It’s how I remind myself what a hick I am. Whenever something really embarrassing happens in Dallas, I immediately check to see if The New York Times has got it up online yet. Who cares? The self-conscious hick in my bathroom mirror, that’s who.
So this week’s New York Times check was the Greenville Avenue Church of Christ, a mainly black church in Dallas that announced a series of special sermons for the summer on "dangerous isms," including Judaism, Islamism and alcoholism. First thought the minute I saw the story: “Oh, that’s got to be in the Times already.”
Yup. It picked up the barebones Associated Press story immediately. Now I have to sit back and wait to see if it pays Mimi Swartz to drive up from Austin and do the real in-depth hit job on us.
I always thought my old drinking buddy, the late columnist Molly Ivins, was so clever for figuring out that Dallas was the town whose very existence New York would never tire of regretting. And often for good reason. Ivins pulled down some good bucks with that schtick.
But there’s a funny kind of just-too-wierd shield that protects us from the worst of it. It’s why the Times will run the AP story on the bigoted Dallas church but maybe not try to do the full-tilt-Mimi on us. I can see the national editor in New York now:
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, back up. This is a black church? Sorry, but that’s just too weird. If you had that Jeepers guy, the Baptist preacher Trump likes — what’s his name? — pastor of First Baptist Church, saying this kind of stuff, then sure, I’d pop for the budget to send Mimi in and tell her to dust off her napalm.
“But a black church expressing every possible kind of ignorant bigotry under the sun? It’s just … it takes too much explaining. It’s one of those Dallas way-too-weird things. By the time you do the backstory, half our readers will have dropped their subscriptions and the other half will be in memory care.”
Shelton Gibbs III, who is called pulpit minister of the church, designed a summer program to present various speakers addressing what he calls dangerous isms. The isms on Gibbs’ danger list include denominationalism, pessimism, Islamism, materialism, atheism, liberalism, alcoholism, emotionalism, Judaism and something called GACC Gospel Campaign (go figure-ism).
Gibbs told The Dallas Morning News that by linking Judaism and Islam with alcoholism, he meant no harm: “We're not here to criticize or be antagonistic toward people and to beat them down,” Gibbs told the News. “There's no threat. The people in the community should not feel a threat.”
Of course, that statement makes no sense whatsoever, flies in the obvious face of reality and seems very much like an outright lie. When you link a major world religion with alcoholism and call it a danger, you clearly mean harm.
It was intriguing to see how some local faith leaders in the maligned faiths reacted. Joel Schwitzer, regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Dallas, told the News he thought the church meant no harm with the program but nevertheless had caused an unfortunate effect. An Islamic leader said something similar.
So at the distinct risk of sounding like a Fox News host, I can’t resist asking this question: What if a rich, white, conservative church like Highland Park United Methodist had ginned up this same program with the same provocative flyer?
“If that white Highland Park church had the same program,” Schwitzer told me, “my response would be the same. Our technique with the American Jewish Committee is one of diplomacy. We are known as the state department of the Jewish people.”
OK. I am known as the state department of … I am not the state department. I get what Schwitzer is saying. And I’m not trying to jump on anybody, really. I’m just trying to figure out a certain Dallas conundrum.
How can you have African-Americans, victims of centuries of sustained oppression, sounding exactly like rich, white Trumpoid bigots on the far right? And, wait a minute, why is everybody giving them a walk? Is it just because they’re black?
Isn’t there something fundamentally patronizing in saying that Gibbs didn’t know what he was doing when he drew up a list of bigoted slurs? Shouldn’t the man at least be given credit for being a bigot when he’s trying so hard? Children can be excused for uttering words they do not understand, but not an adult and not a minister of God. I think he’s being cheated of his due.
Now, back to the question of how it can be. That’s an easy one, if you live in Dallas, anyway. Black people can be bigots just like white people because black people can be ignorant and intolerant, just like white people.
Listen, this isn’t even the toughest New York Times crossword puzzle about Dallas. Have you spent much time around middle-class, middle-aged Dallas gay people? If you haven’t, you are in for a shock the first time. You’re going to feel like you have been marooned on an island with the entire Fergus Falls, Minnesota, Chamber of Commerce.
First they’re going to talk about their kids. From there, the chit-chat goes straight to lawn care and extended service contracts for home appliances. And if they ever get going on the topic of Key West and those “gay-acting” gay people down there, you must cover your ears in horror and flee.
See, it’s universal. It’s definitely in the water. I’m not saying that everybody in Dallas is a bigot and a bore. Far from it. Especially in the last decade, Dallas has developed a wonderful cosmo crowd in the inner city. We are, after all, a blue city, so we can’t all be Babbitts and morons. But, well, a lot of us are.
And here’s the thing. In Dallas, the Babbittry and the moronism are not isolated and segregated the way they are in the nation’s older cities in the East. This is a place where anyone can be a bigot, regardless of race, color, national origin, gender identity or even political persuasion.
Yes, that’s right, even white liberals can be bigots here. If you don’t believe me, you need to take a hike out to 5151 Samuell Blvd. at 6 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month and sit in on a Dallas school board meeting. I guarantee you, at some point during your long evening of agony, you will hear white liberals, either on the board or speaking from the peanut gallery, explain how cruel it is to expect poor urban kids of color to learn to read as well as children of white liberals.
Where bigotry is concerned, we are an equal opportunity city. And here is what that national editor at The New York Times will never get through his or her fashionably thin skull: We sort of stand for the principle that all people share the same right to be bigots and morons.
Who said just because you’re black you have to be all tolerant and everything? What if you don’t feel like it? Maybe you spent your dormitory days at the University of Texas secretly envying all those white fraternity pledges who walked around drunk all weekend saying incredibly stupid, offensive things and thinking they were funny.
Maybe you thought they were funny. Maybe you thought to yourself, “Someday I’m going to be the successful pastor of a big Dallas church, and I’m going to make up a list of incredibly bigoted stupid stuff and nail it to the church door kind of like an evil reverse image of Martin Luther’s 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517.”
Hey, somebody could say that. I don’t know who. But it’s a free country. In that sense, in fact, I think Dallas has an important lesson to teach New York. No free American citizen should be held hostage to categorical stereotypes, even good ones.
Every gay person does not have to be a witty erudite Amistead Maupin. And certainly a host of black celebrities who love Trump should have liberated us by now from the stereotype by which we assume all black people hate bigotry. Why can’t some black people love bigotry? Is there something in the Constitution about it?
A long history as a bastion of extreme conservatism has given Dallas its own form of liberation. This is a place where most people have never been in the least worried about saying really horrible, stupid, ugly, bigoted things, like linking Judaism and Islam with alcoholism. People say those things proudly here, and that pride pervades to all stripes and kinds.
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Given that climate, I think we should go to the next logical step, take off the gloves and start calling people like Shelton Gibbs III by his right and proper name, the label he so clearly seeks for himself — bigot.
He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s doing what he wants to do. We should respect him enough to hold him accountable for it.
That won’t solve or improve anything, of course, at least not for me. I will still have my New York Times complex. I will still be a thin-skinned hick when it comes to the opinion of the big world beyond, Googling to see if people in Iceland have seen the Gibbs story yet.