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Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, shown on his way to court last year for the federal bribery trial in which he was acquitted, equates manual labor with slavery.EXPAND
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, shown on his way to court last year for the federal bribery trial in which he was acquitted, equates manual labor with slavery.
Brian Maschino

Reports on Dallas Inequality Shy Away from Important Possible Factors, Like Leadership and Work

This week, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based nonprofit think tank and research bureau, released a report that powerfully confirmed a wave of data from multiple sources over the last year, all portraying Dallas as harshly segregated along ethnic and economic lines.

The only question is what to do about it, and there I can’t help sensing a certain faintness of heart. No one seems to want even to touch a certain possibility. Could it be that part of what keeps some poor people poor in Dallas is their culture? And do I ever get that. I don’t like touching it, either. But there it is, and it’s one big elephant.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, acquitted in a federal corruption prosecution last year, is scheduled to address the Black Academy of Arts and Letters on April 21, where he will discuss the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, the 1968 report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson. All of the public discussion of the Kerner report anniversary that I have seen so far links it to things like this new report on Dallas from the CPPP. The common conclusion is that little has changed.

I assume Price’s remarks a week from now will not fall too far from that tree, and I will not disagree with him. But I wish he would also discuss another aspect of his personal philosophy and leadership career — his belief, publicly stated, that hard manual labor is permanently and poisonously linked to African slavery and therefore should be disdained by poor black people. There is a conversation there that everybody seems afraid to have.

Black and white life experiences in this country are vastly and often cruelly disparate. It’s probably always a mistake for one side to tell the other how to feel about life. In Texas, the stain of slavery reaches well up into the 20th century through systems of mass incarceration and agricultural debt peonage, some of which touched Price when he was a kid growing up in Forney, a small cotton-gin town east of Dallas. It’s not my place as a privileged white person to tell Price how to feel about slavery.

But that doesn’t put away the question of hard work. How can any person who is poor, who has no resources, ever hope to get ahead and lift up her or his family except by starting with very hard work? By disparaging very hard work — painting it as a humiliation — does Price not bear some responsibility as a leader for the unrelenting grasp of poverty on the shirt-collars of his constituents?

Why isn’t anybody asking this question? How realistic is it to focus solely on the fact of poverty — always an ugly focus — without at least exploring the role of the culture and worldview of poor people? What better place could there be to place the first sharp focus than on the leadership of the poor, the people with real credibility in their communities?

And don't think that these questions apply only to poor black and Hispanic people, either. White conservatives nationally have been battling one another trying to understand President Donald Trump's appeal to poor working whites by trying to understand poor white folks. It's a stretch, and the results have been a bit mixed.

J.D. Vance told a sympathetic but unsentimental story about growing up poor in an Appalachian family in his biographic Hillbilly Elegy. Then there are guys like conservative provocateur Kevin D. Williamson, who took a harder line on poor whites in his essay "The Father Fuhrer" in National Review: "The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles."

Where both writers touch on common ground is in the argument that a poisoned culture changes when the people in it own up to their role in creating it.

On that score, what leaders say counts. The failure of advocates for social change to engage what leaders like Price have to say about hard work leaves an obvious gap in their arguments for progress.

The CPPP report is valuable, replete with information this city needs to know. What I have to say here is not meant to diminish this report or any of the reports over the last year that have brought to us these sobering reflections of ourselves.

But they all tend to leave the same question unanswered. What does anyone do about it? The CPPP, author of this most recent report, declares in its annual tax declarations, “We envision a Texas where everyone is healthy, well-educated and financially secure.”

The executive summary of the new Dallas report says, “We have work to do.” Then it offers a catalog of social ills besetting the city — racial and ethnic segregation, the education gap, income inequality and what seems to have become everyone’s whipping boy, transportation inequality.

The last one bothers me in light of a topic I have raised here in recent days — the adamant opposition of the older black leadership in southern Dallas to a proposed new city housing policy designed to provide more public housing farther north, nearer the region’s employment centers. Former City Council member Diane Ragsdale, speaking at a recent Dallas City Council committee hearing, used a term from segregation, redlining, to disparage efforts to encourage poor black people to move out of southern Dallas toward jobs.

