Elena Guajardo, Racismphobia and Suicide in San Antonio
February 4, 2006

Elena Guajardo is a member of the City Council of San Antonio, Texas. On Monday of this week she received an e-mail from George Dickerson, a constituent who complained about problems with the patrons of a large nightclub located next to the residential area where he lived. Dickerson was an employee of Zachry Construction Corp. The e-mail, sent from a company account, was poorly written and somewhat cranky:

Dickerson wrote that the club attracts "undesirable, low class elements from bad parts of the city into our upper class part of the city for which we pay a very large tax burden in which to live to be safe and away from such elements." (Zachry is stung by another e-mail, Laura E. Jesse, San Antonio Express-News, Feb. 2, 2006)

Guajardo informed Zachry Construction of the e-mail. On Tuesday, Dickerson, who had been with Zachry for 27 years, was fired. By Wednesday, someone had notified the media. Thursday, the day Express-News printed the article containing the above quote, George Dickerson killed himself.

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Henry Bartell Zachry, Jr., president of Zachry Construction, was estimated by Forbes Magazine in 2002 to be worth 1.1 billion dollars; among the 400 richest Americans, he was rated number 185 in that year. In their blurb, Forbes mentions that Zachry is a "Major player in developing San Antonio's Riverwalk commercial district."

About eight months ago, Zachry was involved in another public relations crisis when an executive for one of Zachry's subsidiaries referred to section of San Antonio as "the ghetto." Zachry ended up reducing its request for public funds for a construction project from 1.9 million dollars to 1.0 million dollars. It also gave $750,000 to an outfit called the Community Economic Revitalization Agency, described in an Express-News article as "a nonprofit specializing in economic development that's been criticized for producing few results." (Zachry trying to fix E. Side damage, Greg Jefferson, Aug. 24, 2005. Also see previous News-Express articles: Zachry employee bashes E. Side, Castro in e-mail, Rebeca Rodriguez, May 24, 2005 and East Side detractor quits Zachry, Rebeca Rodriguez, June 10, 2005.)

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Media accounts of Guajardo's reasons for reporting Dickerson's e-mail to his employer are inconsistent. In her Feb 2 article, Laura E. Jesse wrote:

A 27-year employee of Zachry Construction Corp. was fired this week for sending an e-mail from the company's server to City Councilwoman Elena Guajardo with what she called "very racial and very discriminatory" comments.

"When I read it I thought, 'Another e-mail from Zachry. What is going on?'" Guajardo said Wednesday.

A post on TV station WOAI's web site, however, has a different spin:
Councilwoman Guajardo was bothered by the e-mail. She told News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jeff Coyle, "There's some tones in here that I find very disheartening...There [were] a couple of phrases that did give me some alarm. So, I did call Zachry because it came from the Zachry workstation." (SA Man Fired For E-mail to City Council Member posted by Mandi Bishop on Feb 2.)
A later post on the WOAI site (Dozens Criticize SA Councilwoman, posted by Michael Campion on Feb 3) simply states, "Guajardo says she felt the Zachry needed to know about Dickerson's e-mail because it was offensive, and he sent it from work."

My guess is that Guajardo's motive was quite simple. She was saying, in effect, "Ha, ha! I caught one of your employees making racially insensitive remarks! How about another three quarters of a million bucks for some of my progressive community activist buddies?" That's my guess.

Maybe this whole thing was a racial shakedown that went horribly wrong. Obviously, Zachry Construction is a very "political" firm -- its relations with city officials and council members have a great deal to do with how much money it makes. Obviously, it cannot tolerate employees spouting off to public officials though company e-mail accounts. But why was Dickerson fired and not, for example, suspended without pay for a week? That's not putting a head on a pike, but, in the corporate world, it's close enough, I would think. Did their racismphobia (meaning fear of being called racist) cloud their judgement? They are a huge firm, they must have access to some pretty high-powered public relations people. How does it look when an executive says something "insensitive" and is allowed to resign quietly a few months later, but when a lower level employee makes a similar gaff, he is summarily dismissed, even after 27 years of service?

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Perhaps the most interesting questions are: Who told the Express-News about the e-mail and about Dickerson's dismissal? Why? And why did the paper run the article? On the surface, the plot was simple: Guy violates company policy, guy loses job. That happens every day! It isn't news! It's what reporters call "dog bites man."

I think there is a story behind the story. I don't know what it is, but I'd like to see a talented investigative reporting team look into things. That team might be hard to find. A "conservative" paper would want to ingratiate itself to big money; a "progressive" paper would be unlikely to call into question the sacred power of the racism button.

I think this week's tragic sequence of events is a perfect illustration of the sad state of "race relations" in America. I have absolutely no respect for anyone who would throw out an employee of 27 years in order to prostrate themselves before the alter of political correctness. Are we a decent society if we let political affectations trump human values? Do we have a healthy political culture when elected officials get cranky messages from constituents and then transform them into instances of toxic racism?

I have a few special words for any liberal or progressive readers. First, I might very well respect you much more than you would think. Secondly, ask yourself: Is this and all the other similar things going on today -- are these what Martin Luther King, Jr. was dreaming about?

 
Copyright © 2006

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