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On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Nevada leaders reflect on civil rights and the struggle forward

Humberto Sanchez
Humberto Sanchez
Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
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As the nation pauses to celebrate the life of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., four Nevada leaders spoke to The Nevada Independent about where the country stands in the quest for equality and what’s next to realize King’s vision.

Assemblywoman Neal, left, speaks with Nguyen inside the Assembly chambers on Friday, July 31, 2020 during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.
Assemblywoman Dina Neal, left, speaks with Rochelle Nguyen inside the Assembly chambers on Friday, July 31, 2020 during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

State Sen. Dina Neal: "The 14th amendment should not be watered down to a tagline”

Nevada has moved away from its designation as the "Mississippi of the West," but the state has not yet achieved true equality, state Sen. Dina Neal told The Nevada Independent.

The lawmaker, who has served since 2011, pointed to the underfunding of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission (NERC) as one example of a general lack of emphasis on openly addressing racism and discrimination.

"Government has a role in making sure a wrong is acknowledged, not hiding from it," she wrote in response to questions from The Nevada Independent. "The dismissal of racial animus belittles the citizens who experience it, and dismisses their need for acknowledgment of a wrong doing."

Addressing racial disparities has to begin with fearlessness, Neal said, noting that politicians will discuss racial injustices and the need to change in stump speeches or meetings with voters, but rarely do those words result in legislative action.

"Why is it that when a legislator tries to bring legislation dealing with racial disparity, they feel shamed into killing their own bills," Neal said, pointing to the constitutional amendment that guarantees all citizens equal protection of the law. "The 14th amendment should not be watered down to a tagline, but be fully expressed through the Civil Rights laws of Title VII that strengthened it."

State lawmakers' inability to pass increased laws promoting fair treatment and accountability for racial discrimination is an ongoing problem, she said — one that her father, former state Sen. Joe Neal, a Democrat from Las Vegas who passed away on New Year’s Eve and was honored across the state this weekend, also worked to solve.

Neal described her father as a "pioneer" who helped defend civil rights in Nevada. Watching his work inspired her, but some of the same issues her father fought to address remain. 

In the last few years, she has watched bills and reforms similar to those her father tried to pass in the 1970s resurface.

One example she discussed was a bail reform bill her father proposed in 1976 that would have allowed officials to release citizens arrested on bail within 48 hours. In 2017, when Neal helped submit a bill on bail reform, the bill was vetoed, and in 2019, it became a working study.

"It is like we as a state are cyclical. We know the problem exists, but refuse to truly pass legislation to deal with it," Neal said. "We know that the application of the law in its current form creates disproportionate racial results on Black and Brown people in Nevada."

Though more reform is needed, Neal feels heartened by the coalition-building stemming from the Black Lives Matter movement and how the movement brought and kept national attention on the need for systemic changes. 

She remains hopeful for the future.

"We should all be open to educating ourselves on the disparities of all groups of people," Neal said. "Lets build a rich and new legacy in Nevada of full participation in the American dream, not limited by redlining, generational poverty and stories of rampant discrimination in health care and daily life."

— Tabitha Mueller

State Senator Spearman on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.
State Senator Pat Spearman on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

State Sen. Pat Spearman on challenges to voting: ‘We’ve been here before’

As Democratic state Sen. Pat Spearman watched protracted challenges of the election results, the storming of the U.S. Capitol and cries of “stop the steal” in the last few months, it all sounded very familiar.

The self-described “civil rights baby” who has argued fervently from the Senate floor about voting rights said she heard in last week’s uproar echoes of Southern segregationists George Wallace and Bull Connor — and people so incensed by the extension of rights to Black Americans that they bombed a church in Birmingham in 1963.

“It wasn't Sarasota, Florida. It wasn't Minnesota. It was places that have a high concentration of Black voters,” she told The Nevada Independent about the epicenter of the recent election challenges. “For me it was like, ‘You just don't want me to have the right to vote, and if I vote, then something must be wrong with it.’”

Four years ago, Spearman led a charge to enshrine a set of voting rights in the state Constitution, where they would be more secure than in Nevada state law. More than a decade ago, the former pastor said she sensed the simmering anger of people upset that the country had elected a Black president, and warned her congregation that they should brace for turbulence ahead.

