You can't really understand Dallas politics without grasping the concept of the white-people deal. It's a key element. I'll give you an example.
In 2000 a professional lobbyist named David Dean and his wife, Jean, bought a 1916 Georgian Revival home in the Swiss Avenue Historic District and announced they were going to build an addition on one end. A protracted and nasty legal war ensued between the Deans and historic preservationists. The Deans won.
One of the battles in this war was fought before the Dallas City Council, which had to endure lengthy technical testimony on streetscapes, templates, facades and even fascia boards. It's pronounced FAY-sha.
At one point the council took a recess from these deliberations and retired to their little break room in the back to sip coffee and munch sandwiches. A white council member told me later that a black council member, standing next to him at the sandwich table, smiled, shook his head and muttered half under his breath, "Fascia boards. Man. This is really a white-people deal."
In this still very racially separated city, there really are white-people deals—issues so removed from the lives of people who live in the city's mainly minority neighborhoods that everybody might as well be debating the weight of rocks on the moon.
But the idea that issues can be segregated by race is just as corrupt as doing people that way. The best recent example is the Trinity River toll road.
In 2007 during a referendum to force a new alignment for the road, influential African-American leaders took to the hustings to defend the existing route. The referendum was defeated and the current alignment saved. Ever since, the same black politicians—especially city council member Dwaine Caraway and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price—have claimed proudly that their own efforts and the black votes they raised provided the margin of victory.
The current alignment carries the road past properties slated for redevelopment in downtown Dallas on a route isolated between flood control levees along the Trinity River. But at the southern terminus, in black South Dallas, the proposed route jumps back over the east levee into the neighborhoods, where it dumps 155,000 cars a day—its highest volume anywhere on its eight-mile length—into a street-level connection with Highway 175.
This area of the city has been sliced and diced by highway projects for half a century—the high-flying, no-exit kind that carries roaring 24-hour cavalcades of traffic overhead, and also the cheap-built back-of-the-hand kind like the infamous "Dead Man's Curve" at the intersection of South Central Expressway and Hawn Freeway two miles southeast of Fair Park.
Price, Caraway and other black leaders who campaigned to protect the current alignment of the Trinity River toll road promised minority voters the road project would mean jobs for them. It's a promise that always hooks the hearts of people living in islands of biting poverty, surrounded by what looks to them like a sea of affluence.
In one Southern Dallas census block area affected by the toll road project, the population is 74.7 percent minority; 81.7 percent live below the federal poverty guideline; median household income is $6,928. If you tell people in that census block that a big city project might throw even a single bone their way, they'll vote for it. On one condition.
It's a white-people deal.
I mean this: Except for the bone, the project is viewed as neutral or even irrelevant to people in Southern Dallas, sort of like the fascia boards on Swiss Avenue.
I don't think I'm a racist, but I am just as capable as the next white guy of seeing things in a too-white way (which some people would call racist). On things like this, there's usually a simple reality check. Talk to somebody black.
I'm lucky. My job allows me to call really smart interesting people. So on this one, I called the Reverend Gerald Britt Jr., a longtime Dallas clergyman, always one of the city's most thoughtful observers, now vice president of public policy at Central Dallas Ministries.
I ticked off a list of big-ticket civic projects from the American Airlines Center to the toll road and asked him if it was unfair of me to suppose that all of them were viewed in Southern Dallas as mainly white-people deals.
"No, I don't think you're wrong," he said. "But hopefully that kind of thinking is what we are about to change."
I didn't choose Britt at random. He is at the center of a fascinating development involving the toll road. For the first time I know of, we have an objective outside analysis of one of these big white-people deals telling us that the project is not neutral and not without consequences for minority communities.
According to a 2,000-page study published last February by the Federal Highway Administration, certain aspects of the proposed toll road project will exacerbate a history of environmental racism in southern Dallas. And that's not just an opinion. It's an official finding under the law triggering a set of consequences and required responses.
"Due to the high concentration of minority and low-income populations in the study area," the report states, "consideration of mitigation options is warranted."
That's where Britt steps in. He is leading a small movement in southern Dallas to take advantage of this finding and use it as leverage for meaningful change. On May 5 at a hearing on the FHWA report, Britt told an audience of several hundred that the proposed route through old South Dallas will "cut the community in two." He called for serious mitigation efforts to "revitalize the neighborhoods of South Dallas."
That's all absolutely to the good. I wish him well. I hope South Dallas gets something out of this a lot better than the usual pig lipstick handed out as so-called mitigation on highway projects—sound walls, for example, which may lessen the racket but function as even worse Berlin Walls for neighborhoods than a noisy road.
But I want to back up a little. City councilman Caraway and Commissioner Price vowed to their constituents that the current Trinity River toll road alignment was good for them. The publicly stated good was that it might spin off some construction jobs. The unstated corollary was that it was a white-people deal—something about a fancy park with sailboats and a white-water course downtown. Who cares?
As Britt said to me on the phone, "My people don't do a lot of kayaking."
But the story Caraway and Price told their constituents was false. The toll road is not neutral, not just a white-people deal. It threatens South Dallas with active harm of exactly the same variety that has scarred the community for a half-century.
In fact the federal highway people who carried out the supplemental environmental impact statement on the road were required to make a specific kind of analysis under a presidential order signed in 1994 by Bill Clinton called "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations." First, they had to go down a laundry list of criteria to see if South Dallas qualifies as an "environmental justice community."
It does. That's not a good thing.
Environmental justice is a concept few people in Dallas know anything about. It's better-known in parts of the nation with more developed traditions of community activism. South Dallas does qualify, on the basis of socio-economic measurements—low incomes and low high-school graduation rates for example—but also on the basis of past wrongs, specifically a history of environmental racism.
Then, given the finding that South Dallas is an environmental justice community, the feds were required to go down another laundry list to measure the impacts of this particular project. They found certain aspects were positive—improved traffic flow along the route of the toll road itself.
But they found more that were negative, including effects of sound, air pollution and the physical division of neighborhoods. The big negative impact they found was the one that goes to the heart of the political syndrome I'm talking about here: A toll road going through a poor neighborhood obviously doesn't serve the needs of that neighborhood because poor people can't afford to pay tolls.
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That's the point I want to make. The black leaders who have sold these big-ticket projects to their consitutents have made bad bargains for them. The real evil of a white-people deal is allowing it to exist in the first place. The evil is the presence in a community of a massive public project that clearly isn't even intended for the use of the people who have to stare at it all day.
The idea peddled so long by southern Dallas leadership—that these deals are OK if we can get the white man downtown to peel a few bills off his roll—is corrupt and corrupting. There is no such thing as a white-people deal, because there is no such thing as a white-people city. That's what's wrong. The only reason to divide a city is so you can screw the people on the other side. Dallas has been too good at that stuff for too long.
Britt told me his effort is aimed at turning all of that around—forcing the city to redesign the toll road project so that it will make southern Dallas stronger, not tear it apart.
I wish him luck, of course. Maybe his effort can help generate the kind of hope and stewardship that will kill the concept of the white-people deal for once and forever. But I also have my doubts. I don't think you can always wring good from bad, no matter how hard you twist. The best thing for South Dallas would be what South Dallas voters should have done two years ago to this road. Kill it.