Working on a big story about school reform these days. (Note to editor: definitely see completion this year, possibly early next. Best way you can help -- make sure I keep up my darned morale.)
Speaking of morale, I wanted to go ahead and share a bit of the reporting with you in advance of the story itself. I had a long, very interesting interview and visit yesterday with Juanita Wallace, head of the local branch of the NAACP. Wallace, a retired Dallas Independent School District reading specialist, told me that one reason for particularly low morale these days among black school district employees is what she said was the school superintendent's obvious dislike of black people in general, strong black women in particular.
I responded to that assertion by asking what I told her was probably a stupid white guy question: How can Mike Miles be a racist, since the man is himself black?
Wallace explained to me that Miles is a certain type of black person who thinks he is "white inside." She said black people with that belief think they are "neutral" in terms of their own racial makeup.
Her words struck a chord with me. They were similar to words that older southern Dallas black leaders used when barring a former staff member here, who is black, the son of a former Black Panther in fact, from a meeting. They told him he was not black.
I take what black people tell me about blackness seriously. My experience is that it's very difficult if not impossible for white people to comprehend how black people feel about the concept of race.
On the other hand, I have been a student of racial politics and race relations in Dallas for a long, long time. Therefore I am aware that black Dallas is viewed by black people elsewhere in Texas -- in Houston and San Antonio in particular -- as having been the least involved of the state's urban black communities in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and '70s.
Some black people have taken me to task in the past for my interpretation of the extreme conservatism of black southern Dallas. Critics of my writing about this have told me that rather than evidencing a passive willingness to strike deals and accommodations with white racists, the culture of southern Dallas has deep roots in black separatism, as opposed to the agenda of integration and assimilation sought by MLK Jr.
After hearing Wallace out, however, I came back to a conclusion I have held for a long time: In southern Dallas, a black person who achieves success in the general population of the nation -- on an equal footing with white and other ethnicities -- ceases to be black by virtue of that status and becomes one with the racist white enemy. According to this formula, blackness is a kind of award that the leadership of black southern Dallas may bestow or withhold based on whether an individual stays on the right side of the leadership or not.
Do what we want, you're black. Cross us, you're white.
In my experience, this phenomenon among older Dallas black leaders is completely unrelated to skin-tone bias within black culture -- the longstanding, well-documented existence of black-on-black prejudice against white-looking black people. This is not that. Physical traits considered black, as opposed to European, won't help the black individual who achieves too much success or does too much mingling outside of southern Dallas.
That person can get slapped with the ultimate insult -- being called white -- for reasons that seem awfully mundane, not to say petty, to an outside observer. In the case of our former staff member, he was stripped of his racial identity as part of a campaign of public pressure to assist one side in negotiations to buy a gas station.
I have used the term, older leadership, here, because usually I do not see the same phenomenon among black professionals in Dallas who are younger than 40. But among people older than that, it's almost the rule.
I did take Wallace's remarks to Miles for comment -- one of those journalistic chores that make me wish I went to dental school. I will quote both Miles and Wallace fully in my story, which is actually out a couple weeks from now. Generally I can characterize his reaction as a bemused chuckle. He said if news gets out of his being down on strong black women, he's going to be in trouble with his very strong-willed black sisters (meaning siblings).
And so now, much as my finger may tremble on this particular trigger and after donning my mental foul weather gear, I must ask, Lord help us, what you think about it.