Making Black Voters Disappear
Think of the Dallas City Council Redistricting Commission as Sunday school, where everything is done by the book. Right next door you have this dumpy divey smoke-filled neon joint called "Domingo's Dance Hall." That's where people just do it.
The official redistricting process, carried out over months by a legally constituted formal commission, was an attempt to see that the carving up of city council districts based on the 2010 census would be carried out logically, fairly and in an above-board manner.
Some of the people on the commission, it seems, have preferred to go over to Domingo's, turn up the sound system and engage in that ancient ritual that playwright Edward Albee once described in his play, The American Dream, as bumping their uglies. I speak metaphorically. I hope.
The Observer's Anna Merlan has reported on our news blog, Unfair Park, that secret meetings have occurred, hosted by redistricting commissioner Domingo Garcia. There, away from public scrutiny and from the rest of the commission, these truants presumably have been striking unauthorized side deals regarding redistricting. Garcia, whom I have known for years as a very bright, very political, very attention-deficit-disordered person, has dismissed the official redistricting process as "too tedious."
He might be right. Sunday school is a good thing, and people ought to go, and we would all be better off if everybody did go, but, you know, one does get the fidgets. I sort of agree.
Let's talk about what they do over at that dance hall. In fact, let's see if we can get in there ourselves. A frank look at what really underlies the redistricting process would do us all a world of good. Try not to run.
At Sunday school, they tell us that redistricting is all about drawing compact districts on a map. The one whose name we must not utter, the horned one, the angel of darkness is this thing called "gerrymandering." Oh, it's ugly! Gerrymandering is all about scribbling messy lines all over the map and creating nasty, gnarly, reptilian districts that wiggle and slink hither and yon. Sunday school districts are compact, sensible and plain, like good plain people.
Now to Domingo's. See if we can sneak up next to that booth in the corner where Domingo and the other errant commissioners are getting ready to do the dirty deed. What are they giggling and sniggering about over there as they poke each other while he pours them beer from a pitcher?
It's something about "The Woods." Wouldn't you just know it! And what's this other thing they keep snortling about? Sugarberries! Oh my goodness gracious, you don't have any idea about sugarberries, do you? I just hate to be the one to tell you. You really should ask your parents about sugarberries, but what the heck, here we are, and so I will tell you all about sugarberries.
The Woods and Sugarberry Hill are middle-class to affluent, mainly African-American neighborhoods in the far southwestern corner of the city, almost to Joe Pool Lake, where people live within the suburban Duncanville school district even though they live in Dallas. In the last 10 years, the Woods/Sugarberry district has attracted a growing population of relatively well-off black people.
So while the city as a whole has not been growing in the last 10 years, that part of town has been growing, and guess what? A lot of those people vote. So in terms of voters, you really have black-vote bonanza in those sugarberries.
The problem is that black leadership tends not to come from there. It comes from areas of the city that are more south-central, like over by Dallas Golf Club, where council member Vonciel Hill lives, or even farther east by the Cedar Crest Country Club, where Dwaine Caraway lives.
Now here's where it gets tricky. We have 14 single-member council districts. Of course we don't base any of this directly on race, because, as they told us over and over again back in Sunday school, that would be wrong. But over here at Domingo's we can tell you that seven of the 14 districts are white.
White. Just white. That's just how it is. Think of a sheet of copy paper. What color is it? Think of a bedsheet. Well, maybe don't think of that. Just think white. That's what seven of the 14 council districts are. White.
That leaves seven districts that are not white. Those go to black candidates and Hispanic candidates. Those seven seats have to be divided up. You can't divide the seven by two. We're talking whole numbers here. So one side gets three seats, the other gets four.
The way it is now is the way it has been since single-member districts were created in the late 1970s. Four black. Three Hispanic.
This round of redistricting is at least the second one — we're talking 20 years of this stuff — in which Hispanics have argued that it's time for a change. Between the 2000 census and 2010 census, the Hispanic population in the city rose from 35.6 percent to 43.1 percent while the black population diminished from 26.5 to 22.3 percent.
So obviously that means Hispanics should get four and the blacks only three seats, right? Well, now, hold on there, cowboy: What's going on with those white people? Hmm. Looks like they went down from 53 percent to only 43.1. Wow. That's the biggest change of all. How does that get reflected on the new map?
What did they tell us in Sunday school? Let's go back over and ask. They say you can't base districts directly on race. Directly. But the law also says you can't use redistricting to diminish the influence of racial minorities. So what does that mean? Oh, hell, let's go back over to Domingo's. I want to talk about those sugarberries again.
We will take it as a given that the whites are not going to give up any seats, even though they are the ones who have lost the most ground populationwise. Why are they not going to give up any seats? Hey, we're not in Sunday school any more. When did you last see white people give up anything?
Yeah, that's what I thought. Don't get sore. Have a beer. Let's talk. Whose district are the sugarberries in? They're in District 3, which is represented by a white guy, Scott Griggs. So what does that mean?
This just gets deeper and deeper. That's why we need to be over here where we can relax a little. District 3 is represented by a white guy because it includes the Kessler/Stevens and Winnetka neighborhoods at the northern end of the district — white areas that vote like hell. It's a damn white-people voting festival up there. So they dominate the district.
Whoever gets lumped in with Kessler/Stevens gets a white person for a council member. That's just how it is. We can talk like this, right? That's why we're in Domingo's Dance Hall.
If you could sort of rob the Woods/Sugarberry neighborhoods out of District 3 and glom them onto a black district, man, you'd have a hell of a black district. Back up in the more central part of southern Dallas where the leadership tends to come from, nobody votes. Elections are decided by a few thousand votes, sometimes a few hundred. So adding the sugarberries to a district up there would be huge.
OK, wait, now look at this. This is cool. It's this bar trick I learned with a salt shaker and a cocktail napkin. You see the salt shaker. Now I wrap it in this napkin. Three shakes. Magic word. Look! The salt shaker disappeared. It vanished. No, it is not in my lap. Hey, don't be looking in my lap.
All right, fine, it's in my lap. Anyway, that was my point. That's what we can do with the sugarberries. We wrap them up in District 3, give them three shakes and say the magic word. They disappear! They don't count. District 3 goes to Kessler/Stevens no matter what.
So who would want to disappear the poor sugarberries or keep them disappeared, as the case may be? Who? Who? Look at my eyes. See how I'm doing sideways with my eyes. That's to show you who to look at. Yeah. We're talking about the man. I'll have to whisper it: Do ... min ... go!
If current city council member Vonciel Hill could glom onto the sugarberries, she would be able to fortify her own district and maybe leave enough black voters out of her district to fortify the other three black districts, too, in spite of diminishing black population overall. But if Domingo can keep the sugarberries disappeared, then he might be able to stage a raid on the blacks and carve out a fourth Hispanic district.
So let me ask you something. Does this sound like the kind of stuff we could do in Sunday school? I didn't think so.
Domingo sat through a lot of the official commission process. I bet he wore out three chairs just wiggling, but he did it. Then he started pulling pigtails and cutting his eyes and pointing with his thumb over toward next door. So was that a bad thing?
The Dallas Morning News published an editorial at the end of last week chastising members of the redistricting commission and city council for meeting behind closed doors with Domingo Garcia. Waggling the long bony finger of editorial disapproval at them, Pastor Belo said, "Some on the council seem to have difficulty setting self-interests aside."
I understand. I do. I am the son of an ecclesiastic myself. Like many of my breed, however, I have spent a good deal of time in the saloons, and while I recognize the perils therein, I must also commend them as good places to get some business done. And that, eventually, is the name of this game.
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.