San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis faced criticism this week for trying to remove the word “race” from the city’s new Office of Racial Equity.
Khamis, who was rebuked by the City Council’s Latino members, defended his argument by saying race is a term people have used to divide each other for centuries. The dispute sparked as elected leaders Tuesday discussed proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. Khamis credited his experience as a refugee from Lebanon for why he supported the movement.
“I’m a refugee and I’m an immigrant. I’m one of the only people here who has faced down some serious racism in San Jose,” Khamis said.
But fellow councilmembers said his experience did not equate to the struggles of San Jose’s most vulnerable residents.
“Please don’t compare yourself to the plight of so many others that are still struggling,” said Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco. “That no matter how hard they work and how much effort they put in, the odds are so stacked against them that they can’t see to climb out of the situation they find themselves in.”
Councilmember Raul Peralez said Khamis was the only councilmember to suggest nixing the word race from the Office of Racial Equity.
Khamis shot back that he saw eliminating the word race as a necessity to eliminate racism.
“I’m kind of insulted by the underlying statement here. My intention for removing the word race is because the word race has been used as a way to divide people for centuries. People have divided people by race because they wanted to show some skin colors are inferior,” Khamis said. “That’s why I wanted to remove the word race — not because I don’t support equity and inclusion and opportunities.”
Although councilmembers rejected Khamis’ request to drop the word race from the city’s Office of Racial Equity, the debate erupted into lengthy squabbling during a City Council meeting.
Councilmembers from the Latino Caucus said holding a “colorblind” attitude toward inequities ignores the plight of San Jose’s most vulnerable residents.
“When you erase my color, you erase me,” said Councilmember Sylvia Arenas. “When you say you don’t see color because you are colorblind and because there’s no racism in you then you’re erasing who I am and the people who are Black who have had such a horrific experience in this country. Your ancestors weren’t brought in as slaves.”
Despite the seemingly good intentions, San Jose State sociology professor William Armaline said that omitting race from conversations can allow leaders to easily overlook past instances of state-sponsored racism.
Armaline expressed frustration over the City Council’s debate over words, rather than taking action to fulfill the public’s demands to defund police.
“They’re trying to find any way they can appear to be sensitive to these issues, to appear as if they’re in tune with the public,” Armaline said, instead of listening to the public’s demands. “They’re doing this because it’s easier than doing something.”
While the professor said he respects councilmembers trying to make strides in improving racial equity, he said it’s troubling that the council lacks consensus on something as simple as naming an office.
“It’s just disappointing,” he added. “It just shows how far away they are from being on the same page.”
Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.