I have written before that I believe Republicans and right wing media outlets on the national level often just make stuff up about Democrats, and then smear them with it. But, when it comes to Austin, national Republicans and right wing pundits just have to report what we actually do?
Well, we have a new example. And, it’s a humdinger.
The Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) last week, Thursday January 26, sent out an email announcing new monthly meetings called “Antiracist Affinity Spaces.” Under the subject line, “Healing from Racial Trauma: PARD Antiracist Affinity Spaces,” the email announced that “People of Color” and “White People” were to attend separate, but presumably equal, meetings each month.
This was an “All PARD EMAIL,” meaning it was intended for every PARD employee. The email also encouraged “supervisors” to “**Please use alternate methods (such as print, text or forward to personal e-mail) to share with individuals who do not have City of Austin e-mail access.**”
Don’t believe me? Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look.
“For People of Color* [Emphasis/bolding as in PARD email, same is true throughout the story]: Once a month, PARD employees of color will meet up at various city sites. The first 1.5 hours will be for fostering dialogue and the last 30 minutes will be for networking. This monthly space will offer folks the opportunities to gather and connect with other PARD employees of color, share about our personal and professional experiences with racism, and learn about mentoring and job opportunities for professional development.”
Then, evidently, to make sure the instructions were clear:
“*To cultivate a brave and safe space for attendees, we kindly ask that you do not attend these spaces if you are not a Person of Color.”
Next, white people got their instructions.
“For White People: Once a month, white PARD employees will meet up at various city sites. The first 1.5 hours will be for fostering dialogue and the last 30 minutes will be for networking. In this space, white folks will share about their ongoing learning around anti-racism, explore their role in disrupting racism in and outside of work, hold one another accountable in this work and actively practice being in solidarity with PARD employees of color and communities of color.”
Yes, all three of the above paragraphs belong in quotes.
The following day PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley sent a follow-up email to all PARD employees: “Yesterday you received a communication about PARD Affinity Groups. The message was inappropriate and does not reflect the values of the Parks and Recreation Department. I apologize for the exclusion of employees in any space, as that is the opposite of Relational Culture Building and is inconsistent with Department values. I am placing this initiative on pause to allow for a retooling of its execution in coordination with the Relational Culture Building Initiative.” That was on Friday morning, January 27.
KXAN Breaks the Story
Jala Washington of KXAN News posted a story about the email shortly after six o’clock Monday evening January 30. The online version was titled, “Austin Parks and Rec Department apologizes after planned segregated ‘racial healing’ meetings.”
After briefly discussing the emails — with the invite email posted on a large vertical screen behind her — Washington added, “I spoke to three Parks and Rec employees, all Black men, who are upset with these emails and the Department’s Equity and Inclusion Department.” (For the record, Jala Washington is also Black.) She added, They wanted us to conceal their identities to avoid any possible repercussions.”
‘“It was like really upsetting,’ one employee said. ‘With my age, growing up seeing the signs saying, ‘Whites Only’ [and] ‘No blacks allowed,’ it was like…wow, it took me back.’ He added, ‘It says racial affinity, like get together for racial healing, but how can that be done if all parties are not there?”’
Another employee said, ‘“How do you go out here and expect me to perform to my highest capabilities every day, day-in and day-out, and you guys are treating us like this? Your’re making us feel like we’re not all one?”’
PARD issued a statement for Washington’s story, including, ‘“the email was not vetted, did not reflect the department’s values, and, within 24-hours, the department issued a retraction email apologizing for the exclusion of employees in any space.”’ The statement continued, ‘“the intent of the email/groups was not to be exclusionary, but rather to provide a supportive environment for sharing their lived experiences and identify ways to improve the department’s relational culture.”’ Well, this was an instance in which Public Information Officers really had to earn their money cleaning up somebody’s else’s mess. PARD PIO folks gave it the old college try, but it’s really stretching it to claim that the “intent . . . was not to be exclusionary” when you tell fellow employees that they cannot enter a “space” because of their race.
Within two hours of Washington’s report, Fox News (national) was up with an online story headlined, “Austin city agency offers racially segregated ‘anti-racist’ trainings for ‘white folks’ and ‘people of color.’” The subhead read, “Austin city government apologizes after White employees told ‘do not attend’ meeting that was only for ‘people of color.’” You can see the rest of it here.
