Chris Timmons: Hillsborough County and race: Historical fact — America ain't never been colorblind

If you want to see how unsophisticated and implacable Republicans can be on race, you should have been at the Hillsborough County Charter Review Board (stacked with Republican functionaries) meeting on Tuesday.

Besides the inevitable (and highly entertaining) fireworks the meeting was bound to ignite, it was the absence of even a genuine conversation and an inarticulate brandishing of Fox News talking points that made the proceedings of genuine interest. Even riotous.

Every five years, the Hillsborough County Charter Review Board is charged with revising and adding to the Hillsborough County Charter. Since 1983, an attempt has been made to change the numerical composition of the Hillsborough County Commission.

This year, advocates (led by Les Miller, a county commissioner) have proposed a County Commission composition of five single-member districts and four at-large members.

Currently, the County Commission has a 4-3 composition — that is, four commission members elected from single-member districts and three at-large commission members.

The central argument proponents of the change have advanced is that Hillsborough County is growing — its population now at 1.3 million people.

The logic that follows, according to proponents, is representation as it currently works is inadequate. A single-member district county commissioner represents 307,000 people.

Proponents ask, how can a county commissioner effectively represent that many people?

In similarly large counties, for instance, Miami-Dade and Broward, districts are single-member: Miami-Dade has 13 and Broward has nine single-member districts.

On the other hand, opponents have responded: Show us where a critical mass of constituents have endured bad constituent services from a single commissioner.

Changing government, says the opponents, for such a specious reason is bloated government without cause. And, by the way, it would be somewhere around $700,000 to $1 million in staffing and office costs to create a new county commissioner position. Is it worth that much?

But … wait a minute, say proponents, this is about fair representation. To translate: a “minority access” district that conceivably would give Hispanics a greater voice in Hillsborough politics. Hispanics, who are 26 percent of the population.

Opponents say: This is America, land of the free and home of the brave; this is America, land of limitless opportunity; this is America, colorblind mecca: you’re free to run for any seat, and may the best man win!

Two charter board members encapsulated the mentality well: One says “I’m Sicilian” and Sicilians ain’t asking for a “gerrymandered” district (would they accept him at the Italian Club in Ybor City, inquiring minds want to know) and another says “I’m Cuban” and opposes this because his mother says “a right is a right, and a wrong is a wrong” — a doubtful tautology on moral grounds, unless you take your morality Manichean — when it comes to electoral affirmative action.

Full disclosure: This writer’s black. Now, a historical fact: America ain’t never been colorblind.

See: slavery, Jim Crow; #blacklivesmatter movement.

Another fact: “Pluralism” is as American as apple-pie, as that cliché goes. Urban politics have always centered on group politics. This has not changed one iota.

So we can draw from this that Hillsborough Republicans refuse to admit that the county is growing and its demographics are changing. It’s increasingly urban!

We can also draw from this that Hillsborough Republicans reflect their general party view that awkwardness on race is the only principle that the party of Southern strategy can conceive is worth pursuing.

Naturally, to admit that Hispanics would want to exercise their political muscle is to admit the existence of Americans who do not think like Republicans!

It is to admit that colorblindness is at once a noble idea that is largely self-congratulatory and race-evading cant, and a means to protect the Hillsborough GOP’s interests.

The latter is not a casually made accusation: Even the mention of ethnicity as principle for a district was immediately condemned as an epithet during the proceeding.

Colorblindness cannot be argued about:It has been sanctioned by such august figures as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. So there!

If the Hillsborough Charter Review Board meeting is evidence of one thing, it is: Hillsborough County race relations are in a horrible way. And, no doubt about it, Hillsborough Republicans could not care less. What great Americans!

Chris Timmons is a writer living in Tampa. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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