In the next two months a federal judge will declare the Dallas Public Schools officially desegregated. That designation--desegregated at last!--will close a battle over racism that has consumed the city and the school system for a third of a century. And at that point people on both sides agree the universe of Dallas children will be almost totally segregated--black and Hispanic kids on one side of the equator, whites on the other. Victory!
A few years from now the school district will be populated almost entirely by children of color who may go through their student careers and never share a classroom with a white child. The white kids will be somewhere else, in private school or the 'burbs.
But here is a point to keep in mind: This is the black Dallas dream come true, as well as the white. If the traditional black leadership and the traditional white leadership of Dallas could link arms under any banner, their flag would cry, "Segregation forever!"
You thought the goal was integration. You were wrong. One of the most important figures in the abandonment of integration in Dallas was former school board president and black leader Kathlyn Gilliam. She's going to parse words eight ways to Sunday to tell you that the system she and other black leaders helped achieve here is not "separate but equal."
"It's not about 'separate but equal,'" she says, "but if it's anything about 'separate,' it's 'separate but addressing the equitable question.'"
Confused? Sure, because it's bullshit. "Separate but addressing the equitable question" is the same thing as separate but equal--exactly the kind of system the Supreme Court threw out in 1954 when integration of the schools began. And now it's about to receive the permanent blessing of the federal courts in Dallas.
There is no crystal ball to show the long-range effect of preparing children for the very diverse world ahead of them by bringing them up in racial separation. The worst outcome may be simply not teaching them how to deal with each other.
In a recent weeks-long court hearing, there was testimony suggesting that the few high schools left with any significant white presence--as high as 20 percent in some schools--are viewed as a problem of sorts. White parents are all sharp elbows and knees, it was suggested, shoehorning their kids into scarce advanced placement courses at the expense of kids of color. No mention was made of recent research showing that all middle-class parents, no matter what their ethnicity, are pushy and obnoxious. Some school systems in the Northeast are trying to integrate the middle class back into poor schools for that very reason--because pushy, obnoxious people are exactly the role models poor people need.
But there is another point you have to keep in mind, as well--an especially bitter pill for people who hate the idea of any kind of racial separation for any reason. According to the testimony in that same hearing, the Dallas separate-but-equal system seems to be working like gangbusters, in terms of teaching kids how to read, write and do their sums.
The results are still recent; too recent, some will argue, to trust. But according to the evidence presented in court, the Dallas Independent School District is doing an excellent job of teaching the poorest, most deprived minority kids. Give the system a chance--get the more extreme loony tunes out of school headquarters, give the poor devils a decent superintendent, for goodness sake, and a little whisper of stability, and this district could even be on its way to becoming one of the best urban school systems in the country for academic achievement.
Stick some of that in your pipe and smoke it, you liberals. And that includes me.
Nothing tells the story of Dallas like the schools. If you want to solve the riddle of color here--less a question of overt hostility, more like diplomacy between nations, a matter of social distance more than friction, caste more than race--you have to work the puzzle of the city's battle over school desegregation.
All indications are that U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders will close the 33-year-old Tasby school desegregation suit in the weeks ahead when he rules on a district motion to get out from under court supervision. The only reason the Dallas Public Schools are still in court is because five years ago, when the district suffered a mental breakdown, it stopped even trying to meet the final list of conditions the judge had set for getting out. Now the district says it has satisfied those terms, and it seems to have the numbers to prove it.
The black plaintiffs more or less agreed that most of those conditions have been met or are in the process of being met but asked the judge not to dismiss the district from the suit for another five years just to be sure. I'm no expert, but I don't remember "just to be sure" as grounds for incarceration in this country. And after sitting through a week and a half of testimony in his courtroom in late March and early April, I didn't see any signs that Sanders, at 78, is looking for ways to drag this thing out. My prediction is that he's going to declare it a huge success and kick it over the goalposts of justice.
