. After first thanking Cronk for sharing information with the whole council about the meeting Watson called, she went on to say:

“It is, however, unfortunate that I was not included in that meeting. Not that I would have anything additional to offer. I have been meeting with the President and the Agent since last year regarding these very issues and the University is in District #1. My most recent face to face with President Fenves was May 11th to discuss an option that I suggested. How embarrassed I am to be discussing some of the same issues and be unaware of the meeting. So much for my credibility with the President.”

It was not the first time Houston has been overlooked on matters that directly affect her district. She elbowed her way into talks regarding how the public would be informed about the planned Capitol Complex construction, which would impact traffic on roads in her district.

She notes that Adler’s longer-term plan to generate money for Austin residents experiencing homelessness by leveraging taxes aimed at tourists who stay in local hotels was taken seriously, but not so with her proposal to temporarily house homeless residents in state facilities with empty beds.

Some no doubt will say the snub Houston sees in such matters is all in her head. It’s not.

READ ALSO: Are black women invisible study

The experience of going unnoticed and unheard is not unique to Houston, but a common occurrence for many black women, University of Texas professor and cultural critic Lisa B. Thompson says.

Black women, she said, are either hyper-visible, such as Oprah or Beyoncé, or they go unnoticed in matters of health and wellness, such as the lack of focus on the needs of black women in improving their outcomes in heart disease and maternal mortality rates.

For professionals, it can play out like this, Thompson said: “You (a black woman) are in a meeting and offer an idea. There’s no response. Two minutes later someone else (a white person) will say something similar and it’s a great idea.”

Yes, I know.

Why the ‘hyphenated Americanism’ comment triggered outrage

People rally in front of the State Board of Education building last week before a preliminary vote on whether to create a statewide Mexican American studies course. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The decision by the State Board of Education to approve an elective course for Mexican-American studies in Texas high schools should have triggered triumphant celebrations among the scholars and advocates who worked for years to make the curriculum a reality. Instead, many came away feeling like they were history’s losers once more.

“Discrimination!” Marisa Perez-Diaz, a member of the board, said in a blistering statement that captured the outrage of critics.

Perez-Diaz, a Democrat from Converse who is Mexican-American, was angry that the course will not be called Mexican-American Studies, as scholars and activists had advocated. Instead, after the objections of one member, the Republican-dominated board voted to strip the name and call the course “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”

The board member who proposed the new name, Beaumont Republican David Bradley, offered this explanation: “I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”

To understand why some Texans consider that statement and the name change a slap in the face is to understand the history of Texas and how it has treated Mexican-Americans as something less than American – not as equals. It is a painful and shameful history that includes loss of rightful lands after the Mexican-American War, Jim Crow laws and systematic discrimination, separate and unequal schools, lynchings, deportations of Mexican-American citizens without due process, bigotry and signs at restaurants, parks, swimming pools and public places that told Mexican Americans they most certainly were not welcome there.

“No dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans,” the signs of Jim Crow-era segregation said.

Even in death, Mexican-Americans were not equals. In some Texas towns they were buried in separate cemeteries, as were African Americans.

But you won’t read much of that sordid history in high school classrooms in Texas, if at all. The historical Mexican-American experience is whitewashed and airbrushed out of textbooks and out of young Texans’ minds.

“To say that one does not believe in hyphenated Americans is one of the reasons we need this course,” Richard Flores, a Mexican-American studies scholar at the University of Texas, told me. “Because this entire Mexican-American community was not accepted into the American way of life.”

Flores wrote the book, “Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol,” which tells a history of the famous battle that is different from the conventional narrative taught in Texas classrooms – that brave Anglos defeated savage Mexicans there. But as Flores’ book conveys, they were not alone — Tejanos, or Mexican-Americans, fought alongside those Anglos.

Throughout history, Mexican-Americans have been called all kinds of hateful epithets. Wetbacks, greasers, beaners, cockroaches, spics – these are some. The word “Mexican” also has historically been used as a slur — President Trump did in 2016 against a U.S. district judge.

To some, stripping the Mexican-American name from the high school course is another attempt to put Mexican-Americans in their place and to dictate their identity, a throwback – setback — to the 1940s and 1950s in Texas.

