VOL. 129 | NO. 97 | Monday, May 19, 2014
Brooks Reaction Seeks Way Back to Minority Business Issues
At the end of a turbulent week, Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks offered several alternate explanations for her remarks about Hispanics and their experience as minorities in Memphis.
In one explanation, Brooks said she didn’t remember saying some of the most controversial of her comments during the Monday, May 12, commission meeting. In others, she said she meant every word and didn’t consider it disparaging or insulting.
And in still other explanations, Brooks confused the $1.7 million roofing contract that was the backdrop for the remarks with the approval of a property tax sale that came later, mistakenly claiming that Pablo Pereyra was with the roofing company and attributing what she said were violations by the real estate company he represented to the roofing company.
“I did not disparage the Hispanic community. That’s how you want to portray it,” Brooks said in a live interview Wednesday, May 14, on WHBQ Fox 13 News. “I stand by that because that is the truth. That is the absolute truth. … I hope you learn from this. There is an unspoken rule that ethnic minorities do not compare themselves to each other. That is something that raises a red flag.”
Pereyra’s comparison of minority status was what prompted Brooks to say there is no comparison. On other occasions during her nearly eight years on the Shelby County Commission, Brooks has rejected comparisons between the African-American experience and that of other minorities.
Her belief registered beyond the commission session this time when she began by telling Pereyra, “You asked to come here. We didn’t.”
By Thursday, the recorded remarks from the commission session were on YouTube, and much of the media reporting had focused on whether other civic leaders thought the remarks were racist or otherwise offensive – and, if so, whether Brooks should apologize, be censured or resign.
That was precisely where Mauricio Calvo, director of Latino Memphis, and Keith Norman, president of the Memphis branch NAACP, did not want to go Thursday – the place where all such controversial remarks go for arbitration by media.
“We cannot afford this,” Calvo said. “The real issue is how do we address poverty.” “We’re not getting back into this race baiting,” Norman said.
Calvo and Norman thought Brooks’ comments were instead an opportunity to talk about the issue that prompted the remarks.
Before Brooks veered into what she viewed as a violation of an unwritten code, the issue was whether a business whose payroll is predominantly Hispanic is meeting a goal of a larger share of county government contracts and subcontracts going to minority-owned businesses and a minority workforce.
Questioning about those details of numerous contracts has intensified among others on the commission and on the City Council after more than 20 years of black leadership in the Memphis mayor’s office, as well as an African-American majority on the Memphis City Council and six black commissioners on the 13-member County Commission. It reflects the frustration that a larger percentage of contracts haven’t gone to minorities despite political advances and the city’s majority-black population.
And the questions usually don’t involve headcounts of “minorities” on the workforce of companies doing business with the county. They are questions about black-owned businesses and African-Americans on the workforce – not white women, Hispanics or Pacific Islanders.
In the case of the roofing contract, Commissioner Walter Bailey wanted to know if hiring Hispanics had become a way to avoid hiring African-Americans. And he told Pereyra that his interest in that point was not at the expense of Hispanics.
Norman made a similar point later, speaking in general and not about the roofing contract.
“They want to hire minorities for the simple purpose of paying a lower wage,” he said. “We want to insist that fair wages be paid to all individuals and competitive oversight be instituted on behalf of the government.”
By that motivation, Norman has a different definition of minorities: those who get paid the least.
“The current system will always create another minority,” he said. “Yesterday, it was the African-American man, then the African-American woman, then the Latino.”