Big Beat

PHOTO SOURCE: www.facebook.com/UndocuBus
The Undocubus heads for Austin.

On July 29, a bus full of undocumented immigrants calling themselves UndocuBus began a journey from Phoenix, Arizona, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to raise awareness about immigration reform and, ultimately, to protest against President Obama at the Democratic National Convention in September. You might be surprised to hear that, since Obama just made a big speech about how his administration will no longer deport qualified undocumented immigrants under age 30. Unfortunately, like many of the president’s well-publicized immigration decrees, this one doesn’t exactly match up with his record.

In July, one month after Obama’s speech from the White House Rose Garden, 26-year-old undocumented immigrant Viridiana Martinez turned herself in at Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, to document U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) failure to comply with the new Deferred Action Process for Young People Who Are Low Enforcement Priorities, published by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on June 15, 2012, and marked “effective immediately.” From inside Broward, Martinez reported to Democracy Now! and the National Immigrant Youth Alliance the presence of more than 60 detainees without criminal records, another three dozen eligible to request that discretion be applied in their cases, and several immigrants requiring medical attention. Now, remember, the Deferred Action Process came after another highly publicized Obama directive, issued in June 2011, ordering ICE officials to “refrain from pursuing non-citizens with close family, educational, military, or other ties in the U.S. and instead spend the agency’s limited resources on persons who pose a serious threat to public safety or national security.” If the president’s directives aren’t completely ineffectual, why has he had to make two?

In August, as UndocuBus rolled through Austin, certain Texas Democratic groups tried to convince the protestors not to go to Charlotte. The critics weren’t willing to go on record, but suffice it to say the complaints were made to activists who were closest to the UndocuBus as it came through the state.

I experienced the same blind loyalty to the Democratic Party from Texas Observer readers who came out to defend the president on Facebook last month when my story about his pandering to the Latino vote was published. Despite having the worst deportation record of any American president, President Obama enjoys a 70-percent approval rating among Latino voters. This is probably because those voters, by definition, are documented. At the end of the day, if it’s not your problem, it’s tough to do more than keep up with an issue through the headlines. And the president’s administration does a great job of making the headlines read like he’s really got your back.

“The Democrats have helped us—even if it’s been in a very limited way,” Eleazar Castellanos, a 45-year-old day laborer and UndocuBus rider, told daily news site Colorlines. But he doesn’t believe that Obama’s policy, which allows young undocumented immigrants to apply for “deferred action” to avoid deportation, is nearly enough. “What if, during that time, someone has a radical idea to change the deferred action? They would have a new database of young people who applied, with their names and addresses. … Maybe they should hold off until a real change happens, before applying. That’s why I say Obama’s deferred action was not enough.”

Latino immigrants are only the latest in a long line of immigrant groups given the worst jobs for the lowest pay in America. That the majority of people in previous immigrant groups came here legally proves that they weren’t mistreated for breaking the law. They were treated like second-class citizens because they were different. Make no mistake: that’s the same reason undocumented immigrants are mistreated today. If you care about stopping bigotry and discrimination, you should care how immigrants are treated.

The issue of immigration reform not only affects the lives of undocumented people, it sets the tone for how all Latinos are viewed in this country. While many Latinos aren’t willing to vote for Republicans because that party has aligned itself so closely with whites openly hostile to them, Latinos could decide to vote for no one, concluding that neither party has their interests at heart. This would be damaging to the Democrats. Ergo, someone better start making immigration reform a priority.

In the meantime, it’s the UndocuBus riders who have the courage to risk everything for their convictions.

