The Dallas Morning News has been doing stories and editorials about the shrinking population of black students in the Dallas public school system—a phenomenon the newspaper calls "black flight."
In its first story the paper reported: "Interviews with dozens of parents reveal that the exodus is not fueled by a single reason, but by myriad forces including issues of race, class, perceptions of problems within DISD, an explosion of charter schools and the quest for the American dream in the suburbs."
But it seems to me that the mainstream media have a tendency to frame all stories about black people as problem stories. I just don't know why we have to have all the muted anxiety about it.
I'm not saying there are not problems embedded in this picture. But why isn't the larger perspective here of a happy story? African-American people are doing what everybody does in America. Moving on up.
When I look at census data for the suburbs surrounding Dallas, I see some of the greatest increases in the percentage of the total population that is black in those places where median household income has gone up the most over the last decade.
In Allen, for example, median income has increased 24.2 percent since 2000, according to U.S. Census figures. In that time, the black share of the population of Allen has gone from 4.4 to 7.7 percent. You may see that as not much black population. But I see it as a growth of 75 percent in the relative share.
Most of the black out-migration from the city has been to the southern tier of suburbs, to be sure, where cities like DeSoto and Lancaster have seen the black percentage of population increase by more like 30 percent. Both are now majority black communities.
Income growth for the entire population there has been in the range of 12 percent, but that measure is masked by a significant amount of apartment development. Apartment dwellers may pull the overall income numbers down, obscuring the fact that there are also large, new affluent majority-black single-family-home neighborhoods in those communities, as well.
So why is that happening? No, wait: Why are we even asking why it's happening? Why is it a mystery?
Last week I drove through a gorgeous development 18 miles southwest of downtown Dallas near Lake Joe Pool in Manchester. I entered the back way for some reason. The homes, all brand new, seemed to me to be the size of small hotels.
I was stunned when I came out at the other end by the main entrance to the development and saw the for-sale signs—prices in the 150s to 400s.
You know what you can buy for $150,000 in my inner-city neighborhood where most of the housing stock is 75 to 100 years old? Nothing. Not one thing. For $400,000 you can buy 2400 square feet, but then you need a new roof, heating and air conditioning and a cousin on the police force.
We love it there.
But families with kids who are just getting a foot through the door into the middle class do not love it. And they're especially worried about the schools.
I'm not sure how fair the school thing is when you look at the numbers. Duncanville, which is less apartment-prone than Lancaster, does have a public school system that outperforms Dallas schools in the education of black students.
In Dallas, 64 percent of all students pass the state-mandated achievement tests, but only 55 percent of black students pass, according to numbers published by the Texas Education Agency. In Duncanville, 69 percent of all students pass the state tests and 62 percent of black students pass. That's a significant difference.
But Dallas beats the heck out of Lancaster, where only 52 percent of all students pass and 50 percent of black students pass.
Dallas and Duncanville are closer in the number of top black students they produce. In Dallas, 7 percent of black students test at the "commended" level. Duncanville has 8 percent of black students at the commended level. Lancaster has only 4 percent.
If you look at the more affluent northern suburbs, the performance numbers for black students get much better. In Lewisville, 76 percent of black students are passing their tests and 14 percent are at the tops of their classes. In Lewisville, 85 percent are passing and 16 percent are at the top.
Remember I said that Allen has gone from 4.4 to 7.7 percent African-American since 2000. Lewisville has gone from 7.4 to 9.2. The big yardstick is this: in the same period, Dallas' black population has dropped from 25.9 percent to 23.2.
So I ask again: Where is the mystery? Black families, motivated by a desire to live in better houses and put their kids in better schools, are availing themselves of new opportunities, the direct result of black political struggle and hard work. Tell me how else this story was supposed to go?
Not all of the choices by black families may pencil out to be right. Some suburban school districts may actually be poor trades. But if at first your move does not succeed, move, move again. And some of the moves made by black families obviously are working out very well, indeed.
