Longform

Making Black Voters Disappear

Think of the Dallas City Council Redistricting Commission as Sunday school, where everything is done by the book. Right next door you have this dumpy divey smoke-filled neon joint called "Domingo's Dance Hall." That's where people just do it.

The official redistricting process, carried out over months by a legally constituted formal commission, was an attempt to see that the carving up of city council districts based on the 2010 census would be carried out logically, fairly and in an above-board manner.

Some of the people on the commission, it seems, have preferred to go over to Domingo's, turn up the sound system and engage in that ancient ritual that playwright Edward Albee once described in his play, The American Dream, as bumping their uglies. I speak metaphorically. I hope.

The Observer's Anna Merlan has reported on our news blog, Unfair Park, that secret meetings have occurred, hosted by redistricting commissioner Domingo Garcia. There, away from public scrutiny and from the rest of the commission, these truants presumably have been striking unauthorized side deals regarding redistricting. Garcia, whom I have known for years as a very bright, very political, very attention-deficit-disordered person, has dismissed the official redistricting process as "too tedious."

He might be right. Sunday school is a good thing, and people ought to go, and we would all be better off if everybody did go, but, you know, one does get the fidgets. I sort of agree.

Let's talk about what they do over at that dance hall. In fact, let's see if we can get in there ourselves. A frank look at what really underlies the redistricting process would do us all a world of good. Try not to run.

At Sunday school, they tell us that redistricting is all about drawing compact districts on a map. The one whose name we must not utter, the horned one, the angel of darkness is this thing called "gerrymandering." Oh, it's ugly! Gerrymandering is all about scribbling messy lines all over the map and creating nasty, gnarly, reptilian districts that wiggle and slink hither and yon. Sunday school districts are compact, sensible and plain, like good plain people.

Now to Domingo's. See if we can sneak up next to that booth in the corner where Domingo and the other errant commissioners are getting ready to do the dirty deed. What are they giggling and sniggering about over there as they poke each other while he pours them beer from a pitcher?

It's something about "The Woods." Wouldn't you just know it! And what's this other thing they keep snortling about? Sugarberries! Oh my goodness gracious, you don't have any idea about sugarberries, do you? I just hate to be the one to tell you. You really should ask your parents about sugarberries, but what the heck, here we are, and so I will tell you all about sugarberries.

The Woods and Sugarberry Hill are middle-class to affluent, mainly African-American neighborhoods in the far southwestern corner of the city, almost to Joe Pool Lake, where people live within the suburban Duncanville school district even though they live in Dallas. In the last 10 years, the Woods/Sugarberry district has attracted a growing population of relatively well-off black people.

So while the city as a whole has not been growing in the last 10 years, that part of town has been growing, and guess what? A lot of those people vote. So in terms of voters, you really have black-vote bonanza in those sugarberries.

The problem is that black leadership tends not to come from there. It comes from areas of the city that are more south-central, like over by Dallas Golf Club, where council member Vonciel Hill lives, or even farther east by the Cedar Crest Country Club, where Dwaine Caraway lives.

Now here's where it gets tricky. We have 14 single-member council districts. Of course we don't base any of this directly on race, because, as they told us over and over again back in Sunday school, that would be wrong. But over here at Domingo's we can tell you that seven of the 14 districts are white.

White. Just white. That's just how it is. Think of a sheet of copy paper. What color is it? Think of a bedsheet. Well, maybe don't think of that. Just think white. That's what seven of the 14 council districts are. White.

That leaves seven districts that are not white. Those go to black candidates and Hispanic candidates. Those seven seats have to be divided up. You can't divide the seven by two. We're talking whole numbers here. So one side gets three seats, the other gets four.

The way it is now is the way it has been since single-member districts were created in the late 1970s. Four black. Three Hispanic.

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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