The janitor strike in Houston—which concluded last night with an agreement between janitors and cleaning companies—was historic and rare for many reasons. Texas is a right-to-work state. That means it’s illegal to require a person to join a union to keep or get a job, making the organization of a protest of this magnitude, which lasted more than four weeks, difficult. The right-to-work law also makes it illegal to fire someone for joining a union, but don’t be fooled, the law was adopted because of a long history of anti-union sentiment in this state. Reasons for anti-union leanings are as amorphous as a child’s fear of the dark, mostly driven by the conservative view that unions spawn unwanted social and political agents. But Texas’ anti-union sentiment also has its roots in the very concrete strategy of attracting outside industries to take advantage of cheap labor—a tactic that has worked well in this border state, with Mexico providing us a steady stream of exploitable employees. New York-based companies like ABM, Pritchard and JP Morgan Chase are all contractors of the Houston janitors that, until yesterday, refused to increase the paltry $9,000 a year average wage for janitors.

What little union labor was organized in Texas took a hit following the 1960s when the state grew more Hispanic and more female. Union organizers failed to adapt their recruitment tactics to the changing demographics. The growing number of high-tech jobs also decreased union membership in the state. Across the country, 11.8 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a union in 2011; but in Texas, union members comprised only 5.4 percent of the work force. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Texas had about one-fourth as many union members as New York in 2011, despite having 2.3 million more wage and salary employees.

But with the advent of the immigration reform and Occupy movements, Texas’ traditionally lowest paid workers may be realizing their situation doesn’t have to remain the way it is. There is a support system if they seek it. Last week, janitors and human rights activists in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York City, Portland, San Diego, San Ramon, Seattle, St. Louis, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., protested in solidarity with those in Houston. Texas Observer reporter Emily DePrang described the scene from Houston on August 2, where members of the janitors’ union had gathered in front of the city’s swankiest mall, the Galleria, to demonstrate:

The crowd was largely middle-aged and Hispanic with lined faces, more women than men, some with children in tow. They were people with something to lose.

These are the people the other unions failed to organize and they now represent the new face of Texas. A promotional video created by the Service Employees International Union Local 1, which represents the Houston janitors, is full of this face: Poor, female and of color. Struggling, not only to feed their children, but act as primary caretaker too. The description on the YouTube page recalls the rallying cries of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “For the richest 1%, Houston is booming. Yet, Houston janitors, who clean the offices of some of the largest corporations in the world, live in abject poverty on less than $9,000 year.”

SEIU Local 1’s Paloma Martinez says it’s not the union’s goal to target members of color or female gender. “It isn’t about who you are or who does the job, but about the job itself. Is it actually going to help families thrive? Is it actually going to revitalize the community? That’s a really important point the janitors are making because we can’t get into identity politics. It has to be a more serious question of how we revitalize the middle class. That’s the conversation the janitors want to have.”

Regardless, SEIU is succeeding in Texas where few unions have, organizing a strike of this longevity that even managed to get mayoral support. Houston mayor Annise Parker urged contractors, in a press release on July 20, to return to the negotiating table remarking that, “Their unwillingness to talk has left the union with no other choice but civil disobedience. That is not good for the City of Houston or our economy and it is not how we do business in Houston. We work hard, we work together and we treat each other fairly. The union has made good-faith offers. Now it’s time for the janitorial contractors to sit back down at the table to work out an agreement that is fair and just.”

They began negotiating again on August 3, and late last night, the union announced a deal. As DePrang reports, the janitors will receive a one-dollar-an-hour raise in the next four years. That’s less than the $1.65-per-hour increase the union initially sought, but much higher than the paltry 50-cent raise the companies had offered. In that way, this historic strike proved a success.

Despite having the highest deportation record of any American president in recorded history, Barack Obama has managed to achieve a 70 percent approval rating with Latino voters by pandering in the 11th hour.

A new poll conducted by Latino Decisions found that 70 percent of registered Latino voters would vote for Obama, while 22% said they would support Mitt Romney. This is the first time a Latino Decisions survey has shown Obama with 70 percent support in the last 20 months, a change the group attributes to the president voicing opposition to Arizona’s harsh anti-immigration law the past 30 days.

