Honest discussion: Local panel discusses race relations, protests

Rev. Allen Noah, Clifton Fifer and Tammy Prout (from left).

True understanding can only be gained through honest conversation.

In that vein, members of the Doyle community were gracious in agreeing to participate in a panel discussion with the Hill Country Community Journal on race relations, Black Lives Matter protests and how the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, has sparked a civil rights movement that some say is long overdue.

While some local residents may believe that Kerr County is immune to racism, the reality is, to some members of the local Black community, it does exist.

Participating in the panel were Barnett Chapel pastor Rev. Allen Noah; Clifton Fifer, Lois Shaw, Karen Mattox and Lala Flores, Lorenzo Watson, of the Doyle Community Center; local businessman Jonathan Rochelle and me.

I began by sharing my perspective on on the concept of perceived systemic racism and claims of rampant police brutality reported on social media and national television.

“I am a White person. I am married to a police officer,” I said. “I do not judge people by their race, have never been racist and every police officer I know are good people and would never intentionally hurt anyone.”

Given that my perspective is diametrically opposed to the national narrative on police and the term “White privilege,” I acknowledged that my perspective can only be based on my own experiences, but my experiences did not reconcile with the narrative.

“My life growing up was anything but privileged. There were very rough times and I know more people like me than those that have lived charmed lives,” I said. “So, looking through my eyes, I don’t understand.”

Over the course of the next 78 minutes, I did begin to understand why members of our Black community were seeing a movement on television, while I was seeing chaos.

Understanding where we are,

where we’ve been

“Let me frame this conversation in the larger narrative,” Noah said. “As a member the ‘dominant culture,’ you have been taught to be a certain way. There are privileges that the dominant culture teaches generationally to their children.”

Noah explained that the term “dominant culture” stems from the times of slavery, when White slave owners controlled the lives of their enslaved Black workers, saying that while great strides were made over the past 157 years following the signing of the emancipation proclamation, the cultures are still very different for Black and White Americans.

“The concept that they live on … that they (dominant culture) are favored culturally, economically, intellectually … that’s the narrative,” Noah said. “It’s that narrative that has been perpetuated 400 years that have made people of color a subservient race. And that lie was perpetuated when people were stripped of their humanity. It became law in this country that African American slaves were considered 3/5 of a person.”

Even after slavery was abolished, Noah said, African Americans were robbed of the opportunities for education, which meant that even in freedom they were relegated to manual labor.

“For example, in the South, they had a thing called share cropping, which was a thing that Black people had to do in order to survive,” Noah said. “It is not people that this conflict is against. It’s against these institutions, these ideas that perpetuate the separation between cultures.”

Generationally, Noah said, the stigma and cultures have been passed on, whether intentionally or unintentionally, whether through racism or ignorance.

“There are those in the dominant culture who recognize the problem for what it is. They carry the guilt of their ancestors,” Noah said. “Integration changed some relationships among people of various skin tones. They connected on a different level.”

Noah said that while some changes have been made toward acceptance of different races, the institutional segregation still exists.

“Where we are today. What happened in Minneapolis (death of George Floyd), that was played out on national television, that people saw the casualness of this police officer taking this man’s life with reckless disregard,” Noah said. “That was the horror that sparked the outrage in every person that recognizes the value of humanity. That’s what brought the tears, the anger and frustration that’s been dormant in not only the Black community, but the Hispanic community and the dominant culture. We saw more White people marching, not just in the United States, but across the globe.”

Speaking directly to me, Noah said, “In your world, you are removed. And you said that your husband is a police officer, and all police officers are not bad, but what has happened to the police force is that they are not called just to do police work, they are also called to do social work. They are called to do interventions for people who should be in mental institutions. So, they have a lot of stresses on them that we don’t even understand.”

Noah said it is the dynamic of a political and cultural shift that was brought us to where we are today, following the televised death of George Floyd.

“People are outraged. They are hurt. They are angry,” Noah said. “And that is a collective sigh that has gone over across the world. The bigger question to the dominant culture is this … ‘How would you like to be treated?’”

Law enforcement

While we recognized the world is mourning and protesting the death of George Floyd and other Black men who have died in police custody, I asked about the many police officers that have been killed in the line of duty, and specifically during the recent protests, concerned that they have been forgotten.

All were in agreement that the deaths of these officers, and all lives taken, are tragic. It was also the consensus of the group that Kerr County is blessed with dedicated officers.

But how can the relationship between law enforcement and the Black community be improved?

“Community policing,” Noah said. “If they were here, walking through the neighborhoods and getting to know the residents better, it would be easier for police to approach individuals because there was a sense of trust.”

Noah shared a story about how he happened upon what could have been a volatile scene in the Doyle community involving one young man on a bicycle.

“There were three police officers talking to this young man and I just happened to be walking by,” Noah said. “This young man was agitated and angry. I stopped and asked the officers if there was anything I could do to help, and I told the young man to just answer their questions and be respectful. The officers were just doing their job. They got what they needed and were done, but from what I was seeing, it could have gone bad really quick, because this young man was so agitated.”

Noah said the police were investigating a report of stolen bicycle that matched the description of the one the young man was riding and said if there had been a previous, positive relationship the interaction would have gone smoother.

Personal experience

The Doyle community panelists spanned three generations, with many having first-hand experiences with school segregation of Black and White students, as well as the integration that followed.

“Do you believe that we live in a bubble that’s different than the national level … that we don’t have the negativity and the systemic racism that goes on elsewhere,” I asked.

Clifton Fifer

Fifer, a retired Kerrville ISD teacher and coach, disagreed.

