The Thing We Can’t Talk About Yet — A Day Without John Wiley Price

The Thing We Can’t Talk About Yet — A Day Without John Wiley PriceEXPAND
Illustration by 355A

First, very serious caveats about the ongoing federal corruption trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. He’s innocent until proven guilty. The jury is weeks, maybe months from deliberations.

OK, that’s out of the way. Now let me ask the obvious question — the one I hear whispered every day. How would a guilty verdict change Dallas? What would Dallas be like on a day without John Wiley Price?

Talk about a tough topic. Maybe the best indication of how tough is the fact that nobody will talk about this on the record – nobody who knows anything. And before I put the worst face on that, let’s try the better one.

People who respect Price really respect him. He has been the most visible African-American elected official in Dallas for a third of a century. His early record of personal courage and intelligence cannot be debated or taken away.

Now for the other face. Undeniably, there are people involved in community affairs in Dallas who are afraid to speculate publicly about Price because they are afraid of Price. And everybody knows why.

One witness in the trial, a former chief information technology officer for the county, testified that he confronted Price about corruptly leaking sensitive bid information to lobbyist Kathy Nealy, whom he suspected of leaking the valuable confidential information in turn to one of her own well-paying clients, a company seeking a major computer contract with the county. The witness said Price got in his face and accused him of being a racist and a liar.

Sure rings true to me. Carol Reed, whose public relations agency has been an establishment campaign runner in Dallas for decades, told me several years ago that she stopped using Nealy as her southern Dallas political liaison and gave that work instead to another consultant, Willis Johnson, because Reed got sick of being called a racist every time she asked Nealy for a receipt.

It is reflexive. It is the way Price and his posse deal with all opposition. There are no rebuttals or explanations, only personal attacks. Sometimes it’s way over the top, as when former City Council member and Price ally Vonciel Hill quoted the Bible and called former council member Angela Hunt a Christ-killer because she questioned a fracking contract in city parks — an anti-fracking Christ-killer!

Sometimes it’s almost a little funny, as when Price called me a carpetbagger for questioning his opposition to a major shipping center in southern Dallas. I told him I get called a carpetbagger at least once a week at home.

But there’s one attack most white people think they cannot face — the r-word. In this day and age, getting called a racist by a high-profile black politician is a wound that your average white guy thinks will wipe him out.

Some people have stood up to Price even on that issue. Former Dallas County Judge Jim Foster, whom Price called “Judge Foster Gump,” came right back at him, not only to rebut the things Price said to him but to investigate further into the activities Price was covering up.

Former County Commissioner Maurine Dickey, whose family owns an international chain of restaurants, was dubbed “Barbecue Barbie” by Price. He implied persistently that Dickey was a racist. She wasn’t afraid of him. She told me a story once about stepping between Price and a female county employee whom Price had reduced to tears.

But Foster and Dickey were the exceptions. I don’t take a single point away from them for personal courage, but it also is the case that they were in the kind of public positions where people get kudos for standing up. I suspect both of them think this trial is the biggest kudo they could have hoped for, depending on the outcome.

But in normal daily life (not Washington), the average white person living down below the celebrity radar, trying to keep a career together or just a job, will fold his tent and steal away when a high-profile black person threatens him with the r-word. It’s kind of like being accused of child sexual abuse. Forget innocence. The accusation is what gets you.

I think the assumption made by many white people in Dallas is that Price uses accusations of racism cynically, as a tool of manipulation only, even when he knows the charge is unfair. Life is complicated and anything is possible, but my own knowledge of Price over the years and my own experience in Dallas cause me to doubt that.

From everything I saw when I got here in the late 1970s, including what I saw of Price, he called white people here racist because most of them were, up one side and down the other. His understanding of racism as an important force in the way business was done — the handing out of sweet government contracts, for example — was based on harsh reality.

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Price comes out of all of that. He fought the good fight in Dallas County when the only way to fight that fight was to call white people racist and then threaten to shut them down. It took that much for black people to win simple respect from white people across the bargaining table.

But most of his best work took place a third to a quarter century ago. Since then, this city has been flooded with new young people. They may not yet be quite post-racial, but they’re about 100 miles farther up that road and around the bend from the age cohort that Price and I represent.

I’m not saying Price never uses charges of racism opportunistically. Maybe he does. But it is also what he knows. I don’t believe Price has had a whole lot of experience with white people who don’t deserve it. And then we have this last national election and the outcome — a pretty good endorsement of his feelings.

But time does move on. Everything moves on. Through the all-powerful magic of births and funerals, even people move on. The most important change is generational, and it’s in that dimension that Price may be seriously out of step, his power an anchor against healthy change.

One thing white people may not often see clearly about the Price effect is the way it influences black people in the city. You know what’s every bit as bad as being a white guy and having Price or Kathy Nealy call you a racist? It’s being a black guy and having them call you an Uncle Tom, a collaborator, an accommodationist.

You know what? If that’s what’s going to happen and you know it ahead of time, don’t even bother leaving the house. You’ll do better staying in bed.

The Price regime exerts a heavy hand on political black Dallas, tilting power steeply toward the older organized generations. I was at a school board meeting once where a bunch of Price loyalists were mad at me over school reform, and I thought they were going to attack me with their walkers.

That has an effect. In the city today there is a discernible difference in the bold way the young Latino leaders of tomorrow are pursuing power and influence and the much more knuckled-under role of young black leaders.

The kind of younger black leader Price seeks to promote in Dallas is Aaron McCarthy/Michaels, founder of the New Black Panther Party, who isn’t even young any more. And anyway, to young black people I talk to, the Black Panthers are this thing that some of their parents belonged to like the Fifth Fleet or the Wobblies, more like a question on a history test than a real thing.

Last week my wife and I attended the annual meeting of the Latino Center for Leadership Development, launched here two years ago but soon to roll out nationally. It was held at the Dallas Museum of Art in conjunction with the already immensely successful show, “México 1900–1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde,” which will be up through July 16.

The center operates a leadership academy to teach young leaders how to translate ideals and ambition into winning election strategies. The proof of the pudding is that four graduates of the academy already have won election to public office.

By the way, being Latino is not a requirement for selection as a fellow in the academy. Some past and present fellows are African-American. Selection is extremely competitive, but I bet the right duck-caller could get in, too.

As I sat there watching a presentation by the center’s president, Miguel Solis, also a member of the Dallas school board, I was struck by two things. First, this is all about breaking down the same kind of barriers John Wiley Price attacked when he began his political career in the late 1970s. But second, this is all about the 21st century.

A new generation of warriors, more of them from Wharton and the University of Texas than from the street, have been trained, educated and prepared by life to penetrate the next level of resistance and proceed to the next level of success.

Yes, old white people often turn out to be racist. No, old black and Latino people will never quite trust old white people for that reason. But who cares?

The battle is always ahead of us, never behind, and so is a better tomorrow. Today’s new battle will be no less heroic than yesterday’s, but it’s going to be a hell of a lot more sophisticated. Fortunately, so are the young black and Latino warriors who are itching to fight it.

This new battle is already underway on the Latino side in our city, but it is visibly suppressed on the black side of the coin. On a day without John Wiley Price, that will be different. The best of his legacy will not be diminished by the fact that on the very first day without him a hundred flowers will blossom.


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