In the fall of 2009 in the small South Texas town of Hondo, three Mexican American city council members were officially recalled after a yearlong process that included petitions, protests by opponents of the recall, and a Justice Department Review. The city council members were recalled on the following grounds: “failure to meet their fiduciary duties by taking actions that placed the City of Hondo’s financial stability at risk.”
Underlying these accusations was the reality that Hondo’s 5 person city council had never before elected a majority of progressive candidates that made the issues of the predominantly low-income Mexican American residents a priority. The new council members instituted changes such as giving city employees raises and implementing city-wide home weatherization, beautification and street, curb, and drainage repair projects. The new council members also fought to have a more transparent governance process that was more accessible to community participation. Controversially, the city council voted to cancel the proposed expansion to city hall and the police department, and reduced the proposed energy rate increase to provide relief for the city’s poorest residents. Recall supporters and opponents disagreed about these measures and whether the city’s budget was properly balanced. Community support for the council members was evident at public meetings and protests. However, recall proponents eventually collected the required number of signatures (only a fraction of which were Latino residents) and eventually won the recall by 43 votes.
While this story out of Hondo did not receive substantial media attention, a more recent situation in Jasper, a small town in East Texas, has highlighted the all too similar reality in Southern politics. Last November in Jasper, 3 black council members were recalled after hiring the city’s first black police chief, Rodney Pearson. A group calling itself the League of Concerned Citizens started a petition to recall the council members on the basis of “incompetence, misconduct and malfeasance in office” (malfeasance is legalese for wrongdoing which violates public trust).
The group maintains that the recall efforts had nothing to do with race (although apparently all of the people who signed the petition were white), but stemmed from the belief that Mr. Pearson was not the most qualified candidate for the position. As a result of the recall election, the three black council members’ positions were filled by white candidates. The council, which is now a 4-to-1 white majority, voted last month 4 to 1 to fire Mr. Pearson based on his performance in the position. Mr. Pearson, who filed a complaint against the city with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is preparing to sue, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I feel that I ran the department as best as I could with the support that I had.”
These stories highlight the problematic relationship between governance, power, and race in American politics. While we now have more elected and appointed officials of color than ever, they still face tremendous challenges when in office and often times lack adequate systemic and in some cases lack enough community support as well. These challenges are even greater in communities with deep divides along color lines and painful histories of race relations, widespread in the South and Southwest. During the Hondo recall community members recalled the stories of the walkout of 1974, when Mexican American parents pulled their children out of schools to protest unfair treatment and in some cases abuse. In Jasper, a town still struggling to heal from the horrific murder of James Byrd and the visible vestiges of segregation in spaces such as the town cemetery, racial tensions have escalated with racial slurs surfacing at a City Council meeting and on Facebook.
These stories remind us that getting people of color elected into office is not enough. Ongoing efforts to minimize the participation and rights of communities of color exist and are compounded by the systemic pushback that occurs when our candidates do make it into office and make policy changes that diverge from the status quo. These stories emphasize the need for governance and organizing models that lift up the needs and interests of historically excluded communities of color and low wealth and supports our officials in the decision-making process. It also highlights the need for black, brown, and other communities of color and low wealth to work together to share struggles and successes, and support each other to build collective power that takes our histories, culture, and current needs into account.
Ultimately the recalls in Hondo and Jasper show that racism rears its head especially where power and control are concerned. Part of dismantling the deeply rooted racism that still exists in our communities requires fighting exclusion from effective access to the political process both internally and externally.
These stories show the present day reality in communities across the South, Southwest, and elsewhere in the country. With the increase in elected officials of color, and the subsequent pushback and the rise of race silent and rights-diminishing policy, it is a critical moment for our communities to organize to create change at the systemic as well as local level.