There are major pitfalls in any conversation about black upward mobility. First—what does that mean? Upward compared to what? To whom?
Brandeis University's Institute on Assets and Social Policy published a report last week finding that the gap between whites and blacks has never been worse according to at least one important measure—net worth. The Brandeis study found that the net worth gap has quadrupled since the early 1980s—a phenomenon the study blamed on tax policies geared toward the very wealthy and continuing discrimination in jobs, housing and credit.
But last year Federal Reserve economists Katharine Bradbury and Jane Katz published a study in which they said upward mobility is generally in the toilet anyway in America, for everybody. Never have so many Americans of all ethnicities moved so little upward. So who knows?
I know this much: A world in which black families are determined to succeed and can make choices that allow them to pursue their dreams is better than the world I was born into after World War II, in which black families were sealed off inside ethnic containment areas, both geographic and economic.
The most important lesson for white folks like me is this: Black success, which is all around us, is an enormous "reality on the ground," as they call these things in the Middle East, demonstrating that black people were down at the bottom of the economic ladder in the first place because the white boot kept them there. Take away the boot, and up they come.
So that's good news, right? It's an endorsement of the American system. It would almost be an endorsement of us white folks, if we ever decided to lift the other boot. But, you know: one boot at a time.
I spoke about all this with Les Payne, a retired Newsday editor and columnist who remains one of the nation's most respected observers of African-American politics and culture. This is a guy who worked at the heart of the mainstream media business for a long time and understands exactly how attitudes—often unexamined and even unconscious—can tilt a newsroom.
He had read some of the Morning News stories before I called him about them. He didn't seem to have big objections to the substance of the stories, but he was bothered by at least one aspect of the language used:
"When I saw the headline, 'Black flight,' right away you think of white flight. I don't think you have the flight aspect. The story gives half dozen reasons why the parents and grandparents are doing that, but it's not black flight."
Payne views white flight as a historical phenomenon spurred by court decisions and a determination to avoid integration. The black Diaspora reported by the News, on the other hand, is spurred by upward mobility and a determination to seek equality.
"It doesn't add up to black flight in the sense that white flight was white flight. As an editor I wouldn't have allowed that headline."
There is tangible tension in Dallas between black people and Mexican-Americans, as the Latino populace has elbowed black people out of dominance both in their own traditional neighborhoods and in the schools. None of that is imaginary.
In the summer of 2009 when I was covering the debate over closing the "learning centers" in Dallas—vestiges of the long desegregation battle fought in federal court by black Dallas parents—I was sort of blown away by remarks I heard from parents in the Latino section of the peanut gallery at school board meetings.
This isn't a quote. It's a characterization. I felt the overall theme of those remarks was, "The black people and the white people had a big battle here a long time ago. We don't even want to hear about it. We care about our own kids. We will decide how we want our own kids educated."
Isn't that a good thing, too? As a matter of fact, isn't it all good? Latinos and African-Americans alike, they're all tough independent-minded parents fighting to make better lives for their children in the oldest constitutional democracy and biggest free economy in the world. Tell me what's wrong.
Of course there is friction and political tension between discrete groups of people overlapping and competing on the same social geographic turf. But that doesn't mean you dismiss all of black upward mobility as "flight."
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I can turn around in the other direction and find plenty of other stuff to worry about in this whole arena of race and ethnicity. I watch the news now and worry a lot about white people going cuckoo. I do not want to see another guy on TV in a three-cornered hat looking up at the sky with a screwball squint telling a reporter he doesn't know where the president of the United States really comes from.
But the story about black people leaving the Dallas school system simply is not a problem story. And it's some kind of buried subliminal impulse that makes us want to talk about it in those terms and that tone.
Les Payne is right. It's the language, not the substance. It's not that the story reported by the News is untrue or reported inaccurately. It's an important phenomenon, and they were right to report it.
But in the longest view, the story is about African-Americans following the path of the Irish, Italians, Serbo-Croatians and everybody the hell else to the American dream. My own headline would be "What else did anybody expect?"