To me, Washington’s story was very powerful and, without directly saying so, it got at the fundamental differences between the principles of the Civil Rights Movement — equality, bringing people of all races together, people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” — versus the approach by many of today’s activists — separating people by race and judging a group of people (whites) to be racist based on the color of their skin.
How Did This Email Get Sent?
Washington also reported, “A PARD employee sent KXAN the internal email that came from someone who recently started as a PARD equity and inclusion coordinator.” Let’s try to pick up where Washington left off on that.
That employee was Magaly Arredondo Lopez. She wrote in the introductory paragraph, “I recently started as an Equity & Inclusion Coordinator for the Parks & Recreation Department. In this role, I work alongside Sona Shah (Equity & Inclusion Program Manager) and Julia Kovach. I participate in the Department’s 2024 Equity Assessment with the Equity Office. Additionally, I will be coordinating the first ever Antiracist Affinity Spaces for Parks & Recreation Department employees.”
It is difficult to imagine that a single new employee can just send an email to the entire PARD workforce. In my experience at the City, an email that goes out to the entire workforce of a Department has to go through the chain of command in some form. In fact the person listed in the “From” line of the PARD email is Jonessa Munoz. Munoz is the Executive Assistant in the Office of PARD Director McNeeley. It is highly unlikely that Munoz would have sent out this email by herself without it being approved by a higher-up. So one question is who that higher up was.
Now, I am going to acknowledge a bias toward “Executive Assistants” and “admins” at the City. They are a fundament part of how the City functions. They are also paid considerably less than the Manager for whom they work and less than many other employees as well. I don’t know Munoz personally, but it is highly unlikely that she had anything to do with creating the content in that email. Also, I have seen posts online which say Munoz should be fired. I think that, at best, betrays a misunderstanding of the situation.
Clearly more directly involved than Munoz was Arredondo Lopez and evidently her boss, Sona Shah. They are the recipients of the email i.e. their names were on the “To” line. (The rest of PARD employees were evidently blind copied as is generally the process.) As Arredondo Lopez noted in her introduction, Shah is the Equity & Inclusion Program Manager for PARD. A Program Manager outranks a Coordinator, Arredondo Lopez’s position. So Shah almost certainly was involved in producing the email or at least approved it. That raises the question, if Shah approved the email, did she also order that it be sent? We have asked her and other PARD management questions to this effect. (We only asked this morning so we will keep you posted.)
Whatever PARD’s process was, in developing and sending out this invitation, it might have made a difference if just one person had said, “the invite looks OK, it might violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but other than that it seems OK.”
Another distinct possibility is that employees at the City — specifically at PARD in this case — are so used to an atmosphere that promotes, teaches and accepts ideas like those in the email that no one found it unusual; and just let it roll through. There are numerous other examples of that sort of ideology and thinking throughout City government. I don’t have room for a lot of them in this article, but will return to the topic in the future.
The City of Austin and “Segregationist Policies”
For today, however, let’s look at the webpage of the City Equity Office, which works closely with the PARD “Equity and Inclusion Program” and has immense influence throughout City government. One example of PARD’s involvement with the Equity Office is Arredondo Lopez writing in the email, “I participate in the Department’s 2024 Equity Assessment with the Equity Office.”
For a brief diversion, I’m guessing that some folks will stop reading here because they think I’m starting to sound like a Republican. That’s because Republicans nationwide, including in Texas state government, are attacking Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs. It has been my experience that many Democrats — with Democrats being the overwhelming majority in Austin — often just dismiss any critique — or less than glowing discussion — of DEI programs as Republican rhetoric; and even racist. I would ask people to consider, however, that even though many Republicans are way over the top in their criticism and rhetoric, there could still be problems with DEI programs. And Democrats might also want to keep in mind that those problems may be driving people into the Republican camp.
Now let’s take a look at the “About” page of the citywide Equity Office. There they provide a very short history of Austin and the Equity Office. It begins, “Austin has a long history of systemic racism and racial inequity that continues today. Throughout history, communities of color have been excluded, marginalized, and discriminated against as a result of City policies and practices. This history was reinforced by segregationist policies throughout the 20th century affecting a range of Austin venues, including schools, public parks, and commercial businesses, among others.”
Just in case readers didn’t notice anything factually suspect in that passage, let’s do a short review. Yes, Austin does have a racist history, like most American cities. And like other Southern cities it was a segregated town up until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, although some barriers did fall before then.
