Fears and loathing in Oak Cliff

James Fears parked his ancient tow truck, stepped out onto the unfamiliar turf of West Dallas, then adjusted his shades and notched the top button of his white polyester sport coat.

The candidate had arrived.
Looking about him, he summoned a tentative smile and ambled toward the Mattie Nash-Myrtle Davis Recreation Center. A flock of black children played quietly in the distance. James Fears already seemed lost.

This was supposed to be a stop on his no-budget campaign for the vacant District 3 City Council seat. He'd been invited by one of his opponents, West Dallas activist Luis Sepulveda, whom Fears insists on calling "Sal"--"because I can't pronounce that big long name." But instead of getting an opportunity to meet the voting throng last Thursday, he'd wandered into a meeting of the West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice.

"I guess this is an environmental thing," Fears said, looking confused. "As far as I'm concerned, owls are on their own. And the little fishes too," he said, wiggling his arm like a trout pushing upstream.

"Me, I'm a human activist. I'm not gonna protect those stray dogs or the salamanders or the worms. I protect humans."

But this is about humans, I offered gently, having come along to observe the candidate. It's about lead poisoning. Soil contamination. Environmental racism.

I searched for signs of recognition on Fears' tanned, jolly face. There were none.

He chuckled again and peered about nervously. He didn't even attempt to mingle with the 25 or so black and Hispanic residents who sat patiently in the gym, waiting for the meeting to get under way.

When an hour had passed and the meeting still hadn't started, Fears wandered back outside. "Gotta get the truck fixed," he said. "Winch is broke."

And off he went, around the corner and south onto Hampton Road, back to where he came from.

Back. Way back.

It must have been about 1973 when his double-vented polyester sport coat hit the clearance rack at Kmart.

But James Fears' politics go back another decade--to 1963. It isn't hard to figure the date: He mentions it ceaselessly, coupled with a commentary on "block-busting" that, in unguarded moments, devolves into an anguished screed on the cleanliness and presumed work habits of African-Americans.

"I've rented houses to them, and they're filthy," he says. "There's some clean blacks--there's lawyers and there's doctors--but the average black guy who works for his wages, you know, he's not as clean as a white person. And the Mexicans are in between, I guess. But that's the way they were brought up, so you really can't blame them.

"Now the blacks were here--born in America--and they can see what a white person's house looks like. It doesn't cost much to be clean."

Fears, at 71, is one angry white guy. "Block-busting," the practice of allowing black families to move into previously all-white neighborhoods--also known as integration--is his event horizon. Evidently it is a deed so heinous that everything else is lined up and measured against it, from the decline of Oak Cliff--"the prettiest, friendliest neighborhood in Dallas"--to the crankiness of city clerks, who he casually assumes are all black.

Yet even in full rant, Fears comes off strangely sweet--generous and hospitable in his way. And he's certain of his own righteous charm.

He talks about his encounters with black city clerks as though he were Captain Kangaroo exhorting little minds to get happy.

"If that person is frowning, the first thing I do is get them to smile," he says. "And then I can get something done. 'Boy, I sure like your dress,'" he says, demonstrating his technique. "In order to get something out of a city employee, you've got to get them in a good mood. They're sooooo downtrodden. It's like, What are you doing here, whitey? I got a job for life.'"

Fears' sweet-and-sour stew of views makes a lasting impression at every public appearance. Like on March 31, when he popped into a meeting of the Kessler Park Neighborhood Association, the closest thing Oak Cliff has to rich folk. "I just think we can make Oak Cliff good again," Fears reportedly told the group of 20 or so homeowners. "All of this started back in 1963 with block-busting."

About a week later, at an orientation meeting for City Council candidates, Fears informed our black city manager and several Hispanic city staffers--among others--that "Spanish people jack up their cars in the street and let the fluids run down the street. That's the way they were brought up, and they haven't been educated."

Fears can't remember exactly what he said at those meetings, but reckons he probably dropped a racial reference or two. And with genial obliviousness, he faults his listeners for taking offense.

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons

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