So this is what success looks like? When the suit was filed in 1970, the student population was 60 percent white. Now it's less than 7 percent white, about 33 percent black and 59 percent Latino, the elephant in the room.
The Latino student population has supplanted 10 percent of black students at their height and almost 90 percent of whites. Mexican-Americans have always been an element in the deseg suit, shunted this way and that, from minority status to white and back, depending on which side needed them. It may turn out that the real-world solution to the city's racial dilemma will be to wait a few years until both whites and blacks have become irrelevant. Then the school system can be taken over by Mexican-Americans, who bring a more humane sensibility to race anyway.
Bilingual education has emerged as an important theme in the suit. Latino neighborhoods have been given learning centers--special court-ordered super-schools with much more generous per-pupil budgets than regular schools. But the historical debate going on right now in federal court over whether to close the suit is still fundamentally what it started out to be, a dialogue between whites and blacks.
Both sides agree the outcome is racial separation. Ed Cloutman, for more than 30 years the attorney for the plaintiffs, believes the deseg suit has helped Dallas achieve major social progress and has served children well. But he ruefully concedes the facts on the ground: "We will be racially separate because of the physical numbers of children who are available."
Robert Hyer Thomas, attorney for the school district since the early 1980s, jumps down your throat if you pose terms to him that have segregate at their root, especially if you suggest the district has been "re-segregated."
"No! Absolutely no deal! Is that blunt enough?"
To Thomas, terms like "re-segregation" are freighted with dangerous legal meaning. "That implies some action," Thomas said. "It's a transitive verb, and who the hell is the noun?"
Damn sure not the school district, he wants you to know. If the schools are at the verge of being 100 percent nonwhite, Thomas says the important point is that no one in government made that happen. Government, in the form of the school board, has opened doors, not closed them. It's not government's fault if white people took advantage of the open door to skedaddle.
But when pressed, Thomas, too, admits that the facts on the ground in Dallas will never add up to desegregation. He makes a strong distinction between desegregation, as an outcome of legal compulsion, and integration, as an expression of freedom. "It isn't desegregation," he said. "I think the schools are integrated, because there is not one black kid being kept out of any school in Dallas County that I know of, other than private schools, not one black kid kept out of a white school, and that was the definition of segregation. And that's gone."
But the assumption of all parties is that the white kids are gone, too, or will be soon enough. According to recent court testimony, both sides anticipate that the white presence in the Dallas school system will continue to fade and dwindle in the years ahead, gradually approaching everyone's vaunted goal of virtual zero.
Since the 1950s, Dallas has flown beneath the national radar on racial issues, mainly by managing to be off the beaten path of national politics. Perhaps someone in the rest of the country will notice--but probably not--that the "victory" of black plaintiffs in the Dallas school suit is based on notions straight out of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled against "commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."
It's not just my take. Professor Glenn M. Linden at Southern Methodist University, author of Desegregating Schools in Dallas, said of the imminent outcome of the suit: "It's 'separate but equal,' as in Plessy v. Ferguson. We're going back to that 1896 decision now. But, of course, it never worked."
All three men, Cloutman, Thomas and Linden, all of whom are white, point out that the Dallas court order, with its de-emphasis of integration and its emphasis instead on compensatory education in all-black schools, is at least as much an expression of the will of Dallas black leadership as white.
"It's true," Thomas says. "They wanted to go home. They didn't want to be pawns in desegregation." He points out that it was a witness for the plaintiffs in the recent court hearing who praised Judge Barefoot Sanders for just that: "One of the witnesses said Barefoot was a pioneer in doing away with desegregation. We have a better system here that shows that transportation doesn't work."
Linden sees the end game in a less sanguine light: "Black leaders have always been a problem in this town," he says. "They don't want very much, really, because they don't think they can get very much."