Latino Decisions also credits President Obama’s June 15 pro-Dream Act announcement, which, let’s face it, amounts to a lot of election-time feel-good words and no permanent change for undocumented students. (“Now let’s be clear,” Mr. Obama said in the Rose Garden, “This is not an amnesty. This is not a path to citizenship. It is not a permanent fix.”)

Here’s the thing: The president seems fond of (very) publicly decreeing liberal immigration policies for his administration without ever doing all that much to help pass liberal immigration legislation.

In June 2011, for example, the Department of Homeland Security issued an official memo instructing Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees to “refrain from pursuing non-citizens with close family, educational, military, or other ties in the U.S. and instead spend the agency’s limited resources on persons who pose a serious threat to public safety or national security.” This was widely circulated in the media and if you are the type of person who keeps up with the government through headlines, you’d think President Obama was pretty soft on immigrants.

In reality, though, the Obama administration arrested more than 150,000 noncriminal immigrants in fiscal year 2011. Two studies cited in a report from the National Association of Social Workers also found that, depending on the jurisdiction, anywhere from 55 percent to 87 percent of “serious criminal” arrests through ICE’s programs stem from misdemeanors such as traffic violations. This is because traffic violations are considered “level 2” crimes by ICE, placing them in the middle of the scale.

If voters would spend a modicum of time studying politicians’ actual records, they’d be a lot less inclined to vote based on campaign talking points and a lot more likely to demand a history of proven legislation that falls in line with their values before handing over their allegiance. Of course, the Democratic Party knows that no self-respecting Latino is going to vote for the Latino-hating Republicans, so they’ve really got us by the cojones. That’s a sad place for Latino voters to be.

It was Texas Justice vs. Federal Law Enforcement in the Rio Grande Valley last week after three U.S. citizens were arrested for shooting a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent they allegedly mistook for a suspicious vehicle casing their rural neighborhood at 3:30 in the morning Tuesday.

Pedro Alvarado, 41, and his 18-year-old son Arnoldo Alvarado were charged last Thursday with assault of a federal officer and knowingly using and carrying a firearm during a violent crime. A second, unnamed, 16 year-old son was charged with attempted capital murder in state juvenile court and was ordered detained pending another hearing later this month after the two sons shot and wounded ICE Special Agent Kelton Harrison. The charges came after the junior Alvarados shot and wounded Harrison while their father drove them in pursuit of the agent who was in an unmarked car near their home in Hargill, 25 miles northeast of McAllen. Harrison required surgery but is expected to fully recover.

There are three interesting parts of this case to me. 1. I didn’t know ICE was involved in drug enforcement to this degree. The court filings say that Harrison was conducting surveillance on an anticipated drug deal at a property near Hargill. 2. What would you do if you lived out in the boonies in an area known for drug trafficking and you saw a suspicious, unmarked car sitting in front of your neighbor’s house at 3:30 in the morning with the lights off? Would you go up to it and knock on the window and ask what they were up to? Me thinks not. I personally wouldn’t go shooting at the car, either. But then again, I’m not the sort of person who lives in the boonies, so I don’t own a gun. 3. Arnoldo Alvarado waived his Miranda Rights and gave a full confession to the police, an act that doesn’t give me the impression the family is hiding anything. According to court testimony, what ensued is out of a Robert Rodriguez film.

The senior Alvarado told his sons to get their guns. The two sons left the house with a 9mm handgun and a .22 caliber rifle. While their father drove with his lights out, the sons shot at Special Agent Harrison who was sitting in an unmarked silver vehicle with his lights out, as well.

Arnoldo ALVARADO stated the minor fired his .22 caliber rifle approximately six (6) times towards the silver vehicle. Arnoldo ALVARADO stated that he then fired two (2) rounds utilizing a 9mm handgun into the air, and fired numerous rounds at the silver vehicle.

