What good do you think it would do for Dallas to carry out the moral, political and social equivalent of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission process of the late '90s? What if we took a deep dive into the specific decisions in our past that put us where we are today with regard to racial and economic division and disparity — naming names, putting it all out on the table?
Just make more trouble? Stir the fires again? Tear off the scab and harm the healing? What healing?
We’ve talked recently about the work of a group called Opportunity Dallas, fueled by data from Robert Mundinger at Commit, showing that racial segregation in Dallas is still the city’s No. 1 social problem and stumbling block. So we probably can’t make it much worse by talking about it. And how do we know that talking honestly, acknowledging and understanding root causes, won't help us?
The laboratory for that question right now is the Dallas school district. Over long and bitter decades, no other local body of government has seen worse battles over race and segregation than the school district, a fact no less true today than it was 60 years ago.
At its meeting Thursday, the school board will consider and almost certainly pass a resolution kicking off a process that sounds a lot like truth and reconciliation. For the last five years, the fight over school reform has exposed social fault lines that defeat our best efforts at achieving basic social trust.
Some of the energy for school reform has come from people in a demographic category not normally trusted by minorities and white liberals. Affluent whites associated with the charter school movement have pushed for reforms aimed at reducing racial achievement gaps in the Dallas public school system.
It’s one of those areas where your name tag is pretty much the end of the conversation. Dramatic improvements have been achieved already as a result of the new merit pay system for teachers and school enrichment programs like Accelerating Campus Excellence schools, yet those accomplishments, even when they are demonstrated by numbers on paper, are treated as suspect by some black school board members and by liberal whites because of the name tags behind them.
What if there were a way to at least erode or soften some of that mistrust, if not eliminate it? Might one way to do it be a brutally honest assessment of how we got here and, yes, the naming of the names morally responsible for that history?
The school district has already hired an outside consulting group with a track record in this area to do a serious assessment of equities and inequities within the school system and in the larger community, including a look at the history. On Thursday, the board will vote on a broad statement declaring inequity to be a major focus, and later, after the consulting group presents its report, the board will vote on a set of programs and projects to do something about it.
At a board briefing Nov. 30, trustee Miguel Solis gave the board a glimpse of what the historical or “acknowledgment” piece of the puzzle may look like. The piece with the most dramatic impact was the official redlining map of Dallas promulgated by the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s, followed by maps of the city today showing concentrations of poverty and schools with low student achievement.
The map of federal government housing policies enforcing racial segregation in the 1930s is a bloody handprint still visible on today’s map of the city. The point Solis made was that none of the inequity we see today is in any way random, accidental or somehow natural. We are looking at outcomes our predecessors in the city fully intended to bring about and spent decades perfecting.
I asked Solis yesterday if he thinks acknowledging this history is a way to work toward resolution. He said yes, but he added a condition: It’s hard to get people to acknowledge something painful about themselves, he said, if in asking you don’t also offer some form of resolution.
“The opportunities for progress and for reconciliation are rooted both in an acknowledgement of this history and the compounding generational effects on our kids, but also on an actual path forward for remediation,” he said. “It’s very difficult for anyone to simply acknowledge something without there being a path forward.”
One of the great ironies of the school reform battle is that minority board members have resisted some of the most promising reforms — like ACE schools, where the best teachers are sent to the toughest campuses — simply because the ideas were not their own. Yesterday, I also spoke to board trustee Dustin Marshall, one of the white conservative champions of school reforms like ACE schools, to ask if he felt the acknowledgement part of what Solis is talking about could ameliorate any of that mistrust.
“I think it’s very hard to deny the historical reality that decisions made at all levels of government for hundreds of years have put certain racial and ethnic groups at a historical disadvantage,” Marshall told me. “We have to be openly honest about that before we can address it head-on.”
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At least in principle and at some safe distance from it, I would imagine every member of the school board is willing to acknowledge both inequity and its historical causes. That’s why the full board will support the resolution Thursday naming it as a top priority. But I doubt platitudes from a safe distance will get the job done.
The concept is sound, but it’s going to take some bleeding to give it any force. White Dallas, especially conservative white Dallas, has devoted enormous energy to erasing the past and denying culpability for it. When we were tearing out our hagiographic Robert E. Lee statue in September, a certain type of old-school Dallas citizen was marching around Lee Park talking about how slavery was not the cause of the Civil War, even claiming slavery wasn’t all that bad a thing a thing, anyway. Black leadership has a right to mistrust people who are not able to bring themselves any closer to the truth than that.
The hopeful thing is that the city also is alive now with younger people, including some younger, affluent white people, who have no desire or intention to own or defend any of that legacy. The process the school board is embarking on now could offer an opportunity for everybody to get right with history.
If that happens, the door to tomorrow may creak open and a shaft of light shine through. We just have to remember that it won’t be easy, and it will require brutal honesty of us all.