A resolution celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was presented Thursday morning at a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board of Commissioners meeting.
After the resolution was read by the clerk, Commissioner Frank Avila invited three men of Indian descent to join him at the podium, to recognize their contributions to Indian-American civic associations and businesses.
“You know,” Avila declared, “when I first came to the board, they all thought that I was Indian, and so, I can say, being the first Asian, being elected to the board, ha, ha, that I like to celebrate the Asian month with my colleagues.”
Ha, ha. Frank Avila is not Indian. He is not Asian.
Avila is Mexican-American.
There was awkward laughter in the hearing room.
Commissioner Josina Morita didn’t think it was funny.
Morita, 37, is Chinese- and Japanese-American, and the first Asian to be elected to a countywide board.
Later in the meeting, she took the mic. “I want to be clear that I found it offensive and inappropriate for commissioner Avila to say that he was the first Asian American commissioner (because he was) mistaken for Asian American,” she said.
“The Asian American community has fought for over 100 years for respect and representation in this country and in this county, and I don’t think that those comments are appropriate, even as a joke.”
When we talked by phone Thursday evening, Morita was still steamed. But it’s nothing new.
The urban planner and community organizer won her first election in 2016. On the campaign trail, she experienced “blatant” racism and sexism, she said. Comments about the slant of her eyes, a question about whether a private part of her anatomy “tasted Chinese.” And worse.
Chicago and Cook County are blessed with rich diversity. Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing racial groups in Illinois. Yet people of color and women continue to endure ignorance, disrespect and outright racism. If elected officials who supposedly hold power are disrespected by their peers, what can the rest of us expect?
Avila apologized. “I didn’t mean any harm when I made that statement,” he said.
Maybe Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle can help set him straight.
Last week, Preckwinkle was elected chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, becoming the first African-American and woman to hold the post.
Even more important than making history is her pledge.
It’s time to “reject politics-as-usual,” she declared last month when she announced her bid to lead the party.
“Our Democratic Party cannot and must not be a Good Old Boys Club. Women, working people, young people, and communities of color are leading the grass-roots resistance to Donald Trump’s dangerous agenda. It is past time that we had a party where their voices are truly heard, and their contributions are truly valued.”
The former Hyde Park alderman and two-term county board president is a longtime champion of diversity and inclusion.
In her new role, she must set a tone that demands respect and equity for women and people of color, and supports rising, diverse leaders like Morita.
“People are under the impression that things like this don’t happen anymore,” Morita said. “They need a teaching moment.”
As Preckwinkle loves to remind us, she was once a high school history teacher. Toni, teach!
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