Building Black Momentum

A report on the African-American Legislative Summit

The theme of this year's African-American Legislative Summit, held Feb. 7-9 at the state Capitol, was "Momentum to Move through the 21st Century" -- a fitting slogan, given that attendance has soared dramatically since the first summit took place in 1992. In addition to panel discussions, workshops, and receptions attended by several hundred black leaders from across the state, the Summit included a spot bid contract fair at the Erwin Center that drew 500 minority-owned businesses -- no small achievement in recessionary times. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, who with Sen. Royce West co-chaired the Summit, called the weekend "a tremendous success."

"When was the last time you saw this many African-Americans at the Capitol?" Ellis asked during a Saturday symposium on national and state issues. Held biannually during the Legislative interim, the Summit provides an opportunity to network, forge alliances, and address matters affecting Texas' 2.4 million African-American residents. Legislators also use the meeting to help develop an agenda for the next legislative session. In addition to Thursday's daylong general session on health issues, topics included access to and affordability of higher education, the digital divide, redistricting, racial profiling, and business development and tourism. "The issues cross party, racial, and philosophical lines," Ellis said.

Yet one couldn't help noticing that white attendees were few and far between. During panel discussions, Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and state Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, both Republicans, seemed comfortable passing the mike to Democratic panelists. No other statewide elected officials -- from Gov. Rick Perry on down the Republican line -- bothered to check in for even a courtesy appearance. (Perry's press office did not respond to a request for comment.) Ellis said summit organizers invited all major candidates running for statewide office except John WorldPeace ("I don't know him, never heard from him, and I suspect we won't hear from him after the election"), but the only candidates to accept were Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tony Sanchez, U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk, and aspiring Court of Criminal Appeals judge Julius Whittier. "Maybe it was scheduling conflicts," Ellis muses. "But for me, that summit was about policy, not politics."

Of course, in a season of contentious primary races, keeping politicians off the subject of politics is as likely as keeping toddlers away from the cookie jar. During a Saturday luncheon, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, jabbed gubernatorial candidate Dan Morales, who as attorney general expanded the effect of the Hopwood decision beyond the UT Law School, effectively eliminating affirmative action at Texas universities. "Hopwood has undermined [Texas'] reputation and image across the nation," she charged. Jackson Lee also touched upon a variety of state and national controversies, such as post-Sept. 11 civil rights violations and President George W. Bush's recently unveiled $2 trillion budget. Advocating the need for "capitalism rooted from the ground up" and better protection for workers' rights, she assailed national missile defense and corporate welfare programs developed for the benefit of defense contractors. "We are violating the Social Security trust fund," she said. "The budget is imploding around defense spending."

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, described the activities of the Congressional Black Caucus, which she chairs. The Caucus' efforts for voter reform, including better voter education, re-enfranchisement of released prisoners, and standardized elections, have mostly fallen on deaf ears among Bush administration officials. "I happen to like Mr. Bush," Johnson said, but she added that the relationship has borne little fruit in terms of public policy. "We have great conversations. But memory is short."

Johnson attacked administration initiatives expected to hurt the poor, minorities, and women. The new budget is "atrocious," she said, for severely reducing breakfast programs for poor children and other social services. Johnson also decried Bush's nomination of Charles Pickering to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (including Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi). If the Senate approves his nomination, Pickering -- whose record exhibits antipathy toward civil rights, racial integration, and equality under the law -- will preside over a region with a 40% minority population, the highest of any circuit. On education, Johnson called for greater community and parental involvement. Bush's "Leave No Child Behind" slogan, she said, "is nothing but a phrase."

Education became a dominant theme -- and many Austin community leaders were on hand to discuss it. At a panel discussion on disciplinary alternative education programs, sociology professor Dr. David Weiner, who taught at Westwood and Anderson High Schools, supported more systematic accountability and spoke against "zero tolerance" policies that effectively discriminate against students who attend East Austin schools.

Rev. Sterling Lands, of Austin's Eastside Social Action Coalition, also called for an end to "zero tolerance," which he said "redefines students as criminals." Lands advocated "transformation" -- as opposed to "reformation" -- of education policies. "I think we have to be raw and honest," Lands said. "We're going to have to move from arrogance on school boards as it relates to school policy. ... We should see that board members represent the community. If not, fire them."

The same might be said of those officials who refuse to represent their constituents -- and race, several speakers pointed out, doesn't always determine that outcome. In the words of Sen. Ellis, "It takes more than just a black face in a high place."

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African-American Summit, legislators, Rodney Ellis, Royce West, Michael Williams, Wallace Jefferson, Rick Perry, John WorldPeace, Tony Sanchez, Ron Kirk, Sheila Jackson Lee, Dan Morales, Hopwood, George W. Bush, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Social Security, Congressional Black

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