Angela Valenzuela, another Mexican-American studies scholar at UT who championed the new curriculum, said she would not want her name associated with it under its new name. Her mother would never forgive her, she said, because it harkens back to Jim Crow and the scars it left.

“My mother told us (an American of Mexican descent) is what I was,” she told me. “That was all we were allowed to be then because it was Americanization full throttle.”

Noting that Latinos make up 52 percent of school-age children in Texas – the vast majority Mexican American — Valenzuela said the education board sees Mexican Americans and other Latinos as a threat.

We don’t need a Mexican-American studies course only for its value in setting the historical record straight. We need it because it can highlight Mexican-American historical contributions too and affirm Mexican-Americans’ place as valued contributors to society.

“Without our stories, the message to young people is ‘We weren’t here, we weren’t important and we are not important,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of the Voces Oral History Project at UT, which highlights the WWII contributions of Mexican-Americans who served their country, despite facing rampant discrimination at home.

Bradley, meanwhile, was not in a conciliatory mood. He reportedly said Perez-Diaz was taking the name change personally and that opponents were “antagonizing the board,” actions that could have repercussions on the viability of the course.

Given Texas’ history, it’s easy to see how some might view that as threatening.

“We’re all Americans,” Bradley told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a melting pot and most of the board agreed with that.”

The irony of Bradley’s statement is that in the land that was Mexico long before Texas became a state, in the face of historical bigotry and discrimination, Mexican-Americans have wanted nothing more than to stake their full and rightful claim as Americans. As equals. Though we might not see it reflected in our textbooks, history teaches us this.

 

 

 

Trump gets Barbara Jordan’s immigration views wrong

Former Rep. Barbara Jordan (AMERICAN-STATESMAN file)

President Trump invoked the words of the late Barbara Jordan, the trailblazing Texas Democrat, in a statement Wednesday on the 22nd anniversary of her death. But the statement seemed less about her than about Trump’s politics on immigration. Not surprisingly, it drew the ire of Texas Dems and scholars who said the president had misrepresented Jordan’s views for political gain.

Reaction was swift on Twitter:

Twitter user @Commonsenseb0t wrote:

While @Cellularlinks said:

And @JoelKlebanoff had this stinging take:

In his statement, Trump tied his “America First” immigration agenda to the “spirit” of Jordan’s vision. The president said Jordan “epitomized the American Dream she worked so tirelessly to protect.” He noted that in 1966 Jordan was the first African American woman elected to the Texas Senate and, in 1973, became the first woman to serve Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat she held until 1979.

Mostly, though, Trump — who has been criticized for comments he made about restricting immigration from some poor countries — focused on some of Jordan’s views on immigration.

Trump said Jordan challenged our nation’s leaders “to maximize opportunities for all Americans by adopting an immigration policy that puts American citizens first.” He’s right.

As chairman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Jordan said the commission believed that the nation needed a properly regulated system of legal immigration that set limits on the number of immigrants — 550,000 — on a yearly basis. It’s no secret that Trump would like to limit who gets into the U.S.

As committee chair, Jordan “was reflecting the views of the commission, a group of people, and she was taking a middle position,” Ruth Wasem, an LBJ School public policy practice professor who was a Congressional Research Service immigration specialist, told the American-Statesman.

“Jordan called for an end to chain migration, which has allowed millions upon millions of low-skilled foreign nationals to compete for opportunities and resources against our most vulnerable American citizens — many of whom come from African-American and Hispanic-American communities,” Trump said in the statement.

Several studies show that claim is misleading.

“The impact of immigrant labor on the wages of native-born workers is low… However, undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do,” Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote in her Brookings Institution Essay, “The Wall.”

Immigrants find jobs because Americans don’t want the jobs that are available.

Those more likely to “steal” American jobs are immigrant professionals — engineers and technology workers — of which Trump suggests we need more.

More importantly, Trump’s statement doesn’t appropriately reflect Jordan’s immigration views.

Wasem said that Jordan was worried about the impact of unskilled immigration on minorities but that she was not advocating a return to race-based immigration policies. “She wanted to fully incorporate immigrants into American society,” Wasem said.

