It's the Culture, Stupid

Tale of two cities in the morning papers -- well, two and a half, if you include Mitt Romney. The Reverend Gerald Britt has a mesmerizing op-ed piece in The Dallas Morning News today about the agony of Dixon Circle, the South Dallas neighborhood where a near-riot took place last week after police shot and killed a man who fought with them while fleeing a dope house.

Then on the Metro front of the News there's one of those sappy-positive Chamber-of-Commerce pieces reporting that the new downtown freeway deck park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway will be a center of nonstop fantabulous event-type activities breathing life into the giant glass-and-concrete real-estate resuscitation dummy that we bravely call our "Arts District."

And then finally everybody's got a story about Mitt Romney's supposedly awful gaffe in Israel yesterday when he said culture is the key element in the success and failure of nations, a remark I would only too eagerly embrace as racist and insensitive and elitist and he-put-his-dog-on-top-of-his-car-callous if it weren't so damned obviously true.

Britt's piece about Dixon Circle is forcefully argued, based in part on the enormous social and financial cost we incur by tolerating a pocket of extreme deprivation in our midst. Average income in the neighborhood is $8,000. Britt quotes the Justice Atlas, a project of the Justice Research and Statistics Association, to show that imprisoning and paroling people from the Dixon Circle ZIP code, 75215, was costing us $26 million a year in 2008.

The imprisonment rate in 75215 in 2008 was 39.82 persons per thousand. By way of comparison, in 75206, my own ZIP code in Old East Dallas, the rate was 2.59 per thousand.

The man shot and killed last week was James Harper. Britt makes this powerful point: "Yes, there are people who have had it far worse than Harper who have nonetheless turned their lives around and are productive citizens -- even leaders. These are the exceptional ones. But the conditions breed a daily, dehumanizing hopelessness that often traps the unexceptional."

That's the rub. The kids who are born into it. What did they do to deserve this? What do we do to rescue them?

Then you have this sap-o-rama BJ piece on Metro about all the wonderful activities they're going to have on the deck park, a 5.2 acre area that will have a full-time staff of 25 to 30 people, and all of this only "20 minutes down the Dallas North Tollway" for visitors -- code for "an easy and safe drive for rich white people."

Oh, please. I'm not blaming the damned rich people for wanting to have their own fancy park next to the Resuscitation District. More power to them.

They're the ones paying for the staff through donations. As LBJ said, it's better to have the rich people inside the tent going to the bathroom than outside the tent having diarrhea in the new Belo Park water feature. Isn't that what he said, sort of? I forget. Something like that.

Anyway, welcome to downtown, all you rich Deck Park People. I advise you in the strongest possible terms to arrange your itinerary to avoid ZIP code 75215.

It's just such an astonishing contrast -- all of these little leotard children doing precious yoga in the deck park while less than four miles away children the same age are dodging bullets and beatings so they can run crack for guys like James Harper.

Am I allowed to say that? That it's a contrast? A stunning contrast? A heartbreaking contrast? Can we at least allow our hearts to see what Britt is showing us, if only for an instant?

Then we have the Romney kerfuffle in which he told an audience in Israel made up in part of fawning ultra-rich right-wing American Jews that the Palestinians are poorer than the Israelis at least in part because they have a less successful culture. And, believe me, I can count as well as anybody all the ways in which these remarks were insensitive, infelicitous, impolitic, undiplomatic, exploitative, aimed at getting more money from rich right-wing American Jews and so on and so forth.

The problem with all of that is that Romney is also right. What else would you call it?

One angry Palestinian official called Romney a racist. I'm afraid I have to do a big au contraire on that one. Romney was speaking specifically and obviously about culture, not race. The racist is the man who doesn't see the distinction.

And think about it. The evidence of history is that the Palestinians have achieved startling bursts of economic vigor in the brief windows between intifidas. In our own country and around the world where Palestinians have settled, they have established themselves as capable of great success.

So what's the difference back home? Obviously somebody is going to show up here in the comments arguing that it's all entirely the work of evil racist Israelis who wake up every morning lusting for more Palestinian misery. That simply does not wash, in history, in culture, in what we see around us in the world. I don't even believe that crap about Sheldon Adelson, and he's one of my favorite 1-percenter voodoo stick-pin dolls.

Culture is it. It doesn't mean you don't try to get into Dixon Circle and expose the kids there to a better culture than the one into which they were born. But it does mean that nothing will get better in Dixon Circle or in the Palestinian territories until the people living there adopt their own personal culture lifting up hard-working nonviolent achievement, peace, freedom and dignity over all other values.

And maybe none of that will happen if the rest of us just sit hardhearted on the other side of the line waiting for them to go away. People don't agree to go away. We shouldn't want them to go away. We should love and revere them as do we our own deck park.

Time to look in the mirror. Time for all of us. That includes ZIP code 75215. Includes the Palestinians. Includes Deck Park People. Romney's right. Culture is what counts.

Now all I have to do is figure out what culture we have in 75206. It's possible we value historic preservation a little bit higher than human beings. But, what? That's a tweak, right?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze