Photo by James BunoanHate crimes against Arab Americans rise and fall like hem lines—up during the Gulf War, down for years after, up again after Sept. 11, and down again for the last few months. Now, with war in Iraq on the horizon, more attacks are likely, and Orange County Supervisor Jim Silva thinks he has the final solution: kill the messenger.
Silva is at the head of an apparent Board of Supervisors majority eager to end public funding of the one county organization monitoring and working to end hate crimes, the Orange County Human Relations Commission (HRC).
"Without the HRC's help and support, it would have been extremely difficult for the American Muslim community after the tragic events of Sept. 11," said Ra'id Baraj, public-affairs director with the Southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. "The HRC opened its doors and helped the community deal with these incidents. They really did their best to respond to what was happening."
Silva's not impressed. He reckons that taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for a "political agenda"—that is, promoting tolerance and understanding between the county's ethnic groups. And in an amazing leap of logic, Silva says most county taxpayers support his move to kill the HRC; one might argue that's reason enough to increase the group's funding.
For 32 years, the HRC has provided sensitivity training for the Orange County Sheriff's Department and various police departments; helped mediate disputes between county residents; and maintained a hate-crime network, which meets each month with local law enforcement. But starting in 1991, the county Board of Supervisors steadily bled the HRC's budget, forcing it to raise millions of dollars over the years from private donors. Last year, the supes cut the HRC's budget by $80,000.
Now the commission has just three full-time staff members (who supervise hundreds of volunteers) and an annual budget of only $437,000—about what it had a decade ago. In comparison, the Orange County District Attorney's office enjoys an annual budget of about $71 million.
Silva's low-profile attack on HRC became obvious as county officials struggled to respond to the state's $35 billion budget deficit. At a Jan. 29 county financial-planning meeting, he proposed eliminating the commission's funding within four years. In doing so, they didn't seek opinions from the HRCor from the head of the county's Community Services Agency, which oversees the commission.
Following the meeting, the HRC sent an e-mail to supporters, urging them to ask the Board of Supervisors to reconsider axing the commission. Silva went into attack mode. He told The Orange County Register that Rusty Kennedy, HRC's executive director, had penned the e-mail and said the e-mail effort might be illegal because it amounted to political "lobbying" and was sent from a county-owned computer.
Carrying Silva's torch, the Register published a Feb. 3 editorial blasting the HRC for being too liberal and involving itself in local politics. "It got involved in the fracas over a gay and lesbian club at a local high school and opposed efforts to end bilingual education," the Reg stated, seemingly oblivious to the fact that mediating conflicts is exactly what the HRC is supposed to do. The Reg editorialists said they found "chilling" news that the HRC had supposedly monitored the website of a Costa Mesa city official who had posted articles "from respected evangelical Christian organizations that oppose homosexual behavior."
The Register didn't bother to mention that the city official who had posted those articles was Councilman Allan Mansoor, a member of Costa Mesa's Human Relations Commission. Of course, identifying Mansoor might have forced the Reg to argue implausibly that public officials who are supposed to promote tolerance should feel free to rant against gay people.
Following the Register's hit piece, Kennedy finally spoke out. "If a charter of an organization is to produce tolerance between groups of people, then you don't want people sitting on that organization insulting people who may be coming before them with complaints," he told the Weekly.
Kennedy added that the HRC had been involved with Costa Mesa's Human Relations Commission long before Mansoor became a member. "I think the Register is attempting to foment conflict between us and various people in Costa Mesa," he said. "All we did was work with the city to help them become more effective. We held workshops with them about what kind of people are important to have on their Human Relations Commission in terms of building diversity."
The HRC also holds workshops on race relations each year for more than 43,000 students at 45 schools throughout Orange County. "We use the program several times a year," said Tom Peters, principal of Anaheim's Oxford Academy, a magnet school. Peters said the program helps build communication between students at the school, adding that Oxford's student population is as diverse as the city itself.
"Someone from the commission will come to our school and train up to 25 kids at a time in dealing with issues of race and inter-ethnic relations," Peters said. "The program really helps kids to recognize that diversity is a strength. If you don't have a place for that kind of discourse, you are in big trouble as a society."
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