Color Bind

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

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.

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.

The IMA is significant in the civil rights history of the city primarily for its staunch opposition during the 1960s and '70s to the civil rights movement in general and to the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. in particular. Throughout those years the IMA was the backbone of the old separatist/accommodationist leadership in Dallas.

Twenty years ago I sat in a meeting downtown where members of the IMA told white powerbrokers, and I quote, "You owe us, because we kept the civil rights down in Dallas." Then as before, the main role of the IMA was to receive cash payments from the white leadership downtown as racial tribute in exchange for suppressing activism. In the long verdict of history, I believe those payments will be deemed Judas money.

After more than a decade of silence and under Nash's recent leadership, the IMA has attempted in the past year to make fresh forays into political involvement. But it's hard for me to understand, based on what I've seen of those forays, how the IMA has earned credibility as any kind of civil rights group. For example, on my desk is a letter Nash sent IMA members two weeks before the November 2002 Senate race in which Kirk ultimately lost his bid to become the state's first black senator. (I attempted to reach Nash to discuss this and other matters, but he did not call me back.)

In the letter, Nash urged member clergy to tell their parishioners not to vote for Kirk because the Kirk campaign, according to the letter, had declined to pay the IMA for its support: "In years past the political operatives have gotten paid major dollars to deliver the black vote...They want and need our people, and they want us to encourage our congregations to support them at the polls, but without providing adequate compensation to make this happen...The campaign is theirs, not ours!...We will not allow [gubernatorial candidate Tony] Sanchez or Kirk or their representatives to come into our churches to campaign."

That's not any kind of language of modern political empowerment that I recognize. It sounds to me like the old language of sell-'em-down-the-river tribute. The pent-up frustration there isn't because Kirk lost his bid for the Senate; it's because before he lost he didn't pay.

But wait. What about Nash's charge that Miller's personal politics have exacerbated the division between mainly white North Dallas and mainly black and Latino Southern Dallas? I spent some time fingering back through ballot tallies in Miller's May 3, 2003, election victory, in which she beat her principal opponent by 16.4 percentage points.

Nash's point seems to be strongly supported by the pattern of Miller's support--very big in white North Dallas, small to nothing at all in the south. And therein the conundrum: Why was a white liberal Democrat trounced in black Southern Dallas by Mary Poss, the wife of a Ross Perot Republican with no personal track record among minorities and, dare we say, a less-than-expansive personal cultural style?

A couple of aspects of that vote tally are interesting. In that election, 101 voting precincts were more than 50 percent African-American, according to the 2002 census. In those, Poss beat Miller 3 to 1. But that means Poss drew ballots from 6 percent of the over-18 population, while Miller got 2 percent. So they were fighting for the fragment of the fragment that came to the polls.

Poss' support was centered on the very poorest and oldest of the city's black precincts in the center of old South Dallas, where voters traditionally have been responsive to exactly the kind of paid political machinery of which Nash wanted a cut.

Miller did win a tiny handful of black-majority precincts in the more far-flung and affluent black areas. In Precinct 3348, at the center of the area where Poss dominated, more than 41 percent of the households had incomes of less than $10,000 a year. In Precinct 3527 in Southwest Dallas, a black precinct that went for Miller, more than 51 percent had incomes more than $50,000, and 18.5 percent had incomes of more than $75,000.

So what is that about? Is it class? Or is the question more of political independence--voters who actually know the issues and don't vote just because their preacher got paid to tell them to.  

I walked the area of Poss' strong support last week, mainly in city council District 7 around Fair Park. I found lots of people on both sides of the Miller-racist question. Derrick Walker, 37, a truck driver, told me, "I believe she's racist." Juzarri Lockett, 22, said, "I don't look at her as racist." He said he thought Bolton had been a bad chief.

I stopped in at Earnestine's Beauty Shop on Metropolitan, a one-chair salon where I got two earfuls, one from Earnestine Tarrant, the operator/proprietor, who said, "I just don't like her. I don't like her ideas." The other earful was from Bertha Grant, who was in the chair having her hair shampooed. Grant, who has been deeply involved in community issues for years, said Miller is not a racist and is a better mayor for South Dallas than Kirk, the city's first black mayor.

And these two ladies, Earnestine and Bertha, just love each other. Smiling and laughing, pausing to listen, nodding, clapping. They made me want to get my hair done, too.

On a subsequent Saturday I went to Cadillac Heights to listen to a news conference put on by residents of that very poor and river-plagued area who are seeking an environmental buyout from the city. The group, whom I have come to know and respect over the years, is made up of African-Americans and Latinos, with help from Anglo and Indian community organizers. They complained bitterly about a recent proposal put forward by the mayor for a limited buyout.

I have not kept up with the latest round of offers and counteroffers. I have no idea and no opinion on whether the mayor's proposal is good or bad.

I waited until the TV cameras left. Then we gathered in a little circle. I asked the people in the group if they thought Miller was racist. Barbara Williams, who is African-American and who had just finished bitterly denouncing the Miller offer, blinked and looked at me as if I were crazy.

"No," she said. "I'm not going to say that. I'm not pleased with her, but..."

