Washington State Supreme Court Justice Steven González challenged local Latino students to find constructive ways to overcome negative racial stereotypes during a speech at Diversity Justice Day for Youth at Wenatchee Valley College on Monday.
Some people perceive Latinos as lazy, criminal, illegal uneducated and unable to speak English and will judge them on those biases rather than on the merits of the individual, said González. "Each one of us has a responsibility to to change that," he told the students and urged them to avoid conforming to that stereotype and do what it takes to succeed.
González has a background that many Latinos here can relate to. He found the inspiration to go to college when cleaning public toilets as a young man and decided he wanted a better life. He was the first person in his family to go to college and then proceeded on to law school and a career in civil and criminal law, including 10 years as a King County superior court judge.
More than 250 students attended the day-long event to explore potential careers in law enforcement and the justice system. González was the keynote speaker.
González was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2011 and was elected last November, but how that 2012 election played out reflects the racial attitudes that exist in this state. González was forthright and direct as he analyzed the results and what they mean.
Even though he won 60 percent of the votes statewide, 29 of the 39 counties (including all Eastern Washington counties) went for his opponent, Bruce Danielson, despite the fact that Danielson had limited qualifications, never campaigned, had no endorsements and was not even supported by his own local bar association. González' campaign spent a record amount of money for a judicial race to get the word out and had the endorsement of every newspaper (including The World). Despite the overwhelming difference in experience and qualifications, Danielson had a higher percentage of the vote in some counties than Rob McKenna did did against Inslee in the governor's race.
González also spent time talking to the students about seizing opportunities and accepting responsibility. He told the young men that being macho doesn't mean fighting or dressing a certain way, but instead it's "having the courage to do the right thing, even when it is not popular," he said. To the women, he talked about seeking their dreams and going to college. "You will encounter those who doubt you and call you names," said González, but encouraged them to turn that into a positive by proving those people wrong by achieving more in their lives.
Finally, he spoke about the need for immigration reform in this country. He described the system as broken and has "added to the bias that we face as Latinos. It's our duty to fix the broken immigration system."
These are messages and perspectives that all of us in North Central Washington need to take note of and acknowledge. While race relations in this region are not nearly as toxic as other areas of the state or country, biases still exist and it's something that we need to continue working on. The Latino population here is changing and evolving, with many taking taking on civic leadership positions, running for public office, contributing on boards and in other aspects of civic life. We should take González's words as a challenge to all of us to break down barriers, confront the biases and build a stronger society based on merit rather than skin color.
Click the link below to see my video interview with Justice González and Chelan County Superior Court Judge Chip Small.