Cloutman has been involved in the Dallas suit longer than any other individual except the plaintiff. Over the years he often has emerged as the master conciliator who held the suit (and perhaps the city) together. He concedes that much of what black leadership in Dallas told him it wanted from the suit was not the sort of thing he might have expected growing up as a '60s and '70s rad in the cauldron of the civil rights movement in Louisiana. The scene here was different. "The civil rights groups of the '60s and early '70s--SCLC, CORE, SNNC--never got a hold here. I moved here from Baton Rouge, and the civil rights groups were so much more prevalent and stronger than they were here. I mean, there would be parades once a week when I was in law school from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge, with thousands of people on the highways, most of them walking the entire 100 some-odd miles and raising hell. That never happened in Dallas."
There were a few black radicals in Dallas, typified by former city Councilman Al Lipscomb, and they pushed for a more aggressive stance on busing and physical integration. And every American city in the early '60s also had a much more conservative black bourgeois leadership. The difference is that Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders blew the bougies out of the water in other cities--"Tom"-ed them out of the deal. Here, the bougies ruled.
Cloutman sees his role as a lawyer as listening to his clients' wishes, not pushing them where they do not want to go. He said, "A few years ago I was kicking around the idea of writing something [a book], and the premise was that we were too far out in front of the parade."
The parade, in terms of the civil rights movement, was never viewed as indigenous here. Even now when former school board president Gilliam talks about busing and integration, the view that emerges from between the lines is of a malignant force inflicted on the city from without. She explains why a coalition of black professional and business groups, social and service fraternities and sororities--the cream of the old segregated black leadership--went to court in the early '80s and asked the judge to end busing. "The lead was taken by African-American citizens," she says. "It wasn't what white folk wanted to do. It was what they [black parents] decided was best for them and their children. That's when the coalition was organized, because of the hue and cry from the African-American parental community that enough of that mistreatment of the young people is enough. And something needed to be done. It [busing] took its toll on our youth population. Some of those youngsters after going out into some of those hostile territories, they just turned off. They didn't go to school at all."
Cloutman argues that busing, a difficult experience for everybody else in the country, was a peculiarly grudging, mean-spirited thing in Dallas. "Never underestimate the racism of the Dallas white community," he says. "And I mean that in the broadest sense I can say it."
In Charlotte-Mecklenberg, North Carolina, equal numbers of black and white students were bused. Students were met at their new schools by welcoming committees of parents. Here only black kids were bused, and they got off their buses in white Dallas to a reception of violence, kangaroo-court discipline by school officials and overt contempt from teachers. In 1974 after weeks of testimony, U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes found the district guilty of institutional racism, reinforcing the sense of many black parents that school integration was a rigged deal forced on them by radical blacks from the Old South and by white people.
But ever since May 17, 1954, when the "separate but equal" doctrine was thrown out by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, black kids across America had been butting heads with white bigots in the name of freedom. It's what was called "The Civil Rights Movement." In most places the fact that white people weren't very nice about it was not a reason for giving up on integration: It was the reason for going on.
The Dallas deseg suit started out as a straight-up integration fight. Sam Tasby, an African-American construction worker and cab driver, sued the Dallas school system in 1970 to force it to let his black sons attend a nearby white school. In response to Tasby, busing began in Dallas in 1971.
But today the idea at the core of the Dallas lawsuit--the issue debated in court this spring--has evolved into a complicated doctrine of educational reparations. In order to get out of court, the school system has doubled efforts and spending to educate poor black kids. The thesis is that the way to compensate the bad effects of segregation is not to integrate but to educate. But that part--extra education to make up for segregation--was an add-on, a fillip tacked on to the deal to make separatism legal.
Kathlyn Gilliam was a leader in the Black Coalition to Maximize Education (BCME), which went to court in the early 1980s to ask for an end to busing. Under its "Minority Neighborhood Option Plan," BCME asked simply that black students be allowed to opt out of busing and return to all-black schools. The BCME made no mention at first of compensatory measures, only of the fact that many black parents and students, having given integration a try, no longer wished to be involved with white schools or white people.
