Dallas has three great shots at getting big things done in 2018, all of which will require us to take a hard turn away from Trumpism. Notice I didn’t say hard turn left or hard turn right. I don’t even know any more.
We have to turn away from tribalism. The three opportunities — in schools, housing and taxes — all depend on forming consensus. But that raises a fair question: Is the kind of consensus I’m talking about pretty much a left-wing deal having to do with kumbaya, or is it maybe more of a right-leaning consensus based on self-sufficiency?
Yes. The thing about consensus: It is, by its nature, a circle. It is the ever-expanding campfire ring by which we draw more and more people into the warmth of basic social trust. And social trust is what it’s all about for us in 2018.
The Trump message is fundamentally tribal. It burns trust and seduces us into battle, fueled by the wild primitive joy we feel chucking rocks across the stream at each other. I speak here as a professional and lifelong rock-chucker.
But each of the main chances I’m talking about will be blown, wasted, lost, spoiled if we can’t get past the rock-chucking long enough to perceive our shared interests. Take the first one, for example — schools.
For five years since the hiring of former Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles, Dallas has been at the national forefront of public school reform, not that we’ve gotten much national credit for it. In particular, the system of merit pay for teachers that Miles persuaded the school board to adopt is one of the most comprehensive and already one of the most productive plans among similar reforms in the country.
The other side of that coin has been a bitter social and political divisiveness. Black leadership has made common cause with the teacher unions to portray the reforms as a white elitist conspiracy. The reformers have painted their opponents as seeking to protect a system of Tammany Hall-style political patronage at the expense of poor minority children.
Now, we could stop right there, and I could ask you to draw me a diagram to show which side is left-leaning and which one right. But I really don’t want you scribbling all over my page, and I happen to know you’re not going to get anywhere. They’re two tribes throwing rocks at each other.
Bernadette Nutall and Miguel Solis are two of the brightest members of one of the strongest school boards Dallas has seen in a very long time.
Here’s the important thing. Toward the end of 2017, two school board members, each a leader of her or his tribe on this question, made their own very significant common cause across the stream with each other. Miguel Solis, a champion of the Miles-era reforms, and Bernadette Nutall, a fierce opponent, together persuaded the board to adopt a formal written treaty.
It’s called a socioeconomic equity resolution, which, I know, is making you begin to feel very, very sleepy. But wait. It’s actually important because, for the first time, it gives the two sides in the school reform debate a kind of basic starting point and meeting ground.
The resolution states that human intervention in the form of historical and deliberate discrimination has been the core cause for the stubborn achievement gap between poor minority kids and affluent white kids. And then it names those interventions.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Duh!” But I can tell you from personal witness, having watched this debate for decades, that the dialogue has been frustrated from the beginning by disagreement over this question, and not necessarily according to the sort of left-right paradigm that you might assume.
I’m a left-leaning ex-hippie pinko-Dem from the get-go, but when I hear some of my so-called liberal white teacher friends talk about how impossible it is to teach a poor minority kid, I might as well be listening to Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door in 1963 in defense of racial segregation.
Nutall and Solis are two of the brightest members of one of the strongest school boards Dallas has seen in a very long time. The treaty they signed is a bridge across the stream. It says, not in so many words, “We did this. We made things this way. We can fix it. We can undo this evil.”
The second great opportunity is in housing, and, in pointing this one out, I have to mention a bit of synergy with the school reform issue. This year, the City Council was presented with a body of breakthrough research showing the caustic and profound citywide effects of housing segregation. A lot of that research was sponsored and, I assume, paid for by one of those supposed white elitist conspirators in favor of school reform, Dallas philanthropist Todd Williams, former partner and global co-head of Goldman Sachs' real estate private equity investment area. Draw me up a left-right chart on that one while you’re at it.
This one is not vague. It is pointed and specific. It requires the Dallas City Council to reverse field on a recent vote.
As the research shown to the City Council proved, the greatest bar to minority upward mobility in this city is the inability of poor minority families to escape areas of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. The immediate reform to address that problem would be a ban on something called source-of-income discrimination.
It works like this. You apply to rent an apartment in a better neighborhood near good schools. You fill out a big application with a lot of personal questions. They check you out. You pass. You’re ready to rock and roll. Ah, but there’s one last question: Will you be using a federal housing subsidy voucher to pay any portion of your rent?
Yes? Then the answer is no. You can’t have the apartment. No vouchers allowed.
We already know, because you filled out the app and passed the background check, that you’re not a druggie, not an ex-con, not wanted for anything. With the voucher money, you qualify on income. Presumably, you have a good recommendation from your current landlord.
Barring people from renting anyway because of the voucher has one overwhelming effect. It stops poor black people and Hispanics, who make up the majority of voucher recipients, from moving to less segregated areas. In fact, because the voucher requirements are tough and come with a lot of monitoring, source-of-income discrimination probably works its worst hardship on those poor minority families who are the best candidates for moving on up.
The City Council voted in 2017 not to ban this form of discrimination. There were some legitimate complications with state law. In spite of that, source-of-income discrimination is a dirty wound in the body politic. An honest attempt this year to cleanse that wound would be a change in the kind of leadership and stewardship Dallas provides to its citizens.
The last piece, tax reform, which I know you think is going to be the most boring, is actually the most exciting. It gives Dallas a chance to leap ahead of much of the country on the always vexing problem of gentrification. We happen to have a brilliant young state legislator in Dallas, Rep. Eric Johnson, Democrat of District 100 in South and West Dallas, who is trying to get Dallas and Texas and maybe the whole country to comprehend a new way of thinking about gentrification.
Johnson, a working-class kid who went to Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and, I think, heaven briefly, wants people to stop lining up across the stream, chucking rocks at each other over new real estate developments. Instead, he suggests, we need to make sure the benefits of new development are more broadly and fairly shared, not merely to make things better for the newcomers but to stabilize and improve things for the people who have been there all along.
His idea turns on a key concept that is an important departure from Trumpism. Diversity, he believes, can be cool, not scary. Johnson, who is young, perceives that young people are intrigued by diversity when it comes with security. (My own take is that they all want to live in Brooklyn anyway and be characters on Girls, and that’s why they are fleeing their parents’ suburban cul-de-sacs in such droves.)
Tax increment financing is a technical term that has always meant “giving large sums of public money to your fraternity brothers.”
Then why allow gentrification to be a force for ethnic cleansing and just make things boring all over again? Johnson proposes instead that we go back into some of the main forms of tax incentive the city uses to propel new development in old areas and find better ways to share the benefits. He is looking first at a system called tax increment financing, a technical term that has always meant “giving large sums of public money to your fraternity brothers.”
By using that money instead to reinforce an existing neighborhood and promote new development, we can capture the asset value of diversity. Of course, to do that, we have to first get our minds around two non-Trumpian notions. The first is that diversity is an asset. The second, related one is that real estate investment does not have to assume racial and class segregation.
Is Johnson a leftist? If you think he is, you will have to explain to me why he’s back in the part of town he grew up in telling people that gentrification can be a good thing. That was never a recipe for social success at any lefty party I ever attended.
These three great opportunities for the city in 2018 simply do not break out cleanly on the old left-right matrix. They are pragmatic. They are informed by racial and ethnic tolerance with social trust at their core.
And they all comprise another very important thing. They are anti-tribal. They reject the idea that division is some kind of team sport. All of these chances on our plate for this coming year are about getting serious, being responsible and building a community together, not behaving like you-know-who.