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VOL. 129 | NO. 96 | Friday, May 16, 2014

Civil Rights Leaders Comment on Brooks’ Remarks

By Bill Dries

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The executive director of the civil rights organization Latino Memphis says comments this week by Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks about the struggles of Latinos as minorities in Memphis were regrettable.

But when Mauricio Calvo and Memphis branch NAACP President Keith Norman spoke Thursday, May 15, about Brooks’ comments, neither dwelled on them or Brooks.

Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks berated Hispanic Alliance member Pablo Pereyra over his raising concern about the dismissal of Hispanics as minorities. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Calvo said his organization “regrets” her comments.

“While we hope her comments were made in a genuine effort to promote the interests of the African-American community, divisive comments that pit one demographic against another are unproductive and fundamentally undermine the goals which she sought to accomplish,” he said. “We should not engage in behavior that results in fighting over scraps from the table.”

The reaction comes after Brooks berated real estate broker and Hispanic Alliance member Pablo Pereyra at the Monday, May 12, commission meeting as the commission discussed and later approved a $1.7 million contract with B Four Plied Inc. to reroof a county government building on Mullins Station Road.

The contract had been delayed at two previous commission meetings as Brooks and other commissioners said they were dissatisfied with how many minorities worked at the company.

Two-thirds of the company’s employees are Hispanic and five are African-American, according to details of the contract provided to commissioners this week. Initially, the commission was told the company had no black employees.

Brooks and Commissioner Walter Bailey said they were bothered by that and concerned that the company could be discriminating against African-Americans by hiring a mostly Hispanic workforce.

Bailey said the local roofing industry was “replete” with black workers.

Pereyra, who was at the commission meeting on a tax sale resolution unrelated to the contract, filled out a card to speak on the roofing contract after listening to the start of the discussion.

He said he has lived in Memphis for 20 years.

“I know what it’s like to be a minority. I grew up in Memphis. I can tell you being a Hispanic in Memphis is definitely a minority of the minorities,” he said. “Am I any less American? Am I any less a minority? I challenge you to think clearly of the message that you are sending. We are living in a global economy.”

Brooks told Pereyra the issue was “about giving blacks living in Shelby County who are trying to get employment in Shelby County, who pay taxes – not to say that you don’t – but who have a history, where there is a pattern of intentional discrimination against black folks, to get or participate in government awards or what have you.”

“You asked to come here. We did not,” she added. “And when we got here, our condition was so ugly and so barbaric – don’t ever let that come out of your mouth again because you know what, that only hurts your case.”

Norman said he didn’t know the full context of the remarks by Brooks and that it would be inappropriate for him to specifically characterize them. He also said his purpose in the controversy is to “raise the dialogue” and refocus attention to minority contracting.

“How politicians use rhetoric, and for what purpose they use that rhetoric, is not our aim today,” Norman said. “At some point, even when you become aware of comments that people make, you need to move to the higher level.”

Brooks made similar remarks at a May 27, 2009, committee meeting as the commission debated and discussed a nondiscrimination policy for county government that specifically barred discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgendered citizens.

Brooks voted for the policy the next week, but not before taking to task supporters of the measure who likened the struggle of those groups to the struggles of African-Americans during the civil rights movement.

“One of the things that I’m really, really grappling with is linking the civil rights movement – the civil rights movement of the ’60s – with the issue of discrimination regarding sexual orientation or gender identity and expression,” she began. “I have to say that I believe that we need to bifurcate this discussion of this issue from civil rights and gender identity and expression. I can’t deal with it in the same forum because it is not the same. And that is not to marginalize your issue because I’m not doing that. I’m not like my colleagues who believe that discrimination is OK. I don’t think it’s OK.”

Brooks then said linking the civil rights movement to the issues of sexual orientation was using “a crutch.”

“Let’s not unfairly use the weight of the civil rights movement to this issue. Let’s let this issue stand alone, stand on its own,” she said. “I have to be true to my ancestors and let it be known that this is the way I have to deal with this issue.”

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