But BCME didn't wind up taking this notion to court. The white-majority school board and its lawyers, who had been battling court-ordered busing tooth and nail for decades, seized on the BCME's plan for an end to busing as if it were the blessed, long-sought, God-given Holy Grail. In a very helpful mood all of a sudden--they "recognized the wedge," as Cloutman puts it--the school district agreed to present the BCME's plan to Judge Sanders.
Sanders chided the district that this brilliant idea--an official policy allowing black kids to return to all-black schools--suffered from being illegal in the post-Jim Crow era. "The theory and practicalities of the DISD neighborhood option plan collide with the command of the law to achieve maximum school desegregation," he said.
But the BCME idea could be tinkered with. It was only re-segregation if it was left in its raw form, as a policy allowing black kids to get off the bus and go back to their neighborhood schools just because they and their parents didn't like white people. With the very enthusiastic help of the school board's lawyers, the BCME refined the idea to include compensatory measures--special "learning centers" where the poorest black children, kids from the projects, would receive teaching and nurturing so enriched, so finely tuned to their particular needs, that it would eliminate the "learning gap" between white and nonwhite students.
Sanders signaled early on that he was now interested, and in 1981 he handed down his first desegregation order, based solidly on the BCME concept of a voluntary abandonment of busing by black families and the creation of special "learning centers" to remediate the educational effects of segregation on poor black children.
The learning center initiative struggled to find curricula that worked. In 1994, Sanders ruled that he was ready to release the district from the suit and call an end to the game, provided the district could show a pattern of three years' consistent measurable success in the educational remedies called for in his original order.
Then--in case you got hit in the head with a board and are having a memory lapse--the Dallas school system plunged into an incredible six-year episode of total political and administrative entropy--people in berets with shotguns at board meetings, one superintendent off to the pokey for pinching furniture, the next one off the deep end from day one (apparently wanted to swim with his friends).
We never got out of court. At the recent hearing, there was persuasive testimony to the effect that many in top echelons at school district headquarters during those years were not especially aware they were even in court. You can't get out if you don't know you're in.
But now we have enjoyed two and a half years of the tenure as superintendent of former Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses. At the recent hearing, the school district presented reams of test-score data to show a dramatic narrowing of the achievement gap under Moses, along with testimony of heavy-hitter outside experts praising the school system's achievements.
Robert L. Green, a nationally recognized expert on desegregation--professor of education at Michigan State, deseg consultant to districts and courts in Detroit, Norfolk, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Memphis and Prince George's County, Maryland--told the court: "Dallas has made tremendous strides in the last nine years in closing the achievement gap, especially in reading and math, the two building-block areas."
He said: "I could assert with some caution that the gap in reading and in math might be closed in a short time, in the next two or three years."
He's not talking about the few white kids left in the district vs. the black and Latino kids. He's talking about teaching minority kids up to or beyond the state and national achievement levels of white kids. It's huge news. If and when he's right, the Dallas school system is ready to play Carnegie Hall.
Dr. Herbert J. Walberg of Chicago, an educational psychologist, consultant to the governments of Israel, Japan, Sweden and the U.K., examined the Dallas schools to see what progress had been made in recent years: "I concluded in my report that Dallas was doing a really outstanding job...The conditions and programs and policies they have put in place make Dallas the most impressive large urban school district I've ever worked in."
Dr. George A. Gonzalez of McAllen, a bilingual expert who serves as a consultant to the governments of Mexico and Saudi Arabia, said: "I work with many districts throughout the state and the nation, and I have yet to find something this well done."
In an interview at school headquarters after the hearing, Moses described the district's recent successes with his own East Texas blend of salesmanship and self-deprecation. He talked about the fact that Dallas schools not only have climbed out of the cellar of urban education in Texas but have closed the gap with the other big Texas districts.
"We've had the largest two-year gains in reading and math of any of those other districts. We've had a 10-point gain in reading and a 14-point gain in math, and that has surpassed all of the other urban districts. So we have closed that gap between ourselves and our peer group. But I'm still certainly not satisfied that we've done all we could do. We've still got more work to do."
