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That's where Britt steps in. He is leading a small movement in southern Dallas to take advantage of this finding and use it as leverage for meaningful change. On May 5 at a hearing on the FHWA report, Britt told an audience of several hundred that the proposed route through old South Dallas will "cut the community in two." He called for serious mitigation efforts to "revitalize the neighborhoods of South Dallas."
That's all absolutely to the good. I wish him well. I hope South Dallas gets something out of this a lot better than the usual pig lipstick handed out as so-called mitigation on highway projects—sound walls, for example, which may lessen the racket but function as even worse Berlin Walls for neighborhoods than a noisy road.
But I want to back up a little. City councilman Caraway and Commissioner Price vowed to their constituents that the current Trinity River toll road alignment was good for them. The publicly stated good was that it might spin off some construction jobs. The unstated corollary was that it was a white-people deal—something about a fancy park with sailboats and a white-water course downtown. Who cares?
As Britt said to me on the phone, "My people don't do a lot of kayaking."
But the story Caraway and Price told their constituents was false. The toll road is not neutral, not just a white-people deal. It threatens South Dallas with active harm of exactly the same variety that has scarred the community for a half-century.
In fact the federal highway people who carried out the supplemental environmental impact statement on the road were required to make a specific kind of analysis under a presidential order signed in 1994 by Bill Clinton called "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations." First, they had to go down a laundry list of criteria to see if South Dallas qualifies as an "environmental justice community."
It does. That's not a good thing.
Environmental justice is a concept few people in Dallas know anything about. It's better-known in parts of the nation with more developed traditions of community activism. South Dallas does qualify, on the basis of socio-economic measurements—low incomes and low high-school graduation rates for example—but also on the basis of past wrongs, specifically a history of environmental racism.
Then, given the finding that South Dallas is an environmental justice community, the feds were required to go down another laundry list to measure the impacts of this particular project. They found certain aspects were positive—improved traffic flow along the route of the toll road itself.
But they found more that were negative, including effects of sound, air pollution and the physical division of neighborhoods. The big negative impact they found was the one that goes to the heart of the political syndrome I'm talking about here: A toll road going through a poor neighborhood obviously doesn't serve the needs of that neighborhood because poor people can't afford to pay tolls.
That's the point I want to make. The black leaders who have sold these big-ticket projects to their consitutents have made bad bargains for them. The real evil of a white-people deal is allowing it to exist in the first place. The evil is the presence in a community of a massive public project that clearly isn't even intended for the use of the people who have to stare at it all day.
The idea peddled so long by southern Dallas leadership—that these deals are OK if we can get the white man downtown to peel a few bills off his roll—is corrupt and corrupting. There is no such thing as a white-people deal, because there is no such thing as a white-people city. That's what's wrong. The only reason to divide a city is so you can screw the people on the other side. Dallas has been too good at that stuff for too long.
Britt told me his effort is aimed at turning all of that around—forcing the city to redesign the toll road project so that it will make southern Dallas stronger, not tear it apart.
I wish him luck, of course. Maybe his effort can help generate the kind of hope and stewardship that will kill the concept of the white-people deal for once and forever. But I also have my doubts. I don't think you can always wring good from bad, no matter how hard you twist. The best thing for South Dallas would be what South Dallas voters should have done two years ago to this road. Kill it.
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