Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Respect and Frying Bigger Fish

I'd like to invite you to check out my column in today's Dallas Morning News. It's about how Dallas struggles to recognize the contributions of African-Americans and Hispanics with street name changes.

Now admittedly, this is pretty low grade stuff when it comes to the fight for justice and equal rights. I don't know of any one group of people for whom such an honor can said to be 'owed'. But as a society we do it because of the significance we attribute to the lives, the history and heritage of peoples and individuals. Dallas struggles with that.

We have gone through a protracted debate on whether or not to name a street for migrant worker rights activist Cesar Chavez. To me that's amazing! You would think that the city would come to a screeching halt if a major street were named for a Hispanic historic figure. I could understand controversy if we were talking about Che' Guevara - but this is Cesar Chavez, for goodness sake.

If you don't live in Dallas, we have a streets named for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They actually cross one another (I have heard that this is true only in Dallas and Harlem. I'd appreciate it if someone would correct that if its wrong...). These two streets are in predominantly black South Dallas. But why couldn't Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard be downtown? Why is it that the collective, prevailing wisdom is that only minorities can identify with the contributions of minorities? In the case of King's contributions, his fight and victory in helping to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn't guarantee citizenship rights solely for African-Americans. We all benefit from his work, so why do we think relegating recognition of historic figures to communities of color and ethnicity is 'fair'?

Again, this is low grade issue, relatively speaking. If you want to argue that there are bigger fish to fry, I would agree with you. But there are two things that are important here:

1) This is a matter of respect. It is saying to the citizens of a city that our history and heritage includes you. It is an effort to move beyond stereotype and acknowledge the contributions of peoples who make up a significant portion of the populace as a benefit to the city, if not the society at large. Public thoroughfares, buildings and public spaces should be areas with which all people should either identify, or which should educate and enlighten the citizenry by teaching them that the our growth, our prosperity, our commitment to equality, justice and fairness is the result of the work of many people from across a broad spectrum.

2) Things like this only become an issue when met with resistance and rejection. The 'poll' or whatever you want to call it, that elicited suggestions from Dallasites as to what to rename Industrial Boulevard, resulted in an overwhelming number of 'votes' for Cesar Chavez. Instead of the city leaders acknowledging this and simply saying this is the results we got, let's go with it - they began to issue statements that questioned who called in (whether or not all of the suggestions came from the Hispanic community); whether or not this was 'appropriate' for the intended use of the area (a 'riverfront' type space associate with development along the Trinity River); and that the process wasn't intended to be a 'real' poll. Does any of that really matter?!

And is it worth having the issue come up again and again? And at the end of the day, is there someone whose property values will plummet or will the city get a black eye because it named a downtown street for 'Cesar Chavez'? Again, amazing!

Neither the Hispanic community, nor supporters of the effort made this a big deal. The city of Dallas did, by not swallowing the results of the poll (or whatever you want to call it) and simply saying, based on a popular vote, we'll name the street Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Some people would have whined. Some would complain. African-Americans would have asked for a downtown street (at which point you could have chosen another street named for an inanimate object - like Live Oak, or Wood) and the issue would have been a dead one. Amazing...

By the way, there was one issue that has been settled.

Adelfa Callejo, a local Hispanic activist and attorney was honored by the Dallas Independent School District by having a school named after her. It was a controversial decision. Ms. Callejo made a comment during last year's presidential election that Barack Obama would not be supported by Hispanics because he is black. Now, as I've written before, Ms. Callejo can be tough to deal with. She is fiercely pro-Hispanic. She probably believes what she said and she hasn't apologized. But I believe that she has had a broader record than that statement. And, besides, during that heated presidential primary and election season there were any number of statements that were made that had to be forgiven (anybody remember Bill Clinton?! His wife ran for president - anybody remember the Democratic Primary season last year?!). Personally I can look past the slight and move on. I think given her career overall she deserves the recognition.

I did imply that Kathlyn Gilliam, who was the longest serving African-American school board member (nearly 20 years) and has a inspiring record of fighting for equality for DISD students, administrators, teachers and parents, deserved similar recognition.
Nancy Bingham, a current school board trustee, wrote to inform me that last month, Ms. Gilliam was indeed honored with having a school named after her.

This is one time I'm glad to be wrong...

Now, if only Dallas can get the rest of this right and we can go on and fry the bigger fish!

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