Segregation Forever

How Dallas got what it wanted


So this is what success looks like? When the suit was filed in 1970, the student population was 60 percent white. Now it's less than 7 percent white, about 33 percent black and 59 percent Latino, the elephant in the room.

The Latino student population has supplanted 10 percent of black students at their height and almost 90 percent of whites. Mexican-Americans have always been an element in the deseg suit, shunted this way and that, from minority status to white and back, depending on which side needed them. It may turn out that the real-world solution to the city's racial dilemma will be to wait a few years until both whites and blacks have become irrelevant. Then the school system can be taken over by Mexican-Americans, who bring a more humane sensibility to race anyway.

Bilingual education has emerged as an important theme in the suit. Latino neighborhoods have been given learning centers--special court-ordered super-schools with much more generous per-pupil budgets than regular schools. But the historical debate going on right now in federal court over whether to close the suit is still fundamentally what it started out to be, a dialogue between whites and blacks.

Ed Cloutman, lawyer for the plaintiffs, concedes that "integrated" in Dallas amounts to a form of racial separatism.
Mark Graham
Ed Cloutman, lawyer for the plaintiffs, concedes that "integrated" in Dallas amounts to a form of racial separatism.

Both sides agree the outcome is racial separation. Ed Cloutman, for more than 30 years the attorney for the plaintiffs, believes the deseg suit has helped Dallas achieve major social progress and has served children well. But he ruefully concedes the facts on the ground: "We will be racially separate because of the physical numbers of children who are available."

Robert Hyer Thomas, attorney for the school district since the early 1980s, jumps down your throat if you pose terms to him that have segregate at their root, especially if you suggest the district has been "re-segregated."

"No! Absolutely no deal! Is that blunt enough?"

To Thomas, terms like "re-segregation" are freighted with dangerous legal meaning. "That implies some action," Thomas said. "It's a transitive verb, and who the hell is the noun?"

Damn sure not the school district, he wants you to know. If the schools are at the verge of being 100 percent nonwhite, Thomas says the important point is that no one in government made that happen. Government, in the form of the school board, has opened doors, not closed them. It's not government's fault if white people took advantage of the open door to skedaddle.

But when pressed, Thomas, too, admits that the facts on the ground in Dallas will never add up to desegregation. He makes a strong distinction between desegregation, as an outcome of legal compulsion, and integration, as an expression of freedom. "It isn't desegregation," he said. "I think the schools are integrated, because there is not one black kid being kept out of any school in Dallas County that I know of, other than private schools, not one black kid kept out of a white school, and that was the definition of segregation. And that's gone."

But the assumption of all parties is that the white kids are gone, too, or will be soon enough. According to recent court testimony, both sides anticipate that the white presence in the Dallas school system will continue to fade and dwindle in the years ahead, gradually approaching everyone's vaunted goal of virtual zero.

Since the 1950s, Dallas has flown beneath the national radar on racial issues, mainly by managing to be off the beaten path of national politics. Perhaps someone in the rest of the country will notice--but probably not--that the "victory" of black plaintiffs in the Dallas school suit is based on notions straight out of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled against "commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."

It's not just my take. Professor Glenn M. Linden at Southern Methodist University, author of Desegregating Schools in Dallas, said of the imminent outcome of the suit: "It's 'separate but equal,' as in Plessy v. Ferguson. We're going back to that 1896 decision now. But, of course, it never worked."

All three men, Cloutman, Thomas and Linden, all of whom are white, point out that the Dallas court order, with its de-emphasis of integration and its emphasis instead on compensatory education in all-black schools, is at least as much an expression of the will of Dallas black leadership as white.

"It's true," Thomas says. "They wanted to go home. They didn't want to be pawns in desegregation." He points out that it was a witness for the plaintiffs in the recent court hearing who praised Judge Barefoot Sanders for just that: "One of the witnesses said Barefoot was a pioneer in doing away with desegregation. We have a better system here that shows that transportation doesn't work."

Linden sees the end game in a less sanguine light: "Black leaders have always been a problem in this town," he says. "They don't want very much, really, because they don't think they can get very much."

Cloutman has been involved in the Dallas suit longer than any other individual except the plaintiff. Over the years he often has emerged as the master conciliator who held the suit (and perhaps the city) together. He concedes that much of what black leadership in Dallas told him it wanted from the suit was not the sort of thing he might have expected growing up as a '60s and '70s rad in the cauldron of the civil rights movement in Louisiana. The scene here was different. "The civil rights groups of the '60s and early '70s--SCLC, CORE, SNNC--never got a hold here. I moved here from Baton Rouge, and the civil rights groups were so much more prevalent and stronger than they were here. I mean, there would be parades once a week when I was in law school from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge, with thousands of people on the highways, most of them walking the entire 100 some-odd miles and raising hell. That never happened in Dallas."

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