That Arnoldo fired shots in the air would also indicate that the Alvarados were trying to scare the driver away. Harrison began driving away and Pedro Alvarado continued in pursuit while his sons continued shooting at the vehicle. Harrison eventually lost control of his vehicle at the intersection of FM 493 and FM 186. Home Security Investigations special agents arrived at the scene and discovered that Special Agent Harrison had been shot. He was transported to a local hospital.

The Alvarados also gave permission for a consent search, further indicating they had nothing to hide from the police. To complicate matters, two undocumented aliens from El Salvador were found there. Those men are being considered material witnesses because they were in the home before and after the Alvarados shot Special Agent Harrison.

The two Alvarado men could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted and the minor Alvarado is being charged with a state crime because the federal law is not set up to prosecute juveniles, but Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño wants the youth certified as an adult “because he has committed an adult crime.”

If, in fact, the Alvarados were doing what they say they were doing—protecting their neighborhood from what they likely thought was a criminal element—this would be a gross misuse of the justice system.

On June 20th, the same day a House panel voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over failure to turn over documents concerning the Operation Fast & Furious gun-walking scandal, the parents of slain ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and injured Special Agent Victor Avila filed notice that they would seek $62.5 million in claims from the U.S. government.  The notice came as President Obama asserted executive privilege involving the Arizona-based gun-walking program. 

Attorneys for Zapata’s family and Avila allege negligence and failure on the part of the government and several federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, regarding the attack against the two agents. Cartel members attacked Zapata and Avila on Feb. 15, 2011 in Mexico.

Gun-walking is when law enforcement agencies allow criminal suspects to “walk” off with guns, without stopping or even necessarily tracking them. In the Fast & Furious case, guns were allowed to cross the Arizona border into Mexico, ostensibly to follow the bad guys. The practice is considered highly irresponsible because the guns almost always end up being used to kill people.  A Fast & Furious gun was found at the murder scene of a U.S. border patrol agent in Arizona. The Zapata case has raised concerns about gun-walking in Texas after federal records showed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) were watching when the gun that ultimately killed Zapata was sold in a store parking lot in Lancaster, Texas. The agents allowed the gun dealers to drive away and only apprehended them two weeks after Zapata’s highly publicized death.

Zapata’s family and Avila have not been able to obtain answers to many of their questions about the attack in Mexico. Questions such as:  Why were the agents driving a suburban from Mexico City to the U.S. when they could have flown? Why were they traveling without an armed escort of Mexican military or police—as is routine—on a stretch of highway known for narco-gang activity? Why were they traveling in a custom-made, $160,000 high-security vehicle that had locks that would disengage when put in park?  Why was the grand jury testimony of an FBI special agent in the investigation into the attack “accidentally taped over” and not re-recorded?

Attorneys Trey Martinez of Brownsville and Raymond L. Thomas of McAllen allege that “wrongdoing” on the part of the ATF, ICE and the FBI led to the murder and injury of the special agents, according to the Brownsville Herald.

“The struggle to obtain this information and find transparency amidst the massive efforts to deny access to some … of the significant information seems to be the priority at hand, not just for these two families, but for other law enforcement agents, families affected by some of these decisions, as well the legislative branch of our Federal Government,” said the lawyers on June 20.

The attorneys said the claims may be amended.  

Operation Too Hot To Handle, is one of a dozen other gun-walking operations the ATF has run in recent years. According to the ATF website, Too Hot To Handle involved about 300 weapons, mostly assault rifles and automatic pistols that were seized in Arizona, Texas and Mexico.

