Minority Leaders Say "No Room" for Bigotry in Memphis After Brooks' Comments

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Commissioner Henri Brooks
  • Shelby County Government
  • Commissioner Henri Brooks

In a joint press conference Thursday morning at First Baptist Church on Broad Avenue, community leaders from Latino Memphis and the Memphis branch of the NCAAP agreed that Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks’ recent comments about Hispanics should lead to an economic conversation rather than a racial one.

During a Shelby County Commission meeting on Monday, Brooks said Hispanics “asked to come” to the United States.

Pablo Pereya, who is Hispanic, was at the meeting where commissioners were discussing whether or not a local roofing company was discriminating against African-Americans because all 25 of its roofers are Hispanic. Though he was there for a different reason, Pereya spoke to the commissioners about the issue but became frustrated.

“I see you guys smirking and laughing like I’m not a minority,” Pereya told commissioners. “I know what it’s like to be a minority. I grew up in Memphis, and you being a Hispanic in Memphis is definitely the minority of a minority.”

Brooks responded, pointing to Pereya.

“You asked to come here,” Brooks said. “You asked to come here. We did not. And when we got here, our condition was so egregious, so barbaric. Don’t ever let that come out of your mouth again because, you know what, that hurts your case. Don’t compare the two. They’re not comparable.”

Mauricio Calvo, the executive director of Latino Memphis, and Rev. Keith Norman, president of the NAACP Memphis branch, spoke about moving forward with the “new” Memphis.

“The new Memphis is a table of brotherhood in my imagination, where all people are equitable and race doesn’t play such a prominent matter,” Norman said. “There’s always concerns and issues and we recognize that — we aren’t blind. We don’t live in a colorblind society. But to take it to this level is regressive.”

Both leaders say they want to look toward the future.

“In our perspective, in the new Memphis we’re trying to build, there is absolutely no room for intolerance and bigotry from anybody. I encourage voters to look closely at the upcoming election for that particular candidate or any candidate,” Calvo said during the press conference.

Norman also said the discussion needs to serve a higher purpose.

“We don’t want to concentrate on the sound bytes being played in the news. We need to talk about making sure that our contracting process has proper oversight, people are being awarded contracts based on merit and that the same standards apply federally, state, and locally,” Norman said. “A fair living wage ought to be included in this conversation to make sure that we’re not pitting groups against one another surrounding a low wage. Oftentimes what’s driving this engine is who will bid for the lowest dollar and that low dollar can be below what we consider to be a living wage.”

As to whether or not Brooks should resign, Norman said he believed the voters would ultimately decide, and Calvo agreed.

“Our community, quite frankly, cannot afford these types of things. We need to be working together to lift up the entire community,” Calvo said to reporters. “We have way too many poor people in Memphis — black, white, Latino, and any other community. We have to make sure our time in the county commission is spent being productive.”

Calvo said Latino Memphis and the NCAAP are trying to push past Brooks’ comments in response.

“How we handle this speaks to our character. We’re moving forward because we don’t want to address [those comments]. We have bigger and better things to address,” he said. “If you have two races fighting against each other for a dollar, what kind of dollar is that?”

Business interests are also at play here, Calvo added: “At the end of the day, we want to attract people to do more business in Shelby County. The people who are already in Shelby County need to have confidence that their elected officials are going to be representing all people in a professional manner. There’s a challenge and an opportunity here.”

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