Moses said a major part of his challenge as the new boss was to simplify and streamline. "I think there just needed to be a clear direction. Big districts, big bureaucracies like this one, tend to make things so complex and complicated that nobody out in the field really knows, 'What is it we're supposed to be doing?'
"I said, 'reading and math, reading and math, reading and math'--the blocking and tackling of education. We've got to do more than that, but let's be really good at that."
The plaintiffs at the hearing, with Gilliam very much in the lead, tried to persuade Sanders that two and a half years of stunning progress is not enough. They suggested we might need as long as five years before it will be safe to send the district out the courthouse doors for good. Pointing to the chaos that had preceded Moses, they suggested he could leave in a year and things might return to abnormal.
I'm sure I was not the only one who saw irony in Gilliam warning the court that if Moses left, the district might slide back into the mess it was in when she was on the board. That was the period when white board members were involved in insurance scams and got caught on illegal phone bugs using the "n" word; black board members were accused of making school district personnel work in their homes; the board was racially split on everything with everybody trying to slam-dunk everybody else; and, in the end, it should be noted, Gilliam was defeated for her board seat by a younger, more conciliatory opponent. But bad as it may have been then, now that the district is firmly on the wagon, I don't think the court will agree to prevent backsliding by keeping it locked up in the drunk tank.
At several points in the hearing the plaintiffs, speaking through Cloutman and a series of witnesses, asked a legitimate question: Given that it was so bad so recently, how do we know this good stretch will last? The one with the best answer, I thought, was Moses.
During most of the hearing, even when his presence wasn't required, he sat in the back of the room kneading his large hands and turning first one ear, then the other, soaking up every word. When it was his turn in the dock, his plainspoken response to the trust question was that the district itself--the teachers and administrators, the kids and the parents out in the schools--had never been in on the big wobble. Without pointing explicitly to his predecessors, he said it's possible to take a basically sound institution, give it good leadership and help it perform a whole lot better.
"I don't think that everything that happened in DISD since 1994 has all been negative," he said. "The students and teachers and principals have all carried on rather well."
Moses told the court: "I do think you can change an organization in a year or two. You can change its mind-set. You can change people's telephone personality...You do what you say you're going to do."
In the courthouse corridors during recesses, there was much off-the-record speculation about why the plaintiffs would want to disown the success of recent years. There is a spectrum of possibilities, beginning with a sincere mistrust of the district based on decades of bad faith and bad blood. A certain cadre within school administration may see its position as threatened without court protection. For years the suit itself has been a bully pulpit for the plaintiffs, and nobody gives up a good pulpit peacefully.
But I can't help seeing another possibility, too. If this is success, and if the district really is getting ready for Carnegie Hall, then much more than the courthouse door is about to open. Success, in the education of American children, means that they are ready to spread their wings and fly out into the big world.
Even though the school district itself will be virtually segregated when Sanders sends it home--and he will--the children won't be. Their reading scores and their math scores and their essays and the violin lessons and the enriched history courses in the learning centers--the things Ed Cloutman is so proud of--all of these are feathers in the wings that will carry them to the one place Dallas has worked so long to keep secret:
Or desegregation. Call it whatever the hell you want. The word doesn't matter. It's black young people and white young people and Latino young people working together, living together, going out together and...yes (shudder)...getting married and having families together.
The Dallas nightmare.
I think that's why the plaintiffs want to stay in court. They want the court to shield them from the world beyond its doors. And somewhere in here is the wonder of life itself: that the ultimate joke is on all of us. Nobody's right, least of all me, the liberal who can't stand to see great test scores coming out of racial separatism.
In the end the only ones who count are the kids and the teachers. Thank goodness young people have no respect for the rules and will go wherever their wings can take them. Thank goodness good teachers, the ultimate seditionists, can give them flight.
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.
- The Cowboys' 5 Biggest Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast
- Oak Lawn Protesters Pick Fight With Philip Kingston