At the Texas Democratic Convention in Houston in early June, Gilberto Hinojosa of Brownsville, a former Cameron County judge and county Democratic chairman, was elected to lead the state Democratic Party. He’s the first Hispanic to lead either major party in Texas. That his election comes less than two years after the 2010 U.S. census is no surprise to me. This is the era of Tejanos taking back Texas through the power of sheer numbers. But will numbers translate to electoral gains for Democrats? Latinos, historically, have been apathetic about voting. Hinojosa says that’s the result of a flaw in the party’s strategy of late, its focus on so-called independent voters when Democrats should be courting the state’s sleeping demographic giant.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that [Hispanic turnout] is where we’re getting beat,” Hinojosa says. “Anything you want to look at with regards to the Democratic Party, it comes down to that. We’ve got African-Americans, the LGBT community, Asians, women. The one that’s under-performing in greatest numbers and the one that makes up the greatest number of [potential] voters is the Hispanic community.”

Hinojosa decided that his 23 years of living and working in Brownsville—with a population more than 90 percent Hispanic—as well as several years spent working as a legal services attorney for migrants and a member of the Democratic National Convention executive committee in Washington, D.C., was worth something to his party.

After the devastating 2010 elections, Hinojosa spent 18 months traveling around the state and developing what he believes is a winning strategy for Democrats.

That includes illustrating to Latinos just how badly not voting affects their everyday lives, whether through cutbacks in education or separation of families through a broken immigration system or engagement in wars America has no business fighting.

His plan is to tell people that much of what’s wrong in the state is a result of allowing the Republican Party to gain an overwhelming majority.

“People in our community need to understand that we are the party that helps people in a lower socioeconomic status. Public education programs, civil rights, women’s rights, minority students going to college—that was all done by Democrats.”

Hinojosa has walked the walk. The first in his family to go to college, the Rio Grande Valley native went from The University of Texas Pan-American in Edinburg to Georgetown University’s law school in Washington D.C. Graduating in 1978, he worked in legal aid until establishing a private practice in 1995.

The experience gave Hinojosa an appreciation for the subtle differences between Latinos in different areas of the state. For example, Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley, he says, are not as concerned with immigration as those in the major urban centers. “You didn’t see these huge demonstrations in South Texas that you saw in the big cities,” he explains. He plans an approach Democrats haven’t tried before: tailoring different messages to Latinos in different parts of the state. He hopes a fresh message from the party, more engagement in Hispanic communities, and more grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts will spur Latinos to the polls. Latino turnout in Texas is much lower than in heavily Hispanic California, Colorado and Nevada. In 2008, just 37 percent of Texas Latinos who were eligible to vote went to the polls, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—below the national average of 49 percent and far below the 58 percent of California Latinos who turned out. That has to change for Democrats to win elections in Texas.

Hopefully Hinojosa will succeed in influencing Blue Dog Texas Democrats, many of whom are Hispanic, to remain the party of the people. Of the three Democrats in the Texas Senate who voted for the anti-woman, pre-abortion sonogram bill, all were Hispanic. Of the five Democratic Texas House members who voted for it, three were Hispanic. That any of the Dems voted for it is disappointing.

Ultimately, Hinojosa knows the Dems have a secret weapon with Latinos—the angry rhetoric coming from some Republicans.

“What helps more than anything else is the [members of the] Republican Party who are so anti-Hispanic, to the point of being bigoted,” he says.

At the end of the day, that could be Hinojosa’s most powerful tool.

This year’s Democratic primary race for Congressional District 35, predicted to come down to long-time Congressman Lloyd Doggett and Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector Sylvia Romo, is like a made-for-TV movie about Texas’ changing demographics.

The ingenious Republicans used redistricting to put Doggett in a tough position. He’s running against a Latina from San Antonio in a district based partly in Bexar County where many of the voters are Latino. The race comes at a time when Latinos, who will soon comprise a majority of Texans, have celebrated a new state Tejano monument and could stand to elect Texas’ first Latina congresswoman in Romo—at the expense of one of the few Anglo politicians who has championed their causes for nearly 20 years. The alternative is to keep Doggett, a proven advocate, and turn their back on history. For Latino voters in CD 35, it’s an unenviable decision to make.

