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Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action draws city race relations into spotlight

By Richard Yeakley
July 6, 2013 at 11 p.m.

After a U.S. Supreme Court decision hinging on a finding that U.S. race relations have improved in recent decades, Longview officials and community leaders agreed that while the city has made progress, there is more to do.

"I would have to say that we have come a ways," said Keeta King, city liaison to Longview's Unity and Diversity Committee. "I think that there is still work to do."

In Longview, which gained notoriety in 1919 as the site of one of dozens of race riots during a summer of racial tension across the nation and again in 1970 for the bombing of Longview school buses as forced desegregation began, officials and community leaders said tensions still exist. Today, King said, those tensions increasingly are over differences among social or religious groups. But racial tensions still simmer.

In its recent decision, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. The act was put in place in the 1960s to end practices intended to disenfranchise voters in places with clear records of racial discrimination. Texas is one of nine states covered by the act.

The court allowed restrictions on such practices to stand, but said the formula used to determine which states and municipalities must abide by them had been outdated by progress away from racial discrimination.

A couple of recent polls, though, indicated Americans disagree with the court.

An ABC/Washington Post poll released this past week found only a third of Americans agreed with the court's decision on the act, while 51 percent disagreed.

And on the state of race relations, a Rasmussen Reports survey found just 30 percent of all Americans rate race relations in the U.S. as good or excellent. Fourteen percent described them as poor, 29 percent said race relations are getting better, and 32 percent said they are getting worse. Thirty-five percent feel they are staying about the same.

Longview, though, has made "tremendous strides," said Branden Johnson, president of the Longview Chapter of the NAACP.

"We have had a few bumps in the recent past … but I think the strides that the city of Longview has taken are monumental," he said, giving credit in part to city leaders in recent decades. "I really, truly think that the upper-level management and the City Council looked at the staggering statistics and I think they have responded excellently to that. There are still some areas that need improvement, but it is very different."

He warned that while the city has taken strides to unify diverse groups, it was important now not to lose focus and slip back into old habits. He compared it to driving down the highway, reaching an exit and then taking one's hand off the wheel.

Unless hampered, Johnson said, the generation of people younger than 25 will continue leading the way to a non-prejudiced city.

"I truly believe that the generation that is now, the people I am going to say 25 and under, they really have it going on. Just like any generation, there are a few that stray and do some wild and crazy things, and are not so open, but for the most part that generation 25 and under, they are really the dreamers," he said. "What we need to do is foster that and nourish and cherish the dream."

King said that while it is still important to focus on race relations in the city, challenges to recognize diversity in its many aspects play a major role in the city. It was for that reason the former Race Relations Committee changed its name and mission in 2012 to recognize a broader spectrum of potential prejudices.

"We have people who live in Longview, that are different religions, different socioeconomic background," King said. "So while race is still our primary objective, we recognize those challenges."

King pointed to the Unity and Diversity Committees annual Unity Honors luncheon as a testimony to how relations have improved in Longview.

The annual luncheon is designed to honor champions of diversity, and in January, the luncheon drew more than 500 community members including elected officials and industry leaders.



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