Another painful moment lies ahead for Dallas as the city struggles to deal with an issue most of the nation probably thought was long shut away in the history books – formal racial segregation by policy. It’s not history here. Segregation is about to be news again.
But first, there are great ironies whenever we try to talk about Dallas and race, because the old city proper and its suburbs are such utterly different realms.
Vast, brand-new, created in one blink of the demographic eye during the Sunbelt migration — still the biggest demographic shift in the history of North America – the suburbs were settled by all stripes of people from all over the country and world, few of whom now have any important connection to the city or its history.
Dallas proper, meanwhile, trudges along beneath the painful yoke of an anomalous racial past, never quite able to address the problem because it can never quite remember what the problem is.
Real estate developers Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie, locked in a Bleak House-style litigation battle with City Hall for the last half decade, are about to gig the city afresh. They have filed a new complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (copied below), their second formal HUD complaint claiming that Dallas deliberately flouts federal law and scams HUD by using desegregation money to reinforce formal racial segregation.
Sounds crazy, right? We all understand that big American cities are all segregated because of various de facto conditions, but who really believes a major American city in the 21st century is doing it on purpose and by policy? How could they get away with that?
Easy, according to Lockey and MacKenzie’s first complaint filed seven years ago. The pair, who claim the city cheated them out of a development deal and a lot of money when they tried to obey federal desegregation standards, blew the whistle on City Hall practices. A five-year federal review ensued, at the end of which HUD said the two were right, that Dallas does practice racial segregation on purpose.
How? You haven’t seen any colored and white drinking fountains downtown have you? No, it’s not like that. Lockey and MacKenzie told HUD that Dallas uses HUD money to create low-income housing only in already segregated southern Dallas, reinforcing segregation there, then turns around and uses other HUD money to build fancy condos downtown that few minorities can afford.
Federal law is clear. You can’t do that with their money. If the land costs more up in the white part of town, tough. Find a way to buy it. Under a principle called “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” you have to use HUD money to move minority families out of segregated areas into desegregated areas, or, this being a free country, you are free to leave the HUD money on the table.
After the first negative finding by HUD, Mayor Mike Rawlings trekked to Washington where he cut a deal to soften the blow with then brand-new HUD Secretary Julian Castro, a former fellow Texas mayor. But the basic findings were still there. HUD investigators had found an unmistakable pattern of segregation, whereby Interstate 30 serves as a kind of Mason-Dixon line across the city. Dallas had to promise not to do that anymore, and as we speak a new housing policy is being cooked up at City Hall with the supposed aim of mending past ways.
But that nagging question still looms, does it not? Especially if you didn’t grow up here, if you don’t know Dallas in your bones, you have to wonder: If nothing worse, isn’t this terribly anachronistic? Didn’t you study this stuff in American history class? How could it still be going on here? How could it be going on anywhere?
For that, I’m going to save a piece of the puzzle until the last. I’ll come back to it. Meanwhile, Lockey and MacKenzie have gone back to HUD, telling the agency that since Dallas made its grand promises to do better two years ago it has done even worse, continuing to funnel HUD money into southern Dallas housing that will only reinforce the Mason-Dixon line.
In particular the new complaint points to a series of agenda items passed by the City Council (copied below) at its May 25 meeting, authorizing the city’s housing department to spend $7 million to build single-family “affordable” homes in southern Dallas. The money would come from a mixture of city bond funds and federal grants and loans.
The law says you can’t spend HUD money to promote segregation, but not all HUD money has to be spent promoting desegregation. Some HUD money can be spent to foster economic development in depressed areas.
The complaint suggests that new housing does not foster economic development. And in fact in most of the world, new housing is a consequence, not a cause of prosperity. What spurs prosperity is business and employment. Once you’re well employed, then you can go buy a new house, but putting that cart before the horse only spells trouble down the road.
“Clearly, the agreement by HUD and the City of Dallas ‘to encourage the development of affordable housing throughout the City, including housing for low and very low income residents’ is not met by the City’s May 25th actions," the complaint reads. "Nor does the City’s construction of these additional housing units satisfy ‘the creation of greater economic opportunity in sectors of the City that are concentrated by poverty.’ Finally, the City’s May 25th actions do not satisfy their federally mandated obligation to ‘affirmatively further fair housing.’”
Lockey and MacKenzie demand in this new complaint that HUD investigate a number of its agreements, contracts and understandings with the city. HUD is required by law to look at the complaint but not necessarily to commit the same resources it did to the first one.
But this won’t sink softly beneath the waves. The housing program voted up by the council May 25 already is exciting resistance from neighborhood groups in southern and West Dallas. Call it NIMBY, but they have a case to make. They say they already have more than their share of affordable housing.
Just now especially, as some of those neighborhoods finally are beginning to light up the board with private sector improvement, they’d like to see City Hall go spend its $7 million in subsidy money in some other part of the city where affordable housing is truly scarce. Obviously the neighborhoods will focus on this new HUD complaint and do whatever they can to give it momentum.
But how about that last piece of the puzzle that I promised you? We were talking about how anachronistic this all seems and wondering how it could still be going on. How could Dallas City Hall go this long and get away with deliberate formal policies to promote racial segregation?
For that, you have to ask who would stop them. Lockey and MacKenzie are an anomaly, frankly, two well-off white guys fighting City Hall on segregation issues, for their own reasons, most of which are financial. But historically, who holds a city’s feet to the fire when it comes to segregation?
The black community. The civil rights movement, going back to MLK Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — that is where push finally came to shove, where the pressure and persuasion against segregation came from.
Dallas is different. It just is. Not only is there a complete absence of pressure from black leadership here to defeat the channeling of HUD desegregation money into southern Dallas, the projects cited by Lockey and MacKenzie in their complaint have the express blessing and imprimatur of some black leaders.
Feelings about segregation in black Dallas proper — forget the suburbs, because that’s another planet — have always been complicated. And somewhere in my white-guy old age, as either wisdom or senility, I have stopped trying to interpret those feelings for people. I don’t believe I have either the life experience or the vocabulary for it.
Black newcomers to Dallas from other parts of the country tend to attribute any inkling of ambivalence about segregation in a black person to Uncle Tom-ism. My issue with that is that I have come to know some really smart, tough, thoughtful black people in Dallas who are ambivalent about integration and who simply cannot be dismissed or even thought of, at least not by me, as Uncle Toms.
For that, I highly recommend a film produced recently by buildingcommunityWorkshop, part of an ongoing series of looks at Dallas neighborhoods. This film is called Bonton + Ideal. It’s about the Bonton and Ideal neighborhoods in old South Dallas in the days of formal segregation.
The film, a pastiche of history and interviews, is a paean, a love poem, a long sweet church hymn of praise for the days of segregation in Dallas. People who grew up in those neighborhoods under segregation recall a vibrant black business community and solid families living in their own homes next to neighborhood churches.
Person after person, speaking with warm smiles and laughter, recalls loving every single day of school, never missing a day because school was too wonderful.
They repeat a darker theme, one I have heard often: that integration didn’t come from here. It was imposed on Dallas from without. It’s the kind of thing, if you’re a Yankee like me, that you might have expected to hear from white people. But …
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Look, Lockey and MacKenzie are right about one thing. The law, not to mention the march of history, does not countenance deliberate policies of racial segregation in the year 2016. Sooner or later that’s too big a wave to resist, no matter how many deals you cut with HUD secretaries.
But Dallas just can’t stop resisting. Things happen here in a kind of separate reality, a strange idiosyncratic reality that cannot persist forever. One day it will be swallowed, if by nothing else, by funerals. Then we will be our suburbs.