Neither Romo or Doggett lives in the newly drawn district, which begins in Travis County and runs a long skinny way down to Hispanic-heavy San Antonio. Only grass-roots candidate and Air Force veteran Maria Luisa Alvarado lives in District 35. Alvarado, who ran a lost-cause race for lieutenant governor against David Dewhurst in 2006, is considered a long shot because of her lack of funding. Both Doggett and Romo plan to move to District 35, (Doggett lives five blocks east, currently), should they win the primary on Tuesday.

“The congressman is running in CD 35 because he has always said that he will run in whichever district has the largest number of his current constituents,” Ashley Bliss-Herrera, a spokesman for the Doggett campaign, told me.

Of the five congressional districts that Travis County was sliced into, District 35 is the only one that maintains a Democratic majority. Of course, it also stretches down to San Antonio—a deliberate move by the GOP to oust Doggett by saddling him with a Hispanic majority voter base that doesn’t have a history with him. (The GOP tried this same strategy in 2003-2004, when Tom DeLay’s mid-decade redistricting plan put Doggett in a majority-Latino district that stretched from Austin to the Rio Grande Valley. Doggett won reelection anyway. The district was redrawn for the 2006 election after federal courts invalidated parts of the DeLay map.)

Romo, a former state rep who’s now attempting to leap from a county office to Congress, has some serious confidence in her raza-ness to run against Doggett in any race. But it’s a gamble that could pay off.

“This is a district that was designed to elect a Latino and my feeling is that is what it’ll do,” Romo told me. “I think many in the district see this as an opportunity to make history by electing the first Latina from Texas to Congress.”

She’s also tapped into a dark secret I, as a liberal Hispanic, hate to say out loud: Hispanic Democrats in Texas are not necessarily so liberal. At least based on her platform of “non-partisanship” and emphasis on job creation and fiscal health rather than national healthcare or broad immigration reform—two issues Doggett has a history of championing.

The race may hinge not only on money—which Doggett has much more of— but also who turns out to vote, the so-called “liberal elite” Hispanic who, in many ways, bucks traditional Latino mores, or the working class voters who share more conservative values.

Doggett has a proven record of taking on Republicans and advocating for education, fair taxation and a host of other progressive causes. Doggett was also endorsed in the race by both the Austin American-Statesman and the San Antonio Express-News. But Romo is the liberal ideal come to fruition: a minority woman representing her own district—and an experienced public official who would be Texas’ first ever Latina in Congress.

It’s liberal ideals vs. the liberal dream actualized.

Last week, the San Antonio Express-News did a piece on the changing face of Texas schools. It seems the system has gotten noticeably browner and poorer and now we have the undesirable task of figuring out how to get these brown, underperforming people educated.

“Demographers and educators worry,” the Express-News’ Gary Scharrer reports, “because Hispanic participation in higher education lags far behind that of whites.”

Watching policymakers, journalists and statisticians dance around the obvious reason for underperformance from poor students of color would be funny if it weren’t so infuriating.

Let’s see if we can solve the mystery of why kids of color do worse in school. First off, let’s look at their home life. As people of color, these kids’ parents are subjected to a higher unemployment rate than their Anglo counterparts. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for whites in Texas is at roughly 6.5 percent. For Latinos it’s 9 percent and for African-Americans it’s a whopping 15.5percent. Texas Hispanics not only make less money on average than Anglos, they make less money than Hispanics living in other states, according to a report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. As this year’s redistricting debacle has taught us, minorities in Texas have been historically discriminated against in the political process and still have to fight just to gain fair representation in government. And people of color also have a higher chance of being targeted by police as was reported in the landmark 2004 study “Racial Profiling: Texas traffic stops and searches,” which was the nation’s largest survey on racial profiling. Six out of every seven law enforcement agencies in Texas reported searching blacks and Latinos at higher rates than Anglos despite those searches turning up nothing 98 percent of the time.

