We have to stop being played for suckers on race, crime and poverty, both here in Dallas and as a nation. Take murder.
In recent weeks, two significant local studies and one exciting policy proposal have come forward to combat the social and moral dysfunction that drive murder in particular and crime in general in our city. I’m talking about cheap killing — the casual shooting of men, women and children at basketball games, on the street or in the supposed safety of their own homes.
A report on violence by a mayoral task force echoes what the Dallas school district found in its own separate research: These things happen for a reason. They are not random. The word used too often to describe these awful events, “senseless,” is quite wrong.
The murders are the visible tip of an iceberg of dysfunction that is not at all random. In fact, the murders make a terrible kind of sense. They spring directly from a physical place and cause.
The lost lives and squandered destinies are the predictable products of places of concentrated poverty and concentrated racial segregation, otherwise known as the ghetto — a word of which we have become strangely chary in recent years.
Both local studies draw on a deepening pool of national research suggesting that nothing about the ghetto is natural or inevitable. The ghetto was designed. All levels of American government, from Washington to our town, helped make the ghetto, draw its map, decide who could leave and who could not. A solid line of decisions designing and enforcing the ghetto reach forward to today from the 1930s and before.
But just as we are beginning to better understand that historical process and its effect on our community, the Trump administration is moving to chip away at and erode rules within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development aimed at decreasing racial segregation.
One rule Trump wants to defeat was the product of a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court victory by Dallas housing advocates Laura Beshara, Mike Daniel and Elizabeth (Betsy) Julian: The Supreme Court upheld a longstanding principle of law called “disparate impact,” finding that the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits any action or policy that has the effect of causing or sustaining racial segregation, whether intentional or not.
Trump’s new rule would shift the burden of proof so onerously that no plaintiff will ever again be able to get in the courthouse door with a disparate impact case.
The second Trump tweak relieves local communities receiving federal money of their obligation to actively combat segregation. Under this new rule, for example, a city can take federal funds specifically mandated for fighting segregation and use the money instead to increase segregation. Your memory should be pinging you just about now, because — oh, yeah! — that’s how Dallas redeveloped its downtown 10 years ago.
In 2013 a five-year federal investigation of Dallas housing practices found that Dallas had used hundreds of millions of HUD desegregation dollars over the span of a decade to increase segregation by keeping poor people of color out of downtown. Under a rule subsequently promulgated by the Obama administration, doing that with federal money became flat-out illegal. Under the new Trump rule, it’s OK.
OK for whom? Once we know that places of concentrated segregation and poverty are engines of social dysfunction, who comes out ahead by protecting and promoting them? As it happens, lots of people.
One of the clearest visions of that syndrome I have come across was in an article published seven years ago in a professional journal by … guess who? Julian! She’s that uber-liberal, lefty, snowflake, Dallas lawyer, right? The one who helped get the disparate impact ruling out of the Supreme Court.
Well, no, not exactly. I mean, yes, sort of, but she’s also a former HUD deputy general counsel for civil rights, a former HUD assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity and founder of Dallas’ Inclusive Communities Project, a nonprofit that helps inner-city families make the transition to less segregated communities. Mainly, she’s someone who has been around the block on housing and segregation issues and knows how the cow ate the cabbage.
In her 2013 article, she talks about what she calls the affordable housing industrial complex: “This is my term for the powerful set of economic interests that has evolved over five decades and continues to expand in poor communities across the country,” Julian writes.
“Public housing created jobs for the construction trades, the HUD-assisted privately owned housing programs created not only jobs, but, perhaps more importantly, made many political donors of both the Democratic and Republican Parties wealthy.
“Today,” she says, “the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, the most sophisticated and complicated low-income housing development program to date, takes the notion of ‘doing well by doing good’ to new levels.
“The big banks, the syndicators/investors, the government-supported ‘intermediaries,’ the developers, non-profit and for-profit, all the related entities that operate in that environment, and certainly the law firms that represent them, all make serious money on their way to creating each unit of affordable housing for a low-income family.”
The tax credit program she’s talking about is the one that has put a procession of Dallas City Council members and other unfortunates behind bars. Designed to reduce segregation, it has almost always produced the opposite outcome.
The people who seek federal funds under this program know full well that it would be very difficult, indeed, to complete a big affordable housing project in a better-off neighborhood because of political resistance there. But it’s easy to get one done in the ghetto, where any serious influx of money is likely to be viewed as better than nothing. So guess where they go?
I spoke with Julian about it last week. She talked about a particular term of art used by insiders in the affordable housing trade, the “cascade of cash.” That’s when a developer or a community group is named to receive federal tax credits.
The credits can then be sold for cash that very day on the open market, sometimes for millions of dollars. The cascade part involves all of the little people who helped make the big day possible, from Realtors to community relations consultants to, well, you know, City Council members.
I should say that the tone of cynicism here is my own, not Julian’s. I’m the one who sees ferret-eyed greed. Julian sees people who generally mean well and programs that were designed with good intentions, all unfortunately settled in on and comfortable with a status quo that could also be spelled “ghetto.”
Other expert observers use much tougher language to describe the ecosystem that feeds on segregation. University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield has set the shrubbery on fire more than a few times by tossing out inflammatory terms like “poverty pimp” to describe the community development corporations or “chodos” that feed on federal housing money.
So, if you don’t know Orfield, you might assume that for him to use a term like that, he must be some kind of right-wing incendiary who believes in segregation. But no, he’s more like Julian, an expert on the corrosive effects of segregation and poverty.
The thing Orfield and Julian see is an aspect of the same thing the two recent local studies pointed to — the deliberate, strategic and convenient nature of the ghetto. Let’s take blame out of it for 30 seconds (oh, I hate this) and simply recognize that there is a certain ecosystem of people out there who benefit from the existence of the ghetto.
Some of them benefit handsomely from the federal programs that supposedly are intended to decrease segregation, especially if the recipients get to keep the money, that wonderful cascade of cash, and they don’t even have to really do anything to decrease segregation. What a deal!
But the babies born to the ghetto every day don’t benefit. Too many of them are consigned to what the child advocacy experts call the “cradle to prison pipeline” — the corrosive effects of a childhood fending off violence and want.
You and I don’t benefit. We have a social cancer flourishing inside our city. The nightly news alone is enough to either break or harden our hearts, neither of which is an elevating outcome.
I have already said (a couple times?) I thought the way our new mayor handled his own report on violence was disappointing. He didn’t come up with any ideas for implementing its findings beyond blaming the murder rate on the police chief, which was extremely lame.
His lack of leadership should not occlude the value of the report itself, which was fascinating. The task force that put it together focused on specific investments the city can make to reduce crime by ameliorating conditions. With a little bit of leadership to carry it forward, the mayor’s report offers real hope.
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The school district’s report and proposal, crafted under the leadership of outgoing district trustee Miguel Solis, offer even more hope. School Superintendent Michael Hinojosa proposes using a dedicated bond fund to provide community services where the absence of resources can be shown to impede the ability of children to learn.
And, no, neither of those ideas is about moving anybody out of the ghetto. Both are about mitigating and repairing the damage done by the deliberate historical withholding of communal resources.
Julian and others, meanwhile, are always going to argue for helping anybody get out who wants out. All of it taken together is about healing a wound simultaneously from within and without.
To get there, we all have to recognize how hard it will be, how much effort and willpower it will take. And we have to see that the Trump line, excusing and accommodating segregation, is a sucker’s game for all of us. Sure, it may fill somebody’s pockets. But not our pockets. Not our hearts.