She doesn’t think enough people spoke out against President Donald Trump early on, when he said in 2015 that Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” She added that many people stood by silently when, in 2016, Trump said a judge of Mexican descent would not deal with his case fairly.

“Nobody was calling them out. They kept making excuses for him: ‘Well, it's just Trump,”’ she said. “Those are the kinds of things that we need to call out. And you can't put a soft pedal on it. It’s racist.” 

Spearman said the trends of the past keep emerging because society has given a “wink and a nod at racism” and has not sustained the kind of probing dialogue that will certainly make some people angry and leave some people crying.

“I believe we keep going back to it because we have not yet committed to consistent, serious conversation about the ‘isms’ that exist in our society — racism, sexism, ageism, transphobia, homophobia,” she said.

One way she hopes to spur that conversation is to remind her legislative colleagues about a statement they affirmed through a resolution this summer: that racism is a public health crisis. It comes as Black and Hispanic Americans are hospitalized for COVID-19 at four times the rate of white Americans and die at three times the rate.

She says that racism has led to food deserts, where it’s hard to find fresh and healthy food and more people more frequently suffer hypertension or diabetes — conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus. She also is concerned about a lack of diversity among public health decision makers, who can be removed from the experiences of the hardest-hit communities.

Spearman has firsthand experience on this point, having recently spent a week hospitalized with COVID-19. It’s strengthened her resolve for universal mask-wearing, especially as she wonders whether she got it from someone who didn’t wear a mask and didn’t have any symptoms.

“It's like getting hit by a drunk driver,” she said. “The person who gets hit usually dies. The drunk driver usually gets up and walks away.” 

As she looks at the future of the country and the transition of power, she said she has no illusions that the new administration will have it easy. 

“I think it will probably be very difficult,” she said. “But here's the thing that I know — I know that our new president has survived some pretty tough challenges in life as a white guy … I also know that our vice president has overcome so many odds, that the testament of her being there is not just that she's there, but it's the fact that people in this country would not let race stop them.”

— Michelle Rindels

U.S. Representative Steve Horsford speaks during an organizing event in the final hours of Election Day at the Voter Activation Center in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Rep. Steven Horsford: ‘We have to restore public confidence in our institutions’

When Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford reflects on Nevadans who have played a role in the struggle for civil rights, he thinks of people like Joe Neal, Nevada’s first Black state senator, Ruby Duncan, a Las Vegas welfare rights and health care advocate and Gene Collins, a former assemblyman and one-time head of the Nevada NAACP.

While Horsford, the state’s first Black federal lawmaker, charts his own course to help advance racial equality, he’s quick to give credit to those who walked the path before him.

“I stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, the people who have had to fight in ways that I don't,” Horsford said in a recent interview. “But I still have to try to break down many of the barriers that the communities that I represent continue to face.”

He sees the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as the result of President Donald Trump’s baseless effort to subvert the result of the 2020 election. He added that many of the lawsuits his campaign filed sought to disenfranchise people of color and that the president has engaged in race-baiting for much of his time in public life, including questioning whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.  

“But again, this is nothing new,” Horsford said. “This is a part of the history of this country and part of what we have to address within our policies and our institutions, because it's embedded throughout.”

Horsford represents Nevada’s Fourth Congressional District, which is made up of mostly white (63 percent) constituents. But he also represents growing blocs of Latinos (30 percent), Black residents (16 percent) and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (six percent), in addition to five tribal communities. 

Horsford said addressing structural racism is definitely part of his agenda, just as it was when he first ran for the state Senate in 2004, winning Neal’s seat when he retired.

“It's why I first ran for the State Senate, to address these issues based on what I was seeing in my community,” Horford said.

Horsford said that getting an accurate census count is part of the solution. In the last legislative session, Horsford led the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) Census 2020 Task Force. 

He is currently the CBC’s second-in-command. Known as “the conscience of Congress,” the CBC was formed in 1971 and is the preeminent institution of Black lawmakers in Congress.

