Southern Dallas' Empire of Failure Wasn't Built by Democrats

A signed essay in Sunday's Dallas Morning News by editorial writer Tod Robberson suggested the historical lock-step loyalty of black southern Dallas voters to the Democratic Party has done them little good.

It's safe to say something has done southern Dallas little good.

In recent decades the overall saga of black people in the Dallas area has been a story of dramatic success. But not in southern Dallas. In southern Dallas, where incomes are a third what they are in North Dallas, the black population has been steadily dropping over the last decade.

But black population has been growing in the same suburbs where income growth is greatest. Performance of black students in Dallas schools has continued to be so abysmal that experts are calling the schools a K-to-Prison pipeline. But a hefty majority of black students in some northern suburbs pass end-of-year tests with flying colors, and many are at the tops of their classes.

Robberson's not wrong. Southern Dallas is an empire of failure for black people. But it is also pointedly an empire of failure contrary to the success of black people who manage to get the hell out of it. It is poisoned ground -- poisoned by a monstrous historical error. More on that in a moment.

But first, do we blame all of this on the Democrats? I have to admit there is a part of me that would delight in doing just that, if for no other reason than to cast light on the utter and execrable failure of the Dallas County Democratic Party to accomplish one single damn thing as a champion of the interests of poor and oppressed people. Drive across the blasted landscapes of southern Dallas where poverty hangs thick as smoke in the air, and you will conclude people there would be better off bringing in a chapter of the National Action Party, the party of right-wing oligarchs in Mexico.

Oh, but wait again. That is what they already do in southern Dallas. Southern Dallas' elected leaders consistently jump at the end of puppet strings held by the private oligarchical Dallas Citizens Council. See, that's my problem with Robberson's paradigm: Southern Dallas really can't move any farther to the right than it already is.

In 2007 black southern Dallas votes organized by paid brokers were essential to the mayoral election of Tom Leppert, an opportunistic ultra-rightist. That same year black votes were harvested once again by the Citizens Council to defeat a referendum that would have required the Trinity River toll road be built somewhere other than on a dangerous alignment inside flood control levees.

Sometimes southern Dallas politicians and preachers even dress up their well-paid support for the oligarchs in terms filched from the Civil Rights movement, which has to be some kind of political sacrilege. In 2009 Dallas hotel-owner Harlan Crow opposed the creation of a city-owned convention hotel on purely business grounds, arguing it was a mistake for the city to mobilize tax-money subsidies in unfair competition with privately owned hotels. For that, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price gave a speech linking Crow to "Jim Crow" segregation.

The dependence of southern Dallas leaders on rich white people has important historical roots. Famed Dallas minister Zan Holmes, pastor emeritus of St. Luke Community Methodist Church, made a passing oblique reference to those roots when he spoke recently to a City Council retreat. Asked by black city council member Carolyn Davis if it was true southern Dallas clergy had been hostile to Martin Luther King Jr. during his few visits here, Holmes, himself a famous and tough crusader for integration and equal rights, said the hostility had been a product of a "denominational dispute" in the black church.

Sometimes in the oversimplified universe of high school textbooks and really bad movies, we forget how complicated life is really. In this matter, we may miss the fact that lots of black people were in favor of segregation. Before the movement years in the late '50s through early '70s, black America was intellectually divided between followers of W.E.B. Du Bois, who called for confrontation and integration, and Marcus Garvey, who thought black people were better off with a system of separate equality, otherwise known as segregation.

Southern Dallas has always been a capital of Marcus Garvey-style racial separatism. In the cities when big things happened back in the movement years, all of that separatism business got blown out of the water as Uncle Tom-foolery. As a big city where it has survived intact, Dallas is unique and anomalous.

It's a phenomenon that continues to operate at the most basic level of city politics in Dallas. We saw it again only recently when black City Council members competed to see which one could out-sing the others in praising a city manager who had just been caught red-handed lying to the council to help a gas drilling company. We are about to see it again in the fight for school reform.

It's a mentality that is OK having kids who will never read, write or count and are sentenced to lives of serial imprisonment and Third World income levels. All of that is acceptable. A sliver of the pie is the best we can hope for. And the pie only always and only comes from the rich white man.

That doesn't mean southern Dallas votes Republican, because there is very little about the Dallas Citizens Council that is Republican. Harlan Crow is a Republican. The reason Tom Leppert's attempt at an ultra-right Senate candidacy never got off the ground was that Republican voters saw him for what he was really -- a country-club wise-guy willing to dabble in local socialism or anything else as long as he and his cronies got some money out of it. The true philosophy of the Dallas Citizens Council has always been, "Let's you and me raid your piggy bank."

So the empire of failure in southern Dallas really doesn't tell us anything useful about Democrats and Republicans. What it tells us is that separation doesn't work. Think about it. What are you and the rich guys going to separate first? The money. And how is that going to work out for you, do you figure? The really big question at the end of the day is this: Is that deal OK with you? Do you not think you can do better? For example, how about the whole damn pie, a fork, a napkin and cup of coffee?

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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