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Was It Racism Or Unfamiliarity? A Lot Of Legislature’s White Males Not Used To Seeing People Of Color

Kery Murakami Seattle Times

On Wednesday morning, two lobbyists for Washington state public defenders were appalled by what Rep. Betty Sue Morris, D-Vancouver, had to say about a young AfricanAmerican man who testified the day before.

“She said, ‘You shouldn’t bring down any more witnesses like the one you brought down yesterday,’ ” said Christine Hedman, executive director of the Washington Defender Association.

“It would have been moving if the witness were white,” Hedman recalled Morris saying.

“I absolutely did say it,” Morris agreed. “My advice was that in order to get the new majority on that committee to listen, they’re going to have to bring down a white male because they’re all white males.

“That’s the political reality.”

But is that “reality” institutionalized racism or cultural naivete?

The witness in question was Neill Tackett, 19, of Seattle, who was brought to Olympia to testify against a bill requiring any juvenile committing a crime with a firearm be tried as an adult.

During the hearing, Rep. Eric Robertson, R-Sumner, called in state troopers to watch Tackett, who kept his hand in his pocket on an object that Robertson feared was a gun, but which Tackett says was a cellular telephone.

The incident, and Morris’ comments, have spurred soul-searching about how the Legislature operates.

To some legislators and lobbyists, Morris was just telling it like it is. But others say her approach ignores a view larger than the success or demise of a particular bill.

“Laws don’t just have ramifications on white folks,” said James Kelly, executive director of the Washington State Commission on African-American Affairs. He said following Morris’ advice risks disenfranchising minorities and deprives legislators from hearing a different perspective.

That perspective is hard to get internally: Of the 147 members of the Legislature, two are African Americans and six are minorities.

That’s about 4 percent of the Legislature, in a state where minorities comprise 11.5 percent of residents, according to the 1990 census.

Robertson said race was not a factor in his decision to call troopers. He is a trooper himself, and he said that his 10 years’ experience with the agency, not the color of the man’s skin, drew his attention to Tackett and what he might have been holding in his pocket.

Kelly, of the Commission on African-American Affairs, said he believed Robertson. Others, like Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, wondered aloud whether racial stereotypes about young African-American men were at play.

Tony Lee, one of a handful of minorities who work as lobbyists, said, “A lot of legislators are not used to seeing many people of color. I wouldn’t call it racism - more unfamiliarity. It’s something new.”

Lee, who lobbies for the Washington Association of Churches, does not agree that lobbyists should refrain from bringing minorities to testify.

But, he said, “In welfare (topics), you probably want to bring whites to testify because people have the stereo-typical image of a black woman with lots of kids. But in reality 80 percent of welfare recipients are white.

“Race should not be a consideration, but it is.”

Bias among some legislators is also an argument for bringing minorities before them, Kelly said. “We will bring African Americans with positive stories, like the one the young man had to tell, to dispel a lot of myths people have.”

Jesse Wineberry, who represented Rainier Valley and the Central District in the House from 1984 through last year, once went a step further and assumed a stereotype to make a point. A bill was before the House to make it illegal to wear “gang clothes.” Wineberry showed up at a hearing wearing sunglasses and a Los Angeles Raiders jacket.

“We know what kind of people wear these clothes,” he said. “Gang kids. But a lot of kids with 4.0 grade-point averages wear these clothes, too.”

Some legislators worry that the hullabaloo surrounding the testimony of Tackett will further discourage minorities from being involved.

“It’s hard enough to get people from my community to come down here and testify,” said Rep. Kip Tokuda, D-Seattle. “All this will discourage them even more that they would be listened to.”

House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, disagreed that minorities are shut out of the legislative process. “We want everyone to feel comfortable coming here.” he said.

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