Color Bind

Who says the mayor is a racist? You'll be surprised by the answer.

Is Laura Miller a racist?

Last month, two days after the city manager fired Dallas' first black police chief, Terrell Bolton, an overflow crowd of African-Americans thronged the council chamber to say she was. They hooted Miller, jeered her and accused her of racial perfidy and divisiveness.

She's the anti-establishment mayor, the youngish wife of an influential Democrat, a former muckraker from Connecticut. Five years ago when she first entered local politics, the big take was, "way too liberal for Dallas." Back when Dallas mayors were old white Texas guys, black people didn't throng the council to call them racists.

At a September 15 hearing on Terrell Bolton's firing, the ex-police chief's supporters called Mayor Laura Miller a racist. They've called her worse in the past.
Peter Calvin
At a September 15 hearing on Terrell Bolton's firing, the ex-police chief's supporters called Mayor Laura Miller a racist. They've called her worse in the past.
City Councilman Leo Chaney may not trust Miller, but he won't call her a racist.
Peter Calvin
City Councilman Leo Chaney may not trust Miller, but he won't call her a racist.

So why Miller? Why now?

And what does that word, racist, really mean, anyway, in Dallas in 2003? Why is a Yankee liberal carpetbagger more likely to run afoul of it than an old-style segregationist? And why is it the black people who have really done battle with Miller--up close and for stakes--won't use that word, even when they attack her?

First of all, I think we all have to agree at the top that this is a weird city on ethnic and racial issues. And we proceed from there, OK?

At the city council after Bolton was fired, the Reverend Stephen C. Nash, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a black Protestant political group with roots deep in the city's political past, said: "We are troubled because you, madam mayor, have labored to divide this city even more than what it has been." He blamed her for "the split between the southern and northern sectors of the city."

Joyce Foreman, owner of Foreman Office Products, a member of the State Fair of Texas Chairman's Task Force and the Dallas Independent School District bond construction program advisory committee, shouted: "I am angry at all of you, particularly at you, madam mayor, because you have conspired, you have coerced, and you got the chief out, not even with the dignity, madam mayor, of resigning."

Foreman singled out Latino council members by color for a tongue-lashing: "The brown people sitting here, you helped, madam mayor, to put a wedge between us. We have worked too hard on too many boards and commissions to try to work with our brown brothers and sisters. I've been through that coalition deal. Well, to hell with that."

On that same day another group of African-American protesters called the mayor a racist and the city manager a wetback, more or less in one breath.

None of that was especially surprising to those of us who live here, black, white, Latino, Indian, Asian and other. Everybody who knows Dallas knows something went wrong a long time ago. Apparently the city got dropped on its head as a baby, and now even when we mean well on ethnic issues (not often), we still never quite make sense. Any of us. It's how it is here. We are ethnically challenged.

But people elsewhere don't know that about us. They are always going to try to make sense of us according to their own frames of reference. Two days after Bolton was fired, I was invited to discuss his departure on a respected public radio program, The Connection, produced by station WBUR in Boston and syndicated nationally on NPR. Of the three guests, I was definitely the runt of the litter. The other two were Ellis Cose, contributing editor for Newsweek and author of The Rage of a Privileged Class, and Edwin Dorn, dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a former undersecretary of defense and a former senior staff member at the Brookings Institution.

The theme, loosely paraphrased, was "This is the 40th anniversary of the 'I have a dream' speech, and now here's Dallas, Texas, sacking its first black police chief." The other guests made erudite and interesting observations. Dorn speculated that black feeling in Dallas over the Bolton firing might reflect "pent-up disappointments and anger" over Ron Kirk's loss in the Senate race and the scandal in Tulia, the West Texas town where three dozen black people were unjustly convicted of drug offenses based on the word of "one lying white man."

I said I thought all of that was probably in there somewhere but that Bolton was also somewhat of a meatball on civil rights issues. I was trying to get to the point that Tulia was small potatoes next to what Bolton's own police department did to six dozen poor Mexicans in Dallas in the fake-drugs scandal, but I got hit by the buzzer. Just a few minutes into the show the host said, "Thanks for being with us," and I was talking to my regular host, the dial tone. Story of my radio career.

I don't think anybody was mad at me, but to their ears I was probably speaking gobbledygook. Black chief fired. Texas town. And now this Shultz guy wants to tell us the chief was the villain of the piece on civil rights issues. Hey, thanks for being with us (scratch-scratch, sound of call list being quickly revised).

They don't get us. Unfortunately we have to. We have to live with us, because...we're us. Let's take Miller's big accuser, the Reverend Nash and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, for example.

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