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City Council last week passed a resolution declaring racism to be “a public health crisis” and committing the city to addressing the issue. The resolution passed 9-0. District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez was absent and District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry abstained.
It was Perry’s abstention that I found most interesting. We’ll get to that in a minute.
If we didn’t already know that racism played a significant role in public health, the coronavirus pandemic has given us more than a hint. Hispanics make up 58.4 percent of Bexar County’s population, but 76 percent of its virus cases and 68 percent of COVID-19-related deaths. Whites are 27.3 percent of the county and have contracted 15.8 percent of the cases. Twenty-four percent of the residents who have died were white.
It does get a bit complicated. African Americans are 7.2 percent of the county’s population, but account for only 4.8 percent of the cases and 5.6 percent of the deaths. I don’t know the reason, but they deserve the break.
In the wake of the the police killing of George Floyd, the United States seems to have made quick progress in discussions of race. Polling shows a sharp increase in approval of the Black Lives Matter movement. White people flooded the streets to join in mostly peaceful protests of police brutality and systemic racism. The bestseller lists of books have been dominated by the topic of race. And NASCAR banned the Confederate battle flag.
So it isn’t surprising that City Council passed its resolution without opposition. Even Perry the abstainer wasn’t opposed to its conclusions. He actually submitted a draft of his own that accepted about half the majority’s “wherefores” and adopting all the “therefores” with one exception, a rather repetitive commitment to “advancing health equity and supporting historically marginalized communities.”
Perry said he couldn’t vote for the majority’s overall resolution because it was “divisive.” He deleted several clauses that referred to past policies such as redlining and other forms of discrimination, including San Antonio’s segregated lunch counters. To a clause that mentions “a history of structural, institutional, interpersonal and individual racist practices …” Perry inserted “in the past.” He also deleted a clause listing Texas’ history of enshrining white supremacy in its 1836 constitution, lynchings of Mexicans, and one particular 1918 massacre by the Texas Rangers, a group of Anglo cattlemen, and the U.S. Cavalry.
Perry was tied up in meetings Monday, but his staff says he received calls and emails from constituents “who read them and felt like Council was calling San Antonio a racist city among other negative comments we have received. We know that was not the intent of this resolution.”
The reaction is understandable. We don’t visit the sins of our fathers on their descendants.
But history is important and we need not to get defensive about it. In her brilliant new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson offers a metaphor as a way out of the defensiveness trap. She says our society is like an old house. Our race-based caste system “is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home.”
We didn’t build this old house, but it is up to us to fix its flaws. To do that we have to look unflinchingly beyond its new paint and repairs. “With an old house,” she writes, “the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be.”
We must look not only for the structural mistakes that were made, but also for the subtle and sometimes hidden ways in which those mistakes continue to cause problems.
I believe that the resolution as it passed could focus much more effectively on our past as it relates to public health. That wouldn’t have been less ugly. One example: As a summer intern at the now-defunct San Antonio Light in 1967, I wrote a story about a six-block area about two miles east of the rising HemisFair Tower and seven miles inside city limits in which the city had never installed sewers. The residents still had outhouses.
This wasn’t ancient history, but at that time many more Bexar County residents outside city limits lived in colonias not only without sewers, but also without paved roads and running water. They bought their water off trucks.
In one of his proposed edits, Perry wrote: “Whereas, while it may be painful to reflect on our history and the mistakes that have been made, it is important to remember how far we’ve come in the fight for equality, as well as to remember how far we still have to go.”
Can’t argue with that. Those Eastside folks got their sewers, and we still have a long way to go. We’ll see the right path ahead much better if we look hard at the path that got us here.