During public comment toward the end of the Monday, July 11, 2011 council meeting, a member of the public came before the microphone with a number of issues he wanted to mention to the council. Most of these issues were administrative and were (I would hope) duly noted by the Acting City Administrator and Corporation Counsel, respectively. However, in his remarks about the continuing foreclosures in Plainfield, this individual made a comment which I (and several others in the room) viewed as going down the ugly road of ethnic/racial divisiveness. He mentioned that as African Americans were losing their homes, "other people" have been buying them, or words to that effect. When the agenda meeting is aired on PCTV 34/96, you can watch and hear his comments verbatim. I am distressed about the severe financial difficulties faced by our residents, and we know that black people are being affected disproportionately all across the nation--all you have to do is watch the news.
However, the "other" people to whom this resident was referring in his comments about those purchasing the foreclosed properties were the Latino population here in our great city of Plainfield. What I take offense at is that the word "other" was used in a pejorative sense--as if Latinos don't deserve to own homes and fully participate in the civic life of Plainfield. Yes, we have had a burgeoning Latino community here in Plainfield for the past two decades, and certainly the 2010 census results demonstrate that the city is more than 30% Latino. To me, this is a good thing. We don't live in a deed-restricted or covenant-type community--Plainfield is for everyone. To cast a people as the villain based on their ethnicity is disgraceful, and we must all reject that kind of thinking. Black people continue to be "othered" in many respects in American society--we have seen the results of that type of thinking.
I have heard this type of commentary before here in Plainfield (as well as elsewhere), and is angers me to no end. For members of an historically disenfranchised people (meaning African Americans) to indulge in the same type of xenophobic, racist thinking to vilify and stereotype and discriminate against other groups is even more shameful. The current climate of economic disfranchisement and fear helps to fuel this kind of racist rhetoric (witness the racist demagoguery of the so-called "Tea Party"). In a city like Plainfield, with more than its share of economic distress, I can only imagine how easily this kind of talk can pervade the thinking of usually reasonable people and make them point fingers at "other" groups based on their ethnic and/or racial identity, rather than at those who profit from their despair (banks, predatory lenders, etc.).
The next speaker who came to the microphone after this commentary identified himself as an American of Cuban descent, whose parents came to this country forty years ago for a better life. A regular council meeting attendee himself, he began by noting that he usually found the first speaker's comments to be engaging and full of "comic relief." But, on this night, upon hearing these hurtful and divisive and inflammatory remarks, he was no longer laughing. His anger was palpable, and I share it. Of course, we live in a democracy where everyone is able to air his or her views freely (even the anonymous cowards who wrote, printed, and distributed the racist, sexist, homophobic "scarlet letter" in city hall with no problem), but I reject hatred in all its (sometimes disguised) forms. There really is no place for it, and we have to call it out.
Also on the agenda last night was a mayoral appointment to the Human Relations Commission (HRC)--quite fortuitous, as the Human Relations Commission would be a good start to having a healthy dialogue about the tensions in our city regarding race, ethnicity, and homophobia. I am hopeful that the HRC reflects the diversity of our city in all its aspects. I am asking the City Clerk to please send me a list of all those who have been appointed to the Human Relations Commission, the meeting schedule, and all meeting minutes for the past four years. I also serve as city council liaison to the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs (PACHA). I have asked for the meeting schedule and minutes from this group as well.
I think that dealing with ethnic and racial problems head on is the only way to make our city stronger, and these groups would be a good place to start. Let's call it out whenever and wherever we hear it. Here in Plainfield, we often talk about "diversity" as our strength--I want to make sure that folks know it is not lip service, but real.