But, did the City of Austin really practice “segregationist policies throughout the 20th century?” I wrote to the Equity Office in September 2022 (the page is still live today) and asked them for examples and a definition of “segregationist policies.” I will further discuss those answers in future installments, but in this article let’s explore the answer to just one of my questions: “How does the City of Austin define ‘segregationist policies?’” Keep in mind that the City Equity Office maintains that the City of Austin practiced “segregationist policies throughout the 20th Century.”
Screenshot from City of Austin Equity Office “About” Page, taken February 5, 2024. The page has been up since at least 2017.
Amanda Jasso replied for the Equity Office, writing, “Our definition aligns with that of Ibram X Kendi’s, an American author, anti-racist activist, and historian.” Jasso then summarized Kendi’s definition and arguments: “Segregationist policies grow from segregationist ideas, which hold that people of color cannot be developed to White standards. Segregationist ideas suggest that a racial group is permanently inferior. Segregationist policies are geared toward segregating, enslaving, incarcerating, deporting, and killing people of color and often, if not always, produces such outcomes.” (Some of the above is a direct quote from Kendi, such as “segregationist policies are geared toward segregating, enslaving, incarcerating, deporting, and killing.” Other parts of Jasso’s answer to my question are her summaries (not inaccurate) of Kendi’s writing. We pasted her answer, above, just as it came to us.)
There’s a whole lot to unpack there. For our purposes in this article, let’s focus in on the combination of statements that Austin had “segregationist policies throughout the 20th century” and that the definition of segregationist policies included the belief that “people of color cannot be developed to White standards.”
First, I want to say, as someone who served as an elected official on the governing body of the City and then later worked for the City’s water utility, I have never in my entire life felt that “people of color cannot be developed to White standards.” And, I never met anyone who worked at the City, certainly not in a leadership position, who expressed anything close to that belief or who gave any indication that they held such beliefs.
If the leadership of Austin believed that “people of color cannot be developed to White standards” then why did the 1984 City Council hire Jorge Carrasco, a Mexican American, as City Manager. And, when Carrasco left, why did the Council then elevate John Ware, a Black man, to Interim City Manager if they believed that “people of color cannot be developed to White standards?” The same question can be asked as to why the 1994 Council hired Jesus Garza, also a Mexican American, as City Manager. Early in the 21st Century the Council hired Marc Ott, also a Black man, as City Manager. He served from 2008 to 2016.
Also, when the various City Councils hired or promoted these individuals, I don’t think they were looking for someone to meet “White standards,” but instead were trying to hire the individual they thought was best equipped to run the City at that particular time.
Diversity in Austin City government has not been limited to the City Manager position. To me one of the great things about working at the City of Austin was the diverse workforce. It is the most diverse place I have ever worked; and at every level. That was an inspiring and very productive atmosphere to me.
The workforce was not always so diverse, especially at the managerial level. Council Members like Berl Handcox, John Trevino, Jimmy Snell, Charles Urdy, Gus Garcia and others successfully pushed for that diversity. It’s hard to see how they could have been successful in that endeavor in an organization with a dominant attitude that “people of color cannot be developed to White standards.” It is also difficult to believe that these Council Members would have served their entire terms in a City practicing “segregationist policies” without pointing it out and fighting it. Additionally, all the Council Members I mentioned above were elected Citywide, and most reelected. Gus Garcia was eventually elected Mayor, in 2001.
Speaking of the Mayor and Council, if the City of Austin engaged in “segregationist policies throughout the 20th century,” including the last three decades of that century, then Mayors Jeff Friedman, Carole McClellan (now Strayhorn), Ron Mullen, Frank Cooksey, Lee Cooke, Bruce Todd, Kirk Watson (now Mayor again) and Garcia presided over City governments that practiced and tolerated segregationist policies. Cooksey, by the way, served in the US Justice Department during the 1960s and was directly involved enforcing the Civil Rights Act on the ground in the South.
The City Equity Office — which maintains on its Department website that Austin engaged in “segregationist policies throughout the 20th century” — participates in virtually every major decision and policy formulation in City government and also often in major hires. To me, however, their view of history seems more based on their own ideology rather than actual, or factual, knowledge of Austin history.
And, my contention is that the sort of ideology driving the Equity Office contributes to an atmosphere in which it could seem normal and acceptable to send out an invite instructing employees to attend separate official functions based solely on their race. In any case — although it may be uncomfortable to face — there is way more to the recent incident than a new employee sending off a poorly advised email.
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