“It’s surpressed. It’s underlying,” Fifer said. “We’ve seen more come out in the last four years.”

As well-known and respected as Fifer is, he said that he has greeted patrons of H-E-B and they ignore him.

“I speak to everyone. That’s how I am, and unless someone else calls out my name and recognizes me, other people in the store won’t acknowledge me,” Fifer said. “It could be out of fear. I’m not saying it’s racism. I’m just saying you should speak to someone who speaks to you. That doesn’t cost anything but air.”

Karen Mattox

Mattox shared an example of how she believes her skin color kept her from obtaining a job upon returning to Kerrville.

“I graduated from college, worked for Lone Star Gas Company and then moved to Dallas for 28 years,” Mattox said.

“When I came back home (to Kerrville), I was caring for my parents, but I was also job hunting. I have a degree from the University of Texas at Austin and I have a masters (degree) in professional counseling. I’m well-known in the community and my parents were well-known in the community. I could not find a job.”

Mattox said race was never mentioned, but she was consistently told she was over-qualified. Mattox now works as a social worker at the Doyle School Community Center.

“My thought process is … if I am willing to accept the salary, why not give me the job,” Mattox said.

Noah had a similar situation.

“I was told I was overqualified to drive a truck,” Noah said. “How can you be overqualified to drive a truck? He told me I had a degree and a masters. I just told him I was unemployed. My landlord doesn’t care what job I have. They just need the rent.”

Lala Flores

Flores, who is Hispanic, was born and raised in Kerrville. She recalls several instances that as an adult she recognizes as racism, but just thought it was a way of life as a child.

“We had our own church, the Hispanics did,” Flores said. “It used to be on Lemos and Jefferson Streets … Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. That’s were we went for our (Catholic) religion classes and mass. At the age of 6, maybe 7, our churches united and we were able to go to Notre Dame.”

Flores said she then was able to attend Notre Dame Catholic School.

“I remember, as a child, there was a restaurant across from the old church, and mom would give us some money to buy a hamburger during lunch,” Flores said. “They would take us all the way into the kitchen. We couldn’t sit in the dining room. We didn’t know any better.”

She said at another downtown restaurant, she and her sister were allowed to sit at an island on bar stools.

“We felt better there, because we were accepted, I think,” Flores said.

Flores, who said she grew up in the Doyle community, also recalls when the schools were integrated.

“I remember when Tivy High School was integrated,” Flores said. “There were police cars everywhere because the Black high school kids were going to Tivy and they expected a riot. We didn’t know what was going on, but nothing happened. It was very peaceful and we all got along fine.”

Flores said she considers members of the Black community her brothers and sisters and, “I just hurt for them because I see the injustice in it.”

Lorenzo Watson

One of the younger members of the panel, Watson was pretty clear on his views of racism, which he draws from experiences in other areas of the country, including North Carolina and Los Angeles.

“When it comes to racism, I really don’t see as many ebbs and flows as others see. I think it permeates the very fiber of what is this country,” Watson said. “You could argue that there are many forms of racism.”

Watson said while slavery was abolished in general, it still exists in the prison system, affecting a large population of “Black and brown” individuals through mass incarceration.

He said that he believes there is “over-policing” of Black and Hispanic neighborhoods due to the belief that more drugs are used and sold within them.

Watson said that the term “racism” is not a “bad name,” it’s a descriptor of behavior and to eliminate it, policies need to be rewritten.

While not applicable in Kerrville, Watson gave an example on a national scale that he says defines racism for him.

“When we look at our education system, and we see that our kids are not graduating at the same rate as the White community,” Watson said. “They go to schools that are traditionally underfunded. Part of the funding for educational systems have to do with property tax.

So if we are not looking to fix those issues, then we will always have these problems. For me, that’s what racism is. It’s not necessarily looking for the person who gives me the evil eye or the person who denies me something; it’s about opportunity deficiencies.”

Jonathan Rochelle

Rochelle, owner of First Class Cuts Barber Shop and Hill Life Threads, shared that he had made some mistakes earlier in his life and he has seen what he feels in injustice in the judicial system.

“In my experience, I don’t believe that sentencing is always fair,” Rochelle said. “I have seen a White guy and a Black go up on the same charge and the White guy gets probation and the Black guy gets prison time.”

Shaw backed up Rochelle’s claim by saying the county and district court records printed in the newspapers each week show a disparity.

“Just this past week, one guy was arrested for something and he got two years probation and somebody else I knew had been charged the same thing and they got some time in prison,” Shaw said.

The solution?

Our panel discussion was held upon the conclusion of the local Juneteenth celebration, where words of hope and encouragement were shared with conviction and attended by more than 250 local residents, including a large number of White families.

To begin healing, Noah said, we all must acknowledge the injustices for the Black community are there.

“That’s the first step … acknowledging the injustice. All the evidence is there,” Noah said. “Then we begin to re-teach a new narrative that begins with the dignity of all humanity. Martin Luther King said that 50 years ago. Then we begin to teach our children to tear down these systems and these institutions that perpetuate the injustice.”

It was interesting watching the dynamic between the generations. Fifer said every bit of progress made by Black men and women has been on the backs of the younger generations.

He said he was once in the battle and is now looking to his younger counterparts to carry the torch. Watson said he is ready, but looks for the wisdom and guidance of his elders.

It was a hard conversation to have. It was uncomfortable for all of us at times, but we had the conversation and I think we all left the room understanding each other’s individual perspectives a little more.

But this one conversation in the small town will not change the world. However, it is a beginning and it is my hope that our conversation will be meaningful to others as well.

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