For the second time in less than three months, a San Antonio City Council member Thursday accused colleagues of “playing the race card.”

Through the years I have often heard that accusation hurled in what might be called aggressive defensiveness from someone who was quite accurately accused of making a racist argument or defending a racist policy.

This time is different. I find myself siding with the two council members who were accused of racism. There are two reasons.

First, I don’t think the accusations were fair. Second, even if they had been fair they would have been unwise.

In the past 50 years the most sophisticated and powerful Hispanic politician in San Antonio and the most powerful Hispanic political organization have understood and operated in compliance with an important rule: In politics, playing the race card is rarely a good bet. More on that after we examine the two recent controversies.

Last Thursday, the council was discussing an allocation of $200,000 to Catholic Charities to support its work in assisting undocumented immigrants who have been released by federal authorities in Del Rio and Eagle Pass. The organization helps the immigrants get to the Greyhound bus station or the San Antonio airport to join relatives in other parts of the country.

Although he eventually voted for the grant, Councilman Clayton Perry of suburban Northeast District 10 said the city should be pressuring the federal government to test the immigrants for the coronavirus.

“We don’t know if they’ve been tested,” he said. “We don’t know if they’re positive. And it just seems like there’s no concern at all about that.”

Third-term Councilwoman Ana Sandoval of near-Northwest District 7 didn’t quite use the word “racist,” but she called out Perry for making comments regarding “people of color and because they have a different national origin than some of the people sitting on this dais.” She added that she took “tremendous issue and offense” to Perry’s comments.

Teri Castillo, the new councilwoman from District 5, chimed in to say she would recommend books to Perry on race, Mexican migration, and eugenics.

For the record, according to the fact-checking news organization PolitiFact, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says “100 percent of noncitizens” are tested “at some point during their immigration journey.” But some are not tested early on the “journey.” City Manager Erik Walsh acknowledged that the number of unvaccinated immigrants is unknown.

Perry was stung by the councilwomen’s accusations. “It has nothing to do about race,” he said. “And I, too, take great offense that we always play the race card on something like this. That’s preposterous.”

As we’ll see, in San Antonio politicians don’t “always play the race card.” But I agree that the accusation was unwarranted here. There is no evidence that Perry would have felt any differently if the immigrants were escapees from Italy when it had one of the worst outbreaks in the world. 

Northside District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez, who joined the meeting virtually because of an immune system disorder, defended Perry’s concern about health issues. He said anyone suggesting Perry was a bigot could “meet me in the parking lot.” I hope he was jesting. I’d hate to think Pelaez is so juvenile as to challenge colleagues to parking-lot fisticuffs.

After the meeting Perry issued a statement saying he had voted in favor of the $200,000 allocation because he was sympathetic to “the plight of the migrant people who continue to take great risks to seek asylum in the United States. This is a humanitarian and a health issue, and as a compassionate city, our leaders should allow everyone space to express their concerns, rather than discarding them as racist.”

Back in June, then-Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales of the Westside District 5 flat out accused North Central District 9 Councilman John Courage of “racism” at a board meeting of the San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corp., a nonprofit created by the city to give support and tax breaks to developers who include low-income housing in their projects.

Gonzales was angry at Courage for voting to delay approval for the development of apartments in the long-vacant Friedrich air conditioner plant in Eastside District 2. He took the position that while half the 358 apartments would go to individuals or families that made less than 80% of the “area median income,” or AMI, only 14 units would go to families making less than 60% of the AMI. 

Gonzales blew up at Courage later in the meeting after he voted for a project in his own District 9 that provided apartments for renters at 80% of the AMI.

“There’s no reason to delay [the Friedrich Lofts], and I can’t come up with anything else — that it’s just flat-out racism that you can have some things and we can’t. And I’ll leave it at that,” she said.

Courage responded forcefully: “Now that’s going across the line. That is definitely going over the line … playing the race card in this.”

Gonzales later told the San Antonio Report that “racist” wasn’t quite the right word but did not back off her comments.

“It’s incredible hypocrisy to say that we need more affordability in our districts but he doesn’t need affordability in his,” she said. “His excuse is that the people that live there can’t afford it. And I’ve heard this argument a number of times, but the reality is that people in our community who do well for themselves have to leave because we don’t have quality product that’s market rate.”

Actually Ridgeline Flats, the project in District 9 that Courage voted for, provided for more “affordability” than the Friedrich project. Of 350 apartments, 140 are slated for people making 80% or less of the AMI and 36 to people making less than 60%. A week after Courage called for a delay, the Friedrich project was approved after developers raised the number of apartments at 60% of the AMI from 14 to 24. Courage voted in favor.

Gonzales, who represented District 5 on the West Side, the most Hispanic and Democratic district in the city, offered no appreciation for the political fortitude it took for Courage to support a subsidized housing development in District 9, the only district in San Antonio to vote for Donald Trump last year.

And she couldn’t come up with any reason other than racism that Courage would argue for more apartments for families at 60% in District 2. But it’s not hard to think of one.

Unlike the suburbs in the north, neighborhoods around the Friedrich building are under considerable gentrification pressures. Low-income people including elderly persons and families are being pushed out. Many don’t want to move away from relatives and friends into northern suburbs that offer fewer transportation and other services for poor people.

As I mentioned at the beginning, San Antonio’s most effective political actors have avoided playing the race card. The parish-based Communities Organized for Public Service was founded in 1974 and was overwhelmingly Hispanic, though it included some Black Eastside congregations and would later merge with the Metro Alliance, a Northside coalition.

COPS, now COPS/Metro, has won billions of dollars for drainage and other infrastructure projects, has pressured local governments to pay living wages, and has created and won funding for one of the most effective job training programs in the nation. Over the past half-century it has been among the most powerful political forces in the city. 

Yet despite the fact that it still is overwhelmingly Hispanic and Black, it has as a matter of policy never argued for anything because of discrimination. It argued as citizens and taxpayers, not as victims. Heaven knows that was not because those groups hadn’t been victimized by racism. It was because crying racism wouldn’t get them what they wanted.

In 1978 I spent several weeks with a young city councilman named Henry Cisneros for a magazine cover story on the rising political star. At one point I asked him if he had ever suffered racial discrimination. He asked if he could go off the record. I said no. He changed the subject.

Cisneros would go on to be the most politically effective San Antonio mayor of modern times. Yet he never made a civil rights argument. Having grown up on the West Side among people who worked hard but didn’t make much money, he knew it would be counterproductive in his efforts to get wide political support for his aggressive agenda of economic growth.

I found it interesting that two council members who “played the race card” were council veterans. Gonzales was about to be term-limited off the council after eight years and Sandoval is in her third term.

Yet it was a newcomer from District 2, the youngest member of the council and an avowed social democrat, who tried to lighten the discussion last week when Perry was accused of racism.

“I never thought I’d see Councilman Perry advocating for big government,” he joked. “There’s room in the socialist caucus for you, Councilman Perry,” said Jalen McKee-Rodriguez.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.