Fort Worth leaders discuss systemic racism in first ‘Candid Conversations’ event
In first of a new series, 4 community leaders explore impact of racism on Fort Worth and how it will shape city’s future
Less than a lifetime ago, Fort Worth’s Forest Park Pool was open to Black residents on only one day a year — Juneteenth.
Fort Worth leader Estrus Tucker, 67, remembers when he was in second grade being one of the children who enjoyed the annual pool day. After Juneteenth, the city drained the pool’s water and filled it again for the white kids of Fort Worth.
Long-standing segregation, bias and prejudice form a legacy of systemic racism in Fort Worth that persists today, said panelists at the Fort Worth Report’s first “Candid Conversations” event. The discussion, titled “Where We Are Now vs. Where We Were Then,” addressed systemic racism’s presence in Fort Worth and how everyone from city leaders to everyday residents can move the city toward progress.
“The thing that we struggled with, then and now, is this concept of systemic or structural racism,” said Tucker, president and CEO of DEI Consultants. “There was significant denial that it is real.”
The conversation turned to how partisan politics have shaped the city’s response to hot-button and racially charged issues. The event’s moderator, longtime Fort Worth journalist Bob Ray Sanders, asked Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker and the other panelists about the city’s response to long-unaddressed gaps in equity.
The country’s hyper-political climate has led to misguided discussions about systemic racism, Parker said. She brought up the March 1 Republican primary between Tarrant County Judge candidates Tim O’Hare and Parker’s former boss, Betsy Price, as an example of how political polarization hurts society and pulls the focus away from the real issues.
“You watched it right here in Tarrant County last week play out in a really heavy way,” Parker said. “Everything is partisan, everything is politicized and what’s so unfortunate about that, to me, is you’re talking about the lives of children,” Parker said.
Critical race theory and the political conflict surrounding the teaching of Black history in schools are ways to divert attention away from real issues, said panelist Dr. John Barnett Jr., a pediatric dentist. If society is fearful of teaching children the true history of the United States, it will be impossible for the people who run institutions to propose adequate solutions, he added.
“The contrived sensitivity that our children are not strong enough to face our history keeps us in bondage to the past,” Barnett said. “The present is the past to our children.”
Sanders and Tucker served on the city’s Race and Culture Task Force and said the city needs to keep working to achieve the goals the group laid out in 2019. The task force formed after a 2016 viral video showed a Fort Worth police officer using excessive force against a Black woman, Jacqueline Craig, and her family in response to a domestic dispute. The officer was fired in the aftermath of the incident and later rehired by the city’s police department.
Parker touted the hiring of Chief Equity Officer Christina Brooks and Police Oversight Monitor Kim Neal as positive outcomes of the task force’s recommendations and said the city would like to explore new ways to measure the success of the changes the city made and keep pushing the work of the task force forward.
Students at Texas Christrian University are shocked that the goals outlined by the task force aren’t already in place, said panelist Whitnee Boyd, coordinator of special projects for the Office of the Chancellor. Too often, leaders are appointed to positions with the purpose of making progress on issues related to race and diversity, she added, but they are not empowered with the tools or authority to be successful.
“People want to live in a city that really is inclusive, that is willing to isolate race and say… this is the role that race is playing in all these different fields,” Boyd said.
Voter suppression and redistricting have limited the participation of certain groups of people in municipal elections for decades, Parker acknowledged. That is changing as Fort Worth works to expand its council seats from eight to 10 and draw new voting boundaries, she said.
Sanders asked Parker about her decision to not sign a letter sent by the mayors of major cities to U.S. Senate leadership., urging lawmakers to quickly pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.
Parker disagreed with some of the specific provisions in the bills and had doubts about the effectiveness of sending a letter to Capitol Hill, she said. Specifically, Parker questioned possible changes to the Federal Elections Commission and taxpayer-funded elections.
“I didn’t think a letter was going to get us anywhere, and it didn’t.”
Parker does have regrets, though, acknowledging that she could have explained her decision more clearly.
“I understand the message that sent, especially to the African American population in Fort Worth, that this mayor doesn’t care about me and doesn’t understand the history of John Lewis’s legacy, and what (voting rights) mean for the future of our country,” Parker said.
Instead, she will examine recent and upcoming elections to find out if fewer people are voting and how she can advocate for change in Austin.
Parker also looked ahead to the upcoming trial of Aaron Dean, a Fort Worth police officer charged with murdering Atatiana Jefferson, scheduled to begin in May.
“It will be one of the most difficult times in our city. But how do we heal from that? How do we make sure we all say, ‘Never again’… I have a responsibility as mayor to try to bring people together, make sure her legacy is lasting and help move the city forward but acknowledge it’s not going to happen overnight.”
The panel discussed a variety of other topics over the course of the hour-long event. Here are some of the highlights:
- Estrus Tucker on growing up hearing stories from his family about how they overcame racial conflict: “The way they told the story I had no doubt that I mattered. I had no doubt that racism wasn’t about my inadequacies — it was about fairness.”
- Dr. John Barnett Jr. on growing up in Fort Worth during segregation: “My parents didn’t allow me to think that I was less than. They never explained why we had to go into different doors and use separate bathrooms… I recognized at a later age, there was a difference in my experience and a white kid’s experience, but it didn’t affect me.”
- Mayor Mattie Parker on learning that her childhood friend had asked to be emancipated from his father who was the grand dragon in the local chapter of the KKK in her hometown of Hico: “It wasn’t until I was probably in college that I started to settle in and understand the history of the town I loved and grew up in, and then you can’t wash that off of you, right?… But not talking about it was not the answer.”
- Whitnee Boyd, on how Texas Christian University has been progressing toward racial equity: “Students are coming to campus equipped in a different way so we’ve had to reckon with that. They understand the definition of institutional racism and they’re coming with the expectation that we’re going to deal with it. So, yes, I have seen the progress, and I want to celebrate the progress while also holding our institution accountable”
- Dr. Barnett Jr. on unity: “I don’t think we’ll ever have unity in America. I think unity is very much like salvation. You’re never going to reach perfection, but we ought to be found on the road to manifesting it. And so will always be to some degree of advancing toward unity.”
- Tucker on unity: “Increasingly, our language is politicized. And so we lift up the word that sounds good, feels good and means nothing. And for our other words that are more relevant to people’s lived experiences we dodge and deny. And so unity is one of those words, as a word, it has less value. Show me unity, show me what you mean by unity. And I think that the price for unity is equity.”
- Boyd on whether the future of Fort Worth is bright: That question made me think about Atatiana Jefferson… I didn’t want to go back into society because I couldn’t have a world where everyone else is going on with their day-to-day lives and I’m still crushed. My hope for Fort Worth is the tragedy of Atatitana Jefferson’s death and all these structural things happening in our city. We will learn from them, and also grow from them.
- Tucker on the future of Fort Worth: “It is bright and bleak. Where the brightness happens and where the bleakness happens depends on us.”