As President Lyndon B. Johnson’s protegee, Jordan found inspiration in Johnson’s Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which — besides concentrating on attracting skilled labor — abolished a quota system based on national origin and focused on reuniting families.

It would be inaccurate to paint Barbara Jordan as a supporter of racist policies that discriminate against immigrants from poor countries, said Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas history and global affairs professor.

“Jordan would find such positions offensive,” Suri said.

Missing from Trump’s cynical attempt to connect Jordan’s immigration views to his are her support of refugees and respect for all people. Respect for others was not unique to Jordan in her time. It was present in the nation’s overall political climate then.

Oh, how things have changed.

During her congressional tenure, both sides of the aisle favored civil rights-related rhetoric, Suri said. That rhetoric, he said, centered around inclusion, absence of prejudice and the belief that all parts of the world should be respected.

Back then it was rhetoric that Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill could agree on, even if policy didn’t always back the rhetoric, Suri added.
Not anymore.

“Today we have the party of Reagan regularly, its leaders, use racist rhetoric when they talk about people of color and immigrants,” Suri said.

And, it seems, shamelessly use the legacy of beloved leaders of color like Jordan for political gain.

Updated to reflect Jordan’s time as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Texas can, should do better for state living center residents

Liz Belile visits her sister Shanna in the Austin State Supported Living Center in West Austin Monday October 30, 2017. Belile’s sister suffers from a seizure disorder and needs permanent care, but having her in Austin has provided her with the opportunity to look in on her regularly and tend to her other needs. (RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

A glint of hope. That’s how Austin American-Statesman reporter Andrea Ball described the slow, gradual progress Texas has achieved in eight years to improve the state’s 13 supported living centers for people with developmental disabilities.

It’s an adequate description. As Ball’s recent investigation showed, all 13 centers report improvements in medical care, fewer resident injuries, and fewer cases of abuse and neglect. However, substandard medical care and safety remain a problem in some centers.

Texas’ 3,000 supported living center residents are among the most severely disabled and hardest to place because they require a level of care and security that can only be provided in an institutional setting.

As such, officials need to continue to push for improvements until each institution delivers the care and protection owed to this vulnerable population.

Sadly, Texas had for decades failed to comply with demands for better medical, dental and psychiatric care for state living center residents. On more than one occasion, Texas promised to do better. Each time, state leaders failed to deliver.

Until now, I hope.

The wheel of change began to move after a 2008 Justice Department investigation found a long list of medical care failings at state living centers, including the deaths in a single year of at least 114 residents, 53 of those from preventable conditions. The Justice Department required the state to overhaul the services the centers provide, the way they perform them and the way they measure success.

Since 2009, the state has spent $233 million to hire, train and monitor new employees. Texas has spent another $24 million for Justice Department-required, independent monitoring teams to evaluate all centers on a regular basis, and $12 million for consultants.

As expected, change has come slowly.

According to Ball’s reporting:

  • From 2010 to 2016, a 35 percent decrease in confirmed cases of abuse, from 429 to 277.
  • Between 2014 and 2017, a 25 percent decrease in reported injuries to residents, from 42,673 to 32,166.
  • Of injuries reported, 298 were considered serious, down from 516 in 2014.
  • Since 2014, a 32 percent decrease in reported injuries to center employees by aggressive residents, from 1,624 to 1,111.

Any progress made so far helps, but when Medicaid officials threatened to halt the flow of federal money to nine centers a total of 25 times in the last year over concerns of resident safety and substandard medical care, it’s a loud signal that there’s still plenty of work to be done.

State officials are on the right track. A change in how the Justice Department and state measure progress, by focusing more on individual outcomes instead of processes, should put centers on a faster track to meeting the federal expectations, according to officials. Officials must seize this opportunity to move the needle for meaningful change further and faster.

For most residents, their profound disabilities make them dependent on these institutions. It’s important that officials get it right for them. In doing so, maybe, officials help redeem the word of Texas.

