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Sustaining an Ethnic Mosaic Is This Texas City's Goal

Mayor studies experiences of other metropolitan areas

By Scott PendletonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 19, 1992



HOUSTON

THE eruption in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict had no echo here, but as he watched the flames on television, Houston Mayor Robert Lanier took little comfort from the fact. "I don't think our success or failure depends on whether there was a riot or not," he says.

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In his view, Houston is merely at an earlier point on the same track that other major American cities are following. "We have a chance to learn from them," Mr. Lanier says.

When it comes to interracial relations, though, Houston can also ponder its own past.

One of the most regrettable racial incidents in United States history was the Houston riot and mutiny of 1917. It began when a battalion of black troops from Illinois arrived to guard Camp Logan, now the site of Memorial Park.

Over the course of a very hot August, the soldiers were harassed by Houston police, who enforced "Jim Crow" laws such as segregated seating on street cars.

Eventually, the police assaulted two soldiers. Their comrades heard rumors of this and concluded that a white mob was coming for them. Up to 100 seized arms and ammunition and marched on the town. In the ensuing clash, 16 locals and four soldiers were killed.

This event was followed by the largest court-martial in American military history. Nineteen soldiers were hanged. Sixty-three others received life sentences.

Within memory is the 1977 case of Jose Campos Torres, a Hispanic laborer. Three Houston police officers who arrested Torres for disturbing the peace beat him and threw him into Buffalo Bayou, where he drowned. They were convicted of violating Torres's civil rights.

Houston became more racially tolerant during the 1980s, under the five administrations of liberal mayor Kathryn Whitmire. Although Lanier defeated Ms. Whitmire partly on the strength of a backlash against crime - an issue that for some voters has racial overtones - he has continued to build bridges across Houston's ethnic mosaic.

Wendy Duong may be the best symbol of that effort. Fleeing Vietnam five days before Saigon fell in 1975, she graduated from the University of Houston Law Center in 1984. In June, Lanier appointed Ms. Duong to the municipal court, making her the first Vietnamese-American judge.

Judge Duong says she would have expected Vietnamese-Americans to achieve that sort of prominence first in Orange County, Calif., their largest community. "Yet Houston is the pioneer," she says.

"The mayor has recognized the need to appoint judges that represent the diversity of the city."

When looking at Houston's population mix, the more land that is included, the whiter the results. For instance, Harris County is 54 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic, 19 percent black, and 4 percent Asian.

But students enrolled in the Houston Independent School District are 13.6 percent white, 46.5 percent Hispanic, 37.1 percent black, and 2.7 percent Asian.

"Houston's strength is its ethnic diversity," says Randy Czarlinsky, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

"What occurred in L.A. did not occur in the city of Houston for one key reason: The communities do talk to each other."

At the moment, tension has grown between Asians and blacks over the death of a black youth who was shot by an Asian storekeeper.

"Houston, just like any other big city, could be on the edge," notes Sylvia Brooks, president of the Urban League of Houston. She lists some concerns: education, housing, jobs, homelessness, neighborhood deterioration, and child abuse.

But Ms. Brooks says she believes that the mayor, community leaders, and average citizens are at least communicating about these ills. "There's a lot of commitment to do right," she says.