Stumbling at the Color Barrier

Last Tuesday evening The Dallas Morning News sponsored a conference in the Arts District called "Come Together," which was so much more than just a great name for a gentleman's club. Billed as a celebrity panel to talk about "economic development, education and opportunity," it was really about culluh.

Yeah, skin color, that topic that pretty much the whole rest of the world is bored to death with by now but still gets Dallas more excited than sex. The mayor, renowned charismatic minister T.D. Jakes, Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell and rising community Hispanistar Liz Cedillo-Pereira all sat in big chairs and talked onstage at the City Performance Hall in the Arts District.

First off, anything in the Arts District means I have to forage around for half an hour ahead of time to find $5 parking and then walk a couple blocks. God forbid I should ever again make the mistake of trying to enter the Lexus parking structure in my Toyota pickup as I did last summer and then suffer the ignominy of having to U-turn out of there because I'm not in a Lexus. No, I'm not kidding. There is special parking for Lexus owners! So we're going to guess the News was not going for a grassroots demographic at the thing last week.

And they didn't get roots. They got suits and pearls, furs and eye candy, and I thought the crowd looked great, as for a true Dallas gala. Maybe we should make it an annual event and call it the Cullah Gala. It was all about how people of different cullahs can kumbaya together and help bridge the gap between "North Dallas," as the white part is called, and the "Southern Sector," as the other part is known.

I'm sitting in the front row, edge of my seat, pins and needles to see if they're going to talk about the concept of racial sectors. The idea.

I bring this up not merely to be a nitwit but because the hemispheres-in-the-head issue was at the heart of a recent scathing federal investigative report finding Dallas guilty of misappropriating federal funds in order to carry out an official policy of racial segregation.

The HUD report, issued at the end of last year, made Dallas the largest city in the country in the 21st century to be officially accused by the federal government of promoting racial segregation. And the report started out talking about hemispheres:

"The complainant specifically alleges that the city arbitrarily created a boundary that divided the city into two sectors," the report states toward the top. "The Northern Sector is predominantly non-minority and includes the downtown business district. The Southern Sector is predominantly minority."

See, to people who aren't from Dallas, that's weird. It jumps out at them. Calling it the "southern sector" sounds like you're trying to put a fake sanitized spin on "colored town." You tell somebody from L.A. that you live in the "southern sector," they think you're talking about some kind of South African shit.

But here everybody just assumes that's how it is, so tonight we're going to have a long and passionate chat about bringing the sectors together, and ... oh, wait, that's not right. HUD got that one a little bit wrong.

We white people don't live in a sector. We live in Dallas. We call it "North Dallas," but we mean Dallas. Look, I live in East Dallas, but I call it North Dallas in this type of conversation, because it means white Dallas, otherwise known as real Dallas. The main one. The big news. The "sector" is only for the people of color. It's off on the side, even though it's bigger than North Dallas.

Sectors might have been something to discuss here at the Cullah Awards, but I know and I think you know we are not going to bring up the concept of sectors, nor are we going to bring up HUD, because this is a Dallas gala. At Dallas galas everyone is up on his pins, minds his Ps and Qs and mainly just wants to walk that eye candy down the aisle looking great!

Mayor Mike Rawlings tells the crowd, "I'm a businessman by trade. I moved here in 1976 and pretty much have been almost 40 years in the business world, so I bring that bias."

He doesn't want people to talk too airy-fairily about hope.

"I would say hope isn't a strategy. You need a strategy to do this. You need to have a plan, and you gotta have metrics for that plan. And you have to hold each other accountable for that plan, and you've got to kind of understand what is going to be the enabler."

Oh, I'm so excited. I think he's going to talk about the sewer. There's a guy sitting right behind me, I've written about him a lot, Robert Pitre, and he represents a group of landowners near the new University of North Texas at Dallas campus in southern Dallas. They occupy one of several vast areas of the southern sector where there are no sewers.

Obviously in the real Dallas everybody's got sewers, because it's a city, but in the sector people don't have sewers, because it's just a sector. Pitre and his landowners have been lobbying City Hall for years for sewers so they can develop student housing and retail around the new campus. And just think, if they had sewers, they could be a part of the real city, and then we might not even have a sector any more.

The mayor goes on about his strategy: "Two things I believe are important. One, I always look at our assets. One thing this city has is a lot of money. We have a lot of wealthy individuals, philanthropists, businesses, shareholders in this city. Eighteen billionaires in this city. Forget about the half-a-billionaires. There's a lot of money. Robert Reich called it 'the secession of the successful.' We cannot have the secession of the successful here. So that's one strategy."

No secession of the successful. What, they were going to have their own sector? The golden sector? Damn. But, in terms of something a little more here and now maybe, something we could actually do, what about a sewer? You know, like no more secession of the sewer? Cessation of the sewer? Whatever. What about a damn sewer? For a start.

Yeah, now Liz Cedillo-Pereira is talking about how they started a Catholic church in her parents' living room many years ago in West Dallas, and now she's a lawyer. I think I have heard this one from her before. She thinks we should have citywide pre-K. Oh, wow, maybe she's going to talk about school Superintendent Mike Miles and school reform in Dallas and the urgent need to bring poor minority children to full literacy by the end of third grade.

But maybe not, because that might open up the issue of the full court press that black elected officials have brought against Miles because they think he's a threat to their school district jobs. Yeah, she's kind of backpedaling to her law practice now. If you're undocumented and you've got a problem, call Liz. I would.

So now the Reverend Jakes is up, and I am really anticipating his words. Jakes has spread his voice throughout the world in his television ministry and in movies he has produced and appeared in. I have to think he is the one who is going to come down hard on the basic immorality of racial and ethnic separation.

"I do movies and films for Sony Pictures and other entities," he says, "and we purposely produce films in areas that have tax incentives."

Hmm. Tax incentives for movie producers. OK. We've got the city divided into two hemispheres by cullah, and we're going to attack that problem with tax incentives for movie producers. Jakes happens to be a movie producer. So I guess we get the drift.

Sorrell! He'll do the deed. You can count on Sorrell. A successful young lawyer, went to Oberlin, got a law degree from Duke, now doing a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, took on the task of shepherding a small struggling historically black college in southern Dallas, did crazy stuff like turn the football field into a farm.

Oh, wow, Robert Pitre is shouting something at him from behind me. Remember, he's the landowner guy near the UNT campus. I can't make it all out exactly, but I think Pitre still wants a sewer.

"What I will tell you, Robert," Sorrell says to him, "is that I think it is important that infrastructure is more complicated than people appreciate."

Is it? A sewer? Is a sewer really all that complicated? Maybe. Let me just toss this out there: The danger, when you have imaginary hemispheres in your brain, is that you will go out into the real world and try to make those hemispheres come true. You can't rearrange the physical world into divisions that do not exist naturally, but you can do all kind of weird stuff to the man-made world, like only put sewers in half of it.

But this is not complicated. Build a sewer. People can do a lot more kumbaya when they've got a sewer to go home to. The head of a major city department tried to tell me a couple weeks ago they can't put a sewer down Pitre's street because its uphill, and shit won't go uphill. So you mean to tell me there are no sewers in Switzerland?

I'm sorry. I apologize. I shouldn't have come here. I am flat no good at galas. I do not galatize well. It's so Dallas — the dressing up and the not talking. I could be wrong. Couple days later the Morning News editorial page was going on about how much "energy" there was in the room that night. Is sheer energy a substitute for sewers? Please. Don't tell me.

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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