Lack of offensive content can’t be the only measure for newly proposed Mexican-American textbook

In 2016, Texas State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, Jr. speaks out against the error-prone Mexican-American Heritage textbook voted down.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After rejecting a proposed Mexican American studies textbook that critics blasted as a racist portrayal of Latinos, members of the Texas State Board of Education have two months to review another book. If adopted in November, the new book will be added to a list of recommended textbooks available for use by Texas students next school year.

On Wednesday, the board was presented with the latest proposal, “The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” written by Tony Diaz, a Mexican-American studies professor at Lone Star College and a Houston-area activist.

Diaz’s book, which was written in less than a year, is the second Mexican American studies textbook the board has considered since last September. Board members should proceed carefully with their review given how quickly the project was produced. Most academic textbooks take more than a year to write — sometimes longer — experts say. Last November, board members rejected another textbook that critics said was an error-riddled racist portrayal of Mexican Americans.

Last year, about 100 people filled the Texas State Board of Education meeting room to protest “Mexican American Heritage,” which referred to Mexicans as “lazy” and contained about 140 factual errors, according to Mexican American history experts.

“The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” focuses on identity, race, culture and political issues facing Mexican Americans today.

In its preface, Diaz writes:

“Most media outlets can provide short answers to deep questions but there are not enough places where we can engage in deep discussion about identity, race, culture and other issues that not only influence one group of Americans but all of us. … This book is part of the answer.”

Diaz also writes that the book is intended to “dispel the illusion that Mexican American history and culture is foreign.”

Board Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, and Vice Chairman Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said they are optimistic they can adopt Diaz’s book in November, but the board still needs to ensure that the contents are error free and meet state requirements, the American-Statesman reported.

That’s encouraging. But the board should also ensure that the book shines a light on how the inspiring achievements of Mexican Americans are woven into the fabric of American history. That’s what experts and the Mexican American community expect. Board members should give serious consideration to feedback from those who have reviewed the book. When Diaz presented the book last week, he was the only person to comment on the book before the Texas School Board of Education.

A Mexican-American studies professor, Diaz has credentials to create a worthy book for Texas students.

“I haven’t seen anything or heard from anybody that leads me to think there is an area of concern. That’s good news,” board secretary Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, said Wednesday. Cortez was among many who were critical of the first proposed textbook.

That Diaz’s book has not produced any serious reasons for objection may be a good sign.

Texas students deserve an honest and complete representation of the role Mexican Americans have had in shaping our state and nation. Here’s hoping Diaz has delivered on what his book promises.

No need for bathroom bills; women’s restrooms have private stalls

Monica Roberts addresses the crowd at a rally for All In for Equality Advocacy Day at the Capitol on Monday, March 20, 2017. Event organizers and participants rallied and spoke with legislators about LGBT issues. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I find myself evermore confused about Texas transgender bathroom bills especially in light of a new measure Texas House lawmakers unveiled this week.

American-Statesman writer Chuck Lindell reported that House Bill 2899 by state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, would nullify local anti-discrimination protections that regulate access to multiple-occupancy bathrooms, showers and changing rooms. The measure effectively blocks cities, counties and school districts from enacting or enforcing transgender-friendly restroom policies.

So as I read that, it blocks jurisdictions from preventing discrimination. Got that?

A different version, Senate Bill 6, flew through the Senate last month along party lines. It would require government buildings and public schools and universities to limit bathroom use to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.

I’m seriously trying to understand the problem Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and many other Republicans are trying to fix in public – and now it seems, private — bathrooms and why I have been so unaware of the abuses they cite apparently going in ladies’ rooms across Texas. They have cited concerns over privacy and the scary threat of men, pretending to be women, in order to peep, or worse, at women taking care of their business.

Do they know that women’s restrooms have individual toilet stalls?

Perhaps all the confusion is contributing to my own bathroom issues.

During intermission at a recent performance at Austin’s Vortex playhouse I found myself along with several other women standing in line for the men’s restroom. It was the shortest line and some of us didn’t realize that the restrooms were labeled by gender. It is after all, the Vortex. Ultimately we did bail and join the women’s line, which snaked across the lobby.

