President's Column
September-October 2008

Opening a dialogue about race

Bill Turner

District Attorney in Brazos County

Several years ago, while my family was on vacation, I offered to pick up burgers for lunch. Not far from the hotel was a fast food place, and Katy, my younger daughter, wanted to go along for the ride. When we got in line I noticed that we were the only white folks in the restaurant. The two families in front of us and the cashier belonged to a different race. When the first family ordered their meal, the cashier handed each kid a balloon. The next family also had a little one, and she got a balloon too. I thought to myself, “This is a cool and unexpected bonus.” But when I placed my order, the cashier was pleasant enough, but no balloon for Katy. As I left I noticed the next kid in line got a balloon. I remembered thinking that this must be one of the many faces of racism. The cashier was courteous and she said no derogatory words and gave no disgusted looks, but when it came time for favors, we were left out. Katy was too young to notice, but on the way back to the car I wondered how I would answer if she asked why she didn’t get a balloon.

A few weeks ago I went to a fast food place for lunch. When I got in line, I noticed the cashier was handing out balloons to the kids. My mind raced back to the earlier slight—I guess it left an impression. I placed my order and on the way out I noticed a commotion. In the corner sat a dozen kids celebrating a birthday. Each kid had a balloon.

Today, I can’t tell you if I misjudged the original cashier. Did I overlook a birthday in the corner? I don’t know. I never asked the cashier for an explanation, and she never felt the need to offer one. I don’t know who had the responsibility to talk about it. I do know that the lack of a dialogue left room for confusion and distrust.

A tough topic

Racism is a topic that is difficult to talk about. We have seen public figures—in our own state, in some of our offices—lose their jobs because of the words they chose. Emotions can run high. Many times problems are brewing just beneath the surface and no one wants to dig. But the failure to talk about racism leaves room for confusion—confusion in the communities we represent and confusion in our offices, confusion that will not be resolved by being ignored.

TDCAA is addressing the issue. Executive Director Rob Kepple has started a much-needed dialogue by gathering a diverse group of prosecutors to talk about racism in the workplace and in the criminal justice system. Jarvis Parsons, an African-American prosecutor in my office in Brazos County, has agreed to chair the group, and we have already met to hammer out issues to be addressed.

The group’s primary focus is to help TDCAA members recruit and retain minority prosecutors. Why aren’t we getting more such applicants, and why are we losing good prosecutors to the private sector? Resolving those issues will inevitably uncover other topics of concern, but I can’t think of a better group to tackle the issues of racism than prosecutors. We are charged with doing what is right in our everyday jobs. We share a common interest to improve our communities and treat people fairly. A diverse workforce can be a valuable resource, providing the insight necessary to properly address problems that arise in every neighborhood. It is because we share these common values that we should be able to trust each other enough to engage in a candid conversation.

While there is a committee at TDCAA studying the issue, a lot can be accomplished by individual effort. Public discussions will be somewhat reserved for obvious reasons, but private discussions with people you trust can yield the best information anyway. In my office, Jarvis and I have spent hours trying to unravel some of the most difficult issues involving race and the criminal justice system. It is exhausting work, and there are some topics we haven’t come to agreement on. Nonetheless, we agree that even the effort moves the ball forward.

As prosecutors our work is not as simple as balloons and birthday parties. We deal with some of the most complex issues challenging our communities. Addressing those issues properly requires us to move away from our comfort zone and enter into serious dialogue. Our offices and our communities will be the better for it. ✤