Demolishing Our Racial Berlin Wall While Leaders Inside Fight to Keep It

Dallas is at the edge of a wonderful and terrible moment. Nobody else is going to be able to help us, because nobody outside the city will get it. We’re about to finally try to crack the hard nut of racial segregation and concentrated poverty in our city. The trick is going to be that the nut doesn’t want to be cracked.

Eric Nicholson’s reporting here has been keeping you up with the work of Mike Koprowski, a school district executive whose title is “Chief of Transformation and Innovation,” which, I know, sounds like one of those titles that means, “Son-in-law of Owner.” But Koprowski is the real deal.

He and his division, put together under former superintendent Mike Miles, have spent the last couple of years looking at so-called outlier or anomalous schools within the district — outlier because parents are lined up to get their kids into them, anomalous because the kids there do really well.

Taking a leaf from the private sector, Koprowski’s people have been saying, “If we have some things that seem to be failures in the market place and other things that seem to be successes, maybe we should do fewer of the failures and more of the successes.”

As Nicholson reported last week, the first baby steps for DISD will be a new girls’ preparatory school and another K-8 school designed for a student body the district hopes will be half poor and half not poor. And, yes, you guessed it, there is a clear agenda here to begin de-segregating what has become a more segregated school district now than it was under Jim Crow.

Educators have long insisted that they should not be held responsible for social conditions over which they have no control, most of which are aspects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. Meanwhile the overwhelming evidence of the research is that poor kids do better in classrooms where socio-economic levels are mixed.

We could talk all day about why. Let’s save that for another day. Let’s just agree on this much for now: Poor kids who have shoulder-rubbing contact with better-off kids get opportunities they would not otherwise have to observe and adopt successful school habits and culture.

In this way — and as early successes in Koprowski’s “schools of choice” lead to more — these schools will become an invading wedge into the dense mass of segregation and concentrated poverty in much of the city’s southern sector.

I know, I know, if you’re a hardcore true believer in segregation, I won’t persuade you. But if your mind is even just a little bit open, you will glimpse a future in which Southern Dallas will have a good number of racially and economically integrated schools.

So, all good right? No. Not right. The old white Dallas power structure, mainly holed up now in the Park Cities but still active with its checkbook in Dallas city politics, and the old black leadership, heavily reliant on public employment especially in the school district, share an enduring faith in racial separation, otherwise known as segregation.

The old white part is easier to get. That’s just old rich white people living up to their stereotype, doing pretty what we expect them to do. The black side of the coin is more obscure.

It’s the main reason nobody outside of Dallas ever gets Dallas. But we can see it. You can see what I’m talking about every other Wednesday on streaming TV on your computer, by watching Dallas City Council meetings closely (an activity I recommend only in carefully measured doses). But you have to know what to look for.

Item 31 on last Wednesday’s agenda (video here) was a $430,000 tax abatement for a truck repair depot near the Inland Port shipping center in Southern Dallas. Before the council voted approval, Council member Carolyn King Arnold subjected the head of the truck repair to a bit of a grilling about minority hiring and minority representation in his company. The proposed truck repair place was not in her district, but it was in southern Dallas, which means it was in her nation.

And, please, I’m not here to say the city needed to give away a $430,000 “incentive” in tax money to a truck repair guy so he’d open a truck repair depot in the middle of one of the region’s busiest trucking districts. Nor would I suggest that Arnold, who is African-American, has no legitimate interest in minority employment.

The important tone and subtext here, however, was a message underlying all of that, more fundamental and, frankly, more important: The core concept was hegemony — a state-like, neo-national domination of the territory. The sloppier more slangy way I have described it in the past, as in the long battle over establishment of the Inland Port trucking center in Southern Dallas, is “paying the toll.”

Southern Dallas leadership, with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price still very much the strong hegemonic standard-bearer in spite of his legal woes, views its core mission as protecting and maintaining control over the physical turf of Southern Dallas. Anybody from outside who wants in must pay the toll and kiss the ring. Integration, meanwhile, is a scam from the mouths of white people who will say anything in order to steal the land.

They didn’t just make that up. Holding onto territory is something black people had to do at gunpoint to defend the freedman’s towns of North Texas after the Civil War. People do what they do and believe what they believe for a reason. This part of the world has an incredibly ugly, violent racial past — not all that far in the past.

Nor is the principle I’m talking about monolithic. Just as you hear lots of young white people speaking in this city now who are not segregationist, an entire new cadre of young black and Hispanic leadership is coming into the political marketplace with new ideas and openness. But where the door is closed, it is slammed shut. Dead-bolted. Nailed.

Last month in a City Council battle over zoning for a new charter school in Southern Dallas, Southern Dallas school board member Joyce Foreman led an unsuccessful effort to keep the school out based mainly on territorial hegemony. Much of what Foreman had to say about the school — run by outsiders bringing in students “not from the community” — was code for a foreign intrusion.

You have to put that together with other things black leaders in Southern Dallas have said in the last year about other efforts to improve education. Former Superintendent Miles crafted two major initiatives, “Imagine 2020” and “ACE Schools,” specifically aimed at closing the achievement gap and both overwhelmingly successful by most accounts so far.
But Southern Dallas school board member Bernadette Nutall opposed these efforts initially because, as she told Miles, she didn’t want him to, “experiment on our children.” An angry meme that popped into view in occasional outbursts at school headquarters, meanwhile, was that Miles, who is black, and some of his top staff, who were black, were not “really black” because they didn’t come from or swear fealty to Southern Dallas.

In this view, Southern Dallas is not just a place or an area. It is a nation, fortified against white incursions and depredations. The more white people who are afraid to show up the better. Don’t even say, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.” Make sure the door hits them in the ass.

White people who are racist or white people who just don’t know their own history will write all of this off as some kind of stupidity, childishness or primitivism. That’s a view that is stupid, childish and primitive. Of course black leaders in Dallas have real reasons, very important reasons for viewing the world the way they do.

But here is the rock, and there is the hard place. Segregation. Does. Not. Work. In a free society and a free economy, there can be no such thing as a successful but circumscribed separate society and economy. The best you can get is a poor, badly educated separate society living in a second-rate, hand-me-down economy. In this country, the only way to win the game is to be in the game. THE game. Not the junior varsity.

In his piece last week about the schools of choice program, Nicholson said this: “Any serious effort to uncouple school attendance from geography seems almost certain to precipitate a clash between macro questions of creating a healthier and more sustainable city and school district and micro concerns about the diminishment of neighborhood schools as backbones of their communities.”

It’s a very prescient statement. He is pointing a finger straight at what will be the most concerted and hard-fought opposition to this particular program. It will be opposed by black Southern Dallas leadership who will view this program, as they have viewed earlier efforts, as so many white noses under the tent.

Nicholson was talking not only about efforts to de-segregate the schools but about a host of policies, more of them at City Hall than at school headquarters, that will have to be addressed in order to break up patterns of segregation. In order to make that happen, a new diverse and most assuredly younger leadership in the city will have to push past both the old white folks and the old black folks.

We’re talking about taking away a turf. Erasing the borders. You and I may view it as taking down a fence and welcoming the people inside out onto their real turf, the big turf, the one that belonged to them all along. But the people who rule that turf, the turf inside the fence, are never going to see it that way. It will be a hard nut to crack, because it’s a nut that doesn’t intend to be cracked.

If your relatives in California or New Jersey or somewhere else ever ask you about any of this, try to switch the topic to the Cowboys.