But on a recent trip to New York during intermission of a Broadway show, dozens of women, including yours truly, jumped over to the men’s restroom line when it was clear we wouldn’t make it back to our seats for the start of the second act. At $200 a ticket, you aren’t fussy about such things. And yes, we did encounter a gentleman at a urinal, but he seemed OK with it, shrugging his shoulders and saying something like, “Go ahead, do your thing.” We did.

At one point, watching North Carolina’s meltdown on the transgender bathroom issue, I figured this deal to be a loser. Texas, I mused, was too smart to go down that rabbit hole. At least GOP House Speaker Joe Straus, recognizing the harm to the Texas economy, is opposing such measures.

That is underscored by a recent report by The Perryman Group that stated “reductions in travel and tourism activity would likely result in a gross product loss of almost $3.3 billion per year as well as the loss of over 35,600 full-time equivalent jobs (based on 2016 levels of activity).”

Consider that losses would total nearly $412 million in the speaker’s hometown of San Antonio.

While estimates are based on the Texas Senate’s version of the bill, the report, titled, “The Potential Impact of Social Legislation on Business Activity,” cautioned that “If the Texas Legislature passes a law viewed as discriminatory against lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender persons, it is likely that some meetings and events would be canceled and that some leisure travelers will also avoid the state. The resulting reduction in travel and tourism would involve substantial economic costs.”

Feeling its own economic squeeze, North Carolina did adjust its bathroom rules enough to appease the NCAA, which had threatened a boycott. It is unclear whether such tweaking will satisfy other big players.

Unfortunately, Texas is way down that rabbit hole now with Abbott weighing in on bathroom measures this week via Twitter, saying, “I support the principles of both the Senate and House to protect privacy in bathrooms. We will work to get a bill to my desk.”

OK, but what have we been doing up to now about our bathroom choices? Wouldn’t we have known by now if there was a problem? And why not trust local jurisdictions to address public bathroom policies, since it is local taxpayers who pay for them, be they in schools, city halls or parks?

That way Austin and San Antonio could enact protections for transgender people, while Cedar Park and Kyle could require everyone to use public bathrooms based on the sex listed on their birth certificates. And the private sector certainly is capable of taking care of its own bathroom business.

Certainly there may be some who have abused bathroom privileges. We’ve all read or seen news stories about smart phones hidden in walls, elevators and bathrooms for lewd purposes. But those are crimes committed by peeping Toms and perverts – not transgender people.

In any case, I wish Texas leaders had collected evidence to substantiate abuses so we would know what in the Sam Hill is going on in restrooms and how widespread it is? Then we would at least have facts driving legislation instead of hysteria, confusion and ignorance.

And would someone please tell our leaders that women and girls don’t even do No. 1 in the open. We have individual bathroom stalls.

 

President Trump: Don’t let people of color down

Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Melania Trump looks on during the 58th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Melania Trump looks on during the 58th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Today is a somber, anxious day for people of color in America.

On this day, as we witness the swearing in of Donald J. Trump as POTUS No. 45, we are conflicted.

As Americans, we respect the Oval Office, its traditions and a democratic process that determines our Commander-in-Chief. But as brown people with a not so distant history of subjugation and discrimination, we are worried that our country is moonwalking into a less friendly era.

Yes, I know that many whites, and especially white Democrats, are crazy with anger and sad to the point of tears. But they have an advantage in their skin color that never will make them vulnerable to the bigotry – and dangerous practices, such as racial profiling – to which people of color are susceptible. They luckily never will feel the sting of the N-word or humiliation from having a hijab snatched from their heads in public.

As we look ahead to a Trump administration, many African Americans and Latinos are fearing that the clock will be turned back on civil rights, deportations of undocumented hard-working families will swell and public schools, the great leveler for all people no matter their race, sexual preference or place of birth, will be kicked to the curb.

We’re woke, knowing any one of those things could return us to a condition in which prejudice is practiced with impunity. But collectively, such measures could do greater damage, hindering progress of our children for generations.

I hope not. And thankfully, Trump’s speech provided some glimmers of hope for those of us looking for something – anything – to hold on to in this new president. Here are Trump’s words I found hopeful:

“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction — that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves. . .”

“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”

“It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget — that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.”

I have to tell you that those last words truly touched me as the daughter of a World War II veteran, Grover C. Phillips, now deceased, who was wounded by shrapnel in France during the war. The scar was over Dad’s heart.

