City of ignorance

Don't expect racial tensions to cool in DISD as long as emotion trumps the truth

As soon as I arrived at DISD headquarters, I knew that something unusual, even historic, was taking place.

Outside, next to the tiny visitors' parking lot, some 150 Latinos were gathered around a man whose strained voice could barely be heard above shouts and loud talking. I couldn't see him or make out his words. But emotion swirled around us like a dust cloud. And when the crowd broke into a heavily accented chant of "Gon-za-lez! Gon-za-lez! Gon-za-lez!" I was enveloped in raw, resounding noise.

I retreated to the fringes as more Latinos streamed in and joined the gathering, having parked their cars along the streets as far as a half-mile away.

"Who are these people?" I asked myself. Apart from a few LULAC activists, including Jesse Diaz and Alfred Carrizales--fixtures at Dallas Independent School District board meetings--I had never seen these folks before.

There were women in housedresses, accompanied by small children. There were Hispanic schoolkids with book bags. Many bore signs and placards declaring support for DISD superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, who'd resigned just the night before--and quite a few spelled her name incorrectly, Gonzales. Some men and women were dressed in soiled work clothes--the uniforms of cooks, laborers, and counter clerks. Others wore white-collar garb. Clearly, many had not had the opportunity to go home before arriving here on this Wednesday afternoon.

At one point, the crowd raised an impassioned chant of "Harden must go! Harden must go!" They were referring, of course, to DISD's black chief financial officer, Matthew Harden, whose accusations of sexual harassment against Gonzalez had led to the superintendent's startling decision to step down.

On the lawn beside Washington Street, where for months a puny, ragtag band of black activists had dogged the district by holding a series of increasingly absurd press conferences, more Hispanics were gathering for an impromptu rally. Some had brought lawn chairs. One guy was waving a large American flag. Little children zigged through the grass, playing tag.

Around the corner, on Ross Avenue, about two dozen women and children lined the sidewalk with Gonzalez placards--jumping up and down, waving, cheering, and screaming--eliciting sympathetic honks from many passing drivers.

At the peak of activity in the early evening--when the board of trustees was already several hours into a marathon closed-door meeting to consider Gonzalez's resignation--I estimated that 1,000 Latinos were demonstrating in and around the building. I thought back over the eight years I've been a reporter in Dallas, and concluded that I'd never seen so many Latinos gathered at a public meeting before. This was a genuine movement, a spontaneous outpouring.

And the message couldn't be more clear--this once-invisible group of people wasn't about to let go of DISD's first Hispanic superintendent. This was the one offense--beyond decrepit schools, a dearth of representation in DISD's upper management, and the paltry number of bilingual teachers--they wouldn't permit. To them, Gonzalez was a hero, a fearless reformer. She was the woman who single-handedly embraced the burdens of the district's 70,000 Hispanic schoolkids amidst an atmosphere of cynicism and corruption.

Never mind the mushrooming allegations against Gonzalez--that she'd sexually harassed Harden, then attached a tracking device to his car; lied about her costly office renovations project; and instituted a bully regime in which administrators were sacked from their jobs on the flimsiest evidence of impropriety.

Today she was a martyr. No matter what the facts.

I guess I expected too much from this city--this city of ignorance and absolutes.

It was unrealistic to hope for a little sophistication, a willingness to recognize that people--even, dare we say it aloud, blacks and Hispanics--are not all good or all bad.

Take Gonzalez--certainly a complicated personality, as the events of this year have proved.

I remember how, for a few fleeting months, we all thought she'd made some serious headway in resolving DISD's long-standing racial conflicts.

She'd boldly stood down the small group of black protesters who'd paralyzed the board of trustees under its inept former president, Bill Keever. She had exposed a most cynical charade--the myth that this group of loudmouths represented black Dallas as a whole. Gonzalez saw through that ruse immediately after her appointment as superintendent in January, exhibiting a cultural savvy and brand of courage that her white predecessor, Chad Woolery--and his black predecessor, Marvin Edwards--so obviously lacked.

Once she'd disposed of that annoyance, she got down to important business. For once, we had a superintendent with the nerve to tackle head-on the real issues in DISD: weak test scores, inept principals, corruption, waste, and the yawning needs of a rapidly growing, seriously neglected Hispanic student population.

When Gonzalez announced all at once the promotions, demotions, and reassignments of dozens of principals and administrators--clearing out decades of deadwood--I silently cheered her on. This woman had guts. She'd busted down blacks, whites, and Hispanics alike, and she could have cared less about each and every feeble attempt to ascribe a racial motive to her actions.

It seemed during those hopeful months that the Dallas public schools were entering a new era of sanity.

I presumed, of course, that the woman was squeaky-clean herself. She wouldn't dare rack up this body count if she were hiding some unsavory secrets of her own.

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