Deep Thoughts on the Price Probe: Did Southern Dallas Back the Wrong Horse?

I was out running traps this morning on the ongoing FBI Dallas political corruption investigation, and guess whose path I crossed? My own. A lawyer I called said my call was fortuitous because he happened to be in the process at that very moment of writing a letter to the editor of the Observer to complain about me. He wanted to flesh out a couple of points first.

This had to do with a column published August 25 dealing with the investigation. I said the probe was a product of a long history of collaboration between the old white and old black establishments in Dallas, a partnership that in the past has included allegations of vote fraud.

I'm going to let the lawyer go ahead and deliver his letter. He will make his own case well. But I am also going to preempt him -- and telegraph my punches -- on one key point, because I think it's something we all need to think about right now, rather than later.

This is about a longstanding cooperation at election time between African-American ministerial leadership in southern Dallas and the Dallas Citizens Council, a powerful, mainly white business leadership group founded three-quarters of a century ago. In my column, I referred to allegations of impropriety in campaigns of mayoral candidates who were members of the Citizens Council backed by the black ministerial leadership.

My critic, when his letter gets here, will say basically, "Show me the charges. Show me the indictments. And if you don't have any, why are you trading in allegations that exploit racist feeling?"

Those will be good questions, when they get here. There's a solid point to be made about bias, especially in the case of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who has emerged as the prime target of the federal investigation so far. A certain kind of white person has a tendency to say that Price is sleazy, because he dresses fancy and has a lot of expensive cars. So lock him up.

The people I talk to when I run my traps on this case do not believe that count one in an inevitable federal indictment of Price is going to be, "Dresses too fancy, and where'd he get those cars?" Indictments of all the targets of this probe, when they come, will be based on far more specific charges.

But I almost regret that this whole topic is going to become mainly criminalized. In a sense, any criminal case -- good, bad or forget about it -- will miss the more important point, which is the social and political destiny of the city.

In the last 30 years, Dallas has seen a flowering, often in fits and starts, of truly cosmopolitan urban culture, in all the best ways: people who welcome diversity, who enjoy being kind of jammed in cheek-by-jowl a little, who like sitting at a table on the sidewalk watching the human parade.

For a long time this feeling was nurtured mainly in Old East Dallas in the guise of what used to be called the "neighborhood movement," as in, "Hey, let's have a neighborhood." It was a radical thought in Dallas 30 years ago. Back then, the dominant culture was saying, "Let's have a gated community, and, please, nobody talk to anybody, OK?"

More recently the flower of communitarianism and urban sophistication has blossomed in North Oak Cliff and to some extent in Uptown, where McKinney Avenue is fast becoming the Champs Élysées of the city.

In this entire sweep of history, the Citizens Council ethos has operated against the trend toward true urban culture. The old-boy leadership always wants to build something like "Victory," the Perot family's island development around a sports arena, plunked down in the center of the city like a big windowless spaceship from Planet Suburbia. Or the same leadership wants to burden struggling older neighborhoods with cheap apartments and half-way houses, on the theory that old neighborhoods can't really expect anything better.

When these issues come up, and they come up almost every other week at city council in one form or another, the political alliance that puts the old white business leadership over the top, at the council or at the polls, has been its partnership with southern Dallas.

I'm not talking about crooked deals. Just deals. Straight-up politics. I have had these conversations over the years with black leaders, and I know the argument by heart. It's like this: "Schutze, you and those old hippies over in East Dallas are nice enough people, and you mean well most of the time, but you don't have any money. Here in southern Dallas, we're poor folks. We need money to run for office. We need those cheap apartment projects, because we need the subcontracts. We need money. If you want us to join up with you instead, show us the money."

I get all that. I do. But you know what? I also believe the new urban diversity is the inevitable dominant force in the future of the city, reflecting a national, even international trend. It's not going away. It is the path to tomorrow.

As that new force gains political strength and finds its way deeper into leadership and power, it will look on the southern Dallas ministerial leadership the same way it will look on the Citizens Council leadership: as the problem, two sides of the same bad penny. Black leadership in southern Dallas, in bonding itself at the hip to the Citizens Council, will find that it has chosen the wrong horse. Maybe it's already finding out.

None of that is about criminal matters. It really has nothing to do with vote fraud, even if those allegations may flutter around the edges. This is about politics, culture and the destiny of the city.

And basically it's a fair fight. I could be wrong up one side and down the other about how it will come out. Fifty years from now maybe everybody in Dallas will be living in medieval siege towers with vats of boiling oil on the battlements. There may be a separate segregated neighborhood not just for Lutherans but specifically for members of the Missouri Synod.

I doubt it. By supporting the old separatism, Dallas's black leaders will have made a tragic mistake. And the people on the white end of the deal? Oh, please, don't even get me started.

It's a way bigger issue than Price's automobile collection. If anything, the criminal investigation may obscure these more important underlying themes.

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