I know I don’t speak for every person of color; Polling shows that 18 percent to 29 percent of Latinos voted for Trump, so the vast majority of Latinos voted for Hillary Clinton.

Can you blame them when he kicked off his campaign last year with a speech in which he said, “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Among African American voters, 8 percent voted for Trump. And I don’t have to tell you how Malcolm X would refer to that small group of voters, so I won’t go there.

But I will share some personal experiences of family members and friends:

My mom, Esther Phillips, who turned 87 in August, cried as she watched the inauguration, asking “Are we going backwards? What will Trump do to help young African Americans get their education and jobs?”

My niece, who is attending graduate school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., did not attend the inauguration but is going to the Women’s March on Saturday because she is concerned that sexism and male privilege are on the rise.

My colleague, Gissela SantaCruz, told me of her nine-year-old son who woke up shaking, crying and nose running, at the thought of President Obama leaving office and Trump taking over. SantaCruz told me her son fears being treated differently in a world he believes now will focus on his ethnicity over all else.

Her 22-year-old son called her at the office, seeking comfort on Obama’s last full day as president, asking if they might meet for dinner and drinks as he was feeling anxious and down about the future.

Few, aside from U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, are openly questioning Trump’s legitimacy. To be clear, Trump won the election. Period. But his victory had as much to do with Clinton’s liabilities and sense of entitlement — as well as the tone deafness of the Democratic National Committee — as with Trump’s appeal to a nation hungry for a new face. That much is evident in the fact that Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million.

I’ve spent time with Lewis, a man of deep moral conviction. And I don’t blame the civil rights lion for boycotting the election. Lewis still carries the physical scars of having his scull cracked by Alabama state troopers for standing up for voting rights. Clearly Trump’s support of voter ID laws and other restrictive voting practices are hard to swallow given the country’s history of denying African Americans the vote.

And it doesn’t help that Trump seems to define outreach to African Americans in terms of photo ops or meetings with black entertainers and athletes, such as Steve Harvey, Kanye West, Jim Brown and Ray Lewis. If that is his comfort level for African Americans, we’re in trouble.

If Trump is interested in improving inner cities and helping African American youth succeed, as he said in his inaugural address, then he should start meeting with the mayors, council members, congress men and women and others elected by black communities.

Mr. President, you said today that “I will never, ever let you down.”

I hope that promise extends to all Americans.

 

 

 

More evictions for Austin’s low-income families from once-affordable homes

From left, David Rodriguez, Lisbeth Rodriguez, Edgar Nunez and Alan Rodriguez, arrive at their apartment after school Wednesday afternoon September 28, 2016 at Harvard Place at 5020 Manor Rd. Management gave notice to their residents they were being evicted within 30 days on September 30, 2016. The city council is trying to assist under the newly passed Tenant Relocation Ordinance which gives such residents 120 days to relocate. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
From left, David Rodriguez, Lisbeth Rodriguez, Edgar Nunez and Alan Rodriguez, arrive at their apartment after school Wednesday afternoon September 28, 2016 at Harvard Place at 5020 Manor Rd. Management gave notice to their residents they were being evicted within 30 days on September 30, 2016. The city council is trying to assist under the newly passed Tenant Relocation Ordinance which gives such residents 120 days to relocate.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When it comes to affordable housing, particularly for low- or working-income families, Austin’s attitude seems to be “There’s no more room at the inn.”

Sadly, it has become acceptable – even laudable – in some circles to evict, eject or otherwise force out long-time residents of modest or meager means to make way for the more prosperous newcomers who want to live in the central city. It is, as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would say, “smart” business to demolish the city’s most affordable housing stock and neighborhoods to build high-rent condos and homes for the well-heeled.

The most recent example of that is the hard-core eviction notices that went to residents of an East Austin apartment complex to move out in 30 days. These were low-income families – all Hispanic — with children who attend nearby Blanton Elementary School.

Blanton is a school with a pretty good record of educating all kids, including those who come speaking little or no English, or show up hungry because their families are deciding between paying the rent or buying enough food to last the month. So it makes sense that parents would want their children in a school with such a reputation.

