How are Houston's race relations?

July 16, 2009 9:10:10 PM PDT
Part of the message President Barack Obama delivered to the NAACP for its 100th anniversary Thursday night in New York was relayed in his statement, "The pain of discrimination is still felt here in America."President Obama's words may ring true to some in Houston who have observed racial tensions rise lately.

It is easy to figure out who won a baseball game, what your investments are doing or how hot it is, but it is far harder to somehow figure out how we're all getting along.

Lately, it may seem like it's not going all that well. The Houston Fire Department, as you probably know, is facing race-related issues on the radios and in the station houses.

African-American activists are screaming at each other over political billboards and according to HPD, race-based hate crimes in Houston went up every year from 2004 to 2007, the most recent year available.

"I want to believe it's getting better, but we have a long way to go," said Rev. Bridgette Goodjoin.

Dr. Stephen Klineberg of Rice University surveys people every year to find out what we think about race relations, and his work shows our recent troubles may be the exception rather than the rule. It seems we're doing OK. Starting in 1992, Anglos, African-Americans and Latinos all felt better almost every year until 2005 and then something happened.

"We watch in all three communities a drop in positive reports of ethnic relations after 2005. Then in the last two years, improvement," said Dr. Klineberg. "That volatility lets you know this is not a done deal. The Houston future is not automatically going to work out."

However, Klineberg also points out something else. Houston is one of the nation's most diverse, but most segregated cities.

"We don't meet in classrooms. Schools are more segregated today than they were before Brown vs. Board of Education. We don't meet in the neighborhoods. If we are going meet at all, we meet in the workplace," said Dr. Klineberg.

Even there, Houston is navigating its diversity fairly well. Complaints of workplace discrimination to the EEOC have gone down every year since 2006.

If we're doing well now, it doesn't mean the challenge is over. The Houston of today, already diverse, is about to go through what Dr. Klineberg calls one of the most anxiety-inducing ethnic changes in history.

"Of everybody 60 and older, 70% are Anglos. Of everybody under the age of 30, more than 75% are non-Anglos. It's a remarkable hinge in history," said Dr. Klineberg.

That massive change Klineberg says will create anxiety and anxiety leads to tension, which is worth watching out for.

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