The Atlantic Takes a Poke at Dallas Over Segregation, Misses Knockout

HUD Secretary Julian Castro knocked the pins from under a five-year federal investigation of segregation in Dallas.
HUD Secretary Julian Castro knocked the pins from under a five-year federal investigation of segregation in Dallas.
Gage Skidmore

For whatever reason, Dallas is almost always under everybody’s radar and off the charts where national issues are concerned. Well, The Atlantic, the 159-year-old monthly news and analysis magazine that has won more magazine awards than any other monthly, just noticed us.  It’s not a great debut, but it should be a lot worse.

Ronald Brownstein, the Atlantic’s editorial director and a former national affairs columnist for The Los Angeles Times, co-authored an article with Jamie Boschma, a senior editor at The Atlantic, exploring issues of school segregation and concentrations of poverty. In their piece Dallas serves as a poster child for growing cities — cities with ostensibly strong economies — where poor kids, but especially black and brown poor kids, get sent on their own conveyor-belt in the school system to a separate and unequal destiny.

Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas education reformer Todd Williams are quoted at some length saying the right things about how terrible it is. And it is. Much credence is given in the article to the role of residential segregation as a principle driver of school segregation. And it is. But there is more to this onion than The Atlantic has peeled.

The article presents an impressive array of national evidence showing that school segregation is the single biggest factor pushing kids out of school before high school graduation, utterly unprepared for any more education. Sean F. Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of education and an expert on residential and educational segregation, says, “It’s the measure of segregation that is most strongly correlated to the racial achievement gap.”

The issue isn’t, “that sitting next to a poor kid makes you do less well in school.” Rather, he said, “it’s that school poverty turns out to be a good proxy for the quality of a school." 

Williams, executive director of Commit! Partnership in Dallas, tells The Atlantic, “If we don't figure this out over the next 12 years, we're going to be graduating a lot of students who aren't ready for post-secondary education. In a 2025 economy, that's absolutely suicidal.”

The article says, “Tackling that level of concentrated poverty is what Mayor Mike Rawlings has called ‘the most important challenges Dallas faces as a city.’”

That far, it’s a good tough look at difficult problems that Dallas seems to be willing to own. But if anything – and probably as a reflection of our still lurking a bit beneath even The Atlantic’s probing radar — the article misses an even larger picture here. They appear not to have any awareness of the fact that our problems are no accident.

They clearly don’t know that the first thing President Obama’s new secretary of Housing and Urban Development did within weeks of taking office two years ago, for which he was thanked warmly by our Mayor Rawlings, was kick the pins from under the biggest housing desegregation action HUD had mounted in decades, right here in Big D.

Housing segregation is treated in The Atlantic article kind of like a force of nature. Like, “It happens.” But the five-year federal probe of Dallas spurred by developers Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie found that it did not just happen. The final investigative report presented exhaustive and damning evidence  that Dallas had pursued a deliberate 10-year course of policies that violated federal law on the use of racial desegregation funds.

Lockey and MacKenzie, who said Dallas killed their downtown tower redo deal because it would have too many minorities in it, presented HUD with evidence that Dallas had actually increased segregation citywide after decades in which racial segregation had decreased. They claimed Dallas had used HUD deseg money to subsidize creation of a racially segregated condo and apartment community downtown.

They gave HUD thick files of evidence showing that Dallas wanted downtown to be fancy and didn’t want expensively redone former office towers downtown to fill up with Section 8 poor people.

Problem is, when you take the HUD money, you have to certify every year that you are using it to help Section 8 poor people get housing and doing it in a way that will decrease segregation. Extensive historical and academic studies produced forensic evidence that Dallas had done exactly the opposite – taken the money, sworn it was using it for desegregation, then used it in a way that measurably increased racial segregation citywide. HUD’s investigators agreed after five years of study and issued a report finding that Dallas had broken the law by using deseg money for reseg.

The HUD Dallas report was deemed by most HUD-watchers to be the single biggest and most striking finding of its kind in decades. HUD had completed and published its findings and was on the verge of forcing Dallas to the table for a meaningful settlement when Rawlings went to Washington and had his sit-down with brand-new HUD Secretary Julian Castro, now rumored to be a top pick for vice president on a Hillary Clinton ticket in the fall. After that meeting, Castro chopped HUD’s Dallas action off at the knees, announcing his own finding after mere weeks in the post that the investigation had been no good. Dallas got away with a wrist slap.

It’s one thing for everybody to moan and blow their noses over the fate of poor American minority kids in urban school districts, whose lives have been painted by the Children’s Defense Fund as a “cradle to prison pipeline.”

But then let’s also stop and reflect on the fact that the people at the top of Democratic Party leadership in this country will put the fix in, the monkey wrench, the jimmy, whatever you want to call it, to preserve the very patterns of residential racial segregation we know are at the heart of these problems. I wonder if there’s any way we could get that one out from under the radar someday.

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