BROWNSVILLE, RGV – U.S. Rep. Al Green of Houston sees similarities between the way Latinos are treated now and African Americans were when he was growing up in the segregated South.
Green was in Brownsville this week for a House Committee on Administration “listening session” about elections and voting. He also participated, with other African American members of Congress, in a Black History Month event hosted by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela.
“The situation for Latinos is now similar to what it was for African-Americans. I think the state has gone out of its way to paint them as suspects and when you do that you get the same kind of results that you got when you had African Americans who were painted as suspects,” Green told reporters, after the listening session had ended.
“You get people unlawfully detained, people who are purged from voter rolls, you get a belief that you can do things to them because they are suspect.”
Asked why Latinos are not voting at the same level as Anglos or African Americans, Green said: “Well, if you are a suspect and you have the elected officials themselves continually saying things like you are an illegal, if you are seeking asylum you are a terrorist, these things have an impact on a community. I lived under the suspicion of being someone who was without the law just because I happened to be African-American in the segregated south. So, I know what it is like and I am going to defend the rights of Latinos to be treated as every other person is treated in this country.”
Green said an assault on the voting rights of Latinos is underway in part because their population numbers are rising and in part because of the rhetoric of President Trump.
“He (Trump) has made it a part of his campaign to continually demean people. When he first announced, he talked about the Latino community in a very demeaning way. When the president does that he sets the tone and the tenor for the rest of society. We have to challenge the president on his behavior. These are more than just words. They are a means by which people act upon it.”
During the “listening session,” which was held in the Cameron County Courthouse, Green said he stands in unity with Latinos because he understands what it is like to be a suspect just by virtue of who you.
“What I see happening to the Latino community, it is very painful. The Latino community now is being suspect. What is happening at the southern border, asylum seekers being called terrorists. The whole notion that Latinos are somehow illegal by virtue of the titles being accorded them by public officials. When you call people illegal you can say something can happen to them because of their status,” Green said.
“The notion that you can purge rolls by coordinating your effort with the Department of Public Safety and if a person happened to have registered to acquire a license as a potential citizen, not a citizen at the time, a permanent legal resident, there is no law that requires you later on to go back and acknowledge that you are now a citizen. So, you become suspect by simply having acquired a driving license as a permanent resident. This type of behavior from public officials – we are not talking about lay people – has to have an impact on the way people participate in a participatory democracy. That is what we have.”
Green, who represents the 9th Congressional District of Texas, spoke from the dais about growing up in the segregated South. He recalled his childhood to reporters also.
“I am a son of the segregated South. The laws that were given to me, recognized by the Constitution, my neighbors took away. My neighbors did not recognized my right to walk on the sidewalk. There were times when I had to step off the sidewalk. I had to go to the back door (of a restaurant) to get food. I had to drink from Colored water fountains. I had to wait in separate waiting rooms at hospitals and other places,” Green told reporters.
“I know what the sting of invidious discrimination looks like. I saw the Klan burn crosses. I know what it feels like. I had to suffer the humiliation of being pushed around and never getting proper redress. I could smell it (segregation) because I went into filthy waiting rooms where we were forced to use toilets that were not cleansed. I remember going to a service station, my father and I. We wanted some water and we were required to drink from an oil can while others could drink from a water fountain. I know what it is like to be discriminated against. I do not want to see anyone else suffer that kind of humiliation.”
Green said when the rights of one voter are at risk, the risk of all voters are at risk. “This is about more than just one segment of society. It is about every persons right to vote. If we do not protect the rights of every voter, then we have put the rights of every voter at risk.”
Green was referring to a decision by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office to flag as suspect 95,000 registered voters.
“It is so unfortunate that there is now this list of suspects, some 95,000 reduced to 58,000, simply because they do not match up with what is on a driver’s license registry. People who are permanent legal residents who go on to become citizens are not required to go back and register themselves as citizens. This is an injustice. They should not be put in a position of having to defend who they are and that is really what is going on.”
Green said Texas has a sad history when it comes to denying voting rights to minorities.
“This right to vote is something that has been under assault in Texas for a very long time. Smith vs. Allwright took place in Houston, Texas. Lonnie Smith was a (Black) dentist. He challenged the system that allowed for White primaries in Texas. The case that went before the Supreme Court that barred White primaries in the United States emanated in Houston, Texas. So, Texas has been a bad actor for a long time,” Green told reporters.
“Texas is not the only state but Texas has consistently been among the states that have discriminated against voters, especially people of color. For many, many, decades Texas has been a leader when it comes to discriminating against people of color. But, it is bigger than people of color because if you allow people of color to be discriminated against, you are allowing others to be at risk of being discriminated against.”
Green said Texans must challenge laws that prevent people from exercising their constitutional right.
“The 24th Amendment to the Constitution outlaws poll taxes. Well, when you require people to go out and pay to get this ID so that they can vote, you are imposing a poll tax on them. The State of Texas would say, ‘well, not really because we will give you a free ID.’ Well you don’t give a free ID to a person who lives in Texas but was born in Louisiana. I am one such person. I had to get my proof of birth from Louisiana and I had to pay for that. If you read the 24th Amendment, the last few words, no poll tax or any other tax. Texas is in violation of the Constitution and we ought to do all we can to get right with the Constitution.”
Green said that while the Secretary of State’s actions can and should be fought through the courts, they must also be fought in the court of public opinion. “We have to resist this kind of behavior so as to send a clear message that Texans stand for every person’s right to vote and we are against suppressing any person’s right to vote. When you suppress any one of us, then every one of us is at risk of being suppressed.”
Like many other speakers at the listening session, Green criticized a ruling that allowed Texas to be spared Department of Justice pre-clearance of new redistricting maps.
“Dr. King was eminently correct: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. But, it doesn’t do it on its own volition. It does it because people of goodwill will take up the course of justice. I am here with my colleagues to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Pre-clearance paved the way for political inclusion. Without pre-clearance, the face of Congress would be decidedly different. We have benefitted greatly and it is a shame we find ourselves now having to refight the fights that we won but it is our duty to do so.”
The members of Congress who participated in the House Committee on Administration “listening session” in Brownsville were Reps. Martha Fudge of Ohio, who chaired the session, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, Texas, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, Texas, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, Texas, Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Texas, Al Green of Houston, Texas, and Filemon Vela of Brownsville, Texas.