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Cut Out the Middlemen

Chris Gash

The current issue of Texas Monthly takes on the Dallas FBI corruption probe, sort of, in a "Behind the Lines" essay by deputy editor Brian D. Sweany.

His central thesis is that we have a lot of corruption in Dallas, because "The old racist order presented few pathways to power for church and political leadership in the south looking for influence."

True. True. In fact, "old racist order" is pretty euphemistic. The old racist order in our case had an official name. It was called the Ku Klux Klan.

Dallas in the first part of the 20th century was run by the Klan. In 1923, Dallas had the highest per capita Klan membership of any city in the country, according to Dallas historian Darwin Payne in his book Big D. And it's also true: The Klan had an abysmal record on providing "pathways to power" for minorities. Just abysmal.

But, look: Even when old racist orders in other American cities north and south did present their own versions of pathways to power — and they did — the civil rights movement didn't set foot on those paths. In his 1989 book Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch recounted how the old racist order in just about every city in the Old South offered pathways to power to the civil rights movement leadership, and the leadership shot them down.

When white leaders offered piecemeal accommodations to desegregation, the civil rights leadership said, to paraphrase, "No, go ahead and bring the dogs out on national television and set them on our children. We'll just see how that one plays out for you."

Dallas may not have been the only exception to that rule, but it was a big one. Here, black leadership took the accommodation. And that is what we see played out now in these waves of public corruption investigations in Dallas.

This isn't about racist white people waging war on fearless black revolutionaries. Quite the contrary. This is about the longstanding tradition of cooperation and accommodation between the races in Dallas. That's what keeps sending black politicians to the pen. It's not that they don't get along with the white power structure. It's that they do.

I spent a good long time on the phone one morning last week with a white progressive veteran of electoral politics in Dallas, who refused to speak to me about this unless I agreed not to name or identify him or her. I'll use the feminine pronoun, but I'm not saying whether this person is male or female. She said she has had enough, been beaten about the ears enough times, does not want back into the fray in any way.

She was talking to me about the use of "consultants" or middlemen in the political diplomacy between the Park Cities-based white power structure and black leadership in southern Dallas. It is, she said, the key, when we are speaking of a certain type of consultant.

I believe the accurate term would be "ethnic consultant" — a black or Latino consultant who works for white people in order to get black or Latino votes. There may be cases of black politicians in Dallas who have recruited wealthy white country club tennis players to help them sway the white vote. I just haven't run into it. All of the ethnic political consultants I have encountered have been black or Latino, and the product they offer is the delivery of black or Latino votes.

The role of the ethnic consultant has never been to foster understanding and intercourse between the white and nonwhite camps. The consultant's role, instead, has been to serve as a kind of cut-out or bag-man who carries white money across the Trinity River and spreads it around in the necessary fashion.

"It's a package deal," my phone-mate said, "so I don't have to do that stinky stuff."

The stinky stuff would be actually getting to know each other and hammering out some business as equals.

Is it a conspiracy? I don't think so, because it's so openly and freely acknowledged. In my experience, the members of the Dallas Citizens Council who get put up for mayor tend to view the role of the ethnic consultants as honest commerce between tribes.

And that's certainly what you get from the other side. The consultants themselves view the votes they deliver like soy beans — a tradeable commodity. It's less a conspiracy than a culture.

I think of what our new Dallas Citizens Council mayor, Mike Rawlings, has said, when questioned about consultants to his campaign who are now targets of an FBI corruption investigation. Asked what one of them, Kathy Nealy, did with the $270,000 Rawlings paid her, Rawlings shrugged and said, "She got me elected."

It's pretty much exactly the same answer I got in 2002 when I asked another Citizens Council candidate, Tom Dunning, about his consultant, the very same Nealy, and allegations of fraud in the Dunning campaign.

Nealy already had accused me of racism for asking her what she did with Dunning's money. I met with Dunning later over coffee — he's a very smart, nice guy, a gentleman — and he expressed a kind of puzzlement at my questions. "That was the South Dallas campaign," he said. "How would I know what went on?"

That's how it is with the package deal. You pay your money. You collect your votes. You don't ask how it's done.

Nealy would accuse you of racism for even asking. It's not your business. It's the business of That Other Tribe, the tribe across the river. Your tribe has its own rules, and you must hew to them. But don't go shaking your big bony white finger across the river telling That Other Tribe how to act. What are you, a racist?

My person on the phone the other day reminded me of another chapter, one in which the Observer played a central role — the vote fraud scandals of 2002. She said she knew of political leaders in southern Dallas who had played a part in exposing vote fraud carried out by the dominant black political machinery. She said some of the reformers ran for office themselves later and naively went to the Dallas Citizens Council types for campaign money, thinking they would love them.

Wrong. She said they got a very cold shoulder from the wealthy white interests, who wanted nothing to do with them. What they had not foreseen was this: The vote-fraud machinery worked against the rich white folks in partisan national elections, but it worked for them in local elections.

"This machine, this illegal voting, was used against them [the rich whites] every other November," she said. "But it was used by them every other May.

"The other thing, and this is an independent feature of Dallas," she said, "it is worse to point out the crime than to have committed it in the first place."

She and I shared a common experience: We both agreed that none of this can be explained to people outside Dallas. If you're speaking to racist white people, they will listen to you exactly and only as long as you are talking about corrupt black officials. They will nod their heads wisely.

The instant you get off into some crap about how this is all a partnership between poor black and rich white cultures — both of which are separatist and unmitigated by the national civil rights movement — you're going to get that cell phone look, the one that means, "Sorry, you're breaking up a little."

If you're talking to progressive white, black or Latino people from outside the city, especially journalists, and if they are people who are unfamiliar with Dallas, they are going to be using the matrix of the national civil rights movement to make sense of Dallas. In that case, the instant you begin to propose that black people in Dallas have any responsibility for the city's screwed-up racial culture, you're going to get the other cell phone look, the one that means, "Excuse me, but just how did you get my number?"

Even in this day and age, it is still racist to blame black people for anything that has to do with race. I don't know that that will ever change. I think that's why you get a Texas Monthly piece suggesting that Dallas' corruption problems have to do with the failure of the Ku Klux Klan to provide meaningful avenues of progress for minorities.

Gotta be more to it.

The whole thing leaves us in a pickle here. We're stuck with a culture subscribed to by power brokers on both sides of the river. Every two years, we find out that the only people who don't subscribe are the ladies and gentlemen of the FBI.


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