All these issues can lead to students coming to school less prepared than their white counterparts. Now let’s look at the inequities in the classroom. A 2008 study by The Education Trust to learn why Texas is failing to make headway with lower-income students and students of color reveals a lot. (Spoiler: It’s not that said students are inherently stupid.)

Looking at the state’s 50 largest school districts, the study found that, year after year, Hispanic, African-American and low-income students are less likely to be assigned to teachers who know their subject matter, less likely to be in classrooms with experienced teachers and less likely to attend schools with a stable teaching force. “Not surprisingly, their teachers are paid less, too,” the study reports.

Not surprising to anyone who studies the data. Consistently, people of color are given the proverbial shaft.

  • Poor and minority students in Texas are far less likely than others to have certified math teachers.
  • 58 percent of Algebra I teachers in predominantly African-American schools are certified in math, compared to 82 percent of the teachers in schools with the fewest African-American students.
  • Of the state’s 
50 largest school districts, 43 have the highest concentration of novice teachers in the poorest schools.
  • Across Texas, at every school level and in all
core subjects (English, math, science and social studies), Hispanic, African-American and low- income students are more likely than their more affluent and white peers to be taught by teachers who do not meet state requirements.
  • A similar analysis of teacher and student data in Los Angeles concluded that “having a top- quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.”
  • In Arlington, for example, the average teacher salary in the district’s highest-poverty middle schools is $4,750 less than the average teacher salary in the more-affluent middle schools.
  • In Amarillo, teachers working in elementary schools serving mostly Hispanic and African-American children earn on average $2,405 less than those in the elementary schools serving greater numbers of white students.

People who question the existence of systemic racism need only look at the numbers. Take the emotion out and see for yourself. The statistics are quite simply stacked against people of color in this state. Yet the media covers the issue in code, leaving it to sound like some unsolvable mystery.

“All the school districts will have to make adjustments to make sure they are prepared to address the needs of young Hispanic learners. We have this huge challenge. It’s kind of daunting when you look at it,” Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter says.

The idea of treating everyone the same does seem to be daunting to those in power, but guess what? If you treat a huge portion of your population like they don’t matter, it’s going to come back to bite you economically. So pull your head out and do something really different: Give poor kids of color the best teachers, all the money and all the support you give affluent Anglo kids. Give their communities economic opportunity, too. You know, as if they were your own white families. Then see how far they lag behind the education curve.

It sure seems like there was gun-walking going on in Texas, and yet U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder won’t answer any questions about it. The fourth member of a Dallas-area gunrunning ring that was observed for months by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) while the men bought and sold the gun that ultimately killed Laredo ICE Agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico last year was sentenced to seven years in prison Monday. U.S. District Court Judge Sam Lindsay handed down the sentence in Dallas Monday after Otillio Osorio plead guilty to conspiracy and other charges relating to a gunrunning network.

Osorio was the last of the group to be sentenced after his brother, Ranferi Osorio, received a 10-year prison term in March for running the network. Their accomplices Kelvin Leon Morrison, 26, and Luis Carbajal, 23, received two and a half years in prison and two years of probation respectively for conspiring to buy guns from licensed dealers using false statements, which the dealer is lawfully required to record and store.

Though the firearms charges are not directly related, the Osorios supplied the gun that was ultimately used to shoot and kill Laredo ICE agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico in February of last year. ICE Agent Victor Avila, also from Texas, was shot and wounded in that attack, which occurred on a stretch of highway between Mexico City and San Luis Potossi.

There is alarming evidence to suggest that Agent Zapata was the victim of an unauthorized ATF gun-walking program gone awry, much like the one that was exposed in Arizona last year, Operation Fast & Furious. Federal records show agents were watching the Osorio brothers sell a 40-gun load to an informant at a store parking lot in Lancaster, Texas. They allowed the Osorios to drive away after the deal.

