I Wasn't Invited to the Talk-About-Race Deal. Good. I Didn't Want to Be. So There!
Saturday at 10 a.m. at the City Performance Hall on Flora Street, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, City Council member Dwaine Caraway and Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia will host an event called "Conversations About Race," in which I was not invited to participate. Well how do you like that?
I kind of do. Since 1986 when I published a book about race in Dallas called The Accommodation, long out of print, out of date, marginally relevant and only available at prices that are way not worth it, I have been invited to speak or take part in every single talk-about-race deal that has taken place in Dallas.
Believe me, over that span of time it was a bunch. This was in spite of what I sensed was a growing opinion in both my audiences and myself that I didn't really have anything to say that anybody wanted to hear. If this is it for me, if I am now officially out of the talk-about-race loop, it comes not a day too soon.
I can tell you what people do like to hear. The Dallas Morning News has a dose of it on its op-wed page today in an essay by Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, who is probably a very nice guy whom I don't know, positing the absolutely absurd notion that the 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, currently showing at his theater, has something important to say to Dallas in 2013, more than a half century after its first staging.
The play is about the bitter struggle of a black family to buy a house in a white neighborhood where black people have never lived before. It's a basic narrative people are comfortable talking about now because it's an exercise in harmless and painless nostalgia. We are at a point in history now where any black family with the money can buy a house in any neighborhood it wants to, and, in fact, that's exactly what it needs to do if the family hopes to endow its children with a better future.
Get out of South Dallas. Forget South Dallas. Find the way to Plano.
I feel for councilman Caraway, because I believe his heart is deeply and sincerely invested in the cluster of historically segregated African-American neighborhoods often lumped together under the geographically imprecise moniker of "South Dallas." But the real challenge black people in South Dallas face today is not white people. It's South Dallas.
In the last year a host of studies have confirmed what has always been my own central hunch and argument about segregated black communities in general and South Dallas in particular. Nothing good, only evil and misery, come from segregation. If the gates that have held people in are now open -- and they are -- the best thing they can do is walk out. But like the long-caged lion, South Dallas often fears freedom and finds comfort in its confines.
In the sordid and bitter saga of former City Council member Don Hill, sentenced to 18 years in prison three years ago for taking bribes from housing developers, the play within a play was corruption surrounding efforts to build more and more publicly subsidized housing in already majority minority neighborhoods in South Dallas. Hill was using his vote on the council to take federal money intended to reduce segregation and use it instead to put down even deeper roots for segregation in places that were already and had always been segregated.
Two months ago The New York Times discussed yet another study confirming that all-black and majority black neighborhoods are literally prison zones for back children, while the nation's less segregated areas seem to allow black families to achieve significant upward mobility.
This is absolutely not to say that we live in some kind of "post racial" society because the president is black. We still confront a very significant gap between black and white mobility that cannot be explained without reference to race. A Pew Center study found last year that upward mobility for children raised in white middle class homes is still twice that of children raised in black middle class homes.
But the Pew study can't be taken as a final answer or nail in the coffin for black upward mobility. Other new studies show that racial mobility gaps are greatly reduced and even eliminated when black families remove themselves from the culture of the old neighborhood, get educated and don't have babies early. What is true for black people is true for white people, Latinos, people-people, everybody: The factors that drive upward mobility are inside, not outside.
It's not housing. It's not subsidized retail in a place where real retail cannot survive. The things that eliminate racially measured economic and social gaps are education, not having babies early and out of wedlock and moving away from crime, both physically and morally.
The basic model of a racially monochrome neighborhood does not come from anything good. It is not a legacy of pride. It is a legacy of racial segregation. And segregation is always bad in the long run.
Here's what I found from my years of taking part in talk-about-race deals. They don't do any good. Something about race simply eludes verbal exposition. Race isn't a philosophy. It's mental astigmatism, a distortion of the glorious reality that is our sameness, our absolute and fundamental equality as human beings.
I don't know why, but you just can't talk your way out of racism. You have to live your way out of it by working together, refereeing your kids' fights and sleep-overs, hugging through your shared heartaches and victories, touching, seeing, feeling each other's shared humanity. You have to live next door to each other, not across the river.
That's not the story of Raisin in the Sun. If there is a white person alive who still goes to see Raisin in order to get black people, he needs to give up, go home and, every little chance he gets, stay quiet.
The real issues of race today are much tougher than the old ones, because today's issues are not legal or political. They are moral and psychological. When's the last time you really wanted to talk to people you don't know about that stuff (please do not answer if you are a member of the clergy or a mental health professional)?
As for the talk-about-race deal this weekend? Go ahead, call it sour grapes because I wasn't invited. I know that's what it looks like. But I know another thing, too. I can guarantee it better than a Mens Wearhouse two-fer: none of what I talked about here will be talked about Saturday at the race thing. Meanwhile during that time I will be cleaning out my wife's chicken coop, which I consider to be a productive activity -- well, more productive than talking about racial issues from the middle of the previous century.
So there. See. My feelings are not hurt at all.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.