Look, To Understand Dallas's Corruption Probes, Forget About the Civil Rights Movement

The current issue of Texas Monthly takes on the Dallas FBI corruption investigation, sort of, in a "Behind the Lines" essay by deputy editor Brian D. Sweany. He invokes Dallas, the TV show, and another TV show, The Wire, to conclude that, "Like any good drama, it may take a while for the truth to come out."

That's a safe statement to make about a lot of things, like how to pick the best pickup truck or which grocery store has more fresh produce. I think it's a safe statement to make about walking down the street.

Sigh. Probably the smartest thing we could do in Dallas is just go along with everything people from outside the city write about us, because, as wide of the mark as some of it may be, it's usually better than the truth.

Sweany grew up in Plano and worked for D Magazine, so it's probably unfair to expect him to understand Dallas. (He lives in Sachse.) He doesn't much. Nor is he entirely wrong. His central thesis is that "The old racist order presented few pathways to power for church and political leadership in the south looking for influence."

So the only way to be a civil rights leader in Dallas was to take bribes.

Double sigh.

If it was an old racist order, why would it ever have "presented" any morally acceptable pathways to power at all? Why would black people ever have wanted to touch any of the pathways presented to them by an old racist order?

In his 1989 book Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch recounted how the old racist order in just about every city in the Old South offered pathways to power to the civil rights movement leadership, and the leadership shot them down. When white leaders offered piecemeal accommodations to desegregation, the civil rights leadership said, to paraphrase, "No, just bring the dogs out on national TV and use them on our children. We'll just go ahead and see how that one plays out for you."

Dallas may not have been the only exception to that rule, but it was a big one. Here, black leadership took the accommodation, and that is what we see played out now in these waves of public corruption investigations now in Dallas.

This isn't about racist white people waging war on fearless black revolutionaries. Quite the contrary. This is about the longstanding tradition of cooperation and accommodation between the races in Dallas. That's what keeps sending black politicians to the pen. It's not that they don't get along with the white power structure. It's that they do.

I spent a good long time on the phone this morning with a person who is a white progressive veteran of electoral politics in Dallas, who refused to speak to me about this unless I agreed not to name or identify him or her. This person has had enough, been beaten about the ears enough times, does not want back into the fray in any way.

The person was talking to me about the use of "consultants," or middlemen, in the political diplomacy between the Park Cities-based white power structure and black leadership in southern Dallas. It is, the person said, the key.

The role of the consultant is not to facilitate interaction and understanding between the two camps. The consultant's role is to buffer the two camps from each other.

"It's a package deal," my phone-mate said, "so I don't have to do that stinky stuff."

The stinky stuff would be actually getting to know each other and hammering out some business as equals.

You know, that's exactly what our new Dallas Citizens Council mayor, Mike Rawlings, has said, when asked about black consultants to his campaign who are now targets of the new FBI probe. Asked what one of them, Kathy Nealy, did with the $270,000 Rawlings paid her, Rawlings shrugged and said, "She got me elected."

It's pretty much exactly the same answer I got in 2002 when I asked another Citizens Council candidate, Tom Dunning, about his consultant, the very same Nealy, and allegations of fraud in the Dunning campaign.

Nealy already had accused me of racism for asking her what she did with Dunning's money. I met Dunning over coffee, and he expressed a kind of puzzlement at my questions. "That was the South Dallas campaign," he said. "How would I know what went on?"

The package deal. You pay your money. You don't have to talk to those people or have any idea what nasty sorts of things they may do with your money. It's not your business, in fact, because it's something that goes on across the river where those other people live. That Other Tribe. You don't have to worry about white-people laws, because That Other Tribe is not subject to those laws over there. They operate according to the laws of That Other Tribe. And, you know, who the hell knows?

My person on the phone today reminded me of another chapter, one in which the Observer played a central role -- the vote fraud scandals of 2002. The person on the phone with me said the person knew of political leaders in southern Dallas who had a part in exposing the fraud. The person said they naively went to the Park Cities white leadership for campaign money later, thinking the rich white folks would love them. Instead they got doors slammed in their faces.

What they had not foreseen was this: The vote-fraud machinery worked against the rich white folks in partisan national elections, but it worked for them in local elections.

"This machine, this illegal voting, was used against them [the rich whites] every other November. But it was used by them every other May."

The rich white folks gave zip to the vote-fraud reformers and told them not to let the door hit them in the ass.

My informant said he or she did not know enough about other cities to know if any of that is necessarily unique to Dallas, but the person said there was another wrinkle that was.

"The other thing, and this is an independent feature of Dallas: It is worse to point out the crime than to have committed it in the first place."

Here's what I think: Nobody outside is ever going to figure us out. Everyone is always going to impose the template of the civil rights movement on us and insist that things like the ongoing federal corruption are refrains from that same old song. They might stop every once in a while and ask themselves if it isn't a bit odd for a city to be in the throes of the civil rights movement in 2011. But they won't.

As I said at the top, maybe we shouldn't want them to. The real truth here is nothing to brag about. Our dilemma isn't about outsiders anyway. It's whether we will ever really cross that river ourselves as a city, or will there always be a boatman there to carry our coins across for us?