Because federal funds are apportioned on a per capita basis, the census essentially determines how much funding states get. The demographic information provided by the census also helps lawmakers focus funding in areas that are most needed. 

Horsford said that when he’s asked, ‘why are you making this about race?’ he responds, “I'm making it about the issues that have impacted the communities that I represent the hardest.”

Communities of color have been historically undercounted in the census. One reason for the undercount is a historic distrust of the government, Horsford said, that was exacerbated by Trump’s effort to use the census to identify undocumented people.

During negotiations on the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion pandemic aid bill that became law in March, Horsford said that the CBC led the charge to ensure that federal statistics on COVID include data on race, ethnicity, and gender. 

“That was not something that was mandated to be collected at the federal level from the Centers for Disease Control, and other federal health agencies,” Horsford said, adding that collection of the data helps lawmakers focus funds effectively.

Horsford also leads the CBC’s 100-days Task Force, which, in part, will communicate the group’s policy priorities to the Biden administration. 

Among the CBC’s priorities for the new legislative session, which began Jan 3, are holding Trump and other parties found to have aided the rioters accountable.

They include controlling and stamping out the virus with fair and equitable vaccine distribution, additional testing, community tracing and funding for community health centers. Another objective is building up the economy through investments in education and workforce training. 

“Look, I'll be very clear, the economy wasn't all that great for a lot of people to begin with before COVID,” Horsford said, adding that “if we have an infrastructure bill, we want to make sure that the jobs that are created are targeted to those who've been historically left out of those opportunities.”

Horsford also said the CBC wants to put the enforcement provision back into the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by enacting the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. 

The bill would re-establish the criteria that was used to determine which, mostly Southern, states, must get permission from the federal government to change voting procedures. In a 2013 ruling, the Supreme Court invalidated the previous formula, so no states are receiving extra scrutiny intended under the original voting rights law.

“We have to restore public confidence in our institutions,” Horsford said adding that enacting the bill is “one way to do that.”

— Humberto Sanchez

Community organizer, KaPreace Young on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020 at the University of Nevada, Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Organizer KaPreace Young: Social justice conversations should be a constant

KaPreace Young, 24, is an outreach coordinator at the University of Nevada Reno and a co-founder of a local empowerment group for women of color called Shades of Queening.

Even though Young recognizes the progress in social justice that has been made over the past year, she still sees a problem with the racial disparities in Nevada, particularly with the way conversations about social justice are being held.

“I think that it has shown us that these need to be repetitive, or like, ongoing conversations. And it shouldn't just be a, ‘oh, let’s have this conversation because something has triggered it,’” said Young.

Young is already making progress in ensuring that conversations happen continuously and not just as a reactionary to injustices.

Young said that she, along with other Black leaders, recently met with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, and she hopes to have another meeting soon to ensure the conversations remain continuous. 

“So now let’s say, okay, well, in two months, no matter what’s going on, we’re going to have another meeting and figure out what can the senator do to help progress things for the Black communities in all of Nevada,” said Young.

In order to ensure that conversations about social justice continue to happen in Nevada, Young says it’s important that Black people have a seat at the table. 

Young recalls Bernice Mathews, who was the first Black woman in the state Senate. Young says that that representation is important, and considering that Kamala Harris is becoming the first Black female vice president, Young says she is reminded of the progress that Mathews helped make in Nevada.

There also remains a disparity in access at multiple levels, according to Young, from education to housing. 

“I recently just purchased a house, and as a Black woman, I did not disclose my cultural or ethnic identity on my loan application because I know that Black people are less likely to receive funding for housing,” said Young.

But even as problems persist, Young is proud of what the Black Lives Matter movement has accomplished.

She says that one of the biggest accomplishments of the movement so far is the voice it has given to the younger generation. 

“We had two younger Black girls who actually orchestrated one of the protests that we did here locally in Reno,” said Young. “And it was like, to see not just the numbers that they brought, but to see the impact that they left, it shows me that nobody cared how, quote unquote, young they were.”

Moving forward, Young hopes that the movement can make more changes proactively. 

“You see changes happening on an institutional level only after a negative thing is happening, so if we make more proactive changes then I think there will be a better benefit for these minoritized groups,” said Young.

— Sean Golonka

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