Crime, Race and Suspicion Converge on NextDoor in Merriman Park

Northeast Dallas' Merriman Park neighborhood is embroiled in a controversy about race and NextDoor.
Northeast Dallas' Merriman Park neighborhood is embroiled in a controversy about race and NextDoor.
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The Merriman Park/University Manor neighborhood, which sits at the northern tip of White Rock Lake in the liminal space between Lakewood and Lake Highlands, is on alert. In recent days, a handful of residents, most of them with homes that back up to DART's White Rock Station, have had their garages broken into overnight. Similar reports have emerged from the University Terrace neighborhood on the opposite side of Northwest Highway.

On Monday morning Merriman Park crime watch leader Donna Mason sent an email blast to neighbors warning them to be extra vigilant. "It is not against the law for anyone to walk down a public street," she wrote. "But keep your eye on them and if you see them looking in cars, walking in alleys or between houses, appearing to pause to look at houses – anything suspicious, please call 911 ASAP and describe the suspicious activity to the operator."

That, Mason wrote, is what she and her husband do: "Yesterday my husband noted a couple of black teens sitting on the curb in front of our home on Fenton and he called 911." The teens were placed in the back of the responding squad car and whisked away.

"We do not know what the circumstances were but happy to get them out of the neighborhood and on notice that the police will be called if they are behaving suspiciously," Mason wrote.

With that, Mason opened a can of worms with a bottom Merriman Park seems unlikely to ever reach.

Neighborhood resident Tracy Everbach, a journalism professor and former Dallas Morning News reporter, wondered what the Masons could have possibly found so threatening about two kids sitting on a curb if not for their race: "I seriously doubt if it was two white kids with blonde hair [that] he would have called 911."

She expressed her thoughts in a post on NextDoor, a neighborhood-based social networking site. "I find this disturbing and problematic for our neighborhood," she wrote, quoting at length from the email. "My question is, are we now calling the police because someone who is not white is in our neighborhood? We are calling 911 because someone is black and sitting on a curb? Why would the police put these people in a car? What crime were they committing? What is suspicious about sitting on a curb?"

The ensuing debate followed a familiar trajectory. Everbach got a few comments of support and a lot of pushback from Mason and others denying that race played a factor in the 911 call and arguing that loitering in front of someone's house was ample justification for suspicion. (The two teenagers, by the way, are fine. Police spokesman Demarquis Black said the officer gave them a ride to their apartment complex, which is two stops down the DART train line.)

Reached by phone on Monday afternoon, Mason shrugged off the debate as much ado about nothing. "One young lady here in the neighborhood took it off in a racial direction when it had nothing to do with race," she said. "This neighborhood is not like that."

Merriman Park/University Manor, like the vast majority of upper-middle-class neighborhoods in the Dallas area, is fairly racially homogeneous. According to data from the 2010 Census, the neighborhood is 88 percent white, 7.5 percent Hispanic, and 1.5 percent black. Under those circumstances, even in the absence of any conscious bias, it's almost inevitable that African Americans would be singled out for suspicion.

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It's not just Everbach who feels this way. April Miller, whose husband is black, says her family has found their neighbors to be welcoming and friendly, but her husband is frequently the target of what she describes as "little microaggressions."

Once, when he was chasing their loose dog through the neighborhood in broad daylight, he couldn't help but notice that a nearby homeowner had begun to follow him when the pursuit led into an alley. He's often stopped by unknown neighbors as he's walking or driving through the neighborhood. Their inquiries about what he's up to are friendly enough, but it makes him feel uncomfortable. Miller walks and drives through the neighborhood all the time and has never been asked what she's up to.

The same dynamic plays out frequently on NextDoor, Miller says. The neighborhood sits between apartment complexes to the west and DART's White Rock Station on the east. Plenty of apartment residents cut through Merriman Park as a short-cut. These pedestrians, their race (usually black) invariably put forth as their main identifying feature, often trigger a cascade of warnings on NextDoor.

"I've gotten to where I kind of avoid it, because they're frequent. When someone sees someone black walking in the neighborhood, it won't be long before we get a message: 'Be careful or call 911 if you see this,'" Miller says. Almost always, the suspicious person is simply minding their own business. "It's almost like when we have a coyote in the neighborhood," Miller says. "It's just he same kind of heightened alert."

This isn't unique to Merriman Park. Last week, The New York Times reported that complaints of NextDoor becoming "a magnet for racial profiling" have been been pouring into the company, prompting it to rethink the way it handles reports of suspicious activity or people. Soon, the site plans to require users to fill out a form identifying clothing or other descriptors so that people won't solely be identified by race.

Some will dismiss such a move as an unnecessary nod to political correctness, but Miller finds it important. Her kids, now 5 and 2, will be mixed-race teenagers one day, and they may decide to sit on a curb. "It is a big deal for families like ours in the neighborhood," she says. "It's a big deal, and it needs to be talked about."

Miller's family won't be part of the conversation in Merriman Park for much longer. They are planning to move, not so much because they feel any animus from their neighbors (they don't) as a desire to be somewhere more diverse. They've already settled on the ideal neighborhood — in Murphy.


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