Agent Tom Crowley, spokesman for the ATF in North Texas, told Dallas affiliate CBS11 in February that arresting the brothers then would’ve risked blowing a larger investigation. A gun-walking operation, perhaps? Gun-walking is when law enforcement officials allow illegal guns to enter Mexico so they can allegedly follow them to the bad guys. In the case of Fast & Furious, however, more than 1,000 guns were lost and ended up at crime scenes, including that of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was shot and killed while patrolling the Arizona desert last year, and, you guessed it, at the murder of ICE Agent Jaime Zapata.

“There was a stop, but it was also a part of another federal law enforcement operation,” Crowley said. “By taking them down and arresting them at that time would have possibly jeopardized that investigation.”

Attempts to find out from U.S. Attorney General Holder whether a Fast & Furious type program was occurring in Texas have gone largely unanswered, prompting congressional Republicans to consider holding Holder in contempt. The latest word, however, is that the Repubs are slowing down that effort because it’s too risky in an election year. And, that, America, is your tax money at work.

I recently attended a panel at The Daily Texan offices where some University of Texas educators and I had a conversation with the Texan staff of student reporters and editors about how to better handle issues of race in the stories they cover. The panel came about after a controversial cartoon appeared in the Texan last month regarding media coverage of the shooting murder of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. The cartoon offended a lot of people with its suggestion that the media has turned the case into a race issue when it’s not, and for its use of the word “colored” to describe Martin. The Texan editorial board issued a formal apology for publishing the cartoon and announced that its creator, Stephanie Eisner, would no longer work for the paper. It was then that they invited several professionals to come speak to The Daily Texan staff. Having covered the story twice on the Observer’s website, I decided to attend. Some things that stood out:

Stephanie Eisner was not necessarily fired. It’s not been revealed whether Eisner was fired or whether she quit. If Eisner was fired, one panelist opined, the editors who let the cartoon run should also be fired if The Daily Texan doesn’t want to appear to be making Eisner the scapegoat. No one on the staff responded.

College kids might not realize “colored” is an offensive word. One African-American professor on the panel explained to the room why the term “colored” is offensive to black Americans and wondered aloud if it was a generational thing for the young Texan staff not to know this. I followed up with an email to the editorial board to ask if this was the case. They declined to comment.

Some white people are afraid to approach subjects of color for fear of appearing condescending or exploitative. The student editors and others asked several times: Can we create more diverse coverage in the future without people accusing us of only doing it because of what happened with the Trayvon Martin cartoon? The answer we gave them was don’t worry about it. You’re always going to have critics no matter what you write. Better to write the truth, and the closest way to get to the truth is to cover all angles.

When a panelist suggested that the Texan do a story about racial profiling by approaching men of color on The Drag near campus and asking them if they’ve ever been racially profiled, one Anglo reporter asked very sincerely how he could do that without offending the men of color. It had never occurred to me that such an inquiry could be taken as offensive. I told him that if his intentions are honorable and if he listens to his subjects, most people are eager to tell their story to a mainstream media that largely ignores them.

What struck me most about the conversation with these college staffers is that they are asking the same questions about diversity that professional media outlets ask. The issues with which The Daily Texan is grappling are issues that all professional institutions grapple with.

Why is everyone in our office white? How do we reach out to people of color? Where are they? Why don’t they feel comfortable here? Why aren’t they coming for interviews when we advertise job openings? The issue is bigger than The Daily Texan. This is a societal issue. People of color are still far more likely to grow up in relative poverty, where the idea of going to college or, if they do go to college, majoring in something as “frivolous” as journalism, is just not seen as viable. It behooves those of us in positions of power to reach out to those who may never have had anyone say to them: Have you ever thought about writing for the paper?

A diverse staff won’t ensure that offensive content never gets published, and that’s okay. As one African-American professor said, “It’s important those kinds of views get printed in the paper so we can know what those people are thinking.” Still, having a variety of life experiences represented on the masthead increases the likelihood that more viewpoints are expressed.