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City attorney's comments stirs discussion of 21st-century racism (video)

By JR Ortega
June 8, 2013 at 1:08 a.m.
Updated June 9, 2013 at 1:09 a.m.

16 x 9 racism

RACISM

A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

SOURCE: Merriam-Webster

Understanding the story

On May 14, former Mayor Will Armstrong was going to hand over the gavel to Mayor Paul Polasek when several in the community voiced concerns at a City Council meeting over whether it was legal for Armstrong to have dropped out during a runoff election.

On May 21, the decision was made to officially canvass the votes and name Polasek mayor. At that meeting, City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz made a comment during the signing of an election ordinance to "just be sure to sign in Spanish."

This sparked concern with some residents, and the video recording of the council meeting was watched and rewatched.

On June 4, three people expressed their concerns over what the attorney said, saying his comment was insensitive and racially mocking of Hispanics.

Are we closer to becoming a post-racial society?

When is a joke just a joke? Or do we advance the cause of justice by calling out all perceived racial or ethnic slights?

City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz's comment to "just be sure to sign in Spanish," to then-Mayor Will Armstrong during a City Council meeting has some claiming racial mocking, but others say the accusation actually harms the fight for equality.

To Victoria resident Kimberly Spaulding Garcia, the bickering over perceived racial issues does little to transform Victoria or the nation into a post-racial society.

Garcia, a 29-year-old lifelong Victoria resident, attended the May 21 council meeting but did not hear the comment. She later watched the city recording that picked up the comment the city attorney made while directing the mayor to sign an election document.

At first, Garcia said, she did not know what to think, but once she learned Armstrong was signing a document that was in English and in Spanish, she said, she realized the comment was taken out of context and blown out of proportion.

"It doesn't help us move forward, and it doesn't help the City Council, who needs to move forward," she said.

Joseph Jewell, a professor of sociology focused on racial and ethnic issues at Texas A&M University, said the comment is a far cry from the days of signs barring African-Americans and Mexicans from businesses.

However, he said, any time someone feels hurt by a comment, it should be addressed.

Society should not ignore the issue or brush it off as being oversensitive, even in this recent City Council case, Jewell said. Listening to the claims of racism and educating people helps the nation push forward, he said.

"This is not in people's imaginations," he said. Ignoring it "attempts to minimize or negate the reality."

Likewise, calling someone racist because of one comment could close dialogue and be hurtful, he said.

To truly understand racism is difficult because only a person knows what his or her true feelings are, Jewell said.

All people have racial biases, but racism occurs when a person's actions or words reinforce the idea that there is a group of people who are superior and a group that's inferior, Jewell said.

Jewell said he thinks Gwosdz should give an explanation to keep the lines of communication open.

"People should be held accountable for the things they say," he said. "As an elected official, you need to be a bit more careful."

Contacted by an Advocate reporter the day after the May 21 meeting, Gwosdz said he was trying to bring "a moment of levity to an overly stressful meeting."

Clara Ramos, an activist in the Hispanic community, was one of three people who brought the comment to the council's attention last week, asking for an explanation at the next meeting. Council members and the city attorney did not address the issue at last week's meeting.

Ramos said she does not claim Gwosdz is racist but rather that he mocked Victoria's 44.5 percent Hispanic population.

Garcia said she believes Gwosdz did nothing wrong and believes stirring the pot hurts more than helps.

"I don't think he should apologize," she said. "I don't believe he did anything wrong, harmful or hurtful. Maybe if he wants to apologize for offending someone, then OK."

Any formal response from Gwosdz would be an excuse, Ramos said. The damage is already done, she said.

"I'm not trying to make something big out of this," she said.

Ramos, 58, who grew up in Victoria, said racism is still just as alive in the community as when she was younger - except it's less out in the open.

"I see it everywhere I go," she said. "Victoria is very prejudiced."

Bertha Medina, 40, grew up in the Victoria area and said she also thinks the attorney's remark was racially insensitive.

Medina fears many are scared to speak out, she said.

Racism is evident in the community, she said. During a recent trip to the H-E-B on Rio Grande, she overhead a woman referring to the store as "H-E-B ghetto." Her kids also have been teased before at school, being told to go back where they belong.

"It's everywhere," she said. "All my children were born in Victoria, and they get so tired of it (teasing). It's so frustrating."

This is a shifting dynamic, Jewell said. American society has made progress, he said, but racism is still alive, whether it be blatant, mocking or insensitive remarks.

"It is possible to say things that are racist even though people may not intend that," he said. "We're far from post-racial."

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