Every Supreme Court decision is a “landmark decision” until it gets rewritten by a new Supreme Court,. But the recent decision in favor of a Dallas-based fair-housing advocacy organization has the scent of staying power. After all, it was based on a principle that hasn’t changed much since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954: Racial segregation: bad. Racial desegregation: good.
Yet for all of that, the high court’s decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project remains a stubborn brain-twister for Dallas. Maybe it’s because southern Dallas black leadership intervened on the side of segregation. I mean, give us a break. Things are complicated here.
The name of the lawsuit got turned around at one point, but it started out as Inclusive Communities (ICP) suing the state of Texas for steering money for desegregated housing into to build new homes in segregated neighborhoods. The very uncomplicated legal question there is: How can you deseg by seg’ing? Uh … you can’t.
The money in question is federal, and it’s handed out under a rule: You have to use the money for deseg, or else don’t take the money.
OK, it’s a little more nuanced than that. You can also use it to improve screwed-up neighborhoods . But ICP argued this: Back way off and look at how Dallas and Texas spent all the federal housing money over a period of years. You will see an unmistakable overarching pattern of most of the money going back into already segregated areas. That means the community-improvement thing is a ruse or an error or a big misunderstanding or something, because you can’t justify a decades-long pattern of reinforcing segregation, no matter what.
The Supreme Court said yes. You got it. This is segregation. The money’s for desegregation. Either this stops, or the money should stop. But if you take the money, you have to do what the rule for the money says.
Frazier Revitalization Inc. (FRI) is a foundation that grew out of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, founded by former Trammell Crow Co. Chairman Don Williams. FRI uses a variety of government grants and private donations to improve housing and schools in South Dallas in areas that were once majority black, now black and Latino. It enjoys solid support and prestige among leaders in southern Dallas' black community.
FRI intervened in the ICP litigation in support of positions taken by Texas against ICP. The FRI brief quotes the brief of another intervener, the National Association of Homebuilders, saying that interpreting the law the way ICP wants it interpreted would elevate the goal of desegregation above the goal of better real estate.
And here, I think, we get to the heart of Dallas’ difficulty. What could be more important than better real estate? Isn’t that why the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.? Weren’t they looking for fixer-uppers? C’mon. It’s a no-brainer in every sense of the phrase.
What makes things especially difficult here is this: the elevation of real estate above desegregation as a lofty cause is a sentiment consistently shared and in this case championed by southern Dallas black leadership. And here’s the nut of it: If you go to Atlanta and some white dude says to you, “Our black people here prefer to live among their own kind,” you can write him off as a racist. But here if somebody tells you the same thing, he may well be telling the God’s truth.
What do you do with that?
It’s not everybody. ICP also has deep roots in Dallas and deep support in minority leadership. Their attitude goes back to that fundamental principle we talked about above. Segregation: bad. End of story.
But you can’t blame Dallas for coming off somewhat disoriented once in a while. The Dallas Morning News tried to hail the high court ruling but obviously wasn’t sure exactly where to go with it:
“What happens next?” the paper asked in an editorial. “That’s where things get complicated. Southern Dallas has an existing stock of affordable housing that is aging rapidly and needs to be replaced or upgraded. And many leaders in the southern half of the city remain firm supporters of tax-credit housing as an urban-renewal solution.”
The News, of course, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for its still ongoing editorial series about the so-called southern sector, “Bridging the Gap,” or, as I churlishly call it, “Building a Better Ghetto.” (Note: I have not won a Pulitzer for my jokes.)
They mean well. I guess everybody means well. But the heart of te decision, based on a principle called “disparate impact,” is that meaning well while practicing segregation is just segregation.
Here’s a mental exercise which I offer in the sincere hope that it will help all of us here in Dallas work out this problem. Instead of an editorial series or city program aimed at improving the euphemistically named Southern Sector, try to imagine the same thing aimed at improving life in Dallas’s “Jewish Sector.” Hey, you and I could name the streets, right? It’s there. Why not bridge the gap to it?
What about a “Better Barrio” program? Or, if I may indulge in a bit of self-reference, why not a program to bridge the gap to the Aging Ex-Hippie Sector, otherwise known as Old East Dallas?
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I can see it. Old hippie rec centers. Community prosecutors for old hippies. Twelve-step programs for patchouli.
We don’t have those things because, even when we do group together in patterns, none of us wants to be thought of as living in a damned “sector.” Why? Because “sector” has a distinctly non-voluntary resonance to it, and we pride ourselves on living where we damned well please.
The “Southern Sector” didn’t come out of anything voluntary. It’s a bad concept. No amount of rouge will brighten that cheek. The answer is desegregation.
And if, after all those kids have had a chance to go to better schools and grow up looking at a better life, they choose to go back to South Dallas and live next to each other, that’s another thing. That’s a very different thing. Then they won’t need a bridge or want one.