As apartment complexes go, 5020 Manor Road is relatively small with 58 units. It has been repeatedly cited by the city for code violations. Despite such issues, it has served many families over the decades as an affordable option in the central city near major public transportation.

But here’s the thing: The property, which has gone by the name Harvard Manor and Lyric at Mueller, is walking distance from the affluent Mueller redevelopment with its pricey homes and condos, sprawling parks and trails, trendy shops and restaurants and protected bike lanes. So the 5020 Manor Road’s proximity to Mueller makes it too valuable for low-income residents who have occupied it all these years as it languished in disrepair.

Maybe the former owner could not afford to continue maintenance or maybe the offer by a new, out of state investor was too good to turn down. Whatever the case, there’s no more room at that inn for the working poor.

In all, 30 families were ordered out of their homes by Sept. 30. Thanks to intervention of several city and school district leaders, including Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo and school trustee, Edmund Gordon, as well as Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, the remaining couple of dozen families initially were given another month to find new homes.

But they now will have more time – until about the end of the year — due to a new city ordinance aimed at softening the impact of evictions on low-income Austin residents.

The ordinance requires property owners to give tenants who might be displaced at least 120 days’ notice before the filing of an application for a building or demolition permit that would force them from their homes. As the American-Statesman’s James Barragan reported, the city’s development services on Friday triggered the ordinance, suspending three demolition permits that the owners of 5020 Manor filed with the city.

An eviction notice hangs on an apartment doorknob, placed there by a Travis County constable Wednesday afternoon September 28, 2016. The complex, at 5020 Manor Road, gave notice to residents Sept. 1 that they must leave within 30 days, by September 30, 2016. The City Council is trying to assist under the newly passed tenant relocation ordinance, which gives such residents 120 days to relocate. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
An eviction notice hangs on an apartment doorknob, placed there by a Travis County constable Wednesday afternoon September 28, 2016. The complex, at 5020 Manor Road, gave notice to residents Sept. 1 that they must leave within 30 days, by September 30, 2016. The City Council is trying to assist under the newly passed tenant relocation ordinance, which gives such residents 120 days to relocate.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Aaron Rasty, the new manager of the company that owns the property, later told Barragan that he was unaware of the tenant relocation ordinance, but now will work with the city. He added that management had assisted some tenants in finding new housing.

But even with more time, finding an affordable apartment in Austin these days is akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

There was a time when a large stretch of Manor Road, from Airport Boulevard to U.S. 183, was lined with low-rent and so-called Section 8 housing for the poor. But the rise of the Mueller redevelopment – ironically from city-owned property that once housed Robert Mueller Municipal Airport – has triggered a shift in housing that now beckons hipsters with apartments marketed by their location to nearby Mueller.

Those trends that are disproportionately displacing African Americans and Latinos have been aided by city policies dating back several mayors to then-Mayor Kirk Watson, and numerous city managers, including City Manager Marc Ott, who last week stepped down to take a job in Washington, D.C.

Even the city’s well-intended repeat offender list seems to be working against affordability in certain cases.

Though the city’s repeat offender list for rental properties that violate city code aims to pressure landlords to repair properties, it has instead become what Shoshana Krieger of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid calls a “real estate speculator’s list.” So instead of spending money to fix properties in desirable areas of town, such as 5020 Manor Road, owners sell them for big profits. Apartments that were once low-rent are replaced with higher-rental units or condos.

“Instead of helping the people who have been living in these conditions for so long, whose health and safety has suffered, it (repeat offender list) seems to be rewarding slumlords who have profited off families,” said Krieger who heads the Building and Strengthening Tenant Action project.

Tovo also expressed concern that the repeat offender list is in certain cases spurring landlords to sell properties rather than repair them for the tenants living in them. Tovo said the city should examine ways to help landlords who are financially-strapped, such as steering them to low-interest loans, so there are options other than selling properties when landlords can’t afford to repair them.

As for the city’s tenant relocation ordinance, it did its job by stopping speedy evictions. It is unfortunate, however, that success is not measured by keeping families in their homes, schools or community, but in how long they get to stay before being booted out.