Dallas Has a Lesson to Learn About Segregation from Scary Detroit

Stories about my old hometown, Detroit, are no longer merely depressing. The word, depressing, just doesn't get it. Detroit is beginning to be fascinating. Its plight is almost mesmerizing, in a science-fiction post-apocalyptic kind of way.

Terrible awful unbelievable story in The New York Times today saying, among other things, that if you have a real medical emergency in Detroit you're probably toast. Most of the city's ambulances, some of which have logged more than 300,000 miles, are broken down and out of order at any given moment. That's just an example.

Detroit has a recurring urban myth that's not a myth: Somebody reports a dead body. Nobody shows up. In 2009 an anonymous person called Detroit News columnist Charlie LeDuff to tell him about a body frozen in an elevator shaft with legs sticking out of the ice "like Popsicle sticks." LeDuff called the city three times over two days, even identifying himself as a reporter, before anybody showed up. Homeless people told him the body had been there since the previous month.

Yeah. Scary. That's part of the fascination. The other part is, "There but for the grace of God ..."

Couple weeks ago I got a little bit unhinged here about Dallas school board member Bernadette Nutall after she tried unsuccessfully to kill a special program of subsidies and outreach for dysfunctional high schools in her district. Nutall, who is black, wanted to turn down $20 million because she saw the program as a threat to her own political hegemony in a black part of the city.

Her posture was actually perfectly consonant with the position that black elected officials from the city's segregated southern hemisphere have taken over the years. If you look closely at the speeches and actions of her mentor, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, you see that black control of black neighborhoods has always been more important to him than black upward mobility.

He's the one who told me five years ago he didn't care about 65,000 new well-paid jobs with benefits offered by the city's "Inland Port" shipping and warehousing project because jobs and work, in his view, are associated with slavery. He said it on the radio, too.

But dwelling too much on Price and Nutall is a mistake, because it diverts us from a larger much more positive truth about race and diversity -- something Detroit and Dallas have in common. Over the last several decades, the overwhelming trend among urban African-Americans has been to reject the feudal racial separatism of leaders like Price and Nutall and move instead to racially diverse suburbs. In fact the growth of racially diverse suburbs in both cities has far out-stripped the racially segregated urban core as a magnet for black Americans.

In the 1990s, relatively affluent black people made up 80 percent of the people leaving Detroit for the suburbs. The same phenomenon is notable here, as well. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of racially diverse suburbs in the Dallas area went from 48 to 68 while the number of predominantly white suburbs went from 67 to 37.

A significant part of that picture in both cities is international immigration. In both places, the 1950s Ozzie-and-Harriet white-as-a-sheet suburb is being replaced rapidly by the new upwardly mobile everybody's-from-everywhere suburb where you don't even ask people about their origins because you don't have time to hear it.

In both places that's a good story -- a story about hope, opportunity, perseverance and the good old American dream. It's why we're even here, most of us -- what the country is all about. Another thing Detroit has in common with Dallas is that nobody ever moved to Detroit because he had always dreamed of living near the Detroit River, as no one ever moved here to be near the Trinity River. Moving to pretty places where you can go snowboarding is for the next generation, maybe even a couple generations out. Detroit and Dallas have always been places for the generation that's trying to make it, here and now. Screw the view. If you want a view get a postcard. The view from here is the dream of tomorrow.

In both places, that dreamscape is every bit as much a black view as it is a Latino or white or Arab or Chaldean or Ukrainian view. What Price and Nutall represent is another view, a crabbed world hunkered beneath low horizons, a culture left behind by those who have already moved up and out.

Does that mean we should ignore Price and Nutall's communities? Oh, hell no. Children are born into those communities every hour of every day, and they didn't get to vote for Price or Nutall. If you look closely at the tremendous success and upward mobility of African-Americans since passage of the voting and civil rights acts in the mid-1960s, then you know that the children born into the failed segregated/separatist neighborhoods of southern Dallas bring all of that same promise and basic human worth with them into the world. The trick is getting them out from under the Nutall/Prices of the world so that they can achieve that potential.

The truly scary thing about Detroit today is the brutal lesson it offers about segregation and separatism. Segregation has always been and will always be fundamentally evil. The authors of segregation are not always white. Some of them are black elected officials who would rather rule the dump than be nobodies in the promised land.

All of us, of every racial and national and ethnic stripe, are capable of figuring that out, but we have to figure it out now, pretty fast, because we don't want to wind up with all of our ambulances on the blink and dead people's legs sticking out of the ice like Popsicle sticks. There isn't even time for blame. I don't want to get back into the back-story of the white enablers of racial separatism in Dallas simply because we all know it already and it's another tale that just takes too long to tell.

The longer bigger story here, as in Detroit, is good. It may not have a happy ending yet, but it has a happy middle part while we get there -- a tough, demanding, sometimes exhausting middle part that's happy because it's about getting there, as opposed to getting nowhere.

But, man. Look at Detroit proper these days. If that doesn't put some giddy-up in us all, nothing can. And when I say us all, I mean us all.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze