Commentary: Why I stand by my remarks about race relations in Austin

  • Beverly S. Silas
  • Special to the American-Statesman
3:00 p.m Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017 Opinion
Jhenifer Pabillano
Beverly Silas, left, vice president of the Capital Metro board, is seen with Doug Allen at the American Public Transportation Association rail conference in Vancouver in 2013. She was quoted as telling the board in August that a black CEO “would have a very difficult time” working in Austin.

Words matter. So does race.

I have served as a board member for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority for eight years; it’s one of the greatest honors I’ve had living in Austin. Last month, during a work session on the search for a new agency CEO to replace soon-to-be-retired Linda Watson, we talked about the sort of well-qualified, highly experienced person we might bring to this community to fill this vital role.

HOW WE GOT HERE: Capital Metro board member draws fire for racial comments on hiring.

As an African-American woman who’s lived 45 years in Austin, I thought about some of the experiences I’ve had — and my friends and family members have had — and the history and interactions that can make Austin a uniquely difficult place for black men and women to call home. I thought about the challenges that even an accomplished top-level executive would encounter as an African-American coming to this community.

These were feelings as much as thoughts. I tried to put them into words — and I failed, implying that the search committee should steer clear of recruiting someone who might find Austin’s history and dynamics too challenging. My words did not come out well. I shouldn’t have said what I said — or in the context in which I did. I am extremely sorry for that.

I strongly agree with Nelson Linder, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Austin branch, that a number of African-Americans are well-qualified for this and other leadership positions in this community. We would benefit from their service — and those charged with filling these positions should be transparent about our community but should not pre-emptively exclude people who might contribute to it.

Furthermore, Austin’s African-American community has stood up for and supported wonderful African-American leaders, including former Austin City Manager Mark Ott, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Castarphen, Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton and current Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Ashby Johnson.

THE TALK: Statesman series takes a look at race relations in Austin.

These leaders, like any others, need support from the entire community to be successful and to make Austin exceptional. What my heart was saying last month is both obvious and too easily forgotten: It is hard being African-American in Austin.

I love this community. As an Austinite, I want to hear the good things about Austin. It’s easy to sit around and talk about everything we love. But when it comes to race — especially in Austin — I’ve found it’s at least as easy to avoid conversations about the things we do not want to hear. Words matter, certainly — but in my and many others’ experience, race matters more.

Many of us take pride in being a diverse community, but actions can send a different message. It often feels as though certain media figures, leaders, law enforcement officers and even well-intentioned residents apply a different standard with African-Americans. We as a community don’t “walk the talk.”

Prejudice is ingrained in each of us; it can be hard to recognize, unless you’re on the receiving end of it. As African-Americans, we are too often pushed aside, talked over or ignored. Sometimes, we become invisible. At others, we may be criticized before we get off the plane to simply start a new job — just ask Charlie Strong.

When we have ideas for bringing about change, they’re often fiercely challenged, sometimes with the justification that we are not knowledgeable enough to have a good solution.

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I regret that I didn’t accurately express my thoughts during last month’s Capital Metro meeting. I apologize to the community for my words — they clearly did not capture what was in my heart. I also hope this starts and continues some badly needed conversations. Prejudice exists in our community — and we must call it by its name. If we can’t do that, how will we ever conquer it?

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