I pushed. I did. We do that. You're not supposed to know. But it happens. I said, "You're very unpleased with her. You are at loggerheads with her. But you won't go to the point of saying, 'And the problem is, she's a racist?'"

She shook her head again emphatically. "No. I'm not going to say that." This from a person who has joined in battle with her, locked swords politically.

Anna Albers, who is white, said, "No. I think she's ill-informed, and I think she's allowed herself to be influenced by city staff. I think she's gone over to the dark side, and I don't think she's representing the interests of the people who elected her."

But is she a racist?


Diana Flores, who is Latino, looked shocked by my question. "I wouldn't say that directly about her. No."

I asked how she compares with her predecessor, Ron Kirk. Everyone in the group immediately said she was a better mayor. Alfred Flores, a 15-year-old student at the Townview school of science and engineering, said Kirk never once visited their neighborhood. He said the one time they all went to City Hall to try to speak to him, Kirk ignored them and talked on his cell phone.

"At least she makes promises," he said. "She doesn't keep them, but at least she makes them."

I went to City Hall and caught Councilman Leo Chaney hurrying down the corridor to a meeting. Chaney represents the council district where Earnestine's Beauty Salon is located and where Miller was most trounced by the voters.

If you haven't been to Chaney's district recently, you should make the drive. Sure, there is poverty, but there also are big things happening--new apartment construction, new major retail, infrastructure, serious signs of serious change--and Chaney has been a broker in much of it. Love him or hate him, Chaney's in the game, unlike Stephen Nash.

Chaney definitely was trying to dodge me in the hallway until he heard my question: Is Laura Miller a racist? He stopped dead, came back, looked around to see who was near, then got up close to my face: "Oh, Jim, come on."

I tried not to blink.

"Is she a racist?" he repeated. "Come on. You know, I don't think she is personally, no more than all of us who are embedded with the issue of institutional racism. But other than that, I think she's just an impulsive person. She's a seasoned politician who lives with a politician, and she has goals just like all of us do."  

Ehh. That wasn't quite the quote I needed, sir. I pushed a little: "I hear people say she's tone-deaf," I said. "OK, she's not a racist, but she's tone-deaf to the black community. She's just offensive to us, something about her."

See how I operate? The guy won't go for racist, so I've offered him three lesser offenses: 1) tone-deaf, 2) just offensive and 3) something about her.

He shook his head no and looked at me like I was offering him dirty postcards. "I don't see it, and I've served with her. I don't trust her, but that's the nature of our business. But to constantly say that Laura Miller's a racist, I don't see it."

But he did make a distinction: "I think the leadership in the African-American community just despises her so much, the old-guard leadership, the old guard. They hate her so much that they will always be opposed to whatever she does. The old school. Old guard."

Old Guard. The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, as in, "You owe us, because we kept the civil rights down."

I also talked to Miller. Eating fruit for breakfast at a conference table at City Hall, she was much cooler and thick-skinned about it than I remembered her being four years ago when black pickets held up signs outside her house calling her real bad names.

"When I was picketed by [Dallas County Commissioner] John Wiley [Price] and [grassroots activist] Lee Alcorn four years ago, they called me a bitch, a child of Adolf Hitler and a child of Satan, all that stuff. And that's when my kids were quite a bit smaller and were all looking out the window for about an hour watching it." With a small bite of cantaloupe in her mouth and a plastic fork in one hand, she shrugged.

And hey, good point. Once you call somebody a bitch child of Adolf Hitler in front of her kids, what's your other point?

Whatever. It's clearly not working with Miller. Calling her a racist doesn't get traction. She doesn't think it sticks. She's tougher than she used to be.

"Obviously people use the most sensational words because they want to get a rise out of you, and they want to get media coverage," she said.

And we do provide that.

Miller does go out to the neighborhoods, and she does do deals, which does put her in political harm's way, all of which is more than you could say for Kirk. She risks more. She takes more hits. But the people who do battle with her and are mad at her won't call her a racist.

So I asked her the question. Is Laura Miller a racist? I thought she winced a little. Maybe it was that dirty-postcard look. She told me she had known on her way downtown that morning that she was going to meet with me and that I was going to ask that question. She said she had thought about telling me how she had grown up in a diverse neighborhood, but then she decided that sounded sort of smarmy.

And basically she told me that any question you cannot answer without sounding stupid is a stupid question.

So my answer is no. I have to go with the people who actually have dealings with her, especially those who are of color, especially those who are mad at her over deals. They won't call her a racist. I won't.

There are lots of other interesting questions implied in the margins of what people have to say. Is she elitist? Does she have class-bound issues? Is she as good at politics as she is at news conferences? But those are questions for another day.

My own two-bit theory here is that the new black leadership fights with Miller but respects her, precisely because she will come out in the street and do battle at close quarters. But she makes the African-American old guard uncomfortable by breaching the traditional wall of racial separatism--an ancient edifice that was always maintained from both sides in Dallas.

Her infraction is familiarity. When they say she's a racist, they mean she's a liberal. And I'll never get on another national radio show in my life with that.

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