In Ragsdale’s view, social justice must amount to nothing less than one of two things. One would be assisting poor black people in southern Dallas to stay right where they are and move the jobs to their front doors. The second would be enabling them to stay where they are and provide cheap, efficient, quick transportation to the job centers far north of them.

Virtual slavery lived on in Texas long after the Civil War.
Virtual slavery lived on in Texas long after the Civil War.
Library of Congress

Neither one of those can happen or will happen in the real world in time to do today’s generations any good. Employers do not choose locations in order to provide employment for people in those places. They pick places where reliable workers with good work histories are already nearby.

The model of minimum-wage employees using efficient public transportation on a daily basis to travel 20 miles to work — the distance from London to the sea — might work in London, but not here, not for a very long time. Waiting for it to happen will consign at least another generation to a lifetime of unemployment and poverty.

The thing to do — the thing that created this country — is to get up and go to the work. Throw away everything, leave everyone you know, give up your culture if you must, and go to the work. There is no other real-life path to that world “where everyone is healthy, well-educated and financially secure.”

We can and must provide better, fairer avenues toward those goals, but the goals themselves are not objects that can be bestowed. People have to go down the avenue and grab those things for themselves.

Unless you stumble on buried treasure, that process of success is almost always going to begin with very hard work, work other people don’t want to do, work people with money don’t have to do. Pulling one’s family up by doing that hard work should be viewed as heroic, but Price has always spat on it and mocked it.

In last year’s federal corruption bribery trial, executives of Hillwood, a real estate development company owned by the powerful and wealthy Perot family of Dallas, testified that they prevailed on Price in 2005-08 to help them stall development of a major shipping facility in Price’s southern Dallas district that would have competed with a Hillwood property near Fort Worth.

In 2008 when that was going on, I asked Price how he could justify sandbagging an economic development project that promised thousands of new jobs for his district. In remarks he later repeated on a radio program, Price told me he was not interested in bringing manual labor jobs to his district because manual labor was, in his view, linked to slavery.

“Slavery, Jim, that’s an institution,” he said, “and the purpose of the institution was working, and working traditionally is a job. It all comes down to slavery. The middle name that most African-Americans call their job, they call it slavery.”

Discussing the same project later on the radio with state Sen. Royce West, Price said, “We don’t want no jobs. They don’t need to go down there and hire them a negro or two. Ain’t anybody looking for no jobs. We’re looking for an equity position.”

West was associated with a group of southern Dallas businessmen who went to Richard Allen, the developer of the shipping project, and asked for a share of the ownership of his family-owned company in exchange for their services in protecting him from political problems. He refused, eventually publicly calling the request a shakedown, and from there on out, his venture suffered political problems that became fatal.

So we’re not just talking about some kind of ephemeral cultural persuasion or mood here. We are talking about a hard-edged attitude that disparages work, demands money and threatens consequences.

It would be racist and stupid to propose that the values I’m talking about here are universal or even consistent in the southern Dallas black community. In the successful federal prosecution in 2009 of the late Don Hill, a member of the Dallas City Council convicted of bribery, part of the FBI evidence was of those honest hard-working black business people in southern Dallas who wanted no part of Hill, his crew or his sleazy ways of making money.

The black community, like the white community, like the Hispanic community, like all communities, is made up of all kinds of people. But leaders are especially important.

By repeatedly electing Price to office, by continuing take Ragsdale and others like her seriously, southern Dallas voters endorse their views. Even in apathy, by staying away from the polls and letting others anoint the leadership, nonvoters acquiesce.

At some point in the very healthy and belated conversation we are having now in Dallas about race, segregation and poverty, more people need to begin taking up questions of values and culture. Price, Ragsdale and others should be engaged on these topics.

It’s not up to Price or Ragsdale to single-handedly solve a centuries-old social curse of injustice that was not of their making. But the curse can’t be lifted without them, and it can’t be lifted without respect for hard work.

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